Class of 2007: Reflections on 10 Years Since Graduating High School

Ten years ago it was a Friday, not a Thursday, and I was graduating high school. Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 12.24.39 PM.png

I had no idea what I wanted to do after college, but I had visions of being finished with school forever and wearing cute businessy clothes and working in an office. I didn’t want to be done with school because I hated it, but because I hated being “the smart one” and was ready to Become My Real Self.

If I had no clue what I wanted to do, I did know what I didn’t want to do. The list included :

  • Major in English (because all you can do with that is teach)
  • Teach (ESPECIALLY not high school)
  • More school past my BA

Are you laughing yet? (It’s okay, I am, too)

In case you’re lost, here’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years:

  • BA in English
  • 2 Master’s programs
  • 4 years of teaching high school
  • Prepping for Ph.D applications

In the last ten years I’ve had to work through a lot of things. Everybody does, of course. I guess I’m feeling reflective right now. I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned from the last ten years.

  1. It is okay to be yourself. Even if that means embracing a part of yourself that some people don’t understand (Being “the nerdy one” at school frustrated me to no end. I didn’t want to be that person. Turns out I just needed to hang out with other nerds).
  2. You will find your people eventually. Just keep doing what you like (that’s where your people congregate).
  3. Keep doing what you like (I like school, okay?)
  4. It is okay to not opt for the sensible option (like multiple graduate degrees vs. stable corporate job)
  5. It is okay to change your mind about who you want to be (major change senior year FTW!).
  6. Travel to different countries. Meet lots of people. Try weird food (experiences like these grow your mind).
  7. You don’t magically “arrive.” Ever (I thought that eventually I’d get a “knows what she’s doing” stamp or something).
  8. You know little at 18 and less at 28.
  9. Most of the time, change is hard, but worth it (I HATE change. But some of my hardest decisions have been the best ones).
  10. I just wanted there to be ten things.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish a paper. For grad school. In English. And then grade some student assignments.

Some thoughts about Sam Gamgee on Tolkien Reading Day

0ec5022015693e5a463b167ab573e6d5.jpgI’m doing my semi-annual re-reading of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and as it happened to fall over Tolkien Reading Day (or Ring Destruction Day, if you like), I thought I would share a little observation I had about Sam Gamgee this time around.

If you are familiar with the story at all, you will know that Sam plays a quiet but important role in it. Indeed it can be argued that by the end of the story Sam is nearly the main character. He becomes Ring-bearer for a time, is the only one of the three Hobbits to give up the Ring unaided, and without Sam’s faithfulness and courage the quest never would have finished.

And yet. How does this all-important figure become part of the journey? He is eavesdropping, partly out of curiosity. Sam has a longing to see the elves, and a strong interest in all of Bilbo’s stories; when Gandalf relates to Frodo the history of the Ring, Sam cannot help but listen. Gandalf “punishes” Sam’s eavesdropping by declaring he shall go with Frodo, but this is not much of a punishment to Sam: “‘Me to go see Elves and all! Hurray’ he shouted” (63).

Sometimes, a journey begins with a longing. One so strong you might find yourself eavesdropping just to learn more about it. And perhaps you will find your longing fulfilled. Sam does not have to wait long to see Elves. Before they even leave the Shire, they fall in with a company of them. And yet, as it turns out, Sam’s desire was just the beginning of something bigger, a fact Sam himself seems to recognize. Frodo asks Sam if he still wants to leave the Shire now that he’s seen Elves, and Sam’s response is the first sign that he’s more than a simple, eager garden boy:

I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. (85)

Sometimes, the thing you long for is only the beginning. Notice how Sam recognizes that he still wants to go, though he doesn’t know why: “I have something to do before the end,” is all he can say. How many of us, on achieving that thing we’ve dreamed about for years, stop? Say, I’ve seen the Elves, I don’t need anything more. Imagine how differently the quest would be if Sam had said, “yes, I think I’ll go home now.”

I think we forget sometimes that life is a journey with no destination. You’re not “done” when you get that relationship, or job, or degree, or promotion; that’s just phase one. It prepares you for the next step in the journey.

In fact, seeing the Elves so soon into the journey, before it gets difficult or dangerous or even uncomfortable, is a good thing for Sam. He shifts his focus from an experience, a bucket list item, to something higher – a purpose, a vocation, even. He’s no longer a tourist, but an actor in this journey. I would imagine that, as things get darker and stretch him even farther out of his comfort zone, knowing that he has a purpose makes it easier for Sam to endure the challenges, and keep going on the journey.

