Friday, January 28, 2011

A Good First Week

Today marks the end of the first week of the spring semester. I spent the morning in a meeting with colleagues, hammering out a slate of candidates to interview for a position in Communication/Theater Arts. After we adjourned, a couple of us stayed to chat, and all three of us remarked at how collegial the atmosphere was. We got a lot accomplished in two hours, and we left the meeting feeling hopeful for the future. All three of us commented on how great it was to work on our particular campus—and how many people we know in academia have it so much worse.

The meeting basically reinforced my feeling of gratitude for my positive departmental tenure vote. I don't think I could find a better place to work, and I am in no way blowing sunshine out of my nethers. I really feel fortunate to have landed where I have.

I am getting to know a new "batch" of students, and my classes are all full (except for my literature course, and that's to be expected—but I still have 25 students). I feel pretty good about the way things have started, but we'll see what happens when I sit down with the first batch of papers.

I have a lot to look forward to—Hubby and I are going to Chicago in two weeks to stay at the Ruby Room, a teeny boutique hotel in our old neighborhood—within easy walking distance of our favorite restaurant, Penny's Noodle Shop. The Penny's on Damen is under the Blue Line El stop, and Hubby and I used to meet there on Friday nights after work for dinner, then walk home together to our place above Village Laundry, a 24-hour laundromat with booming TELEMUNDO! broadcasts and hordes of badly-behaved children. We decided last year that a good way to celebrate being together would be to go to Chicago on the anniversary of our first "date" weekend. Last year marked 10 years—the first time we met up to go out was for a Handsome Family show at Schuba's—I was out with Danny and Gina Black (of the once-again defunct alt-country band The Blacks) and told Hubby that he could meet me there. He did. The rest is history. Most of it good.

I turn 40 at the end of March. Not so much looking forward to that, as I am to getting together with my best friend when I'm in Florida for the College English Association conference. I honestly cannot believe that it's been 12 years since this photo was taken:
@Bite, Chicago October 1998

I talked to her today—and it was like we just talked last week, even though it's been considerably longer than that. It's been more three years since I've seen her—August 2007. She lives in NJ, works in Manhattan—we both have kids now, and both of us have jobs that are stressful and leave little time and energy left over. I'm very much looking forward to hang time with her.

Yes, life is good. Now I'm going to see if I can access the new season of Archer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Well, That's a Relief

My department executive committee has voted. I have been awarded tenure and a promotion to associate professor.

Now comes the vote by my campus. Then the dean, the provost, the chancellor, and the Board of Regents have to approve it. But the hardest part is done--I made it through the department EC. My campus colleagues have been behind me the whole time--they will be happy to hear this news.

To say that I am relieved is an understatement.

Celebration will come later. Tonight I plan to sleep well for the first time in a very long time. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Less Than 24 Hours...

Tomorrow, my department's Executive Committee meets to consider applications for tenure. There are three of us going up. I am reasonably certain the other two will make it, as they were asked to go up a year early. 

I, on the other hand, am suffering through the worst anxiety dreams I've ever had in my life. Night after night, terrible things keep happening, and the only positive take-away is that I'm surviving them (both the dreams and the things in them). 

For instance, last night I dreamt of my childhood home in Ohio (built in 1845). My mom and I stood on the steps to the patio. So far, so good. Except when a loop of a dream I'd had some months ago intruded: a jumbo jet trying to stay aloft, obviously about to crash. Except that this time, it's headed right for my house. It somehow misses my mom and me, but blows up my house. All around are injured, screaming people, and I can't help them. I'm frozen. Then, mercifully, I wake up.

Except that it's not really merciful, because I can't get back to sleep. This cycle of weird/uncomfortable dreaming and waking continued all night long.

I functioned well enough for a chunk of the day--got the Things off to school, did a bit of work in my office prior to the day's Campus Opening Meeting.

Cue the parietal headache. I clench my jaw in my sleep (but don't grind my teeth like I did when I was a kid), and I'm apparently doing it harder than ever, because I've never had headaches like this. Migraines, yes--always on the right, always starting in my right eye. This one, on the left, feels like someone punched me hard in the head, just above my ear. With brass knuckles. My surgeon, whom I saw back in December when this type of headache started interfering with my ability to work and eat, acknowledged that this is likely stress-based (ya think?) and that we could try amitriptyline. 

So far, fewer headaches. But obviously not today. I had to leave the meeting two hours early to come home and curl up in bed with my head on a heating pad. I want very much to relax, and I'm very tired but not tired enough to sleep. Ugh.

