Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Disappointing Grief Memoir


Hauntingly Lyrical

When my husband died suddenly last July, I instinctively and intuitively reached out to books. An unconscious decision, I was blindly following the patterns of my life—immersing myself in an unfamiliar landscape, awed by the way words on a page suddenly and inexplicably become a private conversation in which contemplation is allowed and even encouraged, emerging only after the dialogue has reached a stopping point that pushes me back into my surroundings wholly and utterly transformed.  
Smart, Empowering
Over the last nine months, I’ve found myself gravitating towards books in which loss plays a central role.  Each of these has been characterized by one defining feature that separates it from the others—some unique component that resonates, elevates, and endures. However, out of the various genres that take on the messy subject of grief, it is the memoirs that have been the most rewarding of the reading experiences. 

By reaching backwards into their own personal nightmares, the skilled grief memoirist manages to drag readers through the wasteland of loss before carefully moving upward toward a more promising future. The catharsis that emerges from the memoirists' personal emotional 
                                  reckonings has shaped the contours of my own journey. 
(A few of my favorites are shown here.)

Raw & Honest

As a result, I hold great reverence for each of these narratives . Every single one of them.  Until now.

From a distance, Melissa Gould’s “Widowish” seems promising.  It is a recently published narrative written by an Emmy-nominated screenwriter/producer who loses her husband before either one of them is 50.  The publisher’s blurb includes a description of Gould as a woman who doesn’t fit the “typical mold of widowhood,” someone who doesn’t “look or act like a widow” yet struggles to rebuild her life in a similar manner to those women who do meet the cultural dictates and stereotypes. Gould’s story is supposed to be uplifting and deeply moving.

It’s not. Although the writing is solid, Gould doesn’t offer much in the way of insight, nor does she use what memoir-theorist and critic Vivian Gornick calls “an organizing principle.”  Basically, Gould tells her story from start to finish and leaves it at that. The recounting of the past is the redeeming factor in her narrative (and why I gave it three stars): Gould falls in love with her future husband while working a summer job in college, but they don’t get together until years later; they build a rewarding life together that is hard-hit when he is diagnosed with rapidly-debilitating MS at the age of 45; five years into his diagnosis, he suddenly gets sick and falls into a coma (it takes a few weeks for the doctors to figure out what happened); and after making the painful decision to turn off life-support, she is left with a teenage daughter who wavers between heart-wrenching need and emotional unavailability.

The story itself could have taken on the kind of resonating quality present in the other memoirs, but it just never gets there.  As Gornick says, it’s not what happens to the writer, it’s what “the writer is able to make of what happened.” Unfortunately, Gould’s inability to impart any insight about her emotional journey prevents her from tying the threads of her narrative together. In fact, the last third of the book is completely clouded by her falling in love unexpectedly with a handsome acquaintance eight months after her husband died. It’s not that she fell in love so quickly that bothers me. In fact, I think it’s perfectly understandable that someone who once enjoyed a healthy, fulfilling relationship would want that again, and would attract that kind of relationship more quickly.  The problem is that once she meets him, the narrative ceases to be about her journey of loss and more about her excitement that their relationship is accepted by her social circle.  Unfortunately, this plunge backwards into the era of high school popularity contests undercuts some of the better aspects of her story and left me feeling annoyed rather than rejuvenated.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

An Open Letter to Dan Cathy

Dear Mr. Dan Cathy,

I am writing this letter in response to the firestorm created by your recent remarks.  I would like to let you know that I believe that as an American you have every right to say what you think, no matter how unpopular it may be.  I also believe that your business has every right to give money to whichever organizations it deems appropriate.  Moreover, because of this, the mayors of Chicago and Boston should be ashamed of themselves.  As elected officials participating in a democracy, they are not “kings” and do not have the right to make unilateral decisions just because they are in positions of power.
I would also like to say that I think the idea of boycotting your business based solely on differences of opinion is ridiculous. I frequent businesses on a regular basis where I know the owners’ religious, personal, and political ideologies are in direct opposition to beliefs which I hold dearly.  For example, I buy things from stores owned by Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.  Since I am a Christian, I doubt we see all things the same way.  However, their religious persuasions do not stop me from buying things that I need.  On the same token, I do not ask about a proprietor’s political affiliation or ethical standards, either.  (I also don’t ask my neighbors about their religious or political beliefs---that’s not the nature of our relationship.  We coexist peacefully regardless of our diversity). In fact, I do not put a stop to most of interactions based entirely on ideology.  To do so would be unrealistic and foolhardy---most of us have to make those types of compromises (or remain blissfully unaware) if we want to function efficiently and effectively in today’s world.

