Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year and Hiking

As I predicted, I'm at home on New Year's Eve in front of this laptop after having hiked five miles around Burke Lake this afternoon. One of my neighbors was cajoled into having a New Year's Eve celebration, but having only sent out invitations last night, many of the folks who were invited had already made plans. So instead of celebrating New Year's Eve, we will gather at my neighbor's house tomorrow to celebrate the New Year. I am accustomed to being alone on New Year's Eve. I was never one for going out. I don't like driving home in the cold in evening clothes. I don't like negotiating the beltway after midnight. It's much easier for me to stay home and read a book.

But I did begin the day with a hike around Burke Lake. As a group of about 20 hikers braved the high winds (up to 50 m.p.h. gusts) and intermittent cold, I thought about how we redefine actions as we age and our bodies change. Now, my son and I used to skip, walk, saunter, hop, run, and jog around this lake when he was three years old. I never realized it was five miles around the lake, otherwise I probably would not have insisted that my three year old son join me in circumambulating the lake. I just recall that whenever we went on our excursion to Burke Lake, afterward he would promptly fall asleep in his car seat en route home. Now I know why. So, just imagine how confident I was when I realized that five miles around the lake is a piece of cake because I had done this before with my three year old. This is not a hike, I told myself! But, since I tend not to engage in moderate exercise, it's either all or nothing, I decided that I need not push myself; that five miles is plenty distance for a windy, winter afternoon.

A tree limb fell twenty feet or less in front of us as soon as we began the hike. The clouds gathered ominously, and I turned to the woman walking beside me and said, "if we were in Michigan, these would be snow clouds." She responded, "we are not in Michigan." But as soon as we turned the bend, the snow began pirouetting from the sky to confirm my lifetime practice of reading the clouds, much to everyone's surprise.

The hike was moderately paced. At one point we had to slow down because a tree fell across the trail, and it would have been too difficult for some of the hikers to walk off the trail and around the fallen tree. We opted to stoop under the felled tree. As I stooped, I was reminded of my physical therapist's warning to retain my mobility, flexibility, and balance as I age. For this reason, I am back in the yoga studio. As everyone stooped to get under the limb, me and another hiker assisted people, and I noted how difficult it was for some to stoop close to the ground and get beneath the fallen tree. In fact, three people opted to crawl on their knees. Some hikers needed assistance rising after they cleared the limb. So for some, I suppose, the hike proved to be a bit more rigorous than anticipated. But we all made it to the end of the five mile hike in tact. No injuries. No one winded. No complaints.

I am grateful to have had a prosperous and rewarding year. I've made some new friends, reconciled relations with two lifelong friends, and fine tuned my life's work. My son ended the semester on a high note! He's happy and grounded. And this makes me happy. As the year closes, I always list my ten top priorities. This past year, I crossed out eight of the ten top priorities. Two of the priorities were impractical given our financial markets this year, but the eight other priorities were quite attainable.

Have a good New Year's Eve.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Well, the shopping mall across the street from where I live is packed. People are running helter skelter trying to get those last minute gifts for family, friends, and spouses. I feel good only having to bake bran muffins for brunch tomorrow, picking up four bottles of sparkling cider for dinner, and relaxing this afternoon while watching the sky get grayer and grayer. I wanted to skate tonight, but I couldn't convince anyone to join me. I still might get up and make it to the rink before it closes this evening. If not tonight, there are plenty of winter days to skate and be in the cold.

I decided to start off the New Year right by signing up for a yoga class on New Year's day. This means that I will not be out late on New Year's eve gallivanting around and trying to sip champagne. Rather, I'll be in early, probably reading a book, and sipping sparkling cider to bring in the New Year.

Have a Merry Christmas tomorrow. Hold your loved ones tight, look them in the eyes, and remember to tell them how much you love them as everyone tears off the wrapping paper and stuff their bellies.

