About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Grinding Out Poem Drafts

A wordcloud (made with Wordle) of my most commonly used words
in my poem drafts of this most recent Grind month.

In December 2014, six years ago, an old friend, also a writer, invited me to participate in a writing accountability group/experience called “the Grind.” Well, actually, he had invited me months before, invited me more than once, but I resisted — it was a month-long commitment to draft and share a new poem every day, via email, with a confidential group of readers, most of whom I would not know. No feedback, just daily accountability and practice. I don’t remember what finally enabled/forced me to say “yes” for that first December. This year, signing up for my first Grind in two years, it was a long dry spell that finally nudged me into making the commitment, the longest & driest I can remember, not only a not-writing but some kind of not-wanting-to-write, I think.

I just looked back through my emails to examine the archive of my poem drafts from that first experience. I see that I was assigned to a group with a poet whose amazing book (not published yet in 2014) I read and was blown away by in 2020. When I look at the list of participants in my first “welcome to this month’s Grind” email, I see a few familiar names of writer friends of mine who’d been participating already — poets and prose writers.

In December 2014, there were 9 groups (poem-focused groups and “manic mixture” to accommodate genre variations) with 63 participants signed up. This December: 174 signed up in 25 groups including new and revised poetry, new and revised prose, and mixed-genre). Some of the same names from 2014. When I look at the poems I drafted that first time — all new ones — I see that four of them have since been published, in a chapbook and then a full-length collection of poetry, my first. Another poem from that month was revised into the title poem of a forthcoming chapbook (hopefully out in 2021). Another poem from that month was published in an anthology in 2020, and I actually revisited/revised one of those 2014 poem drafts this month in my current Grind (I was in one of the “new and revised” poems groups, so revision was allowed!). I suppose I could look through all my monthly Grinds — I think I’ve done something like eighteen months total over six years — and inventory those “success stories,” poems that found a life outside the Grind. But of course the “success” of the Grind is daily, monthly, and mostly private. The success of the Grind is to show up with your poem, and to be there so others can show up with their poems. (or prose or whatever).

I always complain my way through the Grind. I kind of hate it. Hate having to write a new poem draft every day (I have done almost exclusively “New Poetry” during my time on the Grind), having to send it to people whose drafts always seem so much more finished and interesting than mine. Once I was randomly placed into a group with a VERY WELL-KNOWN writer whose work I have long admired, and with whom I would NOT have been inclined to share my shitty poem drafts (or even, frankly, poems I thought were decent) — it was disconcerting at first, but then just….lovely. Not having to give feedback — indeed, feedback of any kind is not only not required, it’s sort of frowned-upon — turns out to be an important element of doing a Grind.

On very rare occasions there have been folks who (habitually, repeatedly) did not show up daily, and that not showing up sometimes added (disproportionately, for sure) to my Grind grumpiness. You signed up, (I shouted to the empty room) voluntarily, to do ONE THING — to be accountable, alongside others, in this one daily thing — if you can’t do it — that’s OKAY! Just don’t sign up! God, who would even WANT to do this? My anger was mostly blooming and booming from insecurity about the roughness of my own drafts, and was (I cannot emphasize enough) DISPROPORTIONATE to the actual “offenses,” and probably not useful in any way. And for the most part, I have found that those who sign up come through on that commitment, and I am grateful for it, because it is HARD.

Why did I even sign up to do it? Different reasons or combinations of reasons each time, I think. Different contexts, imperatives. Grind founder (The Grindfather?) Ross White articulates so well the “whys” of the Grind in a two-part post (here and here). So many of the reasons he describes resonate with me – again, maybe different ones at different times over the last few years.

I thought briefly about signing up to do January as well, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. I think I will, without benefit of the Grind’s specific pressure, try to do some revision of a few of these drafts in January. I’ve got a bunch of work stuff looming – specific tasks but also general conditions – that occupies so much of my head and heart recently. I will have to get back to it in January. And I am still not feeling the impulses to write poems that I have historically felt, that I have relied upon, that have been clear and strong enough to see me through other, different, shorter stretches of not writing, or writing struggle.

