The Proust Questionnaire: Egghead23

I actually meant to write this as a post for this blog, but I accidentally wrote it on the Practice What You Pinterest site. I couldn’t figure out how to move it without ruining the format, so I just reblogged it. You get the idea.

The Proust Questionnaire: Egghead23.

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End of Year Musings Week 4: Creation

Wednesday, Dec 21: Creation
What did you make this year? Whether something personal, like a song or some art, or a work project, share your process and the end result of your creation.

I worked a lot on my novel, Erasable You, this year. I tend to write like a spider spins a web. I have ideas that I put down and then spin around them. It’s slow going. I’m not the kind of writer who can just sit and bang the whole thing out in one linear process. The name of the school is still up in the air. Its nickname is “East Plastic Jesus” Academy because of a tradition where all the fifth graders go through a kind of rite of passage. There’s a big ceremonial mass, and they each receive a cheap plastic rosary. But I’m not married to that concept…still working on it.

 

Here then, are the first few pages:

 

No one had ever accused Annabel DiLuca of being unprofessional.  In fact, they often found her quite the opposite, a bit of a stickler.  A perfectionist, an if-I-want-it-done-right-I’ll-just-do-it-myself-then kind of person, in short, a pain in the ass.  This perfectionism, though it served her well professionally, tended to make her push things too far, and being an impetuous person, Annabel often found herself in the wrong place. Annabel’s shrink, the caterpillar-moustached Dr. Anson Harrington, whom she hadn’t seen in years, had once blamed it on her broken childhood.  While her juvenile days had certainly been happy ones, with a loving father and a doting grandmother, her mother had been more or less absent, removed from Annabel’s life by a speeding late-model Chrysler Belvedere on a Saturday afternoon in 1976.

Joanne DiLuca had spent that November afternoon browsing children’s apparel shops in the old section of town where the Italian immigrants had settled, meticulously probing their overcrowded, plastic-covered wares for the right delicately stitched cardigan, something new for Annabel to wear to the family’s Thanksgiving gathering.  Joanne cut a fashionable silhouette that day, having adopted Jacqueline Onassises’s sense of style in the early Sixties and followed along through the rest of her short life. That particular day, Joanne was wearing a pink tweed car coat, and, though she was of tiny-stature, she had to turn sideways to get through the narrow the aisles in the tiny shop. The two elderly ladies who worked there, Rose and Mary Marchiano (sisters in law only), looked at her over the rims of their chained spectacles to admire the way Joanne held herself. They thought Joanne was all class, always had been, even when her own mother had brought her in by the hand decades earlier. The way her handbag swung on her wrist, she seemed so young to the two women who spent their days on kitten heels, under high, starched, silvery hair. Indeed, Joanne DiLuca must have her whole life ahead of her, married to that nice DiLuca boy from Maple Street. They remembered Anthony DiLuca from his days as a high school track star; if he hadn’t turned his ankle in the spring of 1955, he might have gone all the way to the Olympics. But he’d done all right in the end, following Old Man DiLuca into the concrete business. That family had really made something of themselves. Old Man DiLuca had made more money than Elvis selling all that rock, and here was little Joanne Petrillo (now DiLuca) living the dream homemaker life. Rose and Mary sighed to each other, thinking of their own children, long grown and out of the house. How nice.

Meanwhile, the Belvedere driver was at a college football stadium, downing beer-after-beer, first from a pony keg at a pre-game tailgate and later from a hawker in the stands.  His fate collided with Joanne DiLuca’s on a bridge to suburbia in the waning sunlight of an otherwise perfect autumn afternoon.  Annabel ended up wearing the chocolate-colored sweater her mother had purchased not to Thanksgiving, but to her mother’s funeral.  Even though the sweater had been in the car when the accident occurred, it was still covered in protective plastic, and thus escaped the wreckage unscathed.

As she grew up, Annabel felt nothing was absolute, that try as she might, the rug could be pulled out from under her at any moment.  She tried and tried to overcome the feeling, desperately clutching to control every situation, but in the end it never worked out.  The more she sought control, the less she found she had, and things inevitably spun away from her.

