Distracted Blues

Distractions Galore!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’, I was lyin’ in bed wond’rin’ if the basement had changed at all (all apologies to Bob Dylan). I hadn’t been down there in a week or two. It’s not a finished basement, so all we really have down there is a hot water heater, the furnace, and cables that run underneath our floor. The house used to have an air conditioning unit down there, but the junkies living there, the ones the bank foreclosed on before we bought the house, took off with the unit so they could sell it for scrap metal, or so our neighbor Isaac tells us. We could tell it had been ripped out, and the junkie explanation sounds as good as any other.

Anyway, I figured I should go check on the basement just out of principle, to be a good homeowner and all. We’re first-time homeowners, moved in the crazy icy weekend after Christmas, so we’re trying to do this right.

I brushed snow and ice off the padlock, unlocked it and removed the chain, then opened up the cellar-style doors and ambled down the wooden steps. Our basement lies behind one more wooden door at the bottom of the stairs, so I nudged that open and squinted into the darkness. Something sure didn’t smell right. The basement bulb doesn’t have an on/off switch, so we generally just walk to it in the middle of the basement, then screw it in so it comes on. A little light does get in through some small thickly-paned windows and of course from the doorway, and it’s good thing, because I saw the standing water before I would have stepped in it. The word that leaped from my mouth next proved to be prophetic, because sure enough there was plenty of what that word stands for lying amidst the water.

After a consultation with a city sanitation worker who informed me that it wasn’t a city sedwer problem and a plumber who wouldn’t work on it until the water was almost gone, I headed to our local home improvement mega-store to go find something called a “sump pump.” I wasn’t sure how much it would be, but took a 10% off coupon I’d scored from one of those Change-of-Address packets the post office gives out. I left the store with the aforementioned sump pump, 50 feet of black pump hose, and some disposable latex gloves. My father-in-law advised me to go buy some high water proof boots, too, which I picked up at a tractor supply store nearby.

I spent the afternoon learning how to use the sump pump, wading through (insert your favorite euphemism here), adjusting and readjusting the pump so it would actually work, calling upstairs to ask Stacey to plug the extension cord in so I could see if it would run right yet, and then keeping an eye on the flow of dark yellow fluid out from the basement and into the yard.

The plumber (one called on a family recommendation) decided not to come back that afternoon or evening – he said something about it being too cold or freezing or something. I showered at Stacey’s cousin’s apartment in our same little city that night (thanks Chelse!) and felt my toes and fingers for the first time in hours. Back at our place, we still couldn’t release any water down the pipes for fear of flooding the basement. When the plumber finally answered my calls late in the afternoon the next day, after I’d pumped the basement out yet again, he informed me that he’d been out to another call and broken his equipment, so it would be a few days before he could get out.

One more night of no flushing, no letting the drain out. Dishes were stacking up, sinks held two days’ worth of teeth-brushing. I’m just glad we have two bathrooms. Another family-recommended plumber got to us the next day, though, and found that he had to remove our first floor toilet and roto-root through that rather than the basement. He found rags and tree roots all tangled up with the sewage down there, all of it blocking our pipes. We don’t really want to speculate why rags had been put down the pipes. Our neighbor Isaac would say it has something to do with drugs.

[[p.s. I’ll save you the pleasure of reading about Phase II, but believe me, this post’s title still applies.]]

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A few weeks ago, Stacey and her sisters found a dog wandering down the road. They brought her home, where she and Buster got along pretty well. Buster was excited to have a playmate, but the other dog was pretty old, so they didn’t really get much play time. The dog was reunited with her owner on the Monday after the weekend, and we were glad to see she has a great home (she just wandered away because she was afraid of some local hunters’ gun shots and took off running).

The guest dog got us thinking that Buster could really use an energetic young canine friend. Stacey put her interweb skills to work and found one that a rescuer described in such a way that, combined with her picture, sounded perfect. She’s a terrier of questionable origins, just like Buster, and at first glance they look as if they could be related. We drove down to Muncie originally just intending to visit and let the dogs play just to see how they got along. Well, they got along quite well and we found ourselves driving back with both primary and auxiliary dogs (Dave Barry’s term, not mine). After all, what better way to get to know a dog than a 2 hour drive with another dog in the car?

On the way back, we decided to name her “Zora” after Zora Neale Hurston, one of our favorite authors. The way we see it, naming a dog after a female African American writer is just one way of helping support equality in America. We don’t just talk the talk – we walk the walk while the rest of you name dogs “Trixie” and “Fluffy” and such.