My December 2020 Grind poem titles are: My Love & Other Things, Pandemic Garden, Strangers, People You May Know, Fathom/Father, Prepared, The Book, Arecibo, 2020, Endearments, Mosh, Wind in Trees, Why I Woke at 3AM, My Mother Doesn’t Miss The Christmas Tree, Binding, Accumulations, Monhegan (revision), The College Bar, Ghazal to Remind the Rain, Dimensions, Conjunction Weather, Conjunctions, 2020, Walk of Shame, Salt, Not Even Now, We Learned, We Learned (revision), Certain Premises, Here, A Year in the Woods Behind the House, Tired, Therapy

I did a revision of “Conjunctions, 2020” and on a lark sent it to Transitions: Poems in the Afterglow, part of an ongoing project of Indolent Books, and they selected and posted it, like, the next day. That was a speedy turnaround. And a little queasy-feeling in the speed of it, from my end. Most of the rest of these drafts will never see the light of day beyond the Grind, and that’s okay – that’s as it has been. But some of them may make it out into the world a bit – that’s also as it has been.

In any case, as grumpy and whiny as I can be in the middle of it, I am grateful to my friend for inviting me to participate in the Grind, grateful to those many writers who showed up for themselves & each other, and grateful to Grindfather (surely I am not the first one to use this phrase??) Ross White for making so much so possible through his community-minded generosity.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Practice/Versions/Revisions/Rehearsals

I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.

My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.

I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.

I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?

Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.

My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)

But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.

There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.

Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:

img_6981

In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.

It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.

Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:

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I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.

How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.

These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.

If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)

What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?

It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.

I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?

For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.

Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.

Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.

About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

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The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 9.44.32 PM
From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel”

Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.

We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.

*

In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).

*

Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).

A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.

*

Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.

*

Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)

BUT

maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?

I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.

When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”

I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.

I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.

BUT

such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?

I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.

*

When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.

*

Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.

Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.

Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)

*

Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?

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Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?

*

That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Uncomfortable Habits

For the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community at Plymouth State University, which I’ve committed to participate in this school year, we’ve been asked to do lots of different work so far, and to do it on various channels, publicly if possible/desirable. I have mostly kept my work to the semi-privacy of the Teams site associated with my cohort in this program. I started trying to show/share some of my teaching work in the spring, but my efforts there were stymied by the pandemic.

One of our recent prompts was to “write (and share if you feel comfortable doing so) a self-assessment on your own development of the Habits of Mind and pay particular attention to the signposts on the benchmarks for the level of achievement you believe you have attained. How do you demonstrate that level of achievement? What behaviors do you exhibit for each of the signposts?” (The Habits of Mind are a part of our General Education program.)

I don’t feel particularly comfortable sharing this publicly. But I have seen others in my cohort step out into a wider public with their work, and have been grateful and impressed. I am also interested in spending some more time in that feeling — discomfort (shorthand for fears & anxieties) as I consider what it might mean to teach in the fall, with/in the pandemic (and beyond, if there is a beyond), with a heightened awareness of the trauma that infuses nearly everything right now — the trauma that feels new to some of us, and which is familiar — if perhaps amplified — for others of us, students, faculty, and staff, friends and families.

This discomfort (showing my written reflection, my writing-to-think) is something many of my students experience regularly when I ask them to share their work, which may feel to them similarly unformed, and which may spark fears and anxieties similar to the ones I am feeling just now — around sharing this particular (not very high stakes) reflection, but also more generally, around teaching, the university, trauma, access, (in)humanity, and more. I want to both explore the “early” (?) sharing of thinking-in-process as part of thinking-in-process, AND I want to push back against pressures towards concluding, asserting, completing. Push back against the “process” as some kind of byproduct of product. (This is connected to some of my questions about the “summit,” I think.)

Anyhow, here’s what I shared in that more private space on Tuesday morning, which I’ll share now on Sunday in this less private space. I have resisted the urge to edit it. For now.

***

(WARNING — This is a straight-up FREEWRITE. Also, I am surely not doing this prompt correctly. ALSO I am not asserting any truths or conclusions here! I would not normally share this work, but, welp, here we go. I am engaged!)

