Friday, September 9, 2011

Topic 216: Winged Circle

Over My Head,  At My Back
“This project is mostly an intellectual exercise for a newly-retired writing teacher and her anxiously-unemployed librarian daughter, both of whom are in need of something to keep them occupied during a transitional time.” (About This Project)
Topic 216 is a “throw back,” returned to the basket when I pulled it months ago, thinking it required more research than I wanted to do. It still does, but I can’t throw it back again because I now can see the bottom of a basket that once was completely filled with strips of paper. Two-hundred and sixteen essays behind us, and most of the remaining topics are “throw-backs.”

Megan and I now have worked on this project for over twelve months, a little experiment to fill our time, present a mental challenge, and provide some structure to our day.  For me, much of the fun was in figuring out how to approach the “throw back” kinds of subject matter, the head-scratchers, and the yawners. I always told my students that their job was to find a way to take an assignment and “make it their own,” so I have had lots of opportunities to practice that principle. 

I usually have a direction in mind by the time I head out on the morning walk.  Not today.I sat down for coffee with wings and circles pushed to the back of my mind. Our neighbor’s patio is inviting, and the temperature perfect for slow sipping and chitchat. Suddenly, Marc pointed up at the sky to a bird in flight. He is always doing that, pointing out birds on bushes, in the trees or flying overhead. But, this time when I looked up, I didn’t need the birders in the group to identify the long legs and wings of a Great Blue Heron.

As I looked back down at the patio table, my eye caught our host’s coffee cup. On the side of the cup was an emblem, a winged circle. The logo was from the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, whose emblem is the “Great Seal of the State of Arkansas: with white bird wings added.  Interesting coincidence.

Wings and circles eventually led   to literature. Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” is pretty well standard for any high school English textbook, and it introduces the notion of carpe diem—in tandem with sexual seduction—right at the point where adolescent hormones are kicking into action. Seize the day, a perfect bridge between the elegant language of the 17th century and the imagined seductions of teen-age boys: “Let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness up into one ball, and tear our pleasures with rough strife…” ( Marvell).

The other half of “carpe diem” fails to penetrate most young minds. Why are we urged to 
“seize the day”?  Because aging and death are inevitable, because the world changes and
 missed opportunities cannot be retrieved.  

“But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.”

I really feel those wings of change at my back this morning.  After 12 months and 216 essays, Megan and I have come to another “transitional time.” I am no longer newly-retired, and she is no longer unemployed.  I have plenty of fun research and writing projects to keep me occupied. And, Megan has her own exciting work and writing projects. I am about to lose my favorite cartoonist and writing partner, co-conspirator in movie getaways and book-buying frenzies.

Thirty-six topics left in the basket. 

 The Ciiiiirrrrcle of Life
I really wish we hadn’t kept throwing back the hard topics. After two weeks of vacation and illness, I could really do with one like “On the Dog.” Except I don’t think “On the Dog” was a real topic from the book– I think we just chose it as our first essay because it would be an easy way to start the project. 

As my mother mentioned earlier this week, it’s been just over a year since we began writing on The Daily Theme.  When we started,I had a concern, which I revisited several times over the year – that when we finished the project, an entire year would have passed and I would have nothing to show for it but this website. And in my mind, my father is telling me that’s not very “In the Moment” thinking and my cynical side is chiming in to suggest that Nowhere is exactly where a year of living “In the Moment” gets you.   

Of course, a lot has changed – or rather, a lot has happened. I’ve reconnected with my childhood friends. I’ve spent more time with family than I have in the past 10 years combined. I experienced professional disappointment for the first time ever – getting turned down for job after job.  I’ve changed my diet (although, just as I wrote that, I took a bite of a very non vegan chocolate chip muffin), and taken classes.

I got a puppy, and regretted it, and then stopped regretting it. And if I were writing “On the Dog” today, it would have been a very different essay. Mom just shouted down to me that Bella dragged her purse into the loft, opened it up and ate her toothbrush all in the time it took to write the essay. But if that’s all the damage she caused, then we are having a good morning.

