Wednesday, March 11, 2020

When Life Imitates The Classroom

A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as a "worldwide spread" of a disease. The Center for Disease Control defines it as "an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting large numbers of people." An epidemic, by comparison, is "an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above that is normally expected." (This kind of shoots down the whole "but what about the flu" argument, but that's not what I wanted to write about.) But I know this for an assortment of reasons, the most significant being that just before winter break two weeks ago, I finished a unit on pandemics in my 12th grade English class. Despite the fact that it was the first time I'd ever done it and I created it from scratch, it was one of the best units I've ever taught. It was rough and needs some smoothing, but it was also wildly creepy. Because while we were talking and writing about pandemics in my classroom, there was a real one going on in the world. 

These are strange moments, but they have been remarkably satisfying. My students were kind of excited about the coronavirus. There's a feeling of "holy shit, I did some real teaching there....can I get an administrator to come evaluate me please??? I had students tell me that when family members talked about what was going on they were telling them basic information about how diseases like this are spread and that it's happened before here in the United States. (I'm sure they were a little clearer than what we heard on television tonight.) The basic theme of the unit was learning how to write informational texts in the APA style. Most of my students will likely wind up on a community college campus in the fall taking the requisite pschyes and sociologies with no idea how to write or cite them, so this was a crash course attempt at that. We read loads of informational texts about pandemics, several that sound a lot like what we're experiencing now. I've thought of a hundred ways to fix that the next time, but it worked well this time. We looked at "pandemic" fiction as well, folding in a healthy dose of zombie fiction into the mix. They read excerpts from THE STAND and WORLD WAR Z. These are books you should read (or not if you don't want to get scared about what's going on). 

WORLD WAR Z is intense, scary and unsettling, mostly because it's told as an oral history and that's scary as hell. I've never read a more troublesome book as THE STAND. What King does right in that book is incredible and life changing. What he does bad is so bad it makes you wonder how much coke he had snorted the day he wrote it. Both are terrifying because we are seeing the early beats of each novel unfolding before us and those of us with knowledge of fiction know where this is headed. The media battling one another over which information is more correct. Corrupt leaders, both public and private, taking advantage of the situation to grab power at any cost. Ill-prepared government response to a crisis because of either said corruption or just general ineptitude. (Or both in this case.) Zealots using this opportunity to sell their brand of crazy vodka (there's ALOT of H1N1 experts on social media today...and I was only checking my union's group page for some information, I'm still on a Lenten fast.) It's not hard to see why, some of us are starting to wonder when Captain Tripps is going to get us. 

These are things we talked about as story elements. As things that prop up in these types of story and how authors develop them into elements that express themes. We learned that the scariest type of horror fiction is the one that is not only plausible but possible. My students are still marveling that as we were learning about pandemics, a real one was happening right in front of our eyes and before we knew it, it was at our doorstep. And, they are scared, so every so often I have to take my teacher hat off and don the dad hat. Telling them to relax and that they just have to remain calm. Keep an even head. Wash your hands. Lay low for a while. It's not a hat I'm comfortable with in that setting. But being a teacher is all about wearing different hats. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Bad Luck

This afternoon, I had started writing something else. An exciting new project that will never see the light of day. Maybe it will under a nom de plume. I don't know. It's early in the writing project and it may turn out to be nothing. I just don't know. A major problem I've been having lately is that I might have too many project monkeys throwing poop at me right now. Unfortunately, I don't have the time, energy or concentration to work on just one. I supposed it's a good problem to have. Maybe the reason the reason I don't want to concentrate on one is that I don't want to finish anything. But that's a talk I want to have right now and not the reason I'm writing this piece tonight. I'm writing because of this post about good luck by my buddy Brian. Go read it. I'll wait. 

When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I was a basketcase. (Some would say very little has changed.) My mom would often lament, "If not for bad luck, you would have none." I bought into that idea and it became my "Dante's Lament" in those days. I wanted to believe it. And I did. But there was more than that.

I made a lot of bad decisions at this time in my life, but if I needed something to break right, it would break left. Every time. It was easy to blame bad luck. It was certainly easier than blaming myself for all the things I was doing wrong in my life. I felt like I couldn't even make the right decisions because I knew that whatever I decided, it was going to go wrong. Where Brian mentioned Polyanna, I compare it to Charlie Brown. I was good ol' Chuck and life was the football. Lucy was luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. yanking the football away just as I was about to kick it. So my philosophy became diving into wrong blindly with no regard. I don't know as if I've ever quite recovered from those days and they remain a dark spot on my history. One I dredge up more often than I care to admit. (It actually reared it ugly head this weekend.)

Looking back, which I loathe doing, was my bad decisions combined with my cautiousness that I've talked about before that led to my life being a hot mess. Luck had very little to do with it. I wasn't willing to take chances and preferred comfort. I shied away from risk and chances. It cost me dreams, but I'm not going to retread those now. 

Luck was an easy scapegoat. When things are going good, our own humility tells us that it's not our talent or skill, that's boasting, but luck. We won't take credit for our own success. When things are going bad, especially when we are making really, really bad decisions and we definitely don't want to take responsibility for those decisions, we blame it on bad luck. Maybe it's time we accept responsibility for our selves (Christ, that sounds Randian, doesn't it?). Or maybe, we make like Sky Masterson and let it roll.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Buying Books

Last week I had a little time to myself. A rarity to say the least, so I decided to take a ride out to my local Barnes and Noble. I had a wallet full of birthday money and I was looking to buy some books, in particular the new book by former 315er Marshall Ryan Maresca, THE FENMERE JOB. And maybe a few more of his books while I was there. I have a two of his already vast catalog, one on my Kindle and the other safely tucked away on my bookshelf.

I treated myself to a venti iced Chai and a salted toffee cookie (I only ate half). To my joy, I discovered that Starbucks (at least the ones in Barnes and Noble) don't use straws anymore. This seems to annoy a lot of people, but having to bring ones own bags to the grocery store and not getting straws doesn't seem like a big deal to me. But that's another blog post, not this one.

I walked around the store, disappointed to find they did not have the book and for a massive store filled with thousands and thousands of books, it felt like there wasn't a lot of selection. Sure there was an entire five shelf rack of GAME OF THRONES books and a shelf and a half of WHEEL OF TIME. Three racks of tie-in novels, mostly related to WARHAMMER. I was saddened that there was no more Dungeons and Dragons fiction on the shelf, a cornerstone of my education as a writer. I perused the young adult shelves where I was deluged with a wave of darkness. Every book cover was black or dark blue or gray with almost identical silver writing. It was dismal. Is it that the "grimdark" subgenre has worked it's way down to young adult and we've decided that there really is no hope? Or was I just being oversensitive? I walked the aisles, moving through the traditional and romance titles before making my way through history and eventually over to the kids section. Even the writing shelves were dominated by Stephen King and B&N's own writing books. I was bummed.

I wound up walking out with my remaining chai and half a cookie. And that's all. And that made me sad. Me walking out of a bookstore without a book is an absurd thought. And a sad one. Is it that it's just easier to hit the Buy It Now button on Amazon and get exactly what I want? That's a good question. Fear not, dear reader, I did not go on without getting Mr. Maresca's book. I contacted the only local, independent bookstore I know, The Golden Bee Bookshop in the village of Liverpool and had them order me a slew of his books for me. So I'm supporting an artist that I love and a local business as well. I encourage you to do the same.