Archive for the ‘school days’ Category

First it came to me as a tweet, that a bizarre story with unanswerable context questions appeared on a New York State exam. The news story, which gave a summary of the story on the test, concerned a retelling of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, only with a Pineapple in the place of the tortoise. The Pineapple, who can talk but is immobile, naturally loses the race but is eaten by the other animals. The questions that followed, supplied by the news story made no sense. Even teachers administering the exam couldn’t decisively say which were the correct answers.

And as teachers were going to be assessed on the ability of their students to do well on this test it seemed a travesty.

Another tweet alerted me to the fact that the story was written by noted children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. A different story came into focus with just that information, because I’ve read enough Pinkwater to know that he prizes nonsense and zen equally in his stories. But I was still confused. How did a nonsense story end up on a test to measure reading comprehension? It sounded like another one of those areas where a test seemed more designed to promote failure than measure success. I poked around and found both an interview with Pinkwater along with a copy of the actual story as it appeared on the test.

Pinkwater himself finds the entire incident absurd and makes his pointed jabs at the testing industry clear. What struck me was the story of “The Hare and the Pineapple” (originally “The Hare and the Eggplant”) was taken out of context in such a way that, as a stand-alone piece, it seems practically designed to cause test taker anxiety. The fable in the book is told by an elderly man who is either going through early stages of dementia or at least pretending to be, so within that context the “meaning” of the story is, essentially, there is no meaning to the story. In reading the story as it appeared on the test, and looking at the questions, it becomes clear that the controversy as reported in the news was carefully written to highlight the absurdity of the test. There is one question I found that asks for a value or contextual judgment (“who was wisest”) but in the end it may simply have been that an absurd story in the middle of a “serious” test caused some eighth graders undue anxiety.

Still, the problem of context bothers me. When you take something with a very specific purpose in one text and remove it from its surrounding purpose, it opens up the possibility of misuse and misunderstanding.

In Paul Zindel’s YA novel The Pigman there is a story told by the old man as a “mystery” though he suggests that the story will reveal what kind of a person you are. If I’m not mistaken the story is an adaptation of a version playwright Edward Albee based on a Greek tale.

There is a river with a bridge over it, and a WIFE and her HUSBAND live in a house on one side. The WIFE has a LOVER who lives on the other side of the river, and the only way to get from one side of the river to the other is to walk across the bridge or to ask the BOATMAN to take you.

One day the HUSBAND tells his WIFE that he has to be gone all night to handle some business in a faraway town. The WIFE pleads with him to take her with him because she knows if she doesn’t, she will be unfaithful to him. The HUSBAND absolutely refuses to take her because she will only be in the way of his important business.

So the HUSBAND goes alone. When he is gone, the WIFE goes over to the bridge and stays with her LOVER. The night passes, and dawn is almost up when the WIFE leaves because she must get back to her own home before her HUSBAND returns. She starts to cross the bridge but sees an ASSASSIN waiting for her on the other side, and she knows if she tries to cross, he will murder her. In terror, she runs up the side of the river and asks the BOATMAN to take her across the river, but he wants fifty cents. She has no money, so he refuses to take her.

The WIFE runs back to the LOVER’s house and explains to him what the predicament is and asks him for fifty cents to pay the BOATMAN. The LOVER refuses, telling her it’s her own fault for getting into the situation. As dawn comes up, the WIFE is nearly out of her mind and dashes across the bridge. When she comes face to face with the ASSASSIN, he takes a large knife and stabs her until she is dead.

Now, on a piece of paper (or in your head), list the names of the characters in the order in which you think they were most responsible for the WIFE’s death. Just list WIFE, HUSBAND, LOVER, BOATMAN, and ASSASSIN in the order you think they are the most guilty.

The order of your answer supposedly reveals how much you value LOVE, SEX, FUN, MONEY, and MAGIC with each corresponding to the characters in the story and their behavior. And within the story there is a reason for The Pigman to be telling it, but let’s take the story on its own and instead of making an ordered list of who we think is most guilty, lets instead ask some contextual inference questions.