The question, “How do you demonstrate that level of achievement” is interesting to me because of how it immediately makes me wonder: demonstrate to WHOM? When? How often? And maybe even WHY “demonstrate?” Maybe that verb is giving me pause. How about “enact” or “practice” or “employ?” “Demonstrate” makes me think about showing or “proving” (with evidence!) what I know, what I can do. But also maybe of a teaching-related activity. All of which makes me think of schooling. Also “exhibit” makes me think of evidence — also of a museum, a sideshow, symptoms of disease. “Exhibiting behaviors” also sounds a little clinical, a little pathological. (This is not me critiquing the assignment language, this is me rolling around in it, as I do, to find/make meaning) “Level of achievement.” Are these levels stable? Linear? Is “summit” more aspirational than actual? That’s how it often feels to me. But even if it’s actual, doesn’t our sense of “summit” change over time? Like, anybody else have the experience of being certain you were at a “summit” (for years, maybe) but then you realize (how? through more living/learning, I guess) there is actually more climbing for you than you’d realized. More climbing than you could see (were able/ready to see?) before. Hm.

PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICATION — as a writer, I suppose I’m good enough at this? I will never be at the “summit,” as I believe no “summit” actually exists? I’m certainly beyond basecamp. I’m climbing. Sometimes I write to find/discover/create my writing purpose, though, which is a purposeful activity. 
“To be effective, messages must engage the perspectives of others and foster dialog among individuals and the community.” ALL messages must do all of this all the time? Is drafting a poem sort of communicating with myself?  
Is this, right now, messaging? I have a purpose — to write-to-know, to use writing as a way to create/come to understanding or clarity (or purpose). But, like, is this a message for an audience beyond myself? What purposes might such learning-in-public serve? To document a process? And why do that? It feels very vulnerable to potentially do this work in front of others, before I have arrived at my Purposes. 

PROBLEM-SOLVING
I think poetry writing and much art making is actually problem-solving in some sense. (It is many other things, too.) According to the definition we’re using, problem-solving includes the “ability to think creatively, adapt and extend one’s thinking, acknowledge different contexts and incorporate different perspectives,” — what does it mean to incorporate different perspectives in a piece of art? For how many artists might art making be primarily about discovering/shaping/rendering their PARTICULAR perspective? Owning that? NOT “incorporating” others in the “solving” of the “problem” of the individual painting or song or poem? The language, “embrace flexibility, consider potential implications, determine courses of action, persist and adapt despite failure, and reflect on the results” is all very much in line, I think, with how I teach writing. And how I compose and revise poems. As to other kinds of problems — and a more general assessment — I find I am not as adaptable/creative as one might imagine a poet should be. I get stuck sometimes in old/established ways of thinking — I get in my own way with some stubbornness. I think I am better at spending time sussing out what a problem actually IS — like, describing/comprehending it. I think I resist “solutionism.” I think I privilege experimentation over problem-solving, though experiments are frequently part of a problem-solving process. But….does a poem or painting even need/want to solve anything? Useful, perhaps, to distinguish imaginative writing from expository/more utilitarian (UGH UGH UGH) writing here. Maybe. The composition essay as a problem to be solved? The QUESTION or WONDERING behind the composition essay as a problem (such a negative connotation!) to be solved (must it be? What if we were allowed to remain in the unsolvedness? Can solving ever be the wrong thing to do with/to a problem? Freewriting is fun.

INTEGRATED PERSPECTIVE
“the recognition that individual beliefs, ideas, and values are influenced by personal experience as well as multiple contextual factors—cultural, historical, political, etc.” I think I know this. I achieve this. I think this is partly from growing up a military brat and moving every 2-3 years, living overseas, etc. I think also my discipline (English/literary and cultural studies/creative writing) also relies in large part on these notions — that contexts and subjectivities are FUNDAMENTAL, not just, considerations alongside or after the fact. I think I “demonstrate” good “climbing” here by owning my perspectives AS perspectives, by using tools I’ve accumulated (self-reflection, pausing and listening, stepping outside myself as much as such a thing is remotely possible to imagine empathetically other perspectives, language and theory around words like “other,” etc.) to examine my own assumptions as such. “Students will acknowledge the limitations of singular points of view and recognize the benefits of engaging with and learning from others in order to integrate multiple perspectives for effective communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.” We face interesting challenges these days from those who use this kind of language alongside “just my opinion” and “free speech” to recast, say, SCIENCE as a matter of “perspective,” which, yes, of course it is, and is also multiple/variant/evolving/WRONG sometimes — but — I’ve seen a careless and cruel version of “relativism” in the media/culture lately, a “both-sides-ism” that feels like a crude (mis)casting of “limitations of singular points of view.” BUT THAT’S JUST MY OPINION, MKAY? 

