Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Falling for Fall

I am trying to stave off a cold. My daughter is sick. My students are dropping like flies. Germs abound and sleep is in short supply -- a surefire recipe for defeat.

Still, I love this time of year. Cool, crisp mornings. Sunny afternoons, perhaps with a hint of a breeze. Sweatshirt weather. The time of year when, depending on the time of day, I may need a blanket if I want to curl up on my patio with a book or my laptop.
I have always loved fall. The juxtaposition of fresh starts against leaves in one final display of glory creates an energy that inspires me to make new plans. Optimistic, far-reaching plans that excite and that I foolishly believe I have the energy to carry out. Inevitably, they become part of the reason I succumb to the sleep deprivation that invites illness, but that doesn't make them any less fun to contemplate.

We all need a season in which to contemplate. To create new things with hope and a sense of complete possibility. Without renewal, life grows stale and we feel more like the crumpled leaves on the ground than their celebratory siblings on branches just out of reach. Maybe those plans will fade and wither, or maybe they'll spark something as long-lasting as the tree itself, nurturing generations of leaves to come.

So I will continue to plan. And if experience is any indication, I will make plans that tax my energy and patience, no matter how realistic they may seem at the start. But no one ever promised that life would be free of challenges.

And along the way, I may just curl up under a blanket on my patio and take a nap. I'm going to need energy for all of those plans, after all, and I can't afford to get sick.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Just Keep Typing....

I am one of those writers who thinks that the cure for writer's block is simply to write. It's not that I don't believe that people get stuck -- I've been there, and it is a terrible feeling -- it's that I've somehow always managed to find my way around the roadblock imposed by a blank page.

But lately, I've been struggling with this blog. Used to coming up with topics fairly easily, I've had a hard time dealing with the fact that some days, no topic shows up. At least not in time for me to post on the schedule I've set for myself.
Part of the problem is that I'm immersed in other things. I tend to forget that when I worked full-time,
I wasn't posting two or three times a week, and topics were sometimes scarce. It was only when I retired and had plenty of time to write that I got myself on a posting schedule. The myriad topics that magically appeared then had little to do with a schedule and everything to do with the fact that I'd made a major life change, which lent itself to all sorts of introspection and new insights.

But now, things have settled into a new normal. Though I'm still figuring out my life schedule (which has changed three times in as many years), I'm trying to stick to a posting schedule. And since my readers don't want to hear about developmental theorists, research methods in psychology or brain development from the prenatal period to the end of middle childhood, there are many days where I have difficulty shifting from class planning to blog posts.

One thing that has remained consistent, though, is that the only way around is through. If I want to continue to post regularly (and I do), I just have to write something -- anything -- even if it's at 7:00 at night instead of 7:00 in the morning. In addition, I have to accept that no matter how big a hurry I am in -- or perhaps because of that -- some posts just won't gel. For now, they'll need to be stashed away until the time I can massage them into shape and bring them to the level they need to be to see the light of, well, this site.
I worry that I'll lose readers. That if I don't post on Monday and Wednesday mornings, people will stop visiting me here and reading my posts. But mostly, I worry about what will happen if all I can come up with is a blank screen.

And all of that worrying just backs me into a figurative corner, where I sit and stare at a blank screen I can't fill because panic has rendered my fingers incapable of typing.

So, I've decided the only way to handle things is to chill out. To see what comes out of my fingers if I simply start typing. To maybe revisit some old posts, shine them up a bit, and repost them on occasion when life is too busy for the new stuff to take root.

Meanwhile, I hope you'll bear with me, because while I know all writers get stuck, I refuse to accept the notion that a temporary shortage of ideas is a permanent state of affairs.

And if you'd like to suggest a topic, well, that'd be just grand. I can't promise to write something spectacular on everything that gets suggested, but who knows what we can spark together?

It'll definitely trump a blank page.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading Today in Ten Minutes or Less: Unfair Comparison?

I'm posting late today, once again, but this time it's due only in part to my schedule. I found the article I wanted to use early this morning -- well, relatively early anyway -- but I hesitated to use it. Strange, because I'm not usually shy about expressing my opinion, but there was something about the outrage surrounding this particular article that made me hesitate.

But after mulling it over, I decided that it was indeed, the article I wanted to use: One in this morning's Huffington Post about a middle school teacher in Washington, DC who gave an assignment that inspired anger, apologies and allegations of incompetence.

The assignment? A Venn diagram. The comparison? Former president George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler.

