Dear Diary: March 30, 2020. I’ve seen “covid diaries” popping-up on social media, mostly friends’ feeds, and gee, what a thrill to be a trendsetter! I have to say, I’m glad to see a lot of people using the time and technology we have to continue to keep in touch with one another. It’s not the kind of personal connection that many prefer, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve also been enjoying watching the many heart-warming and funny stories people are sharing, whether its emergency services crew cheering up medical staff or photos and videos of friends visiting one another for birthdays or special occasions, but maintaining social distance guidelines. Sure, it’s weird to see your friends holding up “happy birthday!” signs from your front curb rather than from within your living room, but I think the important thing is that we’re still thinking about one another and finding ways to be there for each other, all while caring for people’s health and safety.
Recently Read: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This could be classified as historical fiction or a biographical novel; I guess it depends on who you ask and how close one considers it to truth. Some people don’t make any distinction between historical fiction and biographical novels, but I do. To me, historical fiction is about a general time/place/event but is mostly fictional in terms of characters and situations, a la Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief; a biographical novel, on the other hand, is a researched piece of fiction that relies heavily on historical fact of persons, times, and places, with some things, like dialogue, mostly invented. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and Christopher Bram’s Gods & Monsters (AKA Father of Frankenstein) would fit this bill. And so does Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The author has researched the lives of the The Mirabal sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria, and Dede, who lived in the Dominican Republican during the time of Trujillo. Most of the sisters eventually joined–or led, depending on who you ask–resistance cells. Inspired by events like Castro’s rebellion in Cuba, they worked against Trujillo’s dictatorial regime quietly and through back-channels, though some of them had pursued and received college degrees.
The novel itself is told from the perspective of each of the sisters in alternating chapters, divided by time period. It moves back and forth through time, often returning to the lone surviving sister’s perspective from after the events of the revolution. Some of the strong points for this one include excellent characterization; each of the sister’s voices comes through distinctly, which is important in a multiple-POV narrative. The history and the fiction are also wonderfully interwoven into the larger narrative voice, making it all unfold smoothly; there are no lengthy treatises or segues into historical exposition; instead, the history is worked into the course of these biographical fictive events. Finally, Alvarez brings the time, place, and people to life through use of local idioms and customs, distinctive senses of humor and cultural artifacts. I would have liked to have gotten a lot more detail about what the sisters actually did in terms of leading or being part of the rebellion; most of what the reader learns is about the sisters’ everyday lives, with the revolution a relatively vague affair, to be honest. Still, books like this are absolutely necessary, particularly to western readers who tend not to get much history beyond the major western events, through an Americanized lens. Learning about the other important changes happening in the world at this time is so important, and interesting.
Currently Reading: I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. Yesterday, I completed Part One of the two part novel. It’s still amazing to me how quickly and easily I sink into Morrison’s narratives, particularly because their themes are always so heavy. There’s something about her style, though, that allows her to wallop me with truth while keeping me wholly invested, turning the pages faster and faster to learn more about these beautiful, terrible characters and their complicated lives. I’m also still working on Leonard Cohen’s collection of poetry and drawings, Book of Longing. I’ll probably finish both of these in the next couple of days and then it is on to another re-read of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (how many times is this? ten?) and a re-read of Jane Eyre (third time?).
Currently Writing: I received my first draft response from one of my three beta readers late last week. Her feedback was just what I needed to hear, really, so it has motivated me to return to my novel WIP and get cracking on revisions! I was particularly curious about two things–elements of the story that were important to me–and this reader happened to mention both of those elements, with praise. I can’t put into words how encouraging that is, or how great it felt to hear it when I hadn’t even prompted for it. So, thank you, beta reader (you know who you are), for your feedback. I can’t wait to get to work on this. I have three revisions planned, one for each beta response, and then I hope to start submitting to publishers in June. I’ve also been revisiting and revising some of my poems, and writing some new ones. I have submitted a few to a few online journals that I read and enjoy, too; so, work is picking up in this regard.
