Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to .... Everything

Been a long time gone! (There's a song there ... )

After I returned from North Carolina I got viciously sick with a fever/flu/head cold thing that is still with me. I don't have anywhere near the energy I usually do, and this week was the first week back to school with students. I've missed blogging a lot. Today, after a delightful glass or two of wine last night and after watching Barack's speech in Denver, I feel once again yes, I'll say it, hopeful.

I usually love the first week of school. I adore my students and I adore teaching. I even really like the people I work with, and my department in particular is filled with kind, intelligent, professional people. I am a lucky woman.


This week, partly because I am still not 100% well, but mostly because of a new, obscene, virtual thing that I have no control over, I endured the worst first week of my fifteen year teaching career. What could this be, you say? Yes, we know about silly assessment meetings, and college strategy meetings, and governing board objectives that must be somehow put into your individual performance goals as a faculty member (I still wonder how I'm supposed to enhance facilities management ... but maybe one day I'll figure that one out). We know about making sure you fill out your office hour sheet down to the quarter hour and the challenges of parking on the first week and the lack of coffee and the lines of students who look at you with deep longing to enter your already at capacity classes ... this is to be expected.


This week my institution decided to change its on-line access and student account information and passwords. Let me backtrack. I have also set as a goal (yay performance goals) to use less paper and conserve college resources. We have an on-line course component that is available in all classes, whether they are 100% on line or in the classroom. It makes ecological sense to post handouts and assignments on line and save the mass killing of yellow, blue, and pink colored trees. It makes environmental sense to post syllabi there. Contact information. Helpful hints. Then students have 24/7 access to their courses. They'll never "lose" a handout again, and there is no excuse for a late paper because they can turn it in at any time from the comfort of their own homes.

Here's an excellent example of the difference between theory and practice. I still don't see a flaw in my theory. Colleges use a LOT of paper. Most of it needless. I love trees. I'm a writer. I use a LOT of paper. I need to get my paper-karma back in balance. In practice, however, the world is vastly different.

I'm not afraid of computers. I really love them, actually. I've been a Mac girl for almost two decades. When I'm forced to use a PC (like in the classroom) I steel myself against the inevitable Windows Vista F-U messages and the fatal error messages and the overall slowness of this very clumsy operating system. My computer in my office has Leopard (fast cat!) and is just far more sexy than the PCs in the classroom. But I digress. I do believe technology can help us live more efficiently and consciously.

To a point.

My institution has reached the tipping point, where technology has moved from being a tool to being an inhibitor. We outsourced a project that we've called the "portal". Try to explain to a group of older students whose sole computer experience is maybe sending e-mail (if they don't "lose" the cursor) why they must enter this portal, how to enter this portal, and what they must do when they get there. Try to explain to a group of students how to save their files as Rich Text so that anyone can open them (gosh, are there other word processing programs than wordpad?) Try to explain to a group of students about the free Adobe Acrobat reader so they can read the .pdf files I posted in the class. Try to explain this over and over and over and over and over for the entire first week of school. To five sections. To 85 students. Assign a "test" assignment. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to create a text file and attach it to me as a rich text file.

Yeah. I had a handout with directions. Yeah. I believe that writers must know how to use basic technology if they expect to ever sell a book, or a story, or a poem. Everything in publishing is moving electronically. Submissions, rejections, edits, correspondence, contracts. You can't be a computer dork and be a successful writer.

But we are a rural, poor county. Many of my creative writing students are returning students. They did not grow up with computers. They don't know what their browser is. They don't always know what platform they're running. And here they are in college and they have to enter a portal. And I do mean have to. The school did not make this optional. So, here I am, newly forty, trying to explain to people in their 60s and 70s that this is the direction of education. That is isn't very difficult. Please don't be afraid.

I might have been successful with this route, except my school let me down.

Too many users caused system crashes all week. Forced changes in student passwords kept many students from being able to log in. Overloads in calls to our very sweet but relatively small staff of computer help desk employees. Forced upgrades in classrooms which were not completely done so that when instructors tried to show the students how "easy" it was, nothing worked. (Note to tech support: If you're going to install the Adobe Professional Suite, you must LAUNCH it before going away. Otherwise no one can open a PDF file until they first open Photoshop.) You try to find Photoshop on a Vista PC while your whole class is staring at you, wanting only the good old days when they could have a yellow syllabus that they could keep in a notebook. Sigh. I hear the horse and buggy trotting by as I write.