Friday, December 19, 2008

White Vigilante Shootings after Hurricane Katrina

When I was at the Richard Wright conference this past summer, Julia Wright showed a clip from a documentary capturing white vigilantes shooting and killing U.S. Africans in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. An article in the "Nation" captures in words some of the images that I viewed in Paris. Check out the article at

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cold and Quiet in Metro DC

So recently I lost my favorite academic and intellectual buddy to a difference in perspective about a situation. Oh, well. But my Machiavellian buddy, who is intellectual in a purely non-academic way, re-emerged to engage me in continuous lessons about survival that I often forget while getting caught in the romanticism of literature and fiction. This buddy was an English major, which is why we probably got along when we met 30 years ago. But unlike me, he turned his English degree into a gold mine, and he is always reminding me to stop letting the job work me that I need to learn how to work the job. Yeah, don't you hear the corporate, Machiavellian tone to his advice? But in the past two weeks, I decided that he was right. So, when I posted grades I gave all students better grades than what they earned from my purely crunching the numbers. Hey, and two students have already complained about their grades; even one student who plagiarized an essay. He neglected to remind me about his plagiarized essay in his efforts to negotiate a higher grade. But since I maintain electronic copies of problematic essays (I have told the students this, so I don't know why they are always testing me), I was able to ascertain immediately that this student was being very arrogant or ignorant in attempting to negotiate a higher grade after being warned about plagiarism. However, after sending the student an e-mail message reminding him about the plagiarized essay and also sending him a reassessment of his final essay (which he also plagiarized, but since I was grading so quickly, I ignored language and concepts that appeared suspicious and this essay slipped through the cracks), the student has conceded and thanked me for giving him a second (and third) opportunity to pass the class. Oh well, I am so worn out.

But back to my discussion about friendships at the beginning of this post. Anyway, there's always a yin and yang to relationships, and while I cherish all friendships very deeply and will work at maintaining them, sometimes it is best for people to part ways even when I regret the parting, even when the parting is painful. My mother used to tell me that it takes only 60 days to get over a casual relationship. So I operate on the 60 day rule. If I miss a person's friendship after 60 days, I will make one last concerted effort to mend the fence. However, if after 60 days I have made an adjustment, then I move on. If fate should cause our paths to cross again and we decide to mend the fence, then I will be amendable. But if fate does not intervene, c'est la vie.

The semester has finally ended. I have posted the vacation notice on my university e-mail and voice mail accounts. I've spent the past two days reading Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" as a way to decompress from the semester. Tomorrow morning, I will return to my own writing, which has been woefully neglected these past 15 weeks.

It's cold in metro DC as it is everywhere else in the nation, it seems. I dread the cold, but I'm planning to ice skate on Christmas eve in memory of the way that my eldest niece, Brandi, and eldest nephew, Deondre, used to beg my mom and me to take them ice skating on Christmas eve, downtown Detroit. We would skate at Hart plaza with the Detroit river in the backdrop and the lights from Windsor, Ontario beckoning. Hopefully, I will get some of my neighbors to join me. However, if my neighbors decide not to join me, it will be me and the other lonely hearts on Christmas eve ice skating with the U.S. Capitol building and the Smithsonian museums in the backdrop. But I don't doubt that in addition to lonely hearts, there will be families, lovers, and people who just like to ice skate on Christmas eve.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yoga Practice and the Books are Shelved

Finally, I made it to the yoga studio. One of my former yoga instructors opened her own studio this past spring. Since early June, I've been promising that I would go by Radiance Yoga and take a class. But each time, I'd talk myself out of going. However, with all things quiet on the eastern front, I finally got to the yoga studio.

I purposely took a slow moving, beginners class, even though my practice level is far pass the beginner's stage. As I became reacquainted with muscles that I have long ago stopped recognizing, I realized that I was exactly in the class that I needed to be in yesterday morning.

My muscles hummed, talked, and even yelled at me. At one point, in a simple warrior pose, my left arm started shaking uncontrollably. That was when I acknowledged that I was woefully out of shape. Having succumbed to working two jobs last year, I realized that I have sacrificed my health trying to survive economically while living in metro DC. So, I have to set my priorities right. It's back to yoga practice at least once per week, back to the pilates studio for my allegro reformer class (I prefer doing this than lifting weights); and I've enrolled in a tap dance class. Hey, don't laugh. I tapped as a child and teenager. When I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 2001 to 2005, I tapped at the community center with a bunch of other middle-aged, college professors. Besides, once you become proficient in tap dancing, it can provide a really good cardio workout, and it is much gentler on the body than running.

