Oh So Pretty

My daughter’s school believes in celebrating individual students throughout the year. Specifically, each day in chapel, a handful of students are ‘recognized’ for being outstanding . By the end of the year, every student has received a certificate with a paragraph penned by their teacher and read aloud to the entire elementary school by the principal. Having sat through several of these, for my daughter and other people’s children, I feel bad for the teachers in that they must come up with twenty-two paragraphs like these without becoming repetitive. Still, phrases like “dream student” and “star” are bandied about quite frequently. That aside, I have noticed a trend that has put a bee in my bonnet.

When a male student is recognized, the paragraph usually starts by talking about his skills in the classroom. Sometimes manners lead, but regardless, the boys are lauded for character traits. With rare exception, the girls paragraphs begin with phrases like:

“Ready for the New York runway, this little fashionista . . .”

“With her Rapunzel-like locks, this little princess . . .”

“Don’t be deceived by this cutie’s dazzling smile . . .”

See a trend here?

Granted, the paragraph usually goes on the talk about some academic or behavior characteristic. But for some reason these teachers often feel the need to begin their praise of little girls with something external, attached to appearance. Once I noticed this, I listened carefully, waiting for a boy to be praised for his looks or personal style. Nope.

Some girls, like my daughter, are not included in the “Oh So Pretty” praise. Liliana’s awards usually focus on her energy and scholastic achievement. I’m fine with this. But it does raise the question: is Lili just not as pretty or as fashionable, or are these other little girls not as active and smart? Either way, I am not a fan of, at this early of an age, emphasizing physical traits in the little girls while the boys are commended on character.

Why not focus on character traits in all children? Why make appearance a factor at all? Perhaps I am over thinking this, but it feels like we are already programing these girls to value their decorative success more than anything else they have to offer. I guess I just fail to see how having pretty hair or wearing fantastic bows really lend themselves to functional life skills.

But that’s just me.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

Unknotting

Despite often sharing things from my life, my blog as stayed mostly in the anecdotal realm. I haven’t delved into my personal struggles in much depth, in part because this blog is tied to my writing career. None of that has changed. However, part of being a writer is being honest with yourself and understanding your process.

Without revealing details that are indeed private, I will expand on something I shared a few weeks ago: my marriage has ended. Like all endings it is sad, disappointing, and heartbreaking. It is also what is right for me. Still, I wish it weren’t so.

Building a life with someone, you never expect how gut wrenching it will be to take it all apart. You never expect to HAVE to take it all apart. I am not talking about the actual divorce part; I am talking about the activity of separating your life from another person’s. Every call you make to remove a user, every time you send a name change, every time you are asked a question about how your spouse is doing by some unsuspecting person–each one is a reminder that things have indeed fallen apart and now you have to tell the world. Even silly things, like deciding who keeps the Star Wars collection you assembled together or the plates you picked out to eat on for the rest of your lives, serve as a stab reminding you that you have failed. The vows you made are broken. And so are you.

Society cultivates the idea that it is normal to fuse our lives to another person–to become a unit. When it’s happening, when you are charging through Target with your registry gun and exchanging vows and signing your new name, it is exciting. You are not alone any more. You are part of something bigger than yourself. So dismantling that, admitting that in the end you could not stay enmeshed with that person, is stomach churning.

Some days I feel battered by this slamming sense of defeat. Maybe I did not try hard enough or want things enough. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I deserve to be alone. But then I comfort myself that as much as it hurts, it is a sign that the marriage was not a waste. It stings because there was love for him at one time and there still is for our two children.

Moving forward, I wonder if I could ever do it again. Would it be possible to intertwine my life again with someone else, knowing how it feels when it all falls apart? I would hope so because I know things do not have to end this way, as my friends and family frequently remind me. From the ashes of a broken heart, perhaps something more can rise. Something that is complete in a more profound way that will someday be worthy of knotting once again.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

This is 35

Last week I turned 35. It feels strange to even say. For some completely random reason, I have been taking stock of my life at this point–where I have succeeded and where I have failed. How to commemorate, or commiserate, that in a post has been a challenge. I toyed with answering questions I am commonly asked, or writing some soul searching narrative, or even listing a laundry list of likes. In the end, I elected to sort of mash all that together into 35 random facts about me at 35.