She and Buster do get along well, play-fighting until one or both is worn out. At any given time, a guest walking in might think we’re part of an underground terrier-fighting ring, but the dogs are really just having fun. Buster asserts himself as alpha dog as needed, but Zora clearly knows who’s boss. I’m sure we’ll update you with plenty of adventure stories and pictures (plenty pictures on Facebook already).

Associated Song: Eels, “Christmas is Going to the Dogs” http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/SINA8lWfuRQ/

Modern Dog magazine: http://www.moderndogmagazine.com/

Friday, October 10, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

I saw my former tai chi instructor at the grocery store the other day. He drives a tiny silver Saab convertible. He can probably get to the grocery store through his magic Zen powers, but carrying groceries back the same way is probably asking too much. I’ve seen Todd (formerly) Baechle of dance-rock band The Faint a number of times, usually late at night (early in the morning) at the same grocery store.

Speaking of music, I recently wrote a review on the forthcoming live collection by the Fiery Furnaces: -- if the link doesn’t work, just go to www.omahacityweekly.com; it’s on the second page of arts & entertainment pieces right now.

Still speaking of music, if I could attend one festival anywhere at all this summer, What the Heck Fest (http://whattheheckfest.com/ ) might just win at the top of the list. On top of so much fantastic music, I really can’t resist a huge garage sale.

Speaking of entertainment, our dog loves jumping on the bed. I try to warn him by telling the story about those 5 naughty little monkeys, but he just retorts that he is not a monkey, and that’s that.

Speaking of orneriness, today I had my students take about 25 minutes and write a paragraph explaining the concept of “schadenfreude.” I steered them toward the Wikipedia entry, but told them to look it up in other places to find good examples, relate ideas to other things, find coordinating information, etc. We’d been having so much fun (including watching Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” on YouTube as part of another exercise) that asking them to sit and do writing work probably seemed as either a betrayal or so completely “random” that it didn’t make sense to them at the time. However, when we shared our writing as a group at the end of class, they displayed some impressive organization skills and writing ideas. More importantly, they saw different ways of approaching the same idea, plus found themselves able to “just get started” on a topic without days to deliberate, both of which served my purpose. In addition, most of them learned a new word/idea, which is never bad.

I need to go wash dog tongue marks off my glasses, so I’d best post this and be done with it.

now reading: John Edgar Wideman, Fever (short story collection)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Summer Writing Camp, Pt. 2, and other misc.

Summer Writing Camp, Pt. II; misc.

The second half of our week found my middle school group mostly focused on their writing and quite interested in my brief lessons on things like context, plotlines, epiphanies, and improving a “finished” piece. The students had generally already spent (or were about to spend) most of the 3.5 hour day listening to guest speakers/musicians brought in for inspiration, so they generally expressed a real hunger to spend most of our small group time either writing or getting feedback from their peers or me, so I was happy to oblige. A lesson isn’t much good if a student doesn’t have a chance to implement ideas and then get opinions on his/her attempts to use them. Of course, I would have loved to spend lots of time working with each student individually, but that’s also indicative of my personality and teaching style, and also not really feasible for a one week half-day writing camp. Still, I saw students developing their writing and learning how to play with tools and skills, which is quite rewarding. I’m really looking forward to the second writing camp later this summer.

Speaking of writing instruction, I started the community college summer quarter this week. My classes (one developmental, one English Composition) have proven full and diverse. Should be a lot of fun.

The packing for our move (late July, early to mid-August) has begun. We’re also looking to unload quite a bit of stuff, and may put out a list of items on Craigslist one of these days. If anyone reading this in Omaha has any interest in a “vintage” big orange couch, stay tuned. We’ll need it for about another month, but it’s definitely going up for sale. Feel free to ask about other stuff you might need…who knows, we might have something we’re getting rid of and can sell to you for a decent price.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Let's do an update!

-- I struck out on applications to programs where I could have continued my career as a PhD or MFA student. Some of my professors say it's the economy. They keep track of this sort of thing, and apparently the number of applications, and therefore the competition for spots, goes way up when the economy goes lousy. We really could have used the huge chunk of cash/credit for things other than applying to the various programs, like health insurance or other frivolities, but I kept telling myself that I really just had to know if I could get into a solid program and make the next level. So now I know.

- This summer I'll be teaching at a community college, working in their writing center, teaching at a couple summer writing camps, and so on.