Based on the story above, which person is most likely to have hired the ASSASSIN?
a. the BOATMAN
b. the LOVER
c. the HUSBAND
d. the WIFE

Who does the WIFE fear the most in story?
b. the HUSBAND
c. herself
d. the BOATMAN

What could the WIFE have done differently to avoid being killed?
a. Swim across the river.
b. Offered the BOATMAN double his fee for helping her.
c. Kill the ASSASSIN before he could kill her.
d. Found another way across the river.

The first question underscores a crucial bit of information that isn’t expressly given in the story, because we all know that an Assassin never kills for free. In the second question the Wife has reason to fear all of the people named in the answers, but which does she fear the most based on her behavior? The third question merely asks that the test taker choose what to their thinking is the best solution. These questions are sometimes kept out of the scoring and sometimes used to gather some other particular metrics requested by the test administrators or the company that produced the tests themselves. But as you can see, it’s easy to ask the questions, but much harder defending definitive answers when the story itself has another purpose within the larger context.

Now comes the blame game. Judging from all the news and hoopla regarding “The Hare and the Pineapple,” who do you think is the most at fault?

a. The news media for reporting the story.
b. The schools who administer tests with questions even their own teachers cannot answer.
c. The test preparers who make millions off selling tests to school districts even though the tests themselves may not provide the quantitative information they claim to possess.
d. The public, who believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure everything from individual knowledge to the ability of a school and its educators to provide quality education.

When you are done, put down your pencils, wait quietly and do not turn the page until you are told to do so.

(By the way, if you want to provide your answers to The Pigman’s riddle below I will email you what the results mean.)

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What do the creative minds behind some of the largest internet and computing companies know that they rest of the world doesn’t? How about the fact that technology in the classroom might not be such a good thing?

In a story printed in the New York Times yesterday it appears that many employees from companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard prefer to send their kids to private schools – The Waldorf school to be exact – where technology is forbidden in the classroom and not recommended in the home. While schools across the country rush to get technology into the hands of kids, into the classrooms, where kids as young as ten years old are learning how to produce PowerPoint presentations, the children of creative minds behind the technology have become model citizens of a different kind of back-to-basics movement.

This not only makes perfect sense to me, it smacks of common sense.

What exactly do we want the focus of childhood education to be, the content or the method of delivery? Do we want slow, methodical thinking, or work that is produced quickly to standards that assume comprehension comes from uniform presentation?

When spelling errors are auto-corrected, and where homonyms go unchecked, how are young minds supposed to develop an understanding of language without the journey that is the dictionary? In ancient times when a spelling error in a draft of a report meant a trip to the dictionary, not only was the spelling of the word reinforced but so what it’s meaning and usage. Better still, in staring at an open book of words the destination toward one words often led to the discovery of new ones. It was just as easy to get lost exploring words as it is to become distracted by an incoming notice of a facebook status update; which of the two is more beneficial to a student? These days even an ereader, with its ability to give you the definition of any highlighted word, doesn’t offer the same sense of exploration that a dead-tree dictionary does.

Have you tried living without a computer for a week, or even a couple of days? Last week my hard drive gave out and I was forced to be without my electronic tether. Though I still had some access via my smart phone for basic email and internet connectivity I found it was more of a hassle than it was worth. Without the distractions of email notifications and chat pop-ups or even the instant access to look up whatever struck my fancy of the moment I found myself slowing down and speeding up at the same time. Suddenly there was time to read – and reflect on my reading in a thoughtful, leisurely manner – without the feeling that I was “missing” something else. I was able to tackle a project in the home that benefitted from my not constantly “needing” to check in with email or get lost in flitting blog reading. Because I owned the time I was able to plan it better, and the result was finishing up my home office in a single day, a task that had eluded me for well over a year. Imagine how much better-focused kids might be if they had to budget their physical time without the distractions of digital time sucking it away from them.

