Shifting into Low Gear


A new semester is getting ready to begin.  In fact, for many, it’s already begun.   But where I work, the first day of classes is next Thursday, September 5, and since all of my classes this fall meet  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the semester will begin for me on Friday.

It might seem odd, starting a semester at the end of the week, but I actually like it.  It gives me a chance to get all of the introductory material done and out of the way on that first day, let everyone enjoy the weekend, and then hit the ground running the following Monday.

That’s my plan.  Hit the ground running.  And we’ll run, more or less nonstop, until the semester ends on December 20.

You may be wondering, what does this mean for the blog?

It means that starting next week, it’ll be shifting into low gear, and I’ll be posting once a week instead of three times a week.  Tuesday will be Blog Day, and the monthly schedule will look like this:

1st Tuesday of the month (starting Sept 3):  WIP

2nd Tuesday:  GUMP/College Writing

3rd Tuesday:  Pot Luck

4th Tuesday:  Bookshelf.  (Ooh, a new category!)

5th Tuesday:  Not sure yet.  There are only three 5th Tuesdays coming up in the next few months (October 29, December 31, and April 29), so I’ll try to make them worth looking forward to.

Hope you enjoy the last few days of summer!

Are you happy to see summer end, or are you dreading it?

WIP: Why I’m Writing this Book


Someone asked me why I’m writing this book, and whether it’s a biography of my family.

There’s an easy answer to the second half:  No.

But it’s actually more complicated than that.  It’s true that I was inspired, and the book is inspired, by my mom’s family.  But it’s not a biography, nor is it a memoir.

I started with what my mom’s family started with:  Two young Polish immigrants coming to America in 1907.  The young woman comes in July; the young man, in November.  They’re both from the same part of Poland (the Russian partition), but from different towns; they don’t meet until after they arrive in America.  They marry in June of 1909 in New Jersey, where he works as a boilermaker for the railroad, and they have a couple of children.  Within a few years, he’s transferred to Jackson, Michigan; they live in a small bungalow in town and have several more children, and then in 1926, they move to a farm on the outskirts of town.

This much is all historically accurate.  My maternal grandparents did all of these things, and in these time frames.

But from that starting point, nearly everything in Eighteen Crossroads is entirely fictional.  Josef and Aniela don’t have the same number of children as my grandparents, nor the same configurations of children (x-many boys, x-many girls, born in x-years).  None of the second- or third-generation characters in the book are real people, and even where some version of some of the events in these stories did actually take place, those events have been fictionalized.  In most cases, they didn’t really happen, and in cases where they did happen, they didn’t happen to these people in these places.

For instance, one of my uncles did serve in Patton’s Third Army during WW2, and I’ve been told he fought at the Battle of the Bulge (a time and place in which one of my stories is set), but I know no more about my uncle’s service (or his life) than that.  I’m sure none of the events in the story in which the main character finds himself in those basic circumstances are remotely similar to the actual events of my uncle’s life.  It would be an incredible (and unlikely) coincidence if they were.

Similarly, I know my grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army, and that he was injured in battle due to a fall from a horse—but I don’t know when or where, or even in what conflict, he fought.  He did die as a result of his refusal to allow the amputation of his leg due to gangrene, and he did say that he came into this world with two legs and he was jolly well going to go out with two legs (actually I think the “jolly well” was probably tacked on by my mom), and my character Josef in the novel does all of these things.  But the fictional character isn’t my grandfather, and the story is not my grandfather’s story.  The fictional Josef is a different Josef altogether.

The point is, this novel is a work of fiction, and the characters who populate it are also fictional.

I am not writing it to tell my own Polish immigrant family’s story.  But I am writing it to tell a Polish immigrant family’s story.

Which leads me to the other half of my friend’s question:  Why am I writing this book?

My purpose is to explore issues of both human identity (removed from national identity and/or language and custom) and the formation of American identity as it develops over several generations.  I’m fascinated by the well-known “generation gaps” that seem so inevitable between parents, their children, and their grandchildren, even as the human condition–that is, the general experiences involved in simply being human–remain unchanging from one generation to the next and also across races, creeds, and cultures.  Why is it so hard for most of us to imagine our parents as eighteen-year-olds, or as children?  What defines family, other than genetics?

In the book, Aniela struggles with the difference between the American “Melting Pot” and what Poles referred to as “Russification” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was enforced by law.  There’s also a marked contrast between Poland and America, both politically and socially, as America was a country in need of people and in search of an identity, while Poland at that time (or more accurately, Polonia) was comprised of millions of people in the diaspora who identified as Poles but had no country to call home.