When we decided to try writing every day on the same topic, I estimated it would take just about a year to get through the 250 topics. I hadn’t factored in vacations and illness and days when we just weren’t in the mood. And job interviews.

 I couldn’t have known that one year to the day of starting this project, I would be offered a job (I thought it would happen sooner).  And now, I’m not sure what that’s going to mean for this website. I know I’m not going to be able to write every day. I want to be able to finish the 250 topics, but it feels more “Circle of Life” to just end it now.  Except that a circle never ends.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Topic 215: The Pleasures of Loafing

The King of Loafers
I don’t read the Sunday comics much anymore, but I had my favorites when I was young. Many of the comic strips in our newspapers, no matter what city or state we lived in,  were syndicated by King features, a company owned by the Hearst corporation that not only distributed cartoon strips but editorial cartoons, puzzles and games.  Beginning around 1914 the King syndicate produces most of my favorites, including: “The Better Half,”  “Beetle Bailey, “ “Dennis the Menace,” “Family Circus,”and  “Popeye” (source: :King Features Syndicate”)
In grade school my favorite cartoon was Chick Young’s creation  Blondie, featuring the Bumstead family. Dagwood Bumstead is the king of loafers, his domain the couch, hammock and refrigerator. He has a job at J.C. Dithers and Company, and we do see him rushing off to work, rushing home from work. However, his default  mode is loafing. He has perfected the nap, stretched out on the sofa with an open newspaper covering his head. When he isn’t napping, he is enjoying the king of sandwiches, that gigantic meat, cheese and whatever pile of jaw-breaking proportions now known as the Dagwood sandwich.  Even with Blondie’s loving nagging and the distraction of two teen-agers in the house, Dagwood Bumstead always finds a way to indulge in his greatest pleasure, loafing.
Blondie first appeared in other cartoons before 1933, and apparently there is a back story to the Bumstead family. Blondie’s dimpled looks and yellow curls are reminiscent of the flapper cartoon character Betty Boop, and before she married Dagwood, her last name was “Boopadoop.” Dagwood was disinherited by his  wealthy family when he married Blondie, so he was forced to give up a life of privileged leisure for the middle class rat race. Apparently, the story of the romance and foibles of the Bumsteadd family was built over several years as part of the comic strip serial’s ongoing storyline, but I’m sure later generations of readers like me didn’t really know this history.
You don’t hear the word “loafer” so much these days. The more current expression “slacker” just doesn’t fit.  McSweeney’s magazine takes a fun swipe at Dagwood’s loafing in the Joe Moe essay “Excerpts from Dagwood Bumstead’s Intervention.” In the essay Blondie, neighbor Herb Woodley, Mr Beasley the mail carrier, and other Blondie characters have finally had enough after putting up with Dagwood’s eccentricities after 70 plus years. So, they conduct an intervention. Blondie hones in on the napping:
The only thing I hate—HATE—more than the eating is the sleeping. I’ve been reading some things online and I think you have undiagnosed clinical depression.  Listen, just because you’re asleep, it doesn’t mean that life stops.  You can take your naps on the couch, you can sleep in a hammock, you can oversleep before rushing off to work. But I have news for you, Dagwood: the world is still here. And you have to face it just like everyone else (source: Moe “Excerpts”).

I am trying to imagine a post-intervention, 21st century incarnation of Dagwood. He still prefers a life of leisure, but his Dagwood sandwich has shrunk to the thickness of pannini, meat and cheese replaced with heart-healthy veggie alternatives. He continues to enjoy the paper version of the newspaper even though Blondie and the kids have switched to reading on their laptops. You just can’t get the same coverage with  a computer that an open newspaper gives when you’re stretching out for a good, loafer-worthy nap before work, before dinner, before bed. ZZZZZZZZZ

 “King Features Syndicate.” Wikipedia.
Moe, Joe. “Excerpts from Dagwood Bumstead’s Intervention.” McSweeney’s.

