I failed my plagiarizing student.

A student of mine plagiarized his entire final essay. All of it—every last word—copied and pasted from a website. But here’s the thing: I don’t blame him. Not entirely.

You see, I’m a teacher, and, as any teacher is likely to tell you, the burden of student success weighs heavy on my shoulders. Or, more simply: I take the responsibility of teaching very seriously.

So my student’s failure is, at least in part, my failure. If my goal is to impart knowledge on a particular subject, and my student completely misses the mark, then, to my view, it begs the question: Where did I go wrong?

Micro and macro evaluation of one’s performance is a daily activity in this profession—perhaps not more than what is found in other professions, but it is certainly very high for educators given what’s at stake (i.e. intellectual growth, etc.). Every lesson plan that falls flat, every bombed quiz, every averted set of eyes and disinterested, glazed over looks gets subconsciously catalogued and processed for later review. “How could I have done better by them?” has felt like the central question of my time as a professor.

Yes, my student is responsible, too. He is on the hook for his education as much as I am. I know that, but it doesn’t change the semester-long loop playing over and over in my head. In the weeks we’ve spent together as student and teacher, where could I have invested more time, further highlighted what constitutes plagiarism, discussed ways to avoid it at length? Would it have made a difference? I’ll never know. But like the baseball player who wants one more pitch, I want to believe I could do better if given the chance.

I guess that’s what new semesters are for.

Tagged ,

January and February, I hate you… Please don’t ever leave.

If November and December are the party months, the raucous, booze-soaked collision of holiday cheer and year’s end fatigue, then January and February are the much-needed detox months. As the splendors of unchecked gluttony and borderline alcoholism—fun as they are—get tossed out with my browning Christmas tree, I am thankful, even as I bitch and moan about the plummeting temperatures, biting winds and heaping piles of snow, for the buzzkill that is January and February.

I’m thankful for:

Routine. Contrary to what I might tell you about my love of spontaneity, I operate best on a schedule.

Reading. The nasty weather results in many nights and weekends spent under the covers with my first love.

Sleep. Falling asleep at 9 p.m. on the weekend? Totally cool in January and February.

And, looking out over the bleak winter landscape, white as a new canvas, I wholeheartedly embrace the clichéd hope that comes from a new year’s beginning, for the potential of what lies ahead. Yes, in January and February I am all optimism. I’m cold, too. Damn cold. But even as January gives way to February, and February gives way to more February—because “February is thirteen months long in Michigan”—I’ll hunker in and embrace the simple joys afforded by an otherwise cold and crappy time of year.

Tagged , ,

If you’re not on facebook, do you exist?

A number of students in a course I teach on argumentative writing have taken to debating the merits of social media. Some believe it is a good thing. Others, not so much. And still others, like myself, try to maintain a level of ambivalence to the whole topic. For us, facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and the like play a bit role in our lives—our spent efforts on such sites, our clicks, taps and keystrokes, motivated less by any real sense of social interaction, and more by casual time-wasting. It’s like a tick, enabled by our smartphones, exacerbated by boredom.

But lately, I’ve noticed an increased compulsion in my social media activities.

I over share, thumb through activity feeds at dinner, post inane thoughts, hashtag and “like” and comment with abandon. I squander opportunities to engage in meaningful topics in lieu of posting a favorite quote or HuffPost article.

This is the crux of social media, and, honestly, I don’t have issue with it. I do, however, have issue with this: I check facebook before I get out of bed in the morning.

I mean, c’mon. It’s facebook.

200x0-facebook-trash-resized-600I’m not saying I’m obsessed. I certainly don’t suffer from SMAD (Social Media Anxiety Disorder) or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or any other social media-related maladies (made up or otherwise), but I’m nervous about how my life—my actual life—and my projected social-media life intersect.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to attempt to disconnect from facebook for a while. My goal is to subvert the subconscious frittering away of time and replace it with more writing.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of posting a link to this blog on facebook.

Geeze, people.

Tagged , , ,

When I’m not killing it as a parent.

Here are two things I know for sure:

1) Nobody likes to be lectured.

2) Daycare is expensive.

