Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Teach Us to Care, and Not to Care

Life is funny. [Skies are sunny. Bees make honey. Tell me, where is Paradise? I'd love to change the world, but I don't know what to do. So I leave it all to you...]

Ten Years After, for those of you too young to recognize the lyrics.

It's just after 7 am here in Wisconsin, and I am pondering life, the Universe, and everything [with apologies to Douglas Adams].

My classes are going well--my students seem much more engaged than the batch last year, and that makes my job much easier and more enjoyable.

But other things are, shall we say, a bit of a mess. After news back in August that not only were our healthcare premiums going up, but that we're also going to responsible for $1,000 out-of-pocket, we got word yesterday that the governor has proposed (and will likely get) a wage freeze for all state employees for the next two years. This is on the heels of a wage freeze in 2009, which was followed by furloughs. I guess the silver lining in this plan is that our wages aren't being frozen at the furlough level.

A dear friend is going through a very rough patch, and I can't even hug her because she lives too far away. As I was thinking about her this morning, lines from TS Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday" popped into my head:

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

I feel so badly for her, and I want to help her. All I can do is sit still, though, and just be here.

I also thought of this portion of the poem, relative to my own situation:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I do hope to turn again--but because the hope rests on squarely in the category "IF," I am confronted with the notion that I must both care (about my students) (about my friend) and not care (about all of the things I cannot control). This has been the most difficult lesson of my adult life, and I am still learning it.

Read the full poem here.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

It's August Already?


It's a Miyazaki morning here on this misty Wisconsin morning. So far, it's been Kiki's Delivery Service followed by Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea

The countdown for back-to-school has begun. My contract year (for which I still do not have a contract outlining my salary) begins August 26th.

As a newly-tenured professor, I will get a pay bump. One that will be completely wiped out by the new insurance co-pays and premium increases. Really happy about that.

OK I am not going to complain in this post. I am going to write about what I am looking forward to in this upcoming academic year, namely my SF lit/film course.

ENG 28(4): Science Fiction Literature and Film. Here's the course description from my 2009 syllabus:

“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.” –Dr. Eldon Tyrell Blade Runner (1982)
For almost two centuries, science fiction (or speculative fiction) has existed as a genre that explores, more than any other, the question “What if?” This course will examine what it means to be human in an engineered age—what responsibilities do we have, if any? How far will we go to push the limits of science? Is there such a thing as ‘too far’?

The consensus among SF writers and filmmakers seems to be…yes. We will spend considerable time in and out of class pondering the impact of technology on our lives—the moral, political, and social ramifications of our dependence on machines—a dependence as old as civilization itself. Some of our themes will deal with the idea of progress; industrialization (and its ancillaries: capitalism and globalization); the corporatization of society; feminism; and we will wrestle with the question of postmodernism.

I absolutely adore this course. The whole thing is centered around what it means to be human in a technological age, and it's long been my opinion is that this is the central motif in all SF lit and film. All other questions are ancillary to question "What does it mean to be human?" (I'd argue that this is the prime question for all creative human endeavors--that those who create are seeking answers to this question.)

The course starts with Frankenstein (the novel, then James Whale's 1931 adaptation), progresses to Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang), Asimov's I, Robot stories ("Robbie" "Escape!" and "Evidence"), watch I, Robot (2004, Alex Proyas) and round out the first half of the semester with Vonnegut's Player Piano. I love that I get to mess around with critiquing capitalism. It's one of the things that makes this class so much fun.

The second half of the semester is devoted to the development of cyberpunk, starting with Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) which is one of my favorite films of all time. We read C.L. Moore's 1944 novella No Woman Born, which slots in really well with Frankenstein and the Prometheus idea. We do James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and I wish to heaven I had time to show and discuss Avatar (2009). I have them read three stories out of William Gibson's only short story collection Burning Chrome ("Johnny Mnemonic" "The New Rose Hotel" and "Burning Chrome") because I found in 2007 that we didn't have time to properly examine Neuromancer (1984). We finish out the semester with Ghost in the Shell (1995) and The Matrix (1999).

I could do an entire course devoted to cyberpunk, and I think that the next time I teach SF lit (Fall 2013) that's what the course is going to have as its prime focus. There are so many stories (Bruce Sterling, Lester del Rey, Neal Stephenson, etc.) and films (Akira, Terminator / Terminator 2, etc) that I simply don't have time but would love to teach that I think it's time to re-jigger the course again. As I'm teaching it this semester, I'm going to plan for the next time instead of leaving it go.

And don't get me started on steampunk...I know, I know, I'm way behind on my book reviews. Stay tuned...

Friday, July 29, 2011

More Fool Me

I haven't posted in a while, partly because I've begun working on myown Happiness Project, and partly because I haven't wanted to think much about the coming school year and what it's going to mean for me in terms of my morale.

Well, I checked a post today put up by a UW-Madison grad student on one of the Facebook message boards I belong to. I'm going to post the announcement from 10 days ago (which I hadn't read until today because I thought I knew what was in it--such a trusting fool) in its entirety. The parts that directly affect my family are highlighted.

Changes Coming to State Group Health Insurance

And Union-Related Deductions

July 19, 2011

A number of changes to the Wisconsin Retirement System, the state health insurance program and unionrelated deductions are taking effect due to the implementation of Wisconsin Act 10 (2011 Budget Repair

Bill) and Wisconsin Act 32 (Biennial Budget for 2011-2013). In addition to this summary of changes to the

State of Wisconsin Group Health Insurance program, please see the Impact of Act 10 on UW System

Employee Benefits Frequently Asked Questions.

