Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Day 2 – Letter to Dr. Nakhai

One down, fifty-one to go.

I decided to send the first letter to a woman who has been on my mind a lot lately because it’s been too long since I’ve seen her and I’ve been missing her like crazy. My college English professor, advisor, mentor, and friend–Dr. Mandana Nakhai.

Last May, I found out she was being honored for her long career as she prepared to take a short sabbatical. Upon her return, she would be diving into her next adventure as inaugural Thomas Green Chair Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Fellows Program. I wrote a little something in her honor. It certainly doesn’t express my deep admiration and respect of this incredible woman, but it’s something.

Enjoy.

I met Dr. Nakhai one cold day in February in the middle of Schoenfeld Gym. I was more than 1,500 miles from home and she was, by far, the most poised and elegant woman I’d ever met. She was dressed in a flawlessly tailored wine-colored suit, complete with a jewel-toned scarf, matching stiletto heels, and delicate gold brooch. She stood maybe 5-feet tall (even in heels), yet her regal presence filled every inch of that crowded room. 

From that very first moment, I was in awe of her. 

I’d spent weeks practicing a formal introduction. I wanted to make a good impression visiting the colleges on my short list. But Dr. Nakhai didn’t need the introduction. As soon as I said my name, she smiled and squeezed my hand and told me how much she’d enjoyed reading the portfolio I’d submitted. She fixed those warm brown eyes on mine and for the next ten minutes she made me feel like the most important person in the world.

Being a student in Dr. Nakhai’s classes always meant that you were going to spend the semester experiencing a healthy mix of excitement and fear. Her love of literature and writing is infectious, and the deep discussions of the significance of the canary in A Jury of Her Peers or the archetypal images in Huckleberry Finn set my mind ablaze. I’d find myself re-reading passages and scribbling notes in the margins of all my books as I eagerly awaited the next class session.

Until, inevitably, the semester would catch up with me, and I’d have one of those weeks where I spent too much time hanging out with friends in the Quad or playing video games and I’d sit in class silently praying that she wouldn’t call on me until I had a chance to at least skim through the assigned reading or maybe piggyback off someone else’s answers to cover the fact that I was ridiculously ill-prepared.

Some weeks I wasn’t the only culprit, but there’s no fooling Mandana Nakhai. Not even five minutes into class and she would notice that the pauses were too lengthy and the answers too vague and her voice would ratchet up an octave as she attempted to jar the room full of rapt undergraduates from our panic-stricken stupor. 

“Claaaaaaas! Are you awake?! Are you alive?! Did you just eat lunch?! Open your Harbraaaace!”

I visited Dr. Nakhai’s office hours like it was my job—sometimes with questions, sometimes carrying the umpteenth draft of a paper I wanted to get more feedback on, sometimes to nag her about spending far too many hours in her office trying like hell to cultivate the young minds in her care. 

But mostly, I just wanted more time. 

I loved the melodic lilt of her voice, the way her accent rolled words exotically off her tongue. I loved circling back on interrupted class discussions and hearing her thoughts on everything from feminist theory and fashion to politics and pop culture. I loved listening to her stories, how she once sewed her sleeping nanny’s nightgown to the bedsheets as a joke and how she felt the day she moved across the ocean to her new home. 

I even loved it when she called me on my bullshit, and insisted I own up to my mistakes.

If she is guilty of anything in this life, it’s that she cares too much and gives everything she has without asking for a whole lot in return.

It’s not uncommon to catch her in her office at odd hours, and I made a habit of knocking on her door or dialing her extension from the nearest callbox whenever I saw her office light burning far too late in the evening. I learned that first summer I spent on campus that popsicles are one of the more effective ways to lure her out for a short break and a breath of fresh air. Somehow she can’t seem to ignore the pleas of a persistent college student standing outside her window hollering at her to “Hurry please and get out here before these things melt!”

Dr. Nakhai made education her life and invested the last 31 years at Concordia because she loves learning and she loves students (even the troublemakers like me). She knows that knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we can give, both to ourselves and to others. And even if she always seems to set the bar so high that you’ll be running and jumping and stretching yourself farther than you ever dreamed you could to reach it, you can be sure she’ll be standing there in the front row cheering the loudest when you finally catch hold and pull yourself up.