Back in the pre-computer days of early child development there were studies warning against adults giving children coloring books. The science suggested that a sort of learned developmental dyslexia occurred when young minds were taught to keep within the lines, preventing their hands and arms from learning how to form shapes freely. Kids who had learned to contain their hand-eye coordination within a smaller, tighter space did not possess the confidence of motor skills to form basic letters, where kids who had been allowed to throw their arms wildly across black fields of paper (and walls, and floors) developed a confidence of movement that rendered shape-making easy. Those who understood the teaching methods of the Montessori schools were not surprised by this. Computers, tablet screens, keyboards, all of this focus narrows the scope of a child’s developmental attention to a space two feet in front of them, with limited hand movements and the confined space that prevents spacial exploration. Add this to the fact that physical education classes are often not required, that recess and free time to play is limited, and you have a society of children being raised for a life of cubicles.

I don’t believe The Waldorf way or the Montessori method are the only models, but what they share in common is an understanding that educating young minds has to do with unhurried, undistracted thought and an exploration of the physical world. What the creative elite in SIlicon Valley understand is that creative thinking can be taught, and learned, and technology is more of a hinderance to education than a panacea.

Perhaps when the crypto anarchists are finished occupying wall street they can turn their attention to public education.

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I was seventeen and working my first job at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, California.  My friend Carlos had put in a good word for me and I was hired after a brief five-minute interview in the lobby.  Minimum wage as (as it is now) about the price of a bargain matinée ticket and without revealing how much that was let’s just say that my first week I worked 28 hours and made $65 before taxes.

It was an awesome experience, that first paycheck, that heady allure of money coming in a steady stream.  I had no bills, no sense of saving money, no financial responsibilities except to keep putting gas in the car.  I had that brass ring of capitalistic happiness, disposable income, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

Well, I did.  I mean, now I could eat out anywhere or anytime I wanted.  I could stop borrowing friends records and recording them and start buying my own vinyl.  I could hang out at the mall and buy cookies the size of my head – 3 for a dollar – or hang out with friends after school and eat pizzas.

Then I discovered bookstores.

There were the big bookstores around Westwood which made perfect places to hang out during breaks at work.  You could use a fifteen minute break to wolf down a falafel or softball-sized carrot cake muffin and spend your entire meal break later at the bookstore looking at all those books piled everywhere. I discovered so many books that were important to me in those early days of reckless spending, a dozen or so I still own several decades later, but the oddest in retrospect was the first book of poetry I ever bought for myself.

I have to clarify, because I did own a collection of Edward Lear’s work, and I know there were other books that were either gifts or books that entered the house that I assumed as my own, but there was one distinct book that I consciously picked up, read parts of, and purchased with little more going for it than a random page test reading.

It was Charles Bukowski’s Play The Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin To Bleed a Little.

Bukowski is either the best or the worst poet to put into a teen boy’s hands.  This was in the late 1970s and his reputation was only starting to bubble to the surface of the mainstream, so I found very few people I could talk to about Bukowski’s poems.  I had a sense there were some who would be put off by his crudeness, his portraits of lowlife and barlife, people who found little they liked in poetry because they thought poetry was hard, or was like a secret society where you had to know to rules to “get” what was on the page.  I’m talking about my teenage peers here, not the adults who (then and now) really wouldn’t have appreciated a teen reading this stuff.

The poems didn’t speak to me so much as they spoke with a single-minded clarity I hadn’t been exposed to before.  They rang with a sort of ugly truth that felt more relevant than the Beat poetry I had recently been exposed to.  Kerouac and Ginsberg were noodling jazz, all filigree word salad, Bukowski was a bell buoy in choppy seas.

I’ve read more Bukowski but I only own one other book by him, the biographical novel Ham on Rye.  Sometimes I feel like I should own more but I find that out of every collection there are only a couple poems that work for me and the rest I could live without.  Also, I’m slightly afraid that owning other collections of his poems would diminish the impact of this one book, my first, in a way that would take away its specialness.