  1. I have three tattoos. The one on my arm says, “The living bird is not its labelled bones,” and is from my favorite book, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. My wrist says “‘Tis” from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. On my back is “Amar” in Hindi which means eternal.
  2. Although not related to my tattoo selection, I have met both McCourt and Atwood at literary events. Almost geeked out both times. Minus the almost.
  3. Yes, the tattoos hurt when I got them. The back was the easiest; the wrist the most painful. After he started working on it, the guy who did the one inside my arm revealed that most guys don’t get ink in this spot because they can’t handle the pain. It was handled. I still want to get more.
  4. I’m not sure how many pairs of shoes I own. You could say I have a plethora of shoes. How I walk in them is years of practicing and knowing how to break in a pair of shoes.
  5. I love teaching, even when it’s hard. It is a strange vocation for me because I am naturally shy. Lucky for me I am passionate about my subjects, making it easier.
  6. Though I never thought it would happen, I am getting divorced. It sucks. That’s all I will say about that.
  7. Yes, I lived in New York City. No, I probably don’t know the one other person you know who also did.
  8. I grew up in Texas, but was born in California and have lived in a variety of other locations. I’ve also had years of speech and theater training. Hence, it’s hard for you to place my accent. Unless I’m tired. Or buzzed.
  9. My hair color is natural. Always a redhead.
  10. If you want to order me a drink, you can’t go wrong with Diet Coke during the day. At Starbucks, it’s a Cafe Americano with light soy. At night, if I’m wearing jeans, it’s a Shiner. If I’m dressed up, dirty vodka martini, shaken. You can use the James Bond line to order it if that makes you happy.
  11. If you do try to order me a drink, I will pay for it or pick up the next round. I’m pretty stubborn. If you do end up buying me a drink, I will feel guilty about it.
  12. My 4-year old son is the one male who can talk down to me and I find it adorable. Totally doesn’t make sense and I know it.
  13. On the other hand, my daughter is stubborn, strong-willed, sassy, and too smart for her own good. When I complain about those traits, people snicker and stare pointedly at me while saying some version of “Gee, wonder where she gets that from.” Those people can shut up.
  14. Kate Spade bags are one of my favorite things in life.
  15. The most I have ever spent on a single dress is $98. It was for a Banana Republic jersey tank dress I got in college. I wore it to my graduation, to interview for my first teaching job (where I still work), and to my interview last spring for my new position as dean. It’s my lucky dress and some of the best money I have ever spent.
  16. Team Oxford Comma. If you ever read anything written by me that doesn’t use the Oxford Comma, chances are an editor took it out.
  17. I do work out, but not as intensely as I’d like. My ideal work out is a good dance class or a solo session with my punching bag. I recently took up running; I hate it, but I am seeing results.
  18. Electing not to eat meat is both an ethical and a health choice. You don’t have to explain why you eat meat. You also don’t have to be rude because I don’t. My dietary choices have no impact on you, I promise.
  19. Some girls love diamonds. I love jewelry that is quirky and unexpected. Two of my favorite items are a brass Libra necklace and gold earrings made out of old guitar strings.
  20. I have a weakness for Pit Bulls. Call me a broken record, I don’t care. It’s the owner, not the breed. My Ellie Rose, a two-year-old Pibble rescued bait dog, is so charming strangers give me their phone numbers after they meet her in case I ever need to find her a new home.
  21. I can cook; I just don’t really like to. Also? I can’t cook normal stuff. I can cook vegetarian and vegan stuff, as well as Spanish stuff. That’s about it.
  22. My Fashion Bucket List includes a vintage faux leopard print swing coat, a Halston red jersey dress, and black patent leather Jimmy Choo pumps.
  23. The word is especially. There is no X in it. Don’t add one.
  24. I firmly believe I owe my specialization in British Literature to Disney’s Sword and the Stone and Robin Hood.
  25. Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time when I was 15 actually changed how I perceived film and narrative.
  26. I once visited a brothel outside of Las Vegas because I was curious after reading a sociological study on the Nevada brothels. No, I did not utilize the services. I didn’t even meet any of the girls. However, I did get a t-shirt which is too dirty for me to actually wear anywhere.
  27. On occasion, I have been known to dance in my chair, car, or line for food. The soundtrack in my head when I do that is usually Prince or Nine Inch Nails.
  28. Paper straw wrappers, especially crumpled ones, gross me out. No idea why.
  29. I once suffered from delusions of linguistic grandeur, reading Don Quixote in Spanish and The Three Musketeers in French. The musketeers wasn’t too bad. Cervantes was a beating. I have since read both in English.
  30. The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was “Lola” by the Kinks. It remains one of my favorite songs.
  31. One of my forthcoming short stories is about a woman who breaks a man’s nose. I wrote it when I was really pissed off.
  32. There are certain works of literature I adore teaching more than any others: Othello, Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde, Inferno, Waitinfor Godot, Morte D’Arthur“A Rose for Emily,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” e.e. cummings, “Happy Endings,” “Harrison Bergeron,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I’m sure I’m forgetting some–I really love teaching literature.
  33. If I were ever to audition for something that required singing, I would want to sing “Joey” by Concrete Blond.
  34. I love hummus of any flavor and eat it more than anything else.
  35. Though things aren’t perfect and never will be, my life is going interesting places. Things I had forgotten have come back make things interesting and new things blossom before me. Not too shabby.