And finally, two or three or four generations removed from the immigrants themselves, do the American descendants of those immigrants have any connection at all to their ancestors’ roots?  — and should they?

The exploration of these questions, and others, is the reason I’m writing this novel.

And also . . well . . it’s fun.

Why do you write what you write?  What inspires you?

Pot Luck: Gimme a Head with Hair


I tried a new hair conditioner a week and a half ago that promised to leave my hair smooth and sleek, soft and shiny.

It didn’t.

It left my hair looking like I’d rubbed a couple tablespoons of Crisco into it and left it there.  It took me eight days and five kinds of shampoo, plus a sad little session with a bar of Irish Spring, to get it out.

My hair hasn’t been smooth and sleek in a long time.  It used to be, but with age, alas, comes a coarser, wirier texture that rarely even looks brushed, much less soft and shiny.  Nobody warns you about this, by the way.  They warn you about all kinds of things that come with age, but not that one.

So I’m perpetually in search of a product that will give me the hair I used to have.  The kind of hair that prompted people to tell me I should be doing hair product commercials on TV.  The kind of hair that strangers in the grocery store would reach out and touch.

That hair is long gone.  And it seems like the older I get, the more badly I want it back.

Come to think of it, I’d like the body back, too, and the face as well.  I don’t feel any different on the inside from the person I was when I was twenty-one, so why should the outside look different?  It’s a fresh shock every time I look in a mirror.  And photographs are even worse.  It was a couple of years ago that I saw a picture of a woman in my house and thought—Who is that lady?  I literally had no idea who she was.  And then I realized it was me.

That really happened.  Terrible picture.  And no, you don’t get to see it.

I looked at that picture and thought, Oh crap, I’m old!  When did that happen?

(I suspect if you’re older than I am, you’re laughing at me.  “Old” is always twenty years older than you currently are.  But I know you’ve worn these shoes.  You know exactly what I’m talking about here.)

Many of us spend a lot of time lamenting the passing of our “best years” and wishing we still looked like we used to.

But wait.

I am not the person I was when I was twenty-one.  My sense of self is no different, which is why I don’t feel any different—but I’m not the same person.

At twenty-one, I hadn’t been to college yet.  I certainly hadn’t started teaching yet.  I hadn’t even had any kids yet.  I was still living in the same house my mother bought when I was six, and I had no idea in the world that I would one day wind up living in Wisconsin or that I’d be so happily married to the man who shares my life today.

I had not, in fact, done or said or thought or seen any of the things I’ve done and said and thought and seen in the past thirty-plus years.  I’ve done a lot of living in those years.  A lot of laughing, and a lot of crying, too.  That’s three-fifths of my life.  And I want to erase them?

I had young hair, a young face, and a young body, yes, but also a young heart and a young mind and a young soul.  And I don’t mean those last ones in a good way.  I mean immature, inexperienced, untested, and at times, downright foolish.

Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.

And you know what?  I don’t want to erase those years.  I don’t want to be that person again.  So why would I want to look like her?

I don’t.  Not really.  To try to recapture the girl I was thirty-some years ago would be to try to turn back time.  Stop the clock.  And if you stop the clock, you don’t move forward—you stand still.

And meanwhile, everyone else is still moving forward, and you’re going to be left behind.

I don’t want to be left behind.  I just want to find a good conditioner.

Because even though I now realize that these are the best years, and even though I don’t want to be that girl again, I do still want her hair.

GUMP (College Writing): Groupies

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First-year students have a lot on their plates.  There’s so much to learn, and so much to remember!  Fortunately, when it comes to remembering the names of their professors, they’re in luck.  After all, they only have to keep track of four or five of them.

The professors themselves, on the other hand, have a lot more remembering to do when it comes to names.  There are currently 26 students enrolled in each of my four sections of first-year comp this fall.  That’s a hundred and four names and faces I’m going to have to keep straight as I attempt to pursue and develop a meaningful, individual teacher-student relationship with each of them.

That’s one of many reasons I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my students in small groups.  With four or five people in a group, I can learn names and faces much more quickly.  It still takes me about four or five weeks to get them all straight, but before I started doing group work, the whole semester could pass by and I still would know only about half.

So I put everyone in groups, if not on the first day of class, definitely on the second or third.

We’re not talking occasional, spontaneous groups here.  We’re talking standing groups.