I challenge you, as I challenge myself: have you cut your journey short? Or is it a series of bucket list items, things to check off? Or are you journeying towards a “something to do,” and letting each step along the way prepare you for that?

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Peter Xavier Price – Three is Company 

What I’m Reading (3)

The honest answer is, not much. Lots of things for school, but I’ve reached that point in the semester where I just don’t want to tackle a classic novel – or any novel – once I’ve finished all my work. The Great British Bake-Off on Netflix is more my speed these days.

Nevertheless, it has been more than a month, and so here are the few books I have read for fun, with a bonus list of books I’ll finish someday, I hope.

Books Read

Stardust Neil Gaiman 

Young Tristan Thorne promises the unattainable Victoria, his True Love, a fallen star. To reach it, he must cross the Wall near his English village into fairyland. But Tristan isn’t the only person who wants the star. . . This is one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book, IMHO. The plot is wonderful for both, but I think the visual medium of film works better – the story is tighter, the characters more rounded, the climax more dramatic (and YOU GUYS, the scenery! *Swoons*). To be fair, I did see the movie first. Even with this critique, Stardust is a fun little English fairy tale.

A Preface to Paradise Lost C.S. Lewis 

I bought this book last semester when I was studying Paradise Lost in a class and, frankly, not seeing what all the fuss was about. I thought if anyone could convince me to like Paradise Lost it was Lewis. This slim volume covers everything from the form of the poem to some of the major points in the work, and I did find it useful; enough that I’ll read Paradise Lost again before I  write it off. This is kind of a niche work, but anyone who likes Lewis or Milton will find it a worthwhile primer.

Mort Terry Pratchett

Mort(imer) is a young country boy who gets apprenticed to Death, Pratchett’s famous figure who TALKS LIKE THIS and is really a kind-hearted Grim Reaper. It’s a cute little story.

Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman
I listened to this as an audio book, mostly because it was the fastest and cheapest way to get the book (I had a spare Audible credit). In my opinion, listening is the way to go with this book. The original tales were, after all, told orally. Gaiman’s prose captures that storyteller feel, and his narration is excellent. The stories themselves are charming and delightful, for all the darkness of Norse myth. I ended up parceling out my listening time as a “treat” so it would last longer.

A Study in Charlotte Brittany Cavallaro

This Sherlock Holmes retelling with a twist had been on my radar, and after hearing the author speak at the NTTBF I decided to buy it. It was a cute story with teen Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes as descendants of their famous pair. Not too long after they meet at boarding school, they get framed for murder, and must work together to clear their names and find the killer. Its a YA book, and not the most perfect piece of prose to exist, but let’s face it, neither are Conan Doyle’s originals. I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel.


The Challenge of Jesus
 NT Wright 

See my goodreads review. I found it a useful and challenging book, in the good ways.

Honorable mention (i.e., no reviews): 

the Sandman series Neil Gaiman – dark, adult, but good graphic novels

The View from the Cheap Seats Neil Gaiman – collection of nonfiction.

I read some stuff for school. . .

Someday I’ll finish these:

The Old Curiosity Shop Charles Dickens

Cranford Elizabeth Gaskell

Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

The Everyman Chesterton

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings  Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (audio book)

Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle  Narrated by Stephen Fry  (audio book)

Life Lessons from Teen Book Festivals

Today I went to the North Texas Teen Book Festival.

I know, I know. I am not a teenager.

“And didn’t you recently decide to read less YA fiction?” my astute readers may ask. (yes, I did).

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, I was living in Boston, and had just finished reading (and re-reading and re-reading) this new book by an author named Maggie Stiefvater. I had read her previous novel The Scorpio Races when it had come out and just got The Raven Boys on my Kindle because I was neck-deep in grad school reading and wanted to escape. I think I got halfway through my second reading on the Kindle before I realized this was a book I wanted “in the paper” and bought a hard copy.

As part of her promotional tour, Maggie Stiefvater came to the Boston Public Library. Do you know how close I was to the main branch of the Boston Public Library? Close enough to walk, that’s how close. Like, literally just a mile.

I didn’t go see her.

Instead, I went to some talk by some professor at Harvard (I would like to be clear that this sounds much fancier than it actually was). After dithering about the two choices, I told myself I Needed to Get Serious about Being a Graduate Student and that my silly passing infatuation with this book was unimportant.

I have no idea what that Harvard talk was about. None. Zip. Zilch.

In the next four and a half years I preordered every book in the Raven Cycle (the sequels to The Raven Boys). They have shaped me.