In happier news, two colleagues in other departments have gotten positive votes from their respective departments, and it was good to be relieved on their behalf. We also got our student survey data today, and once again I had a healthy score on "overall instructor" so that should help me.

All three of my cats are staring at me from various vantage points in my living room, so I think it's time for dinner. 

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow... 

Monday, January 17, 2011

More Winter

Woke this morning to wind howling. Hubby left at 6:00 am for a meeting downstate. Snow blowing across the road on the way to take the Things to school. Another 5-6" expected before it's all done. Poor hubby finally plowed the driveway yesterday, and it's already snowed-over so he'll have to do it again tomorrow before the next Alberta Clipper comes through to drop the temps into the single digits later this week (thanks, Alberta!).

I'm home today for probably the last "vacation" day until May. Plans include mopping the kitchen floor, vacuuming, and laundry. Possibly some baking (cornbread? blueberry muffin loaf? both?). Also, in the mood for mulled cider so I got out the crockpot to remind myself to put some on after lunch so that it's warm when I get home from picking up the Things. 

Won't be going for another hike in the woods today--just too windy. Instead, I thought I'd share some more of the pics I took last week. Enjoy.

Raised garden beds  in the side yard
The trail
The creek that runs through our back yard (its origin in the spring-fed marsh to the left of the trail in the pic above)
Close-up of the rock wall

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gratitude, and Other Things

While attempting to straighten out my library a few weeks ago, I stumbled across my ancient (ok, 1995) hard-cover edition of Sarah Ban Breathnach's book Simple Abundance. I had picked it up in Myopic Books, my favorite used bookstore in the world, while living in Chicago and feeling lonely and impoverished by my life and the choices I'd made.

I was in graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and consequently perpetually broke. Like, scrounging under the futon for enough change to get on the El to get to class or to my poorly-paid adjunct job at Columbia College -broke. Chicago is a wonderful city if you're young and you have enough money (whatever "enough money" means) to enjoy it, but the stereotypical life of the grad student: ramen noodles and PB + J as staples of the weekly diet; the aforementioned scrounging; the poorly-paid teaching gig that sucks up time that should be spent on one's own work; and the constant wondering whether I was making a H U G E mistake by taking out $40,000 in student loans to pay for a degree I might never be able to use all combined to contribute to a depression spiral that I was having difficulty managing.

I picked up the book, and used it to start figuring out a different way to approach my life choices. I can't say that it always worked, but I suppose the fact that I'm sitting here writing this is at least partly because I tried to reprogram my brain to be grateful for what I had: a place to live, friends, enough money to eat and occasionally do my laundry, and schoolwork that I found challenging and rewarding. 

It's funny the way a lot of us think: we focus so hard on what we don't have, or how much others don't appreciate what we do, that we miss what we have that makes life enjoyable.

So in the spirit of the book, this is a gratitude entry.  In no particular order, these are the things I'm grateful for today:
w/Ziggy, Thanksgiving 2009
  • Hubby and Things One and Two: healthy and happy
  • a job I love because I get to help people become who they're going to be
  • a cute little house in the woods
  • my own washer and dryer 
  • my 3 cats
  • my sister, mom, and stepdad
  • my in-laws, who help us out whenever they can
  • my memories of Ziggy: may he run through heaven forever
  • my colleagues, who make every day a pleasure to be a part of this academic life
  • lavender, jasmine, orange flower
  • the smell of clean leather
  • good music
  • good food
  • naps (both for me and the Things)
  • three day weekends
  • lots of other things, but I'm going to stop now...
 I get tired of feeling small and shabby, shriveled and sorry, so today I am grateful to be healthy and loved and full--of life, love, kindness, and contentment. 

I wish the same for everyone.

The "other things": two poems ("After the Blast" and "Checked Out") have been accepted to Poetry Quarterly, for print publication. One more thing to be grateful for: work sent out into the world that finds a home.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Walk in the Winter Woods short video

A Walk in the Winter Woods

Woke up this morning to the sound of the county snowplow roaring up the road. We're expecting to get 3-5" of lake effect snow today. And since I am taking this week as my vacation, I decided to treat myself.

One of my favorite things to do is to go for a walk while it's snowing. When we lived in Chicago, Hubby and I used to get bundled up and walk around our neighborhood--occasionally helping a stranded motorist or two. Now that I live in the forest, it's even more fun to go out. This is the view from deck:

Everything is muffled. The chickadees, goldfinches, cardinals, and nuthatches are all absent. I refilled the feeders, then started out. 