Currently Listening To: Harry Styles’ Fine Line. I’m going to be honest, here. I’ve enjoyed listening to Harry Styles for years, ever since his audition days and the formation of One Direction. Most of One Direction’s music was lighthearted pop, though, which is fun but not particularly moving; that being said, I had spotted his voice and artistry pretty early and have been rooting him on. The only contemporary artist I see who has interested me the same way, as singer-artist-songwriter, is Troye Sivan (which, by the way, if you’re not watching his Instagram right now, you should be. He’s doing some interesting things.) Styles’ first solo album, self-titled, was proof enough that he’s got incredible talent and is likely to have a long and interesting career. Despite my being a fan, though, I’ve only just gotten around to listening to all of Styles’ second album, Fine Line, and my goodness. Stevie Nicks wrote in a letter to her own fans recently that this is his Rumours, which is both high and deserved praise. I happen to agree with her; this album is a masterpiece and Styles is moving beyond impressive into genius, as singer, songwriter, and musician. “Falling” might be the best song he has written yet, even better than “Sign of the Times,” which is also brilliant. We have tickets to see Harry with the incomparable Jenny Lewis later this year, and I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that the pandemic and all its implications don’t result in the concert being canceled or postponed. I haven’t looked forward to a show this much in years. I’m also a little obsessed (and proud! so proud!) of his insistence on being himself, of breaking or ignoring gender expectations. Will he perform in fishnet stockings, the way he appeared recently in Beauty Papers? We should only be so lucky!
Teaching Updates: We are officially online for the rest of the semester, not just the two or three weeks that were originally planned. No surprise. Things are getting tricky; so many students are having complications due to the massive, quick, and uproarious changes brought on by stay-at-home orders: job loss, loss of access, increased work responsibilities for nurses/healthcare workers, mobilization of military students, etc. These compound the typical challenges that students face over the course of the semester and particularly around midterm. I’m finding it difficult to find more and more ways to adapt and to be fluid and fair. I’ve decided to be rather soft with deadlines, but there are some things that students request that I don’t think are actually helpful or fair; still, it’s hard to say “no” right now. I’m also balancing their needs with mine; having five online courses to facilitate is extremely difficult. All the work typically done in a classroom setting, like discussions, is now done online, too, which means it’s not just an hour in the classroom where we get to have the discussion and I can assess it quickly; instead, it’s five classes of going into discussion boards, reading everyone’s comments and responses, and responding to them when/where needed. That takes literally hours and hours to do. So, this is stressful and this is a challenge, but I’ll continue to do the best I can. I’m certainly open to hearing what other professors are doing, though, so please share if you’ve got good ideas.
Current Status: As of today, the Nevada Department of Health reports 753 cases of COVID-19 and 15 deaths. That’s a 20% increase from a week ago. Judging by the traffic on the roads and at the parks, it does seem like people are social distancing slightly, but I would really prefer a total stay-at-home order for the entire nation right now, for 2-4 weeks. At some point, we must get serious and close it all down so that people have enough time to recover from the virus while stopping the spread. Personally, I too have some health updates. My doctors seem confident that they’ve figured out what’s going on with me. The first part of the equation seems to be severe allergies, for which I’m being medicated. Nothing to be done about that, I guess. The other, more serious problem appears to be a genetic blood disorder. I’m being tested again in 3-months to see what current treatment is doing (helpful or not) and to see if they can specifically confirm their diagnosis; the doctor is pretty certain, but there are always anomalies. In any case, the bad news is this is something I’ll always have but the good news is that it is treatable. I am one of those “immuno-compromised” individuals, though, so if it helps to have someone in mind when thinking about whether you should be following social distancing rules right now, well, feel free to think of me. I’d like to stay alive for a while longer, if you please.
Positive Thoughts: I’m corresponding via snail mail with one of my nephews, who is five (six? Oh no!), and that has been a real joy. His first letter asked, “when can you come over again?” and “what are you reading?” Does that kid know me, or what!? I’ve been sending out postcards to friends and family in order to stay in touch a bit more “personally” while all of this is going on. A friend had shared concerns about the safety of postal workers and mail delivery right now, so I did some research online and went to my local US post office to ask about it, and was reassured that postal delivery is still mostly safe, particularly if one is being cautious. Postal workers who are concerned are wearing gloves and have received other safety guidelines; the virus can live on surfaces for some time, but not for particularly long, it seems (certainly not the days it takes to transport mail). I’ve also been extra careful, though, and have been sanitizing the cards with Lysol spray prior to putting them in the mailbox. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but better to be safe, right? I’m also mostly sending the post cards to people who expressed interest in receiving them, so I have permission first. That said, if you would like one, please feel free to get in touch! (I would need your address, obviously.) They’re literary-themed and I have a lot!