I am awestruck by the droves of people who showed up to support your company today.  Many of them stood in long lines or sat in hot cars waiting for a turn to rally for you.  My guess is that not all of them are ardent homophobic bigots as many on the left would try to portray them.  And many of them might not even necessarily disagree with gay marriage.  Most of them are probably committed to the support of Christianity and the American way. 

However, I did not go to Chick Fil-A today to join those people.  Nor will I ever frequent your restaurant again.  I’m sure you are probably confused.  I can hear you thinking…. “Wait a minute?  I thought she said she was a Christian?  Why wouldn’t she support me?  I’m doing what the Bible tells me to do.”
Yes, I know that’s what you think.  But that’s exactly where you and I differ.  I am boycotting you.  And it’s not because I don’t think you have the right to voice your opinion.  And it’s not because I like to make foolish ideological stands.  Instead, I am boycotting you as a Christian.   As a follower of Jesus, I object to:

1)      YOUR definition of what constitutes a Christian marriage.
 The last time I looked there are many different interpretations of the Bible not only among different denominations of Christianity, but even within the denominations, and even within their churches.  NO one person, church, denomination, or branch of Christianity owns the “true” interpretation. 

Most importantly, using an interpretation of the Bible to justify the denial of commonly shared rights to a certain group of people is frighteningly reminiscent of a horrible time in this country’s history.  Yes, I am talking about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and every statute that separated and segregated people of color from whites.  Proponents of slavery and bigots of yesterday and today use the story of Ham to justify themselves.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think black skin is a curse or a sign of God’s displeasure.  I’m sure you don’t either.  And yet, that interpretation allowed for the perpetuation of some of the biggest evils on this country’s soil.

2)      Your proclamation that gay marriage invites “God’s judgment on our nation.”
This is outright offensive to me.  I’m sure that all of the Christian ministers who perform gay marriages (or unions in states where marriage is illegal) are also pretty unhappy with you right now as well (not to mention the entire homosexual population, which, by the way, includes hundreds of thousands of fine, upstanding American Christians). 

Didn’t Jesus stand on the mountain near the Sea of Galilee and tell his followers not to judge others? ( I’m sure you know this story since you are such an expert on the Bible. ) I hate to tell you this but your statement is a judgment.  You cannot know when, where, or why God will unleash his displeasure, nor should you predict it.

3)      My dollars (through your profits) going to two organizations, the Family Research Council and Exodus International, (one of which that has been designated as a hate group, both of which are active anti-gay groups given to seeing homosexual proclivities as deviant).
 Much of their anti-gay work is discriminatory and hateful. The Christian God that I know doesn’t believe in any type of hate or discrimination.  (Again, please refer to the Bible.  There’s a lot about that in there.)    

4)      Your lack of veracity in the aftermath.
I know businesses alter the truth all of the time.  And I’m sure I give a lot of my dollars to them.  However, I do not like what you did when the Hensons severed their relationship with your company.  That wasn’t just a distortion of the facts; that was an out and out lie.  As Christians, we are all Sinners so you are allowed to make mistakes.  But, as I learned as a young child, covering up the mistake only makes it worse.  You lied.  Admit it. Repent.  That’s what Christians do.  

Finally, this has been a heartbreaking letter for me to write.  I have always loved the ideals that your company stands for.  And my kids love your food.  I am truly sad to say that our relationship is over, but I wish you no harm---I am sure you are just a person trying to do what's right. I don't agree with your interpretations, but you have a right to them.  (It might be helpful to keep them on the down-low in the future.) 
I hope you understand that my position also comes from a good place and I hope that we might find common ground on this issue some day.