I had a chance to see an author who produces work that I loved, and I didn’t go. I’m still vaguely mad about that. From it, I learned an important lesson, one I’m still learning: it’s okay to embrace the things you care about, even if they’re not cool or official or “appropriate” (now, if they’re illegal or immoral, we need to have a chat, ok?).

So I went to the North Texas Teen Book Festival, because it’s literally the first time since 2012 that Maggie Stiefvater and I have been in the same city at the same time again and darn it if I wasn’t going to wade through a mass of adolescents to see her talk.

The above story and train of thought didn’t actually enter my mind as I was deciding whether or not I should go to the NTTBF; I just was drawn to it.  And once again I dithered, I certainly have enough work to do. Only while I was there did I remember.

See! I can learn!

The memory led me to another realization: despite the crowds, which usually make me anxious, today was the longest I’ve gone in literally weeks without feeling anxious. In fact, I feel inspired. I like thinking about stories, all sorts. I like being around other people who like stories. I like learning about how people write stories. I start thinking about my own stories, and how I hope that someday I could be one of those authors – not that I necessarily want to be popular, but it would be nice to be published.

It’s a realization that confirmed for me that what I want, which I question all the time as being legitimate, is what brings me the most peace and joy when I’m enacting it (that is, reading and writing and thinking about stories, to be vague). Shouldn’t we all do those things, instead of what we feel like we should do?

As an idea, it sounds so very obvious and bland, but it is something I’ve struggled with a lot this whole decade of my life, and something I’m very acutely struggling with right now.  It was nice to have a reminder.

Review: Chef’s Table

Unknown.jpegI stumbled onto the Netflix original series Chef’s Table sometime last fall when I was looking for something to put on in the background while I was grading something mundane. From the synopsis and the image I thought it would be like some kind of fancy cooking show, and had been avoiding it for that reason. It would be perfect, I thought, to half-pay attention to.

Well, I was wrong. More about the chefs than the food (thus the title), Chef’s Table is a fascinating exploration of food as art, and the chef as artist. Each featured chef, one per forty-five minute episode, is a driven, artistic person doing interesting things with food. From rediscovering all-but-lost national cooking techniques to updating classic French and Italian cuisine, from plundering the rainforests and the Andes mountains for new and different foods to breaking into male-dominated cuisines, these chefs are inspiring. And I’m obsessed.

Each episode features a highly-rated chef, most either Michelin starred or on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 best list or both. The episode tells the chef’s personal story, the good, bad, ugly, and amazingimages.jpeg. You also watch them in the kitchen(s) of their personal restaurant(s) and cooking in their homes. As the episode comes together, you begin to understand the often weird looking food that is being plated in front of you. Even better, you begin to understand that person and what drives him or her.

In his or her own unique way, each chef is seeking to do something new and unique. They are driven people, passionate and hard working and obsessive. Nearly every one, at some point, heard “you can’t do that,” and the response was always “watch me.”

maxresdefault.jpgOne of my favorite episodes is from season 1, featuring Magnus Nilsson (episode 6). He is a Swedish chef working way up in the middle of nowhere, running the 19th best restaurant in the world, Fäviken [in 2014; it’s been bumped this year to 41. Still, not bad]. After learning French cooking and working with another great chef, Nilsson kind of fell into working at Fäviken, and began doing a course of dishes with traditional Swedish and Scandinavian foods and cooking methods. That led him to travel around and collect and research all these old Nordic cooking methods and dishes that were being lost, and preserve them in a cookbook, The Nordic Cookbook, which I shall own chef_pds_025_h-copy.jpgsomeday.* Not only did I “get” what Nilsson was doing, but his food is beautiful and artistic, not just practical. He, and others, helped me see that the really good fine dining isn’t necessarily just about being fancy and expensive, it’s about creating eatable art, and about exploring the past, present, and future of food. It’s about telling a story, really. A food story. The men and women featured are indeed storytellers who are just as much artists as painters or writers or sculptors or musicians. And food is such an interesting medium to do art with because it not only has thousands or millions of possible combinations but it is also very personal, and also ephemeral and communicative. People eat it, and to be successful you must do all the artistic things but also in such a way that a lot of people will understand what you are doing and like it enough to pay for it and to come back.
Aside from being a fascinating look at the chefs, the show itself is a work of art. The camera work is beautiful, the colors saturated and bright. Even the simplest background Unknown-1.jpegshot is often breathtaking. The shots are very well paced, and the music isn’t just background, it adds something to the episode, getting quiet when the chef is explaining a struggle, becoming triumphant when he or she finally succeeds. And each episode’s soundtrack is slightly different, matching the nationality and mood of the chef being featured. And the title package is awesome.
Three short seasons and a series focusing on French chefs is just not enough. I hope they keep going until they run out of chefs to film.