SELF-REGULATED LEARNING
I wish I were less responsive to extrinsic motivators — praise, badges, desire to be connected with others in certain ways. I mean, I read, I am curious, I write, I learn — do I set “goals” for learning? Not always, or if so, I just am not thinking consciously about it. Right now I have some goals — around learning how to build community online, how to act against the racist white-supremacist impulses of an institution I am a part of/complicit with. I feel DESPERATE to learn how to be in higher education while transforming (I mean in much more serious ways, not task forces and mitigation and lawsuit-proofing and placating) higher education. What is UP with that desperation, though? Partly it’s that I no longer trust higher ed (which is partly no longer trusting MYSELF) to see/do the work required. And yet, so much of what I have been reading and thinking about — so many sources — come from or are attached to or are VISIBLE through structures of higher ed. So. Where was I? Self-regulation. I desire to learn, but also must deal with the institution inside me — the institution that is me, that part of me — no small part — that relishes the familiarity and comfort and peace of the status quo in so many ways. UGH. Why would I (or my students or anybody) want to learn about how wrong we were/are about so much, how the strong and embedded and often invisible (to some) forces of status quo (within and without) continue to be. Am I taking intellectual risks? What would the evidence or “demonstration” of such risk be? Is there an “is it worth it” rubric for risk/reward? I think I am decent at metacognition, but also believe it has its limits. There’s only so far “out” of myself I can get, yes?

IN CONCLUSION (lol) I as the student, handing in the homework, am feeling a couple of things: I have been engaged with these concepts. I have not exactly or clearly done the work I was asked to do. I am nervous that I shared too much. I worry what readers will think about me. I hardly know what I think of myself. This is a too-rough draft. I composed it on 750words.com, and work I do there is private/not typically shared. I don’t mean this writing is “disposable,” but, like, with respect to PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICIATION, I worry that this is hardly a “message.” I see how organized and clear Cathie’s is and I compare my work to that and think I should not share it, or I should rewrite before sharing, or I should do it more like Cathie did it. But I’m past 1400 words and have other work I need to get to. Have I spent enough time on this? Does it even make sense? What next? I do not know.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

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I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

Poetry, rumination, teaching, Uncategorized

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Getting Started in Creative Writing

It is my habit to start each semester’s (UG sophomore-level) Creative Writing class with a writing exercise/assignment using objects — some common, some strange — distributed at random among students. There’s a multi-step, in-class generative phase, and then at home, students are to draft a piece somehow connected to/inspired by the object. Here are some photos documenting my own brainstorming and drafting — my object was a “T” token.

Step one — the in-class brainstorming part. I keep veering back and forth between just “talking” students through the steps and giving them a handout, which is good for encouraging students to move at their own pace.

I took my “worksheet” home and pounded out this really long, probably needlessly-wordy poem draft (essay draft?). Then, next class, we did a round of feedback, with multiple folks commenting on drafts. My readers were really helpful, and good at describing to me what they noticed and appreciated. And this is only the second day of class!

I’ve already started very minimally tinkering/editing…I’ll probably revisit this draft when we spend a class focusing on “radical” editing and revision skills. We’ll do exercises meant to really “mess up” our drafts, in order to “see them anew.” Until then, I might keep tinkering here and there:

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In

Driving home through Crawford Notch then through Franconia Notch last night, I had to take my time, take care to pay some extra attention with my aging eyes and slowing reflexes. The wind was gusting up pretty badly, and rain which might not have been so bad had it been left simply to fall was hurled, hissing and rattling, against my Honda. It was dark, and the roads were fairly empty and of course wet, and very foggy in places — so strange to drive up into the White Mountains and not see the White Mountains! Temperatures were also up around sixty-five degrees — a bit out of character for Halloween in Northern New England.

Weather forecast alerts about gusts of fifty miles an hour in the notches were actually what sent me out into the crazy weather — an event I was up north for was ended early due to those warnings, and I live south of the notches.

I was lucky enough to be a participant in an event connected to Poets Bridging Continents IV — a live reading of work in translation (English and Mandarin) by both New Hampshire and visiting Chinese poets. Two of my poems had been translated in advance — and I had English translations of two poems by a visiting poet, Yue Qui.