Here are some of the other benefits I’ve discovered:

  1. Small-group configurations give me more time to work with students more or less individually.  It simply is not possible for me to give any quality attention to twenty-five individual students in a fifty-five minute class period, but I can sure get to five groups and give all five a fair amount of (almost) one-on-one time.
  2. College can be a lonely place, especially for freshmen.  A standing small-group atmosphere gives students an opportunity to get to know each other over a period of weeks, during which a more comfortable and cooperative relationship develops than is possible with impromptu groups randomly thrown together for a single ten- or twenty-minute exercise.   Students exchange email addresses and/or phone numbers, and I also encourage them to create a Facebook group.  In a standing group, they feel less alone, and they know someone is going to notice if they miss class.
  3. Many students are terrified of asking “stupid questions” where the whole class might laugh at them, but they’re considerably less intimidated in a small group setting.  Working in a small group gives the “wallflowers” a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions without having to do so in front of the whole class.  Often, a shy student will ask a more outspoken group member a question, and the outspoken student, if the group doesn’t know the answer, will promptly throw her hand in the air and ask.
  4. The best way to learn anything is to teach it, and invariably, the students in a group will wind up helping each other to understand the material.  Group work encourages cooperative learning.
  5. Small group work in the classroom prepares students for cooperative and collaborative projects outside the classroom, whether in a corporate or other work environment or elsewhere.  We discuss issues of group dynamics and the students learn, in real time, how to anticipate and try to avoid the difficulties and inconsistencies of group behavior—and to cope more effectively with problems when they do arise.
  6. Small groups also create a positive type of peer pressure.  It might be easy for a student to lie low in a large class and hope she won’t get called on—the odds are generally with her in such a situation—but when she’s working in a small group, she doesn’t have that luxury.  Students who have trouble finding time to do out-of-class reading assignments are more likely to find a way to get them done when they know their group is relying on them to come to class prepared.

At the beginning of the semester, when I don’t know anyone yet, the groups are based on my roll sheet.  The first five students are Group 1, the next five are Group 2, etc.  (Groups of four or five are best.)  The students will stay in those groups for the entire first unit (about five weeks).  When they turn in the final draft of their first paper and I introduce the next major assignment, I change up all of the groups, making sure nobody is in a group with someone else who was in their Unit 1 group.  By the time we get to Unit 3, I know everyone well enough to set up very carefully-choreographed groups for the final project—and by the end of the term, everyone in the class has worked with and gotten to know everyone else.

It’s not so bad being a groupie.

WIP: (Re) Defining Progress

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I apologize for missing Monday’s WIP post.  The reason for my failure is pretty simple:  WIP stands for Work in Progress, and I was feeling as if I had made so little progress over the course of the week that I just didn’t know what to write.

But really, in looking back at the week, I realize that once again, I was relying on a poorly-conceived definition of progress.  If progress is defined only by word count, then it’s true that I made little progress this week.  I did get a few new words here  and there, but nothing like I’d been hoping to get, so it felt like very little progress.

However, if progress is defined simply as moving forward, then I think I should actually be pretty pleased with myself.

First, I spent some time reconsidering the novel’s arrangement.  I’ve decided to go back to my original plan, which was to open with Aniela’s story and close with Josef’s, and in between, present the second- and third-generation stories in birth order.  I spent much of this morning moving all of them (in a saved-as document, not an overwrite) and creating a new TOC.  This led to some reconceptualizing, which led to a decision to include an additional chapter I hadn’t originally planned.

Then I rewrote the Foreword.  I’m not sure at this point whether or not it will appear in the final draft of the novel, but for now, it’s there, and I like it, so for now, it’s staying.

And then I wrote a sort of prequel to Aniela’s story, based on an idea that came unexpectedly out of nowhere.  Again, I’m not sure whether or not it will appear in the final version of the book, but it provides me with some interesting options.

I also spent time this week exploring the novel’s themes and making sure each of the stories is sufficiently focused on them.   I’m hoping that this mid-course evaluation will put me in a position to write the remaining stories in a way that ties up any loose ends left by the others.

This “new” draft is almost ready to print out as a hard copy.  I already know it will be one-sided, three-hole punched, and “bound” in a three-ring binder—no difficult decisions ahead of me this time.

It’s all coming together.  I’m getting excited.

But I realize this isn’t the most enlightening of posts, so in an attempt to make up for my own failure, I’m sharing a link to the “For Writers” page on Ronlyn Domingue’s website.  (Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker’s War and The Mercy of Thin Air.  I haven’t read either one, but I did check out the reviews of Mercy.  Wow.)