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*If you click the link it’ll take you to the Amazon page. I don’t get anything if you do, just FYI. Chefs-Table-Crenn-Netflix.jpg

The Productivity Gremlin

Warning: personal and frustrated almost-rant ahead.

Though I’m not sure where it came from, I’ve been haunted by the Productivity Gremlin for a while now. Have you met it? It does the following:

  • Springs merrily out of bed at 5 or 6 am
  • Has a healthy and fruitful morning exercise and devotion/prayer routine
  • Eats well all the time; meals out are a choice, not an “oh-crap-I’m-out-of-food”
  • Heads to work alert and clear-headed.
  • Always completes the day’s to-do list unless there really are circumstances beyond her control (which is rare)
  • Has things finished ages before they’re due.
  • Has time for fellowship with others.
  • Serves on the weekends.
  • Always has a clean house.
  • Is friendly and cheerful and capable and kind and ….
  • etc.

This invisible, nameless, probably impossible vision of who I should be sits in the back of my head and tells me that no matter how much I do in a day, it’s never enough, because something is left undone.

CORAL2.jpgIt makes me feel guilty that I decided to write a story instead of grading that pile of work, or decided to sleep in because I just couldn’t wake up when my alarm of good intentions went off. When my mom commends me for working hard, it pops up a list of all the things I totally could have done today, but didn’t, because I was messing around with a book or lingered too long at dinner with my family.

I fully recognize that the ideal listed above is not something I’m ever going to reach. But I can’t shake the feeling that ultimately, I’m just a slothful person making excuses for why I roll out of bed with barely enough time to get to work, or why that pile of grading isn’t finished. Never mind that I’m teaching AND in grad school AND trying to have some semblance of a social life. I still don’t feel like it’s enough.

I have tried to shape my life closer to that ideal, to Be More Disciplined. It works, for a short time. Then I get a migraine or just feel miserable and lonely and the Discipline falls apart and I’m back where I started.

This blog has no lesson learned, no discussion of how to banish the Productivity Gremlin. I try my best and still am constantly aware of all the ways I fail.

I mean, I could be using the time it takes to type this blog to do some reading for one of my classes.

Has anyone else been haunted by this evil being? Has anyone learned to conquer it?

Two roads diverged: Poetry and Life

One of my favorite poems is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. In fact, I liked it so much I memorized it. Here it is, from this website

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

One of the benefits of memorization is that it forces you to look closely at every word, line, and punctuation mark. As I did this close reading (and this was years ago) I realized I had been reading this poem wrong.

As I explain to my American Lit students, the lines from this poem we hear the most are the last three “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” This has become an inspirational message: Take the less-traveled path! Be individual!

But if you back up, you’ll notice two things. First, the title of the poem is “The Road NOT Taken” (my emphasis). So that lands us firmly into thinking not about the less traveled path, but the other one. Interesting.

two-paths-in-the-woods-copy.jpg

The other thing to notice is that the speaker goes to great lengths to establish that the one road might be “less traveled by” (“It was grassy and wanted wear” in stz. 2) he immediately qualifies by saying, well, they’re not that different. And then, the next stanza begins by saying that on that morning, they were equally untraveled (stz. 3).

With all this together, the poem becomes less about You Be You! and more about – well, reality. The traveler must make a choice, and the choice isn’t an easy one. He must take his time (“long I stood” line 3), and carefully weigh the differences and advantages of each path, and, in the end, there is very little discernible difference. Yet, because the speaker will be relating this story “Somewhere ages and ages hence” it is a choice that made some kind of impact in his life.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I do have a point beyond “read poems carefully” (although you should do that). I’ve been working through some options in my life right now, and this morning realized that this poem accurately expresses the choices I have to make. I am that traveler looking at the fork in the road, and each path is only different in its direction. And yes, I probably will be telling the full story with a sigh, for to choose one thing is leave behind other options. That might be okay. I am so glad I was able to make that connection between this poem and my decisions because it helps me visualize and verbalize my choices more clearly, and because it lets me know that I’m not the only one whose traveled that path before.

This is also a great example of the way a piece of literature, whether a little poem or a novel or an epic or what have you, can change with you. First, I liked the poem for its (inaccurate) inspirational message, and for the imagery of the fall woods. Then, I liked the poem because it taught me something about poetry. And now, I find myself once again identifying with the poem in a new way, a deeper and richer way. This is why we need art: it changes you, and changes with you, making life deeper and richer and sometimes more comprehensible.