-- If you'd like to see me working in a non-teaching capacity, drop by Tea Smith booth at the Taste of Omaha next weekend. I'd love to make up some sob story about how I begged my wife's boss for a way to pick up some extra cash, but the truth is that they're a little short-handed for weekend festival stuff and -- while we should save the money for moving -- I'll probably blow most of my pay on funnel cakes, warm beer, and carny games. Drop by and join me in all my white trash glory...plenty of bar bands playing, too, which is somewhat ironic considering how many really fantastic bands we have around here that could be playing. I'm considering a visit on my "night off" to hear a band I really liked as a teenager, though -- Blessid Union of Souls. I had no idea they're still around.

-- We're moving to north central Indiana or southwest lower Michigan in August (once I'm done teaching the summer quarter over here). I'm currently pursuing adjunct teaching opportunities at local colleges and universities in that general area, though I'm definitely open to other employment that uses my skills.

-- As I was finishing up this blog, we found out that we're right outside an evacuation area where Hydrochloric Acid just spilled. I instantly had to go play the theme song from the Oblongs, one of our favorite animated shows.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Distraction of Late: Dog

I actually posted about this since my last post on this blog. Read it here:

I'm still adjusting to dog ownership/companionship. Sometimes situations that involve a lot of noise and chaos do something to my brain and I just completely go catatonic (or so it seems), so when our dog goes crazy because of other little dogs barking frantically on our doorstep while other little dogs bark frantically on the other side of the house, I just freeze.

I'll do a full dog situation update for all my blogs soon, most likely.

Other current distractions include preparing for a conference this Friday morning, my Advanced Writing Certificate portfolio presentation next Monday, substitute-teaching a class last night, and anxiety over next fall's situation. Six out of the seven programs I applied to flatly rejected my applications, while the seventh told me I'm "high on the waiting list." The initial first round picks had until today to respond, then the program will "reassess" the next round of applications, including mine. Hopefully I'll hear back from them in the next week or so. If it's a "yes," then we're headed to that university. If it's a "no," then we're headed back to the general area we both grew up in. If it's a "hey, you're high on the next waiting list!" that arrives in the mail, then I'll most likely spend yet another month all edgy and irritable and depressed. As horrible a person as I am in the first place, I think I've probably been nearing "genocidal cruel dictator" level terrible since mid-March, at least during the times when I haven't just tried to hide out.

My horribility especially showed itself yesterday while going over "experimental" pieces other students wrote for a graduate seminar I'm in. Now, first understand that my part-time job involves working at a Writing Center at community college locations in parts of the city where a lot of people just won't visit for fear of their safety. My clients come from various backgrounds and education levels, but many of them struggle just to follow basic directions and still can't really write complete coherent sentences in "standard edited English" on their own. I see confessions of true crime and graphic depictions of sexual abuse alongside all matter of other material, often borderline incoherent. One student, for example, was supposed to write about Slaughterhouse Five. She came in with a paper that literally reads like "this Vongut just don't make no sense he think we bileve wit him alien's and time all mess up i dont no he tak but i ges sum people lik it but i dont no were he come from." In there, most of the time I'm a bleeding heart liberal who works to Make A Difference One Sentence At A Time. I only become a stiff tough love conservative when it's necessary or a student insists that I do work the work for him/her. I'm really sincere about trying to help people finally learn things about writing that they should have learned in elementary school or junior high, because often their success in life depends on their learning to write something, anything, that makes sense.
However, if I'm reading an essay by someone who snagged a spot in a graduate level seminar ( the creative nonfiction grad seminars get filled up quickly and squeeze out very worthy students who just don't hit the "register" button in time), I feel justified in expecting that the essay will be of a certain level. Now, the whole point of an "experimental" course is to try new things, and sometimes when writers crawl out on limbs, those limbs snap and the piece just doesn't work well. Thing is, I'm now having to read pieces where the writing quality is low, the pieces are boring, and there's very little "experiment" (read: RISK) factor to it. I really did just about tear one up, partially because this person sent out two pieces for the class to read. I won't go on and on about what really made a couple of the pieces just completely unreadable, but my point is that I really kind of scared myself in the comments I wanted to slap down without mercy and make the pages look all bruised up by pencil. For example, "Maybe you should attempt something literary rather than an email to the grandkids." Honestly, it's frustrating to see people writing pieces that don't have the fundamental pieces in place that would allow us to talk about the things we're trying to accomplish in an "experiments" course. Sadly, the comment I actually did write that I felt bad about was the one where I congratulated the person on her clever use of irony in depicting herself as _____" when, in fact, the piece had no irony whatsoever. I find myself using that approach far too often in this class. Just for the record, I'm really ashamed to even admit that I'm thinking all these mean thoughts, but I'm also honestly bothered by some of the things people plunk out for this course. At the same time, plenty of other folks in the class write fantastic essays that I like a lot better than my own, so somehow their pieces make up for the other ones.
I apologize.