Changes to Health Insurance Program

Employee Premium Contributions

Effective with the biweekly payroll ending August 13 (pay date of August 25) and monthly payroll ending

August 31 (pay date of September 1):

 Health insurance premiums will increase as specified in WI Act 10 as amended by WI Act 32 (see below for new premium contributions).

 Employees working less than 50% of full-time will continue to pay the less-than-half-time rates.

 LTEs must have at least two concurrent appointments to be eligible for the full employer premium


New Employee Health Insurance

Monthly Premium Contributions for WRS-Participants

Single Family

Tier 1 (all plans, except the Standard Plan) $84 $208

Tier 2 (Standard Plan – required to work outside WI) $122 $307

Tier 3 (Standard Plan – work in WI) $226 $567

Less-than-half –time rates 50% of premium

New Employee Health Insurance

Monthly Premium Contributions for

Graduate Assistants, Post Docs and Short-Term Academic

Single Family

Tier 1 (all plans, except the Standard Plan) $42 $104

Tier 2 (Standard Plan – required to work outside WI) $61 $153.50

Tier 3 (Standard Plan – work in WI) $113 $283.50

Special Opportunity to Cancel or Change Level of Coverage

Treasury regulations governing IRS Code Section 125 restricts mid-year changes to health insurance coverage for employees who pay their premium contribution on a pre-tax basis. However, a significant cost change is a circumstance that allows for mid-year changes. Due to the increase in the employee’s premium cost, you may cancel your coverage entirely or change from family to single coverage provided a Health Application/Change Form is submitted to your payroll and benefits office within 30 days of the date of the first paycheck from which the increased premium is deducted.

Coverage changes will be effective on the later of the end of the month on or following your employer’s receipt of the application to cancel coverage or the end of the month after the date of the premium increase.

For more specific details, please see the Detailed FAQ on Impact of Act 10 and Act 32, questions 8 – 14.

Uniform Benefits

Section 9115 of WI Act 10 requires that the Group Insurance Board (GIB) design health care coverage plans for the 2012 calendar year that, after adjusting for inflation, reduces the average premium cost of tier 1 plans by at least 5% from the cost of the plan during the 2011 calendar year.

The GIB considered various options of achieving the cost reduction, such as the implementation of office visit and inpatient copayments, deductibles, coinsurance, adjusting the prescription drug benefit and eliminating the optional dental benefits offered by most plans.

After due deliberation, the GIB approved the following changes to Uniform Benefits, effective January 1,2012, resulting from WI Act 10 implementation:

 Apply coinsurance to medical services. Benefits will be payable at 90% up to an annual outof-pocket maximum of $500 for an individual/$1,000 for a family.

 Coinsurance is based on a set percentage of the cost. For example, if the discounted medical charges are $200, the member will be responsible for $20, which is 10% of the charge.

 Once a member has paid $500 in coinsurance for an individual, or $1000 for family coverage, in a calendar year, the 10% coinsurance will not be applied for the remainder of the year. The $1000 out-of-pocket maximum for families is cumulative, so once any combination of family members has paid $1000 in coinsurance, the coinsurance ends for the rest of that calendar year. It is not required that two family members each incur $500 in coinsurance in order to satisfy the $1000 coinsurance requirement.

 Preventive care, such as physicals and well-baby care, is not subject to coinsurance.
Examples of preventive care will be provided by the Department of Employee Trust Funds this fall.

 Coinsurance will be applied to the discounted fee negotiated by the plan and the
provider (as opposed the actual amount charged).

 Members will be billed for the coinsurance. Payment will not be due at the time of service.

 Increase the emergency room copayment from $60 per occurrence to $75 (waived if  admitted). This does not get applied to the out-of-pocket maximum.

 If eligible to participate in the Employee Reimbursement Account (ERA) program, out-of-pocket costs for coinsurance and copays are eligible for reimbursement under the ERA
Medical Expense Reimbursement Account.

Standard Plan

Act 10 does not apply to the Standard Plan; however, the GIB also chose to modify the Standard Health Plan for the 2012 calendar year. The GIB’s intent was to enact a similar benefit cut and modernize the Standard Plan to facilitate the long-term sustainability of the program. The GIB approved the following changes to the Standard Plan, effective January 1, 2012:

 In network:

 Deductible will increase from $100 for an individual/$200 for a family to $200 for
an individual/$400 for a family.

 Apply coinsurance to medical services. Benefits will be payable at 90% up to an
annual out-of-pocket maximum of $800 for an individual/$1,600 for a family.

 Coinsurance is based on a set percentage of the cost. For example, if the
discounted medical charges are $200, the member will be responsible for $20,
which is 10% of the charge.

 Once a member has paid $800 in coinsurance for an individual, or $1,600 for a
family, in a calendar year, the 10% coinsurance will not be applied for the remainder of the year. The $1,600 out-of-pocket maximum for families is cumulative, so once any combination of family members has paid $1,600 in coinsurance, the coinsurance ends for the rest of that calendar year. It is not required that two family members each incur $800 in coinsurance in order to satisfy the $1,6000 coinsurance requirement.

 This does not apply to preventive care, such as physicals and well-baby care.

 Coinsurance will be applied to the discounted fee negotiated by the plan and the
provider (as opposed the actual amount charged).

 Members will be billed for the coinsurance. It will not be due at the time of service.

 Out of network:

 Deductible will remain $500 per individual and $1,000 per family.

