Trolls, Moana, and Joseph Campbell: A Post About Why I Don’t Rope Anymore, and How I Will Again

Month before last, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

I even posted on this blog, with vague intent, a quotation from early in the book.

 

I read Hero in preparation for reading John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (which is a re-telling of the hero cycle that takes place at a university, the university allegorically representing the entire universe [I am four books into a {project? journey? quest? errand?} of reading {or in some cases re-reading, or re-re-reading} Barth’s entire bibliography, a {p? j? q? e?} that is taking much longer than it should in part due to the fact that I tend to—as I did with H.w.a.T.F and G.G-b.—read other books in preparation for the next book {Barth book after next—Chimera—for example, will be preceded by The Thousand and One Nights <at least some of them> and a chapter or two of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology}, making the process, as stated, a slow one]). But that’s another story.

 

After reading Hero, I started to see the hero cycle, as Campbell describes it, everywhere—first, perhaps, in the movies I have the pleasure of watching over and over and over with my kids.

 

Trolls, for instance: a call to action, a refusal of the call, a helper, crossing the threshold, a herald at the threshold, trials, descent into the underworld (also described by Campbell, in an allusion to Jonah, as descent into the belly of the whale, and, in the case of Trolls, symbolized literally by being swallowed, or the threat thereof), emergence from the underworld (into, in Trolls, a tree at world’s center much like Campbell’s World Navel), and crossing back over the threshold with the elixir (in this case, love…or dancing…or something) that will save the world or the village or the family or the whatever.

 

Or, Moana: see list above, minus the parentheticals.

 

But Campbell’s purpose was not to help us see the similarities between heroes or between animated films. The purpose of Hero is to help us better understand ourselves.

 

Hero myths sprouted up in ancient civilizations all over the planet, many featuring the same characteristics, just as hero-driven films and TV shows continue to sprout up with many of the same characteristics. It’s not a coincidence. Or collusion. It’s simply that those characteristics are part of the human subconscious.

 

The story of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, or Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, is the story of every one of us—the subconscious journey of our psyche.

 

So the universal story mirrors the individual story.

 

In 1993, at fifteen years old, I started team roping. I high school rodeoed, but I wasn’t very good.

 

I had a good foundation, though. I’d learned to rope horns from a header who’d been to the National Finals the year before, and because of this foundation (reinforced by roping the dummy on average a hundred times a day for the next ten years), I kept getting better.

 

So from 15 years old to 30 years old I did almost nothing else other than roping (and cared about little else, too).

 

I went from high school rodeo to college rodeo. In college, I still wasn’t good enough, but I was getting better. During college, I found a sort of mentor who straightened out my roping quite a bit.

 

At around 25 years old, after lots and lots and lots of at-bats, I got to a point where I could win pretty consistently at the amateur rodeos and win a little bit at the pro rodeos in California.

 

Team roping was my life, and year-by-year life was getting better.

 

But life life—the part of life that I knew was real life but about which I couldn’t’ve cared less—life life was getting worse and worse.

 

Throughout my twenties, I had no steady job, and therefore no steady income—in fact, what jobs I had were primarily for the purpose of generating funds for future entry fees (or for paying past due entry fees [and fines]).

 

Every possession of consequence—truck, trailer, horses, etc.—was borrowed, or had been handed over. I survived thanks to family and close friends and their repeated charitable donations to what was ultimately an unworthy cause. To what, actually, was not a cause at all.

 

This, of course, was unsustainable.

 

And the life I was living was unfulfilling. I was not happy.

 

[Note: This is not in any way to say that a life of roping cannot be fulfilling; it is only to say that the life of roping that I was choosing to live was unfulfilling.]