*  *  *  *  *

 

On the last Saturday before the start of the school year, Annabel and Matt had attended the EPJ Academy faculty picnic like a perfectly normal couple. It was a civil gathering on the grounds of a once-grand local mansion, long since abandoned, but modernly available for a modest fee-by-the-hour to the public for affairs such as these.  Her boss, Helen Stilte, EPJ’s interim-head-librarian, had been there with her husband, a boring blowhard of a civil engineer who had recently retired, but was currently a consultant to the nuclear power industry. They all mingled so politely, Edgar Stilte smiling at Annabel with a mouthful of yellow teeth that reminded her of horse corn and hayrides. They had chatted and dined on fresh fruit and finger sandwiches. At moments, Helen clung to Annabel’s arm, whispering bits of gossip about this person or that, and Annabel had felt discomfort at being introduced to her new co-workers through her supervisor’s filter. She had tried a few times to break away from Helen, hanging with staff members and teachers who were closer to her own age, but then she’d notice Helen had quietly snuck up on her, listening to her every word over the heads of the people sitting between them.  Annabel looked across the veranda at Matt to see whether he had noticed Helen’s odd behavior, but he was oblivious, holding a cigarette in his left hand awkwardly, despite the fact that he smoked cigarettes regularly, and talking to the lacrosse coach over there on the patio. Matt was wearing a rumpled tweed sport jacket that he had gotten at Good Will for less than most people spent on a t-shirt.  His tie was too thin to be fashionable, a leftover caramel-colored knitted thing from the 1980s.  His long brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail at the base of his skull. He held what looked like yet another fresh bloody Mary, self-medicating, Annabel guessed.  This wasn’t his crowd either.

 

The only person Annabel had felt an affinity with so far was Pam, the headmaster’s very plain secretary.  Pam had gone to middle school with Annabel, and the two hadn’t seen each other from then until the day, four months ago, that Annabel had come to EPJ for her interview.  Pam had married her high school sweetheart, a medical equipment salesman who traveled around the country, and was, by all accounts, the nicest guy in the world. Though honestly, most of that accounting came from Pam herself, since no one on the faculty had actually met the man.

Annabel finally settled in an uneasy plastic folding chair at a plastic garden table with a group of blonde-haired twenty-something women dressed in varying shades of pastel dresses. Annabel felt as if she were sitting in the middle of a preppy ad for Lily Pulitzer or J Crew, and she tried not to feel self-conscious about her own frizzy brown hair or the dress she was wearing, a vintage 1940’s black and white A-line number that she had thought looked so good that morning, though now she wasn’t so sure. She shifted from time to time in her seat, uncrossing and then re-crossing her legs at the ankles, hoping to get comfortable in a place where she didn’t feel she quite belonged.

It was not so much that Annabel felt out of place at the picnic.  She was just wrestling with her accustomed awkwardness when it came to acclimation.  She felt as if she had transferred to a new high school in her junior year, and all the cliques had already been set.  There were the popular kids, now coaching the sports at EPJ; the intellectuals, those who had been teaching at the school for years and years; the administrative staff, kind of the go-between clique; and Annabel, the librarian’s drone, floating around the hive, just looking for a place to fit in. Annabel sensed with dread the familiar disconnect, the feeling that she couldn’t relate, couldn’t really understand the enthusiasm this group of people had for their jobs in general.  They were all so gung-ho about the community of the school for which they were working.  Annabel wanted desperately to feel that strongly about it.  To feel that strongly about anything.

 


It’s a long story

What a day I have had! What a life! The things I have witnessed…you would not believe. It would make you sick, frankly, but I have seen enough of that brand of carnage to recount it for you. So, how did I end up here? How did I come to find myself lonely and abandoned in the parking lot of a Pigly Wigly on a gray December afternoon? Well, it’s kind of a long story…


October

pumpkins wait by the side of the road

trying to hitch a ride

a hollowed out squash

ghosts swinging in the trees

skeletal trees

shivering in the breeze

leaves steal rides on the soles of my shoes


I wonder what you’re doing


the october wind

she

flirts with november

cries when he doesn’t call

calls out all her ghosts

he

leaves

everything cluttered on the ground

blows

leaves

calls his name

november


november’s in the air

dancing with skeletons

dangling from my ears

they hear

the wind

she’s howling

like a dozen giggly ghosts

the leaves snicker behind her back

she

leaves

her soul

in a downward spiral

wet leaves

stuck to my soles

-MKC ’91–



My muse is an insomniac.

She pokes me while I am sleeping, shakes me conscious, and then refuses to leave until I get out of bed. I suppose I am thankful that she comes around at all.

There are many things I have wanted to tell you, and because I have not known where, or how to begin, I guess, I have said nothing. It was a rough year. The job was a bit tougher than I had thought it would be. It mostly involved a “Writers’ Workshop” course of language arts, which meant that I taught two classes (one 7th grade and one 8th) of 90 minutes each, and then I also had one class of 8th grade Religion. The Writers’ Workshop was pretty time-consuming, because the kids had to turn in portfolios at the end of each term, which had to include four pieces of writing, spanning at least three genres (fiction, non-fiction, persuasive, and then one option), and those pieces had to be edited and discussed throughout the term. Basically, it was a lot of work for all of us. I had some kids who liked to write, and would turn in pieces of 15-plus pages; first drafts, second drafts, third drafts, and beyond. I had one or two who would turn in as many as five drafts of a particular piece, and if they needed my help with it, I read each one.