 The annual out-of-pocket maximum will remain $2,000 per individual and $4,000
per family.

 Coinsurance will change from 80/20 to 70/30. Coinsurance is based on a set
percentage of the cost. For example, if the discounted medical charges are $200,
the member will be responsible for $60 for coinsurance, which is 30% of the
charge. Currently with the 20% coinsurance, the member is responsible for $40 of
a $200 charge.

 Emergency Room Copayment

 Add an emergency room copayment of $75 per occurrence (waived if admitted).

This does not get applied to the out-of-pocket maximum. It applies to emergency
room services received in network or out of network.

 If eligible to participate in the Employee Reimbursement Account (ERA) program, out-of-pocket costs for coinsurance and copays are eligible for reimbursement under the ERA

Medical Expense Reimbursement Account.4

Prescription Drug Benefits

There will be no changes to the prescription drug program for 2012. The annual out-of-pocket maximum of $410 for an individual or $820 for a family will remain and is separate from the out-of-pocket maximum for medical services.

Employee Eligibility

Most employees hired on or after July 1, 2011 will need to work 2/3 of full-time to be eligible for health insurance. Any service with a WRS-employer prior to July 1, 2011 will be sufficient for the employee to be eligible under the old eligibility rules, which required that the employee work 1/3 of full-time. This applies even if the prior position was not eligible for participation in the WRS.

 WRS-eligible classified employees will need to work 2/3 of full-time to be eligible to enroll. This is equivalent to working 1200 hours per year, which is 58% of full-time.

 Faculty, academic staff and limited employees who work 9 months per year, will need to work at least 880 hours in a year, which is 56% of full-time.

 Faculty, academic staff and limited employees who work 12 months per year, will need to work at least 880 hours in a year, which is 42% of full-time.

 Eligibility for graduate assistants, post-docs and limited employees is not changing.

Adult Dependent Child Eligibility

Beginning January 1, 2012, adult children will be eligible to be covered under a parent’s health plan only until the end of the month in which they turn age 26. In 2011, unmarried children remain eligible until the end of the month in which they turn age 27. The change to age 26 as the limiting age is consistent with federal law.

Termination of Coverage

For termination of employment that occurs on or after January 1, 2012, the employer contribution towards health insurance coverage will end on the last day of the month in which the employee terminates.

COBRA Continuation

For terminations of employment that occurs on or after January 1, 2012, former employees will be

permitted to continue their health insurance coverage for 18 months instead of the current 36-months.

Family members who lose eligibility for coverage will still be allowed to continue coverage for 36 months.

COBRA periods will be administered in accordance with federal law, which only requires 18 months of COBRA continuation for former employees.

This does not affect employees who are retiring with an immediate or lump sum annuity or have escrowed sick leave credits as they may still maintain coverage for life. 5

Union-Related Deductions

Effective with the biweekly payroll ending July 16 (pay date of July 28) and monthly payroll ending July 31

(pay date of August 1):

 Deductions for union-sponsored dental plans will cease. The unions are responsible for informing their members of their options to maintain the union-sponsored dental plans going forward.

 Employees will need to pay premium directly to the union (post-tax).

 If an employee chooses to cancel coverage under a union-sponsored dental plan, it does not constitute a qualifying event for enrolling in Dental Wisconsin or Anthem DentalBlue.

 There will be an open enrollment for Dental Wisconsin this fall for coverage effective on January 1, 2012. If the person has other dental coverage in force immediately prior to the effective date of the Dental Wisconsin coverage, the waiting periods will be waived. Proof of other coverage, such as an ID card, must accompany the application.

 It is not yet known if an open enrollment period will be offered this fall for employees
eligible to enroll in Anthem DentalBlue.


Much more information will be provided as we get closer to the fall It’s Your Choice enrollment period. If you have questions that need response prior to that time, please contact your payroll/benefits office. In addition, ETF has posted an FAQ on their website (

So basically, in addition to my monthly premium going to $208 from $84, I can deduct another $1000 out of my already abysmally low salary to pay for my family's medical care. I can't even console myself with the knowledge that at least I'm in Tier 1 and I'm not getting fucked as hard as other people, because we're all pretty much fucked. Thank you, Republican assholes, douchebags, and fucktards. You have effectively fucked me and my fellow public employees out of huge chunk of our shitty salaries, and we will now be looking even harder for a job outside of this benighted goddamned state.

I had better benefits and pay when I worked in the private sector 10 years ago, but I chose the life of a public servant because I wanted to be a teacher. Always. Since I was a kid playing "School" in my bedroom with my younger sister.

I knew I would never be rich working as a teacher, even as a college professor. I just wanted to have a decent middle-class life. It's not happening. I ran up $70K in student loan debt to get the education that would enable me to get a TT position. I live in a rented house, my newest car is a 2007 with over 70K miles on it, my husband's car (2002) is starting to fall apart and we can't afford to fix it until I get paid again in October, and on and on and on. I can't take it anymore. My  salary is lower than a car mechanic's. My plumber makes more than I do, and I have 17 years of experience and two Master's degrees.

So I'm back to being heartsick and angry. I feel like a fool. So much for happiness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Give Away the Stone

Lyrics by Maynard James Keenan

"Clutch it like a cornerstone/ Otherwise it all comes down/ Justify denials and/ Grip 'em to the lonesome end/ Terrified of being wrong/ Ultimatum prison cell...Wear the grudge like a crown/ of negativity/ Calculate what we will/ or will not tolerate/ Desperate to control/ All and everything/ Unable to forgive these scarlet lettermen...Defining/ Confining/ And sinking deeper...Give away the stone/ Let the ocean take and/ Transmutate/ This cold and fated anchor...Let go/Let go/Let go..." 