 

From Ploughshares: Welcome to the Literary Jungle

After making a conscious effort to blog on a regular basis, I have fallen under the weight of my actual life and therefore completely failed at blogging about it. So, to make up for it, this week I will be playing a bit of catch up.

First things first: a few weeks ago I got the opportunity to share some of my favorite essays on writing on Ploughshares. Give them a gander. Read them. Share them. Make them your own. And then come back here to see what else I have been up to.

“Welcome to the Literary Jungle”

Read, Write, and Be Merry

Amber

Teacher Favorites Survey (or Why They Don’t Ask College Instructors About Candles)

This week I got a packet from the homeroom moms for my daughter’s class. Included is something called a Teacher Favorites Survey, a typed questionnaire that provides a list of all of the teacher’s favorite things. So I now know more about her than I do many of my own friends (or even myself).

As the packet reminds us of all the gifting opportunities coming up (Teacher Appreciation Day, birthday, Easter, Christmas, etc.), I suppose the point is to give the woman what she will actually enjoy. I like to think that all of the elementary teachers got together one day and said, “Take your apple paraphernalia elsewhere. We’re all stocked up.”

At first I was a little annoyed; no one asks college professors to complete a survey of their favorite things. But as I started thinking through my own answers, I realized why they don’t ask us. Some of us might not give appropriate answers. For example, my own:

Favorite Cake Flavor: Whatever cake is leftover from the last event and is sitting unguarded in the break room. Preferably nothing too messy as I plan to grab it with my bare hands and shove the entire piece in my mouth, hoping I will finish it by the time I sprint across campus to my 11 am class.

Favorite Restaurant: Wherever is open after 2 pm when I get out of class and remember I haven’t eaten during daylight in two days.

Favorite Snack: NOT microwave popcorn. Heaven help any of us if it gets burned in the break room microwave and the smell overwhelms even the dissection stink from the A&P labs. That stuff that is always the last to go in the vending machine, the Chex mix stuff? I can tolerate that.

Favorite Beverage: Coffee, Diet Coke, Coffee with expired creamer, vodka, coffee that has been sitting out all day

Favorite Color: Ummm . . . I don’t know. Black? It doesn’t show the coffee I splashed on myself during the discussion of Ancient Persia or the ink stains from when my pen exploded while grading Beowulf quizzes. So, yeah, black.

Favorite Flower/Plant: One that will not stink up my office when it dies from lack of sunlight and neglect.

Favorite Musical Artist: Weezer, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, The White Stripes. All played at top volume to keep my adrenaline up through grading 90 essays.

Favorite Hobby/Way to Pamper Yourself: Not taking work home.

Favorite Place to Shop: Online during office hours when I cannot face another comma splice or thesis statement that begins, “The following essay is about . . .”

Favorite Candle Scent: Is this really a thing? Do people have favorite candle scents? Like, if I were to sign up for online dating, would my favorite candle smell help determine who might or might not be the right match for me? Is this a crucial part of my identity I have not yet addressed that might hold a clue to who I am as a person? Because this was never on a Cosmo quiz.

Favorite Team/Sport: Lakers. All others can SUCK. IT.

Favorite Author/Literature: So, I don’t want to be this guy, but asking someone’s favorite author (particularly an English major) for gift giving purposes isn’t maybe the best idea. Here’s why: my favorite author is Margaret Atwood. Because she is my favorite author, I own most everything she has written. Just picking up a Margaret Atwood book without knowing much about her, probably not a great plan. Unless you are able to find first editions or rare books of hers (or figure out a way to sneak a peak at that thing she’s writing that won’t be published for a hundred years), I’m set with Margaret Atwood. In terms of literature–that is a huge field. I write columns and articles about it. To be blunt: gift card this one.