Specialness.  What makes it special?  Was it that I bought the book with my own money, or the fact that buying poetry felt like a sophisticated act?  I certainly didn’t brag about it, about owning a book of poetry, though I’m sure my teenage self did casually mention to people about this “weird poet” I’d “heard about.”  I do think there is something to be said about its first-ness and I wonder if the cumulative effect wasn’t what kept me tangentially attached to poetry all these years.

I’m curious: what was your first book of poetry that you purchased for yourself?  How old were you?  Do you still own it?

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I know I’ve mulled over the idea of summer reading before – and recently the issue of reading has cropped up again in a different guise in the New York Times – but as we enter the last days of summer the girls are going through the dreaded ritual of fighting us over the last of the summer reading and homework.  You know the drill: the bargaining to do X number of pages before lunch so they can spend the afternoon with friends, to read Y chapters after dinner.  And when the goals go unmet, and the unfinished work compounds, there’s the renegotiation, and the yelling, the promising, the anxiety, the tears that it’s impossible, that it’s stupid…

And you know what?  It is stupid.

I have been fighting this internally for a good deal of time, trying to balance what I know is right with wanting to be a good upstanding parent, and it’s been a disaster.  Forcing kids to read is wrong, forcing them to read from lists is doubly wrong, and forcing them to read over the summer is wrong times a brazillion.

The ideal is to be fighting kids to put books down so they go outside to play.  Kids should be calling each other up when they finish a book they love and trading them with each other like… whatever kids trade these days.  They should be begging us for book suggestions, and we should be able to supply them with titles to check out from the library, if not from our own shelves.

That this isn’t the way things are is a colossal failure both of our education system and our jobs as parents.

If schools didn’t kill the joy of reading from kids they would still want to read with the same excitement they had when they first learned how to read.  Reading doesn’t one day become uncool, adults MAKE it uncool.  They take something fun and make it work.  They use books designed specifically for classrooms that kill the joy of reading.  These neutron bombs of the written word kill the brain but leave the shell of the child alive and teach them to hate reading.  Then they turn around and say “Now THIS is an excellent work of fiction, and if you do not agree then you don’t know what’s good for you.”  In essence, further destroying any remaining joy in the process.

Parents fail kids by condoning this activity, by failing to model reading, and by showing a disdain for the books that do interest their children. Many parents don’t know what their children are reading if it isn’t on the news or featured in a magazine article, and few could name a book that won a Newbery or Caldecott medal (or can even tell the difference between the awards).  Then because the school says children must do their summer reading, and sends home a big list of books to choose from or in some cases assigns specific books, we parents march dutifully in step and break out the whip to make sure it gets done.

We fool ourselves into believing that it keeps their minds active to do so, and that reading is important, but it’s lip service and kids know it.  They know it and they lose respect for us because for once they can see that we aren’t truly serving as their advocates.  That’s why they fight it.

I say this now, knowing I’m only half the parental unit in this household and that I’m likely to wimp out: I will no longer support, encourage, or insist that summer reading be done as per the dictates of the schools.  Our girls read just as many – if not more – books on their own then the number required, year round, and I am no longer interested in attempts to kill their joy of reading.

Likewise with summer homework.  Studies about the efficacy of summer homework are still being debated and anecdotally I can see that it does more harm than good.  It sends my older daughter into fits of hysterics that she cannot do it, that it’s frustrating, and she walks around saying she hates math as a result.  This is exactly how we kill kids off math and science and anything else we force them to do without providing them an internal incentive.  It doesn’t accomplish anything to have a child do any sort of educational work in a state of duress, and any advantages claimed by the pro-homework crowd are completely obliterated by the anxiety produced.

Last I checked, a child could not be failed or kept from social promotion in the schools for failure to do extracurricular activities which, technically, these are.  Extracurricular.  As in outside the curriculum.