We’ve been taking our son to daycare for almost a year now. It’s a great place run by nurturing professionals who dote on our growing toddler. Housed in an old elementary, the daycare is structured very much like school with classrooms and daily activities designed to help budding minds. All around, I’m very pleased with our choice to send our son there.

Of course, there’s a price for this kind of care. And it ain’t cheap. Essentially, it’s a second mortgage for us, but I’d gladly pay even more (nobody tell the school’s director!). To see how our son has blossomed since attending, the way he counts to twenty, sings his ABC’s and interacts with others—at just two years old—blows my mind. While his development is not purely the result of his daycare, his mother and I read, play and work with him constantly, I’m certain his day-to-day activities at daycare have helped him immensely.

photo(43)Most days, I’m responsible for dropping our little guy off. And, most days, it’s all waves and “Hellos” to teachers and other kids as we walk down the main hall to his classroom.

But then there are those other days.

Those are the days I’m stopped in the hall and lectured. The lecture usually comes from one of my favorite teachers at the school, a bubbly, cackling woman who loves to turn on music and get our son dancing.

Mr. Taylor? she says in an octave just shy of a wagging finger.

The lecture always starts this way. When I hear my last name, like when my parents used my full name as a teenager, I know I’ve screwed up, missed something, ignored a daycare bylaw or forgotten one of the hundred different “special” days—Is it funny hat day again!?—and I’m about to hear about it.

What annoys me most about these little lectures is that they shine a light on my inability to keep it all together, which results in me feeling like a bad dad. No, I didn’t know I was supposed to bring in cupcakes for my son’s birthday. No, I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to keep my car idling in the parking lot. No, I didn’t know it was pajama day. Yes, I’m aware that my son goes all day without a pacifier when he’s here, but sometimes, especially in the morning, when he’s grumpy, and I’m a little grumpy, it just helps to pop it in and, well, yeah…

Each subject is brought up with a laugh and a nod. It’s just a reminder, Mr. Taylor. But I always feel about this tall (picture me pinching my thumb and index finger dangerously close together). Arms at my side, head down, I nod along, “Yep, yep, yep. Sorry!”

My wife is blameless in my daycare fails. She sends me reminder emails, sticks post-its by the door, and, looking me square in the face, tells me, “Don’t forget.”

But I still forget.

And when I’m called out on it I get sullen. I grumble stupid things in my head like, “I’m paying money for this? To be told I’m not killing it as a parent?” and launch equally stupid defenses like, “I’m a father, professional and professor—you try keeping track of what day ‘picture day’ is in that mix.”

But really, the bottom line is this: I want to do better. My son deserves it. And if I can do all of those other things, why can’t I get this right?

Tagged ,

Twentieth time’s the charm!

Rejection. Ugh.

Every writer, we’re told, gets rejected. Our favorite writers, from Stephen King to Antonya Nelson, have had stories (many stories) rejected by journals and publishers. Most writers get rejected a lot. This isn’t news. No revelations here. It’s simply a fact, one that most writers are hardened against (one hopes, at least), but for “non-writers,” or, more accurately, those not running the submission gauntlet, the volume of rejections a single story (and its writer) receives can be shockingly high. Simply put, it’s brutal out there, man.

rejected2For example, last May I sent a short story to 30 literary journals (all of which accept simultaneous submissions), and, eight months later, I’ve received rejection letters from 19 of those journals. Now, rejection can make you feel pretty rotten (even when you’re familiar with it), but to have to wait that long only to be rejected? Well, friends, that can drive you a little batty.

Most literary journals have a very limited staff and even more limited resources, so response times of six, eight, ten months and longer is fairly common. I’m not hating. In fact, I’ve received some very nice comments back from editors on this particular story, and, truthfully, this feels almost like acceptance. Only it isn’t.

If all 30 journals reject the story than I’ll seriously consider reworking it.

Yes, this is kind of a whiny “Why won’t they publish my story!?” post, but I think it’s good to recognize the struggle. I know I’m not alone in this. Right?

Tagged , , ,

The bathroom: Last bastion of alone time

Since becoming a father, I find myself spending more and more time in the bathroom, but rarely for the room’s intended purpose. It is the only location in the house where I am almost guaranteed not to be bothered. It has become my porcelain-and-ceramic Fortress of Solitude, the place where my responsibilities, to wife, son, students, cats and chores, are acceptably severed. That door, once closed, is a sign to the world: Do not disturb.