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When I first saw my poems in Mandarin I was startled. Startled at the visual differences between English and Mandarin, sure, but also I think startled at myself. Startled at how moved I was, looking at those versions of my poems I couldn’t decipher. I actually got a little choked up. As far as I’m aware, none of my poems have been translated into another language before. The act/art of translation felt like such a generous and intimate thing in that moment — so personal! So patient! So enlarging — literally, an enlarging of the potential readership of my two poems but of course, and maybe more importantly, an enlarging of the poems themselves, into new linguistic territories, and maybe, somehow, I could follow my poems there?

Before the reading, our host and organizer Rodger Martin had organized a family-style dinner at the reading venue, the AMC Highland Center. As I arrived, Rodger greeted me by letting me know that “one of your students is here!” I was more than a little surprised — it was, after all, Halloween, and I hadn’t really mentioned this event to my students because I knew they’d be otherwise occupied — and it’s a bit of a haul — an hour’s drive north from the university. Who could it be?

It turned out that Emily, one of the staff helping with our group dinner that night, was my student — an English major from several years back. What a crazy delight to see her! She had taken my Poetry Workshop four years prior,  before graduating and heading off to earn her M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities at Oregon State University. She was just recently back home in New Hampshire after completing some post-grad work in Arizona. She was working, so we didn’t get to catch up properly (it’s in the calendar now!), but we did talk briefly about an assignment for poetry workshop that she remembered.

Each fall, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the work and personalities of my students a bit, I select for each of them a book from my own poetry shelves. I like pulling a chair up to those shelves, scanning the titles and authors, holding each student (as I have come to know them) in my mind, selecting a book I hope will engage that particular student as a reader and a writer, maybe nudge that student further in their own writing, whatever that might mean. The set of assignments (annotation and sharing of a poem, imitation of a poem, paper responding to the book) has been largely successful over the years, as students seem interested and ready to respond to a collection of poems that has been selected, individually, for THEM.

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To Emily, whose interests in the environment I was aware of at the time, I loaned Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows. I had met Charles the year before at the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon and became a fan of his work. When submitting her paper about this book, Emily wrote: “Thank you so much for sharing his work with me. I don’t know how you knew it, but I think it was a perfect match for me. I will be looking into more of his work.” Emily ended up out in Oregon — meeting and working with Charles. Wild, huh?

That very day, about an hour before I’d headed up north for this dinner and reading, I had just distributed this year’s selected poetry collections to this year’s poetry workshop students. And among them, as it happens, was A Scripture of Crows, which I loaned to a student whose interests/priorities include environmental sustainability and food justice. Coincidence. Connection across the years and miles between three poets — four if you count me, I guess! — a poetry collection doing some serious traveling. How to articulate this circuit of individuals, poems, interests, fellowship? Look at what can happen!

Most of my students’ lives probably aren’t dramatically life-changed by connecting with these books/authors. I do find, though, that most of my students, even some years later, REMEMBER “their” poet’s name and work, and do so fondly. I just met with one student from poetry workshop a couple of years ago who remembered his work with his assigned book by Marcus Wicker as a meaningful reading and writing experience.

Driving home, the wind and rain were certainly at high volume against my car, in my ears. But also — the music and cadence and expression of “my” (?) poems read aloud so well by Yue Qui was still in me, and I wanted to hold on to that reading, that sense of connection and also, a kind of lovely, brief estrangement from my own sense of my own poems? A moving distance. A reintroduction to the strangeness of any language? I am not sure. I am blogging in the rough, people, trying to capture some things before the wind that is STILL raging down here this morning manages to knock the power out.

Here’s one of my two poems from last night — I recited it as the wind was really kicking up around the Highland Center, and the reading of the translation (photo above) was the cut-short evening’s final reading before we scattered in the wake of the threatened nastiness in the notches.

Outage

When the power fails, the room goes dim
in winter’s ashen afternoon. The hum
of the fridge, the sweep of second hand, all pause.
The breathing of the ancient furnace stops
mid-heave. The well-pump won’t draw water
and in each toilet just one flush remains.
The screens that manage our commerce with the world
blink shut. The cordless telephone is mute.
And so we power down ourselves. We slow
our scurry, quieted like the other major appliances
inhabiting this house. We speak rarely
and in dim whispers; move slowly and then
not at all, stalled and sort of thankful for it;
stranded, darkening, waiting to be re-lit.

from Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017)

The power held while we read. Maudelle, one of the other New Hampshire poets translated and featured at the reading, pressed her card into my palm and urged me to give her a call if it seemed too nasty to get through, that I could crash at her place that night. Everybody said rushed goodbyes, photos were taken, cards exchanged. I wish we’d had more time to finish and then to just talk and be together.