This song is part of my therapy. MJK is my "Guardo Camino," to quote Henry Rollins.

For most of my life, I have had tremendous difficulty being "light"--as the oldest child in a dysfunctional household, I was the peacemaker, the helper, the fixer, the responsible one. I know that I played as a child (fond memories of my sandbox, and my plastic pool, and of course, my pony) but I also know that my games involved being on my own--parentless and fending for myself. Alone against a hostile world, only seeking to make a small comfortable spot to rest.

Fast-forward. I'm 40. Political upheaval following years (20) of hard work towards the goal of attaining a tenured position has resulted in a scenario I find untenable, yet see no way out of. I spend much of the spring plugged in to various news outlets, growing steadily more disgusted, despairing, and impotently enraged as the weeks wear on. I have difficulty sleeping (again). Nothing is going according to my gorram plan. I am cross with my children and my husband--the three people who make up my small comfortable spot to rest. I am no fun to be around, because most conversations with me turn into rants about the stupidity and ignorance of the people who populate the county, the state, and the nation. I barely have the energy to finish the semester--I give what little energy I have left to my students, so there is none left for my family. I am not sure I have any friends left.

After a blow-out with Hubby, I come to realize that I am perilously close to losing what security and comfort I have managed to build with him over the past 10 years of our marriage. I am faced with a decision:

Give away the stone, or let it drag me into the dark.

Two weeks ago, I decided to give away the stone. I have unplugged from the news of the state and the country (except for The New Yorker and Scientific American). I read for pleasure, and I have started to write poetry again. I am on vacation. I smile more, and I look for things to laugh about (Tina Fey's oeuvre is a good place for that, FYI).

I spend a lot of time outside, listening to the birds. I watch the house wrens and bluebirds fledge the same day, and I try to live in the moment. The poetry arising out of this moment makes me feel good, and I look forward to sharing it soon.

A year ago, a friend of mine from college experienced something that visits me in my darkest nightmares: her husband fell asleep on the couch, and did not wake up. He was not in ill-health. He just...died. Leaving her with four girls, one of whom has severe health issues. My friend goes on because she has to--someone has to take care of the girls--but she misses her husband every day.

Her tragedy is my reminder, and not in the cliche sense of "Live each day like it's your last." I feel more like I should try to live better, and part of living better means letting go of my anger about all the things I can't control. 

Getting bent out of shape means that I don't fit anywhere. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

We Got Some Wild Wild Life

[All apologies to the Talking Heads...]

Took a trip to the cottage for the Fourth of July weekend (which for us ended on Wednesday night, when we rolled into our driveway at 9pm). Sadly, no pics are available because the digital camera had a dead battery and I forgot the charger. Since it's a Sony Cybershot, and Sony's design is completely ass-backwards, the camera cannot be charged via the USB that connects it to the computer. Our 35mm Canon came along, but as Hubby was appalled at the cost to develop a single roll of film (over $10), he refused to get a CD (a $2 upcharge) and we had 4 rolls...taken on one day.

The cottage is in far northern Wisconsin, a little over an hour from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (which frankly should just be part of Wisconsin, but what do I know). Hubby planned a surprise trip to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Area, and we spent all day Sunday hiking the various trails. My shins are still recovering.

What made it so special was that it was like a mini-honeymoon for us.

On June 23, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Our original honeymoon was a two-week drive through Minnesota, the Dakotas, the northeast corner of Wyoming (Devil's Tower), and Montana, and it was awesome. We wanted to do something similar for our 10th, but with two kids under 10, it didn't seem like it would work very well (though they are OK for the 225 mile trip to the cottage, I doubt either of them would endure the 14-hour drives we took to get to the various destinations on the original trip). The other issue is one of money--we don't have any to spare this year, and gas and hotels cost money.

So Hubby came up with idea that we'd go to the nearest mountains, which happened to be in the UP. Added bonus were the Union copper mines (we'd spent 3 days in the Black Hills, where there are abandoned exploratory gold mines all over the place).  We hiked up to Lake of the Clouds, and drove to various sites along the south Boundary Road of the wilderness area. We climbed the tower at Summit Peak, which overlooks Lake Superior. It was a really great day--14 hours of just the two of us. And no bears. A few weeks from now, when the blackberries are ripe, that area is bear-tastic.

Wildlife on our lake this year has become more diverse. In addition to the pair of eagles (and their year-old progeny), the great blue herons (who keep pooping on our raft), the pair of loons (and their loonlets--so cute), the mallard family, belted kingfishers, veeries, and thrushes, we have two new species. A pair of common mergansers and a pair of broad-winged hawks have taken up residence:

A muskrat has also made a burrow nearby. Our dock seems to be its favorite place to dismember crappie and bluegill, to judge by the number of fish heads and bones I had to keep cleaning off the beach and dock. We watched it climb up onto the ladder on the raft daily to eat plants (no pics, sadly). Both Things got a big kick out of watching it swim around.

I am so grateful that we have a place like this to retreat from the world. No internet access, no TV, spotty cell service. It's wonderful. Tony's parents bought the land in the summer of 1977, and built the cottage the following year. It's been added on to (now 2 bedrooms!) and his parents have been updating things over the last few years, and all I can say is that we are a very lucky family to have such a marvelous place.

