Thursday, December 23, 2010

Opportunity and Journey: the MATX

This past week, I submitted a substantial amount of materials to VCU for consideration into graduate school. Should I be accepted, the lovely, aging homes that house classrooms and offices on campus will become a familiar backdrop as I pursue a PhD in MATX (media, art, and text). This week, my children and I walked the campus, then gently tread the worn and creaking stairs of the graduate admissions building to drop off my transcripts. Under the bare trees outside the office, we paused to breathe the sharp scent of promise: a cold winter of waiting between hopefulness and an answer. I scanned the street for signs of welcome—anything that said this place was as much for me as it was for the young students that wandered in chattering pairs, their backpacks slung nonchalantly in place.

I thought of my mother and how she must have clasped the little hands of my sister and me when she herself first stepped onto a campus again. My mother had returned for her master’s, which she did complete after years of covering our dining room table with her books and papers. I told my daughter this.  She is still unsure of what my pursuit of a doctoral degree might mean, even though I promise a better future for all of us. Regardless of what letters behind my name might signify, my passage through this campus, even my effort to do so, will mark for her that she, too, has a future she can carve, one not necessarily pegged by gender role, family history, or outside expectation. Looking at VCU, even as the campus began to sleep with the approaching Christmas holiday, a tinge of excitement ran through us. The children and I, holding each other’s mittened hands against the chill, exchanged smiles.

Below is an image from my painting portfolio and an excerpt from my entrance essay. Wish me luck!

There are obvious reasons why an artist and writer like me would wish to return to school: the lure of a PhD with the potential of teaching at the university level; the connection with other artists, writers, and professionals who wish to share their interests; the desire for a saturated education in new computer and online media. The internal reasons, however, are the reasons I wander the path in the first place and they come with the very questions that the MATX may help me explore: As a mother still in child-rearing years and having lived in multiple states, I am lost in the woods. Where was I going before everyone else’s life took precedence? Can I break out of my gender role and become the explorer that will eventually guide other writers and artists to a plane of recognition, reason, and purpose?

Happy holidays, Readers.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Star

Everything I write today fails to communicate any measure of grace, wisdom, or humor on my part. I have written much, and deleted much. So, in light of a heartbreaking conversation I had with my little girl, I will leave you with this tidbit, a shining star in your own dark night:

Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas to all those who seek to bestow upon children a world of magic, miracles, and generosity. Merry Christmas to those who tend the sometimes wounded soul of a child, mend it, or lift it for even just a moment. May you embrace Wonderland, the kind of place where snowflakes dance in frozen perfection, bottomless hot chocolate cups steam in flawless spirals, and candy cane gift wrapping dresses boxes of toys and treasures. May a man in a crimson, fur-trimmed suit glide through the night, across treetops and rooftops, down chimneys, and into your waiting heart. May it all be possible, again and just once more, this night that we await: Christmas.

Long live Christmas, for its stillness and peace, the celebrated moment of one particular child’s birth, and the reminder that one man can change the world for the better. I send you blessings for new beginnings, a comet to blaze across your cobalt skies, and all the love in the world.

Merry Christmas to you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Facebook vs. Blogger

It's quiet here at Cafe Catiche. I'm a little busy for the usual posts; I have been working on a research paper about blogging, of all things. The best part so far was an interview I conducted with the writer of The Extended Table, who complained about the nature of Facebook as an addictive, cheap, time-suck when he should be writing his blog.

"If Facebook is a whore," he said, "then blogger is the girl you bring home to meet your mother."

Thanks, pal. Can't say I ever thought of it that way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Handmade for the Holidays

Each Christmas, I make a handmade gift or two, and I encourage the kids to do the same. This year, I decided on hats for a string of little children in the family. As I sat, head bowed toward the whirring sewing machine, my little son wandered into the room, watched me in wonder, and then retrieved his big sister’s pink Barbie sewing machine. Tiny pushed papers under the battery-operated safety needle and “sewed” to his heart’s content. He used each scrap that he completed to giftwrap one of his toy cars for his father. When he was done, he showed me a softball-sized wad of crumpled paper, bits of masking tape pasting loose ends in place. He must have labored for forty-five minutes in near silence. I have never seen him work so hard nor so quietly.

His sister sat not far from us, also fairly silent. Spread on the floor about her were around a dozed projects she had crafted—little paintings or ornaments from plastic gimp. She clumsily wrapped each one, tied them up with ribbon and strips of fabric or old bows. By the end of the evening, she had a pile of Christmas cheer. Later, I fingered the bows and the awkwardly folded packages, and considered the tenderness in which these precious items were created and wrapped.

My favorite gifts have always been the handmade ones. My cousins in Ohio labored each Christmas to produce beautiful crafts that I still have or still remember fondly. One year, they painted wooden ornaments and personalized them with our names. Another year, they made fabulous watermelon-slice placements—complete with painted seeds. Sorrowfully, the flood that followed Katrina took the placemats.

Last year for my parents, I sewed pillows with pictures of my children on them. Another year, I made tied-fringe fleece lap blankies. For my first ever married Christmas at the tender age of twenty-three, I made salt-clay angel ornaments for my husband.  The egg carton angel from first grade--I still have that, too, and enjoy displaying.

Some things last, some don’t. But the memories I have of holding those finely crafted items in my hands, of enjoying them on the tree or table or wherever--that lasts forever.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

UFOs (Unexplainably Flushed Objects) and Other Abberations

My son came into the kitchen crying. In his hand he held a shoe. My husband and I paused to ask what was the matter.

“My toe!” he yowled. “It has stink on it!”