091016_bathroom-doorIncreasingly, I’ve been taking liberties with this social decorum, pushing the boundaries of acceptable bathroom time, amassing a library of magazines, lit journals and novels in teetering piles on every available flat surface within arm’s reach of the toilet. I will sit for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at a time, reading and thinking atop the most intimate seat in the house.

It’s a gag, my sitting in the bathroom for long stretches of time, an Apatow-esque device played out by male characters in films such as This Is 40 and Friends With Kids. But, as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” Or, less elegantly, these depictions of men are funny because they’re true.

So why do so many men, myself included, finding solace in the bathroom? Is it as simple as the closed door? In his phenomenal book On Writing Stephen King suggests that writers “write with the door closed.” The closed door, King goes on to explain, symbolizes the seriousness of the work going on in the room. It is the flashing wig-wag of the literary world notifying everyone in your household that the very serious business of writing is taking place and that the writer and his or her thoughts are not to be disturbed.

Could it be that, in that same vein, men, by locking themselves away in the washroom for much longer than is needed for… well, you know… are reclaiming their alone time? Is there anything more important—more serious—than that?

I realize that I’m painting with a broad brush. Not all men hole up in the bathroom. But then, do these men have other places they call their own? Places where they can close the door and read that article in The New Yorker, or finish that novel chapter or, simply, indulge in their thoughts, uninterrupted? Perhaps the gym? I once witnessed a man sitting naked in my gym’s sauna reading Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, its pages damp and curling in the heat. At first I found this strange, but then I thought, “Here’s his alone time.” Garages and wood shops, even the loathsomely termed “man caves” (I can’t even tell you how much I hate this term—can we PLEASE stop calling media rooms, etc. by this name?) fulfill an often unspoken need for alone time.

I should say that I love my family. I’m not trying to hide from them when I’m in the bathroom, but in the absence of a dedicated space devoted to quiet reflection, I find the bathroom to be my lone bastion.

I should also add the obvious observation that this need for alone time is not a purely male desire or pursuit. I would argue that all of us, both sexes, crave an occasional “check out” from the day.

So, maybe think about that the next time you go to the bathroom. Or don’t. It’s your time—your sweet, precious time—so use it as you see fit.

Tagged , ,

It takes some serious stones to be a writer

pile-of-stonesWhen I was in my late teens I worked as a stonemason. Or rather, I worked as the tender to a stonemason, a position also known as the hod carrier or laborer. My job, perhaps obvious from the title, was to tend to the mason as he built walls, fireplaces, fences, patios, chimneys, etc. out of beautiful fieldstone, flagstone, split-faced boulders and river rock. To “tend” was to carry stones from here to there, mix mortar (or mud, as it is often called), scrape smooth the joints between stones, make coffee and lunch runs and all the other detritus grunt work associated with being the lowest wrung of the tradesman ladder.

It was a tremendous time in my life. The days were physically taxing. And while more than once, straddling a roofline for six or more hours to build scaffolding and lay out stones for a colossal chimney project, I suffered some truly cringe-worthy sunburns, I always ended the day, collapsing into bed and instant sleep, with a sense of accomplishment.

Stonemasonry is a puzzle minus the reference picture. You are given a pile of raw substance, quarried stone formed and shaped over millions of years, and tasked with displaying it in a functional and esthetically pleasing way. And because no two stones are exactly the same, no two stone features can ever be identical. So even though we have a sense of what, for example, a fireplace should look like—a hearth, firebox and mantle—the raw material, the wily shaped, multi-hued stones, ensures that a stone fireplace can look a thousand different ways depending on the type of stones used and their placement. In the hands of a master mason, the results transcend mere craftsmanship and become works of art.

When I teach, I tell my students that writing and stonemasonry are very similar. Each of us, I tell them, has a stockpile of raw material—the stuff we’ve accumulated over all the years of our lives—and it is from this heap of life events that we draw on for much of our writing. Some of the “stuff” is seemingly uninteresting, like a slab of Basalt, while other “stuff” glitters with the leopard markings of a Diorite. It is up to us to sift through the pile and find the gems.

