Monday, March 9, 2009

The Impractical Traveler

As the child of an immigrant from Denmark, family reunions generally involve trans-Atlantic travel. I made my first hop over the pond at the tender age of two, and have been going every few years since. I remember one trip, as a child, where we drove from Washington State to Canada (cheap tickets!) before flying to Copenhagen. My brother and I had brand new outfits that we had to keep clean for ten hours of plane travel. We needed to be fit to be seen by the relatives. I felt fancy and delightful. I don’t even remember the arrival. At that point, I was probably tired and cranky, if not comatose. But the belief that travel was magical, an occasion, never faded from my mind.

As many have pointed out in various articles and op-eds, air travel is no longer glamorous. It’s barely customer-service oriented anymore. Gone are the days of upgrades, good meals and amenities you didn’t have to pay for. Now you’re shoved into “cattle class”, trapped in the skies.

Travel, in general, lacks finesse. I wince when I see some of the travel apparel available, stretchy waistbands and ugly earth shoes intended to serve the comfort needs of travelers. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re trying to cram too much travel into too little time. Must we see every tourist trap, walk 20 miles in a day? Is there really ever any need for a fanny pack?

One of my favorite movies with traveling is “Gidget Goes to Rome”. Feel free to mock me at this point. But, as uninspired as the plot of the movie is, the girls are all dressed in chic little pedal pushers and skirts to go sightseeing around Bella Roma. A guide describes the culture of Rome to them (unfortunately stealing Moondoggie’s interest from Gidget—I still wonder why she took that wretch back) as they go to the Coliseum and the Forum. Gidget experiences the fashion and food of Rome, all at a glamorous, unconcerned pace. I wish I could travel like that.

Tonight I’m packing to go to Denmark to see family—another reunion, this time for my grandmother’s 95th birthday. I’ve had to decide what to wear, what to pack, what to leave behind. It’s been agonizing. I’m trying to figure out what I need to travel, because I want to be glamorous. I want to be impractical. (My toe is currently broken, which means I can choose footwear that’s somewhere between practical and impractical.) I don’t have many plans for my trip. I want to take a lot of pictures. I do know that I will be sweeping into the airport tomorrow as if I’m going to be escorted to the VIP lounge and sitting in first class. Travel may not be glamorous, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kudos to...

...the authors of the book He's Just Not That Into You, for turning a phrase from a TV show into a best-selling book expounding cliche' stereotypes of men and women, then managing to turn that stupid book into a movie which further confuses people with its meandering storyline and mixed messages on male behavior. has a great article on the author that's worth a read. The movie left me with the impression that even when women do everything right, it's still all wrong.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I Heart Washington

The following is an (approximate) reenactment of a conversation I had last week:

Me: I’m ready to leave New Mexico. I really want to move home to the Northwest.

My friend: LEAVE? You can never get out of the LAND OF ENTRAPMENT! *laughing hysterically*

Me: *gulp* *chokes back panic* *tries to hide desperate tears* The what?

My friend: The Land of Entrapment! Everyone means to leave, but no one actually does! *wicked chuckle*

Is it true? Could it be? Am I stuck for eternity in the land of dry air and altitude sickness?

I am desperately attempting to keep the homesickness from closing in on me. After all, who wouldn’t want to be here?

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Friday, February 6, 2009


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I haven't taken any pictures lately, because all that's been going on is work and writing--not very photogenic. But I've missed posting pictures, so I dug through the archives to post this one. It's a close-up of a statue in Santa Fe.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Write Like the Wind

John Steinbeck once wrote about his experience of being educated to write: “I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story.”

I have, for many years, been a writer. I mean this in terms of a person who writes—nothing more fancy than that. I write often, but I don’t write great volumes. I have attempted a novel, which never made it past the 40th page. I also have several plays in the works, which didn’t make it out of the first act. I empathized with writers who complained how hard writing was, because I could never seem to make it through the initial enthusiastic burst. But I kept my hand in writing, because there was a compulsion to write. And my hard drive is littered with the corpses of dead manuscripts that I have no desire to touch ever again.

I looked for the secret to break through this difficulty with writing, and the only thing I could figure out was “keep it short”. I would only write one act plays, short stories, small observations, and blogs. It was easy to keep within the restrictions of my short attention span.

The desire, however, to write a novel never went away. Coming off of Christmas break, I was well-rested and well-read, inspired to find a new story to tell. I fought for the initial inspiration; unlike other attempts, this story wasn’t based on a whim, a quick flash of idea, or a vignette. I kept pushing myself to answer the question “What next?” and come up with a whole idea. It was a different experience than before.

I’ve come to find that the entire thing is a different experience than I’ve had in past. I have been writing every day for two and a half weeks, and have made it to page 122 in my manuscript. While Steinbeck is certainly true when he says there is no secret formula, I’ve found some things that have helped me this time around.