The view from the deck
Poems are coming out of this trip. My soul feels restored, and I'm going to do my best to try to keep it that way.

Friday, July 1, 2011

This Made Me Cry (In a Good Way)

One of my former students posted this as a comment to one of my posts about the impact of budget "repair" bill on my salary. And he's right; if we think of success in terms of money only, it's a very minor measure:

"I think Logan is right, the value of you as a professor=priceless. Teachers making more than professors? Yes, my mother is a teacher and she makes more than that. I made more than that as a mechanic with only a high school diploma. It is a disgrace in my opinion. Who's going to even want to seek tenure? But, in spite of all this BS, I go back to my first statement. You were the best professor I ever had, hands down. Not even a close second. What you do and can do for people in your position shouldn't be taken for granted. What you did for me by just being who you are I don't think I will ever be able to repay you for. Ever. There is no way I can understate what you did for me just by being who you are, I hope you know that. I know peanuts don't pay the bills, but if we measure our success in $$ only, I think our units of measure are all wrong. As I said what they pay you is truly a disgrace to me, but I prefer to measure success in the happiness we create and the good we can do in this world. Measured in these terms, you are one of the most successful people in the world. I'm very sure I'm not alone in saying that I'm proud to know you. You are amongst the most decent people I've ever met. The epitome of success. Walker? His time in office may be very short indeed. He's upset a lot of people..."

I am grateful for the reminder--that I didn't get into this profession to make money (not hardly)--I became a teacher because I want to help others become who they are going to be.  "I teach: I touch the future." My friends in undergrad who were education majors had shirts with this saying on it, and it's part of the reason I too am in education.

"I am not a teacher; I am an awakener." -Robert Frost  

I have this quote on my office door, and today it is I who am awakened from the fog of anger and depression by one of my students. I am grateful. 

The wheel keeps turning.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Steampunk: Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan

Today's post will be a review of the first book in Scott Westerfeld's YA steampunk Leviathan series.

Book One: Leviathan (released October 2009)

This isn't so much a review as it is a mash note. I loved this book. The world Westerfeld has created is an alternative-early 20th century as the European powers are moving toward WWI. The alternative part? The world is divided into proponents of evolutionary tinkering (Darwinists) and proponents of steam-powered mechanization (Clankers). The Brits and their allies are Darwinists, and the Austro-Hungarian/Germans are Clankers.

Deryn is a fifteen year old girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can join the British Air Service, which uses great Beasties resembling squid filled with hydrogen. She loves to fly, and she has to protect her secret at all costs, or she risks being stuck forever on the ground.

Alek is the son of the murdered Archduke, on the run from his own people and the Germans with only a few loyal men to help him run his mechanical Stormwalker (which looks a bit like ED-209 from Robocop) to the safety of the Swiss border.

The characters are believable and the story is engaging--Alek and Deryn are thrown together and have to learn to trust each other despite being on opposing sides of the coming War. Keith Thompson's illustrations are fantastic (in all senses of the word) and a welcome addition to the text.

I loved the book, and I devoured it in two sittings.  Highly recommended, especially if you are a history or science buff. Westerfeld has done his homework, and his creations (both Clanker and Beastie) are believable. I found myself wishing I could get a ride on the Leviathan myself.

Next review: Book Two: Behemoth (released October 2010) 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Disgust and Despair

I can't bear it.

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court overturned (4-3) Judge Sumi's restraining order preventing the publication of the collective bargaining law. It will go into effect June 29th. I will make less money next year as a tenured professor than I did when I started on the tenure track. 

The Republicans are fielding fake Democratic candidates to confuse things for people voting in the July 12th recall elections. If you thought Chicago politics were dirty, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

I can't stand it. 

The state legislature is handing broadband control over to AT&T, which will cost schools millions of dollars they don't have--on top of the millions being cut from their budgets.

What I can't get over is that I have worked my entire adult life towards being a tenured college professor...and I feel as though I have failed somehow.

I thought becoming a professor would allow me to give my family a reasonably good middle-class life. Not so. 

We rent a 2 bedroom house for $550 a month (which is a steal, I know--we're lucky). The great thing is that it's out in the countryside--we have a garden, a deck, a huge yard--the not-so-great thing is that it was comfortable for three of us, but it's getting cramped now that Thing Two is a toddler (and a boy).

I am $70,000 in debt from my BA, MA, and MFA (most of it's from the MFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago--probably not the smartest decision I ever made).

Thing One had a playdate with her best friend L. earlier this week. When we got to L.'s house, I cringed. The house is new (probably less than 8 years old), colonial, 3-car garage. We walked in and L and Thing One took each others' hands and ran up the staircase. I went into the kitchen (cherry cabinets, granite countertops), and gazed into the great room--two stories of windows looking into the wooded back yard. The sitter seemed nice, and I left.

I know that I have a better life than 90% of people in this world, but that doesn't seem to matter to my inner self.

I am jealous. I have house envy. Not that I want a new house, and certainly not one as big as L's house--I'd just spend half of my life cleaning it. I just want a house that's mine--where I can have a dog. Where each of the Things can have a bedroom. And I can have a room of my own for my books and papers and typewriters. 

This is what was supposed to happen: I was going to get tenure, get my piddly raise, and we would go get a construction loan to begin building our house--the 1800 sf farmhouse of my dreams--on the land we bought in the fall of 2004, six acres of former dairy farm with a huge shagbark hickory tree. We even have the plans already drawn up. Three bedrooms, a library, living room, eat-in kitchen, wrap-around front porch, 1.5 bathrooms, fireplace. We had done the math--we could afford to do it if we did a lot of the work ourselves (Hubby for most of it, but I can swing a hammer too). My dream house, a copy of which is pinned to the wall in my office, where I saw it every day for the last two semesters as I worked frantically for tenure.