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Dear Diary: March 23, 2020. Today is the fifth day of Nevada’s 30-day stay-at-home order. I’m not going to lie, it’s a little bit funny (amusing) to see all my extrovert friends’ responses to this new reality. I’m used to not hearing much from them because they’re always busy doing things “out there” in the real world. But now, I see their social media feeds suddenly booming with activity and I receive text messages about all the littlest things they’re doing or that happen to them. I hope they’re okay! I’m an introvert but not exactly a homebody. I like to be out and about, too, just mostly alone. I especially like to go out for walks and to head to my local coffee shop down the street to write/work in the mornings. The coffee shop is closed, of course, so that’s been impossible. It’s hard to motivate myself to keep the same schedule at home. I’ve been waking up much later and not getting as much of my own, personal work done as usual; that’s not great. I am, however, making a conscious effort to act as if I’m going about business as usual, meaning showering, getting dressed, etc. I’m not one of those “teach online courses in my pajamas” kinds of people. If you can do it, great for you, but psychologically, I need to “get in the mode.”
A thought I’ve been having lately: I think we, the entire planet, should shut down like this for two weeks, twice per year, every year. Do you live in or around a stay-at-home region? Have you looked at the sky? Here, the views are absolutely stunning. The air is so clean. I know a lot of people are sick and dying and that’s no reason to cheer. But what if we could find a way to come together, all of humanity, to respect our planet in this way regularly and on purpose? I hope we don’t forget what the world looks like and feels like right now, when all of this is over. But of course we will.
Recently Read: Good Poems for Hard Times selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. Perhaps my favorite part of this anthology is its dedication: “To the English teachers of America, doing good work every day, with admiration and affection from an old student.” How lovely. It’s nice to be recognized sometimes, even though Keillor’s reputation is currently questionable. That aside, the anthology is a nice one. It is separated into 10 sections by theme, some of which work better than others. To be honest, I expected the themes to hold together a bit better than they did. I was also hoping for some notes or annotations on the poems or, at the very least, as introductions to each part of the anthology. It’s really just a bunch of collected poems, though. That’s fine, I guess, except it wouldn’t be too difficult to just pop on Poets.org or The Poetry Foundation and browse. In other words, I don’t think there’s much connection between the poems, the themes, and the promised title, Good Poems for Hard Times. I just wanted a little more. That said, there are some brilliant poems in here, including classics that were fun to revisit as well as poems I’d never heard of. Some of my favorites in here are “Happiness” by Raymond Carver; “Working in the Rain” by Robert Morgan; “Sonnet CVI: When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time” by William Shakespeare; “A Spiral Notebook” by Ted Kooser; “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin; “Last Days” by Donald Hall; and “Death Mask” by Edward Field.
Currently Reading: Yesterday, I finished reading In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Or did I finish it two days ago? In any case, I finished it and plan to watch the movie today or tomorrow. I’m looking forward to seeing how they adapted the book to the big screen because the narration is peculiar. I won’t say much more than that since I hope to write out a complete review at some point. I’m also about half-way done with The Princess Bride by William Goldman, which as been a lot of fun so far. The second half of Part 5 was a riot. I’m still reading Cohen’s poetry collection and today I’ll also begin reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. It’s impossible not to look forward to reading Morrison, isn’t it? I need to get back to my non-fiction reading, too, though. I have dozens of magazines stacked up, not to mention my copy of The Age of Atheists, which I had been making great progress with for a while but which has been neglected for too long.
Currently Writing: I submitted three poems recently and have a number out there that I wait to hear back about. I also just stumbled across another book about writing memoir, which a friend is currently reading or has on deck. I’m not sure, actually. It was posted to someone’s Instagram feed, I looked it up, it seemed good, I ordered it. Ha! I’m continuing to work on new poetry and to revise a dozen or so poems that I have written. I’ll get back to working on revisions to my novel soon, especially if I can manage to adjust my internal clock again and get to work here at home in the mornings. I miss my coffee shop!
Currently Listening To: Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell (2015). “Well you do enough talk / My little hawk, why do you cry? / Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn? / Or the Fourth of July? / We’re all gonna die.” Okay, so I have a dark sense of humor. Deal with it. This is probably Stevens’s best album, which is saying something because all of his work is incredible. There’s something deeply personal and touching about this one, though; where many of his albums have connections to times and places, this one is intentionally (auto)biographical. It’s a painful story. It’s a little crazy to think it was released a decade after Illinoise, which is the album that put him on the map. I can’t think of many artists who bookend a decade with their best works. (Aside: Did you know Dolly Parton has had a Top 20 hit in 6-consecutive decades!? She’s the only musician to do so. Now that we are in 2020, if she gets another one, she can make that 7-consecutive decades. Come on, Dolly!)