For those of you unfamiliar with a Venn diagram, it's a graphic organizer that provides a visual of the similarities and differences between two ideas, objects, or, in this case, people. It looks something like this:

In other words, the very concept of a Venn diagram is predicated on the idea that the things being compared are not exactly alike. It encourages the person completing it to look at the whole picture. 

Regardless of your opinion (or mine) of either of the men in question, we have to concede that there are similarities. Both are men. Both were leaders. Both held positions of power.

And the differences? Well, let's just say there are plenty of those as well. More, in fact, than could possibly fill the allotted space.

I understand how this exercise could be construed as disrespectful, perhaps even insulting. And if the comparison being made were between Hitler and someone I love, I'm sure it would give me pause. 

But the comparison is being made between two political figures who wielded great power. And as far as I can tell, no one is equating the two men. What this exercise asked the students to do is to find the similarities and differences. To explore, in conjunction with a reading assignment, how two men in similar positions in different times handled the power they had and how that impacted not only their nations, but the world.

To think critically. To express opinions and substantiate them. To begin to understand how power can corrupt and lead to horrific consequences.

And forgive me if I'm being naive, but isn't that what we want our kids to be able to do? 

I understand how this exercise could be misconstrued, but it saddens me that rather than asking the teacher about the motivation behind it, parents and administrators alike demanded apologies. Assumed facts not in evidence, including malicious intent.

I'm not sure how I'd have felt if my daughter brought home an assignment like this when she was in middle school. I'm not sure that middle school kids necessarily have the maturity to have the conversations this could lead to, but I think that perhaps with the proper guidance and appropriate guidelines, this activity could lead to the development of critical thinking skills that help kids to go beyond personalities and countries and political parties to issues like right and wrong and the duties and obligations that accompany great power.

I'd like to think I'd have asked the teacher what he was thinking, and that I'd have talked about the assignment with my daughter, guiding her away from the people and into the deeper issues.

And I know for sure what we're going to be discussing over dinner tonight.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Way Back When-esday

Immersed in the semester and course preparations, I sometimes find it hard to keep up with my blog posts. This week, I'm re-posting a guest blog that appeared on Boomer Bits and Bytes in mid-December. Under the circumstances, it seemed a very appropriate re-post.

I have always loved college campuses. Maybe it's because I skipped the grand college tour when I was in high school, opting instead to focus on my first choice school. Maybe colleges remind me of being young, with unlimited possibilities stretched out in front of me. Or maybe it's because they all have bookstores.

So imagine my excitement when I was offered a job as an adjunct professor at a local college. Not only would I get to teach, but I’d have an all-access pass to a college campus -- as a member of the faculty. Professor Hess. Pretty cool.

I teach one psychology class on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- lessons in early childhood development presented to a room filled with wannabe teachers. They’re nice kids. Polite. Respectful. Decades younger than I am.

Having a teenage daughter helps me to keep the age difference in perspective. Instead of thinking of my students as being decades younger than I am, I think of them as being just a few years older than she is. This helps ensure that I don't come across as a geezer, and helps me to find interesting, contemporary ways to approach the material.

Teaching these kids makes me feel younger. Not only that, it makes me feel smarter. It's been thirty years since I sat where they're sitting, and the preparation required to teach this class well involves not just reading the textbook, but also tracking down other information that makes me delve more deeply into the subject so that I can have information that's both up-to-date and complete. I'm digging into resources and topics I'd never read on my own, and finding myself hungry for more. Parts of my brain that had been on autopilot for decades are waking up and wondering where my intellectual curiosity has been all this time. 

When I retired two years ago, I knew I didn't plan to retire for real just yet. But I never dreamed I'd 
find another job in education, let alone one that I'd enjoy as much as I enjoyed being a counselor. And my new position allows me to go to the library or the bookstore -- or just sip iced tea by the fountain in the quad -- any time I want. 

Best job ever.

Post script: This semester, I'm teaching an additional class and delving into the world of freshmen. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Chatty Characters
During the semester, writing time is hard to come by. And so when the words miraculously flow at those times squeezed in between the moments of life, I'm especially grateful.

Saturday evening was one of those times. It had been a busy week and I'd been away from my work-in-progress for most of it.

And then before I knew it, one of my characters was making a purchase (not the one I told him to make, by the way) and in doing so, he revealed something about himself not just to another character, but to me as well. I hadn't known this little tidbit about him was true, but as soon as it came out, I knew it was absolutely accurate.

Do I sound a little crazy? I accept that the answer to that question is, at the very least, a discreet nod, particularly from readers who think writers have it all figured out and my writing colleagues who carefully plot their books before they face the cursor that flashes on the blank computer screen below the words, "CHAPTER 1."