Anyway I hope you’ll find the “For Writers” page as valuable—that is, as informative and as inspiring—as I do.

Here’s to a great coming week with lots of progress, no matter how you define it!

Pot Luck: Moderating the Hummingbird Wars

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I’m given to making the occasional unplanned purchase.  You know how it is—you’re walking innocently along, pushing your shopping cart, when some end-cap display catches your eye and you think, “Hey, that’s just what I need!”

This happened to me last summer.  It was a display of hummingbird feeders, on sale for five bucks.  Such a deal.

So I bought one, along with a big bottle of bright-red specially-formulated commercially-produced hummingbird nectar (five more bucks).

Went home, took the feeder apart, washed it according to the manufacturer’s directions, filled it with the red stuff, hung it on a shepherd’s hook in the front yard, and went in the house to watch the birds flock to the new feeder.

Nobody came.  Not one bird.  A few days later, my husband found a dead one in the driveway.

I have no idea what happened, but I surmised that perhaps hummingbirds are better off avoiding bright-red specially-formulated commercially-produced hummingbird nectar.   I poured it out, discarded the rest of the red stuff, washed the feeder, and found a recipe online for homemade hummingbird nectar.

It’s not hard.  Four parts water, one part plain old regular granulated table sugar.  Bring to a boil, cool, pour into feeder.  No dye necessary.

The birds loved it.  I don’t know what variety of hummingbirds they were (one of you can probably tell me based on the picture below), but for the rest of the summer, there were always two or three or even four of them hovering and fluttering around the feeder, politely waiting their turns.  I could almost hear them:

“No, really!  You go first!”

“After you, Fred.”

“My pleasure, old chap.”

“Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”

OK, I made up that last part.  Oh, wait, I mean, I made it all up.

But seriously, they were polite.  They all got along just fine, and there was plenty to go around.

Hummingbirds, Summer '12

Alas, but that was last summer.

Things were going OK this summer, too, until a few weeks ago when a new hummingbird moved into the neighborhood.  At first, I was really pleased—this one is a ruby-throated hummingbird (the only kind I can identify), and he’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Unfortunately, he’s also a selfish, boorish party-pooper, like the kind of neighbor who never bothers calling the cops when you have a party because he’s a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands and scares away all your friends.

Yep.  This beautiful, much-revered ruby-throated hummingbird, his greens shining in rainbows like oil on water, sits on a twig near the feeder when he’s not even hungry and chases all the other hummingbirds away.

You can hear him buzzing at them.  “MINE,” he’s saying, like the seagulls in Finding Nemo (“Mine!  Mine!  Mine!”), except they’re funny, and he’s not.

The polite hummingbirds never challenge him, even though they were here first.  They just wait and come back when it looks like he’s not around.  But even when he’s not sitting guard on his twig, he’s always somewhere nearby.  They never get closer than about three feet from the feeder before the ruby-throated vigilante comes swooping in from who-knows-where like an insane dive bomber.

It became apparent that drastic action was necessary, but I didn’t know what to do.  You can’t just put a feeder outside and then go running out there yelling, “SHOO!” every time you see the wrong bird.  And I didn’t want to just take it down.  When a selfish person is hogging all the goods, you don’t remove the goods so nobody else can get any either.  You have to have a plan.

So I went out yesterday and bought a second feeder.  Set it up clear across the yard from the first one.

I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen.  Will the polite birds organize, maybe send a decoy to one feeder while the others feed at the other?  Will the vigilante exhaust himself trying to guard both?

I don’t know.  Whatever happens, it won’t be long before all the hummingbirds start heading south, and both feeders will go back in the cabinet until next spring.  I just hope the polite birds get enough to eat before it’s time for them to leave.


UPDATE:  I did a little checking this morning–and guess what?  It looks like they’re ALL ruby-throated hummingbirds.  The polite ones are female, and the vigilante is a male.  If this is the case, I can’t help wondering–What is this dude thinking?  That is so not the way to catch women!

Take a look here and see what you think!

GUMP: Demystifying the Semicolon


Ah, the mysterious semicolon.  I rarely see them in student papers at all, and when I do, alas, they’re rarely used correctly.  Students tell me they avoid them because they don’t know how to use them.

So today I’m going to face the mystery head-on.

First, the basics:   You need to be able to identify independent and dependent clauses.  These are the basic building blocks of all sentences.

What is an independent clause?  It’s a group of words that constitute, and can stand alone as, a complete sentence.  An independent clause has a subject and a verb, but no internal punctuation.  For example:

I like cats.

