Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Professional Blog, Mainly Directed At My Father

I talked to my father on the phone for two hours yesterday, yet we did not get around to the subject I am about to address here. So, to shave some time off the next call, I am going to put the foreward of what I want to talk about here. I'm putting it here instead of in an e-mail because someone else reading this may have an opinion also. But if not, that's okay. As is often the case, this blog is mainly for my father.

And here is the subject: Introduction to Non-Western Literature (the artist formerly known as "World Literature")

As I told you, I will be teaching this class in the fall. (For those of you reading this who don't know what I do for a living, I teach in the English department of a community college.) In the olden days, the course was World Literature, and it dealt with the old epics and things like that. Now, it is Non-Western Literature, and its purpose is to introduce students to the literature of non-western countries in order to give them insight into the relationships between people in our global community. A noble pursuit, and I will include it also. BUT one of the reasons I was so glad to get this class is that I've had a shocking amount of students, from the first day of class, ask if I would teach them Dante's Inferno. Only one of them wanted to read it because of the video game. The others had just heard about it, tried to read it, and found it too difficult without help. I tell you this to explain one of my reasons for designing the course to include some western literature and more of a focus on the old stuff than might be strictly appropriate.

Anyway, for all of you, here is the first part of my dilemma: I am choosing a textbook, and I very much want to teach out of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. I learned from the Norton anthologies, so their font and paper feels like "real" literature to me. They use good translators also. They are sometimes accused of being old-fashioned in their arrangements and choices, however. I can get around that, if I decide it's the case (but I won't decide it because I am so blinded by Norton love). What I can't get around is the fact that the Norton costs about $20 more than the other anthologies out there, and it's in two volumes.

I teach at a community college in a region that is suffering economically. Can I really ask my students to buy the more expensive textbook when the others have mostly the same works in them? The reason I want to have them buy the Norton is because those who are taking the class with me on purpose really want to know the epics. Some of them, in their individual Dante attempts, deliberately chose old translations to get a feeling of Literature with a capital "L," even thought that made it even harder for them to understand. I think they would love the Norton because it makes considered choices about balancing the beauty of language with accurate translation (I think)...but what of the people taking the class because they need another humanities credit and it's the only one that fits in their schedule? I'm not teaching English majors, for the most part, so they won't need to keep this book forever like we did. Still, I think it's worth it to have them read from the Norton. Do you? Or do you think I am letting my own nostalgia and bias interfere with this important decision?

And this question is REALLY for my father, but if you happen to have some insight, by all means, share it! So Daddy, you taught English at a high school with students the world expected little from, and often, they believed the world. The temptation would have been to bring in things "on their level," but instead you taught them Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. And to this day, they come up to you at the grocery store and speak of these works as if they are the most common knowledge. How did you DO that?!

I partly know, as I was raised by you. I know that 98% of your secret is not to speak of literature as something we learn but something that is in our lives. To recite bits of it in the context of real life, whether seriously or humorously. To make it something we have together, do together, are together, not something we study. To always make time for it (or was it me you were making time for?). To make reaching for its meaning both a social occasion (I'm thinking of when you read me The Black Cat when I was about 10 years old) and an individual pursuit (like when you sent me off at 13 to read The Wanderer because it was good, and then I was proud to have something to say about it later when you asked me).

But how does that translate to a college classroom? How did it translate to a high school classroom? (Although, come to think of it, your high school students had you before I did.) How do you give them literature as a heritage, not a skill set? Because I think my students want that very much. Some of them are coming back to school after years of being away in jobs or the Army, and they want to feel Educated (capital E) besides just knowing things. Some of them are young, and came to our college because they cannot afford to leave home, or fear leaving home. But they want their minds to leave home, even if their bodies cannot. And some choose to be here with us, and I must not disappoint them in that choice. And so they deserve a big experience. I can't give them the relationship with literature that you gave me because I am not their parent, but perhaps I can give them a bit of the relationship you gave your students.

So, think how you did that, and that's what I want to talk about this week. I'll call you. My schedule is frantic, and you, as you remind me constantly are a retired gentleman farmer, a man of leisure, the lord of the manor.

