Friday, August 20, 2010


I’ve spent the past three days in meetings. This is typical of the way we start a new academic year at the college where I teach. Our administration, in their infinite wisdom, believes fully in the concept that “seat time” = something productive. To that end, they have us in seats – a lot.

I have gone to meetings where we have been told the results of programs from last year, why it is essential that we get our grades in on time, why it is essential that we order our textbooks 3 years in advance, and what to do when a student doesn’t ‘behave.’ Never mind the fact that the ‘results’ from programs could easily be summarized and disseminated in an email, that the majority of us do turn our grades in on time (and have for our entire teaching careers), ditto textbooks, and of necessity we have figured out ways to deal with student discipline issues. Past evidence aside, during these three days we must spend our time sitting collectively in a room listening to others tell us how to address these issues.

To say that these 3 days of meetings are exhausting and frustrating would be a monumental understatement. Here we are – it’s Friday afternoon, students will arrive Monday morning and classes will begin, and instead of being in our offices preparing and working, we are sitting in the science lab watching a rat dissection or wandering in the woods doing an ‘invasive buckthorn data analysis.’ Really? This is a good use of our time at this point in our work schedule? Really?

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to say that rat dissection has no value or that invasive buckthorn is not a problem. I’m sure they do and they are. And I can even get behind the importance of looking at things that aren’t your area of expertise or even, dare I say, interest. We are, after all, an academy. Exposing yourself to a variety of ideas is part of the goal. If I expect my students to step out of their comfort/interest zone, then I should expect nothing less of myself.

I will go out on a limb, though, and assert that a better use of my time, at this particular time of a semester, would be to be in my office, sitting with my textbooks and syllabi and course plans in front of me, concentrating on how I’m going to do the best job I can, teaching and communicating this information to the students who have signed up for my courses – my courses in Communication which have, I assure you, nothing to do with rat dissection.

So, that’s where attitude comes in. And, it’s also where choice comes in.

I know that I am not alone here. I’m sure that all people, everywhere, have required elements of their jobs that are frustrating. I’m sure that we all struggle with doing tasks assigned by our superiors that we feel are a waste of our time. We sit through required meetings and conferences and seminars thinking about all the things we could be doing with our time if we weren’t sitting here in this room at this moment. And yet, this is our job. And, we are being paid to do it. So what remains is to choose our attitude.

The trick seems to be to figure out a way to make it through the meetings with your attitude remaining positive and your sense of humor intact. It may involve bringing work with you (or in some cases, a blog to write) that will keep you quiet, at least, instead of chatting with your neighbor and distracting others. It may involve putting in your seat time, and recognizing that life is full of these little challenges, and we can let them highjack our peace of mind or we can choose an attitude of zen-like acceptance – that this, too, shall pass and that we might just be the better for it. It may involve going to your happy place and staying there a while as the details of water temperatures and low pressure systems swirl about you and make their own tiny little hurricane as you listen to a session on Meteorology.

And, in today’s case it will definitely involve, at the end of the day, a martini.

Today’s photo:

Saturday, August 7, 2010


When I was a child, the Bookmobile would come every three weeks to my schoolyard. It was, to my 8 year old eyes, a giant thing - an old converted Greyhound bus lined on both sides, top to bottom, with shelves. And on those shelves were books. Books and books and more books. It was my idea of what heaven would be like.

I would rush out as soon as school was over and be as close to the front of the line as possible. Once inside, I was often the last to leave. I looked at every shelf, searching for books that I hadn't yet read. I would pile them in my arms, one on top of the other, taking as many as I could possibly carry on the eight block walk back home. Once home, I would take the first one off the pile and dig in. Hours I would spend laying on my bed or on the living room sofa buried in a story of someone, somewhere.

One day, in particular, stands out in my memory. I had my pile of books in hand and went to the checkout lady. As she began going through the books, she started to frown. I had books that were 8th grade books, not 3rd grade books. I couldn't have those. "Why not?" I asked. "Because if you read these books now, you won't have anything to read when you reach 8th grade," was the reply. I argued that I had already read all the 3rd grade books, and 4th, and 5th, and so on. She would not budge. I could not have books above my grade level. I left empty-handed.

When I arrived home, my mother, knowing full well what day it was, asked me where my books were. Out came the story. And out came her coat. She marched me back the 8 blocks to school. When we arrived, the Bookmobile lady was getting ready to close the doors and leave. My mother insisted she let us in. She turned to me and said, "Get your books - whichever ones you want." Then she turned to the Bookmobile lady and had a conversation. My mother was polite, courteous, and insistent. The librarian argued. My mother stood her ground. When it was all over, I went out the door with my 8th grade books, plus one more just to be ornery. My mother helped me carry them home.

My mother, with her 8th grade education, understood something far better than the librarian with the college degree. She understood interest. What my reading level was supposed to be given my age was not important. What was important was allowing me to read the things that I was interested in. What was important was encouragement and freedom to explore. What was important was the reading - no matter the subject matter or the designated reading level.

Several years later when I was in ninth grade I had a paperback copy of Peyton Place sitting on my desk in English class. Upon seeing it my teacher's eyebrows raised and she asked with some alarm "Does your mother know you're reading this?" I didn't understand her concern or even really her question. Of course my mother knew what I was reading. And of course it was okay with her. It was a book. As such, it was fair game. And it wasn't until the teacher asked the question that I even considered the possibility that there might be "inappropriate" reading material. Books were books. They were there to read. If you could understand them, you were free to read them. If you couldn't understand them, you were free to try. You were expected to get out the dictionary to help you if there were words you didn't understand.

My mother and father had little money. They could not afford to give their children excessive gifts of toys or games or clothes or records. (For those of you too young to remember, records were made from vinyl and played music - the old-fashioned version of a CD, which is what we had before we downloaded music off the internet onto iPods.) They could not afford to take me on vacations to amusement parks or other 'playgrounds'. They could not afford to send me to expensive summer camps where we learned to ride horses or play basketball or soccer. Gifts were few and far between.

But gifts they gave me - in teaching me the joy of reading and giving me the freedom to read what I wanted to. It cost them nothing but the determination to stand up and defend my interest and the gas money to drive me to the downtown library every three weeks to choose my books, once I outgrew the Bookmobile. This gift has outlasted any childhood trinket I may have wanted and taken me farther than they ever imagined.

So, this weekend as the temperature and humidity rise, I'm headed to the sofa with a book. Today I'm reading about the city of Florence during the Renaissance and the reign of the Medicis. My mother, Florence, I think would be pleased.