He is extremely handsome.

The most important thing to remember about being in a relationship is that you have to be friends.

As you can see, the length of the independent clause is irrelevant.  (<– This sentence is not an independent clause.  Why?  Because it contains a comma.  As I just said, independent clauses do not contain any internal punctuation.)

OK, then what’s a dependent clause?  As you might have guessed, dependent clauses are dependent.  Because they lack either a subject or a verb, or both, they are thus known as sentence fragments, and you should generally avoid using them as stand-alone sentences.  (There are stylistic exceptions to this rule, but you have to know the rule before you can break it.  I break it quite frequently myself.  The first sentence of this blog post is a fragment, but that doesn’t mean all fragments work well as sentences.)

Here are some dependent clauses:

In the rain.

Although I wanted to.

The shirt.

Running really fast.

Each of these is missing either a subject or a verb, so none of them is a complete sentence—that is, none of them is independent.  Fragments work fine in day-to-day conversation, but in written English, they’re generally regarded as one of the Three Grievous Errors and should therefore be avoided.

OK.  As I said above, independent clauses and dependent clauses are the building blocks from which sentences are built.  If you can identify what’s dependent and what’s independent, you’ve got the basics of the whole written world at your fingertips.

So into the whole written world we go.

There are four basic types of sentences.  Yep, that’s right—only four.  Every single grammatically-correct declarative sentence you have ever seen is one of these four basic types.

Here they are:

  1. IC.                           Simple sentence: one independent clause standing alone; no internal punctuation
  2. IC; IC.                    Compound sentence: independent clauses separated by semicolons; no dependent clauses, no commas
  3. DC, IC.                   Complex sentence: any number of dependent clause(s) in any combination with ONE independent clause; uses at least one comma, but no semicolons
  4. IC; DC, IC.            Compound-complex sentence: any number and any combination of BOTH dependent and independent clauses, using BOTH comma(s) and semicolon(s)

You will note that although there are only FOUR basic sentence types, TWO of them use semicolons.  This means that if you don’t use semicolons, you’re limiting your use of language by roughly 50%.

But if you can identify dependent and independent clauses, then based on this little list, you now know everything you need to know to use semicolons correctly, and you can expand your range to 100%.

You can make any sentence in the world using a combination of ICs and DCs.  All you have to remember is a couple of very simple rules:

  1. All grammatically correct sentences must contain at least one IC.
  2. If you have two or more ICs in a sentence, you need to put semicolons in between them.

You can tell me right now whether or not the following sentences are grammatically correct:

IC, IC, DC.  Correct?  Or not?  (Not.  I’ve put two ICs together without a semicolon.  This is a comma splice, sometimes called a fused sentence, and it’s the second of the Three Grievous Errors.  This is never OK.)

DC, DC, IC, DC; DC, IC, DC; IC, DC, DC.  Correct?  Or not?  (Yes!  The sentence contains three ICs, but each is separated from the others by semicolons.  Semicolons are awesome.)

IC IC.  Correct?  No.  This is a run-on sentence, the third of the Three Grievous Errors, and like the comma splice, it should also always be avoided.  In real time, this would read something like this:

I love cats they are so funny.

IC, IC.   Correct?  No.  Two ICs can’t live in the same sentence without a semicolon.  What I’ve given you here is another comma splice.  In real life, it looks like this:

I love cats, they are so funny.

Here’s a little practice for you.  See what you can make with these models:

  1. IC.                                           (Simple)
  2. IC, DC.                                   (Complex)
  3. DC, DC, DC, IC.                   (Complex)
  4. IC; IC.                                    (Compound)
  5. IC; DC, IC.                            (Compound-complex)

Here are mine:

  1. IC.                           My cats make me laugh.
  2. IC, DC.                   Dogs are great companions, but I can’t live without a cat in the house.
  3. DC, DC, DC, IC.  Even when I’m grumpy, sick, or overworked, my cats can always cheer me up.
  4. IC; IC.                    I’ve had cats all my life; I could never name a favorite.
  5. IC; DC, IC.            Every cat has its own personality; contrary to popular opinion, most of them are not remotely aloof.

I should mention that there are other uses of the semicolon as well; for instance, they’re necessary in lists, where commas exist within the list.  One super-simple example of such usage would be a sentence like this:  “I went to Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and Tampa, Florida.”

So now you’ve got all the basics of semicolon use.  Aren’t you dying to show off your skills?  Go ahead.  Give those models a shot.  I’d love to see some of your responses in the comments!

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