But that’s the easy part of the process. The real difficulty of writing is fusing that raw material together in a meaningful way.

typing-on-laptopI was fortunate during my time as a tender to work with a very talented stonemason (several, actually) who occasionally let me mason. On one such occasion, I was covering a three-foot-high block foundation of a newly constructed home on Torch Lake with bowling ball-sized fieldstones that I couldn’t keep from slipping out of place. No amount of cursing or mortar could keep the wall from toppling. After a couple hours my “wall” wasn’t much more than a mud-covered heap. It was miserably hot that day, somewhere in the nineties, and the humidity hung like a horse collar around my neck. Sweat ran in rivulets down my chest and back. I ached all over from crouching and maneuvering the stones. My frustration gave way to exhaustion; my exhaustion gave way to defeat. The “I can’t do this” buzzer was bleating away, getting louder.

When my employer checked in on me and saw the condition of my project he laughed and explained what I was doing wrong:

First, the stones I’d picked were all alike. Yes, they were marbled in feldspar and quartz and looked beautiful, but they were too similar, both in look and shape. There needed to be some contrast, not only to make the beautiful stones pop, but to add interest and, as most of my stones were smooth and round, stability. The same can be said for writing. I tell my students that when I first started really writing I thought every sentence needed to be a glittering gem—the sort of prose that knocks readers on their asses. But I have learned over the years that some sentences (many sentences) are workhorses needed to help move a reader along. Sure, every sentence should further the objective of the piece, but that doesn’t mean your sentences need to stop a reader in his or her tracks. If anything, we want our readers to get lost in the flow of the words, to forget they’re even reading, and then, when they least expect it, WHAM! drop the knockout, “Oh my god, no way could I ever write anything as brilliant as this” piece of writing.

Second, I was trying to accomplish too much—cover too much wall—at one time. The stonemason told me to take my time, to build at my own pace. Every stonemason works differently, but they all (or most of them, anyhow) get to the same place. I emphasize this with my students: Figure out how you work. Be patient. Don’t get down on yourself. Our society does not value patience. We are a people who want everything now. Students, many of whom show signs of talent, dog their abilities because they can’t write a polished piece of writing in a single sitting. They are easily defeated. Why even try? their slumped shoulders ask. But as trite and cliché a sentiment as it is, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Well, writing is all try. Capital “T” Try. Try, Try, Try. It’s about the only way to get better at… anything.

And, finally, I wasn’t using all the tools that were available to me. If I wanted to use a large stone fitted just so, I needed to find ways to support it—I needed to make it work. The stonemason suggested I use wedges cut from scrap wood inserted into the mortar joints to help hold a stone just long enough for the mortar to dry. Or, he suggested I use the block ties, those metal ribbons sticking out of the block foundation, as anchors to string wire around the front of the stones to keep them in place. Or, at the very least, use two-by-fours to prop up certain problem stones. In short, there were different ways to achieve the aesthetic I was looking for; I just needed to dip into the toolbox for the solution. In writing, I tell my students, our toolbox is filled with everything we read (although, I’m discovering a large number of my students don’t read), the writing we’ve done, the coursework we’ve covered. We know more than we think we do. So when we’re stumped, frustrated by the blank page, on the verge of tears, we need to turn to our toolbox and utilize the wealth of knowledge within. These moments of frustration are often ameliorated by experience, too. Those times when you were stumped and you managed to make it work? Be comforted by that. You did it before, you can do it again.

Not unlike those nights I collapsed into bed after a long day, writing, too, can leave you exhausted. But the process of creating something from nothing is always worth the blood, sweat and carpal tunnel.

Tagged , , ,

God help us, we’re buying a house

exhaustedAfter nearly 13 years as renters, my wife and I are in the process of buying our first home and—oh my god—I’m already over it.

We’ve been house hunting for a week. One week. That’s it, and I’m done. We actually found a home that we’re sorta, kinda, pretty sure we’re in love with (“But don’t fall in love!” as sung by The Tubes plays over and over in my head, ‘cause you can’t possibly love something so quickly, can you?). It’s a perfect starter home. There’s room to grow. Room for smart improvements. Room enough to raise our son. Yes, she’s a beauty.