I've spent the past 24 hours in bed, and that's the plan for the rest of the day as well. I had a lot planned for how I was going to spend my last few free days, and working my way through a Kleenex box wasn't close to being on the list. But that's what I'm doing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Topic 214: Acid Tests

The Dead Zone

I call the stretch of the I- 10 between Blythe and Indio the Dead Zone. It  peaks at Chiriaco Summit, which at 1700 feet altitude isn’t much of a summit unless you consider that you are climbing from 800 feet at Blythe in the middle of a desert and jockeying for position with massive trucks that slow to a crawl. I reckon I have driven The Dead Zone over 100 times since we moved to Arizona in 1983.
We called it the Dead Zone not just because of the arid terrain. Our radio reception would usually die out somewhere after Quartzite. We had a stack of tapes to counter the monotony, but often we would just talk, letting the conversation meander all over the place.
The first few years, we made the trip with two toddlers strapped into car seats. Going west, we usually broke the journey with a stop for breakfast in Blythe. As the kids grew older and quit napping, they would ask questions that often couldn’t be answered with our pooled knowledge which was long on language and literature and short on science and technology. How many times I wished we had a dictionary or a portable encyclopedia so that we could find the answer right away.
By the time the kids outgrew their car seats, I often made the trip without Marc to visit my parents and brothers’ families in southern California. If we left Thousand Oaks by 5 a.m., I could avoid the worst of the traffic crawling into Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley and the kids would sleep until we hit Blythe for a food and fuel stop. The Dead Zone seemed to stretch during those years, no conversation for the driver and no music if I forgot to pack the travel tapes.
The kids grew up, the vehicles changed and the technology evolved.  Our current vehicle has an I-Pod port and a CD player, but the conversations continue. Last August  Megan and I read essays out loud from a 1925 writing textbook. By the time we hit Blythe, we had committed to writing our own essays and creating a website. The first Daily Theme essay was posted on September 1, 2010.
On September 5, 2011 we found ourselves again traveling the I-40 back to Arizona after a family wedding. The radio was turned off, and conversation picked up after Indio. Did we know that Chiriaco Summit has a General Patton museum? Should we gas up over the border in Ehrenberg, or should we continue to the Pilot stop at Quartzite? My mind wandered ahead to the daily theme due the next day.“Acid tests.”  Hmmm.
I cheated a little and threw out a question to Marc. “So, how would you define “acid test”? Is an acid test the same as a litmus test?  If only we had a dictionary or an encyclopedia.”  A voice from the back seat suddenly announced, “According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, an acid test is….” Megan’s cell phone, not much bigger than a playing card, had become our dictionary thanks to the Internet.
The conversation eventually led us to Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, Tom Wolfe and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Like I said, we are short on science and technology and long on language and literature.
Megan says the satellite reception on that dreary stretch of desert between Indio and Blythe was strong and clear. Guess, I’ll have to find another name for The Dead Zone.

I came back from California with a little cold, which has now transformed into a serious sinus infection. For those of you who may not know, I start a new job next Monday, and I'm pretty sure that if I call in sick on the first day, I will fail the litmus test for new employees (litmus test being interchangeable with acid test, according to Merriam-Webster) and this is the best I can do. 

Back to bed.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

One Day More...

We are back from our trip, but we need a day to recover. 
We'll return tomorrow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Topic 213: Voices


Voices from the Blogosphere
Our New York Times subscription is a small but pricey indulgence. I love sitting at the dining-room table Sunday mornings and reading:  “Travel,” that showcases exotic getaways we can’t afford; “Arts and Entertainment,” that reviews plays and films we will never get to see;  “Book Reviews,” that lists the authors and books we don’t have time to read. However, my favorite section is the “Sunday Magazine,” which I read just about cover to cover—backwards.
I start with the last page column called “Lives.” Writers --profession and non—reveal the little, jewel-like moments we call “slice of life.” When I was teaching, I would   use “Lives” essays to show how good writing often comes in small packages wrapped in natural voices. One such essay was Avi Steinberg’s “A Prison-Library Reunion,” which caught my eye last October because, well, by now everyone knows an ex- prison librarian lives in my home right now.
 I enjoyed the essay until I saw the end note. Mr. Steinberg’s piece was adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. How dare he write the book that was going to make my daughter famous! I broke the news to Megan that her idea had been stolen, but she bought Steinberg’s book and highly recommends it.
This week, I didn’t have time to read the Sunday NY Times on Sunday, so I read it at Quixote’s Garage where I volunteer.  I grabbed the “Sunday Magazine” first, as usual. After reading “Lives,” washing a few dishes, getting someone’s mail, and greeting a few folks,  I working my way from page 50 back to page 44 and a column called “Riff” by Maud Newton.  I, like, totally identified with Newton’s comments about the evolving use of voice by essayists—professional and non—and how mixed, shaken and poured the language of the blogosphere has become. She blames it on David Foster Wallace, then she sort of blames Dave Eggers for passing on even further what she calls “the stylized mess that is Gen X and-Y Internet syntax” (Newton 46). Newton really seems to hate the way bloggers have gotten into using the word “folks.” 