1. I outlined my book first. After picking up on the initial idea, I did some Google work and found Justine Larbalestier’s website. Her novel mapping spreadsheet made my toes tingle, so I took the idea and modified it. I decided to write 20 chapters, and put in titles for the ones that I could identify in my head. Then I update it with a page count and a word count as I complete each one. The biggest difference it has made for me is that I don’t have to write chronologically! I’m FREE! If I have a good idea about one chapter, I can write that chapter, because I know how it fits into the novel as a whole. Granted, two chapters are still entitled “???”, but eight chapters used to bear that label, so I know that will change.

2. Another Larbalestier tip was to not edit until you’re done writing. With my 40 page novel, I barely got two pages done at a time, but they were well edited! I went over each page I had written every time I opened the document. It was tiring, and demotivating. As Larbalestier says, “That way lies madness. (Or, you know, a novel that takes ages to finish.)”

3. I’m getting to know my characters really well. Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, has this to say about characters: “the best way to write believable characters is to really believe in them yourself. When you hear a song on the radio, you should know how your character feels about it--which songs your character would relate to, which songs she hates. Hear the conversations that your characters would have when they're not doing anything exciting; let them talk in your head, get to know them. Know their favorite colors and their opinions on current events, their birthdays and their flaws.” I’ve been spending a lot of time with my characters, and the most surprising thing to me is that one of those “crazy author” things has been happening to me. The characters are saying things I didn’t think they would say! I’ve heard of this phenomenon before, where the author is surprised by their own book, but it’s never happened to me. Because I’ve never done so much character work before. I went looking around for questions to ask my character, and found, surprisingly enough, a very good tool written by a romance writer, Charlotte Dillon. I was surprised that my male protagonist was more raw than he was coming across in his speech; I’m now working on making him less smooth.

4. I’m writing like myself. I’ve let all pretenses go about writing the “Great American Novel”; I’m writing a story I’m really crazy about. I love “serious” literature, but when I write it, it tends to make nihilists look like Miss Mary Sunshine. I’m a downer when I write of the weighty things of life. So my novel’s a little fluffy. I’m happy and excited when I’m writing it.

5. I’m taking lots of notes. I tend to write in the evenings, after work, then I go to bed. In the preparation time before bed, I get a lot of thinking about my book done. Then I get out a notebook and jot down anything I thought of while I sit in bed. I come back to those tidbits and incorporate them the next time I write.

My goal is to have a complete, edited novel by June. It may be sooner than that if I’m able to keep going at my current pace. Statistically, for every 100 writers that start a novel, three will finish. My goal is to be one of those three. Wish me luck!

Friday, January 23, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

This was an exercise going around Facebook that one of my friends challenged me to do. I was told that my responses were "blogworthy", so I decided to put them up here.

1. I have always aspired to be a writer. Writing comes quite naturally to me, but I’m really difficult on myself and have ended up not being able to finish a major project. However, I have been working quite intently on a writing project for the last couple of weeks, with no signs of stopping. It bodes well.

2. I flunked Anatomy and Physiology in college. The professor claimed initially that we didn’t have to do every lab to pass, and later claimed we did. Two missing labs, and he flunked me. I had to retake just the lab portion the next year to graduate. It was the only class I ever failed.

3. I’m a vegetarian who wears fur.

4. I learned how to paint with watercolors for a New Year’s resolution. Up until that point, I believed that I was a really bad artist, because I couldn’t draw. Learning how to paint unleashed my inner artist; I now paint with watercolors and acrylics, photography, collage, create digital art, and have recently learned how to screen print.

5. I have a lot of shoes—most people know that—but my big toe on both feet curls up slightly. It means that I wear through shoes much quicker than other people.

6. I was horrible at Economics in school, but I’m a great Economics teacher. I think having a difficult time with it made me work harder at understanding it and communicating it in terms that I myself could relate to.

7. I can’t tell jokes. I have one or two memorized, just in case, but my usual humor is just sarcasm and wordplay.

8. I don’t enjoy getting the mail. I try to do it as seldom as possible. Once a week is a stretch. I also don’t enjoy going to the Post Office.

9. Stubborn is a good way to describe me. I will never quit if I’ve agreed to something, no matter how miserable I am. I will persevere. Unfortunately, this also means that sometimes I have problems changing course midway through something, and will stick with a course of action that’s not working.

10. I’m obsessed with fountain pens, but haven’t been able to find a good one that I can afford since I lived in England.

11. I wish I was a redhead, but don’t have the courage to dye my hair.

12. I’m a geek. I have to have the new technological toys, just like the boys. I had to get a splitter for the jack in the car just because I had too many things to plug in all at once—one for the iPod dock, one for the GPS, one for the charger. I also enjoy WIRED magazine.

13. Things I blame “the teenagers” (a.k.a. my students) for: knowing bands like Paramore and The Jonas Brothers, using the word “Dude” way too often, my grey hair, all the teen lit I’ve read, knowing who stars in High School Musical, and my ability to hear a cell phone beep amidst a din.

14. My idea of a near-perfect evening is a good book, a fire in the fireplace, and a cup of coffee.

15. I would rather have a few close friends than a lot of acquaintances. I prefer hanging out with one good friend than being at a raging party.