I think I am prepared to go case by case, year by year, teacher by teacher to fight this.  Schools, if you cannot accomplish your stated educational goals within the confines of a school year, you are not permitted to extend your failure into my child’s summer vacation.  You either extend the school year or admit that your educational practices are failures if they cannot be retained or refreshed after a short break.

Furthermore, you may request that my children keep reading over the summer for their own pleasure, but you must honor and accept the books they choose to read.  What you have them read inside your classrooms I leave to you, but outside is no longer any of your business.

It’s taken me all summer to work this out but I now have nine months to prepare myself to execute it.  Maybe I’ll see if I can get anyone else to go along with me.

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The incoming class is already starting to filter in, their first official meeting is tonight.  The faculty is already there.  The rest of us will be filtering in as well, arriving in time for orientation just after lunch tomorrow. Time again for that thing we call “the res,” or simply “res,”

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults bi-annual residency!

So part of me wants to promise to keep regular updates, but I know that’s contingent on any number of factors.  Last time I managed to snag a solo room, so I was able to stay up late at night writing and blogging without worrying about keeping anyone else awake.  Single rooms are incredibly rare, but still, one can hope.

I suppose I could try and Tweet.  But that’s not what I feel like doing in the brief moments between faculty lectures and studetn lectures and all the other good stuff scheduled for the coming scant two weeks.  But all of that is still to come because, as of this moment, I am still maing lists of everything I need to do, and some last minute packing, and everything else I need to wedge into the day before a nice mellow pizza and movie night with my Suze before leaving early tomorrow morning.

It’s a little like camp, where you can’t wait to see the people you haven’t seen since the last time you were at camp.  It’s like summer camp but all the activities are indoor, because if we added outdoor activites we’d end up there for a month instead of two weeks.  It’s a summer camp with a graduation and a prom attached.  It’s a writer’s retreat, and a battery recharge, and a reunion with community, and dorms with cafeteria food.

And I am a little excited.  But not so you’d notice.

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Hours from now I’ll be on a bus headed north for Montpelier.  From all over the world — literally — a small band of like-minded folks will be descending on the smallest state capital in the United States.  We’ll be there to reconnect, recharge, and retreat.  We’ll also be there to stay up way too late talking, eating cafeteria food made by culinary students, and frantically making decisions about how to spend our next semester actively pursuing a collective dream.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, by accident, or without support.  Though these dates have been in place for over six months, this residency is turning out to be a real household wrecker.  While I’m up north Suze is working frantically on a case that may send her south for a few days at the same time.  I know Suze has kept the details from me to avoid making me feel bad about leaving — to keep from feeling I’m abandoning everyone and everything — and to be honest, I don’t know what I could contribute as a solution even if I were up on everything.  She’s got her mother coming for a few days, she’s working the connections of friends in town to keep an eye on the girls in the afternoons before she gets home from work.  Even though lectures and workshops are going to be fully engaging, it’s going to be hard not to wonder (and worry) about things at the homestead when my attention drifts.

Then there’s the pending CT, the critical thesis.  This is the semester I’m charged with pouring some great bit of wisdom at length into something graduate-worthy. This has been freaking me out almost since the beginning and it’s hard to imagine it’s going to go as smoothly as people tell me it will. The CT, this residency, it all reminds me of when I was a Boy Sprout and we’d stand at the trail head at the beginning of a backpacking trip.  We’d know how many miles we were headed, where camp was, starting and ending elevation, but that first step seemed so impossibly far away from the last.  And when it was over it semed as if the first step was so insignificant compared to some of the others along the way. It also seemed a lot shorter than the actual time spent, like somehow time fluctuates to make the monumental insignificant, magnifies the minute into momentous, and makes the whole process strange and horrible and wonderful and new and old all at once.

I’ve got ten days ahead of me that are both familiar and unknown to me.  When it’s over I’ll come home and all of this stress and anxiety will evaporate, replaced by stories and the comfort of order.