Then, my friend, my favorite browser, Firefox, let me down. You know how aggressive programs can be about downloading the new version. So, most people who use Firefox have been forced to upgrade to the new version whether they wanted to or not. The new version doesn't recognize Rich Text files until you make a change in Preferences. It's an easy change to do, if you know to go do it. The only message Firefox gives you is "unreadable file." So, you've told your classes that anybody can open Rich Text files, and then you find out it's not true. Your beloved Firefox must be fixed first. And did I mention -- about half my students didn't know what their browser was or which one they had.

So, you send group e-mails to all 85 of your students on Thursday about Firefox and how to change the preferences. You thank them for their patience. You apologize for your institution's bizarre choice to implement all these changes on the first week of school. And then half your e-mails get bounced back because something in the "portal" causes many of the e-mails to be returned as undeliverable. I know my students' e-mails are valid. I asked every student on the first week to verify. So I know it's us. I know we're supposed to communicate electronically and I know we're somehow making that impossible. I was able to send e-mails out to everyone prior to the launch of the "portal" on Monday. After Monday, group e-mails had difficulty. So I don't know who received an e-mail and who didn't.

I need more than wine.

Then, one of the "benefits" of the portal (did I mention nothing was broken before -- we could all log on, work, enjoy our days) was that we'd only have to log on once a day. I only logged on once a day before, but hey, whatever. Tech people have to have performance goals too. But now, I have to log in about every 20 minutes. There's an automatic time out that we can't adjust on the system. I'm supposed to be able to log in in the morning, have access to my on -line courses, my e-mail, my rosters, my committee groups -- everything I need to be a happy employee. Theoretically, I have no problem with this concept. Yeah. Theory and practice. Not the same.

This is not just a Laraine-gripe. Up and down the hallowed halls this week, faculty were cursing the portal. In the break rooms, no one could talk about anything else. We stormed the bastille to find out who to send nasty e-mails to. (Ever notice how these institutional changes often have no go-to person?) Students are dropping the classes. The technology is too daunting for some. There are no alternatives in Yavapai county. We are the college for the general population. Students are trying to be patient, but they're up against dial-up connections, old machines, and a lack of time to try and figure out a new system. Yes, we provide computers on campus. No, not 5000 of them. And no, everyone cannot make it to the campus to use these lovely pre-loaded computers. People are even talking about this in Albertson's. A few students told me they overheard people complaining while they were in line at the bank. Yep. It's a small town. But really, this has been a problem.

Ready for the very best -- I mean the seriously, laugh out loud, most hilariously best part of this week? Sit down.

My institution's umbrella goal for 2008-2009 is customer service.

I lift my second glass of wine.
To Customer Service.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Random Thoughts on Goin' Home

Keith and I got home on Monday after a very long travel day on Sunday. The trip to NC was so fast and furious, I had no time to write except in the airports. We were either in the car going from one place to another, or we were exhausted, or we were visiting with someone (real or ghostly). Turned out both of us were seeking some ghosts back in NC.

We landed in Raleigh/Durham in the evening on July 29. Our rental car was an extremely cute red sports car with a sunroof and a heck of a lot of kick. We got lost finding the hotel, but eventually got in, got settled, and got ready to go to Wilmington the next day. I cried as the plane landed (I'm prone to this). When I saw the tops of the miles and miles and miles of trees and the water, my body responded with water. I still believe NC is the most beautiful place I've ever seen, and if I returned with anything, it was vindication that I was not being whiny and adolescent when we moved to Phoenix in the summer of 1981. The place I left was beautiful, and the place I moved to was not. It would have undone anyone.