But instead we all drove out into the strange, humid, gusty darkness. The poets and translators and others in the group were staying nearby. I drove home, alone, but also full of thoughts of my students, those bookshelves, the generous and strange and impossible art of translation, the music and difficulties of all language — yeah, just a few light thoughts. I drove home down through the invisible mountains I knew were still up there, and poetry was with me.

About Writing, Poems, rumination

Insects, Metaphors, Sonnets

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In the wild, bright colors warn of danger,
shout “stay away,” and warn of a nasty sting,
the consequences of touching a stranger.
A neon yellow frond, a cobalt ring,
the spangles and the spikes I wore as a girl–
I sometimes miss those garish hues of youth:
ornate parades, the glint of carnival,
the ways in which my body told the truth.
Emerging from long darkness, and long work,
I fade to camouflage in middle age:
my common wings match the oak’s dull bark–
a sturdy brown and a powdery dust of sage.
Sometimes I miss the way I caught your eye,
but also, these dull wings are how I fly.

*

The last time I blogged about an insect, it was in 2010, when I was at the Vermont Studio Center and encountered a dobsonfly. Let me tell you, it’s a fly worth blogging about. But also, that post remains my most viewed post EVER. I contemplated that popularity (and other things) in a 2012 post.

We discovered this yellow caterpillar yesterday morning on the closet door opposite the front door, and were wowed by its vividness. A friend & university colleague of mine (also a great friend and colleague of insects, I’m 100% sure she’d approve of the characterization) helped me identify it. It’s got a fabulous name — more fabulous, I’d say, than even dobsonfly. Ready?

This handsome specimen is the definite tussock moth caterpillar. Orgyia definita if you enjoy the Latin.

Tussock is certainly a great word, but it’s “definite” that slays me.

Reading about the definite tussock moth, and being struck by how it starts out so bright and glowy as a caterpillar and ends up sort of nondescript and plain as a moth, and thinking about conversations with a friend recently about the traditions (and subversions) of the sonnet and on the cusp of another semester teaching creative writing and so therefore (and always) thinking a lot about metaphors — I wrote the above poem.

Encountering and then learning a little about the moth kindled these thoughts about being younger versus being older — paying attention to the world, being awake to it and interested in what it has to offer. It was the visual detail of the moth, contrasted with the visual detail of the caterpillar, that made me want to further compare their qualities, comparison being both at the core of metaphor AND a common sonnet convention.

I daydream about how I might, some day, with my distinguished, insect-loving colleague, teach a class about insects, metaphors, observation, comparison.

The poem doesn’t have a title yet. I might have called it Orgyia definita (I do enjoy the Latin) but decided I shouldn’t name the specific species that inspired me because (please feel free to enjoy this detail like I enjoy Latin) the adult female definite tussock moth IS WINGLESS. Which temporarily wrecked my metaphor, but then I realized that this poem’s metaphors, while they came from this specific, actual place, are not consigned there forever. The poem has already … taken a step away from its origins. Like the moth, it has undergone transformation into … the next thing. Lucky for me, there are plenty of girl moths who grow up to be lady moths that have wings. (There are of course, other “solutions” to this “problem.” I’ll enjoy figuring it all out.)

For now, though, a new poem draft, just hatched, and some thoughts at the beginning of a new semester.

rumination

Hotel Room

Note: As I got into writing this piece, it did occur to me that, while crappy hotel rooms have been the exception rather than the rule of my own experience, I really could write this essay’s opposite, given, if not the PERCENTAGE of hotel rooms that have been crappy, the often bizarre and memorable WAYS in which their crappiness has manifested itself. Maybe I will still write that essay. Or maybe you will.

*

The pleasures of the hotel room are many. The pleasures of the hotel room are simple. It isn’t luxury, exactly—not the hotels where I stay, anyhow—but pleasure, simply. The hotel room is cool, or warm, as needed. The hotel room is not on the first floor. The hotel room has more pillows than you would ever allow yourself at home—why wouldn’t you allow yourself these extra pillows? They aren’t expensive, and they swaddle you perfectly. And there’s the bolster—the decorative pillow—which I so enjoy, but which I also don’t require at home. The bolster would actually annoy me at home, its purely decorative cylinder. But here—the bolster is part of the pleasure.

