It’s The Little Things That Make Things Better

I’ve been writing a lot of doom & gloom here lately, but in thinking about my life right now, despite the stress I’ve been under, and despite the pile of day-job work I need to do this week, there are some good things:

I love that my daughter’s last words before sleeping last night were “I love you, daddy. You’re the best.”

I love that my wife has had almost a week of being pain-free.

I love that my cat comes running to bed whenever I go.

I love that some of my students offered to help me carry things to the classroom this morning.

I love that the Westboro Baptist Church couldn’t find Leonard Nimoy’s funeral.

I love that the guy who laid a trap and killed a German exchange student will spend the rest of his life in prison.

I love that my book is almost ready for beta readers.

I love that my VP17 classmates are amazing folks who continue to stay in touch and support each other.

I love that I haven’t had an episode of afibrillation in over a year.

I love that my weight is going down again.

I love that on my bike ride this weekend, I saw 15 turkeys, a rabbit 2 deer, a flock of geese flying under the bridge I was on, and two egrets.

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The Real Reason Teaching is Hard

There’s all sorts of stuff out there about the long hours, the scorn we get from politicians and other morons, the relatively low pay, the socioeconomic issues that create students who don’t actually care to learn… I’m not going to talk about that stuff today.  Because while all that does make teaching difficult, it isn’t the hardest thing about this job.

No, the hardest thing is that the kids can break your heart.  Often, and in very jagged pieces.

I have a student who is unhealthily large.  He can’t wash himself properly, so he always has an aggressively foul odor.  He has no support at home.  I’m a big guy myself, but this kid… nobody should be so heavy, at 15, that they break a desk just by sitting in it.  He’s drowning in self hate while also putting on a happy minstrel face for his friends.  He’s told me how much it hurts him, but he won’t stop.

Another student has physical and mental issues that could easily be solved by medication, but her parents won’t allow her to take the medicine, because they are afraid she’ll go to hell for taking medicines.  They control every aspect of her life, including not letting her go to school when they want to punish her.  She’s missed 54 days of school so far, out of the 100 we’ve had.  If she gets the medicine behind their backs, they’ll send her to Nicaragua to be controlled by relatives there.  We’re trying to help her, but there’s only so much we can do.

There’s the seemingly model student, who is clearly going through something pretty traumatic, but isn’t willing to talk about it with anyone, even though he admits he probably needs help.

And then there’s the kid who wrapped his car around a tree, and who over the weekend tried to kill himself in shame, and is now in a psych ward.  I’m not making that up.  My fiction isn’t that fucked up.

On top of all that, there are the kids who just hate school, and by extension teachers.  They complain no matter what, and they’ll tell you “Fuck you” to your face if you call them on any of their nonsense.

And through all this, we teachers have to keep going.  We’re expected to wear a neutral face, and be on-task and learning-oriented all the time.  We’re expected to smile and nod at ridiculous, utterly stupid comments from parents, take abuse from students, and be utter professionals when all we want to do sometimes is scream, or break down and cry.

In ten years, I’ve been very lucky not to have lost any students to death, but even the ones who don’t get expelled are often lost, even though they’re in class every day.  There’s just only so much we can do, especially in the face of dwindling resources, politicians who think our job is easy, and parents who are utter failures at raising their kids.

Frankly, it sucks.

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Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

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RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Farewell, Spock.  As the New York Times is reporting, he passed away this morning.

Nimoy, and more specifically his alter-ego in Star Trek, was important to me as a kid. I had a TON of anger issues, and the Vulcan was an inspiration on how to control myself.

See, in the lore of Star Trek, Vulcans don’t actually lack emotion–they are, in fact, deeply emotional, but in a profoundly dangerous way, quick to act on negative emotions. In their history, a man arose who espoused a way to control these negative emotions.

To a kid suffering from massive anger issues, this was a good thing. Spock’s fictional example of controlling his emotions even while maintaining and cultivating deep and meaningful friendships with his fellow crew helped me to find a way to suppress my negative impulses, while not going “full robot” and suppressing ALL emotion.

Beyond that, Nimoy was a kind soul, and a good man, and the world is poorer for his passing. I’m glad I met him.

Nimoy dealt with his share of angst regarding his most famous role. He famously published his autobiography in the 1970s, titled I Am Not Spock, in which he lamented the shadow cast on his work by the famous character. Later in life, he published a second version, this time titled I Am Spock, in which he described coming to terms with the fact that he would be forever known for Spock, and accepting that it brought as much joy as irritation into his life.

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. You were far more than Spock.

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Revision Is a Beast With Too Many Teeth

So I began revising The Damn Book.

Damn this book.

I went into the revision process knowing I would have to jettison and rewrite one chapter that just didn’t work.  And I knew I wanted to insert a few “interludes” that would show what daily life in the Empire is like for humans.  What I didn’t expect was finding so many little details that just bother me, and need to be fixed.

I don’t know how other people do revision, but here’s my method:  I read through the story as if I was just reading for fun, find things I want to fix, and fixing them as I go.  It’s not the slowest thing in the world, but it isn’t the fastest, either.  I find myself constantly going back in the narrative, looking to make sure things are coherent, checking to make sure what I think is the standing reality of the story is actually making sense with what I did last week.

The one nagging problem I’ve got is that I’m wondering why I insisted on writing this in first person.  I think Book 2, should it come to be, will move beyond first person and start showing some of the other possible viewpoints.