When I finished Newton’s essay, I jotted down a little note before getting back to washing dishes and playing solitaire. “Note to myself: Megan should read this essay even if Newton maligns Eggers.” Note to readers: Megan loves Dave Eggers, reads all his books, subscribes to his quirky journal McSweeney’s and has attended numerous Eggers readings, even in England.
 Avi Steinberg abandoned the temporary job of prison librarian and is now a published author.  Maud Newton abandoned the practice of law and is now a published author. Avi and Maud also have blogs.
I couldn’t find a blog for Dave. Maybe… he’s just too busy. Like, folks, um, Dave Eggers spends a lot of his time and money helping kids learn to love writing through his 826 National non-profit organization. Friday is National Youth Literacy Day and “826 on 8/26.” In gratitude, I’ll give Dave the last words:
“Some of these kids just don't plain know how good they are: how smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them. You can shine that light on them, one human interaction at a time.”

Avi Steinberg blog.
Maud Newton blog.
Newton, Maud. ‘Really Pretty much the Only One That, Um, You know, Got It.” New
                  York Times Magazine. 21 Aug 2011 p 44.
Steinberg, Avi. “A Prison-Library Reunion.” New York Times 1 Oct 2010.                  
Dave Eggers and 826 National.


 I’m in a hurry today because we are leaving for California early tomorrow morning, and there is a lot to do to prepare for a week away. The packing is mostly complete, but I have several assignments due over the next week and I’d rather not have to worry about them while I’m away. The great thing about online classes is apparently that you can work on them from anywhere, but I’m more productive and efficient if I am working in my office than if I am working from a motel room or a friend’s house.

And the voices in my head are rebelling against this project, telling me I should just leave it until we get back because there’s too much else that needs to be done.  But this was supposed to be yesterday’s topic though, and Mom has written hers. I didn’t write yesterday because I had a job interview (it went well, I think). 

So, I apologize, but this is all you get. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Topic 212: Bristles


     Men of a Certain Age
 In my genealogical climb through the branches and tangled vines of my family tree, I have discovered photographs of a lot of hairy men—beards down to the belt buckle, mutton chop sideburns, pomaded pompadours. But, the moustaches tend to show up in photos of family men around the 1920’s No matter what state they lived in, or even what country, moustaches dominated early 20th century male fashion.

The   photograph of Walter Lugrin Sr  (1878-1940) shows a man who is meticulous in details of dress. He wears a stick pin in his carefully knotted tie, a white handkerchief in the pocket of his expensive-looking suit. The moustache is bushy but neat, somewhat between a chevron and a paintbrush (American Moustache Institute). I wouldn’t expect less than thoughtful, measured care in the looks of a watchmaker and businessman who worked for  the  A. Wittnauer Co in Manhattan.  Married to my great-aunt Hattie Edwards, Walter was a family favorite who had gotten jobs in the jewelry store for Hattie and three of her sisters.

Edward John Scott (1857-1925) also sported a moustache although we have no photos of him as a young man. He too was a “company man” who worked for the same employer for over 20 years, as a printer in New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic newspaper.  This photo (around 1918) shows a more casual  approach to dress. appropriate for the West. Hand cocked on hip, jacket thrown open, topped with a straw hat to keep off the New Mexico sun, E. J. Scott wears a bushy moustache too, not quite as contained as Walter’s but nevertheless in the “chevron” mode.  His expression is less business-like, less imposing than that of Uncle Walter back in New Jersey E. J. is often shown with that same affable smile in photos with his grandchildren, including my father, another Edward Scott.

