Every Day I Write the Book

Attention conservation notice: This is a very long entry about knitting, Doctor Who, the value of science fiction, my professors, my work, and my semester so far. You may wish to skim!

Lord, what a weekend.

Last week I scheduled myself for a knitting class at the fanciest knitting store in town, Yarn Paradise in Biltmore Village. What was I thinking? After spending the whole week cooped up inside writing, learning, and doing homework, by the end of the week the LAST thing I wanted to do on a sunny weekend was sit inside for FIVE HOURS, knitting. I’ve put off raking the leaves in my back yard for months, and just as I felt ready and able to attack them at last, I found myself locked into the marathon knitting class I had signed up for last week.

Raking leaves is not a favorite job here Chez Jen, though I did manage to get the front yard in good shape. The old oak tree dumped the last of its load back in November, and my back yard is still awash in leaves. I mulch them, which is to say I use the rake and the blower to wrangle the leaves into a big pile and then let the mower have its way with them. But it’s still a sweaty, taxing job and I have frankly put it off for months. I love landscaping and working in my yard, but it’s cold out, and leaf removal is a backbreaking job with no reward other than a decent-looking yard.

But as a sunny weekend arrived, I was DYING to get outdoors and sweat — and I had gone and locked myself into a five-hour knitting class. I tried to wiggle out of it, but there was a minimum of students signed up, and it would have been very uncool of me to duck out and force the teacher to teach a class that was not worth her while financially.

Yarn Paradise, what a well-named venue! Two stories of specatacular expensive yarns, including a whole wall of Noro. Noro is a beloved yarn among knitters. It’s a famously beautiful hand-dyed Japanese yarn known for its magnificent colors.  Here’s some very bright Noro — it comes in more neutral colors as well.

noro.jpg

It was going to be my treat to myself to knit with Noro for the first time in this class. I’ve come to a place in my growth as a knitter where I know I deserve good yarn at last. The things I make are pretty things. The sock was a milestone — I still can’t believe that my sock appears to be a sock. It does not look like a banana cozy, or a feed bag for a Clydesdale. It is clearly and obviously a sock. Such it was intended, and such it became. Time to knit with the Cadillac of yarns! I got a gorgeous Noro silk and wool mix, black with stripes of brown, electric blue, and dark reddish pink, like a rainbow muted with brown and black. I like.

At the class, I learned how to knit this:

fetching.jpg

Knitty.com’s pattern for fingerless gloves with simple cables. Don’t fear the cable! It’s surprisingly easy. Just be sure that you have the right tools — a woman I learned with struggled horribly until she got the kind of double-pointed needles she worked best with (metal, not bamboo). There are two kinds of cable needles, and I ended up trading with someone because we each liked the other’s needle-shape better.

My classmates were delightful. All women, one a senior, two middle-aged. All seemingly very liberal, educated wealthy women who lived in chi-chi neighborhoods with golf courses and Tudor mansions. As I left class with one of them, I saw that her car was one I had noticed as I pulled in — a spotless leaf-green VW covered with hippie bumperstickers. Hillary 2008. GOP: Grand Oil Party.

Asheville — where even the rich people vote Democrat.

My Doctor Who obsession continues apace. What a great show! I had to force myself to watch something else this weekend, since I am three shows away from having watched the whole series as it stands to the present and want to make the good times last. There are one or two bad episodes (the embarassing Fear Her comes to mind, with a climax so stupid that it made me feel so bad for the actor playing the Doctor that I couldn’t watch), but when the show is good, it is exciting, funny, endearing, wonderful, meaningful television. The new Doctor is great, and while the writing remains woefully inconsistent, the good shows are worth waiting for.

If you’re in Asheville, you can get Seasons One and Two at Orbit DVD in West Asheville, an excellent local indie video store. You can also watch the whole series online on YouTube, where the Beeb seems to be turning a blind eye to it being there. Just search under the episode name — you should be able to figure it out from there. Episodes are usually broken into five parts, each around 10 minutes long.

Nerds love science fiction. As a breed, few of us can resist it. Science fiction television drives us a little wild, even when the science is bad. It’s not about the quality of the science. Doctor Who as a series celebrates technology, human curiosity, and human potential. Really. Just watch and you will see. And the time travel aspect of the show gives us the ability to engage with history on a more personal level, because the viewer can consider the history as a participant, not as just an observer of the historical record.

In other words, a show about time travel lets you find out what you would think about things if you were really there, because someone from your culture, with your perspectives, is there experiencing things as your proxy. I’m going to parphrase a scene from one of the best of the Season One episodes. In it, the Doctor’s friend and traveling companion Rose befriends Nancy, a young London woman, during the Blitz.

Nancy: Who are you?

Rose: You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

Nancy: The world is falling apart all around us. You might be surprised at what I would believe.

Rose: I’m from the future. Your future. I’m a Londoner, just like you.