On Wednesday, we drove to Wilmington to stay with my aunt, my dad's sister. She's 71, and basically my last blood relative on my dad's side. We spent many summers in Wilmington, as well as Thanksgivings and Christmases. Dad, naturally, was more haunted by Wilmington than I am, but one can't help but be haunted in Wilmington. There's a historical plaque every two feet (pre-Revolutionary historical plaques). Every other house is on the historic register. My aunt and uncle are crazy-wealthy. The wealth that doesn't have to advertise. I thought of a title for a dime-store novel: Thwarted Destiny: My Life in Exile from the Southern Aristocracy. Yes, I was that close to mint juleps at Cape Fear Country Club and dining with the CEOs of everywhere and having a cotillion where everyone wears white and knows what to do with all the forks. (Imagine hand pressed to forehead now). I did my best to get us in the will, but I'm guessing she'll give everything to her children. Alas. We managed to avoid, in our two day visit, trying to explain Keith's and my situation (though she put us in separate rooms), any discussion of God and the afterlife, and any discussion of politics. Everyone did well. Once, Keith began eating before the prayer and my uncle, in his low thunder voice, said, "We will pray now." It was hard not to laugh, but we were at Cape Fear Country Club, after all, and we did have linen napkins, and everyone around us was in pearls discussing the decline that day in the market. We were not in Kansas anymore. One more day in Wilmington and we'd have likely had to venture into religion and politics -- the two threads that dad broke to move us out to AZ -- and it's just better that we avoid those things.

We did have the opportunity to go visit Grandma's house. My cousin owns it now, and he's moved it about 100 yards from its original site down closer to the woods so he can build a bigger home on the lot. It's a beautiful lot (the first picture on the top) that overlooks the inland waterway. The house was used for a time after Grandma's death as Joey's house on Dawson's Creek, and I was told when you google-earth the address, it actually says Joey's house. I haven't done that, but that's just weird. They've redone the entire inside -- very little was familiar except the door handles. It was actually a pleasant house with the windows open, air conditioning, new carpet, and cable. :-) But the fixtures still spoke. I touched all the door knobs and was jolted on my dad's door. The jolt, I think, was the next book, which I can't talk about yet -- not to be secretive, but because it isn't formed enough. Suffice to say, I felt all the suffering that took place in that room, and I felt his ghost still hanging out there, and I felt what an eight year old boy who was stricken with polio and lay in a polio ward for two years watching child after child die felt -- and a voice is coming through, a young boy's voice, which, if you know me at all, is also just weird. :-) But I'm 40 now and many things change.

Holding fast to the "visitors and fish smell in three days" mantra, we left Wilmington on the dawn of day three to go to Charlotte. I grew up in Charlotte, the Queen City, and I have to say I'd move back in a heartbeat. Breathing its air broke apart pieces in me that I'd been pretending weren't there. Seeing its streets and trees and places that were half familiar, but of course have changed in 30 years, pulled me. My contacts don't dry out in NC. I can breathe.

They've moved the road from Wilmington to Charlotte. 74 used to go directly through small town after small town. Now, it bypasses everything except Monroe. We stopped for gas outside Lumberton at a BP station where everyone, including the cashiers, was smoking. AZ has a ban on smoking in any public building, so we don't even have divided sections in restaurants anymore. I'd forgotten how quickly that smoke hurts my head. But we were out of there quickly and on to find a place to eat in Laurinburg, which had a Bojangles, a Jack in the Box, a Wendy's and a Subway. Both Keith and I had been counting the grammatical errors in signage (it's hard to not be English teachers), and Laurinburg won the misplaced apostrophe award. But I digress. We went to Subway, where even there sweet tea was the default (there is a god) and we could see the results of a diet of cheap, fast food. At Cape Fear Country Club, everyone was thin. In Laurinburg, not so much. What a nation, huh?