Buying a home feels an awful lot like a high-wire act. Between the loan officer, real estate agent, viewings, grant applications and everyday life, we feel very much exposed, stuck between where we began and where we want to go. It’s unnerving and, if nothing else, rattles the confidence you first had about your decision to purchase.

Renting has afforded me years and years of “outs.” I am an impulsive person, capricious to my core, and renting has allowed us the freedom to follow our whims, to move here and there for schools and jobs.

But I’m over that. I want to own something, to call it mine. I want to dust off my carpentry and construction skills and get to work on property that I own. I want to be reasonably confident I won’t have to move for a few years (a process that I’ve come to loathe). I want my son to have a home.

All this sounds like a lot of bellyaching. Buying a home, we’ve been told for years, is an exhausting process. This, the uncertainty, the exhaustion, the when-will-it-end-ness, is all part of it. However, knowing that doesn’t stop it from being what it is: a pain in the posterior.

Think positive thoughts for us. Or, at the very least, direct your negative thoughts toward someone else for a few weeks.

Tagged , ,

In good company

The mustache. Mere facial garnish? Signifier of virility? Bristled plumage of the pervy? Pornography’s second-greatest gift to society? Identifier of the cultured? Identifier of the clueless? Deal breaker? Deal maker? However you part it, the mustache remains one of the more divisive facial-hair styles (right up there with the Amish beard). And while I’m no fan of the look, I am a fan of many writers who’ve rocked the look. Below is a small sampling of mustachioed literary greats:

Jim Harrison

James Joyce

Langston Hughes

George Orwell

William Faulkner

Tobias Wolff

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Twain

Salman Rushdie

 

My fiction may not have flourished during Movember, but at least my Mo is in good company. If you’d like to donate to my Movember fund, click here.

 

 

Tagged , ,

Why I Mo

I can tell I’m near the halfway point of Movember. No calendar needed. The inquisitive, occasionally dumbfounded looks and cocked eyebrows of coworkers, childcare providers and perfect strangers clues me in to the fact that my mustache has reached a density of conspicuous aplomb amongst the features of my face. It—my orange, blond and brunette mo—will not be ignored. Cannot, in fact, be ignored. It is the facial hair equivalent of a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just can’t. And with every passing day those cocked eyebrows ratchet ever so higher as the hairs curve ever further out over my upper lip.

I am not a fan. That is to say, I am not a fan of the mustache. The looks people give me are fine. They make sense. I have the same surprised, slightly confused expression on my face whenever I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Who is that creeper? such looks plead.

So, if I dislike the mustache so much (and, I really do), why participate in Movember? Well, for those unfamiliar with the movement’s mission, Movember is the month when men, or Mo Bros, grow mustaches to raise awareness and funds for men’s health issues, specifically prostate and testicular cancer. According to the Movember website, “Mo Bros effectively become walking, talking billboards for the 30 days of November. Through their actions and words they raise awareness by prompting private and public conversation around the often ignored issue of men’s health.”

In a previous post I mentioned that I have a blood-clotting disorder. I was diagnosed with this genetic abnormality almost four years ago, but I almost didn’t survive to hear the diagnosis. I was, like so many men are, possessed by an ignorance-is-bliss mentality when it came to matters of my health, so when I started to have difficulty breathing I chalked it up to a number of cold-like conditions and promptly put it out of my mind. I couldn’t be sick if I didn’t know I was sick—this was the backwards logic I was dealing in. It was only through the very forceful insistence of my wife and mother-in-law that I went to the E.R. in time for doctors to discover my very clot-filled lungs and save my life.

Contrary to what I tell myself sometimes, I am not invincible. Obviously, no one is. But for whatever reason, chalk it up to societal conditioning or antiquated notions of masculinity or something else altogether, men neglect their health, especially when it comes to preventative care. Now, my clots might not have been discovered at a routine checkup, but then, I’ll never know, because I never went to regular checkups. I do now. And I’ll proudly go to the doctor’s office, the grocery store and everywhere else with my bristly, unavoidable, unattractive mustache if it means raising awareness and getting more men to take steps to live healthier, longer lives.

That’s the power of the mustache. And with great power, comes great mortification… er, responsibility.

If you’d like to donate to my Movember fund, click here.

Tagged , ,