She’s made of silk and fire and diamonds and steel. And she’s got the sort of quiet strength and unyielding tenacity that can move mountains, if she truly believes they’re worth moving.

I’m a better scholar because she is my teacher, and I’m a better person because she is my friend. I wouldn’t be where I am—I wouldn’t be here at all—without her.

And wherever this new adventure leads, I have no doubts that it will be absolutely fabulous.

Space

Cadence’s class recently began studying the sky. She comes home each day talking about the stars and the planets fascinated, like her Daddy and me, by the vastness of all the space stretching out from our little ol’ planet Earth. Stevie downloaded the Star Walk 2 app, which helps Cadence get an up close and personal look at every star and planet floating around out there. We’ve taken to looking at it nightly. We read interesting little facts about the planets and study maps of the different constellations. Cadence has been diligent about coloring in her “moon tickets” as she tracks the waxing and waning pattern of the moon each night before she goes to bed.

Funny how a 5-year-old can ignite your interest in space again, just when you’ve gotten to the point where you’re too busy with all of your adult responsibilities to really even notice it anymore.

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Project Life 365 – Day 64 – Private

Now that Cadence and I are back from Poppa Duane’s 80th birthday in Denver where we partied, learned to play Farkle, got snowed in, and picked up a icky stomach bug (well, Cadence did, I just suffered sleep-deprivation as a result of her vomiting), it’s time to catch up on my Project Life 365. So here begins the outtakes from the past week and a half of chaos…

When Steven gets in study mode, all he needs is some tunes, a Cadbury Egg, and a little privacy…

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Project Life 365 – Day 15 – Confusing

So, my hubby is studying for the GMAT. God bless him. Thirteen years after graduating college, he has decided that it’s time to go back and earn another degree. The only problem is, it’s been thirteen years since he’s taken a standardized test. So, he did the smart thing and bought a couple of study guides to help refresh his memory.

For the past few weeks, he’s been working his way through the rules of grammar and dozens of sentence correction practice tests. If you didn’t know what he was doing, you might think he’d developed a mild case of Tourette’s. Poor guy. With all the ridiculous rules that make up the English language, he’d have an easier time just giving up on the grammar and learning Chinese.

So, this week, he thought he’d give himself, and his English-overloaded brain a little break and review one of his favorite subjects–math.

Yeah, you heard me right. I said math. Specifically Algebra and Geometry.

I guess it’s really true that opposites attract. Here’s my hubby who would rather stick a sharpened pencil in his eye than have to name the parts of a sentence or identify an idiom, and then there’s me…the math moron. Seriously, folks, opening a book and seeing this immediately sparks a migraine…

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And being told I have to solve it can make me downright homicidal.

Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly true, but I’d rather do anything, ANYTHING than have to sit down and try to solve a math problem. Seriously, anything. Name it.

See, I don’t know how to explain it, other than there is nothing in this world more confusing to my brain than an algebra problem. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. I got that. No problem. But you start throwing letters and fractions and decimals and symbols in there and the world starts swimming around in front of my eyes and I feel like maybe the blood vessels in my brain have started bursting. Stare at quadratic equation long enough and I can forget my own name. So, I steer clear, and I’ll leave the math problems to my sweet hubby who thinks solving them is fun.

Yeah, he’s crazy, but I love him anyway. 😉

365 Project – Day 214 – This Just In…Cell Phones Do Cause Cancer

My friend Christin called me out of the blue today, excited to tell me about what she had just seen on a movie marquee while driving through Yonkers. I don’t know what made me happier–having an impromptu chat with a friend I haven’t seen in ages, or the fact that she immediately thought of me and my blog when she saw this…

See, Christin knows me well enough to know that, had I been driving past that very same marquee, I probably would have stopped to take a photo myself, so that I could talk about the ridiculousness in my blog. This is why I love my friends. It’s nice to know they are always looking out for me.

Okay, so let’s get down to it, shall we?