A Heterosexual American Christian who wants Liberty and Justice for All

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back to the Future

Courtney on her 1st Day of 1st Grade

In less than one month, my youngest daughter, Courtney, will graduate.  There's the traditional family-event flurry around our house right now--we are getting the house ready for out-of-town guests, preparing for the graduation party, rounding up addresses of family & friends, and fumbling through mounds of old pictures to put together for a slide show.  In the midst of looking forward, I can't help but look back---

Back to 1988--the year I was graduating high school. My best friend, Jenn, and I had planned our senior year since we were lowly freshmen--we thought that by the time we were seniors, we would be so much wiser, so much cooler, and so much more mature. We planned on our last year of high school being the best year of our lives, something we would enjoy, relish, and savor forever.  Of course, nothing turns out as planned. By the time we got to our senior year, we weren't much wiser, we definitely weren't any cooler, and our maturity made us more cynical, not more joyful as we had planned.  

The Night of My Senior Prom--I was a dreamer (and a ham!)
That year wasn't a great year for me--I worked a lot of hours at Bob's Big Boy so I could save money for Beach Week & college, which left me with a kind of fatigue that resulted in my skipping a lot of school and ignoring many of the extracurricular activites of which I had been so involved. Without my parents' knowledge, I dated a man who was 25 years old and divorced with two kids.  My grades fell (from As to Ds), my work as the editor of the school newsmagazine was sporadic and unreliable, and, in turn, I lost a lot of the respect I had garnered from the adults around me. I barely got my college applications turned in on time (even neglecting to send one of them in, lying to my parents that I had.) By Spring of my senior year, I was so exhausted that I could think of  nothing but Graduation Night--that wonderful moment when I would walk across the stage, shake the prinicpal's hand, look fondly at the other 600+ people with whom I was graduating, and finally realize My Adulthood

Of course, as it was with our plans for Senior Year, Graduation, itself, was a bit of a let down.  Oh, sure, there were moments when I was full of happiness and excitement, but mostly it all felt surreal--a dream that seemed to be happening to someone else.  It didn't feel like I thought it would.  And things went wrong, too.  Since both sets of my grandparents had flown to DC from Indianapolis, our little house was busting at the seams with visitors, so there wasn't much privacy or time to sit back and enjoy the moment.  To top it off, the airline lost my mom's parents' luggage, which left both of them without anything to wear.  Even though they ended up borrowing hodge-podge clothes, the absence of a suit for my grandfather left him grouchy and irritable.  Which left my mom a little frazzled.  And I didn't make it better.  I was busy running around with friends, and I didn't spend much time with my grandparents.  Which made my mom mad.  Which made me get in trouble.  Which tempered my fun.
Graduation Night with My Sister & Grandparents

And then after the ceremony, Jenn and I "wisely" implemented our plan to escape the inevitable after-graduation gridlock by making a run to her car so we could leave and start our night of fun. In our mad dash, we missed celebrating with our peers, some of whom we would never see again. Sure, we were one of the first cars out of the melee, but we ended up in front of my house waiting for 45 minutes for my family to escape the mass of cars.   In all of our planning, it never occurred to us to let our parents in on our idea, or at least get a key so we could enter the house.  What a way to put an end to the adrenaline rush.  One minute, we were revved up and ready to go, screaming and shouting.  The next minute, we were sitting silently on the hood of Jenn's 1970s' Chevy in our caps and gowns, in the excruciating humidity of a Virginia, June evening, looking at our watches, and watching as our time, our "moment of glory" mixed with the heat coming off of the engine and melted away.
Jenn & I leaving for Graduation

In the midst of all of our current preparations, this is what I am faced with.  Flashbacks from the past--so vivid in detail and emotion, that I can literally feel the moment as if it were happening right now.   I know it's cliche, but the years have gone by like seconds.  Mere moments have passed since I was the one at the center of the frenzy--buying my graduation dress, snagging a prom date at the last minute, making plans for Beach Week, and trying to avoid the annoying "lessons about life" sermons from my parents. 

And now here I am, the one on the outside, trying to make plans about things that Courtney could care less about and trying to offer advice that she does not want to hear.  I want her to know all of those things for which I wasn't prepared that night Jenn and I sat on the hood of her car waiting for our lives to begin.  I want her to have all of the tools I didn't have, know the things I didn't know, be ready for the world in the way that I wasn't.  I want her to set her expectations high, dream for everything, expect the best always.  I want her to know that even when things don't turn out the way they were planned, they still have value.  But I'm not sure she wants to listen any more than I did at that age.  And, truthfully, I don't blame her.  She has to live it for herself.