Teaching Updates: As I mentioned above, I think I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping up with my students despite now having five online courses. I am eager to try a lot of these new tools and programs that I’m discovering courtesy of the pandemic collaborations that are going on among teachers right now. Zoom looks particularly interesting to me, mostly for its background options, though. I saw a professor who was giving his lecture with the Hogwarts castle as his background and must admit to getting a bit jealous! I have no camera on my home computer, though, so I’ve mostly been recording lectures with Camtasia. It’s working well, I think. I’m not sure now is the time for me to really play around with all the new stuff anyway. I might turn it into a summer project or, someday, a sabbatical project for online pedagogy.
Current Status: As of Sunday 3/22, the Nevada Department of Health reports 191 cases of COVID-19. That’s double the amount that had been reported as of three days ago (which means it doubled in 48-hours.) If that’s the trend, then we are looking at something truly horrifying, but I think most of us realize that by now. Look what’s happening in Italy, Spain, and New York. On the horizon seem to be New Orleans and Florida, due to the recent large public gatherings (Mardi Gras and Spring Break) in both places. Here in Nevada, traffic has slowed, skies have cleared, and stores still struggle to stock the essentials. We have gone out every day for exactly one week, looking for toilet paper only to be denied. Our local grocer changed its hours last week from closing at midnight to closing at 10pm. Last night, they began closing at 8pm. They need the extra hours to stock the shelves because they’ve been getting so wiped out. Will this stabilize soon?
Positive Thoughts: I like to think about the earth breathing freely right now, for the first time in how long? I’ve seen all sorts of commentary about how humans are the real virus, etc. I can understand that point of view; we’ve certainly done a number on this beautiful place we all call home. It’s really a wonder to look around now and to be able to see for miles and miles. The mountain vistas are in crisp, clear focus. I can see detail where, just a couple weeks ago, there were only amorphous hazes. Despite some selfish dolts that remain flippant about our current situation, I’m also heartened to see and hear about so many people out there who are helping others. A pre-Med student at the University of Nevada, Reno, for example, started a volunteer service to provide grocery shopping and delivery for the elderly who can’t (or shouldn’t) leave their homes right now. The songs of Italy, the companies that are doing everything they can to keep their employees paid, the artists who have taken their work online and begun streaming for free; the teachers and technicians offering mini-lessons in everything from guitar to painting to cooking. And of course, the essential workers, who we’re all seeing at last. The nurses and doctors, teachers and grocers, transporters and farmers. I send up a great cheer to them all. Let’s continue supporting them. Be kind to them, and to each other.
“We are all here to help each other to get through this thing, whatever it is.” -Kurt Vonnegut, quoting his son Mark.
Here’s a favorite poem I’d like to share with you for World Poetry Day:
“Happiness” by Raymond Carver
So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
Dear Diary: March 20, 2020. Have you heard the theory that sun showers are good luck? Rain is a rare occurrence here in the desert, but relatively speaking, sun showers are not quite as unusual. We often get tiny little pockets of rain, a single heavy cloud or two that pass overhead while the rest of the sky remains blue and bright. Such was my experience today, while driving home from grabbing a large no sugar added mocha latte from a Coffee Bean & Teal Leaf drive-thru. Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” played hauntingly through the speakers and the rain cloud seemed to hover just above my car, though all the world around my path shone azure. I needed the pick-me-up following my latest doctor’s appointment. The call started with good news: your chest x-ray is normal! But. Yes, then the but. They wanted me to come in to “discuss a few things in your bloodwork.” Ominous, no? I had a feeling, I’ve had a feeling, that much of my problems with lethargy might be related to an iron deficiency. It seems I wasn’t far off base. Severe anemia. But the doctor, who walked in and called my lab results “very strange,” isn’t satisfied with all my problems being the result of an iron deficiency. She indicated that there are actually three deficiencies noted and that when those three happen in combination, they’re typically the result of one of three problems, all of which are very severe. So, we’re off to more testing! I returned a half-hour later for more blood work (my lord did they take a lot of blood!) plus urine samples, stool samples, and ultrasounds. “But, could it be COVID?” They’re not even testing me for it. Doesn’t that seem strange? It doesn’t make sense to me, all things considered. Anyhow, I’m very likely immunocompromised, which means I need to do my best to be even more socially distant.