I won’t lie and say that I am a big fan of Harry Potter. I am married to a big fan of Harry Potter though, so I’m not totally immune to its charms. I’ve read exactly 1 1/2 of the books, and that was only because I wanted to use some examples from the text in my master’s thesis. I didn’t hate it, but I am not compelled to drop everything I am doing to sit down and read the rest of the novels either. Sure, they might be on my long list of things to read, but there are just a whole lot more books I need to finish first.

That being said, I will admit that I do appreciate and applaude the fact that J.K. Rowling captured the hearts and minds of millions–childrens and adults alike–with her novels. That is the kind of literary success that I can only dream of. And what I respect most about series is the fact that it got people reading again.

In our age of computers and video games and cell phones and televisions with more shows and channels than you could ever watch in your lifetime, Harry Potter got kids to put down the Playstation controllers and pick up books again. Hell, it even got them excited about books again, so excited that they would beg their parents to stand in line for hours outside bookstores, just so they could get in and buy a copy of the newest release and read it before the glue on the binding even had a chance to completely dry.

That, my friends, is worthy of knighthood, or a Nobel Prize, or perhaps we should just go ahead and petition for Ms. Rowling’s sainthood.

For someone like me–a writer, an avid reader, and a lover of words–the world is a downright dismal place these days. While television and movies and video games and the internet have all contributed to the decline of reading and writing, nothing has been quite as detrimental cell phones and texting.

Don’t get me wrong, I like texting as much as the next person. In fact, I much prefer texting or emailing  to actually talking on the phone. When Steven and I began dating and sending each other hundreds of text messages while we were away from each other working boring college fairs, we finally caved in and just got unlimited texting on our phones. We haven’t looked back since.

But, for all of my texting, I refuse to give in to the text message language. You know, all those abbreviations and acronyms that people use. Things like u intead of you. Pix instead of pictures. OMG.  SMH.

I’m pretty sure that people cringe when they carry on any sort of lengthy texting conversations with me, because this is usually the extent of my abbreviating…

Papa Shawn is actually lucky that I even abbreviated “G-ma” in that particular text, because if I hadn’t, he might have received four separate texts instead of only three.

I don’t think it really bothered me all that much when the texting language was confined to the world of texting, or even something like Twitter, where you only have a limited number of characters that you can enter at a time. Sure. Okay. Abbreviating under those circumstances makes sense. What I can’t handle though, is the way this texting language has begun to infect our everyday language, slowly seeping from our texts and tweets and into our classrooms and our offices, and sometimes (gag me) even into our speech. There have been several people that I had to refrain from slapping when they actually uttered OMG in the middle of a sentence.

Some teachers and administrators have even begun to embrace text language and use it as a teaching tool in their classrooms, arguing that it is necessary to get the kids’ attention and get them excited about learning.

I say bullshit.

There are too many kids today who can barely read, can’t spell a word correctly  to save their lives, and who wouldn’t even know how to correctly identify a prepositional phrase if it jumped off the page and sat in their laps singing showtunes.

Somehow, between the time I graduated from high school and the time I started teaching high school English, the whole system imploded.

Instead of rote memorization and lengthy reading assignments and cutthroat spelling bees and diagramming sentences until you swear your eyes are beginning to bleed, kids today are babied and coddled and passed through the broken systems until they somehow graduate high school without being able to write a coherent 5-page unplagiarized essay.

In short, we’ve gotten lazy.

It’s easier to abbreviate than to spell things out. It’s easier to pass kids through the school systems than to actually teach them and hold them accountable and mold them into productive and responsible members of society. It’s easier to do the minimal amount of work to get by than to actually put your heart and soul and blood and sweat and tears into something that you can really be proud of. And it’s a whole lot easier just to sit back and let it all happen than to actually go out and try to make a change.

It’s hard to change, but it’s not impossible.

And so, I’ll keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. I’ll keep reading. I’ll keep annoying all of my friends and family members by spelling out all the words in my text messages. I’ll keep reading to my daughter. I’ll keep hoarding books like they are gold. And I’ll keep praying that more writers like J.K. Rowling come along, writers that catch our attention and ignite our imaginations and challenge us to keep on reading and wanting more.

Tonight’s 365 Project is dedicated to finding ways to revive our love affair with words, and to stop the annoying text language from taking over the world. Who’s with me?!