Nancy: But you’re not… [Nancy stops abruptly, closes her eyes and seems to shut down emotionally]

Rose: I’m not what?

Nancy: You’re not German.

This was an incredibly moving scene to me, as I realized something that is strangely easy to forget — that unlike me, Nancy had no way of understanding her country’s eventual victory. It’s one thing to know that the English feared the massive technological capability of the Germans, and that London got the shit bombed out of it, that people lived in unrelenting terror for their lives. It’s another thing to learn that they also lived in unrelenting terror for their way of life. People who spoke another language cruised the sky in death ships, hoping to crush England into submission with war technology and take over its culture. The English didn’t know that they’d win. They didn’t and couldn’t know. They lived in fear for losing more than their lives. They must have lived in fear of losing everthing they’d ever known, feared seeing it absorbed into an alien culture that must have seemed barbaric and evil.

Science fiction! Where you get to orbit black holes, visit London during the Blitz, talk to aliens, befriend the Prime Minister, save the world, and watch the antics of a character who sees human beings with an outsider perspective. It’s heady, powerful stuff. It’s one of the things that first helps drive young people into science, one of the things that first sets their minds and hearts afire with curiosity and love of science and technology. I honestly think it’s an important force within the human species.

Speaking of science… School is fun so far. I like all my profs, and all my classes.

This journey into myself and what I am really good at — always, strangely, a bit of a surprise — just won’t fucking quit. I am already confounded by physics. Lord but I hate Newtonian physics, A.K.A. classical mechanics, the way that pool balls behave on a pool table. I pray I’ll enjoy the rest of the class more. My professor is a marvelously kind man with a careworn face of great character. Many of the students don’t like him because he is slow, and I really do think that you need to have taken good ol’ Cal II BEFORE you take this class, not concurrently. He is obviously totally enamoured by physics — he says our textbook “is like Harry Potter’s book, it will be like magic to you, it will tell you everything!” That attitude touches my heart.

I like my poly sci prof, too, the young and friendly Dr. Subramaniam. He is from Malaysia, ethnically Indian, and had the balls to reject becoming an engineer, lawyer, doctor or accountant (the Big Four for young Indian men from good families) to follow his heart and study world politics. Now he’s an academic with a decent wage, and his father still isn’t over it, but Dr. S. seems like a happy man.

My first grade of the semester was on a paper for my management class, Leading Fearless Change, a required class as part of my college’s weird liberal arts structure. I have SO lucked out with my partner in my main project, a young woman named Mallory who is a great writer, very self-motivated, and mature beyond her years. I sit next to a spotty and disheveled young man who goes “Tss!” and all but rolls his eyes every time homework and reading are mentioned, and I feel sorry for whoever gets stuck working with this loser. My first paper, co-written with Mallory, came back from our prof as “excellent,” with a note to feel free to share it with others as an example. She didn’t mark a single change. Dang! I don’t know that I’ve ever turned in a perfect rough draft before. Close, but never quite perfect. I am proud of me and Mallory. Our “fearless change” task is to create a listserv for commuter students to use to share information, and to get a few hundred students to use it.

In the client department, work just keeps flowing in. The hard work I did last summer towards building my client base is starting to pay off, and I find myself turning away work. There REALLY is a lot less stress when a freelancer has multiple revenue streams. Which is an obvious advantage, but no easy trick for a working student. It’s usually all I can do to do good work for my existing clients, much less deal with the non-paying work of finding new ones. But a summer of emailing area web designers about me and my services was the right decision. I am getting a local reputation, and picking up more Asheville clients. When I first moved here it seemed no one could afford to pay me a living wage — a person with real writing skills honed over many years of experience does not work for $10/hour unless she is doing you a favor — but I see now that I just didn’t go deep enough. There are other people in town just like me, who can command a good rate for their services — and can pay a good rate when they need a writer’s help.

And let’s see… I love my chorus class! Dr. Galloway is a great director who makes the choral organism behave and make beautiful sounds. Think of a chorus as a single instrument made of many voices that sing as one. It takes real skill to make people do more than just sing their parts in tune. A chorus should be so much more than that. There is volume, and feeling, and the many qualities of the expressive human voice — breathiness, ballsy gospel brassiness, softness, sweetness, staccato… She seems to know how to call forth these many qualities to make the music rich, complex, and compelling. I think it’s going to be a good choral season. I even like the music we’re singing. There is a very obvious difference in the sound of a good chorus and a mediocre one — one makes a complex, varied, intentional and fascinating sound, and the other sings everything blandly on key. They’re nothing alike. I think I’m in a good one.

And that is my week and my life and my memories. I am now off to get my day started, soon to head to Lala’s for a marathon game of ping-pong. This has been my kind of weekend, utterly exhausting and, as Rowan said, “busy in a non-stressful kind of way.”