In addition to re-committing myself to getting in shape again, I finally shelved the books. Along one entire wall, from the floor to the vaulted ceiling, are my books. A wonderful friend, hearing the "chick cry" in my voice, offered to come over and anchor the book shelves. I owe the brother a crab cake dinner. It took him ten minutes to anchor the shelves. He turned to me and said, "this was easy," and chuckled. He used my drill, but his bits. I noticed that his bits were of a better quality than mine. So no matter how much I drilled, I did not have good bits to get the job done. I own wimp bits! Now I wonder why the guy in Home Depot didn't steer me toward a better drill and bit set.

Shelving the books was like taking a stroll through my past. My life is marked by the books that I read. Also, having to shelf the books again, reacquainted me with books that I have long forgotten I owned. This also allowed me to take inventory of the books that are missing. For instance, I don't know what has happened to my editions of the Marquis de Sade. Don't be too judgmental, my mother gave them to me to read while in undergraduate school, and I don't recall why she gave the books to me, but I am certain it was in response to something that I asked. Oh, yes, there was a play on campus about the Marquis de Sade, and I was surprised that she had copies of "Justine" and Juliette" in her collection.

Nonetheless, I am most intrigued by what I was reading during my adolescent years. So I paid special attention to those books: John Henrick Clarke's "Harlem" that I purchased and read before I entered high school; my high school editions of Salinger's "Franny and Zoey," "Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters," and of course, the infamous "Catcher and the Rye," which I read every year from the time I was 14 years old until I was 29 years old; and Kurt Vonnegut's many novels that my physiology and anatomy teacher tolerated my reading and chuckling over during his lectures. I really don't know why this teacher accepted my rudeness, except that he would tell me that I was bright, shake his head, and place my A examination down before me. Ironically, I was the only girl who sat at our lab station of four. And perhaps there was only one other girl in the class besides me. In my curriculum, by the 12th grade (which is when we took physiology and anatomy after two years of intensive courses in chemistry and biology) most of the girls had been weeded out and had transferred to another curriculum (usually health and welfare). The three boys who sat at my lab table all went on to be medical doctors (one is a pretty successful orthopedic surgeon who admitted to me about seven years ago at a class reunion to having copied off my examinations; I asked him for a chunk of his salary in return). Perhaps my physiology and anatomy instructor knew the odds were against me if I decided to pursue the hard sciences at the university, particularly if I did not attend an all-woman's college. I never thought about sexism in the hard sciences while matriculating in high school. I just knew that for the most part, the teachers (mostly males, I recall one female biology instructor) simply ignored the girls, or seemed to tolerate us. We were the best and the brightest of the students in Detroit, so they seemed to be a little hesitant to reject our presence overtly.

But, back to the books. I opened a biography of Vita Sackville-West and from the yellowing pages dropped out a letter from a friend whom I haven't seen in 21 years. I sat on the floor reading the letter and recalling our friendship, and how and why we lost contact with each other. Multiple editions of Morrison's books, falling-apart-editions of Tolkien (another author that I read during science classes), and various books in Spanish that were assigned to me in high school that must have suggested that I had a high degree of fluency that I have subsequently lost. Shelving the books and paying particular attention to my books from adolescence reminded me that I have always been doing what I now earn a living doing, that is reading and sharing my love of the book with others. While in an orthodox manner, I am a classroom teacher (even when my job title says, "professor". In a less orthodox manner, I am doing no more than what I have always done my entire life since I learned to read: consume a book, find a group of people who will listen to me, and share my enthusiasm of the book with them. As I anticipate the new semester, I'll have to remember this when the lifting gets too heavy and I just want to quit mid-term.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Our Children and My Self-Induced Anxiety

I have figured out the true source of my anxiety. While there are some challenges in my personal life that warrant attention, they should not be causing me anxiety and vertigo. But I realized today as I got on campus, that the true source of my anxiety is acknowledging the degree to which so many of my students at the community college and university where I teach are ill prepared to be in classes at either the college or the university. At the college my students' lack of preparedness boils down to a deficiency in basic reading and writing skills. At the university, it is a lack of study skills and seriousness.

I've always advocated that not every high school graduate is ready or willing to attend college or university. Some high school graduates need a dose of reality and should go immediately into the work force. Thus, when they realize that their promotion opportunities are limited because they lack a bachelor's degree, then perhaps they will buckle down, get focused, and apply themselves.

My anxiety intensifies at the end of each semester when I watch the attrition rate in my classes rise, the failure of students to submit their final essays, and the increase in my students' lackadaisical attitudes. Then it is the deluge of e-mail messages and phone calls with the explanations for why they haven't been to class in two months, but really need a grade in my class. They always forget to say "passing grade." Yes, a failing grade is a grade, but my students lack the savvy to be specific.