But I know my fellow pantsers (those of us who write with minimal planning -- "by the seat of our pants," as it were) understand. They know that discoveries like these are part of the fun of being a pantser.

The funny thing is, the aspect of my novels I plot the most is my characters. Before I write a word, I create character sketches for all of my main characters, along with at least a little information about those who will cross their paths more than once -- family members, best friends, school acquaintances. And yet, my characters never fail to surprise me. Ironically, the more I know about them, the more likely they are to tell me their secrets.

Come to think of it, maybe that's not so ironic. The more deeply a writer knows her characters, the more likely she is to uncover their secrets -- the thoughts, feelings and bits of history that aren't revealed right off the bat. The things that influence who they are, how they act and what they do.

And, after all, isn't that true of real flesh-and-blood people? And isn't that why we root for characters who reveal little bits of themselves on the page?

Years ago, when I read Stephen King's On Writing,  I embraced my pantser habits for the first time. Then today, as I was looking for some visuals to jazz up this post, I found the little gem at the bottom of this post.

Although I no longer consider myself somehow deficient as a writer because I don't plot everything out ahead of time, and I revel in pantser-itis benefits like surprising character traits, I do have one wish.

I wish my characters would be more forthcoming more often. But I guess I can't have everything.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading in Ten Minutes or Less: Getting Stuff Done
I always love reading helpful hints about how to be more productive and efficient, especially when they aren't one-size-fits-all, "this is how you do it" pieces. So, when I found Peter Economy's article, 9 Powerful Habits for Getting Important Things DoneI decided it was worth a look. And when his first two tips were "Do the hard stuff now" and "…do the easy stuff now," I knew it was my kind of piece.

Wishing you a productive weekend where you get the important stuff done, and make time for some  R & R as well. I'm off to do the easy stuff :-)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Books of a Feather

I love non-fiction. Unlike their novel counterparts, non-fiction books are perfectly content to be read in small chunks. They're even set up that way. Each chapter is its own little nugget, complete in and of itself. Sure, there's more ahead, but there's no pressure to get there. A reader can simply enjoy where she is, knowing there's more to the journey when she's ready to get off (or perhaps curl up on) the sofa and begin again.

But novels are different. Sure, you can read just one chapter, but in a good novel, that's never enough. The pressure to push ahead isn't even subtle. Chapters regularly leave you hanging, daring you to put the book down and do something frivolous like cook a meal or get some sleep before forging ahead to find out what happens next. And if the structure doesn't get you, the character guilt will. Really? You don't care enough about me to stay up a little bit longer and see if I fall in love, get killed off or find out the identity of that dark-haired stranger?

Non-fiction books don't require you to get invested. They know they appeal to a niche audience, and
they're happy to entertain whomever happens to pick them up, knowing without a doubt that from time to time, someone who truly appreciates every word in every chapter will come along. They delight in being highlighted, dog-eared and written in -- signs that the reader has moved beyond what's on the page to what's going on in his or her own mind or life. These readers make up for all of those who sigh and moan as they read, as though reading the carefully chosen words on each page were merely an assignment to be completed and checked off.

Novels? They're not so happy about the highlighting and the lingering over every word, with the possible exception of literary fiction, which thinks it's better than all the other books anyway. The faster you turn the pages, the happier a novel is. In fact, if you have the gall to leave a novel sitting out on a flat surface, with the intention of returning to it later in the day when you've gotten a few things done, it thinks nothing of shamelessly calling out to you every time you walk by, bidding you to pick it up and settle in, ignoring all that is going on around you, to the detriment of houses and family members and relationships.

Non-fiction books are great for those seasons when life is hectic and dedicated reading time is hard to find. Novels simply don't understand being abandoned at the end of beach vacations and Christmas vacations and long summer afternoons spent by the pool, but nonfiction books shrug (as books are prone to do). They suspect you'll be back when the time is right to read another paragraph, or a few pages, or maybe even an entire chapter. They are patient. This is their nature.

Novels reach out to you with their colorful covers and fast-moving prose, promising to embrace you if you'll simply give them a few minutes of your time. Novels are needy, but also willing to adapt to being tossed in a bag and lugged from place to place if only you'll just pull them out and give them a little attention when you arrive at your destination.

And readers? Well, we're appreciative of both categories. Like siblings whose personalities complement one another, fiction and non-fiction combine to make reading more interesting for anyone who'll open a book and peruse its pages. Some days we long for the embrace of a novel; other times we need the stand-offishness of non-fiction.

It's easy to point fingers at the prose. But the real joy of reading lies in the relationship between book and reader.