Here’s an anecdote, to demonstrate: In 2001, I went to a college rodeo in Ogden, UT. I traveled with a friend and another friend. The rodeo performances were at night, and during the day, they had ropings. I spent all my money at the ropings. Every penny. On the way home, we stopped to eat at Boomtown. I either ordered something cheap, or I ate off of my friends’ plates. I don’t remember, but as we left, I was still hungry. On a vacated table we walked by was the uneaten half of a pastrami sandwich. I picked it up and ate it, right there on the spot. As my friends were paying, a man and woman came up to the counter. The woman asked where her husband’s sandwich was. They wanted to take it with them. The host had seen me eat it. He told on me. I went and hid behind a slot machine. The woman was angry. The husband calmed her down. He said to her: “Honey, a man’s gotta eat.”

Life was like that. Every day.

 

The changes began when I got a job. A real job. A career. I was 27. I started teaching high school English full time.

 

I had always thought I would be an English teacher, but I had always thought of it as the thing I would do after roping. But, financial necessity sped things up.

 

They were going to pay me just under $40,000 a year to teach English. The figure was mind-boggling. At the time, roping was still my life, so I of course viewed this new career through that lens: seemingly unlimited entry fee and fuel money, and lots of time off to rope (afternoons, weekends, spring break, summer break).

 

During my first year as a teacher, I still practiced three of four nights a week, and I still went to a roping (or two) every weekend. In the spring and summer, I went to two or three or four rodeos every weekend.

 

And I was still broke. And I still had nothing.

 

And I was a terrible teacher, as most first-year teachers are.

 

And then it happened: I fell in love.

 

I found my light, my love, my partner, and (in Campbellian terms) my helper.

 

I had found my life, and it was a life overflowing with joy and adventure. I was fulfilled, and I was happy.

 

Over the next eight years, that life grew and grew. There are now four of us, and it is a life of warmth and smiles and laughs and hugs.

 

Naturally, as this new life grew, that other life—roping life—diminished. I didn’t love roping any less, I just loved someone else so much more.

 

To my closest friends in that other life, the fact that I no longer rope (at all) is probably irreconcilable with the (often monomaniacal) person that they knew. They may chalk it up to: married a city girl, moved to town, quit roping. But that is not the story.

 

My crossing the threshold moment came when our first son was around one-year-old: I sold my horse.

 

More accurately, I sold my most recent horse (having, from the ages of 15 to 36, been in possession of dozens and dozens of rope horses [often two or three or four at a time], all loaned out [or, more accurately, handed over] by the aforementioned charitable parties [mostly parents and/or step-parents], including the just-mentioned most-recent).

 

At that point—though I was roping much much less then than I had been before—I became, for the first time in just over twenty years, a non-roper.

 

The hero cycle is about change. It can be represented graphically as a circle with a horizontal line running through it. Crossing the threshold of the first line, followed by descending down into the belly of the whale—the bottom of the circle—and then emerging to ascend up the circle’s other side. For the hero, this represents a rebirth, literal or figurative, and for the individual subconscious, it represents the figurative death of a former self and rebirth of a new self.

 

I sold my horse because he was twenty-years old, and I wasn’t roping enough to keep him in good shape. I was also at a crossroads, so to speak. I had one very young child, and one on the way. I could keep my horse, and/or get a new horse, and keep roping, even only occasionally. Which would’ve meant, occasionally, that A) I spent entire days away from my (pregnant) wife and very young child(ren), or B) I would drag them all along with me, and instead of spending a Saturday doing something together, like going to the zoo, they would be present while I did something. What seemed better was option C) Wait until my boys were older.

 

Added to that was the fact that my wife had decided to take leave from work and stay home to raise our kids, which she has done for the past two years. So we went from two teacher incomes (each now approaching double that mind-boggling figure dropped on me at 27) to one. So selling my horse and thereby eliminating at least significant (and recurring) source of expense seemed an appropriate sacrifice given Liz’s—Liz being a fantastic teacher and a program specialist and a published author—even greater sacrifice of her career.

 

Once reborn, the hero, or subconscious, is then equipped to discover the elixir that will lead to (resolution? victory? enlightenment? bliss?)

 

I had found my elixir. It was my (growing) family.

 

And that elixir had provided me a new life.