I live on a section of trail that is used quite heavily by snowmobilers, and my goal was to get out before any of them had a chance to screw up the blanket of snow covering old tracks. I also absolutely detest the smell of two-stroke exhaust fumes. 
I took another photo of the tree that's part of this blog banner--it's a young black walnut:
I took lots of pictures. I absolutely adore snowy winter days. The only thing missing: Things One and Two. It was so quiet I could hear the squeak of snow underfoot, and the occasional chirp of a chickadee.

The shelf fungus has a twig growing up through it. Thought that was nifty. 

I shot a short video of the snow drifting down through the pines. I'll post that separately, I think. This is one of my favorite places on this walk: in the summer, it's a good 10 degrees cooler under the pines; in winter, well, you can see that it's a very sheltered spot--no drifts, and hardly a breath of wind even though there's a breeze coming in off the lake.

A section of tumbled-down rock wall. Given the straight rows of pines I just walked through, I'd say that it's highly likely that this area was all pasture in the dim past--there are rock wall remnants scattered all over this section of the forest.

In the summer, we can hear the ring of the blacksmith's hammer all the way at our house, when the wind's blowing the right way. The state historical society maintains this along with the house and the millpond sawmill (I didn't take shots of them because by this point I'd been out for an hour and my butt felt like it was about to fall off.

I feel calm, and grateful to live in this beautiful place.

If you liked the photos, please let me know in the comments. Thanks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

All Is Calm

Gorgeous Saturday morning here in the woods. Bitter cold, but the sun is out and the birds are clustering around the feeders. Two squirrels were chasing each other around the giant spruce in the front yard earlier this morning, causing much twitching for our cat, Frankie (the other two were asleep in the basement, hiding from Things One and Two).

Thing Two is napping, and Hubby has taken Thing One on a run into town. I can hear the clock ticking over the whoosh of air from the furnace as it struggles to keep the house at 66 degrees (the thermostat says 68 but my indoor/outdoor weather station says that my thermostat is a big fat liar).

Hubby is working on another project for some friends of ours in Chicago, and I am curled up on the loveseat staring out at the winter landscape, writing and thinking about things to write.

I have started a new chapbook of poems about my family. I have a couple of poems I wrote about my dad during my MFA (and more on deck--they're crowding my brain, probably because this was yet another holiday season that went by with no contact--I don't know if he knows that he's a grandfather). I have one really good one (it's two pages) about my grandparents' marriage, and I have a few old ones about my mother that can come out of mothballs. I seem to have to be in pain in order to write. Thinking about my fucked up, completely dysfunctional family (and my family's history going back to the Potato Famine on one side) makes me sad. And for whatever reason, with the sadness comes the urge to create, to write--though I'm wary of cliche and been-there-done-that-got-the-commemorative-shotglass stories of alcoholic parents. That's what makes this complicated and time-consuming: writing this story in a way that's not stale and flat. Then too there's the feeling that I don't want people feeling sorry for me--I turned out OK, I think.

I would like to be able to do what my friend Chuck Rybak does so elegantly--be wryly funny and still make the reader think. I'm funny in person (though I make a better "straight man") but I don't seem to be able to get it to happen when I sit down to write.

Anyway, life is good here. I hadn't thought that I would ever look forward to January, but here I am, glad of the respite between semesters. Next semester I teach 2 sections of composition, 1 section of creative writing, and 1 section of an American Indian in Literature and Film course that I haven't taught since the spring of 2008. Both the creative writing and lit courses have healthy enrollments, and I look forward to getting to know another batch of students (though I will have a number of "repeats"--students who've had me for a different class who come back to take another one because they like me).

Yes, life is good.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I turned in my tenure and promotion dossier on Wednesday. It was 232 pages long, and chock full of examples of what makes me a great teacher, writer, and colleague. Now I await the judgment of my department's Executive Committee: 11 people at various stages in their careers (some newly tenured, most having had it for a while).

Writing the dossier was one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences I've ever had. To condense 6 years' worth of teaching experience into the document was almost more than I could do--knowing that it means the difference between continued employment at a school and in a department that I have come to love, and a terminal year to look for another job. My self-assessment section was limited to 10 single-space pages, and I used all of that space. Perhaps I'll post it here. 

In any case, it's done--and I am satisfied. I have flirted with burn-out in previous years due to over-extending myself in service (and frankly, I wasn't that unhappy with doing the service because it made a big difference in the quality of life on my campus). My department forced me to step back and focus on my writing, and I have been less crazed as a result, but I have some doubt that it will be enough for some members of the department. My creative output has increased exponentially, yet the simple fact of the matter is that I can send out work, but I have to wait to hear back as to whether or not it's acceptable for the particular publication to which I've submitted it. And there's the rub.