A couple of months ago, Courtney asked me (an amateur photographer with a really good camera) to take her senior pictures.  Her rationale was that she would feel more comfortable, get a choice in the settings, and get more pictures for a lot less money.  I readily agreed and we commenced with the picture-taking, which stretched out over a period of weeks, took place in multiple different places, and ended with an incredible portfolio.  We had a lot of fun and I'm so glad we did it.  I don't know if the photos turned out so well because the photographer (me) actually loves the subject (my daughter) but, for whatever reason, the photos truly capture Courtney's inner and outer beauty. 

Today I will go pick up the actual prints and I will undoubtedly hold them in my hands, stare at them relentlessly, reminisce about the past and wonder about the future.  I know I will do this because throughout the last few weeks, I have been posting them on facebook.  And every time, a friend or family member makes a comment, I go back and look at every single picture again.  But despite my desire to share these great photos, there's one I have kept for myself.  One that I just keep looking at over and over again.  It's the one of which I am most proud.

Even though it's not a traditional senior picture, there is something about it that captivates me.   On a basic level, I planned this shot--I wanted a picture of Courtney's profile on the tracks as she looked off into the distance of the great unknown---her future.  But, as I said before, things don't happen the way I plan them.  I told Courtney what to do and she did it the way she thought it should be.  So, in the end, I got a shot that transcends my expectations. 

It's something in the way she's walking--slowly, gingerly, carefully.  It's something in the hang of her head, the hand on her hair, the slight tilt of her shoulders.  She's halfway to the safety bridge on the trestle, halfway between looking forward and looking down, and halfway between caring about her hair or just letting it whip in the wind.  To me, it is the perfect representation of how all of us feel as we stand on the brink of adulthood.   We look forward to it, we plan for it, and, then, when we get there, we're not quite sure if we really want it or not.

When I think back to my last year of high school--the year when I almost ruined everything I worked so hard for--I realize that my actions, although surely frustrating to my parents and teachers, really did make sense.  I wanted to grow-up.   And I didn't.  Like Courtney in the picture, I was halfway between. 

Perhaps that's why I keep looking at this photo. As we get closer to the big day, I need to remember what it represents.  Things are going to get crazy around here: I will be stressed about getting ready for visitors, the graduation party, the slideshow---all of the maddening details.  What I need to think about is the image of both of us during that last photo shoot. Courtney walking cautiously towards the future, while I stood back, taking pictures from behind.  It's not my time anymore--it's hers.  I don't get to tell her what to do anymore.  I can advise, I can watch, and I can hope.  But I have to let go--to give her the opportunity to make the right choices, to do the right things, to make things better than I planned, to make things better than I ever thought they could be.

Courtney in her Cap & Gown

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Ponyboy Curtis, & Robert Frost