I probably have more anxiety than usual because the majority of my students are U.S. Africans, and native Africans recently immigrated to the United States. Many have graduated from the public school system in this country. While I cannot fully blame my students' lack of preparedness on the public schools, I am seeing an increasing number of students who seem to have been simply passed through the system. Any student at the college level who cannot craft a coherent sentence has not only been passed through K-12, but also has been passed through freshman-level English courses: a prerequisite for every class that I teach.

So while I want to get to content, I spend too much of my time teaching basic research and writing skills. Yet, my students are not astute enough or lack the courage to hang in there with me and acquire the skills that they need in order to be successful. Either it is apathy or they disbelieve me when I tell them at the beginning of the semester, "if you hang in here with me and take this course seriously, you will not only learn the course content, but you will also have better writing skills."

Ultimately, my anxiety also hinges on my annual review. Last year, my colleague and I (the only two U.S. African in the department at the college at the time) were verbally reprimanded for having the highest failure rate in our courses. I succinctly explained to my chair and dean, that far too many of the students had been passed through lower-level English courses, and when I got them, they were woefully deficient in their writing skills. This year, I have put in place all types of mechanisms to make it virtually impossible to fail my class unless you produce and submit nothing. And some of my students are producing and submitting nothing.

How to solve this age old problem? Do I accept the fact that an entire segment of our population (mostly African and Hispanic students) are purposely under-educated? Do I continue to emphasize to my students the need to have excellent writing and critical thinking skills when they cannot see how these skills are relevant to their economic survival, no matter how many examples I give them? And how can a sorely underpaid college or university professor tell students anything about having marketable skills when they perceive my sole skill as teaching, a skill with limited economic returns from their points of view?

It is a complex issue. But it is an issue that I am not willing to abandon until I figure it out. I know that this country educates at least two kinds of students: the elite and everyone else. If you fall into the category of everyone else, but have the economic resources to attend school in an excellent school district, you just might survive. However, if you do not have these options, chances are you will neither be prepared nor survive college or university without a lot of commitment, sacrifice, and tenacity: qualities which far too many of my students lack.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Habit of Reading and the "Dancing Mind Challenge"

As I have posted earlier, I am indebted to my parents, and my mother in particular, for habituating me toward sitting quietly with my own mind either reading or writing, or simply thinking. As a child, I was known for sitting on the sidewalk and watching the ants for long stretches at a time. My mother never disturbed me; or, perhaps she did to call me in for a meal. Nonetheless, she honored my need for solitariness, and often I could finagle my way out of doing housework simply by picking up a book.

Many years ago, Toni Morrison bemoaned the fact that students at some of this country's best universities and colleges unabashedly confessed that they had gotten through high school and their undergraduate studies without as much as reading an entire book. Morrison brought attention to the deficit in reading in our culture, and encouraged all of us to learn to sit alone with our own minds.

This February, in conjunction with Bucknell University, Morrison is inviting college and university students to spend eight hours alone reading or writing during the week of February 18th. Morrison's birthday is February 18th. This is her "Dancing Mind Challenge." Morrison addresses the inability for people to engage in solitary endeavors in her "Dancing Mind" speech that she gave upon accepting the National Book Award in 1996. You can read her speech at

So all us, regardless if we are college and universities students or not, please don't forget to mark your calendar and set aside eight hours beginning February 18, 2009, to sit alone with your own mind and dance with another's.

Friday, December 5, 2008

End of the Semester and Cold

It is the end of the semester. Students are jockeying for grades. The pleas are coming in: even telephone calls from parents. And my resolve is crumbling. Like them, I just want it all to be over. Unlike some of my students, I am obligated to do the work to get to the finish line.

It is colder than usual in northern Virginia. I picked up my son from the metro so that we could retrieve his tuxedo. He looks so good in it. Hopefully, he will also remember to wear his topcoat, which he tried to convince me not to buy. He swears that he will never put on a tuxedo again. Oh, yes he will even if he has to escort me to a formal affair. Anyway, I have asked him to take pictures. Hopefully he will.

There is a lot of anti-Africomm buzz in and around metro DC. As soon as I get a handle on it, I will blog about it.