Thursday, December 30, 2010

Posting Christmas

I am still out in the middle of the countryside, so posting irregularly from Panera, nearby when I can get in. One car, three people -- you do the math.

This week I spent reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a book recommended on another blog.

Schwartz discusses why more is less, or making less sense, in our culture. I was interested in the topic, which seems so relevant today, but it was when he got to the following topics that I got truly interested: choice and expectations, choice and depression, choice and empowerment.

I see this everyday in my students, but I have also seen it in the New Yorkers recently interviewed about the post-Christmas blizzard and their expectations about snow removal by the city's government. Let me start with the blizzard issues.

Watching this news on TV I have been astonished at the reactions of NY'ers to the issues of snow removal. New York is the biggest, busiest city on the East coast and it got hit with 6-31 inches of snow--depending on where you were--Sunday night to Monday midday... and NY'ers were vocally complaining when by there was still snow on secondary and tertiary streets... on Tuesday. Or on Wednesday. IT'S A FOOT OF SNOW, FOLKS, ON EVERY STREET IN MANHATTAN, BROOKLYN, QUEENS, STATEN ISLAND AND THE BRONX! Every bridge, every tunnel, everywhere. The city asked people not to call 911 unless it was a life or death emergency: did people listen? No... and ambulances got stuck trying to respond to over 40,000 emergency calls. The city asked people not to try and drive their own cars... but they did and got stuck, thereby requiring city vehicles to pull them out, vehicles which had JUST AS MUCH TROUBLE getting around...

And then everyone got mad at the mayor and the city for not bailing them out.

People, a little rational thinking, huh?
1. This snowstorm was widely predicted -- everyone should have thought about and prepared for how to get to dialysis, jobs, food, pharmacies... BEFORE Monday morning. There was nothing else on the news, we all watched the storm move up the coast. Whyfor were you unprepared?
2. It was over 12 inches of snow: all vehicles, even city ones, get stuck in that kind of  thick, heavy, wet snow. They're not miracle machines.
3. You don't live in Georgia, where people had a right to be astonished at the snow. You live in the Northeast where it snows. It's winter, it was a snowstorm/tropical storm, it dropped snow and ice... figure it out.

But the real problem, it seems to me, is that the people of New York expected the city--meaning some objective entity--to solve their problems individually. In a city of 18 MILLION people. On Wednesday I heard one guy resentfully and self-righteously say that their block was NOW shoveling themselves out! It took 48 hours for the block to think of that solution and put it into practice. But these weren't renters: they were house owners who hadn't even shoveled their own cars or driveways. People, take ownership/responsibility for your place of living. Help your neighbors. Especially the elderly, the weak, the shut-ins!

Of course--because we have shopped for a gov't that would do everything for us... so we only have to become observers and critics of their performance, not do-ers. Our " actions" are limited to picking--followed by the expectation that all would roll out for us after that. This is Schwartz's thesis.

We have come to feel that since there is a wide selection, once we choose, we've chosen "the best," and the responsibility is now on that choice. We have no more responsibility, for example, to solve problems like snowy streets since our government has promised to care for us. We sit inside and wait, impatiently. But we simultaneously disconnect ourselves from being "the government," which we are--so we bear no burden. No burden for action, no responsiblity, and a demand for total, equal happiness.

I suspect some of the dissatisfaction is that SOME streets were plowed while others were not. Why not MY street? Why yours? Are you more important? Am I less important? What about MY emergency/situation/fears?

My students are empowered when I tell them that on a test, there are 12 questions, but only 10 required answers, so choose the ten you will answer and the two you will leave blank. They like this choice. It is specific, helpful, and eases their tension about being "perfect." Small, focused choice.

My students become anxious when I post ten exercises, and tell them they can choose which 5 to do for a grade. Questions about which ones are better (all are the same), how to do them (instructions are the same for all), when to choose (any time during the semester), etc. -- anxiety goes way up, despite the fact that I posted all of them at the head of the semester, gave them the entire semester, and that every exercise is virtually done the same way, albeit on a different play which they choose from a list attached to the exercise. Too much choice. They actually get paralyzed, and it is my fault, as the authority who dreamed up this exercise. But... they initially like so much choice, according to them at the top of the semester.