The last two days, I am thinking of this poem:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
---Robert Frost
Unlike Stephen Colbert, who said on air in 2011 that it was the first poem he ever memorized, this was not the first poem I ever learned to recite (my elementary school teachers had a long list of others that I was forced to memorize & recite formally.) However, it was the first poem I ever really cared about--and that's all because of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. One of the most popular books for my generation, it was later made into a movie with an all-star cast that included Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell....some of the biggest heartthrobs of the 1980s and a precursor to the later so-called "brat-pack" flicks.
However, I didn't learn the poem because of any adolescent longing or stereotypical teenage crush. I actually knew the poem long before the movie came out, and long before my generation experienced the thrill of that famous cast all on one screen. Because I was a bookworm, I had stumbled across Hinton in my local bookstore. I quickly became fascinated with her tales of adolescents struggling with real-life issues. Her characters' lives were so different from mine--adults were largely absent and drugs and violence were ever-present concerns. And yet, their fears about belonging and dreams about the future were just like my own.
In The Outsiders Ponyboy's love for literature rivaled my own and his admiration for that particular poem fascinated me. At that point, I didn't like poetry (thanks to all of that recitation in elementary school combined with the ridiculous teaching of counting syllables and finding ryhme patterns). I became mesmerized with the idea that someone so "cool" could find poetry alluring and understandable. So, on my own, I made myself memorize the poem---I wanted to be like Ponyboy.
And in my perseverance, I discovered that the poem actually made sense. For the first time, even though I didn't know the rhyme pattern and hadn't counted the syllables, a poem had meaning and value to me. I realized that, like the sunrise, good things don't always last forever. The poem also seemed to point to the fleeting nature of those things which are only built on illusions--the perfect combination of light and atmospheric elements mixing together at just the right time to create a beautiful image that will only last for a few moments. One might spend an eternity searching for that same wonderful moment, only to find that it can never be recreated in just the same way because the concept of its perfection is pure fantasy.
Flash forward to the present. Yesterday while teaching Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay," I got the sudden brainstorm of playing the scene from The Outsiders where Ponyboy recites the poem to Johnny as they watch the sun rise. Many of my students were familiar with the book and the movie and watching the clip really seemed to help them get the poem. In the midst of our discussion (and I'm not sure exactly how this came up), we had a quick side discussion of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. And then we went back to Frost, and then onto other poems.
But all day long it plagued me. I kept seeing images of C. Thomas Howell as Ponyboy and Ralph Macchio as Johnny with their young, sweet faces intermixed with that angelic face of Trayvon Martin. All day long. And then I thought, is there really a connection with Trayvon and Hinton's 1960s' misunderstood greasers? After a day of contemplation and the nagging sounds of all those boy actors screaming "Let's Do It for Johnny!"--I finally came to the realization that, yes, the connection was not only there, but as significant to us now, as the problems of the greasers were to us in 1983.
In the book, the poem foreshadows the loss of innocence of the main characters. In the movie scene, the recitation is clearly foreboding and ominous (remember that Ponyboy & Johnny discuss the poem right before they run into the burning church). But, historically for literary critics, the poem has had other alternative meanings. In 1953, Alfred R. Ferguson wrote "perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Here, Ferguson was discussing the ways in which Frost uses the metaphors of Eden and Original Sin to point to the idea of felix culpa (this is Aquinas's concept that God allows evil to happen in order to facilitate greater good).
In The Outsiders, the greasers seek to revenge the wrong done to Johnny by the socials, by his father, and by society. They are sick and tired of the inequities of a society that paints them as bad because of their lack of money and social status. They are misunderstood, abused, and cast aside because of factors outside their control. Yet, as Hinton shows us---good never comes from more bad. The greasers' determination to seek revenge ends in more violence and more devastation. This is surely not what Aquinas meant when he talked about a greater good coming out of atrocities. By the end of the greasers' story, a few of them have died and none of them (outside of Ponyboy) have much of a future.
Judged by outside factors. Misunderstood. Victim of circumstance. Ostracized. Hurt. Maimed. Killed. And most heartbreaking---further victimized by the society's elevation of small infractions to indefensible violations in order to act as justification for the crimes against them. Sound familiar? I am describing Hinton's characters; but I am also describing the real life Trayvon Martin.
We should all be sad. And we should all be as angry as those greasers were when they stood in Johnny's hospital room screaming in unison, "Let's do it for Johnny! Let's do it for Johnny!" We need to act. We need to gather together and do something. The atrocity against Trayvon Martin is real. And it's wrong. And it means something because it tells us that 50+ years after the Civil Rights Movement, we are still a country plagued by racism. We have to stop it.