The work proceeds, but it’s slow–less because of methodology and more because of life and work events that preclude writing time.  My wife is dealing with some debilitating pain from an unspecified cause, which means I’ve been handling more than my usual share of child-related responsibilities.

And of course there’s the day job.  I had been all caught up with grading, but I’ve gotten behind again, largely thanks to idiotic administrative decisions that have necessitated me doing the vast majority of scutwork I used to be able to delegate to student aides, leaving me less and less time for the rather intensive work of grading essays.

My goal at this point is to get this book finished before I leave for my Scotland trip, which gives me four months.  I should be able to do that, right?

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The Real Cost of Teaching

These are all real kids I’ve taught.  They’re not the majority, of course.  The vast majority of students come, do OK in school, and graduate.  No, these are the ones who stick out in my memory.

James was a freshman who didn’t think there was any point to school.  He wouldn’t do his homework no matter how many times his teachers called home, gave him detention, or offered to help.  He wouldn’t do his classwork unless the teacher stood over him the entire time.  And sometimes, he liked to scream “Fuck you!” at the teacher so he could get sent out of class.  James’ parents did nothing to help him, and were barely ever home, often leaving on trips to Las Vegas or Reno, leaving him to himself.

Alyssa was a bright girl, and tried her best–but once she got home, she was expected to take care of three elementary-aged children while her mother went to work.  She hadn’t seen her father in fifteen years.  Her friends said that if she did too well in school, she was “acting White.” They mocked her constantly.  She tried anyway, determined to get out of poverty.  But her homework was less than stellar, because she was too tired when she finally got around to it at 10 or 11pm that she couldn’t do her best work.  Against all odds, she graduated high school. College, however, has eluded her.

Elliot was a bright kid who got As in every class. But he knew that the California State Tests cannot, by state law, affect his grades, so he didn’t even try to do his best work on the test.  He answered the obvious questions, and randomly bubbled in answers on any question he didn’t know the answer to before he looked at the choices.

Roman was from Ukraine.  He barely spoke English, and couldn’t read it well enough to do well in any class.

Rose was from Armenia. Not only was her English sub-standard, but she was borderline mentally handicapped, and she’d never been in school until she came to America at age 14. She simply couldn’t earn above a D in any class in high school,  but her parents didn’t want her in classes where she could have gotten extra help.   They’re afraid the stigma of special education would mean she couldn’t find a husband in their closed-off immigrant community.

Clint dealt drugs, from pot to meth.  He thought that was the way he was going to become rich, and he didn’t care that he was destroying lives, including his own.  He got kicked out of school at 14 because he was caught selling on school property.  His parents tried to fight the expulsion on the grounds that he was just “trying to support his family.”

Veronica’s first words to me, on the first day of school, were “Fuck you.”  She was in 6 fights in three months of high school, resulting in five 5-day suspensions and, at the last, expulsion.  The last one was so bad, three police units responded to the call, and the kid whose head she kicked repeatedly ended up in the hospital for more than a week with head trauma.  Her father watched the video of her kicking the kid in the head and tried to defend her on the grounds that a) the other kid deserved it, and b) we couldn’t really see his daughter’s face on the video, so how did we know it was really her?  Why did the fight start?  Because the other kid was wearing blue.

Brenda hadn’t seen her father since she was six years old, when her brother killed him in self defense right in front of her. She was a sweet young lady, but prone to anger and full of pain.  She did what she could, but her grades were always middle of the road.  When I last heard from her, she’d given up on college.

This is the real cost of teaching. We want to help them, but the reality is that there is only so much we can do, and for some, it simply isn’t enough.  No matter how we try, we cannot make up for all the crap they have to deal with.

So you do what you can.  You take what minor victories you can.  And you try not to let it destroy you.  Some days are awful.  Some are OK.  A very, very few are good.

But at the end of the day, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.

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Against all better judgment, I like Z Nation

So, I’ve been watching the Sci Fi Channel’s new show Z Nation,* and I’m actually enjoying it.

I mean, yes, this is from Asylum Studios, which has mostly been making direct-to-video low budget movies.  This show has slightly more budget than their usual crap, but still is low-budget compared to something like the walking dead.

The show is set three years into yet another zombie apocalypse, as a small band of survivors meet a man who is seemingly immune to the zombie virus just outside of New York City.  They take on the task of getting him to the last known surviving lab, in California, when his existing protection dies.

The show has its share of depressing stuff, and also a fair share of corny nonsense and low-budget moments, but it also has something that The Walking Dead doesn’t: it has hope.

The characters on Z Nation aren’t just waiting to die, and scrambling to survive in a world with no hope.  They’ve got a chance at a cure, and even if that doesn’t pan out, they have (so far as I’ve gotten into the episodes) a sense that if they stick together, and do what’s right, they’ll be better off.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Walking Dead.  But it sometimes gets to me, how little hope they have, in a world where survival is the best they can hope for.  In real life, that group would be dour and horrible to travel with.  I’d much rather travel with the people of Z Nation, who can be badass but also find humor in their situation, who can bond with other human beings and recognize the dangers of the zombies and of other survivors, but also feel hope and happiness even as they’re killing zombies.

And this doesn’t make the show a total lightfest, either–just after my first draft of this went live, I watched my favorite character die.  Stupid zombie shows.

It’s just got more light.  So I’ll keep watching.  And I’ll keep watching TWD, too, but for different reasons.  There’s room in my brain for both kinds of stories.

*I refuse to call it Syfy, and the show isn’t, strictly speaking, new, because it just arrived on Netflix.  I think it began in September 2014.

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