Currently Reading: I made just a little progress with The Princess Bride yesterday. It’s really a hilarious book, super meta, and a parody almost on par with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, though Goldman is having much more fun with layered narration. It’s quite a trip, really, and I’m eagerly looking forward to watching the movie to see just how they managed to capture these depths of storytelling and the complicated relationship between author, fictive author, narrator, and fictive narrator, and then of course all of that and the truth. I did not tackle any other reading yesterday, though, so I need to find some time this weekend to make more progress with In the Time of the Butterflies. I might focus, tonight, on my current poetry collection, Cohen’s Book of Longing. It seems like a good day for poetry.
Currently Writing: Ironically, after posting about Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel yesterday, PEN announced a new interview with Chee today. Maybe that’s some kind of serendipitous sign telling me to tackle it after all. Well, if one believes in that sort of thing. Sort of like sun showers, isn’t it? My sleep and tiredness problems have kept me from waking up on time lately, so I haven’t gotten nearly as much writing or submitting done as I’d like to. Hopefully that changes soon.
Currently Listening To: Billie Holiday Lady in Satin (1958). “For all we know this may only be a dream / We come and go like a ripple on a stream / So love me tonight, tomorrow was made for some / Tomorrow may never come, for all we know.” How’s that for an upper? It’s hard to deny the power of music in my life. Everything I do or feel or remember has some connection to a particular song or album or genre. Yesterday, I note, in feeling a bit rebellious and a bit jaded by the lack of seriousness with which people are taking the pandemic, I was diving into Nirvana and thinking about the could have beens, if we were a better people. Today, as my health news apparently continues to worsen and as this crisis also grows, I sink into the Blues, quite literally, and wrap myself in the warm lush embrace of Holiday and Del Rey. They seem to feel just as deeply as I do, and that’s not nothing.
Teaching Updates: I think my students are slowly moving into the routine of the semester. I’m hearing from some of them, and others are quietly doing their work. As for me, I’m reaching out as much as I can but trying not to overwhelm, either. At the moment, I’m responding to a set of essays in one class and to a set of reading responses in another class, and interacting in discussion threads with three others. My attention is all over the place, which is the nature of teaching, to be frank; but what makes it difficult is that each of these types of interactions is different. They require different kind of responses from me, so I’m constantly flipping switches in my brain so that I can move from one rhetorical situation to another. Reading responses get personalized responses; discussion boards get a mixture of individual and classroom response (my responses are meant to address a specific student’s post but in a way that the entire class can benefit from); and essay responses are highly instructive. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and I’ve never had to do it for five online classes simultaneously. But I see these students showing up and communicating with one another, and with me, and that’s all I need. As long as they’re learning and succeeding, I’m keeping on.
Current Status: I haven’t seen any new numbers related to the cases in Nevada, not since yesterday when we were near 100. My area of Las Vegas (which, by the way, is home to about 1/3 of the entire state population) has, as far as I know, just one drive-thru testing center, and that center was absolutely overwhelmed. No surprise. The latest news is that they’re going to shut down temporarily because there aren’t enough medical professionals available to keep up with the demand. There’s also a further tightening of restrictions in southern Nevada coming, as suggested by the CDC. At the moment, restaurants and cafes are still open but for carryout only. My understanding is that, sometime around 7pm tonight, only drive-thru locations will be allowed to continue operating. There’s still a great deal of confusion about that, though, so I’ll await specific news reports tonight. Perhaps another address by our Governor. I will say, I’m extremely annoyed at how the news is talking about California (and sometimes even New York) being the first state to implement a full “stay-at-home” order. No, my dears, it was Nevada. We led the way and we deserve the credit for that, particularly considering how much our economy depends on tourism in Las Vegas. Shutting down the world’s most notorious 24-hour city was no small feat. Wake up, journalists, and give credit where credit is due. The people of Nevada deserve to be seen. Edit: 20-minutes after writing this, our Governor announced that ALL non-essential business are now ordered to close and that all the help we have requested from the Federal government, including requests for test kits, is on “indefinite hold.”
Positive Thoughts: Despite this semester becoming quite overwhelming, both physically and mentally, and due to both health issues and professional issues, some really wonderful things do remind me why any challenge is worth it for me. At least as an educator. I wrote earlier about responding to student reading notes. I received one from a student today that had me nearly in tears. It reminded me just how important the things I do can be, and more specifically, the choices that I make in my teaching methods. I won’t get into detail about what the student said, because that should remain private, but it provided me a much needed boost. It’s probably something I’ll never forget.
Dear Diary: March 19, 2020. It has been just over 24-hours since the state of Nevada became majority quarantined. We crave pizza, but carryout is an abomination. Also, the internet, which keeps me employed and entertained, has failed. I can live without grading papers, but without my Bon Appetit cooking shows? Six rolls of toilet paper remain. We welcome the giant asteroid prophesied for April.
Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic. It is eerie seeing Las Vegas so significantly shutdown, though. Some people are taking it seriously and some are still refusing to do so; I wish they would grow up. It’s mostly that American anti-authority “cowboy” mentality that drives these people, and I can’t help but find it tragically juvenile. I’ve nothing positive to say about these people who are risking other’s lives and risking a much lengthier pandemic process because of their ego and arrogance, and ignorance. So, I’ll say nothing more about it. Most of the city seems to be in this together, though, as the cover of today’s Las Vegas Weekly suggests. I also drove by a sign outside one of the larger off-strip casinos today that read, “Closed Doors. Open Hearts. Vegas Stronger.” What a beautiful sentiment. It reminds me of the atmosphere this city built following the 1 October tragedy of 2018. I wrote an essay about that event that was published in Brave Voices Magazine. Las Vegas is much more than outsiders realize or give it credit for.
Recently Read: Green Lantern Legacy: A Graphic Novel by Minh Le and Andie Tong. This is such a delightful story, beautifully illustrated. The traditional Green Lantern tale gets a much-needed update. The treatment of this story from an “own voices” writer and artist is particularly appealing. Essentially, young Tai Pham, the son of Vietnam immigrants, inherits the Green Lantern jade ring from his grandmother. As he comes of age and comes of power simultaneously, he must learn what it is to be not just a superhero, but a good person, and he discovers the real dangers and enticements of power. The story is funny and fresh, though it does sometimes resort to traditional superhero origin tropes that have become a bit tired. Overall, though, this was a beautiful, deep, and human story deserved the rich and delicate treatment Le and Tong provided. I’m so glad DC gave them the platform to do this. It’s a graphic novel I’ll definitely keep in my library and return to at some point.
Currently Reading: I’ve found that I’m always in the process of “currently reading” at least three texts simultaneously: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. This has been my habit since the start of the new year and I’m quite enjoying it. Somehow, the different genres feed different parts of my soul and my intellectual appetite at once, which is helpful particularly in times like this. They can also inform one another in different and surprising ways. Right now, though, I’m actually reading four books at once. For fiction, I’m reading The Princess Bride and In the Time of the Butterflies. These are two novels I’ve assigned in my literature classes, so I’m reading them along with my students right now. For poetry, I’m reading Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. It’s definitely not what I expected. He writes an awful lot about sex and women. I picked it up because he’s Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah.” Right? I also picked it up because the title stood out to me very much in the moment and because Cohen illustrates the collection himself, and I found the drawings endearing. Some of them are poems themselves. For non-fiction, I’m still reading The Age of Atheists. My reading of this one has slowed a bit as the semester has ramped up, but it’s really quite brilliant and I can’t wait to make more headway with it.
Currently Writing: At the moment, I’m mainly working on poetry. I’ve sent a mini-chap collection in to some publishers for consideration and continue to write poems in a similar theme. I’ll actually be submitting a few poems to another publisher in the next week. I’m not working on my YA novel right now because the manuscript currently sits with three beta readers. I await their feedback, after which I plan to dive into revisions and see what’s what. I might dive into memoir again sometime soon, but I’d like to read Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. That might be wishful thinking right now, though.
Currently Listening To: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.” How appropriate is that right now? I don’t think I could’ve planned it better. In truth, I just listened to “All Apologies,” which makes me think about Cobain’s issues with gender, illustrated most clearly in In Utero (1993), and his groundbreaking vocal support for LGBTQ+ people before it was “cool.” I really wonder what Cobain would have accomplished had he lived, or what he could have been had he lived today. I’m watching people like Harry Styles, who is championing the destruction of gender constructs regularly, and wonder and wonder.
Teaching Updates: This semester was already a strange one for me because all five of my classes were scheduled online. I’ve never had that situation before. On the plus side, it meant my courses were already designed and prepared for this distance delivery. However, I am now locked out of my campus office, where I did most of my work. I also have a number of students, maybe most of them, who are struggling with all sorts of new issues related to the pandemic and this statewide shut down. Some have lost their jobs already; some now have childcare or sibling care to think of. Some did not have a computer at home and were relying on the public or campus library access. It’s been a “let’s roll with this, come what may” kind of semester, and I think it’s going to be that way all term. I’m relaxing on due dates, though not on overall expectations or outcomes. I’m trying to keep my classes, at least, as consistent as possible so that something stays “normal” in their world. This might mean that a lot of them drop because of the workload. But it might also mean a lot of them find a place of stability and structure that could be desperately needed in a very uncertain time. I’ve also been checking in, though, and providing all sorts of “mental health break” activities; these are fun things they can do from home/online that are free, like virtual museum or zoo tours, concerts and Broadway shows that have been placed online, meditation techniques and interesting podcasts, etc. I got the idea from some of the brilliant online teacher groups (like “Pandemic Pedagogy”) that popped up in the last couple of weeks as teachers all across the country have been working to migrate to an online format. Teachers are amazing, really. I wish we had more teachers in government.