*     *     *

One part of me wants to keep up with what’s going on here in blog land, to keep a running diary of rez and all that happens, and the reality is that if I have any spare moments I’m going to want to check in at home or keep up with emails and whatnot.  So if I go dark for a few weeks, trust that somewhere else everything is much brighter.

Much love and public appreciation to Suze who is making this possible, despite some incredible obstacles on all fronts.  I owe you some Oreo truffles, among many other things, sweeite.

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Prepping for school residency really messes with my rhythms.  I’m too distracted, too torn by things to do, mixed-up with a combination of anxiety and excitement.  This meeting-twice-a-year thing has all the feel of summer camp, where you come from all over to see your camp friends and become inseparable until it’s time to go back home to the rest of your world.

Yesterday I sent ahead boxes with bedding and heavy boots and snacks and a reader I prepped for fellow classmates.  In a few days I’ll travel myself and catch up with those boxes.  Then for 11 days I’ll be in a shared room, eating according to a schedule, sitting for hours on end soaking up strong vibes and good wisdoms.  But right now it’s as if in preparation my brain is scrambling to get clear.  My brain doesn’t want me to think about reviewing books or hunting down poems or even mundane things like doing laundry or making sure I have my favorite pens available.

But every once in a while the hazy sludge clears and a single thought or two pops through, streaming like rods of liquid lemon pudding through the black meringue of confusion.

I was thinking about how poems for teens always feel to me like exercises in calculation.  Topical in subject, but also limited in audience.  We don’t teach Dickenson or Frost or any poets as products of a particular age, and yet there are books produced for particular ages as plainly marketed as a breakfast cereal or some new fad.  Young children have their poets that remain in print and perennially published, but where do the tween and teens find their poetry?

Then I was thinking that if  ever jumped the fear and decided to take my poetry seriously, what I would like to write is nonsense for adults. I look at all these poets with their thin, perfect bound collections on the new shelves in the library and long for a title that says “Hey, I’m a little bit of absurd, come take a dip!”  But it’s not there.  Plenty of titles that promise meditations over heavy subjects pondered over steaming cups of liquid on wintry days (adult poets seem to mention coffee a lot), or detached musings of humanity witnessed from public transportations (because poets are too poor to travel otherwise?), or lengthy explanations for biographical behaviors in relation to family dynamics (confessions of some minor transgression that has haunted the poet for years).

Do adults not want to escape from the serious now and then the same way kids do?   It seems like that’s the message.  In your youth you may read poems about imaginary creatures and about tormenting siblings, but as an adult those poems have to be about creatures haunting your marriage or about the tortured relations among adult siblings with Serious Problems.  Oh, sure, occasionally adults are allowed to indulge in a frivolous haiku or an absurd bit of verse, so long as its topical or satirical, as if to show restraint.

I don’t like cake any less than I did as a boy, but as an adult am I supposed to pretend that I don’t like it as much, that there’s some sort of adult joy in the parceling of treats?  Once, through a strange set of circumstances, I discovered in my teens that I actually preferred my birthday dinner the next day as leftovers.  For breakfast: cold spaghetti with meat sauce, German chocolate cake, and Seven-up.  Cake for breakfast is wrong?  Who says so?  It has more nutritional value than some cereals kids eat.  So just because a poem is humorous I’m supposed to put it aside as an adult and consume more broccoli instead?

The world is an absurd place, more absurd as you get older and understand it more (and less).  Why paper over the absurdity with something sensible and rational?

Then the fog descends again, leaving me to fret about pre-trip details, internal arguments over the reading I should do versus the reading I want to do.  Appointments must be made and kept, errands run, kids and cats fed.

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Fall is the new year.

When the shifting sun changes the angle of light falling across the desks, dust motes dancing in the afternoon, and the cool evenings whisk summer away, that’s when the new year begins.

When the bulletin boards are covered with fresh sheets of unfaded colored paper cut from large rolls, cool and smooth to the touch, waiting for the first pin-pricks of stapled projects, that’s the new year.