Frederick William Stanley York (1876-1968) was from the Canadian branch of the family.  His mother Catherine was a first cousin of E. J. Scott’s wife Selina Jane, whose parents had immigrated to the American Midwest in the 1860’s from Ontario.  Stanley and several siblings moved west from Ontario to Manitoba and Alberta in the late 1880’s.  Stanley’s photo shows a young man of ramrod posture, eyes staring directly into the camera, high collar and white tie.  Although not as bushy as E.J.’s moustache,   Stanley York’s bristles add a good two inches to each side, a much truer chevron. This photograph  was probably taken around 1898, about the time he traveled with a group from the Churches of Christ congregation of Carman, Manitoba, all the way to Nashville for training at the Bible School.  From  photos of his horses and chickens, I know he farmed in Alberta with his wife Ella. They lived long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1953. The moustache was long gone.

Go back one generation from Walter, E.J. and Stanley and you’ll find that men of a certain age—staid, married men—wore beards. But, the beard only really came into fashion in the United States in the 1850’s after several decades of a vogue of clean-shaven faces.
By 1920, the beard went out of style again, replaced by either a moustache or goatee, no doubt influenced by Gillette’s invention of the safety razor which became standard-issue gear for U.S soldiers in World War I (source: “Safety Razors”). As fashionista Heidi Klum might say, “Bristles. One week they’re in, one week they’re out.”


 “The Lemania Legacy.”
“Moustache Styles.” American Moustache Institute.
Safety Razors.” Wikipedia. 

 *Please note that Carol was very late in finishing her essay today, and Megan's essay reflects that fact. 

The many uses of Bristles
Yesterday, on the way to the movies,  Mom and I had a conversation about this topic. Conversation is probably not the right word. I tried to guess what she was going to write about and she wouldn’t tell me.

“Are you going to write about hair brushes?” I asked thinking it sounded like something she would write about.
“No,” she replied. “I thought that might be what you were going to write about.”
“I could write about how it annoys me that you think your scalp is too sensitive for my brush, and I can’t even get your brush through my hair.”
“You mean like how you bristle about the bristles on brushes?”
“Oh my god.”

“Bella has bristles on her chin” she suggested.
“Those are whiskers. Are you going to write about facial hair?"
“I’m not sure how much I have to say about that,” she said, stroking the whiskers on her own chin.
“This morning,” I offered,  “I found this long curly black hair growing right out of the side of my face.”

She finished choking just as we arrived at the movie theater and saw the worst movie of the year – One Day. It was so bad. Also, it had the same premise as a story I’ve been working on which follows a character (me) on the same day each year. I was going to use my journals. I’ve put a lot of hours into this project, not to mention the ten years that had to pass in order for me to accumulate the entries. I’m not sure it’s going to work – it’s more of an exercise, but I can assure you that the unedited and angsty journaling from my late teens is still much more interesting than that movie we saw yesterday.

I guess the fact that the movie was bad is a good thing. It’s worse when you come up with an idea and then someone else has beat you to it and theirs is better. At least I have a chance to improve it.

Anyway, I’m not doing too well with this topic today. I keep wanting to add that my mother did not finish her essay because she had obligations this morning, obligations she has known about for a while – so she could totally have written the essay before. But I skipped out all last week, and I knew about Kelly’s visit for months. So, I don’t have any right to be annoyed. Except, have you ever noticed that getting annoyed at something is not a logical reaction anyway, it happens whether you have been rightly wronged or not? Still, when I write and she doesn’t, I bristle with annoyance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Topic 211: Conceited People