But this time, let's follow the basic idea of felix culpa. Let's make a greater good out of the evil that took Trayvon. If we truly are to be "the land of the free" we have to make real, lasting change. We cannot be the "sunrise" nation. Ideal, beautiful, and alluring, but built on nothing more than the fleeting illusion of a perfection that was never designed to last. We must change the destiny of this country and that starts now. There are no simple solutions to racism. But there are things we can do. Every single one of us must make individual changes in how we think and how we act. We must dedicate ourselves to ensuring that others also refuse to participate in racist thoughts and racist actions. The time is now--"Let's Do it for Trayvon!" And let's do it for ourselves, our children, and our future as good, moral people united by the idea of liberty and justice for all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back in November, at a gathering at my house, one of our (younger) friends suggested that I should get on Twitter. When I explained that I didn't "get" twitter, the friendly conversation quickly devolved into a tense discussion about the merits of abbreviated statements as a substitute for lengthy prose, which futher devolved into an argument about the younger generation's inability to read thoroughly and critically, which ended with a lot of hurt feelings about the generational differences between those born in the 70s and those born in the 80s and later. I tried to explain that the "millenial generation" often struggles with an ability to process information in larger quantities and that this was a result of changes in education, changes in the media, and the accessibility of various technologies.
In the end, I was the person with the most hurt feelings--I had been putting a lot of thought & research into why my younger students were becoming increasingly harder to reach and I didn't feel like my friends were giving me my "rightful" consideration as an educator with firsthand experience. The following blog is a re-vamped facebook note that followed the heated argument from the night before. Months later, I can see that I was probably way too sensitive and yet, I still believe that every word I said that night (and in this diatribe) was right on the mark.
Generational Differences
People are shaped by the major events and innovations of the time period in which they grow up it and live. Although that does not mean that everyone born in the 1930s is exactly the same; it does mean that people that grew up during the Great Depression will likely be influenced by the feelings that accompanied that time period. That is why we name generations in the first place. I don't think anyone can dispute that those growing up in the 1930s share similar values and experiences, just as those growing up in the wake of WWII share similarities, just as those who were young during the 9/11 attacks see the world differently than we did at their age. Does it make them exactly alike? Of course not! But it does shape them in a way that they experience the world with some similar approaches.
Although it might seem that people who were born in the 1970s should all be a part of one generation, it doesn't exactly work that way specifically because of the technological advances that happened during that time period. There is a great book on this that might be interesting to read. It is Generation Y: Surviving and Thriving with Gen Y at Work. In the book, Peter Sheahan differentiates between those born in the early 1970s and the later parts of the decade. He outlines various reasons for the differences and they go way beyond whether people had a home computer or cable tv. It is an in-depth look at the entire sociological spectrum--all aspects of how we are shaped as human beings. Again, this doesn't mean that people born in the 1970s are not in the same generation; it means that people born at different times in the decade might be separated in world approaches b/c of the rapid changes that were happening during that time period.
The News
The idea of my not "getting" Twitter is based on my own personal preference and my complete identification with people growing up in the 1970s in the type of household in which I grew up. That is to say that not only were cable news and home computers not a part of daily life, but I was conditioned in a way that might have negated their impact, even if they had. I read books voraciously and I was surrounded by adults who read newspapers and newsmagazines and discussed the news in a full, in-depth manner. In other words, had I only read a headline and tried to get in on a conversation, my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles would have demanded that I have a full grasp of the situation before attempting to enter a conversation. This forced me to read news in its entirety, thus disallowing me from being satisfied by quick "sound-bytes" of news. Along these same lines, during my childhood USA Today was not a major news source. In fact, when it started to get widespread distribution in the 1980s, there were many naysayers who claimed that it was ruining the newspaper by only giving the basics of the story and not the full explanation.
Although the inverted pyramid has been widespread since the invention of the telegraph, it has always been a source of controversy among journalists and continues to be to this day. If you do a quick google search, you will find that the inverted pyramid was never intended to be a substitute for full documentation of news; it was, as I said last night, a way to get the headlines out there quickly so that people could have access to the important stuff immediately, and return to the full information at a later time. (Remember this was in the days when people did not even have telephones in their homes, much less tvs, internet, or cell phones.) If people were only reading the first few paragraphs, then the advent of USA Today would not have caused the kind of uproar that it did amongst journalists and newsies.