Anyway--it is an interesting book. It did shed light on my issues about feeling disempowered, about depression, and simply about feeling too many choices face me every bloody day. Even here at Panera: they don't offer just three pastry choices, they offer 18. Not including 16 bins of bagels and about 12 types of bread... and that's just breakfast food, not even the coffee choices (15) and teas (uncounted) as well as other drinks (cold coffee, cold non-coffee, cold fruity, sodas, water). Hmm. And yet the possibility exists that I won't find the RIGHT pastry or the RIGHT drink choice--and therefore will be terribly disappointed. It's breakfast! But I understand the paralysis.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Favorite Christmas Movies

'Tis the season for Christmas films... but usually the predictable ones. As I tell my students, a holiday like Christmas can really focus and increase the tension, urgency, and dramatic life of a narrative, giving extra-special oomph to your plot. I also simply like slightly twisted Christmas tales.

For example:

1. Die Hard. Yes, a Christmas film. The terrorists, led by Alan Rickman, take over a Christmas party and, sadly for them, Bruce Willis's John McLane is in the house. Ditto, Die Hard 2.

2. The Bishop's Wife. With David Niven as the bishop, Loretta Young as his wife, and Cary Grant as the angel.

3. The Preacher's Wife, the newer version with Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance, and Denzel Washington as the angel (of course!).

4. The Man Who Came to Dinner. The Kaufman-Hart classic turned into a very funny film.

5. Stalag 17. Christmas in the POW camp. Brilliant William Holden.

6. We're No Angels.

7. Home Alone, the original only. Didn't we all dream of being alone at home, without siblings, running wild and staying up all night without supervision? Dang right.

8. Holiday Inn. In my opinion superior to White Christmas, if only because of the delectable Fred Astaire.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I saw this new Disney-Pixar film last week (after finals closed!) and found it delightful.

This new take on the story of Rapunzel features, yes, an evil "stepmother" -- actually simply the woman who steals Rapunzel from her birth parents in order to have access to the miraculous youth-giving properties of Rapunzel's hair. And yes, Rapunzel is blonde and Evil Mother is dark. In fact, she has black, curly hair...

Putting aside the issues of older-woman-seeking-eternal-youth and dark vs. light heroines (a staple of melodramas), to be considered later, the production of the film was stunning. The colors, the drawing style, the editing (sound and shot), and the overall look of the film was fantastic. There were the Disney staples of wonderful animal pals (a horse and a chameleon), Pixar's usual motley and unexpected characters, and wonderful tunes from Alan Mencken. As my friend cynically suggested, it is ready for Broadway.

Alert: Politics! Tangled definitely displays the usual painful gender politics of Disney films, commenting negatively on older women who are desperate to be young--so desperate they steal someone else's child! Sadly, not a trope limited to Disney... but I wonder how it sticks with little girls as they age. Disney as usual displays the simplistic notions of dark woman/light woman, natural mother/childless crone, found in most melodramas. It's Snow White all over again, and I thought we had come a long way from that 1930s classic!

It reminds me of Lillian Gish's role in The Night of The Hunter, a great film directed by Charles Laughton. She's a woman who has taken in stray children during the Depression, and is as fierce as anything. And the silent star is clearly not afraid of being seen in her late middle age. Not a "typical" mother or heroine.

At the homestead

I am back east for the holidays, and there is nary a sign of snow yet. Bone dry and windy. I thought I'd share these photos from last Christmas when there was more then enough snow in my little hometown.

One very snowy winter morning in the middle of our small town. Looks like a traditional little village, almost like a Christmas card, non? The church is the one where I sang in the Sunday choir all through high school, a Dutch Reformed Church (Presbyterian), located on the north side of the village green, visible in the first picture. One would never guess that hippies used to squat in tents on that same green, would you?

It is an interesting little town with an interesting past, now settled into an attractive and mysterious middle age... only one of the reasons I enjoy it so very much.

Jack and I are firmly established in house with my folks, where Jack has spent a lot of time lying under the Christmas tree, against the radiator.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Back to... normal?

More or less.

Yesterday, I took care of errands online and in person, getting ready to fly out for the holidays with family. Also went to see Tangled, the new Disney movie which has a very singable score (no surrpise!) and is superbly done. More later.

Today's big plan is to clean the top half of my apartment--otherwise known as upstairs--and take care of a few more errands.

A friend and I plan to drive through my 'hood tonight and view the lights. Yesterday evening as I was driving myself home, I was nearly blinded by one display--everyone seems to have gone all out this year in the 'hood, and since the very very rich people live in my 'hood, that's saying something. Lawn crews were out and about for a month stringing, hanging, tossing carelessly-yet-elegantly, and inflating. I suspect it is for the same reason people have brought their HumVees and big ol' SUVvies out of the garage and are driving them around. In my very very conservative-yet-filthy-rich 'hood, the poor times are over and we're all about celebrating... despite reality.

Lest you think me filthy rich, I assure you, not so. I live on the right side of the tracks--literally!--(for now) amidst them, but I am an observer only. But I do observe that Jags, Lexae, and the prevously mentioned HumVees are out and about without shame--despite the undoubtedly huge gas bills.

Tonight for our lookie-loo trip, I plan to break out my stash of Angelina's powdered cocoa and make us a thermos of the same. Nothing like looking at lawn ornamentation while sipping the best Paris cocoa! What I need is some full-bodied milk or, heavens, cream to make it super special.

Big D is sunny and mild, but the hometown will be snowy and cooooolllllddddd. Have to pack for that, for both Jack and me.

Christmas plans: read books, watch terrible TV, cook, write, play with Jack, be bored... and therefore unstressed. Create my list of 50 Books to Read in 2011, and start reading them. Go see The King's Speech with parents. Go see The Fighter, maybe with my sister. Watch the snow fall, lie on the ground, melt... watch the deer, many birds, and turkeys in my parents' yard--oh, yes, it is clearly on some animal version of "safe places to hang out."

Sounds crazy, right? But not in a Drah-Mah way, like my everyday life. Nice.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Free at last!

The hardest part of this job is the bi-annual end-of-semester crush. And... it happened again, despite my best plans.

Unfortunately, it has become a regular event. Unlike several of my departmental colleagues, I give final exams and require final revisions on my students' plays during the exam period. During this same period, my department gives individual student evaluations, where each student receives first a written and then an in-person assessment from each faculty member who teaches them in our department. The in-person ones are given by the entire teaching team at once; so we meet on one day, for example, with all our senior undergrads, and then the next day with the juniors, and so on.

This means that in a little more than a week, I led three assessment teams for three grade levels including 12 seniors, 12 juniors, and 22 sophomores--while writing my own assessments for all but 7 of those students. My job before the meetings is to collect, collate, and distribute the written evaluations; during, to keep us on time and focused; and after, to follow up with any probationary requirements.

Oh, and I prepared, gave and graded one final examination, collected and graded one research paper, collected and graded 18 short plays, and met individually with my 8 senior playwrights with notes about their plays. And met with a search committee.

All in 9 days, last Wednesday to yesterday! Breathe the free air!

The main problem is that no matter how I plan the time, it is too fast, too much, and picks up stray events and charges that make it tougher. This year, I planned a little better and had food in the house to cook and eat, which meant that I wasn't existing on a diet of coffee and fast food. That's a situation full of disaster for my moods and stamina. The house goes kaplooey, my errands go to mush, and everything piles up.

Fortunately, the evaluations went off without a hitch--except for two young men who didn't show.

The exams, papers, and grading went well, although the middle one took 24 hours too long (our Registrar starts sending nasty notes after 48 hours if your grades aren't in, then the phone calls begin.... apparently they have nothing to do in that office!). But the students actually ended with the grades the earned--which surprises them but is usual for the way things work. I did have several students who pulled their class grades up as much as a grade level--which was superb!

The meetings went better, leaving me now to email my written notes to each student, an easy enough task, once I get organized for it.

And, surprisingly, I got lots of errands done this week! I visited the Tax Man and got old back taxes figured and in to the IRS, which will make for a sizable refund. I put in and got back all my prescriptions for the month. I got my car registration and new license plates for the DMV. I took Jack to the vet and got our flying certificates. And today I plan to visit the bookshop and sell books, the consignment store and sell clothes.

More to do, but my holiday begins now!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Finally, final final grades

Thursday is here and...
  1. last 3 days of classes DONE!
  2. 1 last research paper -- being graded
  3. 2 1 "final" meetings -- with no final, just handing in final projects
  4. 8 5 3 2 final meetings with students about original scripts: would be done but two students "failed" to show for originally scheduled meetings, had to re-schedule for Monday (sigh)
  5. 1 final (official) -- review session completed yesterday -- Grading in process!
  6. 38 26 individual student evaluations to be written, copied, handed out to students in 3 rounds of face-to-face meetings -- round 1 today round 2 today
  7. 2 student projects to be seen DONE!
  8. and grading, grading, grading until 12.15
Yay!  Finally DONE with all papers, all plays, all final exams... and meetings!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Counting Down!

End-of-the-week assessment, but I am still very much in the middle of things....
  1. last 3 days of classes DONE!
  2. 1 last research paper -- being graded
  3. 2 1 "final" meetings -- with no final, just handing in final projects
  4. 8 5 3 2 final meetings with students about original scripts: would be done but two students "failed" to show for originally scheduled meetings, had to re-schedule for Monday (sigh)
  5. 1 final (official) -- review session completed yesterday -- Grading in process!
  6. 38 26 individual student evaluations to be written, copied, handed out to students in 3 rounds of face-to-face meetings -- round 1 today round 2 today
  7. 2 student projects to be seen DONE!
  8. and grading, grading, grading until 12.15
A loooong week, nearly done. Three days without tests or evaluations, only writing and grading. Oh, and two parties!

Also--more Christmas wishes, now that I think about it.

Basic Travelsmith easy travel dress. I had one ofthese for a decade, and it finally died. Most useful peice of clothing I ever had, and one for which I received tons of compliments.

A variation on the same. Of course, I would get it in black.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas wish list

Current standings:
  1. last 3 days of classes DONE!
  2. 1 last research paper -- being graded
  3. 2 1 "final" meetings -- with no final, just handing in final projects
  4. 8 5 3 final meetings with students about original scripts
  5. 1 final (official) -- review session completed yesterday
  6. 38 26 individual student evaluations to be written, copied, handed out to students in 3 rounds of face-to-face meetings -- round 1 today round 2 today
  7. 2 student projects to be seen DONE!
  8. and grading, grading, grading until 12.15

Yesterday was an action-packed round of student evaluations, student meetings, and talking talking talking... 
Today is more fo the same: 2 meetings, 11 evaluations, and 1 meeting wtih a colleague. Then 2 hours of blissful at-home grading/final-making.

I've already turned in my wishlist to Santa, but here are some things I wuld love to get.

Le Creuset baking set, now onsale at cobalt, of course.

Blue oxford boyfriend shirt at J. Jill, also onsale.

Gold link/chain bracelet. This is just an example-hint.

Gift card for my new e-reader (to be opened Xmas morning)--so I can buy and download books.

Brown and black leather belts, good quality, mostly for wear with jeans and trousers. These are Banana Republic, but this is not the most difficult gift choice to find...

I had a hard time coming up with these. I've been doing such a good job decluttering and moving things out, rethinking what I already have, that these are what's left as real "need to haves." I'm actually impressing myself, right now!

Oh, and this!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Back in town

Yes, last week was crazy... This week IS crazy... next week should be back down to ORANGE levels.

My list from last week:
  • last 3 days of classes DONE!
  • 1 last research paper -- being graded
  • 2 "final" meetings -- with no final, just handing in final projects
  • 8 5 final meetings with students about original scripts
  • 1 final (official) -- review session completed yesterday
  • 38  26 individual student evaluations to be written, copied, handed out to students in 3 rounds of face-to-face meetings -- round 1 today
  • 2 student projects to be seen DONE!
  • and grading, grading, grading until 12.15

Yes, it is not exactly time for champagne, but with one party looming, three friend-dinners scheduled, Christmas shopping completed, I am actually seeing the end of the tunnel. I am also managing to eat and sleep better than last week, so I feel better (funny how that works!).
The biggest challenge for us this time of the year are the individual student evaluations we write--1 for each student in each class--and deliver in teaching teams. It is a time-consuming process that enables each student to understand where she or he stands and what he or she must work on in future. I have 38 evaluations to be written, copied, handed out, and filed. Leading to discussions with each individual students during the three meetings. And finals, final projects, and final grades, which are due 48 hours after the final--for the convenience of the Registrar's office, not the professor. Just another way the administration "structures" our teaching.
Then, finally, I will have five days just to DO NOTHING before holidays at the parents. Yes, clean house and car. Yes, ride bike and cull closets and drawers. Yes, go to early matinees and see holiday movies even my nephews won't want to see. Heaven!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Small break

Well, December is HERE, which means
  • last 3 days of classes
  • 1 last research paper
  • 2 "final" meetings -- with no final, just handing in final projects
  • 1 final (official)
  • 38 individual student evaluations to be written, copied, handed out to students in 3 rounds of face-to-face meetings 
  • 2 student projects to be seen
  • and grading, grading, grading until 12.15