Dear Mr. Wordsworth
Right now I can only think of one conceited person in my circle of “friends. I don’t actually  know him personally, but I’ve had a close relationship with his sisters since I was a young girl. The brother of my very dear friends Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte, was indeed a conceited man. Patrick Branwell Bronte, known to everyone as Branwell, was also a drug addict and an alcoholic whose final year of life was plagued by deep melancholia. What’s a little vanity compared to that.
Unfortunately, this vain self-image contributed to his lack of success as a writer almost as much as his lack of talent. Friend and biographer Francis H Grundy noted in his book Pictures of the Past that Branwell “took an unusual fancy to himself,” which is a pretty good way of describing conceited people. Perhaps Branwell got that fancy because he was somewhat of a big fish in the little pub pond of Haworth, invited often to the Black Bull Inn where his reading and writing penchants “sufficed to make him a wonder among the rustics and manufacturers of the West Riding” (source: Bayne 248). 
Undoubtedly, the pub crowd adulation  only added to an already inflated sense of his own artistic talents fed by an indulgent father, doting Aunt Branwell, and loving sisters. So in 1837, 19-year-old Branwell, out of “the conceit and vanity which at this age are of fatal augary” (Bayne 248) wrote to William Wordsworth seeking his advice and support,   including in the letter a comment  that there was not a writing poet then alive worth sixpence. Wordsworth never wrote back to Branwell, so we don’t really know how he might have reacted or even if he did more than quickly skim the poems included in the letter.  Branwell was probably taken aback that he did not even receive an acknowledgement from Wordsworth, and likely would have complained about it over a pint back at the Black Bull Inn. Not that he hadn’t already tried before and failed to get the public notice he so craved.
Two years earlier, Branwell had written several letters to the editors of Blackwood’s Magazine, a popular journal subscribed to by the family and always read with great enthusiasm by all of the Brontes. On December 7th 1835 he wrote to the Editors, admonishing them for failing to respond to several earlier letters. In offering himself as a writer for Blackwood’s he wrote:
All, sir, that I desire of you is—that you would in answer to this letter request a specimen or specimens of my writing, and I even wish that you would name the subject on which you would wish me to write. In letters previous to this I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers ... I know that I am not one of the wretched writers of the day” (Orel 34).

Branwell Bronte was a better artist than a writer, but his efforts to make a living as a portrait painter also led to failure. Whatever combination of temperament, addiction and misplaced adulation contributed to his vain sense of self-importance, he died in pain, despair and dejection at the age of 31 within months of his sisters Anne and Emily. Sister Charlotte, as unassuming and humble as her brother was vain, lived long enough to see her own writing accepted by both the public and  literary critics.

Just call me Branwell

I often joke that the only time I ever felt smart in college was when I tested out of the English 1 and placed into upper division writing classes my first semester. This turned out to work against me because despite what I managed to pull off in the placement test, I never really got the hang of close readings and literary analysis – the basics of which were taught in that English 1 class I got to skip.

But aside from that, once I realized I wasn’t a naturally gifted academic, I really only ever felt confident in my creative writing classes, which allowed a bit more freedom in style.  I was suddenly complimented on themes, rhythm, and voice. I’d never been able to detect those things in my literature classes, and was unaware I’d included them in my own writing. 

Then, the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I was invited to join a small writing group composed entirely of MFA students. This was a seriously flattering invitation, and for the first time I was in over my head. I got comments like “The words are pretty but the character is stuck – where is the development?” I remember that comment because it provoked an existential crisis –all my writing was thinly disguised memoir, and being the main character in all my stories, this meant that I too was stuck. That fall, I went to England to study abroad and that set me on a new path – and unstuck me. I returned for my senior year refreshed, confident, with new ideas for my writing.

My senior thesis, which was a portion of a novel, was returned to me with a single comment written on a post-it “Fix the grammatical errors and this is publishable.” In retrospect, I think my advisor may not have read it, but at the time I was elated. That might have been the time to go for an MFA, when my confidence was so high, but I went to library school instead – sure that librarianship would only be a day job while I pursued my actual dream of being an extremely famous and successful writer.


I mention all of this because the Fall semester starts today, and I am taking two creative writing classes (and Zumba!). And I’m finding myself as nervous today as I was when I first started college 11 years ago. Added to the usual fears of “what if nobody likes me?”, I now have “what if I’m the oldest person in the class?” Since I’m attending the community college, I probably won’t be the oldest, but so what if I am. I just want to get back into the swing of things, workshop my stories, develop some writing samples and put together a decent application for grad school.

Watch, now I’m going to be offered a job.