Before the windows fill with bumpy with minty paste and art projects smelling of earthy tempera paints, before the linoleum-covered counter tops become crowded with social studies projects on foreign lands, before the edges of the cursive name plates on the desks darken with grime and pencil and begin to curl…

That is the new year I recognize.

New crop apples.  New metal lunch boxes with characters from toys or Saturday morning cartoons.  New clothes.  New folders, new pencils and pens, new three-ring binders with new lined paper.  New seat mates and new clusters.  New teachers and a new grade.  New friends and alliances, new places in the lunch room, new rules on the playground.

The harvest of new in the fall is abundant.

My new year celebrates the balance between dark and light, promises second chances and first starts.  My new year slows down to notice the changing leaves, the cloud-dappled sunsets, the last-minute hibernators and retiring annuals. The colors of my new year are yellows, browns, and oranges against a deepening blue.

Fall begins my new year.

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I never do well at these things because (a) writing on command for contests really freezes me up and (b) I just don’t think I get the right vibe on the humor around this ol’ Vermont College.

The deal is, with every graduating class comes a party, and with each party a writing contest.  Last year… I forgot what it was.  I entered and lost.  Whatever.  This time around I thought I might have a chance: a good news/bad news film treatment contest.  The good news is that a famous/classic children’s book has been chosen to be turned into a big Hollywood film.  The bad news is, well, it’s being made into a crappy big Hollywood film.  100 to 200 words.

This should so totally be mine.  I know films, I know classic kid’s books, I even know how to write a freakin’ treatment.  But humor is the name of the game and maybe I’m not as funny as I think I am when under the gun.

There were co-winners, a treatment for Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath pitched as as musical — “It’s Cape Fear meets Oklahoma!”  The other winner was Anne of Green Gables starring Li’l Kim.  Me?  I went with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World crossed with Pulp Fiction for a retelling of the P.D. Eastman classic Go, Dog, Go! It goes a little something like this…

Yo, Dawg, Go!

An Old Dog careens off the highway and with his dying breath reveals to a group of strangers of a secret stash hidden in a suitcase in a coastal California city.  Among the strangers are Big Dawg and Little Dawg, a pair of hitmen who have been assigned to retrieve the suitcase for their boss, Top Dawg.  They immediately wipe out the other witnesses to the accident and head off to claim the loot themselves.

Along the way Little Dawg is asked by Top Dawg to look after his wife who insists on a series of exchanges over whether or not they like each other’s hats.

Eventually Big Dawg and Little Dawg continue their drive across country and discover the suitcase with the loot on top of a large tree full of other Dawgs.  While Little Dawg sends the tree full of Dawgs to bed for the Big Sleep, Big Dawg foams at the snout barking biblical verse from Ezekiel before returning the suitcase to Top Dawg.

Driving away, Big Dawg and Little Dawg discuss the misuse of the article “der” in the name of the fast food chain Der Wienerschnitzel.

Quentin Tarantino directs.

Eh, I at least gave it a shot.  Maybe I was too esoteric in my references.

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It sounded simple: spend a couple of weeks putting down diary entries my main character might have written that would give insights into his thinking and feelings. And since that would be a cinch, why not finally write the text of that picture book biography I kept talking about. And, hey, since that shouldn’t be a problem, read a couple dozen books and pick a few on which to write a compare/contrast essay of 8 to 10 pages.

Yeah, it’s called biting off more than I can chew, or at least chew comfortably, but I’m not ready to cry uncle. Not yet at least.

The thing is there’s still seventeen days to deadline. That’s a lot of time. The thing is there’s only seventeen days to deadline and that’s not a lot of time. I lose five of those days to work, another couple taking a short vaca with the fam, so it’s really more like ten days.


See, I should never look at a calendar. If I could just have this magical system that told me what I needed to do each day — without knowing the deadline — then I could just work on the daily goal without the deadline stress. Despite how much work I give myself, it’s all manageable as long as I don’t know what I’m up against.