And now the gorram plan is shot to hell, for a variety of reasons. 

One reason is that Hubby is in talks to take the job of his dreams in Chicago, about which I cannot write, other than to say that should it come to pass, it will mean that we will have to live separately for over a year, or I will have to leave my job. Since I cannot live without him--I do not want to live without him--I will need to go back to Chicago. 

I am not opposed to going back, not the way I was when we left in 2002. I do not know if I will teach again (certainly not at Columbia, special thanks to Garnett Kilberg-Cohen). I don't know what I would do. 

What I am doing is struggling with the idea of leaving my dream house...and all that it represents. My desire to give my children a better childhood than my own (which was on a hobby farm too, though with an alcoholic, rageaholic father). My longing for a place of my own, for chickens and dogs and horses to live on my farm. Maybe a lop-eared bunny or two.  It means giving up the security of guaranteed employment (though since comparatively speaking my pay is so abysmal it's starting to seem like not much of a sacrifice). It means leaving the beauty and peace of country life for the noise and dirt of the city--though the city has many good things to offer too, the best being a cosmopolitan atmosphere for my children, as opposed to the redneck, red-state area we live in now.

Hubby says we can live in the 'burbs, but I don't think I want that, either. It will mean a commute for one, probably both of us. The only 'burb I even like is Evanston, and I highly doubt we could afford to live there, though perhaps I could get adjunct work at Northwestern or Loyola...crap. I'm doing it again.

The other reason it's shot to hell is the political asshattery in this state means that I will make even less money this coming contract year than I did when I started. This is probably the most pathetic thing about it--and the thing that makes me the angriest. That I've worked so hard for so long, and will have even less to show for it (though still more than I did as an adjunct). I don't think we could build the house even if we were to stay in Wisconsin.

I am so tired. I can't do anything about my current situation except worry, and be angry and disgusted. It's exhausting.

So I think I am just going to try to be Zen. Accept the uncertainty I have never been able to tolerate (thanks, Adult Children of Alcoholics!). Trust (cf ACoA) that it will all work out. Conserve my energy and work on my novel over the summer. Go to New Orleans with Hubby in August and celebrate our 11+ years together.

If you have any advice, feel free to share it. I'm open.

Now for a nap, as Thing Two got me up at 4:45 am again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reviews to Come

I haven't had much time online this week (a good thing) but I am getting my remaining brain cells together to review a few books for the Steampunk Challenge:
  • Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
  • Boneshaker and Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • The Windup Girl and Shipbreaker by Paolo Baciagalupi
  • Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless [The Parasol Protectorate] by Gail Carriger (and by the time I get to it, probably Heartless as well, as it's due out July 1)
  • Steampunk ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

These have all been reviewed elsewhere, and the Steampunk Scholar is a far more in-depth resource (and should be since it's his PhD thesis)--but I'd like to take a crack at them too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Summertime, and the Livin's Easy...

...well, sort of. It's easy in the sense that I don't have to prep or teach or grade for 4 classes.  It's not so easy in the sense that since my contract is paid on a 9-month basis, summer means no money coming in on my end of things until October. Hubby works 50+ hours/week, so we are able to pay rent, utilities, car payments*, and food, but everything else is a tight squeeze which depends completely on how much I've been able to save during the spring months (this year, not much--daycare at $850/month ate a quarter of my monthly take-home pay). I put my student loans (currently hovering around $70,000) in deferment from May-October because the $450 I'm paying per month just isn't doable on Hubby's salary.

*Car payments: Right now, we don't have one, because I killed my Honda Element the morning of graduation (5/20). 
Luckily I wasn't seriously hurt. A mild case of whiplash, a concussion, and a bad bruise on my left knee. The light pole I hit in the campus parking lot was impervious to any damage, as I was only going 15 mph (our lot gets lots of HS students who zoom through it, and I had been eyeing one such carload while making the curve through the lot--the officer who took my report told me that he's almost hit the pole too, because it's hard to see).

So I'm driving my mother-in-law's 1996 Toyota Camry (no a/c, and a cassette deck but it gets great gas mileage) and I'm lucky to have it. We have to go minivan shopping this weekend, and I'm not really looking forward to it. I loved my Element, and I'm sorry I killed it. 

Due to the accident, I barely got my grades done in time to meet the system deadline. Grading creative writing portfolios while on muscle relaxants and Percocet made for interesting (and extremely slow) reading. I only hope that my comments make sense when the few students who requested feedback come to pick up their portfolios in the fall. The writing was really good--a bit of a surprise, given how little most of them participated in class discussions.

I only had one case of blatant plagiarism in my lit course, and it was a head-shaker because the students knew I would be checking because I told them I would be checking. The instructions on the assignment explicitly forbade using the internet for the paper (which was on Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony--and there are about a bajillion websites--Academon, Free Student Papers, etc.--that have papers on the novel). This is the same assignment as the previous time I taught the course (Spring 2008) with the same warning (I had one case of plagiarism then, too--the student showed absolutely no remorse). I ran string searches on every single paper, and wouldn't you know it? One student pulled the first paragraph of her paper off a review of the novel. I stopped reading, printed off the website, paper-clipped it to the back of her paper, and wrote NG (no grade) on the first page. I simply do not understand the behavior in light of the explicit warning. Do they think I'm bluffing? That I'll be too busy to check? "No Grade" is a 0 on a 150 point assignment, a virtual guarantee of a failing grade for the course. The student came to see me afterwards, and simply said "I don't know why I did it--it's not like you didn't give us enough material in class to use for the paper. I guess I shouldn't have done it." I nodded and sent her on her way. *Sigh.* I hope she learned from this...but I can't guarantee it.