The entire thrust of my assertions about differences in generations and the thirst (or distrust) of attaining news through outlets like Twitter is based on the idea of the neuroplasticity of the brain--what I was calling "brainwaves". This is the way the brain reorganizes itself based on different developmental experiences. Neural pathways are MOST significantly affected during the first few years of life (this is why Ripken's brain surgery at 7 months old was much less problematic for him than had he received the same surgery at 2 years old). During this time period, the pathways can regroup when they find resistance (as they did for Ripken). This is also when a 2nd language is easier to learn, and this is when the pathways are most sensitive to external stimuli. As the human being gets further and further away from the zone of proximal development, the pathways become less and less adaptive. This doesn't mean that they cannot adapt; it means that it takes longer. However, they can still be affected---they continue to reorganize and restructure based on input (however slowly that might be).
Ripken at age 7 months a few weeks before brain surgery
So, you're right--I could like Twitter if I wanted to. BUT, because my brain is not conditioned that way, it would take a considerable effort for me to do so. Just like it is going to take a considerable effort for those who have excess stimulation to sit still long enough to read past keywords. Stimulation can be such a negative thing. In excess, it reconditions those pathways so that they require more and more of it instead of being content with limited excitement. It is for this reason that many child advocates are warning parents against large amounts of tv and computer usage prior to the age of 3 because of the heightened risk of ADHD. This is not a fictional idea that I came up with but one that is well-documented and researched throughout many texts on neuroscience.
Kids & Books
In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a study on the use of technological stimulation, i.e. television, computers, videogaming, on children under the age of 6. What they found (and this is before internet usage was widespread) is that kids were getting per/day less than 2 hours of outside play, but engaging in 1.58 hours of screen time. By the age of 21, those kids will have spent on average hundreds of thousands of hours doing video games, reading e-mails, and watching tv, but only 5,000 hours of reading.
Those kids in that study are now approximately 14 years old and those are the kids that educators need to start preparing for now. The students I am seeing this year are obviously less affected than those in the study, just by virtue of the increase in technological domination that has ocurred since 2000. However, they are still products of an age that is very different from one that I grew up in. I am seeing the results of limited book time and increased technological stimulation and those results are not compatible with our current educational system.
Kids & Rapid Fire Information=Not Much Reading
And that leads me to the basic point: by and large, the generation known as the millenials (some say it starts in 1980; others say it starts as far back as 1976) have grown up with the stimulation of rapid fire information and images that did not exist in my childhood: newspapers like USA Today, headline news (whether it was in the home or on tv screens in public places), video games, computer screens, televisions in multiple rooms in the house, televison programming that went beyond the three major networks, tv shows with beautiful pix rather than the fuzzy pictures produced by fickle rabbit ears, etc.
This puts them in the position where unless they work hard to access information in a more traditional way, they are hostage to the neural pathways that have already been developed i.e. information in short, quick doses unecumbered by extraneous words or distractions. People in my position must make changes to our education system or we are going to only reach the top 10% of this generation--those whose pathways are not as severely affected or those who are determined to fight their way in an educational system that was designed for people who were born before the invention of immediate and brief information.
Admitting There's a Problem is the 1st Step
In the end, my comments were not designed to disparage one generation or another. It is simply the way that it is. The time period in which we grow up DOES affect us; there will always be mitigating factors for every individual that either ameliorate or intensify those effects. However, nothing can completely eliminate them(unless one is completely isolated from society). If we truly want to function as a society whose workforce is composed of both extremes--60 year-olds who likely had one tv in their home as a child and 20 year olds who don't remember when phones were plugged into walls---we must acknowledge that the differences in world approaches are a result of a combination of factors outside the locus of individual control.
All of this hoopla just from one comment about social media as a viable medium for information! And yet, I did end up joining twitter afterall. But not because I suddenly "get" it...I still don't. However, I joined because I knew it would be a good way to reach my students--you know the ones--they quickly skim through follow-up e-mails containing clarifications about assignments. The next class, when they realize that their lack of attention resulted in incomplete (or just plain wrong) work, they have the audacity to complain that the instructions were too long for them to follow on their phones. Twitter (no matter how much I despise it) protects me from having to fight that battle, too...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I started this blog almost five years ago and made one post. One post! Now that's sad...I feel like I should be beating myself up, but I have to admit that I really wasn't ready to blog in 2007. My boys were still really young (3,3, & 4), I was starting my first real teaching job, and I was just overwhelmed with a new house, a new city, and a new life. I simply did not have time to think.