6 responses to “Every Day I Write the Book

  1. As a writer and word expert, I think that the most basic lesson of writing is not what people seem to think it is — use big words, lots of words, and perfect grammar

    Very well said… Except I think this is true not only for writing but for all communication. I believe the real challenge is to cut it down to the value adding stuff…

    Regarding your lucky group selection; I find the selection of group members very important for studies, but also very difficult. My uni (UNSW) is crazy about group work so we have group reports in all topics – which I think is a fine idea, in principle.

    My Danish group work experiences are quite good, with some excellent project results and development of invaluable skills. In fact I am still in contact with the persons I worked with on some major uni projects and we still help each other with notes, e.t.c. – IMO group work can be extremely motivating and also fun.

    However, here at the University of New South Wales it is completely different. It seems the majority of students, whether they are from Australia, Asia (70 – 80 per cent of the MA.COM students are Asian, my estimate), or Italy, have the same attitude to group projects: The way to go is to divide a project into equal parts and go home and write each our own part, then meet later to put it all together and finish the details…

    This is IMO the worst way to write a project, and equals primary school group work. This way the project can never be truly coherent, and chances are group members are writing their parts on varying assumptions. Additionally, there is a lack of group synergy: when everyone has the same functions on their respective parts, there is no “trade”, no exploitation of the group members’ comparative advantages. The terrible speller will spell, the lazy researcher will research, the hopelessly non-technical person will interpret technical resources, and so on.

    This group work style can be very frustrating. Like working blindfolded – without “feel” for the rest of the project, perhaps even on contradicting assumptions, and not being able to focus on one’s core capabilities.

    I think that my university, since it emphasises the importance of group work so much, should also allocate resources to learn students some general group work techniques and social values related to group work – and to improve the group selection process. Perhaps establish a serious workshop on this topic, mandatory to all students.

    I have considered to write a letter on this issue to the programme coordinator. However, I do not feel perfectly comfortable with it. I do not like to complain…

    I hope it is OK with this long discussion comment … Felt inspired when I read you post.

    Regards, and have good fun,

    Anne.

  2. > Very well said… Except I think this is true not only
    > for writing but for all communication. I believe the
    > real challenge is to cut it down to the value adding
    > stuff…

    I’d call useless verbosity the #1 mistake of new writers. There’s this strange human need to sound “impressive” by using large words and as many words as possible. Which sounds so stupid that you’d think that people wouldn’t do it, but it is exactly what the beginning writer does.

    > However, here at the University of New South Wales
    > it
    > is completely different. It seems the majority of
    > students, whether they are from Australia, Asia (70
    > –
    > 80 per cent of the MA.COM students are Asian, my
    > estimate), or Italy, have the same attitude to group
    > projects: The way to go is to divide a project into
    > equal parts and go home and write each our own part,
    > then meet later to put it all together and finish
    > the
    > details…

    Oh, how annoying! I had a learning experience with JUST this issue once. I was in training with the big corporation that I once worked for, AT&T. And we had to do a group sales presentation to an imaginary powerful client. And my group kind of got annoyed with each other and just split up and did our own thing, and then made a decent if disconnected presentation. The group AFTER us had had a good rapport together and worked as a team from the start, and they were WORLDS better than any other team.

    They had worked collaboratively, shared ideas, helped each other, worked together DURING their presentation, supported each other. What a big lesson! HOW you make people understand this and work this way, especially when working interculturally, I don’t know. I just know that it’s the right way to do things when you must work together.

    > there is no “trade”, no
    > exploitation
    > of the group members’ comparative advantages. The
    > terrible speller will spell, the lazy researcher
    > will
    > research, the hopelessly non-technical person will
    > interpret technical resources, and so on.

    Yep. Well said. IMO the best work is collaborative work. As a writer, I try to get my clients to see that, to see that my requests for their help and input are not a sign of weakness but of wisdom.

    > I think that my university, since it emphasises the
    > importance of group work so much, should also
    > allocate
    > resources to learn students some general group work
    > techniques and social values related to group work –
    > and to improve the group selection process. Perhaps
    > establish a serious workshop on this topic,
    > mandatory
    > to all students.

    What a good idea!

    > I have considered to write a letter on this issue to
    > the programme coordinator. However, I do not feel
    > perfectly comfortable with it. I do not like to
    > complain…

    You’re not complaining by suggesting education of the sort that you describe. You are bravely making a much-needed change that will benefit countless others.

    > I hope it is OK with this long discussion comment …

    ALWAYS!

    Jennifer

  3. Jennifer,

    Take a look at your life! Way to go … for what it’s worth, I’m so proud of you. You are awesome.

    ccr

  4. HOW you make people understand this and work this way, especially when working interculturally, I don’t know.

    I am really happy to hear that this is not the norm, but the exception, and that I am not alone on the planet thinking group work should be collaborative

    Thank you for your answer. Very enjoyable reading.

    Anne

  5. Pingback: Malaysia Today and Beyond » Blog Archive » Every Day I Write the Book

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