Summer hasn't quite started yet--although the weather is finally warming up--because Thing One is still in first grade until next Thursday. Thing Two and I are having some one-on-one time. He enjoys "'nuggles" (snuggling with me and his blankie) and taking his shoes off right after I've put them on. And now that Dinosaur Train ("Choo Choo ROAR!") is over, it's time for me to end this post. Up next: my summer reading list.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

Sunday. Mother's Day. Went to breakfast in town, then took the kids over to the park. Things One and Two ran around, played on the teeter-totter, scooted up and down the slides, and were just generally adorable. Went for a walk along the Mullet River. Took a bunch of pictures with my camera phone:

Handmade cards and flowers...

Now I'm sitting in the sun on our deck in the back yard. Hubby is putting together the travel trailer for our trip to New Orleans in August.  Frogs and thrushes and robins and chickadees and goldfinches are performing a woodland serenade to the accompaniment of (I kid you not) the wind through the willows (and birches and larches and spruces).

The weather has finally improved to the point where we were actually able to get some work done in the garden yesterday. Peppers and roma tomatoes are now in. I potted my peony yesterday too. Today was mostly spent puttering around and soaking up the sunshine.

Dinner (at my request): Papa Murphy's and Kiki's Delivery Service with the Things. Being a mama's a pretty good deal.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hooray for May!

Very happy today, after a restful weekend spent working around the house. I say "restful" because I didn't spend the weekend grading.

Spent much of yesterday bringing up tub after tub of baby clothes for the yard sale in June. Garden is looking great--we should have quite a crop of strawberries since the Ft. Laramies we planted last year wintered over really well (including the "daughter" plants we planted in the fall) and now that I've gotten the creeping groundcover weed thingies off them, they should do well. Hubby built a small cold frame so that we could get some seeds started and keep the plants (peppers and roma tomatoes) warm until we're past the danger of frost. Since we had snow the second week of May last year, we're going to wait a bit to plant them. Hubby put the potatoes in--Yukon Golds and baby reds.

The Things are getting along, and I'm really happy about that. I'm actually looking forward to spending the summer at home for the first time since Thing One was a baby. She's more willing to cooperate, and she's really been helpful lately.

Thing One reading Cars and Trucks to her brother, who LOVES things that go.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Three Weeks to Go

As I sat in my office yesterday frantically trying to get caught up with my grading (again), I thought about what life would be like without stacks of papers teetering on my desk, and it was like the heavens parted and God rained down gifts of love and forgiveness, healing every fiber of my being...

And then I realized that I had no idea what I would do if I didn't teach. I love being in front of a classroom, guiding discussion.

The last time I tried to do something else, it paid really well and sucked my soul bone-dry. I was miserably well-paid. And all I could think about was getting back to teaching. 

I suppose that it's just the grading part that I can't stand. And I know why I can't stand it--because every time I open a paper and start to read, I am likely to read something that makes me think I have been speaking Greek all semester. [I have some really bright students whose papers are always what I ask for, but there aren't enough of those to take the sting out of the ones that aren't.]

I then have to take a few minutes to ruminate on my career choice: I know that for some of these students, I am having a positive impact--they leave my class with more  (or better-honed) skills than they came in with. But I am starting to wonder about the rest of them. Every time I open a paper with 
  • A 4-sentence (i.e too short) intro
  • An unidentifiable thesis or one that does not address the assignment
  • A bunch of short, unconnected paragraphs
  • A bunch of citation mistakes (or no citations at all, after I've spent several classes going over MLA and how to do it)
or any one of a number of other errors these students should not be making at this point in the semester, this is what happens inside my brain: screaming monkeys.

Some snark has crept into my comments. One one rubric, I wrote "Maybe it would be a good idea if you stopped texting while I am talking about how to do better on your papers." It's not quite the "Are you fucking kidding me?" comment from Bad Teacher (which I can't wait to see, BTW), but I am a hair's breadth from ordering a WTF stamp for marginal commenting.

I think it's probably all the crap going on politically that's making it harder to deal with this stuff, because after all, it's the same stuff I've been dealing with since I started teaching--the point in the semester where I want to throw my hands up and scream "Is anyone even listening to the words that are coming out of my mouth?!" I think there's a very delusional part of me that keeps thinking that my students are people who are old enough to follow directions, and to ask questions when they don't understand something. I can understand having to repeat myself daily to Thing Two because he's only two and a half. I cannot understand having to repeat myself daily to a group of near-adults. I keep wondering what is going to happen to these people when they leave school and get "real" jobs--who is going to hire them and then put up with the constant screwing up because they either didn't read the directions, didn't bother to follow the directions, or just made some shit up?

I am torn between wanting to help them all--knowing that they really need it, whether they know it or not--and wanting to just teach the ones who are paying attention and want what I have to give. For Christ's sake, I was our campus coordinator for Engaging Students in the First Year--a program designed to try to help students help themselves--for 3 years!! I know that I have to teach the students I have, not the ones I wish I had. But seriously, how long can I keep banging my head against a brick wall before what's left of my brain just calls it a day?