 

But there is an additional leap that must be made in Campbell’s cycle. Once the elixir is discovered, and the new life is being lived, the hero—or individual—must be willing to cross the second threshold—that other end of the line on the other side of the circle, beyond which is the original point of departure.

 

The hero—elixir in hand—returns to that original point of departure, but now approaches as a new, reborn person.

 

In Trolls, the only thing that will make the bad guys and the bad-guy-king happy was eating a troll. That changes thanks to the elixir (again: in this case love…or dancing), and afterwards the bad guys and their king don’t need to eat a troll to be happy. They have love. And dancing.

 

For a long time about the only thing that made me happy was winning. A distant second was spinning one off pretty fast but having my heeler miss, or rope a leg. But, for the most part, happiness came from winning.

 

Though I’m now a non-roper, the plan has never been to remain a non-roper. Two weeks ago, we officially became a two-income family again. The boys are getting older. But when I cross that second threshold and return to roping, it will be as a new man. I look forward to re-approaching my former life from a position at which my life and my happiness is not affirmed by the outcome of a roping. We’ll see.

 

This is What Happens When Two English Teachers Raise a Child

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO ENGLISH TEACHERS RAISE A CHILD:

 

4-year-old, to preschool teacher, upon arrival Monday morning:  “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “What?”

 

4-year-old: “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “You have a Macbeth speech?”

 

4-year-old: “Yes.”

 

Preschool teacher: “Can I hear it?”

 

4-year-old: “When shall we thwee meet again,/In thwunder, lightning, ow in wain,/When the huwly-buwly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won!

 

FIVE MINUTES LATER:

 

Mom, in reference to sunflower plants sprouting from small pots: “Can you tell me about these?”

 

4-year-old: “Oh. That’s science.” [Walks away]

 

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

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Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

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Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Trump’s Ed Sec Pick Thinks She Knows How to Fix Education. But She Doesn’t.

The President’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, faces a Senate confirmation vote this coming Tuesday. As it stands, she’s one vote away from being rejected.

DeVos is a billionaire (let’s be clear: not the I-built-a-tremendous-business-and-I’ll-run-this-government-department-that-isn’t-a-business-like-a-business kind of billionaire. She’s more the I-married-the-heir-to-Amway kind of billionaire) who has little to no experience that would prepare her for the position she is nominated for…

…other than the fact that she and her husband have donated gobs of money in their home state of Michigan in support of school vouchers (which, once distributed, are mostly spent on charter or private schools) and of the deregulation of charter schools, allowing for an influx of for-profit schools (which, in turn, make gobs and gobs of money [in some cases, gobs of Title I money] that were diverted away from public schools).

In Michigan, it didn’t work. The DeVos family began tossing their gobs in the early 90’s, supporting candidates who supported school choice. Public money went to vouchers. Charters were expanded. Regulations were loosened. And…

From Politico: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data.”

The failure of school vouchers in Michigan is not an anomaly.

In an article for Slate, Dana Goldstein reported that “Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math.”

Goldstein also points out that “Trump’s voucher plan could be a windfall for companies hoping to make money from our public education system.” In this scenario, families (often low income ones) become the middle men, piping federal funds into corporate hands but not always getting what they’re promised.

Diane Ravitch served as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush 41. In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, besides noting that there is no substantive evidence for the success of school voucher programs, Ravitch details eleven alternative solutions.

They are:

  1. “Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.”
  2. “Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.”
  3. “Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum, including the arts, science, history, literature, civics, geography, foreign language, mathematics, and physical education.”
  4. “Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.”
  5. “Ban for-profit charters and charter chains and ensure that charter schools collaborate with public schools to support better education for all children.”
  6. “Provide the medical and social services that poor children need to keep up with their advantaged peers.”
  7. “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing and rely instead on assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do.”
  8. “Insist that teachers, principals, and superintendents be professional educators.”
  9. “Public schools should be controlled by elected school boards or by boards in large cities appointed for a set term by more than one elected official.”
  10. “Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.”
  11. “Recognize that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.”