Ahhh..but here I am, 5 years later. Same house, same city, still teaching (at a different school), and my boys require a lot less of me.

So...I guess that means I need to do a quick wrap-up of the last five years. I taught Language Arts and Humanities at a private school for two years, but left when the parental interference became too suffocating (more on this some other time). I started teaching English as an Adjunct Professor at two local community colleges. At 40-something years-old, I finally feel like I found what I should have been doing all along: teaching people how to read and write.

Of course, I would love to be full-time, but those positions are hard to come by in this economic environment, so I am biding my time, just waiting for the right faculty position to open up (by "right" I mean--"they want me because I definitely want them.")

Although I love working with college students, last fall I started seeing some disturbing trends that I found greatly concerning. Unfortunately, I started realizing that the kids graduating from high schools in 2011 were not as prepared for college as the ones who graduated in 2009. I know it seems like two years shouldn't make that much of a difference, but it really does. I'll be getting into this more in-depth at a later time, and although there are a lot of factors at play, there are two major reasons for this divergence in learning styles & needs, study habits, and classroom behaviors.
The students who graduated in 2011:
  • Were subjected to the pressures & education mandates of "No Child Left Behind" since the 4th grade
  • Were 7 and 8 years old when the internet started becoming a standard fixture in classrooms and homes

The combination of these two factors, along with some other noteworthy cultural and educational environs, has produced a totally different college population than the one we as educators are prepared to teach. The challenges of trying to meet this breed of 21st century student in a way that engages, energizes, and excites them, while still educating them and requiring them to full meet the standards has been the biggest hurdle of my professional career.

Having said that, I am more motivated than ever and much of my blog will be dedicated to my observations of this population as well as my insights and ideas for ensuring that this generation does not continue to get shortchanged educationally.

Over the course of the next few days, I will be posting some blogs that are slightly revamped versions of some previous notes I have written about this subject. Some of the stories are about my own education while others are pontifications about the experiences and needs of the millenial generation. I am doing this as a way of "catching up" to where I want to be when Spring Break ends: using this blog to document my observations of current situations in my classrooms, in the world, and how the two are interacting.

Eventually, I hope to develop some successful teaching strategies that can be shared with other educators.

Until then, please feel free to access my website, share experiences, and offer feedback----


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Getting Started

I have wanted to start blogging for over a year but kept putting it off (I am a major procrastinator.) And even though I have several ideas every day about things I want to write about, now that I am doing it, I can't think of a thing to say. So, instead of starting off with a political tirade or musings about motherhood, I am going to give a more in-depth explanation of my profile.

Quick Intro:

I have five kids: Kristyn, Courtney, Ripken, and twins: Nick & Zack. Rip is exactly 1 year 10 days older than the twins so it is a lot like having triplets. Kristyn is outgoing, charismatic, empathetic, and creative. Courtney is organized, disciplined, hard-working, and wise beyond her years. The girls are basically "grown-up" and don't need as much anymore. The boys are a totally different story. Rip is easy-going, fun-loving, and highly-motivated. Doctors discovered a tumor in the speech center of his brain when he was 5 months old. He had surgery at 7 months old and has completely recovered. Other than his scar, neither the tumor nor the surgery is noticeable. Nick is very verbal, extremely creative, and very interested in reading and learning about the world. Zack is loving, insightful, and extremely imaginative. The twins both have Autism Spectrum Disorder, which, for them, mostly impacts their classroom learning. (Although they are smart, they do not learn the same way as mainstream kids which is proving to be a challenge as they get older.) Altogether, the boys are loud and messy, but fun.


Don't have one. I am a Marine Corps brat and lived all over the country and in Gitmo (Cuba). The place that most feels like home is Southeastern Arizona.


I served in the Army for five years as a behavioral science specialist (mental health counselor) and worked in social work for the last nine years. However, although I love working in the domestic violence field, I had a hard time finding a job in that area in our town in SC. I went back to school, returned to my original love, and got my M.A. in English.


I love to run especially on trails (preferably in the mountains), but I had a difficult time adjusting to the heat in Texas so my outdoor running is pretty minimal these days. I spend a lot of time in the gym since we moved here, but I am hoping that some day I can get back to trail running. I also love to rollerblade and play racquetball. Tom tried to teach me how to golf but I am just out and out horrible. I love to read and prefer contemporary literature and classics to "beach-reads" just as I prefer newspapers and magazines to online news. I have to admit that I do read a lot of different internet news sites as a way of getting news about other places and various perspectives.

Purpose of Blog:

I plan on recording my unique observations about news events, trends in education, and other cultural events that affect students, educators, and parents. From time to time, I might throw in some essays on running/working-out and some pictures of my extracurricular projects--like cooking, photography, and decorating. Mostly though, this is meant to be a forum where I can organize and group my observations and ideas about the world in which we live so that I have a record of significant events and patterns to share with my students.