/end rant.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I Have Been Remiss...

I haven't felt like writing for a while. The tumult at the Capitol has died down somewhat, though a new tumult (in the shape of a suspicious bunch of votes in Waukesha county for the Supreme Court race) has arisen.

And I'm just sick of it all.

I want to retreat. I want to go make art. Write. Take pictures. Love my husband. Love my children. Love my life.

And I have had a really hard time doing all of that this past month or so. It has been an almost daily struggle just to teach my classes, not to mention tackle the stack of grading sitting next to the couch right now. We are down to the final three weeks of classes, and instead of feeling a bit wistful, as I usually do, I am feeling anticipatory relief.

It's not because I don't like my students, or the material I'm teaching; quite the opposite. I have had some of the most stimulating one-on-one discussions with students during the past week or so--and it's been these that have given me the wherewithal to keep going...for now. [I think the Universe senses my distress, and has been sending me bright lights to keep me from spiralling into despair.] What I'm teaching has value--my students keep telling me that they're glad they took my class because they'd never really thought about Native Americans/the future/the impact of their food choices before.

It's just that in the larger context of what's going on in this country--cuts to arts and humanities funding... oh hell, I'll just call it what it is: the continued Republican assault on everything I care about, along with their continued bullshit tax cuts for the rich, which we've known don't work since REAGAN started "trickle-down" economics--I just want to go somewhere quiet, away from all of this, and not wake up angry every single day after nightmares about not being able to provide for my family because of other peoples' fucked up priorities (like more tax cuts for the rich instead of money for education).

The constant stress (and my impaired ability to deal with it) is starting to wear me down. It's wearing my marriage down. I have started swearing at NPR reports again, so I've had to stop listening to it in the morning because Thing Two has started asking "What's wrong, Mama?" when I start to curse while driving.

What's wrong? So very many things.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Weekend Edition

No snark in this one.

Hubby is in Vegas with his best friend, so I'm doing the single-parent thing for a few days. Since today's Saturday, I made cinnamon rolls for the Things, and I'm enjoying a nice cup of coffee while I catch up with the news.

The news sucks. OK, that's kind of snarky.

Crazy Qaddafi is bombing and threatening and just generally acting the way everyone expected him to yesterday when he agreed to a ceasefire. Jackwagon.

The nuclear situation in Japan is getting worse, and since the focus is on avoiding the China syndrome, 400,000+ people are living in refugee camps.

The House voted to gut funding for NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which brings you such left-wing programs as "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" and "Sesame Street". I will go on the record right now: I had to stop listening to NPR for a while during the Bush years precisely because they were so fair and balanced toward a godawful President and his cadre of lying liars. I would get really furious and start yelling at the radio in the car, which invariably startled and upset Thing One.

Locally, the good news is that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order preventing the publications of the (likely illegally) passed legislation that effectively guts unions until at least March 29th, when she's scheduled a hearing. The jackwagon AG, JB Van Hollen (Republican, natch) issued a challenge, instead of pursuing a case AGAINST the illegal moves made by his Republican cronies.

Anyway, I am having to swim really hard against a tide of bad juju in this world right now, and it's made a bit easier by a consciousness that I am supremely lucky: I have healthy, intelligent, beautiful children (and I'm not bragging--other people tell me this); I am happily married to Hubby (and I miss him terribly when he's not here, so that's a good sign too); we have a decent roof and good food to eat; we have great friends and wonderful family. 

The blessings are many in this chaotic world. I just wanted to take a minute to remind myself.

One more: the sandhill cranes are back, and the pair that nests in the marsh 300 yards from my kitchen is honking up a storm right now. I'm looking forward to hearing the first of the spring peepers soon, too...

The world keeps turning.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Time for a New Normal

A friend of mine posted this as his Facebook status:
"A teacher somewhere in your neighborhood tonight is grading and preparing lessons to teach your children while you are watching television. In the minute it takes you to read this, teachers all over the world are using their "free time", and often investing their own money, for your child's literacy, prosperity, and future.
They are not 'bottom-feeders' or 'leeches.'"
Therein lies the problem: teachers using "free time" and money to help students succeed.
It has become normal for most teachers to work 50-55 hours a week. Beyond time spent in the classroom, there is preparation; there is grading--piles and piles and piles of grading, because the only way students learn is by practice and feedback on that practice.
We are paid on a 40-hour per week basis. Therefore, any work done beyond that is unpaid.
And I'm not doing it anymore.
This is not a strike. I will continue to prepare and teach my classes as always. I do this job because I love it. I love it and I do not want to give it up without a fight. The state of Wisconsin's Republicans have kicked teachers once too often. My only hope is that all teachers at all levels will come together and MAKE THE CUTS VISIBLE.
I pledge:
  • To give my utmost to my students 40 hours per week: in class, and during office hours
    To grade papers as always--carefully, thoughtfully, and with attention to finding ways to help students see what is good in their writing, and to learn from their mistakes--but I will no longer grade in the evenings or on the weekends.
    To be the best teacher I can possibly be--within the limits of a 40-hour week, because that is what I'm being paid for--no more, no less.
    Some of my colleagues have sarcastically wished me luck with this--and that just makes me even more determined. Now that this bill is about to be signed into law, and the budget will include cuts to my pay (again), I will make less than I did when I started on the tenure track after attaining tenure.  
    It is ridiculous to me that it is an expectation of the job that I WILL WORK UNPAID.
    No more. It's time for a new normal.