The Cruelest Month

It turns out that I love the deep, blood-curdling, all-encompassing cold. I knew I would. We are only a few weeks into spring, and already I miss the vast white fields and frozen lake. I miss my snowboots, my snow overalls, and the long-handled broom I used to push snow off my windshield every morning.

It's the half-cold I can't stand. We've had sunny days and some gray rainy ones. The gray rainy ones aren't so bad, but the sunny cold ones make me crazy. They remind me of winter in Mississippi. There, the sky was always so extradordinarily blue and lovely -- but in the winter, a cold that felt like it came outward from my core appeared. But it wasn't even the cold itself; it was the fact that there was cold at all in this place that was usually so extremely hot. The cold didn't suit Mississippi. It never felt natural. It was like the weather was wearing someone else's ill-fitting clothes, and I was relieved when it threw them off and put on the heat again.

But at least it's not like Oklahoma spring. There, we have to worry about tornadoes. The snakes and ticks wake up. The wind blows. At least it gets beautiful, though. Out in the woods, you find bouquets of Easter lilies and wildflowers. The little trees have buds on their tips, then flowers, then bees and butterflies.

In Italy, spring seemed to come overnight. I went to sleep in winter and woke up to flowerboxes and fields of poppies and women in bright sundresses and silver sandals. The farms and the mountains were almost unbearably picturesque. We'd walk along the canal at Marola wearing sweaters and I wouldn't believe I was awake, living in Italy, in love in the spring. Because spring was when Joe would deploy then. So the in-between springs, when he didn't, were magical.

Anyway, spring here is muddy and cold. We've had a few actually warm days -- in the 70s and 80s -- and those gave me a terrible longing for summer, when, perhaps, it will really be warm. In the meantime, the breeze off the lake is cold, and the sun is a trick. I can't figure out the right configuration of layers to wear, and the dogs' paws are muddy all the time. And when it rains, there are worms all over the sidewalks. I just walk staring straight ahead to get from one place to the next. When the sun comes back out, they dry up in hieroglyphics. It seems unfair. And that is spring.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Back in November, when my husband was still home and we were on Thanksgiving break, all our neighbors made piles of leaves and sticks. They raked them to the curb and the village trucks came around and picked them up. We raked some of our leaves -- the ones in the front yard, mainly. But we were on break, so we left some of the leaves in the backyard. Okay, truthfully, most of the leaves in the backyard.

Then The Airborne (as my father calls him) went to Afghanistan. It snowed. The snow never melted. Until now.

Last week, the neighbors all raked up their remaining leaves, the new sticks, and whatever else was in their yards. They made piles of sticks. I was scrambling to keep up with my work and told myself I was too tired and it was too cold to do my own yard. I kept putting it off. But now I am on spring break. I fear I may have missed the village trucks, but I'm not sure. I saw a few people still raking when I walked the dogs this afternoon.

It's about 73 degrees. I forgot what it feels like to sweat in the sun. I forgot that piles of leaves are wet on their undersides and that when you rake them, the smell of cool, moist dirt wafts up at you. Under the leaves, little white-green shoots are coming up out of the soil, which is the color of wet coffeegrounds.

I can't believe we left so many leaves. I've been raking them and pulling up these dead stalks that The Airborne hates. For two hours I have been doing this, and my yard now has piles of things but doesn't look that much better. At least it smells of spring out there now. I have no idea what to do with the piles if the village doesn't come to get them. I don't live in the country, so I can't just burn them.

All I can think about is how I'm so glad I'm not in Oklahoma because a yard like mine would be crawling with copperheads.

I know I ought to go back out there and work some more, but I'm feeling a little defeated. I'm working on the terrible script and the metal novel that is the love of my life but not going so well. I want to write them. I miss living in the country, where Outside takes care of itself.

The dogs were tied to the deck. They rolled over and slept in the shade and are now covered with tiny pieces of leaves. My hands have the beginnings of blisters. My piece of New York is out from under winter and trying to breathe.