No wonder college teachers don’t get gift baskets. I’m off to figure out who I am as a candle scent.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

 

A Love Letter to Joan Rivers

This love letter originally appeared in 2012. In honor of the passing of one of the most important American female comediennes of all time, I am reposting it. Today my fashion is sharp, and my wit is sharper in honor of this amazing woman.

Dearest Madam Rivers,

I know you are not, in actuality, a character. You are a real person. However, there are so many wondrous qualities that make up that person, the Big Shoulder Broad on the tiny frame, that you seem almost like a fantastic character from a screwball comedy.

One of my secret weekly traditions is that each Friday night, after my children are asleep, I settle onto my couch, snuggle with my Pit Bull, and watch Fashion Police. Your one liners on that show often make me laugh more than most scripted television and certainly more than many movies. Yes, I know you have writers, but I have also seen you off-the-cuff, so to speak, and your wit is like a bull whip. My heart lifts up each time you unnerve some media-trained starlet with a simple yet scathing analogy. I giggle like a school girl when you make others hide their faces, shocked that you will loudly trumpet things the rest of us think and do not say.

My admiration goes beyond the superficial trappings of comedy. When so many women lie and say silly things about diet and sleep and exercise when everyone knows they’ve had a snip, you own your vanity, laugh at yourself first and loudest, and never make pretense to be something you are not. The great irony, my dearest Ms. Rivers, is that behind all the plastic, you are genuine.Your life has not always been one punch line after another, and if anything, I appreciate that you are a survivor above all else. And damn funny.

I recently saw a television interview where you claimed your greatest inspiration came from Lenny Bruce in a note he sent you backstage during an early stand up routine that failed miserably: “You’re right, they’re wrong. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Thank you for taking that advice and keeping it stuffed in your bra for all those years. J’adore, Joan. Thank you for being smart, funny, and brash. Perdi and I look forward to seeing you next week.

XO

A

PS. Your documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was hilarious and touching. Too bad Oscar sometimes only looks skin deep.

A Letter to New Teachers (Confessions of a Troublemaker)

This post, written two years ago, remains one of the most popular posts on my blog and one that I still get comments on. I am happy to once again repost it as we start another school year. -Amber

Dear New Teachers,

Congratulations! You are about to become a member of one of the most verbally accoladed and financially minimized professions in history. Welcome to our fold.

In August of 2008 I was in your shoes, preparing for my first day of teaching at community college. I was nervous, naive, and excited. Having outlined my courses, I felt prepared. It turns out I was not even in the correct zip code for prepared. The past few years I have had what I generously call Growing Pains. Never did I intend to be a troublemaker; instead, I managed to stumble blindly into it, like some unfortunate girl at the core of a horror franchise. As a teacher at heart, there a few things I have learned I would like to share with you. These are not my normal diatribe against the system and the students, but four simple things that if taken to heart can hopefully make your new job remain your career.

 First, set up boundaries for yourself and others, both at school and at home. While the Hollywood view of education praises teachers who give themselves over entirely to their profession, this approach is not realistic in the long haul. It is admirable to want to give everything to your students; it is essential to keep something for yourself and your family. In the age of email and texting, students and even administration sometimes forget that teachers are not always “On Call.” The problem comes when there are no boundaries set for you and them. Yes, grading and responding to student questions can be done from home; it’s one of the perks of the job. However, you must teach yourself how to mentally (and often times physically) clock out. The email needing an immediate answer can wait until your office hours or conference period. The phone call can go to voice mail during dinner. As I recently told the committee in an interview for my new administrative position, my time has a price. Figure out how much your time is worth financially and emotionally, and then budget how it should be split between your work, your family, and yourself. You owe it to all three.

Next, realize you are a student, too. The moment you stop learning and growing as a teacher, quit. Every semester, every day, every class, I learn something new (often times merely patience). While I certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I do want to move toward my better teacher-self. When you have a classroom observation, listen to the feedback. Read student comments looking for constructive criticism. Keep up with what’s happening in education and in your field of expertise. Most importantly, own and learn from your mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes. Some on accident, some on purpose. You are a human being imparted with a difficult job. Of course you will make mistakes. It’s what you do with those mistakes that will define you.