Current Status: As of three hours ago (11:00AM on Thursday, March 19th) the Nevada Department of Health reports 95 cases of COVID-19. What does that mean? Well, not much, considering testing remains nearly impossible. I was at the doctor on Friday 3/13 for a chronic cough, which I’ve been dealing with since November 2019. I have other persistent issues, which I believe are allergy related, so I thought I’d get it all checked at once. I suppose a pandemic brings out the paranoid in a person? To be fair to myself, it’s not paranoia. I’ve been sick for a long time, I just don’t know what the problem is. In any case, they ordered a chest X-ray (completed Monday 3/16), blood-work (completed Friday 3/13) and an allergy test, which I declined because it was going to cost $350 after insurance. I’ve gotten no results from the blood test or x-ray, yet, and feel the same. Coughing, sleepy, foggy head. It’s been this way every day for four months, now.
Positive Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of posts from teachers who are migrating to online instruction, many of them for the first time every. Naturally, these updates are often about “failures” or “bloopers” the teachers have experienced. I’ve heard from friends about the partner who walked in during a live stream, wearing nothing but boxer shorts; I’ve heard from a colleague about how she accidentally burped just seven short minutes into her first recorded lecture; I’ve seen videos of teacher friends whose cats jump up onto their keyboard mid-lecture or whose kids come screaming into the room. I know a lot of these teachers have felt frustrated, anxious, and embarrassed by these unexpected and typically uncontrollable events. But I’ve never felt such joy as when hearing these stories or seeing the results myself. These simple little mistakes aren’t mistakes. They’re insights into our lives. They’re ways we can continue to connect with one another in genuine ways, while necessarily staying apart physically. They show me the very human side of what it means to be alive and surviving and, eventually I believe, thriving in a difficult, ever-changing, anxious state of affairs. Thank you, teacher friends, for doing what you do for your students. For rolling with the punches. For allowing yourselves to be human so that you can continue to give your best to your students. Guess what? Your best is you.
About the Book: Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song. In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves. Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.
My Reaction: First, I must admit that this book caught my eye when another review for it crossed my Twitter timeline. I noticed a few choice words in that review which piqued my interest enough to order the book and read it right away. That’s not unusual for me, but what is strange is that I didn’t read the book’s description (above) nor had I read anything else by the author before, including his debut novel, What Belongs to You, which is apparently closely related to the story in Cleanness.
The novel has a delicate ferocity. It is quiet, mostly, even in its most intense moments. This is one of its strengths, to be sure; for example, it treats the most delicate and often-taboo’d sexual appetites and encounters in a way that is both sensitive and sensual. Those encounters have a decided violence to them, yet Greenwell’s narrator gets to the heart of the psychology and emotion of such experiences and desires in a way that few writers, particularly those in contemporary mainstream literature, have either dared or managed to do. There’s an honesty, here, a making-real of gay sexuality (but no, not just gay sexuality, despite the cast) and the demystifying of it that we should be grateful; it is a refreshing approach.
Thematic successes aside, the story is also interesting and well-told. I was particularly intrigued by the setting, Bulgaria during the revolution. I have to admit I haven’t read much about this place or this time at all, so seeing it through the eyes of a narrator whom I could understand (an American professor teaching abroad), was helpful and rewarding. On the other hand, I didn’t respond as well to the episodic construction. Non-linear storytelling can work, of course, but I found it a bit difficult to follow this one smoothly. I think I was so impressed by the honesty and sensitivity of the subject matter that I was hoping for the structure itself to be just as straightforward. Instead, it is a bit more modern in its construction, simultaneously cerebral in its construction but decidedly every-man in its exploration of humanity and the everyday experiences that make us who we are, behind the masks we put on in public.