It's out of my hands. In all senses of the phrase--it's out of my hands. And no matter what, I know in my soul that I'm meant to be a teacher. I will teach.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Two Glasses of Wine

After taking the kids to school, came home and worked on my dossier, after watching "The Possimpible" episode of How I Met Your Mother--hubby's recommendation before working on my self-assessment. 

Barney rocks. Favorite new non-word: "Linkitivity." Might have to put that in my dossier.

Hubby and the Things came home, and dinner was had by all. Hubby had the last of his Dalwhinnie and I had two glasses of chardonnay. We turned on Pandora to our "Flannel" channel and I got to rock out to Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, STP, and Rage Against the Machine. Between that and the wine, I'm feeling a lot better about things.

Dossier should be done tomorrow, ready for a final check-through before it's due on Wednesday. After that, I'm looking forward to writing my paper for the College English Association conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A New Year

I am writing this from my "office" in the basement of the tiny house I share with my husband, Thing One and Thing Two, and three cats. Beside me is an oil radiator valiantly attempting to dispel the chill, as the basement is uninsulated and it's 9 degrees outside. In the next room roars the water heater as it works to heat yet another tank (I took a leisurely shower before coming down here--not smart, as my wet hair provides me with a nice chill). The washer and dryer hum and tumble, and I am feeling not unlike the jeans swirling through the heated air--jumbled and rumbled and in desperate need of someone or something to help me get straightened out.

My tenure promotion dossier is nearly complete. What I call my "back brain" (the part that continues to work on problems even when I am not conscious) has been busily organizing my ideas for the article/presentation I am writing on William Gibson's "Bigend" trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History). It has also been working on my self-assessment (limit of 10 pages, single-spaced). While I was in the shower, it was processing the New Yorker article on CD Wright's latest book of poetry, and started suggesting controlling ideas for chapbooks (at the forefront is a series about my father, with whom I have not spoken in nearly 10 years). There is so much going on in my head that I am having trouble just getting started. I suppose just writing this all down is as good a way to start as any.

I want to write about how I'm starting this year with a renewed sense of purpose, and I'm sure at some level it's true, but what I really feel most clearly right now is a deep and abiding Dread. And yes, that's Dread in the Existential sense. Not quite the Kierkegaardian sense--that I fear failing my responsibilities to God--although I suppose were I to substitute "Department Executive Committee" for "God" that would be something approximating the truth. It's more along the lines of a sense that if I fail at this--an endeavor that has lasted for more 15 years--what am I?

I am still a mother. I am still a wife. I am still a daughter and sister and cousin and friend. No matter what--even in death (and may that be a long way off), I will be all these things.

I have defined myself for two decades as an academic--even at my corporate job, one of the Managing Directors nicknamed me (affectionately) "Professor". I have known that I was meant to teach. My students can sense it--even the ones who don't like my subject--and probably the most common comment out of 8 years' worth of student surveys is some variation of "She's so enthusiastic!" 

I love this life, and the thought that I might lose it fills me with a very strong desire to curl up in a fetal ball under my desk. 

To date I have resisted that urge--I have been sending work out into the World and I have worked hard to keep doing it despite consistently being rejected (which is partly the reason I didn't send my work out in previous years: like most people, I fear rejection). I wasted $25 to have an editor read my chapbook and tell me "I can't use your ms" and nothing else--nothing that might have helped me understand what she thought was wrong with it. I have spent more money entering chapbook contests only to get form rejections back. I have entered contests with high hopes for my best work, only to get a form rejection, then read the "winning" entries and be unable (not unwilling) to see what made them winners and mine the losers.  I have spent hours and hours on my "professional development" Fridays looking for likely markets--and have sent work that matches what those markets are looking for--only to have to sit and wait and wait to hear...nothing. And all the time adding things to my list of PD in the hope that it will be sufficient for the Executive Committee. All the while thinking of my colleague who published and presented and still perished not long after I started on the tenure track. When I asked what happened, I was told that the colleague's teaching hadn't been focused on enough to suit the department.

Up through the last 5 of the 6 years I've been on the TT, I have focused on teaching and service--to the near-exclusion of all else, and to my detriment in the eyes of my department (but not my campus)--and here I am in the last stage of my tenure bid panicking that I haven't done enough. That I'm not good enough.

Does everyone go through this?