My third bit of advice is compromise on anything but your integrity. No matter what you tell students, parents, administration, family, or even yourself, someone will ask you to compromise. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve said it, written it, or yelled it, they will want exceptions to your rules. Here’s the thing: some compromise isn’t a bad thing. Flexibility to a point shows willingness to adapt and grow. I compromise every day with someone because I have learned to pick my battles. That being said, I value my personal and professional integrity too much to ever compromise those. The way I view it, at the end of each semester I have to sign my name to the grade the student has received. I am saying that the grade accurately reflects the student’s performance to the best of my professional judgment. If the grade reflects something that wasn’t earned or a lack of standards on my part, I have compromised my integrity. Beyond that, the integrity of my courses is two-fold: I must challenge my students to work to their highest potential, even if they hate the work and me for it, and I must be willing to guide them on that path, no matter how frustrated or tired we all might become.

Finally, and this is sort of compilation of all the others, take care of yourself. Be smart in the way you do things. The world is full of wonderful students, some who just may not know it yet–you can help them. It is also full of students who will exploit you and/or the system rather than work. Don’t put yourself in the situation where that can happen because it can kill your career. Keep your boundaries firm, acknowledge and grow from your mistakes, and behave in a way that is befitting of the best of our profession. When the students say terrible things about you (and some will), don’t take it personally. Find friends who will commiserate or just listen. You are not alone in any of this.

I send you my deepest wishes of hope and gratitude as you embark on this path. It sucks, exhausts, challenges, rocks, transforms, consumes, and inspires.
Oh, before I forget, get a sense of humor if you don’t have one already. You’re going to need it.

Read, Write, Teach, and Be Merry,

Amber

A Little Less Conversation

From a 1968 Elvis movie Live a Little, Love a Little, this classic song has been on my mind this week. As I burrow through meetings, I think how much talking happens before we can get things going. While I understand the purpose, for someone who is more about the action, it is frustrating. At one point I ended up giving an impromptu speech about assessment, where I referenced this song title (and magic mushrooms). So for all of you who are just wondering, “What is the chase and how do I cut to it?” here is a little more Elvis for your Saturday. Enjoy the ridiculous 60s-ness of it all.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

PS. The guy in the brown vest with the orange shirt basically doing a back bend at the 45 second mark is perhaps my new favorite thing.

Never There: Telephonophobia

The fear of making or taking telephone calls is rather uncreatively called telephonophobia. Yes, it’s a real thing. My entire life I have hated–and I mean HATED–talking on the phone. It causes me stress, anxiety, and generally leaves me in a cold sweat. I was not that teenage girl on the phone for hours. At one point I had to tell a good friend to just get to the point when he called because I could only stand so much. It isn’t one of those things I have grown out of. The day I got rid of my landline I might have welled up with tears of relief. Texting and email are the best things that have ever happened to me.

Some of my friends accept my aversion to the telephone and understand that if they call, someone better be dead or dying. Others get huffy when they know I am sitting, staring at the ringing phone, waiting for it to go to voice mail (I rarely even turn on the ringer for my phone). And then there are those who make it a goal to get me on the phone, repeatedly calling, trying to break me down, or even resorting to tricking me. Maybe I should be flattered that my conversation is in such demand.

Here’s the thing–I hate how limiting the phone is. You can’t do anything but that. You are stuck in a conversation with no visual clues to how the person is reacting or when they will speak. It is torture. When life necessitates that I make a phone call, it is a struggle for me. Let’s look at how that process breaks down from my perspective.

Step One: Realize need to make phone call. Mentally list all other possible methods of contact.

Step Two: Come to terms that must make phone call. Curse the death of the telegraph and pony express.

Step Three: Try to think if there is anyway to have someone else make phone call.

Step Four: Curse all other people on earth for not being willing to make phone call.

Step Five: Question if really need to make call. Maybe can change jobs/not educate children. Have five second fantasy about smashing telephones like the fax machine in Office Space.

Step Six: Think about taking Valium prior to making call. Realize would have to call doctor to make appointment to get Valium. Hate life.

Step Seven: Hold phone in hand. Feel blood pressure skyrocket. Wonder if am too young to have heart attack.

Step Eight: Decide it is like a band-aid. Dial quickly before changing mind. Feel heart racing in fingertips with every ring.

Step Nine: Use all willpower not to hang up when person answers. Vomit out all words at once as brain screams “Make it stop!!!”

Step Ten: Hang up phone. Fall in heap on floor. Consider calling in sick the next day, but realize another phone call might end life. Curse Alexander Graham Bell for creating such a diabolical torture device.

From Ploughshares: Retelling Tales

Happy Friday! This week on Ploughshares I talked about how I approached rewriting an Arthurian tale for my thesis. Please enjoy “Retelling Tales: A Writer’s Guide.”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber