Friday, April 30, 2010

Science Fare*

"It's not you, it's me.... You're giving me the 'It's not you, it's me' routine? I invented 'It's not you, it's me.' Nobody tells me it's them, not me. If it's anybody, it's me."

- George Costanza on the TV show “Seinfeld” in the episode “The Lip Reader”

The evening after the Spanish fiasco, my husband and I attended our children’s school Science Fair. Every other year, the city hosts a Science Week, in which museums, MIT, Harvard, and biotech companies all over Cambridge participate. Last weekend, they had a big fair at the main library and high school gym. During the week, the students at each school presented their posters.

Younger grades do a class project. Kindergarten is habitat. First-grade is balls and ramps. My daughter’s second-grade class studied floatation. After viewing her poster, I asked her why a cantaloupe floated while a grape sunk. She replied, “Density”.

By fifth-grade, students work in pairs. My son and his friend created a home that ran on alternative energy. Some aspects made sense (greenhouse, solar panels), while others did not (jumping on a trampoline and walking up a slide to produce power).

The middle school students were required to stand in front of their posters, present their experiment and findings, and then people like me wrote down on fact we learned on a sheet. I assume what we wrote is part of their grade.

Inexplicably, there were about three experiments that had to do with Mentos and soda. The significance? I have no idea. My favorite experiment was a taste test between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee. OF COURSE, I could tell which was which. One pair did a study whether or not music interfered with concentration when playing a video game. I kid you not.

Two girls grew grass in a “greenhouse” and “outside”, to see in which environment it grew better. Another type of grass was the subject for a report on the dangers of marijuana. It explained side effects, provided two columns of nicknames, and showed a list of the top pot smoking countries. According to this list, New Zealand was number one, followed by Spain, and then the United States. The student wasn’t there to explain the data.

I loved seeing the students as they proudly and shyly spoke about their posters. My husband said that even though the students are older, they’re cute. “That’s what I’ve been saying!” I replied. “They’re all taller than you,” he said. It’s true. I find it funny that anyone respects my authority when they tower over me. Probably pity.

Irony of ironies, when I got home, I received a call to sub middle school Science the next day. I would be at the rally school**. When I’d subbed for Math***, the students could’ve been better or maybe it was me who could’ve been tougher.

This is the cool part. When students saw I was their sub, they were happy. Not because I was a sub to annihilate, but because it was ME. Tears. “You’re my favorite sub!” one exclaimed. I choose to believe he meant it. Another student asked his usual, “Do you remember my name?” I did.

The absent teacher was the one who usually helped me when the other Science teacher was out. Instead of getting my usual sixth and seventh-graders, I’d have mostly eighth-graders and one seventh-grade class. This was a heavy teaching day. I’d have five classes, and one of the groups came in TWO TIMES. Oh joy. As I knew he would, this teacher left me thorough plans. All I had to do was staple the packets. The eighth-grade packet didn’t seem very substantial, but his plans specifically said the last page would take them a long time. Foreshadow…

First group, first period, two students finished that packet in TWENTY MINUTES. How long is the class, you ask? An hour. AND I’d get them again in the afternoon for ANOTHER HOUR. Awesome. Their packet was about cancer, so none of my papers or my membership to were going to help me. Surfing the Internet, I didn’t find much that was appropriate. Perusing the textbook, I found a chapter on cell mutation. Another student verified they hadn’t done that chapter. Voilà, I had my afternoon assignment.

All of the groups were good, although some students worked harder than others, and I had to make sure the ones who finished early kept their voices down to a (somewhat) acceptable level. The nice part about this room is it’s in a corner, not attached to any other rooms. I brought in Brain Teaser cards and someone borrowed playing cards from another teacher so most teens were occupied.

One group of seventh-graders is usually the thorn in my butt, but even they were better than usual. A pair of fraternal twins trashed talked/argued the whole time (as usual), but this time I was better about keeping them separated.

Overall, the kids, although exhausting, made me laugh.

I confiscated a scissor from a student.

His friend said, “That’s not a weapon.”

“He doesn’t need it to work on his packet,” I replied.

“Why don’t you wait until he uses it as a weapon.”

“What if it were a gun? Should I wait until he used that?”

The boys laughed.

Those same boys kept pulling their eyes taut to tease their Asian friend. “That’s racist.” I reprimanded. Then I brought up the film “The Blind Side”, which they’d all seen and it distracted them from… being racist.

I also confiscated a book from a student who kept reading instead of doing her packet. “It kills me to do this,” I said.

A group of eighth-grade girls who finished early wanted to do gymnastics, but I told them they needed a spotter and a mat. Instead, I let them go in the hallway (another advantage of being in an isolated corridor) so they could lean against the wall in a sitting position to see who could sit there the longest.

At the end of the day, the English teacher asked me how they day had gone.

“It went well. I don’t know why some days are better than others. I think it’s them, not me.”

“They’re like that for everyone,” he replied.

“The only difficulty was dealing with those brothers, but I had one work in the hallway and then it was fine.”

“I don’t know what their problem is. We’ve had the parents in multiple times, but they won’t put them in different classes.”

So, there you have it. It’s them, not me.

*I didn’t use “Fair” intentionally. Get it?

**The Pep Rally:

*** When I subbed these students last time for Math:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

No Más

“Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination.”

- Fitzhugh Dodson

The good thing about the substitute gatekeeper is that she calls later in the evening than the “real” gatekeeper. The regular one called until 7:00 pm. This meant any teacher who called in sick after that time wouldn’t get a substitute until the next morning (5:30 am). Later night calls = more sleep in the morning. So, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, the calls came in around 8:00 pm. Unfortunately, it also means I’ve worked (too much) everyday so far this week. Since I was on vacation and won’t get paid for last week, this is good. (It’s terrible.)

Monday = French (5th-8th grades)

Tuesday = Kindergarten

Wednesday = Spanish (9th-12th grades)

Thursday = Science (7th-8th grades)

If I receive a call for Friday, I’ll cry. As I said on Facebook, these erratic assignments are giving me whiplash. (Friend me, if you’d like. Theresa Brown Milstein.)

I hadn’t worked at the high school for a few weeks, so I looked forward to spending the day in Community R. You know how many of my sub job posts begin with mornings that are difficult and days that get better? This was one of those days.

When I arrived at the office, the secretary handed me the schedule and attendance with the so-called plans for Spanish scribbled on the front by said secretary. Drum roll please:

Have students complete packet.

Finish movie. May already be done.

What movie? What packet? What if someone forgot them? Are there more copies? What if they complete the packet? Any alternatives? Anything else I should know?

When I reached the classroom, there was a TV/DVR combo, along with a DVD on Central America sitting on the cart. At least that was taken care of. Soon, the students filed in.

I told them to work on the packet. “We completed that.”

I mentioned the movie. “We saw that.”

I found a movie on Mexico. “We saw that too.”

Gulp. After searching the room for something, I ran to the office and found a useless (because there’s NO WORK in it) sub folder in the mailbox and grabbed the DVD inside.

Holding up, “Il Postino”, I asked, “Have you seen this?”


Groan. “I’ll be right back.”

I dashed back to the office. Mind you, I’ve left a roomful of students unsupervised, praying they wouldn’t steal my money out of my wallet or download porn onto my laptop. I was fairly certain they didn’t seem the type to do either. Then I explained my “situation” to the secretary. She tried the teacher. He didn’t answer. (What are the odds?)

I admitted, “I have Spanish handouts but they’re too easy for high school. At this point, I’m not sure what to do with them.”

“I’ll find something for you.”


Then I left the office dismayed because I’ve NEVER, in over a year of subbing, EVER had NOTHING. The school is huge, so it’s not like the library is right there for me to grab another movie. The DVDs at home weren’t appropriate for an older Spanish class. (Dora the Explorer?) And how could I possibly know what they were learning. There are classes where I can come up with impromptu lessons. High School Spanish is not one of them.

I returned to the room and tell the students, “Nothing new was left. I’m waiting for the office to bring something.”

One student said, “Just put ‘Central America’ on. We can watch it again.”

“Okay, when the secretary comes in, we’ll do something else.”

They sat and watched the DVD for at least twenty minutes until the secretary came in with “Selena” and some film I’d never head of. I told the students their choices. “We’ve seen ‘Selena’ so many times!” one student wailed. With little choice, I put in the other DVD, which wound up being like a Spanish soap opera. The students watched the film, occasionally making fun of it. They were so good even though I was unprepared and left the room. They didn’t even touch my wallet or computer. Sniff.

Second period was at the Freshman Academy/Ninth-Grade High School. Armed with my pile of DVDs, I headed over. Those students had finished the packet, but hadn’t seen “Central America”. Easy class. While they watched, I edited. You’d have to ask my beta reader, Aubrie if the chapters* I forwarded were coherent.

A Math teacher at the school asked me when the Spanish teacher was returning. I asked how long the Spanish teacher had been out. It turns out he’d gone on a trip to Central America two days before break and hadn’t returned. “Must’ve gotten sick,” the Math teacher mused. All I knew was that it explained why the students had completed the packet and had watched an inordinate number of DVDs.

Last period, the students had previously done all the work and seen all the movies but the Spanish Soap Opera film. Halfway through, I let them slack because the movie really was BAD. A couple of girls drew and colored, while the boys played basketball with a garbage can and crumpled paper. Oh yeah, I’m gonna get that “Sub of the Year” award any day now.

These students attend each class for an-hour-and twenty-minutes. If the teacher misses this many days with inadequate work, it adversely affects their education. I’m sure they’re happy to slack, but I’m incensed on their behalf. And tired. I need a break.

*Aubrie’s blog:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Kinder Kindergarten

Me, First Grade (Don't judge my hair)

“Kindness is a language which the deaf ear can hear and the blind can see.”

- Mark Twain

Monday evening, I received a call to work at the eight-hour school I’d subbed at recently*. I double-checked with the substitute gatekeeper that it wasn’t an eight-hour assignment. The response; “She didn’t say it was extended day.” Subs.

I reported to the office at 7:40 and found out that it was an extended day assignment.

After explaining what I’d been told, I said, “I can’t work for eight hours because I have to let my children into the house after school.”

“How long can you stay?”

“I can do seven instead of my usual six.” (That’s seven hours without coffee.)

The secretary sighed. “We’ll find someone for the last hour.”

My job was to replace the assistant, so I’d be working for the kindergarten teacher. “This is the worst class I’ve had in twenty years.” (Oh joy.) She wasn’t kidding. While there were sweet kids who hugged me and told me cute things, paid attention and worked hard, there were the others. Seven people were added to the list of students who would sit on the bench for five or ten minutes (depending on the number and type of infractions) for recess.

I had to keep several children, mostly boys, to stay quiet on the rug and on task at the tables. During literary, I helped each child write a cover for its alphabet book, which entailed having it write, “My Name Book by…” This is harder than it sounds since they turn the book the wrong way, make spelling errors (including their names), and many kids came in and out of the room with specialists, so it was difficult to keep track of who did what. Oh, and the teacher sent one student to THE OFFICE. The infraction? When the students left the rug after story time, he crawled a couple of feet and said, “I am a monster.”

Lunch duty felt a bit chaotic. Five students had the privilege of eating lunch with the teacher, so I had to remember who was allowed to go back to the classroom. Unfortunately, the students reminded me one by one, as I helped other students choose their beverages and make sure they took a fruit. It turned out that one student didn’t remember to go upstairs. Later, when I returned to the classroom, the teacher barked at me, “Why didn’t you send him up?” After my lame response, she barked at the student, “Why didn’t you come up? Another student could’ve taken your place.” I failed.

Back to the cafeteria, when I handed the food list to the lunch lady, she asked about a certain student whose name she’d never seen.

“He’s a new student,” I responded.

“He’s not on the list. Go get him.”

I brought the boy who barely spoke English over to the woman. “What’s your name?” I asked.

He replied. She grumbled, “That’s his American name. What’s his Chinese name?”

He said it and we figured it out. Crisis averted.

I sat with the Chinese boy most of the afternoon, trying to interact him and teach him words. He must’ve liked it because he scooted closer to me, and showed me everything he did. He was like a seventh-grade student taking a language for the first time because he knew his colors, numbers, animals, and body parts. But when he tried to speak in complete sentences, it came out like gibberish.

Students at this school take Chinese twice a week, so it was sweet when one girl made a point to speak to him in her limited Chinese. Other than that girl and me, the boy spent his time isolated. I hoped the words would connect soon so he’d speak fluently and make friends.

The girl who helped the Chinese boy looked like a boy herself, with short hair, wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants. I was glad the teacher said the girl’s name first. I HATE when I make a mistake with gender. It happens once in a while, and then I feel terrible.

When I was around their age and at the supermarket, waiting for my mother to finish checking out, I hung out with a boy around my age, probably also waiting for his mother. After we played for some time, he asked, “Are you a boy?” In all fairness, I had short, curly hair and probably wasn’t wearing a dress that day. But I still remember it. I waited over ten years before I had short hair again** because I had boobs, so nobody would mistake me for a boy again. Now I don’t want to scar other children for life.

Besides helping the students, photocopying, and laminating, I also had to take the kids out for thirty-minutes to play in the park. In the cold. With the threat of rain. Fun. Things went smoothly while the seven kids sat on the benches for their punishment. As I began releasing them, the problems began. There were accusations galore:

“He threw woodchips in my face.”

“He spit on me.”

“That’s because he told me to shut up.”

“She won’t let me push the tire swing.”

“He kicked me in the knee.”

“She pushed me.”

Each time the kids claimed an injury, I reverted back when my kids were younger, and we were at the park. In case you don’t spend time with kids, they want bandages and/or ice for everything. Pay attention because for the under six set, this works like MAGIC. I took out my tube of lip ointment, wiped it down, put some of my finger, and rubbed it on the booboo. “Does it feel better?” I’d ask. It always did. Not one child went to the nurse.

When the seventh hour ended, nobody was happier than me. After intervening between unruly boys, calling the office twice because two children peed on the bathroom floor, only a thirty-minute break, and no coffee, I was ready to go home.

* A post about the last time I taught at the school (P.E., of course):

** My yearbook photo:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

C'est La Vie

Lane Meyer: “She only speaks French, Roy. She doesn't speak imbecile.”

Lane's mom: "In honor of our special guest, I've created dinner mon dieu — including Frahnch fries ... Frahnch dressing ... and Frahnch bread. And to drink..." (holding up a bottle of Perrier) "Pay-roo!"

- Two separate scenes from the film “Better Off Dead”

Vacation is over. Monday marked the first day back from break. But surely nobody would miss the first day after break, right?

My alarm blared at 5:25 am. It wasn’t always this loud, was it? I’d also taken a week off from dealing with sit-ups, so I got back to work on crunches. The phone rang, but instead of my called I.D. reading “Private Caller”, it had a name. Wrong number? The roofer? No such luck. The regular gatekeeper will be out for the next few weeks, so I’m going to get calls from a substitute gatekeeper. Since she’s a sub, I wonder if I should act up.

When I heard that I’d be teaching French, I wanted to exclaim, “Mon dieu!” because I don’t know French. All I know is a handful of words and phrases. (I’ve used up two phrases for the title and this paragraph, so I’m almost out.) If subbing Spanish is a stretch, I may have just snapped the rubber band. Surely, there’s some algebra class I could teach instead. What were the chances that a teacher would send adequate plans after having a week off? If only I knew how to write the answer zero in French.

The problem is that I have no plans to teach French. I didn’t even know I was on the roster to teach French. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure they ignore my list because that’s how I wound up subbing Instrumental Music before break*.

I grabbed the film “Ratatouille” in English (I know, lame), renewed my subscription to in case I needed to print some handouts, and took my iPod and speaker (just in case), and left my house with trepidation.

When I arrived at the office, I the secretary handed me plans. This was the first line to the principal and assistant principal:

“I will be out sick on Monday. These past few weeks of intense exchange work have done me in, the final straw being that incident on Fri. night. Here are my sub plans:”

Oh great. What was this final straw and will I have to deal with this student?

The sub plans were fine. She was clear about having the first three classes read and answer questions out of the textbook and that I’d collect the work at the end of class. Then I went to her room, which wasn’t a classroom, but an office. When I saw the cart filled with stuff on it, it became clear that I would be a roving teacher. I ran back downstairs to the office to find out where the classrooms were located since the plans failed to mention this CRITICAL piece of information.

For the last class, I was supposed to find an animal packet in her office. If I couldn’t find it, I was supposed to find a documentary on Paris. If I couldn’t find that, I was told to go to a website and print a food and shape packet. When I couldn’t find the animal packet, I breathed a sigh of relief when I located the DVD. But I went to the library to print copies of the other packet, just in case. For good measure, I printed animal coloring pages from Enchanted Learning.

The first class was filled with dream seventh-graders, who did their work quietly. One girl raised her hand, so I came over.

“I don’t have a question. Well, I do have a question, but it’s not related to French.”

That’s good because I don’t know French. “What’s the question?”

“You know Home Depot?” I nodded. “Well, why do they have a t at the end if it’s silent? Isn’t it like a waste of a letter?” She began talking faster in case I didn’t take her seriously. “I mean, like wouldn’t it be better for the environment if we didn’t make signs with letters we don’t pronounce?”

“If they dropped the t, they’d seem illiterate,” I said.

“That’s true.”

“Besides, you take French and you’re asking me? They don’t pronounce most of the ends of their words. Etoile is a good example.”

She agreed. (Maybe she's the perfect audience for The Disappearances.)

The eighth grade class I had next was the opposite of the first class. I already knew them from when I first became a sub and taught Science when they were seventh-graders. They were HORRIBLE. Since then, I’d had them in gym, which is preferable over making them sit and do something. Apparently, this class doesn’t like to do anything. While a few kids worked, I walked around nagging the others, who were kind enough to ignore me.

The second eighth-grade class was better, especially when I separated two of the boys. One wound up reading in the hallway instead of doing the assignment, but at least he was quiet. And reading. It turned out that the Science teacher, who was in and out of the classroom (since it was her room), spoke French and was able to help the students more than I could. She said, “I should’ve subbed French today and you could’ve taught Biology instead.” I agreed.

Next came fifth-grade. Guess what? The DVD case was EMPTY. So, I gave them the packet and told them they could color if they finished early. Fifth-graders love to color, so they buzzed through the packet to get the chance to color sea creatures, insects, birds, and other animals.

While they worked, I spied a row of dioramas on a shelf. “They got to do dioramas!” I exclaimed. (No, really, I exclaimed.) The teacher told me it was an American colony project. I eyed the cardboard boxes and their contents with envy. I want to be teaching Social Studies and doing fun projects. I remember having the students create journals for colonial women, toolboxes for occupations of colonial men, Native American posters, Explorer reports, and Bill of Rights pictures. Sigh…

The day ended, so I bid the school adieu.

* Instrumental Music fun:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bandwagon Skeptic

“What if Democrats and Republicans, religious people and atheists keep arguing, but it doesn’t matter? What if God is mad that we’re ruining the world and she’s sending messages just like in those Bible stories?”

- Eve to her brothers in The Disappearances

I’m a skeptic.

Last year when I heard that would donate a cup of rice for every 100 vocabulary words I got correct, I told the fifth-grade students to do it too. After all, learning new words and feeding the poor is a win-win. But I was skeptical. When I’d answer questions on the site, my husband would say, “Better get 100 points or some poor child isn’t getting lunch today.” Okay, maybe he’s the skeptical one.

In that same classroom, I had the students make suggestions for what we could do at home and in our neighborhoods to reduce global warming. It generated a fruitful discussion. I had planned to enact some of the suggestions at the school (picking up trash in the neighborhood was the biggest one), but then I left my assistant position to become a substitute teacher and many of our ideas fell by the wayside.

About a week ago, I came across the first post about making my blog carbon neutral. By Earth Day on 04/22, the blogosphere was full of claims that I could make my blog carbon neutral. While I figured it couldn’t hurt I:

1) didn’t quite believe it

2) hate jumping on bandwagons

If you want proof about the second assertion, I still haven’t seen the film “Titanic”, I waited until my son forced me to read the Harry Potter books aloud when he was in first grade (then I got hooked), I don’t watch “Lost” or "Glee" even though everyone tells me I must, and I haven’t seen the movie “Avatar”. (I don’t know what’s wrong with me.)

It probably couldn’t hurt to stick a little leaf on my sidebar and write a post about Arbor Day Foundation’s promise to plant a tree. (Unless they sell my e-mail address to a mailing list or start inundating my comments section with spam.)

Truthfully, I feel Irish, Italian, and Jewish guilt every time I think that I’m harming the environment. I drive a small car, use cloth napkins, hang most of my wet clothes, walk or ride my bike when I can, rarely use the air conditioner, turn off lights when I leave the room, but it never feels like enough. Even when I’m sitting, using nothing, I’m breathing out that darned CO2. Exhale - guilt.

When I realized that my kids’ school used foam trays in the cafeteria, I was flummoxed. What did they do with all of the plastic ones, stick them in a landfill? (And what about all of those desks in the classrooms when they switched to tables?) Based on my concern along with some other parents, they give the students an option for the tray to be cleaned and reused. Not ideal, but better than before.

My manuscript, The Disappearances has a pro-environment message. I didn’t start off planning it that way. As I explained in an earlier post*, “Walmart was the first to disappear,” popped in my head as I spied some mist on the side of the highway. The seeds were planted, and I began to write. I had to wait with Eve to find out why the fog obliterated Walmart. Along with Eve figuring out what she wants and who she is, and being in danger of losing her best friend, the story went in an environmental direction.

Here are the first couple of the environment posts I came across:

It started with Sarahjayne’s post, a couple of days before Earth Day:

Then I read what Richard Halpern did in his classroom for Earth Day:

After that, more Earth Day posts popped up:

Jackee’s post is awesome, with a diagram and a list of tips: (Can you tell that she’s a former scientist?)

Here’s a step-by-step explanation about how to participate along with the letter Susan received from the Arbor Day Foundation:

Nicole also made her blog carbon neutral:

Lora didn’t participate but she provides some green tips:

Paul also didn’t participate, but this post is about damage we’re doing by using toilet paper: (Read his previous post too.)

So, now you have my post for Earth Day. I know it’s late, but I don’t like to jump on bandwagons.

*Update 04/28. A tree has been planted. Woo hoo!

* This is the post that gives more details about my manuscript:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Baseball Watching

“Sweet Caroline

Good times never seemed so good.

I've been inclined

to believe they never would.”

- Song “Sweet Caroline” Neil Diamond (Sung by fans at every Red Sox game at Fenway)

Before moving to Boston, I’d only attended two baseball games in my life. As a child, I lived five minutes from Shea Stadium. My uncle promised to take me, but never did. I recall asking my parents when he’d bring me, but they always said they didn’t know. Looking back, I wonder why they didn’t bother bringing me instead. How much were the tickets, $5?

The first baseball game was finally at Shea Stadium when my husband’s relatives from Brazil visited. Their trip made me do all sort of tourist-type things I never bothered to do as a New Yorker, besides watching a baseball game. Like enduring the musical “Les Miserables” (which made such an impression on my husband that years later, he asked if it had been in English or French). We also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.

Then when I worked at the insurance company, I got an opportunity to see a game at Yankee Stadium. My conclusion? Baseball games are boring.

When I moved to Cambridge in 2001, I couldn’t help but notice that people around here are a little obsessed with baseball. When it looked like it could be The Red Sox’s year in 2004, the whole city was alive with anticipation, and my husband and I couldn’t help get caught up in it. I began to watch baseball games on TV, finding that if I did something else during the slow parts of games (read, watch TV), it wasn’t too bad.