From Laurinburg, it was only another few hours into Charlotte. I felt like I needed to go by my old house first, so we did that. There was a big dumpster in the driveway, and it was clear someone was repainting the house. I started traipsing around, pointing things out to Keith, when one of the men from inside came out and asked if he could help us. I told him I'd lived there until 1981, and he was very excited. He and his partner had just bought the house as a HUD home and were fixing it up to resell. They invited us inside and told us what they were doing and how they were fixing everything up. I had not expected to be inside that house. I hadn't been inside since we left, and I still don't feel like I can accurately articulate what it felt like to be back in a place that has such a powerful hold on me. These two men are caring for my home, and I can't tell you how that makes me feel. The last time I saw the outside of the house, it was clearly in disrepair, and I'd been hesitant about coming through the old neighborhood at all. I didn't want to supplant my memories with the present. But memory is always shifting, and it shifted again last week. They pulled out the paneling in the den (yes, it was still there!) and took up the tile and are replacing it with sautillo tile. The hardwood floors that are in the rest of the house are still in great shape. They are redoing the bathrooms (mold, water, mildew, etc had caused a lot of damage) and they just replaced the air conditioner that we put in in 1976. The doors were the same doors, and the windows the same windows -- and -- they are repainting it the colors it used to be (beige and deep red). I have no idea where they came up with those colors, but it made being inside that much stranger and that much more comforting. I could really experience the overlapping of time and the layers of experiences that happened within those walls. The men wanted to know what the house used to look like, and they are going to e-mail me pictures when they finish it. I have to say, it's a really cute house (retro, now, I suppose). And although even if I used all three bedrooms' closets, I wouldn't be able to store all my clothes in it, I still fit. I stood in my bedroom where I wrote my first autobiography. I looked out the window where I spent many many days watching the dogwoods and the robins. I stood in the bathroom where dad bathed, and the kitchen where mom watched us playing outside. They're putting in new appliances, of course, and relandscaping, but it was my house, and I was still there, and dad was still there, and mom and my sister, and our old black cat, and it really was like my life there was only moments ago. And maybe it was. I have been emotional around it, but not sad in a debilitating way -- just awed by the passage of time, by how much things change, and by how little. I would have liked more time in the house, but the men were working, and we did have to go to our next place, but I will be forever grateful to these guys for taking care of my house, and for letting me wander back through it and touch it again. Because the house was empty, there was no one else's furniture, pictures, or memories to overlay mine. I could see it exactly as it was, and I could see that it was a happy house, and that it was going to be a happy house again. I can't tell you how grateful I am to these men.

From there, we met my first best friend, Donna, for some Carolina BBQ. She lived across the street from me, and she was the only person to come say good bye to us when we moved. (After we sold our home to a black couple, the neighborhood got nasty). She waved to us on the street, and I remember looking out the back window of the car and watching her crying and waving, and I was crying and waving, and we both knew, even though our parents were sure we'd forget about each other, that there'd never be another friend in our lives like we were for each other -- friends in childhood can't be made at any other time. We talked until almost midnight. She said, "It's so good to talk to someone who you used to roll down the hill with." And she was right. No one knows you like that person. I miss her deeply.

From Charlotte, we drove to Wake Forest, where Keith went to school, stopping along the way in Statesboro to have yet more Carolina BBQ (this week I'm cleansing with rice, beans, broccoli, detox tea ... but it was SO worth it) Wake Forest is a very beautiful school. Dad went there for two years before he transferred to UNC Chapel Hill. Keith got to wander around his classrooms and see his old dorms before the daily 3 pm storm struck. We stopped on the way back to Raleigh at 1.2 million square feet of retail space just outside of Durham (not kidding). It was a tax-free weekend for back-to-school purchases, and, well, you know me. Fortunately, we only had a few hours or I'd have had to pay to send my suitcase back on the airplane. :-)

We arrived in Phoenix late on Sunday night, and then drove back to Prescott on Monday. I turned 40 on Tuesday and now I'm just trying to put all this together somehow. Multiple books floated in front of me on the trip. Finishing Gathering Ghosts before I went back home was crucial to that. I was cleared of that baggage and could move into the next right thing in front of me, rather than behind me. I do see more ghosts in the south than the west. I do hear more voices and I do feel more authentically myself there. (Born with a magnolia in my hair!) I don't know where this will take me. I only know I need to go back more frequently, and stay longer in one place. I will look into writer's retreats and colonies in the south, or places I can go to just listen, watch the squirrels, taste the tomatoes.

Everything is different, and nothing is different. Walking in my old house freed my 7 year old ghost. I felt her move, and I have felt different since being back in Prescott. I gathered her up, and we'll make the next step in our journey together.

Pictures (from top left)
1) The view from Grandma's house in Wilmington
2) me on Wrightsville Beach
3) me and my first best friend, Donna, in front of a Carolina BBQ place (it's the vinegar in the BBQ that makes it the best food EVER) in Charlotte
4) a painting I remembered from childhood. This was inside Christ Lutheran Church, the church where I grew up. It has since become a mega church, but they had kind of a shrine to the "old" sanctuary, which is what I remember, and this painting was there. It was commissioned by the Eck family, whose son Robbie, was a few years older than me. He was killed in a car accident when he was 12. Robbie's was the first funeral I ever went to.
5) me inside the kitchen of my old house in Charlotte
6) view of Springfield Drive, the street I grew up on
7) me in front of the house in Charlotte
8) me at Wake Forest (where Keith went to school)