Some things just cannot be explained. Among the unexplainable is my son’s fascination with the toilet. This past week, he flushed his toothbrush, thus causing a major overflow and a run to the store for an auger to repair the problem. I never did retrieve the toothbrush, but a few days later when the toilet overflowed again, I was able to rescue a long bobby pin from a sewer-y death. Our toilet now flushes as it should, but for how long, I would not consider safe to guess.

That one particular toilet has also survived the flushing of Littlest Pet Shops. The one downstairs, however, saw much greater difficulty in the processing of two large bars of soap. I blogged about that episode already and may likely do so again considering the incredible diligence and persistence of my flushing wonder, Tiny Man.

He also really likes lotion—mine in particular. He wants to emulate his mother desperately and is obsessed with all things feminine that are designed to improve one’s appearance or smell. I certainly can understand this, but what I cannot fathom is that in complete anger with me, he will eat my lotion to prove his point. Just this weekend, I found three mangled bottles demonstrating his complete outrage that I would put both he and his sister in time out for fighting. He put his hands on his hips and proudly confessed, “I ate yo’ yotion!”

“Boys,” shrug people who meet my son. “It’s just the way boys are.” This is not at all an acceptable explanation to me. I cannot understand why the benevolent God who made this earth has chosen to pair women with such strange and hard to comprehend creatures, creatures that cannot leave the toilet alone, eat lotion, and have other vile habits, yet somehow fall into a state of despair when their feet smell less than pleasing.

Why does a boy do these things? I asked my son this. He answered simply. Of course I knew this already: Cause I want to.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Test Preparation

If you are wondering why I have been so quiet on the blog, it is because I have been consumed with study. Last week I took the Graduate Record Exam, an unfortunate requirement for entry into the PhD program I wish to pursue. For the three weeks prior to that, I buried myself in math tutorials and vocabulary flashcards. No one saw me for anything social other than Thanksgiving and a dinner date or two with my husband. Daily, my children pulled at my legs in an effort to distract me. They were incredibly tolerant as I banged my head against a stack of notebooks and study guides. One afternoon, my daughter silently removed a growing collection of coffee cups from beside my computer in a sort of unspoken empathy for what I was undergoing. I called out to her as she retreated back to her own studies.

“Hey, you know that fear that you’ll fail? You ever get that?”

“Yeah,” she said. “All the time.”

“You ever afraid that people will think you’re stupid?”

“Totally,” she agreed, and then added woefully, “Now you know how I feel.”

“I get it, Sweetheart. I really do. I am right there.” I have a new respect for my daughter’s frustration with school and I worry that if I do get accepted into graduate school, I won’t be taken seriously.

There is nothing like a standardized exam to reflect inability and create self-doubt. I have never been a supporter of these kinds of tests. While I realize that these tests are the best numeric measure we have to sort and rank ability, they really only show one true thing: who tests well versus who doesn’t on a particular time during a particular day. Knowing this, I still studied four to six hours a day (plus editing a couple of papers for work and raising children) during the week for a math test score that would be ignored by an engineering department, slightly frowned over by someone in the humanities, but that would thrill me completely. (The test center calculates verbal and quantitative while you wait.) During study sessions, my main mistakes were not that I could not retain formulas, processes, or figure out what steps to employ in a lengthy word problem; my weaknesses always boiled down to details. Checking my work, I found consistent mistakes in basic addition and multiplication. Sometimes, I transposed figures incorrectly. How frustrating!

I complained to my husband that what I know how to do is not measured well in these tests. I can define British closed punctuation, reduce a paragraph of weak writing into two sentences, draw comparisons between literary works, and discuss the entry of softcover books into American readership in the 1960s. I can mentally calculate my budget and make plans with a rotating list of priorities, check my accounts online, and see that my figures match without having used additional software to balance the checkbook. When I read, I collect books in themes, and will independently explore the role of women in ancient China, American slave narratives, or coming of age experience according to gender and region. If I encounter an unknown word, I use a dictionary or research etymological origins online. I can even quickly assess and address croup, split-open chins, sick dogs, and some plumbing problems.

No, this stuff does not show up in a standardized exam. Instead, what I had to prepare for were analogies between words, a curse for the right brain that sees multiple possible relationships between close fits in the answer key. There were fill-in-the-blank exercises and antonym exercises (which could be more broadly interpreted than desirable). In math, I reiterated the formulas for the slope of a line, calculated probability, and used the Pythagorean theorem to answer questions that at first seemed to lack all the needed information. Now, none of these things I’ll need to discuss Faulkner or mass communication campaigns, but the practice of studying for these aspects of the test was a great glimpse into how I work and what I really wished could be measured.

When I did not know something, I took an online tutorial. I set up countless practice tests, checked for progress, noted weak spots, and addressed those areas. I followed a study chart that I had set up to organize the three weeks I had between registration for the exam and its administration. Between problem solving sessions, I created note cards for mathematic formulas and new vocabulary. I quizzed my English professor husband on contexts of words to develop better understanding of meanings and usage. And I did all this while still keeping a reasonably clean house, hot meals on the table, and meeting the punctual requirements for picking up children from school or being home for the bus. This was the test—can I handle this much study and still be a dutiful mother?

Yes, but that does not mean I will always have a pleasant demeanor, be available to chaperone field trips, or that a little extra dose of televised PBS won’t come in handy as a distracter during a rough spot. I did take some time off after the test to spend extra moments in coddling and play. Both the children needed this. My son was particularly amused and grateful for a short afternoon baking muffins; he talked about it the other night as I helped him wash his little wiggly toes in the tub. I hope he understands that my moments of unavailability will reward us as a family later in life—better jobs, better education. Those hard choices we make to better ourselves—I wish the GRE tested for that, too.