Then my son started kindergarten, and his assistant principal reserved a block of seats at Fenway for the school each year, so we started attending games. Whoever designed Fenway was (fill in the negative blank here). If you sit in most of the seats, the sun is in your eyes from 1pm until sunset. Now I know why baseball hats are designed to shield our eyes. Why on earth didn’t the designers notice that? Still, the stadium has its charm, and I’d protest with anyone else if they tried to move it or (gasp) change Fenway to a brand name.

My husband and I go to games more often because someone at his job has season tickets she likes to unload. Her seats are often obstructed, so all I see are people entering the stadium or climbing the steps when I’m trying to see the pitcher and batter. Added to this view are the people who want their picture taken by the guard with the foul line pole in the background and the vendors wearing bright yellow, yelling, “Get you soda He-ah! Hotdogs! Clam chowda!”

The games are often not very exciting, except for an occasional homerun or some good play or if the score is close near the end. For some reason, every time we attend a game, our neighbors provide as much, if not more entertainment.

Last season, we were next to a couple that each drank a beer an inning. So they didn’t have to make as many trips, they’d buy two at a time, having one cup in their hands and a replacement at their feet. By the fourth inning, I was impressed at how normal they seemed after at least four drinks. (Since I don’t know if they drank anything before they got to Fenway.) By the fifth beer, their eyes glazed over and I don’t think they watched any more of the game. The bar closes at the seventh-inning, so when they finished their last beers by the eighth-inning, they left. Mission accomplished?

On Friday, my husband I attended the first game of the season and our neighbors again did not disappoint. Around the third inning, my husband and I had left to get food. When we returned, a different couple than the last time had filled the empty seats next to us. They had a blanket across their laps and when we walked past them, they wouldn’t stand. Isn’t it just good manners to stand and make room to pass? I always do it and so does everyone else I’ve ever passed. As a result of the narrow space, I clocked a woman in the aisle in front of us in the head with my handbag. Sorry.

The woman wore eyeliner around her eyes that reminded me of that horrid look in the 1980s or heroin chic. I couldn’t rule out drugs in this case because they periodically left, returning smelling like cigarettes. Then the guy fell asleep. After a cheer, he woke up. Later, his girlfriend took a nap as well. When they weren’t sleeping, they were texting. They left in the seventh-inning. ????????

In the front row, a drunken guy was trying to get to his seat and spilled beer on an older woman’s shoulder. I only know this because he boisterously apologized. A couple of times, he stood on his chair and demanded that we all cheer, but nobody paid much attention. At some point during the game, the large flat screen TV announced to text if you were having a problem with a “fan”. I guess someone had a problem with this fan and his friend because at some point, security guards came to escort the drunkards out of the park. Drunken man put his hands up and got cheers from our section, while he was manhandled towards the exit.

Then there was a sweet older woman in front of us, whom I can only assume was a tourist, excited to be at her first game. Every time a foul ball fell into the seats, she’d state the obvious. “Look, it’s a foul ball. Isn’t that something?”

The big foul section was to the left of us, so every time a ball headed in that direction, some young men would stand and wave their arms, hoping to get on camera. Why they’d need that “glory” is anyone’s guess.

Oh, and David Ortiz got a home run and the end of the game was exciting. They won 3-2.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Assessing Critique

“No one has ever committed suicide while reading a good book, but many have tried while trying to write one.”

- Robert Byrne

I’m on spring break this week, because it always falls the week of Patriot’s Day on April 19th, which commemorates the battles at Lexington and Concord beginning the American Revolution. To my British readers, I’m sorry that my city is obsessed with this silly ol’ war. What were we fighting about anyway? To my teacher readers, I’ll be subbing and sharing my torturous days next week. Stay tuned!

Even though it’s break, I don’t have the oodles of time to write and edit my work that I was hoping for, due to my children being home and having their friends visit. Besides, I can’t just ignore them, which means interacting with them and taking them places, like to the park. Even with these constraints, I’ve been semi-productive.

In my last post, I wrote about thinking I’d polished The Disappearances sufficiently, only to find out I was out of my mind. As I also mentioned, Mary at KidLit offered to have people comment on her post to find beta readers. I’ve gotten several e-mails regarding this, and officially swapped first chapters with my first victim yesterday. Then Aubrie was kind enough to look through the first two chapters and gave me helpful suggestions, but also made me relieved that my sentences. weren’t. as. stilted. as. I'd. feared.

So, what have I been doing, besides letting other people read my work? I’ve been reading their work. Jackee and I have been trading chapters since January, but that’s on my manuscript, Indigo in the Know. I read her chapters yesterday, along with my new connection from KidLit, Anita. Now I’m going through Aubrie’s pages. To look at three different manuscripts in one day was thrilling because I got to read three different writing styles and genres. I’m repeating myself, but it’s worth saying that reading other people’s work makes me a better writer. It’s just too bad I’ve temporarily abandoned Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater because I’m halfway through it.

Later in the day, I received an e-mail from someone who found me through NESCBWI (New England chapter of SCBWI) because I was on an “interested in a critique group” list. This woman’s group meets at a bookstore right in Cambridge once a week. How convenient!