16. Numbers are impossible for me. The phone book in my cell phone is the best thing ever. I can’t even memorize my own phone number, because it slips right out of my head. The only numbers I can keep are my street address, my home phone, and my social security number.

17. My secret rebellion as a young person was not gardening. If you’ve ever met my mother, you’ll know why that’s a big deal. If you haven’t met my mother, imagine a woman with a collection of over 100 rose plants—then add in an orchid collection, a hosta collection, and one of just about every plant that will grow in the Northwest, in addition to a vegetable garden IN THE SUBURBS. And I still kill plants, although I have an orchid in my classroom. I don’t know if it will ever bloom again, though.

18. I have an affinity for classic British cars. My dream car is a 60’s Jaguar. I will never own one, because I have no mechanic skills, but I do enjoy going to the All-British Meet in Portland.

19. My big indulgence in life is books. I must own them, I prefer trade paperbacks, and if I buy a series of books, they must be all of the same sort (hardback, trade, or paperback). No Amazon, either—the instant gratification of Barnes & Noble is my preference. Also, Powells City of Books in Portland is my shrine.

20. I’m fascinated by circus sideshows of the late 1800’s. P.T. Barnum was a corrupt, yet theatrical, genius. A really good book about circuses of that vintage is Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

21. I like to suggest books to other people that I think they’d enjoy. :)

22. I’m a city girl, but I grew up in the country—in the middle of wheat fields, as a matter of fact.

23. My brother looks like Keifer Sutherland from a certain angle.

24. I wish I lived with a view of the water. When I lived in Denmark, I had a view of the fjord from my apartment, and it was so peaceful.

25. I tend to think that names are very important, and I get offended when people call me by the wrong name. I also get called “Mrs.” by my students a lot (who are so used to their teachers being married). I always tell them that I didn’t marry within my own family, so please call me “Ms.”. Also, if I call someone by the wrong name, it’s very embarrassing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The High School Drama Queen

Although it’s hard to generalize, I’ve found that there are two different kinds of people who become teachers: those who had such a great time in high school that they just had to come back and do it again, and those who were so miserable in high school that they come back to help mitigate the horridness of high school for their students. AKA, gym teachers and everyone else. But I joke.

I am one of the latter. I loved education, but hated school. My sophomore year was possibly one of the worst of my life, as we moved to a new school and I found my shy, bookish self left on the outside of high school life. I had left all my roots behind, and was so scared that something might happen to my parents, since they were my only safety net. I had a lot of unfocused anxiety; my grades slipped. I made friends with the only people who would be friendly with me, and some of them were not my kind of people. Not to mention that I was BORN middle-aged and self-conscious, which are not really great qualities in a teenager.

I wish I knew back then what I know now. After working with teenagers for several years, I’ve found that most of them feel awkward, unpopular, and unloved. They pursue the same things I did back in the day: friends, the opposite sex, popularity. Those who succeed can overcome some of their awkwardness, and they try with others, which I never did. My mission is to find something special and amazing in every one of my students, and to let them know how great they are. And that it gets better in college.

Once again, I was reading Gala Darling, and she asked her readers to imagine they could go back and talk to their younger selves. What would they say to themselves as teenagers? Here’s what I decided I would tell fifteen-year-old Lisa.

“I’m probably not who you expected to show up. You had different dreams for yourself as a sophomore. You WEREN’T going to be a teacher, you were going to be married. Sorry, love, things change. But there’s more to me—you—than meets the eye.

Some instructions for you, to make your life easier.
1. Things are going to be okay. No one important in your life is going to leave you. Relax.
2. Take care of your grades. This is the year you blow things. Your math teacher is going to be your good friend someday—try talking to him now to get the help you need.
3. Don’t try to be friends with people who are mean to you. It’s okay to not like them. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Just ignore them instead. Or try standing up to that obnoxious bully.
4. More protein, less carbs.
5. It’s not about labels. You dress better than most anyone right now, and you don’t spend as much. Stop caring.
6. Your hair IS fabulous.
7. Learn how to flirt. Not everyone will lash out against it. As a matter of fact, most of your guys friends right now will turn out to be gay, so unleash it on them—they’re good practice targets.

What’s going to be great for you in the future? Here’s a sneak peek:
1. Your hair is STILL fabulous.
2. You’ll get to work with teenagers who feel exactly like you feel now, and give them some hope and happiness.
3. In a few short years you will be more popular than you ever dreamed, but will want nothing more than to just be with good, true friends. And you’ll realize that’s who you are, and that will be all right.
4. You don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re not just a nerd, you’re an artist. You’re an actress. You’re a writer. These things will emerge in time.
5. You’ll be a world traveler with two passports, while some people you know now will never even have one.
6. You will find love—more than once—but will have enough self-respect to hold out for the right person.

Stop being mean to yourself. Smile. I wish I could give you a big hug and let you know that it’s going to be okay, because I care so much for you, little girl.”

Who were you as a teenager? And what would you tell yourself now, if you could?