Career educators could tell you (if anyone ever cared to ask them) that these solutions would have lasting positive effects not only on American education but on all areas of American life.

But: in all likelihood, if DeVos is confirmed, the focus will be on a single solution, and it would seem that she has been nominated for one reason and one reason only: belief in a policy idea that the President likes (and that, it so happens, has already failed).

Teaching Native Son by Richard Wright (Part One)

[This post was originally published here, on the website for Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature.]

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of teaching Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to high school seniors.

I did not choose this book. I “inherited” the senior IB English classes from an excellent, veteran, and now retired teacher (and good friend), Susan Halseth. I also inherited from Susan her reading list, and teaching the books with which she filled her syllabus, Native Son included, has been a delight.

The intent of this post is simply to share some of the strategies and lessons I’ve used the past couple of years to teach Wright’s novel.

PUTTING NATIVE SON IN CONTEXT

With any novel, a good place to begin is helping students place the book in its larger context (where and when).

With Native Son, I start with something rather informal. I write the years 1919, 1929, 1939, and 1945 on the board, spaced out a bit. Then, maybe in a different color, I add in, chronologically, the year 1940, labeling it as the year that Native Son was published. Then, in pairs or groups, students identify and discuss the significant historical events that surround the novel (respectively: the end of WWI, the beginning of the Great Depression, the beginning of WWII, and the end of WWII).

This is a great way to help students make connections between the literature they are reading in their English classes and the content they have learned in their past or current History classes.

GROUP RESEARCH PRESENTATIONS

After this initial discussion of the novel’s context, we move on to something more formal.

Students are divided into groups, and each group is assigned one of the following research topics (each of which includes subtopics):

The Red Scare (in U.S., first and second)

            -Communism

            -Marxism

South Side Chicago

            -Segregation/ghettos/housing policies

            -Hyde Park

The Great Migration

            -The Black Belt

            -The Harlem Renaissance

NAACP

            -origins

            -NAACP in the 1930’s

Scottsboro Boys

            -who were they and what happened to them

            -similar cases or incidents

Richard Wright

            -literary career

            -ties to Communism

Naturalism (literary movement)

-origins

            -characteristics

            -major authors

Each of these topics will help a student reading Native Son to better understand the novel, and each group will spend a day or two (or three) researching their assigned topic and preparing a 10ish minute presentation to the class.

[Note: my students use Google Slides when preparing presentations. Here are some benefits of that: 1) All group members can be working on the same presentation file simultaneously, so everyone has “something to do.” 2) Students don’t need a subscription to Microsoft Office to work on the PowerPoint at home; they just need the internet, and there’s a smartphone app available for free. 3) When the group presents, I’m not seeing the presentation for the first time; I have been able (because the presentation was shared to me) to “check in” on the progress of the presentation as it was being developed, and I’ve been able to give feedback while the students were working on it. 4) No more, “I forgot my flash drive; can I present tomorrow?”—it’s all in the cloud.]

As each group is conducting their research and preparing their presentation, it may be necessary to give the group researching naturalism a bit of extra guidance and support, as it can be a complex topic. For an accessible definition of naturalism, see the quiz below.

Another group that may require extra attention is the group of students researching housing policies in South Side Chicago. This will be a key topic when it comes to helping students understand the naturalist view of Bigger’s character and his actions. In fact, in the third section of the novel, Bigger’s defense lawyer, Boris Max, makes an argument that housing policy is in part responsible for Bigger’s situation.

South Side Chicago in the 1930’s was segregated, but it was not segregated because of explicit segregation policies; rather, segregation was the result of housing policies such as redlining and contract selling—policies that were in place in many American cities and the effects of which are apparent today.

In fact, the city that I and my students live in was redlined, and students have access to a map (from the website of data artist Josh Begley) that shows the housing zones in Stockton at the time in which Native Son is set:

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These maps allow students to make a personal and authentic connection to the novel, as many of them live in or around the redlined areas, and they have first hand experience of the effects of those policies today.

ORAL PRESENTATION RUBRIC

Below is the rubric that I use to score the student presentations (which they are given beforehand). It is a version of the rubric that I use for all such presentations. I made it a few years ago, and it was specifically designed to eliminate things that bothered me about student presentations, such as…

…students going up to present without any idea how they will begin or how they will end.

…the sense that the group copied down information they don’t understand and now are asking the audience to do the same.

…the sense that one or two students did all of the work and then gave the other students slides or cards to read.

…students reading slides instead of talking to the audience.

…the sense that some students, while presenting, are seeing (or reading) these slides for the first time.

Another thing that I like about this rubric is that it requires students to practice citing sources parenthetically and correctly formatting a works-cited page.

oral-presentation-rubric

After the presentations, during which students take copious notes (we use Cornell Notes) and are encouraged to ask questions, the class is given the following open-notes quiz:

NATIVE SON CONTEXT PRESENTATIONS QUIZ

Richard Wright was a naturalist writer.  Naturalist fiction explores the effect of external forces—particularly a person’s environment—on a character’s psychology.

As a result, characters in naturalist fiction often feel a lack of control as a result of their environment.

Discuss the extent to which external environmental forces are driving the actions of Bigger Thomas.  Refer to as many of the following factors as possible in your response:

  • South Side Chicago
    • Segregation/ghettos/housing policies
    • Hyde Park
  • The Red Scare
    • Communism
    • Marxism
  • The Great Migration
    • The Black Belt
    • The Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP
  • Scottsboro Boys
  • Richard Wright’s own life experiences

In the next post on teaching Native Son, we’ll focus on the effect of Wright’s choices regarding point of view and on themes and motifs in the novel.

Testimonials from Workshop on Teaching Literature in High School Classrooms

On January 9th, we (Liz and I) led a workshop at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

 

The workshop was based on our book, and focused on the following:

 

  • The rationale for using quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction) in the middle and high school English classroom.

 

  • Strategies and activities for introducing and implementing close reading, using George Saunders’ short story “Sticks” and the lyrics of Billie Holliday’s “Gloomy Sunday” as examples.

 

  • Increasing the quantity and quality of rigorous student writing.

 

We will be conducting a similar workshop at the 2017 CATE (California Assoc. of Teachers of English) Conference, February 17-19 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

The following are some testimonials from our wonderful participants:

 

“Very engaging! I wish more teachers would attend! As an administrator, it is enlightening to see solutions to bringing critical thinking to the classroom through literature.”

 

“So many great things in this workshop. I want to try everything TOMORROW!!! Thank you so much!”

 

“Extremely informative and useful. I found and will implement at least three strategies (close reading, on-demand writing) that I will use right away. Thank you!”

 

“This information needs to be shared with our curriculum director!”

 

“Thank you for all of the methods that I can use in the classroom. As a new teacher with no experience, this information is extremely helpful.”

 

“Really effective and simple strategies. As a first year teacher, I would strongly urge my undergraduate peers to check out this presentation and the Method to the Madness book.”

 

“Informative and entertaining, with plenty that will be useful in the classroom.”

 

“Thank you. Workshop went by quickly and had great, engaging, purposeful information.”

 

“We were offered many examples/useful samples of student work and activities. We can use this material in the classroom for planning—especially how to increase writing.”

 

“Y’all are amazing.”

Upcoming Events

Here are a few upcoming events:

On January 9th, Liz and I will be conducting a professional development workshop for middle and high school English teachers.

The workshop is based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literatureand will be held at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA (flier below).

The registration form is here.

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Also, Liz and I will be discussing and signing copies of Method to the Madness at Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, CA as part of their Teacher Appreciation Day on January 19th.

We will be there from 4 to 6 pm, but teachers can receive 20% off any purchase (plus special treats and gifts) all day.

We’d love to see you there!

 

Finally, we will be presenting a workshop at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Convention.

The workshop is titled “Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature” and will take place at 9:45 on February 17th (the first day of the conference).

http://cateweb.org/convention/cate-2017/

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Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

 

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.