When the dust from all of these requests settles, I’ll have to figure out whom I mesh with and what will work best for me. As much as I appreciated the group I joined in January, their genres were too different from mine and they met too infrequently for me to make the progress I’m seeking.

Trusting my baby in other people’s hands is a big leap, so I need to trust them and respect their feedback. And while my manuscript feels like a baby, I need to take critique like a MAN.

For those of you considering a beta reader, exchange partner, or group, here are some helpful resources: (Note that they’re all within this last week, so critique seems to be on many writers’ minds.)

After Mary Kole set up the comments list, she wrote a second post giving advice about being good critique partner:

Jody, who has a book, The Preacher’s Bride coming out this fall, gives suggestions on how to handle critique and tells us how important our first ten pages really are:

Tawna has a list on the different stages of handling critique, which sounds suspiciously similar to the different stages of grief:

Even though I feel like I have many critique options right now, and can’t possibly do them all, especially if I want to accomplish anything on my own writing, I’m moving forward.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Patience is a Virtue

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

- Samuel Johnson

I’m impatient.

When I finish a manuscript, I want to show it off to the world, but I know in my heart of hearts that it’s not ready. So, I read it over and over, and edit it over and over until I’m sure it’s somewhat decent before another person gets the opportunity/burden of viewing it. Like this:

Then I get the pages back only to find out that it needs A LOT OF WORK. More like this:

Why can’t I see the flaws in my own manuscript when I can see them in other manuscripts? To be redundant, I’ve read many books on the craft of writing and grammar since September so I thought this improved the quality of my manuscripts, but not to the extent I expected – at least not yet.

Once in a while, I’ll come across a blog or an interview, and the author will say how she wrote the manuscript in a month for NaNoWriMo*, took two weeks to polish it up, and then sent it off to an agent, who represented her immediately, and then sent it out to a publisher, who snatched it right up, and six-months later it’s on a bookstore shelf near you. Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little because the only part that isn’t true is the six months from contract to actual hardcover.

Another blogger bragged about how she sent a rough draft to the Amazon writing contest in January and is now on the short list. If I sent a rough draft to the Amazon contest, an official would’ve shown up at my door and ordered, “Ma’am, move away from the computer,” while he pried the laptop from my clutches, and then smashed it in front of my mortified eyes.

Now I know these quick success stories aren’t typical. Even Stephen King sits on his rough drafts for SIX WEEKS before editing, so he’s not too attached to his own words, and then he shows it to six friends, but I don’t think they do line-by-line critiques. My manuscripts need more intervention, especially since I didn’t spend my teens and college years filling up on writing and creative writing courses, so I’ve had much to learn later in life.

What are your strengths?

One of my strong areas is dialogue, which comes off as authentic. Related to this are believable interactions between characters. I’ve always felt these were my best writing assets, and enough readers have confirmed this, so I’ve got some redeeming qualities.

What are your weaknesses?

I’ve been too comma happy because I want to record each pause I hear in my head, but, I’ve, gotten, better, about, this, compulsion.

My sentences should be stronger. I’ve been told that I need to vary sentence lengths or the writing comes across as “stilted”, which makes me want to give up because that’s a devastating critique. Devastating.

Where have you made the most improvement?

As a newbie writer, I often made the novice mistake of showing rather than telling. Reading advice on many how to books and blogs have finally (I think) cured me of that.

There are a myriad of other aspects to writing: plot, character development, climax, layers, avoiding cliché, midpoint character change, opening, inciting incident, story-worthy problem, believability, and more. I’m feeling pretty good about those aspects of my manuscripts… most of the time.

I want recognition for all of the hours of creating, agonizing, doubting, editing, and crying. More than recognition, I want to know that these hours haven’t been a waste of time. The money spent for SCBWI membership and conferences are because I’m a writer and it’s all for this greater cause of making me a better writer and being a better writer means that eventually some agent will think I’m awesome and said agent will knock on every relevant publisher’s door until I get an awesome contract and that publisher will have so much faith in my manuscript that I’ll be top priority for promotion and readers will love my book and…

…Deep Breath. Exhale.

There are no guarantees in life. I know that.

When new people comment on my blog, they’ll often compliment my writing. I puff up with pride when I read that because I love writing posts and that’s the main feedback I receive about the quality of my writing.

So, why doesn’t my blog writing translate to good enough fiction writing? Nobody comments, “Your blog writing is stilted. Get a beta reader for your blog.” (But would you really tell me that?) My husband points out the one or two typos I can’t seem to avoid on each post, but that’s not really like being a beta reader, is it?

What’s my point of this whole post? I need a manuscript exchange partner for The Disappearances. Right around the time I realized that I was kidding myself as to its readiness, Mary Kole at KidLit set up this post where writers could find one another and set up critique partners and groups**. I’ve received four e-mails already and am setting up arrangements.

It’s time for some feedback. And patience.