Since we’re apparently already in bed, let’s talk about those cool sheets, infused with something magical—likely a chemical from the hotel laundry—that must be like tryptophan—it draws me into sleep. The sheets, the covers, the comforters—the bed is a big, poofy nest.

Next to the bed is a chair, which is mostly for show, unless there’s a table. Many times there is not a table. There is the desk, though—the chair and desk and the complimentary internet service and the place to plug in all your stuff. The telephone is on the desk, offering its multitude of single-button wishes—hotel info, reservations, front desk, hotel operator, housekeeping, maintenance, messages—and most nights I don’t even pick up the receiver!

The hotel room is sometimes home to a microwave and/or mini-fridge. Sometimes there are treats in the fridge, for sale, but usually I am not staying in that fancy of a hotel. There is also sometimes a safe, which you think would only appear in a fancy hotel, but sometimes the place you need the safe the most is not the most fancy hotel. Food for thought. I have used a safe before. Which reminds me of the locks on the door—especially that metal bar thingie that I always forget I’ve engaged so when I try to leave in the morning, I startle myself briefly, trapped.

The hotel room is home to the gigantic television set, which is actually hooked up to cable, unlike the not-so-gigantic television at home, which is only for playing Wii and watching DVDs. The hotel room television is the home of HBO and Showtime. My particular weaknesses, however, are competitive cooking shows and home or bathroom or garden renovation shows. They never fail to puff me up with “I should try that” ridiculousness.

The hotel room has a thick, plush, vinyl binder full of laminated pages—menus, services, phone numbers, taxis. The hotel room has a breakfast room service menu cleverly fashioned to hang on your door. I never use it, though—as much praise as I have for the hotel room, its pancakes are simply too expensive. Not worth it. The hotel room has free coffee—usually pretty shitty, but still—complimentary! The hotel room coffee makers, located most often in the hotel room bathrooms, are getting smaller and smaller—this one makes just one cup at a time, in a very clever way. Hotel rooms can be pretty clever. Sure, they could give me a little more sugar and creamer in my complimentary individually wrapped coffee accessory packet. The packet includes one napkin—why a napkin, when there’s all this complimentary toilet paper and kleenix and towels? One red plastic coffee stirrer, two small sugar packets, one small creamer packet, and one pink packet of sugar substitute. Pink! Who, besides my mother, even uses that anymore? I need more regular sugar, or at least, a yellow packet of sugar substitute. These are trifles, of course, and don’t fundamentally alter the fact that I am drinking a complimentary cup of shitty hotel coffee as the sun hoists its fat ass over the building across the parking lot.

As long as we are in the bathroom (making our coffee), let us consider the bathroom. A shower with more than adequate pressure—sometimes with an adjustable head. Paper-wrapped soap for the body, paper-wrapped soap for the face, AND even liquid body wash if neither of these soaps will suffice. And a small bottle of moisturizer, a small bottle of mouthwash, a small bottle of shampoo, a small bottle of conditioner. Sometimes a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner in ONE, which I prefer, as I prefer the yellow carcinogenic sugar substitute to the pink. Small things. And the towels. In my good hotel room, a bounty of towels. And, sometimes, really soft ones. Always white. Rolled up and stowed in cubbies—sometimes one is folded into a clever shape—hospitality origami—and left propped on the toilet tank or next to the sink. Speaking of the sink—often there is an ice bucket there, with at least a couple of plastic cups wrapped in more plastic.

The pleasure of the hotel rooms is bittersweet. I arrive exhausted, usually from a day’s driving, and am comforted by all I mention above. But too soon I am asleep, lullabyed down by a gutsy bathroom renovation, and in the morning, there is rarely time to really appreciate all those comforts because I am usually back on the road, or off to the conference sessions, or to the airport for the early nonstop. Someday I’ll treat myself to two nights for no reason—arrive right at check-in time and stay in, order in, use all the towels, watch all the channels, use the telephone and all the toiletries and multiple buckets of ice from the machine down the hall. I think I know the pleasure of the hotel room now—but just wait. I have no idea.