All my classmates, and you wonderful occasional commenters, have been kind in their faith. Gwenda’s point a while back about learning what my process is turning out to ring more true that I imagined; I am learning which things I do that work and which don’t, and methods to keep myself focused. And my Suze wasn’t off the mark recently in pointing out how the residency probably serves as the vacation time we otherwise don’t get with our at-home, deadline-driven lives. I remember how charged up I felt after the last rez, I can totally see how that’s going to feel even better this time around. Like how good diner food tastes after you’ve spent a couple weeks living off granola and ramen in the mountains.

The diary entries, you would think that would be a snap. Ha! It isn’t like plunking down your thoughts in a blog, oh no, you have to crawl inside the character’s head and say “Look over there, at that playground — how does that make you feel?” Like going back in time and hunting down your younger self on the playground and poking that younger self with a stick saying “Why was this tether ball thing so important to you this week?” And the next thing you know the question “Why doesn’t the character have any sibling?” turns into an awkward moment between child and parent where the discussion of miscarriages gets brought up, only explained through the vocabulary of an 11 year old boy.

It’s as emotionally draining as if I were putting myself through therapy. Wait…

The picture book biography is another beast altogether. I’ve known this story for going on two decades now but I never conceived it as a book for kids. Why not? They’re the ones who would appreciate it better. That’s not the problem, the problem is that in telling the story I realized I had only worked from two sources, both mostly matched up but it would take a third to confirm various differences. Then there was the background details I wanted to nail. And in the twenty years since I first stumbled onto this story more and more resources have become available. Movies lost in archives spread all over the world are now available to watch on YouTube at all hours. The casual mention of a bit player in the story prompts another half hour of internet searching. There are easily five pages of documentation and bibliographic notes for every paragraph I’m going to end up with in the final draft. I feel beholden to get the story right the first time (a) to avoid the same pitfalls I’ve seen in other non-fiction for children concerning sloppy research and (b) so that mine enters the world as the definitive version, at least for a generation. You shoot for the moon and hope for a cloud.

I haven’t even got a clue about the essay yet, mostly because I’m not happy with the books so far. Usually having bad books, or at least deficient one, spurs the creative juices. But the reality is that I’m looking for clues and answers to my own problem in finding a character voice and I’m not getting any traction in the places where I should. I’m tired of every book I pick up needing to be read so closely that I can’t enjoy it on its own. I don’t want to have to pick apart the meat and bones in order to reconstruct the skeleton and show how adept I am at literary taxidermy. Yes, yes, I understand how this helps in my own work, but right now everything is working against each other — voice and essay are not in line with biography and research, neither of which is helping with feeling and motivation. In theory all this should be providing clarity but in reality it’s all siting like an oil slick on the top of a pond preventing the water hydra from getting any sunlight.

I just know a year from now I’m gonna stumble back onto this post and want to throttle my whiny self. Maybe I’ll be adept enough to have my 11 year old character visit me and we can swap places, maybe he can write my diary entries for me while I sit t/here trying to understand how to insert tab A into slot B.

I promised myself I wouldn’t spend more that 15 minutes complaining. Back to work.

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After posting last week’s Poetry Friday entry I was out and about when I saw a bunch of cards blowing around in the street. Some poor kid from the nearby high school lost a couple dozen of their study notes for class, notes penned in green marker, crammed into 3 by 5 card that had been cut in half.

I like how in their fragmented way they read like poetry. Almost, not quite. I was going to post two of them as-written for Poetry Friday and then realized that all it would take to make them interesting was to change a couple words. And then once I did that I thought it would make for a nice little open exercise for all you wonderfully creative folks out there.

Here they are. They can be combined, reversed, whatever makes sense. Feel free to complete them as you see fit in the comments.

______ is neither
created nor

a given _______
always contains
exactly the same
_______ of _______
by _______

And check out what everyone else is up to on Poetry Friday, the round-up is over at A Wrung Sponge.

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