One of the later scenes, which involves a youth who essentially wants to be destroyed, reminds me very much of the kind of themes explored by Dennis Cooper. The pathos is raw and surfeit without being superficial, like a raw nerve in your tooth that you can’t help but press your tongue against. It is a stark contrast to the narrator’s own position and desires portrayed at the start of the novel, and to the mysterious romance at the heart of it, which unfolds itself only in snippets and snapshots of the narrator’s complicated affairs.
I’m looking forward to getting a copy of What Belongs to You soon; I hope to read it and then read Cleanness again. It demands another visit.
“I wanted to ruin what he had made, what he had made me, I mean, the person he had made me.”
“That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.”
“You can call out for anything you desire, however aberrant or unlikely, and nearly always there comes an answer, it’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.”
If you’ve kept up with the hoopla surrounding the American Dirt release and are looking for an alternative, “own voices” book to read that covers similar issues (immigration, the U.S. southern border, living undocumented in America), then you might want to get your hands on a copy of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land.
Castillo is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning poet and his memoir reads like the story of a poet. He is also an undocumented immigrant, whose parents brought him and his siblings to the United States from Mexico when he was very young. He went on to become the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan.
His memoir reads serendipitously, or perhaps expectedly, like the confluence of these two things: poet and migrant. It is somehow both searingly direct and beautifully imaginative. He manages to balance the difficult and the wonderful, the extraordinary and the commonplace, in language that reflects a deep reflection and in-touchness with self that, as the reader will discover, was hard fought and hard won. It also expresses the pain of a boy at long odds with his father and of a man without a country. Those two realities, being essentially fatherless and essentially homeless, are reflected in the anchor-less he describes; it makes sense that he has found his home in poetry.
Some of the most profound and affecting moments from the memoir, for me, are the ones that are the most ordinary and American. He writes, for instance, about being an English professor and about how he learned to work with students coming out of high schools with “earned As” but who, really, couldn’t write well at all. The exhaustion, confusion he felt about this, and the love he he had for his subject despite the fact that he couldn’t seem to give enough of himself to his students, resounded deeply with me. Equally substantive, though, are the insights he provides about the immigration experience. He illustrates the way immigrants have been and continue to be treated at our borders, as inherently inferior and even diseased people. Now, as the world deals with this new pandemic, this strikes painfully. The way we fear the other, the way we scapegoat them, is an unconscionable tragedy. Reading a first-hand account of a family that has experienced, supplemented by the history of Federal policies that propped-up and perpetuated such stereotypical hatred, was painful but illuminating.
Two of the most moving elements of his memoir, though, are the way he describes never being “quite enough.” Not quite American enough; not quite Mexican enough. He shares moments in his life when he felt he was losing his language, when his English was too good for someone like him, or when he felt his Spanish slipping away so that he had to stumble through conversations with neighbors, family members. That swaying, that rudderlessness, is haunting, particularly when we understand just how many people in the United States must feel like this all the time, whether they’re in limbo at the border or going about their daily lives all around the country. The second powerful section is his portrayal of the immigration system and just how difficult and time-consuming it is, even for those who are following the rules. Castillo shares his experiences working through the immigration process for both his mother and his father, and it’s eye-opening to say the least. Even laws specifically established to help people like his mother, for example, whose case was a special one (I won’t say more than that), are ultimately made to be toothless by the people who work the system and choose whether or not a person’s value is enough.
Children of the Land is not an easy or enjoyable read. There are moments of beauty, both thematically and from the writer’s perspective about life and the world, and beauty in the language and style; but it is a difficult story, not just for Castillo but for his entire family. Being reminded that his is just one story of millions amplifies the discomfort and helplessness one might feel when reading it; but ultimately, that’s the point. There is a helplessness and a desperation that consumes entire groups of people, entire families, and that influences them for generations. Castillo’s memoir illustrates this brilliantly and damagingly.
“I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more.”
“I tried to hold the words of my poems inside me like the sounds of snow, but they were nothing like snow, they disappeared as soon as I wrote them” (124).
“He is screaming as if he has seen the future already and knows the past” (357).
“What seemed like hope at first turned into almost an embarrassment. How could we be so naive as to think we could fix this?” (243).
“We needed to ease our way back to him, the way you wade into frigid water, slowly letting your body get numb enough from the waist down to take the dive.” (240).
“I didn’t want to tell people I was a poet because I didn’t want to explain (mostly to white people) what lead me to writing, which would be followed by something like ‘I bet it was a great outlet of expression for such a hard life you lived'” (90).
“Apa always said time stood still out there, like it was broken and would never work again no matter how many watches you wore, which meant that one step was no different than another–they were going nowhere” (41).
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