My colleagues advised me to spend five minutes reading each piece, but I found that when I went to discuss pieces I had spent that little time on with the writers, I couldn’t remember exactly how to guide them. I had to make little notes in the margins. I mean, when you read eight or ten of those pieces in a day, they can start to kind of blend together, you know?

But, it was worth it. It was fun to watch a piece of their work grow from a mess to something readable. A few of them could really write quite well, but I would say it was like panning for gold. Some of it was painful to read. I read enough stories about dogs this year to last me, I can tell you. But, like I said, I really did enjoy it, when it went well, which it often did.

I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t a struggle though. First of all, it was a major adjustment for my family. The Princess went from being home full time, to being in school half-days for about a month before I got the job, at which point she was immersed in the full-day-plus-extended-day program. I know kids do this every day, but it was hard for her, and hard for all of us as she struggled to deal with the change in the way a typical four-year-old deals with any frustration.

Edison started at a new school this year. I had planned to be very involved in that, but with the job, there was no time at all. I missed all of his award ceremonies, school functions, teacher conferences, etc. Even when they were sick, Manfrengensen was most often the one who stayed home with them.

I felt stretched pretty thin, and as I am sure you have noticed, I did a lot less reading this year for pleasure (and no writing to speak of either).

We were all kind of on this grind of get up, go there, get home, order food and go to bed. Clooney did his homework at aftercare, and things were so crazy that Manfrengensen and I rarely got the time to look it over. Luckily, Clooney sailed through first grade, but he can also rush through things, so there were mistakes that we missed.

At work, it was a rough transition for some of the students as well. I had replaced a popular teacher, who had split for another job two weeks before the school year began. The 8th grade was a difficult class to begin with, I was told, and the fact that they resented my replacing Mrs. Castsalongshadow didn’t help either. The Writers’ Workshop program runs for two years, so that the students have the same LA teacher in both 7th and 8th grades. It’s kind of a neat thing, because of the continuity factor. The teacher gets the opportunity to guide a student’s writing over eight semesters rather than four, so there is a potential for profound growth in the student’s abilities. I figured the 8th grade would come around, and they did, but in the end, it took much longer than I had thought it would.

On top of all that, I had political problems. I don’t want to go into details, but you should know that I am not good at playing any kind of games. I have a very low tolerance for bologna, and a big mouth to boot, which is a bad combination. I’m in my mid-forties now, and I can tell you that those qualities have rarely served me well in the employment arena.

I would like to tell you that it was a good year, that it was worth it, and all that. In many ways, it was. I know I am a good teacher who got them ready for high school and beyond, but, it was stressful on so many levels. Even so, I began to look forward to next year, to starting the year out right. Next year, I would know the curriculum and wouldn’t feel like I was always playing catch-up in terms of what I was supposed to be teaching.

And then, on May 24th, I got laid off. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, though I do not want to rehash that day or go into details. I was not the only one who lost her job that week, at my school or anywhere. I know this is a time when many people experience what I went through, and even though this was not something I made happen, it left me feeling somewhat humiliated.

But, I am trying to focus on the positive. I have turned my attention back to my home and my family. I have stemmed the entropy of our household, and have been reorganizing and purging on a room-by-room basis. I am focusing on what is important and trying to listen closely to my kids. This has been such a year of “hurry up, I have got so much to do”, and now I am trying to just slow down and let it all unfold.

It’s going to be a great summer, and in the Fall, I will go to all the PTA meetings and school functions and teacher conferences, and I will be there for them.

And I will read. And I will write. And I will listen to the muse.


Close One

We’ve got one of those holes in our door that the mail comes through and lands with a FWAP!! on the hardwood floor that startled me every single time for the first two years we lived here.  As I walked agent cartoontoward the pile today, there was a large first class envelope face down under the pile, its triangle-printed edges waving to me like flags, little green reminders of the myriad manuscripts I’ve got out there in the stratosphere awaiting consideration.  My heart sank, heavy in my chest as I approached the pile, and I knew it wasn’t just that cheeseburger I’d had at lunch.  I know that envelope all too well. Returned manuscript means “no thanks,” usually with all the warmth and encouragement that a standard form rejection letter can muster, and I have seen enough of those in the past few months.

Worried for nothing though. Turned out to be an update from Manfrengensen’s professional association.  Hooray!  That’s one more day the manuscript’s afloat out there on the wind.