*Here’s more about the group and contest:

** Mary’s post:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food Matters

The Woolworth Building Reflected on Building 7

(Taken by my sister on Sunday)

“Recalling the pleasures of growing and gathering foods and preparing them with care, of relishing the changing seasons … was her way of preserving an important part of American life and sharing its rewards with others.”

- Judith Jones on Julia Child

My childhood food was all about sameness because my mother is about sameness. (If sameness is a word, why isn’t muchness a word?) One day we ate pasta with jarred Aunt Millie’s sauce. Another was bland sausage, spinach, and mushroom rolls from a local pasta place. Frozen eggplant or lasagna for another day. Friday was always take-out pizza. Here and there, we had hamburgers or turkey hotdogs. And for special occasions, my mother made fettuccini alfredo, always making a big deal about it being time consuming and difficult. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it’s a fairly quick and simple dish, if not the healthiest meal.

As a mother, there are times that I don’t have a greater repertoire of recipes than my mother, although I try to create homemade dishes. But there are other times when I have more time or get inspired, and then we have a couple of weeks of Indian dishes or I go on a soup kick. That’s why I love living in a city because virtually every country’s cuisine is represented here, inspiring me to push my cooking skills even further.

When I reached adulthood, I expanded my culinary horizons. Tasting different foods became a journey, and the older I got, the more I appreciated it. As a result, I’ve never again weighed 95 pounds like I did when I left my mother’s house at nineteen. Sigh.

I visited my sister this weekend, and a big part of the trip was food-related. She works as a makeup artist on several cooking shows, and knows some of the best chefs in America and abroad. She sought their advice in choosing Saturday night’s restaurant. 5 Ninth was recommended, and she’d been there before, so that’s where we went.

My sister and I started with appetizers of marrow on toast and a grilled octopus salad. For the main course, she got monkfish (poor man’s lobster) wrapped in bacon, while I ate artic char (salmon-like) that had been perfectly seared on one side, but it somehow had been poached or steamed and it was moist as it bathed in a heavenly broth. This dish was a revelation - I spent most of the meal wondering how it had been prepared. For dessert, we ordered a cheese plate and bread pudding with ice cream. The entire meal was enhanced by a Grenache blend from Cortes de Rhone, France.

The next day, we ate a Savore in Soho. I love the place because the walls are lined with wine bottles and the back windows are from ceiling to floor and surrounded by brick. I’m a sucker for indoor brick. One appetizer was orzo with greens and grilled shrimp, while the other was a salad of blood orange, asparagus, greens, and lobster. My sister ordered truffle and goose ravioli, while I got chanterelle mushrooms and a cream sauce over pasta for my main course. No dessert this time!

While I don’t get to indulge like this often, I appreciate it when I get the opportunity.

My husband sent me an e-mail about the Chinese restaurant he and my kids went to on Friday night. This part is about my son:

I took the kids to Mary Chung for dinner and ---- ordered a spicy beef salad. The fact that it was so spicy led to warnings from several people, and ultimately visits to the table from almost every person working there to watch ---- eat it for a minute or two, while commenting on the fact that it was too hot for them to eat. The other funny part about it, was that it should have been very loosely defined as beef salad, it was a plate of, I think sliced stomach, tendons and maybe shin meat. ---- loved it, but was sad it was vacation week because he wanted to bring the leftovers to school to share with his friends.

When my son relayed the story on the phone, his voice was full of pride. The boy appreciates food. Even though my daughter eats sushi and smoked salmon, and appreciates an artisan bread, she’s much less adventurous.

I think about food when I write. If students are in a cafeteria, I picture what they’re eating. What is my protagonist’s family’s socio-economic status and ethnicity, family dynamics, and how does it dictate what they eat? When she’s out with friends, where do they eat? While I’m writing, I can see, smell, and even taste what my main character eats. If she’s upset, does she lose her appetite? Without these details, even if they’re in my head, and not on paper, make the people inside the book real to me. Without food, the book is one-dimensional.

I once heard Julia Child’s editor, Judith Jones interviewed on NPR. She said that if authors don’t mention food in their books, there’s something missing. Do you agree? What role does food play in your manuscripts?

As a teacher, I’ve cringed over some of my students’ poor diets. One year, more than half the class was on the heavy side, and talking to them made me realize that they had no idea about healthy eating. My first three years in the fifth-grade, the students took six or eight-week nutrition course run by some non-profit organization. There, they learned about food groups and even how to cook nutritiously in our school cafeteria. Even though these classes always came when we were getting ready for a slew of state tests, I was proud that the teacher I worked with made time for the two-hour classes. But when she left, the new teacher dropped the program because we didn’t “have time”. That was the year of the overweight class.

As a teacher, do you notice nutrition (or lack thereof) playing a big role in student weight or behavior? Does you school ignore the problem or take steps to address the epidemic?

The adage that, “We are what we eat” is true.

* Update * This just came up on Yahoo: