Thursday, September 29, 2005

How do you solve a problem like Kristeena?

The first time I saw her—sitting on the front row in the media history class—I had to stop and drink her in. Without a doubt, Kristeena was the single most beautiful college student I had ever seen.

Tall, with brunette waves tumbling over her shoulders, she sat ramrod straight in the plastic desk, long legs wrapped around each other in that way very thin young girls have of crossing them and then crossing them again.

Kristeena isn’t just pretty. She’s stunning, as in stop traffic, slap your granny, get out your checkbook gorgeous. Her eyes, like Elizabeth Taylor’s, twinkle like amethysts under double rows of dark lashes. Her mouth turns up slightly at the corners, even when she’s not smiling. And her lips—shoot, women in Los Angeles subject themselves to painful thousand-dollar injections with long, cold steel needles trying to get some version of that lush, bee-stung look. Angelina Jolie would kill for Kristeena's lips.

Other girls wouldn’t sit anywhere near Kristeena in that class. As the semester progressed, her side of the room became the boys’ club—except for Rick, the chatty film student, who defiantly sat in the estrogen zone across the room, surrounded by blondes. But the other guys just stared at Kristeena instead of openly flirting. Her high-fashion, gamine look and steely posture kept their engines idling on high.

She was quiet that semester, but attentive. She kept perfect attendance and during lectures, she’d scribble in a notebook and then look up at me and nod as I prattled on about Citizen Kane or why it was called “yellow journalism” and not green or pink.

She made C’s on the two short papers and a C on the midterm. Then came the final. Look, my exams are ridiculously easy. I don’t like tests—I had terrible test anxiety in college and in grad school sought out courses that omitted them (most did anyway). With 100 students in a lecture class, I hate grading the things. So I always do a thorough review with the class and pretty much spill all the pintos about what’s going to be on the multiple choice exam. If you pay attention as you fill in the Scantron sheet, you’ll catch on that I put the correct answers in a fairly obvious pattern (a technique that drives the Type A’s berserk). I even tack on a 10-point extra credit question at the end, which means a lot of students make 110 points on it. Nobody ever flunks one of my finals.

Until Kristeena. She tanked it completely. One question said: “Most of us carry at least one photo of Abe Lincoln in our wallets. Those images came from the photo studio of: (a) Mathew Brady; (b) George Eastman; (c) Thomas Alva Edison; (d) Richard Avedon; (e) none of the above.” She picked Avedon. We’d spent a week talking about Mathew Brady and his Civil War photos and all the times he and his staff photographers had made portraits of gloomy old Honest Abe.


She picked Quentin Tarantino for “Who directed Citizen Kane?” and “False” for “You can watch broadcast TV channels without the use of cable connections.”

The final counted for a huge portion of the overall grade (the only way to keep students in town to take the required exam, unfortunately), so by flunking it, Kristeena ended up with a D in the course. She got the only grade below a B I gave in that class that semester.

Almost the same thing happened when she took my writing class the following spring. She sort of muddled along—showing up for class every single day, always dressed to the nines—nodding and smiling right to the end. Her skills were terrible, but then, what else is new? I gave her easy topics to write campus news stories about (students are supposed to come up with their own) and she still bungled them. Always with a shrug and a smile, she'd come up with some thin excuse when I handed them back with a low grade.

I thought maybe she would squeak through until it came to the final project, a group effort with three other students. They had to write and perform a short situation comedy script (a lesson in the art of writing humor that includes a look at the process of getting a show from page to airwaves). All the kids did knockout work that semester, turning in script after script that looked and sounded like the real thing. (My fave was the “five years later” look at what the Friends characters would be doing circa 2009). Kristeena’s group came to me a few weeks into the assignment and complained that she wasn’t showing up for their meetings and they wanted her out. "She's an airhead," said Bob, "and I should know--I dated her for two months last year." I persuaded them to keep working with her. They reluctantly said they would.

Last day of class, I always order pizzas for the script readings. We munch along and enjoy the laughs and it’s a nice way to go out after a long semester. As it happened Kristeena’s group was the last to perform. She took the lead and, standing at the front of the room, they started to work their way through the script. Twenty-five minutes later, there had yet to be a chuckle. (Scripts are only supposed to be 8-12 pages long.) The lines sounded like a cross between a court transcript from a really boring child custody trial and the lyrics of ABBA songs, possibly in the original Swedish. It was baffling mumbo-jumbo. And with the rest of the class squirming as we ran out of time, I finally had to stop the group and sort of jovially adjourn things with a “That was interesting.”

What a mess. After class, Kristeena’s other group members hung back and told me that she’d offered to type the final script they’d written without her. What she showed up with for class was something else entirely, a jumble of words that she told them she’d been up all night writing.

Once again, the girl had nosedived at the 11th hour. She made a D for the course, which meant she’d have to take it again to be considered for the major.

Was it drugs? Eating disorders? Self-sabotage? I would find out later that it was a combination of all three, plus boyfriend problems and a set of parents who were crazier than a bucket of bedbugs.

The next semester rolled around and by golly, there she was again, back in my writing class, ready for a do-over. Back on the front row she sat, coltish legs entwined at knee and ankle. Smiling, twinkling and nodding as I launched into the first day’s spiel, she looked even more beautiful than when I first laid eyes on her a year earlier.

There are so many Kristeenas gracing college classes these days. They act the role of perfect students. They go through the motions, but they really aren’t equipped for the tasks. Not “college material,” as they used to say. It’s like these girls are in college, but not into it. Some do flunk out after a few disastrous semesters. Others sort of wake up by their junior year and realize they’d better get to work before they find themselves in the seventh-year-senior society. And some, like lovely Kristeena, become content to earn that “Mrs.” degree. She will look so pretty in a Vera Wang gown.

The Kristeenas are rather like porcelain figurines, now that I think about it. Perfect, beautiful and shiny on the outside, but fragile… and strangely hollow underneath.

Word Nerd 7: To Whom It May Concern

What’s the trick for knowing when to use “who” and “whom”? Try this. Can you substitute “him” or “her” instead? If that still sounds right—as an objective pronoun—then use “whom.” If it sounds correct with “he” or “she” instead, then it should be “who.”

It’s not easy. Even The New York Times, employer of writers and editors who ought to know better, gets the wrong one into print pretty frequently.

Another bugaboo is the “that/which” prob. For that one, if you use a comma before it, it’s “which.” If you don’t, it’s "that." “Which” leads into a clause. And watch out for “that/who,” too. If you’re referring to a human, it’s “who,” not “that.”

Whom’s up for some practice?

(Vocabulary humor.)

1. She was the third person in a row in the express line (who, whom) had more than 10 items in her basket.
2. He was frequently mistaken for his older brother, (who, whom) he resembled closely.
3. Jennifer Aniston is the one actress (who, that, which) went on Oprah’s show and managed not to reveal anything embarrassing.
4. The marriage contract between Tom and Katie, (that, which) was reported to guarantee her millions of dollars, was just one of the wild rumors floated about the couple.
5. The hurricane (that, which) hit Texas and Louisiana earlier this month brought an influx of travelers to Dallas and Fort Worth, cities (that, which) already were housing thousands of evacuees from Katrina.
6. How do you know (who, whom) to blame for all the trouble in the fruit cellar?

No prizes this week. And don’t post your answers to this. That lets everyone play along. By the way, “lets” and “let’s” are frequently misused. The one with the apostrophe means “let us.”

Response to last week’s contest was great. I’ll try to rustle up more prizes. It’s always fun to win sump’n!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

And the winners are...

Great work, kids, on last Thursday's word-teasers. I judge the winners of copies of Found magazine to be: Beche-la-mer, Superholmie, Jen the college student, Tapper and Oubliette. With a special extra Found going to Hillary for her uses of "Fetch! Tubular! Zang! (G)narly! Chaching!" Very original. Made me laugh. Email your addresses to me at and I'll get those magazines in the mail.

Your Word Nerd stuff this week will be posted a little later on Thursday. I was a guest lecturer this afternoon, delivering my in-depth deconstruction of the film Chinatown, and I'm pure-dee exhausted. The heat in Dallas today was thermonuclear. Storm tonight may have brought in a cool front. Hope so. Show up late Thursday for a little fun with "who" and "whom."

And I do have another college story in the works. Just a lot of distractions have delayed my bloggery this week, including a bonza new episode of America's Next Top Model. What? You thought I just watched PBS?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 7: In the Zone

Why write? Because we have to. Because the words buzz around in our heads like angry bees until we can set them free and get them onto a page. We are compelled to write. The world around us keeps tripping us up with new stories to tell. We have no choice. We have to write them down.

Writers have a “zone” just like athletes and musicians. Space and time disappear there. When you’re in the zone, you write for eight hours and it feels like one. You forget to eat and are surprised to hear the postman filling the mailbox. Doesn’t he usually come at 4 or 5? Wait, it’s what time? Writing in the zone means blocking out everything else. When the sentences are flowing, aaaaaaah. Word-gasm.

By now you probably know how to trick yourself into the zone. You get new legal pads and just the right pens with the super-fine points. Or you win just enough rounds of computer solitaire to bring you luck. You get through your “resistance to work” moves—all the cleaning and fussing and preening--until you absolutely have no excuses left for not working.

For me, two things are necessary for “zoning”: a blank wall in front of me and a certain kind of messy chaos around me. Look around my desk right now: the stapler and a bottle of Tylenol have fallen on the floor to my right, where they've been for several days now; a stack of old Life magazines is under the table near my feet (a real bargain from eBay about six months ago…really must get around to reading them); the phone is teetering off the edge of the table to the left; a pile of clippings about college life spills out of a basket; a totebag from the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, lies crumpled near a little mountain of reporter’s notebooks filled with the scribblings from dozens of plays I’ve reviewed this year; oh, and there are the silver earrings I was looking for last weekend. There is a system here, but only I can decode it. I like a little craziness in my environment. But what I like best is that blank wall. On that I write my best stuff. Not literally, of course. I just stare at it until blood droplets form on my forehead. Then I start typing.

Writing is a skill, a craft, an art and a pain in the ass. I can teach the first two—it’s up to you (and a good editor, if you're lucky) to achieve the third. The fourth, well, you already know that by now. If you haven't yet written yourself into the zone, you will. It's like the elusive G-spot--once you hit it, you'll know how to find it again. Or at least you'll enjoying trying, knowing how good the pay-off feels.

Through these exercises I hope you’re flexing some new writing muscles. And I hope you’re reading some good stuff. I’m really enjoying all of your posts. I feel as though I have friends out there in writerland. You challenge and inspire me.

I was going to introduce the basics of the craft of interviewing today, but I think I’ll hold off on that until week after next (next week: Fall Break!). Instead, let’s try this writing prompt that I picked up during a summer visit to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I took a class called “From Memory to Art” with Professor Jim Heynen. Each day he’d give us an assignment. We’d work on it overnight and then workshop whatever we wrote in class the following day. Professor Heynen is a friendly, twinkly-eyed poet from Minnesota. From his collection called Standing Naked, these are the first and last stanzas of a poem called “Valentine” that he wrote about his wife:

Among maple leaves in winter, you’re the one that doesn’t fall.
Among owls, you are the one awake at noon.
Among birds, you are the cardinal on the chimney.
Among fish, you are the one who ignores the bait.

Among sheep, you’re the one who won’t follow,
among pheasants, the one who won’t flush.
But among bears, you’re the one dancing
Around the fires in the forest of my heart.

Nice, huh? With these simple metaphors, he really tells you a lot about the woman he loves. This is an “anaphora,” a poem in which almost every line begins with the same word. Typically, that word is a preposition: among, between, because, above, etc.

Your assignment this week: Write a short anaphora about someone you love or someone you hate. Do that same-word-first thing. Don’t make the lines rhyme. Just make it good to read. Post it in comments here.

Now, back to work. A blank wall is calling.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Bitches, soldiers and golden boys (link to article)

Good one from Inside Higher Ed. Hmm, I started out as one, became another. That's what being an adjunct will do to you.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Word Nerd Exercise 6: Name It and Claim It

To test your knowledge of vocabulary and parts of speech, answer these. Share your answers via the comments section here. And this week, I’m offering a prize to the first five entries with all correct answers. Those writers each will get a free copy of Found magazine. Be sure you leave a name or nickname on your comment post so I can tell who won. (I'll declare the winners and have you email your mailing addresses directly to me.)

OK, ready, set, go!

1. List alphabetically 10 adverbs that have at least 8 letters. Example: dramatically.
2. List 10 nouns that are synonyms for house, meaning “living quarters.”
3. List 5 interjections that express excitement. Example: Yeeha!
4. List 5 adjectives that deal with extreme weather events.
5. Orange often is listed as a common English-language word that cannot be rhymed. What are two others?

And here are last week's sentences, with their commas in the right places.
1. Well, is this your final day at work?
2. After the doctor reset it, her broken arm mended perfectly.
3. The wedding gifts included a clock, a popcorn popper, a plasma TV and seven toasters.
4. "If you reheat that awful meatloaf one more time, I'm getting a divorce," Tammy said to David, her third husband.
5. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

That sinking feeling

Fewer A's this year at Princeton. Here's the story.

And another adjunct gets that sinking feeling when the honeymoon period is over.

I, Student

For three years--ending with my graduation from the master's program last May--I was a night student on the same campus where I taught during the day. Going back to school wasn't easy. But my department chair said I had to finish my master's ASAP to be eligible for a full-time position.

As an adjunct without benefits, I had to pay my own way, full freight, for the 36 hours I needed for the degree. That meant almost every penny I earned as an adjunct prof, I paid right back to the school for tuition. I gag a little just remembering that.

The program I was in caters to the working adult. In classes, I met lawyers and doctors and other professionals (including a lot of public school teachers, whose tuition was partially subsidized). Why the lawyers and docs wanted another degree... well, they said they liked the liberal arts courses and enjoyed getting to know people outside their professions. I went out a few times with one of the MD's I met in a class. I think he was just there to meet women, but it seems like an expensive and time-consuming way to do it. I mean, there were an awful lot of research papers.

Among my classmates were lots of assistant coaches from the university who were required to be pursuing their master's degrees as conditions of employment. Typically, they'd show up for class the first week and we'd never see them again until the last two or three weeks of the course. They never did the work or turned in papers or took exams. Guess they weren't required to pass the courses, just be enrolled.

More than a few grown-up students were in the night program as a way to qualify for cheap health coverage. For about $700 a semester, you could be covered as a student and get access to the campus health center. One guy told me he got a $40,000 gall bladder operation covered, which is why he was taking only one course per term (most students took two or three)--to stretch out his student coverage as long as possible.

Another guy, kind of a weird dude who seemed to haunt the student center, eked out a living on Pell Grants and other student aid. He claimed already to have a master's degree in theology, but he didn't seem to have a job anywhere and he'd been lurking around the night program for a few years, flunking course after course.

Ah, the lurkers. They're there at all levels of college life. There used to be one in the building where I taught--a sweaty, stuttering man with thick glasses and a heavy sheaf of papers spilling out of a worn-out briefcase. The first year I saw him bustling up and down the halls, I thought he was a teaching assistant. By the fourth year, I tried to avoid eye contact. Say hello to the guy and you would find yourself trapped in circular conversations that could go on for hours. Several departments had banned the guy from signing up for their classes. Which meant he ended up in our division--the bottom of the net for students who'd failed to be accepted in other majors. For all I know, he's still on campus, sleeping on the benches at the end of the hallways and going from office to office looking for someone to latch onto. Poor guy. You just knew he lived in some tiny cat-filled apartment with his mother and got around the city with a permanent bus pass.

But back to my nights as a student.

I lucked into some great profs: the human rights teacher who required us each to volunteer 20 hours for an organization helping Somalian refugees gain citizenship (an experience that real quick will make you stop complaining about stuff that really doesn't matter), the poetry teacher who could zero in like a laser beam on the weak spots in student work and help fix it in a flash, the Freud expert who led us in five weeks of seminar discussions on the "Introductory Lectures." Fascinating.

There was also the lame-o drama prof who skipped three weeks of classes to direct a show in London. And his equally lame-o theater department colleague who misspelled Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams on his syllabus. Instead of a lecture or discussion of "American Drama of the 1950s-60s," he'd just plug in the movie of a play and then go off for a smoke. What a waste of time and tuition money.

I often was amazed to watch my classmates offer the same idiotic excuses that the undergrads tried when they hadn't done their homework. And I became convinced that the program was letting in everyone who filled out the application when I was assigned to do one of those dreaded "group project" things with a woman who turned out to be illiterate. Couldn't read a simple sentence off a page, much less limn the symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper." It wasn't dyslexia or vision problems either. She flat couldn't read or write. I watched in two different classes as she feigned pregnancies that would come to abrupt ends the exact weeks the term papers were due. The teachers were both fooled. They treated her "miscarriages" with great sympathy and let her off the hook on assignments. But she was never pregnant to begin with. I compared notes with another student who was hip to her act and it turns out the little mama had done the same thing every semester with every prof she'd had. She should have switched her major to acting.

But my favorite moment happened in that human rights class. Besides the volunteering and the 20 short papers and two research papers and the 23 books and the 15 films we had to see on our own time, we also had to produce an "art project." It could be any medium, depicting any aspect of the human rights struggle. On the last night of class, we unveiled our creations. There were lots of collages. One man baked cookies in the shape of Stars of David. Somebody wrote an original folk song about forced migration of Native Americans. And then a woman who actually identified herself as "a happy homemaker" (just like Sue Ann Nivens) held up her project. It was a beautifully sewn quilt about the size of a baby blanket. On bright cotton fabric in colors of lavender and blue, she had meticulously stitched her tribute to a painful chapter in the history of the Old South. There in the middle of the little quilt, outlined in shiny black thread, was the silhouette of a black man, his head drooped forward, his feet not touching the ground, his limp body dangling from the perfectly quilted tree limb from which he'd been hanged. It was the prettiest, coziest depiction of a lynching I'd ever seen.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 6: Found Words

You really must meet Davy Rothbart. You’ve probably heard him perform stories about his family and friends on public radio’s “This American Life” show. His stories are good, particularly the one about going to a South American faith healer. But even better is the magazine he founded. It’s called Found and once you find it, you’ll be hooked.

Here’s how it started. For years, young Mr. Rothbart collected odd bits of writing that he came across: notes left on windshields, lost pet notices taped to phone poles, kids’ schoolwork, drawings, letters, journals started and discarded by their writers, grocery lists, receipts. About four years ago he took his collection, copied it onto pages exactly as written and sold the result as a ’zine named Found.

He put a few in the record stores in his Chicago neighborhood. They sold out immediately, so he printed more. By the end of 2002, he’d sold 20,000 Founds. From all over the world, people started sending him more pieces of paper they’d picked up on the street or discovered in trashbins or found fluttering in the wind against a wall or fence. They were incredibly personal, some of them. Others were just funny: "Took some hos to buy some burritos."

A note left on a car: “Mario, I fucking hate you—you said you had to work then whys your car here at her place?? You’re a fucking LIAR. I hate you I fucking hate you—Amber—P.S. Page me later.”

Rothbart includes with his finds the circumstances of their being found. The Mario note was left on his car (by mistake, apparently) on a February night in 1999. Rothbart writes: “I thought it was a pretty amazing love note: Amber, trying to be all full of bitterness and bile, but giving herself away with her sweet coda—page me later.”

In 2001 he went on the road to promote Found, appearing in bookstores and coffee houses to receptive crowds. He drove a rented car coast to coast, flopping with friends or fans along the way. I put him up at the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas and got him booked on The Glenn Mitchell Show on Dallas’ NPR affiliate. He rocked. And that night, 90 people crowded into a lecture hall to hear Rothbart read from his collection of found writings. Many in the audience shared things they’d found. One couple had seen a collection of enormous paintings of science fiction monsters sitting in a curbside trash pile and wagged them up to school to show them to Rothbart.

Now Davy Rothbart regularly performs to packed theaters full of Found fans. He has appeared on Letterman a few times and Found last year became a pretty swank coffeetable book (the magazine still comes out annually). And he still goes on the road to meet “finders” and gather new material, including porn for Dirty Found.

I tell you about him because years before I ever saw Found or met its editor, I kept my own bits of written flotsam and jetsam in what I called “alchemy books.” For me, these served as idea generators and general sources of inspiration. Besides random pieces of other people’s writing, I included odd articles and pictures that struck me as bizarre or interesting. I like clipping obituary photos where the deceased wears a hat (just recently I found one of a man wearing what looks like a live raccoon on his head and another of an elderly woman sporting a pair of Mickey Mouse ears). When I’m running dry and need a laugh or a creative nudge, I flip through my alchemy books and they work their magic. My latest book holds Polaroids of weird public signs--"Free gun with purchase of TV"--and an ace of hearts I found at the bus stop.

When I assigned writing students to create alchemy books, it usually took them a few weeks to get what I meant. Not a scrapbook. No cutesy-ness.

Just start looking around, I’d tell them. On bulletin boards. In the garbage at Kinko’s. Between the pages of used books. Read the stuff other people throw away. Take time to see what that flyer on the laundromat wall is advertising.

And when they got it at last, they’d bring in the most amazing stuff. A grocery store receipt listing just three items: 12 cans of cat food, 12 cans of guava nectar and a box of condoms. An ATM receipt showing a balance in someone’s checking account of $000.01. Either of those could launch a story, a poem or a song.

One note, written in purple ink on pink stationery, was found in a sorority house, tersely telling a pledge that “a session of pumpkin carving would do you a world of good.” Another student found a crumpled list on the floor of the library: “Boys I have kissed,” it said, followed by more than 30 names.

My students’ collections were so good that we’d hold exhibitions of them and invite people to flip through the pages. Many of the books turned out to have unintended themes that even the makers didn’t realize until pointed out to them. Like, the girl who collected dozens of photos of women reaching toward the sky. And the boy who found a child’s journal near his apartment dumpster. The carefully printed words told a story of abuse by mommy’s boyfriend and a Christmas ruined by drunk adults. The rest of this student's collection was a series of invitations to keggers and tailgate parties.

So here's the lesson: Start paying attention to the story the world is writing all around you. What nugget of found writing can you rescue this week? Whose message in a bottle will you pick up on the beach? Start looking. The scrap of paper left in a shopping cart. The Post-it stuck to the wall next to the mailbox. You might soon have the elements for some powerful alchemy, even if it's just bits of paper in a shoebox under your desk.There’s magic out there. It’s up to you to find it.

Add your finds to the comment sections here this week.

Not many of you posted excerpts of your own work last week. That’s OK. I shall just assume that you’re typing away out there in writerland. I hope these weekly exercises give you some new ideas or perhaps offer a diversion from just staring at the wall waiting for the muse to strike. I appreciate any and all comments. Special thanks to those who’ve been sticking with it week after week.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

NYT on the soaring price of textbooks

Nice New York Times op-ed piece on the textbook scam.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Random blurts from faculty

All true and all spoken by profs in the company of other profs:
  • I’m sleeping with my handyman. I think he’s homeless. I’m that desperate.
  • I should have bought a dog. Instead, I had a baby.
  • I have two football players in that class. Surprise: I think they can read.
  • Did [female student] tell you she was having oral surgery last week? Wrong end.
  • He’s on his way to becoming another seventh-year senior.
  • A kid brought a beer to my night class last night.
  • Don’t use the fridge in our break room. There’s so much mold in there it looks like The Muppet Show.
  • He’s so dumb he couldn’t pass gas, much less an honors course.
  • My daughter called home last night to announce she’s a lesbian. That's NYU for you.
  • It’s pedagogy versus demagoguery. And it makes me gag.
  • They’re not a fraternity anymore. They’re the Hitler Youth.
  • Sabbatical is another word for “looking for a better job.”
  • Who do you have to fuck to get a file cabinet around here?
  • I got through menopause and all I could think was, "I have to buy a motorcycle."
  • I heard she sleeps in the commuter students’ lounge between classes. That’s not right.
  • He’s not a senior yet. He’s a lifer.
  • Her father was in the NFL. Now he’s in real estate. Is it too early in the year to hit him up for a donation?
  • I went into [female prof’s] office once. When she opened the desk drawer, there was a pork chop sitting there. And it didn’t look new.

Word Nerd Brain-Teaser No. 5

Answers from last week:
1. Candice Bergen now does commercials for The Dallas Morning News.
2. She graduated from Texas Woman's University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
3. The scientists at the Centers for Disease Control warn of a possible epidemic.
4. The dinosaur's bones were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
5. For decades, the most famous athlete in the world was Muhammad Ali.

Did you get all 10 mistakes?

Here's this week's word-teaser, a little something I like to call "Comma, Comma Down, Dooby Doo, Down, Down." Put commas where they belong (do NOT use the serial comma in a list of three or more things). And you don't need to post answers. This is self-study. Answers will be posted next week. OK, go to it.

1. Well is this your final day at work?
2. After the doctor reset it her broken arm mended perfectly.
3. The wedding gifts included a clock a popcorn popper a plasma TV and seven toasters.
4. "If you reheat that awful meatloaf one more time I'm getting a divorce" Tammy said to David her third husband.
5. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 1963 in Dallas Texas.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Few Asides

Why'd I turn off comments on the last piece? Because the nastiness of them was getting right up my nose. If you don't like my stuff, go bother some other blogger. Or start your own. I don't seek or need universal approval, but the personal insults go too far.

Two fine young student journalists have interviewed me in the past week. Thank you, Natalie and Will, for asking better questions and for caring more about accuracy than any of the professionals I've encountered over the past few months. You were prepared and you were on time. That's 99 percent of the job right there.

Lots of theater to see this week. If you're in the Dallas area, I highly recommend the new one at Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Tracy Letts' Bug is one you won't soon forget. There's full-frontal nudity, simulated freebasing of cocaine and some extremely realistic violence. Also, a phenomenally dark and funny script. Knocked me out, start to finish. Here's the link to my Dallas Observer review of it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Cats in sinks

I needed a laugh today. Cats in Sinks provided it. Enjoy!

Scary Mary Sunshine

There she is, the princess from Plano. She is not an Ashley. Compared to this one, Ashleys are peons. Ashleys would be lucky to lick the mud off her Manolos.

In the first class she took with me, I nicknamed her Little Mary Sunshine. Always earned A’s, never put a foot wrong. She was a pleasant sort of suck-up. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?” she’d say to me on the first class of the week. On Thursdays she’d often bring home-baked snacks for the whole class to share (it was summer school, so there were only about a dozen students to cook for).

Yellow is her color. Juicy dresses the color of sweet butter. Yellow Haviana flip-flops. She’s a glowing sunflower. Even her hair gleams like cornsilk. If you get closer than 10 feet from her, you’d better be wearing SPF-10.

By the third class of mine she enrolled in, I started to see the real girl behind the beautiful, golden mask. You know the wolf in sheep’s clothing? This one, it turns out, is a rattlesnake in yellow Juicy sweats.

More than once, as students loitered outside my office between classes, I heard her loudly trashing her peers in language that might make her super-Christian parents (that’s what she called them) gag on their goblets of buttermilk. “Fuck that little whore,” she barked into her cellphone one day, not two feet from my door. “If she thinks she can fucking do that to me, I’ll throw her shit into the street and she can get herself a new fucking roommate.”


I noticed that her questions in class grew barbs. It was election season and class discussions centered on campaign rhetoric, press bias and coded language. I had to object when she dubbed another student’s comments “stupid and insane.” When the one self-described feminist in class tried to bring up Roe v. Wade, a dark cloud passed over Sunshine’s face and she started quoting Bible verses. It made the feminist cry.

Although she is a media major, Mary Sunshine hates the media. She often boasted about being raised without a TV in her family home. More than once she spoke of this show or that network as being “too of the world.” When we watched clips from the presidential debates and began to discuss them, she declared that Bush was God’s choice to run the country. The “Swift-boat” ads about Kerry, she said, had to be true or they wouldn’t be on TV. (Hmm, now she trusts TV, now she doesn’t.)

Mary Sunshine practically sprouted little golden wings at news that the First Lady was coming to campus. Mrs. Bush is a member of Mary’s sorority and the greek house was treating the event the way Mexico City welcomes a pope.

Mary’s ’rents are big Bushies, writing hefty checks to the party and showing up on White House invitation lists for all the major events. Mary’s mama travels to D.C. fairly often for the First Lady’s get-togethers of old sorority chums. (What do they do? I imagine a bunch of Botox-frozen gals strewn around the couches in the living quarters of the WH, picking at Godivas, playing Pat Boone records and sneaking gulps from tumblers of vodka.)

Mary’s a world-class name-dropper. “My dad plays golf with [insert name of Red State Bigwig here],” she’d say apropos of nothing. “At Christmas, the [big Republican family names] stay at our place in Aspen.” A famous talk show host and his sons are tennis buddies. The leader of one of the nation’s largest and whitest mega-churches preached a whole sermon based on Mary’s daddy’s collection of Christian self-help nuggets.

It grows tiresome.

Because Little Mary Sunshine is mean. She’s a walking symbol of everything wrong with a certain slice of the college population. Growing up privileged and indulged, she’s shellacked with an impenetrable sense of entitlement. She’s had everything she’s ever wanted, every day of her life. Her parents have convinced her she pisses Chanel No. 5. And when anyone suggests otherwise, she puffs out like an angry porcupine.

And until the day she discovers her perfect husband sticking it to the baby-sitter out in the pool house, she has no reason to believe that the rest of her life won’t follow the same perfect scenario she’s come to believe is her birthright.

One day the class got to jawing about the ridiculous amounts of money many of the campus’ female undergrads spend on fashion. Like, the 23 haute couture evening gowns one girl bought in Paris for her debutante season (yes, they still do that here). Another said that while she was spending a weekend cater-waitering at weddings to earn car payment money, her well-off roomie did a day of beauty at Neiman’s and then came home with $5,000 worth of designer shoes.

I gasped. Mary Sunshine rolled her eyes, crossed her legs and sniffed.

“Well, look,” said Mary, shooting daggers right at me, “for me, spending $5,000 shopping would be like you spending $50. It’s, like, nothing. It’s no big deal. You shouldn’t be so judgmental.”

Writing Workshop Lesson 5: Elmore's Rules

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. That’s Elmore Leonard talking. He gives more good advice here in his “10 Rules for Writing,” posted on Mystery Ink’s site.

The author has a new one out, The Hot Kid. You can read about it on Leonard’s own weblog.

I like his “Rules” because the first thing he talks about is the writer getting out of the way. Ironic to be talking about that here, since I tend to be a central character in so many of my own stories...but then, I did spend 20 years writing other people's stories first.

Many beginners find it difficult to keep themselves off the page, even when the story isn't about them. I read a news story in the campus daily the other day that was less about the student who died in a car wreck and more about the reporter who knew her and how she felt about the girl's death. The focus was way off. Too me-me-me.

One of my standard assignments asks students to write a story about a “dramatic moment." But they cannot use the pronoun “I” at all.

Tougher than it sounds. But it sure makes for more interesting reading when students have to figure how to convey drama, especially when it happens to them, without I-ing all over the page.

Leonard’s first three rules:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

I encourage you to read the rest of his advice. See if you're already following his lead.

How are your writing projects coming along? I’d love to know what you all are writing. If you don’t mind sharing, one of your assignments this week is to post a couple of paragraphs of whatever you’re typing these days – just enough to tease our interest in your work. Be sure you also include a title, if you have one, and maybe a few words to describe whether it’s fiction or non, poetry, comedy, drama, whatever.

“Be bold and all the forces of the universe will collect to aid you,” said Goethe. So if you can constructively critique each other, I’d welcome that, too. Via comments on this post.

And here’s an extra little warmer-upper for this week. From the site of WRAP (Write Around Portland) come these writing prompts to use when you need a nudge into the creative process. How would you finish these openers? (Post your answers in comments here, too.)

The secret of this (object)...
I could tell from her coat...
When I'm alone...
You might think I...
Fall brings me back to...

Do some good writing this week, y’all. Check back tomorrow for a new story (I hope). And come back Thursday for some new Word Snobbery.

    Monday, September 12, 2005


    Here's a story about a parent complaining that a high school teacher showed the documentary Outfoxed in class.

    I showed this in my media classes because so many students said they watch Fox News as their primary source for news. Can you imagine? So, yeah, I got crap about showing Outfoxed, too.

    "Generation Perfect" should be studied for how thoroughly and successfully they've been brainwashed into believing that the Roves and Aileses and Murdochs of the world have sole custody of the truth. They are willing young sheep.

    A professor friend told me that among the frosh he's teaching right now, "Supporting the president" and "Supporting government officials" received high marks in the survey he did of student attitudes toward authority figures.

    Anyone remember: "Never trust anyone over 30." I'd flip that around now.

    As one whose Wonder years were the 1960s and 1970s, I continue to be amazed at kids who follow in lockstep with political and religious beliefs that are so harmful to their own futures. They don't see it, don't want to see it. Maybe 20 years from now, when they have kids with asthma and autism, when every day is a "purple air alert," when they get tired of paying taxes to pay off the war debts.... They simply don't question now, as if questioning authority is somehow unpatriotic and dangerous.

    I'm not exaggerating. And yes, I'm a Democrat who got into journalism via the wave of Wood/Stein-loving young writers who believed in speaking truth to power and throwing the lies back in the faces of the hypocrites. I finally got out of daily newspapers because the prevailing "agenda" of the companies became so profit-centered. The emphasis was not on investigative reportage or serving a community by being watchdogs on elected officials. It was how to lower wages and increase profits by laying off near-retirees before they could qualify for pensions. It was cutting back on staff to the point of anorexic coverage of major events and blatant kowtowing to advertisers. It was unpaid overtime for new hires and fewer benefits for the lifers. Except for management, who got bonuses for instituting cost-cutting measures. And still, letters would come in to the newspapers claiming they were too "liberal." If only they knew.

    So hell yes, I showed Outfoxed and Bowling for Columbine (which is flawed but still powerful) and All the President's Men and other "left-leaning propaganda," as some of my students pegged it. Because even if I don't care about winning converts -- and I gave up on that long ago -- I think the little lambs occasionally should be exposed to different points of view and some information that hasn't been processed by the truth-shredding machines of Mr. Rove et al.

    I'll never forget the day a young man stood outside my office door after the first meeting of the writing class. "I need to tell you something," he said in a nervous stage whisper. "I think you should know because it might have an effect on how other students react to things I say in class."

    I imagined speech impediments or seizures. But no.

    "I just think you should know," he said, "that I'm a liberal."

    Thursday, September 08, 2005

    Word Snobs, Unite for Exercise 4

    Find 10 errors among the following sentences. Don't post your answers. After the list, I'll ask you for examples of other things to post. Here we go (I'll post answers by Tuesday):

    1. Candace Bergen now does commercials for the Dallas Morning News.
    2. She graduated Texas Women's University and John Hopkins medical school.
    3. The scientists at the Center for Disease Control warn of a possible epidemic.
    4. The dinosour's bones were displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.
    5. For decades, the most famous athalete in the world was Muhammed Ali.

    Now for the "other things." I've been very moved by a lot of the writing from and about New Orleans and the other destroyed cities in the South. What have you read that you'd like to share? Provide the link, if you can. I highly recommend this column from Keith Olbermann of MSNBC. And this from blogger Barnett.

    BTW, I tried and failed to find an email for the writer Blake Bailey, whose story on about losing everything in Katrina I linked on a previous post. Just as one writer to another, I'd like to gather some supplies for him. So if anyone can ferret out a contact, would you let me know? I even emailed the editors at, but no response as yet.

    Your Bukowski-style poems were tops. Many A-level efforts. And that you bothered at all astonishes me. It was a week in which I found it hard to tear myself away from CNN for more than a few minutes. So way to work on that "resistance to work" thang, y'all. Among the ones whose simplicity and originality I especially dug:

    Ms. Jared's "Lunchroom" opened with:

    even in august
    with the kansas humidity
    bearing down
    the cafeteria still
    gave off a chill
    Don't we all know that new-kid terror?

    Stabledoor's "Atlanta" had this great line: "We paid rent but the roaches were our landlords."

    Talley wrote about a beach resort and being 5:

    I waited and ate cherries from their Manhattans
    as long as I could, but I finally fell asleep
    on the floor
    behind the couch.
    Zuleme's poem starts with:
    how did we manage
    seven of us
    one bathroom,
    my father, a plumber,
    never finished the second.
    Like they say, the cobbler's children wear no shoes.

    The Procrastinator (putting off whatever else he should be doing) writes this telling phrase:
    Beside a Pepsi can is
    A green glass ashtray
    filled with the day’s work
    The last lines of Maurinsky's poem about being a child in an Irish bar are beautifully cinematic:

    We are seven and eight
    we can pour a perfect pint

    As the sun goes down
    The Club fills up

    The men are three deep at the bar
    and we dodge lit cigarettes
    as we push through the men,
    playing tag
    and hide and seek
    until next week
    when we come back to the bar,
    the dive
    the pit
    The Club
    Please go back to the comments area for Week 3 and read them all. You will laugh and choke up and if you're like me, you'll think, dang, there are some poets out there I'd like to meet someday. If I had a criticism of anything, it was only about editing further, about murdering those children. Hone to the bone. It's something I work on constantly in my own work.

    Thanks to all who've been working in this unusual medium week to week. I'm deeply impressed by your efforts. And you know I'd tell you otherwise if I weren't. I hope you're enjoying this. The progress is gradual and constant. And yes, we will take a Fall Break in October!

    Later, sweet taters.

    Wednesday, September 07, 2005

    Sizing Them Up

    “Don’t smile till Halloween.” An old saying among teachers.

    On the first day of class, you walk in with all the authority you can muster, whether you have any or not. You take a moment to size up the “boots.” Will this be the class that gets it? Or will they be a frigid bunch of stiffies who go strictly by the book and grub mercilessly for grades? Or will they, please God, be a fun group who doesn’t mind the occasional conversational sidetrack into pop culture dish and celebrity gossip? Each class has its distinct personality. You hope for the best.

    On day one you look around the room as they straggle in the door and find seats. I play a game to myself as I take the roll, trying to read the students by that blink of first impressions.

    You all up front, yeah, pretty sure you’re going to be the blatant suck-ups and chatterboxes, the ones who waggle a hand with a comment or question, oh, about every 13 seconds. Who else sits up front on the first day? Yes, I see you. Yes, I know you know the answers. Let’s give the others a chance now, shall we? It never fails. The suck-ups sit up front. Suck-ups can save you on a slow day.

    Farther back, the Ashleys and the Brads occupy an entire row. The clone rangers. Girls, if you’re all going to wear your hair in identical streaked ponytails, if you’re all going to don the same tiny yellow sorority tees and cookie-cutter Seven Jeans, then don’t be upset if I can’t tell you apart. You’re a blur of blond, a little army of thin but fluffy fembots. And, um, about those jeans. It’s lovely that you’re a wee size 2, but when you sit down in your chair like that, you reveal several inches of thong above your back waistband. Hike up the pants, ladies. I’m not a sidewalk inspector. Don’t show me cracks.

    You there, Brad 3-of-7. No ski caps in class. No sunglasses either. This isn’t a methadone clinic. Sit up straight and try to stay alert. And you, handsome Brad between the two giggliest Ashleys. That’s a nice pair of Polos you’ve layered one over the other – black over pink, very bold. Your collars are starched so hard and popped so high they could slice an earlobe. But you also have a spotless white sweater tied around your shoulders. And you’re so tawny, you must be a regular customer of the spray-on tannery down the block. No, you’re not fooling me, dahling. Nuh uh. You haven’t told your parents, your Ashley-ettes or your fraternity Brads that you’re a friend of Dorothy, have you? But your outfit has just announced it to me. Behind your Blink 182 and Coldplay CDs, I’ll bet you’re hiding the soundtrack of Rent. You used a sorority girl as your beard to go see the road company of Mamma Mia! at the campus auditorium, didn’t you? Knew it. It doesn’t take Carson Kressley to suss you out of a crowd. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe. But you really should reconsider the Topsiders if you’re going to stay in the closet much past junior year.

    OK, moving on. Back rows, you there, freaks, stoners, X-abusers and tweakers. Your row was napping before I’d finished the L’s and M’s on the roll call. Not good. And do you think we don’t see you digging into the pocket of your filthy denim jacket to retrieve chili-cheese Fritos and pop them into your jaws? Honey, from here I can tell your body musk reeks stronger than a 1970s “be in.” A quart of patchouli couldn’t mask the fact that you stayed up all night smoking spliffs with your roommate.

    Wait a minute, what’s that? You, yeah, you with the fuchsia chunk in your black hair and the “Buck Fush” sticker on your backpack. You I like already. You’re not afraid. Your short but colorful life story probably includes some hard times, a few semesters at community college, maybe an alcoholic parent or a brother who’s in jail for dealing. You keep a journal and write in it every morning before your shift at the telemarketing job. You regard the Stepford teens all around you with a well-honed sense of irony and black humor. I like ya, kiddo. We’re gonna get along fine. Bless you and the used Honda Civic you drove in with.

    Hmm, you with the tummy bulge. Preggers? No wedding ring? You look about six months along, meaning you’re going to pop over the fall break. We’ll work it out. The unwed mother is a regular sight around campus these days. Usually one in a class of mine per semester. They keep going, launch the baby and make it to finals. Don’t know how they do it but the unwed mothers are some of the best students I get.

    A late-comer wafts in the door on a cloud of Chloe. She’s so late she’s missed most of the opening act. And you are…? “Um, I was thinking that maybe I’d like to, uh, add this class, OK?” she says, scanning the room with big doe eyes. I don’t think so. Buh-bye. She fades out the way she came in. The class laughs together. Good sign. We’re all on the same side now. Even the stoners blink back to consciousness. That little interruption has made us co-conspirators. You’re all right, I think. I’m going to like this bunch.

    Try as I might to resist, I usually do like them. By the end of the term, I will know more than I ever wanted to about them. I will know which ones are funny, which ones lie, which ones have what it takes and which ones excuse themselves four times an hour to sneak to the bathroom for a toot of party powder or a binge of self-induced vomiting. I will even know which ones are responsible for getting me fired from my job.

    On these first days of class, I look at all of them looking back at me and just hope I can answer their questions and maybe click the on-switch in their brains once in a while. I always hope this won’t be the class that kills it for me. I hope a lot of things.

    All of this goes through my mind. But I keep it to myself.

    What I actually say is, “Let’s look the syllabus. Assignment No. 1, dramatic moment essays. Due next Tuesday, no later.”

    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Writing Workshop Lesson 4: Murdering Your Children

    A friend sends this along.

    What if Shakespeare had had a copy editor? [Said editor's notes are in brackets.]

    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow [tomorrow and the next day, maybe?] creeps in this petty pace [doesn't "creeps" imply a petty pace?] from day to day [redundant] to the last syllable of recorded time [come on, we've only got 15 inches!].

    ... and all our yesterdays have lighted fools [vague * just fools? or are you saying we're all fools?] the way to dusty death.

    Out, out brief candle,
    Life is a walking shadow [pretty big generalization, isn't it?], a poor actor [or actress] who struts and frets his [or her] hour [or two] upon the stage and is heard [and seen] no more.

    It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing [ not very much?].
    Yes, we writers bristle when someone futzes around too much with our words. One of the biggest complaints from journalists is that a slice-happy copyeditor will slash and burn so much "it no longer sounds like" the writer.

    And yet, I revere skilled editors. And the editor in me understands the urge to purge the wordiness. This weekend I edited some 50 pages of work by other freelancers. It was good stuff, but so many writers don't understand that shorter can be better, that leaving out the "-ly" words can make a sentence so much stronger and that "very" usually weakens whatever follows it. Also, "that" and "which" are not interchangeable. Nor are "that" and "who/whom." But those are lessons for another day.

    Today we're talking about the writer's voice and breaking the rules. You can look at a page of that old Flak Catcher himself, Tom Wolfe, and you know he wrote it just from the CAPITAL letters and exclamation !!!! points (what journalists call "slammers," old-fashioned j-ists anyway). Hunter S. Thompson (kerPOW! To the moon, Gonzo!) had a voice on the page like he had in real life: stream of conscious mumbling with the occasional outburst of profane brilliance.

    Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, even the Brat Pack writers Bret Easton Ellis (now back in vogue and Vogue) and Jay McInerney (trying SO hard to catch up) defied the rules of their predecessors and created new ways of "speaking" to readers. Examples from the theater start with the Greeks (Aristophanes was the Mel Brooks of his time). Hear the phrase "the kindness of strangers" and you know it's Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. "Attention must be paid"= Miller's Death of a Salesman.

    Maybe you've found your voice. Maybe you're still looking for it. One of my teachers, the Greek diva Mary Ann Colias, told us undergrads that it takes 10 years to get good at anything. Twenty before you're an expert. She was talking about acting, but you could apply that to so many other skills (we of the still-frisky middle ages give each other a nudge-nudge-wink-wink right about now).

    In my experience, La Colias was right. I've been writing professionally since 1979 (my first published piece was an interview with the late country singer Dottie West). I wrote hundreds of long feature stories in the 1980s, mostly for Dallas' alternative newspaper, but also for the two Sunday magazines at the local dailies. In the 1990s I wrote a daily column for newspapers -- two-a-days sometimes, given early deadlines for weekend editions. It was like working on an assembly line, that job at the dailies. Give me a topic and I can opine on it for exactly 15 inches worth of typing.

    Writing a column, painting portraits or playing the Sousaphone -- do it every day for eight or 10 hours for eight or 10 years and you get pretty damn good at it. You can almost do it in your sleep. (I often write ledes and headlines in my sleep. Not long ago I dreamed an entire novel... my next project after The Phantom Prof.)

    Practice, practice, practice. Write something every day. Even emails are good, if you don't just write empty messages. My friend Wendy sends the best email letters, all about her daughter Esme, her messy house ("Esme in Love and Squalor was never so true," she wrote recently), her decrepit dog, her sagging porch and, best of all, the plays she's writing for the theater in Humboldt County, California. Her writing sounds like Wendy and nobody else. It's full of humor and detail. And she cares about spelling.

    Your voice should sound like you. That's where breaking the "rules" comes in. When I teach young writers, so often they want to pretty up their work, sticking in fancy words and tossing those dadgum semicolons on the page because they seem to formalize the proceedings. They write in a strange passive tense with too many -ings on everything. "He was walking up the stairs," instead of "He walked...." And a common mistake is to write about "starting" to do things, instead of doing them. "I started to go up the stairs," which to me means you're frozen mid-step. I'm also a big fan of the active voice. Put the reader in the moment, right as it's happening. (Not a rule -- just a tip.)

    Students who've gone through school doing nothing but footnoted research papers or short, five-graf essays, aren't quite sure what to do when given permission to write like they talk. They're used to writing by the rules. But when they know it's OK to trust their own style --- Whoo, doggies! Now I'm interested.

    Some of the young writers whose writer-voices I still remember -- Allison, Charles, Vanessa, Valerie, Cassie, Jonny -- I also recall were the ones who kept journals or were doing some other kind of creative writing on a regular schedule. They also read a lot. Important.

    By reading good work, you start to see which voices you respond to. You can try on other writer's styles and see which fits your taste. Then you can vamp from there. (One of my earliest influences was Fran Leibowitz's Metropolitan Life. Also, the theater criticism of John Simon and movie reviews by Pauline Kael and James Wolcott.)

    This week start to hone your writer's voice. I won't give you a specific assignment for that. I trust that many of you out there in writerland are working on things already. And if you're not, I hope you will start something. (We'll sample those in weeks to come.)

    Be your own copy editor. See if you can do an adverb-ectomy on your work. Check to see if you are "starting" or "beginning" actions, instead of doing them. Take out the $50-words. And "murder your children." That's the old editor's maxim that means finding those sentences you think are particularly beautiful and erasing them. Trust me, it works.

    And here's today's fun exercise -- some New Rules.

    Comedians are great examples of writers who've found their voices -- sometimes by breaking the rules of their predecessors. One of the crankiest but funniest right now is Bill Maher, who hosts a show on HBO and who is out there on the stump hawking his new book, New Rules. Excerpt:

    New Rule: Stop blaming the summer box office slump on DVDs and video games, and demographics. The summer box office was down because no one knows who the hell Ewan McGregor is. You know how you can tell you're not a movie star? When people would rather watch a penguin.

    New Rule: Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly sins. ESPN recently televised the US Open of Competitive Eating, because watching those athletes at the poker table was just too damned exciting. What's next, competitive farting? Oh wait. They're already doing that. It's called "The Howard Stern Show."

    New Rule: I don't need a bigger mega M&M. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms, I'll go nuts and eat two.

    New Rule: Celebrities must stop using their TV shows to hawk their other projects. A point I should have made in my book, New Rules.

    What New Rules would you like to see in effect in our culture? Try four or five and post them in comments here.

    (More about last week's assignments on Thursday. Gotta go murder some other writers' "children.")

    Monday, September 05, 2005

    Read this writer's account of losing everything to Katrina

    It's as fine a piece of writing about personal loss as I've found yet in this tragedy. Author is Blake Bailey.

    Thursday, September 01, 2005

    Free* Speech 101

    The department decided to do away with History of Mass Media sometime last year. Shoot, why should college students learn anything about the beginnings of the greatest single influence (other than their parents) on their lives? The department chair blew off the course, even when we teachers of it tried to explain that the Reagan babies weren't quite sure which came first, TV or radio. That they are unfamiliar with the contributions to what we think of as mass media made by, say, Ben Franklin, William Randolph Hearst and Edward R. Murrow. (About the only thing they can tell you about Franklin is that his picture is on the $100 bill.)

    When I taught Mass Media, I went all the way back to the Great Library at Alexandria and worked my way up to the World Wide Web (the two share interesting similarities). As a huge lecture class -- enrollment could top 100 per section -- Mass Media drew a broad range of students. Frosh took it as the gateway to the corp/comm major. Seniors came for an easy elective and ended up loving it. My goal was always to leave them with a new vocabulary for media topics, so as they progressed to the upper-level courses, they wouldn't be the ones asking other profs mid-lecture to explain what Nielsen ratings are or who owns the Internet.

    Replacing Mass Media this fall is History of the First Amendment. A journo-colleague is the adjunct teaching it. I ran into him at an event the other night and he told me about his first day of class. There are nearly 100 kids in his section, 80 percent of them first-years. It's an 8 a.m. class, so many of those younger students got him as their first college prof on the first day of big school.

    He began his first class with a lecture about free speech, specifically dealing with uses in media of the word "fuck." A bold move, to be sure. But a surefire way of getting the attention of a hall packed with nervous new students.

    If any of them were uncomfortable with profanity, he warned, they should drop the class, because future lectures and discussions would look at what some would consider objectionable language and its uses in media and society.

    Nobody budged or whimpered so he soldiered on and finished the F-word lesson.

    But that afternoon his phone rang--the dept/chair letting him know that a student had left class that morning at 9;15, called her daddy, daddy called the dean, the dean called the chair and she was calling him. Not exactly to say cool it on the f-word lessons, but, well.... you know.

    In the media they'd call this "the chilling effect."

    It's a course in free speech. How free is yet to be determined.

    Writing Exercise 3: From Memory

    Watching the news from New Orleans and Gulfport, I got that same sick, empty feeling that I had four years ago watching news from lower Manhattan. These places and these people will never be the same. One anchor said “our tsunami.” And I thought, why are the networks airing Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns when something like this is happening? In this real day of our life.

    I’ve been to New Orleans and to be honest, I didn’t like it much. It was July and the air smelled thick and fetid. The parking valet at the hotel filched my favorite raincoat out of my car (I didn’t notice until I got on down the road). Two young guys stumbled out of a bar on Bourbon Street and vomited right in front of me – at 10:30 in the morning. It was so hot and humid, I put ice cubes down my shirt as I walked to a Payless on Canal to get replacement flip-flops. A man in a pizza joint grabbed my newspaper off my table and when I asked for it back, said, “Obviously, you-ah naht frum around heah.” I was alone on the trip and felt strangely vulnerable, even in daylight.

    That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go back. New Orleans makes you come back. It’s the city of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Anne Rice (her huge house was painted a garish shade of purple when I saw it). Every street and streetcar has been written about by someone drawn to New Orleans by the potent voodoo of what someone else wrote about it.

    Here’s how Charles Bukowski wrote about it in a poem called Young in New Orleans:
    starving there, sitting around the bars,
    and at night walking the
    streets for hours,
    the moonlight always seemed fake
    to me, maybe it was,
    and in the French Quarter I watched
    the horses and buggies going by,
    everybody sitting high in the open
    carriages, the black driver, and in
    back the man and the woman,
    usually young and always white.
    and I
    was always white.
    and hardly charmed by the
    New Orleans was a
    place to
    I could piss away my life,
    except for
    the rats.
    the rats in my small dark room
    very much resented sharing it
    with me.
    they were large and fearless
    and stared at me with eyes
    that spoke
    an unblinking
    women were beyond me.
    saw something
    there was one waitress
    a little older than
    I, she rather smiled,
    lingered when she
    brought my
    that was plenty for
    me, that was
    there was something
    that city, though:
    it didn't let me feel guilty
    that I had no
    feeling for the
    things so many others
    it let me alone.
    sitting up in my bed
    the lights out,
    hearing the outside
    lifting my cheap
    bottle of wine,
    letting the warmth of
    the grape
    as I heard the rats
    moving about the
    preferred them
    being lost,
    being crazy maybe
    not so bad
    if you can be
    that way:
    New Orleans gave
    nobody ever called
    my name.
    no telephone,
    no car,
    no job,
    no anything.
    me and the
    and my youth,
    that time
    I knew
    even through the
    it was
    of something not to
    but only

    So here’s your exercise this week. Remember a place. Write about it Bukowski-style (but shorter maybe?). No sentiment. No frippery. “Don't play the violins,” as my poetry prof, Jack Myers, always said. It could be N’awlins, if you wish. Or anywhere that you experienced a sense of being outside yourself, a little afraid maybe – and afterward, you realized the place had changed you.

    In the “comments” area, post your poems (I even hesitate to call them that for fear someone will get out a rhyming dictionary). Read over Chuck’s again. Notice the shape of it. Emulate that, if you dare. Copying styles of writers is a great way to strengthen your own skills. It's like, if you're used to playing Bach, you try a little bebop. Jack Myers had us do it with every assignment. So I shall copy the style of a great professor and do likewise.

    Can’t wait to read what you write.

    And do what you can, however you can, for the people of the Crescent City.