Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pip's Expectations.

A place to nap, some mice, a bowl of water, and love. He's quite taken with my neighbors, as they are with him, so here's hoping he chooses us. Muses always have the choice to depart, you know.

He's settled in beautifully. Thank you, everyone, for asking. I'd love to have time for a blog post today, but my August 3 deadline is barreling down on me and it's all I can do to write fast enough for that project. News on how it's going will come soon, I promise.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

A couple of years ago, I was lost. I had written one book that my long-suffering former agent had shopped around to everyone who might be interested. Alas, it did not sell. But in the tradition of green writers and first books, all those publishers were right. That book did not deserve to be sold. It sucked. It had some really nice chapters, and some really wonderful passages, but overall, it was, well, a first book. But bless her heart, my agent had faith in my voice and no writer could hope for more than that.

Once I abandoned hope of publication for that book and pimped out its component parts to every magazine willing to fork over a few bucks, I did not know what to write about next. What would I say now that the schtick I had developed over two years was no longer relevant to me? I liked the narrator of Education of a Flatlander. She was funny. She was me, only more so. She is the voice I am supposed to be writing, but every time I tried to write something I felt might be marketable, I wrote in this weird, forced voice that just wasn't me.

The first piece I wrote in a voice that worked was an article for the Valley News on my life as a middle school teacher. It flowed and it worked, and I loved that piece. I wished I could write like that every day.

But when Tim suggested the obvious, that I write about teaching, I was skeptical. Who the hell wants to read about my teaching life? My life as a chainsaw-toting, mistake-making, homesteading wannabe seemed like something people might want to read about - something I certainly like to read about. But teaching? Huh.

Then I looked at my bookshelves. They are filled with memoirs about real experiences. Memoirs that are true, memoirs that tell a story, memoirs that have a real voice, and it turns out I don't care that much about the context. Farming, hiking, adoption, travel, goat herding, teaching, cheesemaking. I love all of it, as long as the person writing loves their story and can write in a true voice. E.B. White said it well, in a letter to his brother: "I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace." Whether it's the death of a pig or the birth of a new career, it's best to stick with a voice that works. Tim tends to be right about a lot (don't tell him I said so), so I reserved final judgment until I'd had time to think about it.

One of my favorite chapters from Flatlander was called "Tarry, Good Beatrice," about the day I drove up to Robie Farms for milk and cream, and found myself attending the birth of a heifer. Lee Robie let me name the calf, and because I had been re-reading and listening to lectures about about Much Ado About Nothing, I named her Beatrice. I had been torn between farming and teaching, but that day, I realized that I did not actually want to be a farmer, and really craved a return to the classroom. The Robies had taught me a lot about farming, and that day, watching Beatrice come into the world, they taught me that despite my love of the barn and dirt and farm implements, my true love is for language and my students.

And so I returned to the classroom, the place I am meant to be. I started writing about that life, and you know what? Tim was right. As long as my voice is honest, it does not matter if I am writing about my attempt to live the life of a homesteader or about teaching Shakespeare. I keep writing, mining my experiences and playing with ideas in an attempt to see what's there. Just as Tim predicted, those words are starting to come together into something that looks a hell of a lot like a book.

Fast forward three years, to a second phone call with my new agent. I posted a while back about my first phone call with her - all that excitement and anxiety culminated in a discussion that was encouraging, confusing, exciting, and, well, anticlimactic. Over the past couple of months and a new book proposal, she and I have had a chance to get to know each other. I think we might just be a good match. Actually, thanks to Friday's phone call, I know we will. The polite questions and restrained enthusiasm of our first phone call gave way to jokes, encouragement, brainstorming, and light swearing. I knew from talking to her former authors that she is hot shit, that she really knows her stuff, both as an editor and agent, but now I really get it. The reality writers read about over and over again in every blog and book on publishing (but would like to think doesn't apply to their book, to their writing) is that a book has to sell. It has to fit into a category, fulfill a need, be definable according to the other books on the market. I can write my ass off and churn out some of the best writing of my life, but if she can't sell it, it's not going to be a book in the tangible book-and-covers sense. It's a hobby. Which is fine; writing will always be a joy to me, but I want to be a writer. A professional writer. The sort of writer who makes some money from the act of arranging words on paper. A writer that eventually gets to hold her very own words in her hands in the form of pages and a cover.

I have not sold this book yet, but I do have the confidence of this agent who knows what it takes to publish a book. She has faith in my voice, but now she needs proof that my book is something she can sell. And so I have a deadline: three chapters in three weeks.

So it seems appropriate that I celebrated the birth of a new book and a new chapter in my life with another visit to Robie Farms. 

Beatrice the heifer birthed her very own calf this season, and I was eager to see it. New calves have incredibly soft coats, velvety and clean, like infants' peach-fuzz hair. They smell sweet, of milk and shavings. At least until they start laying down in their own poop, and then they just smell like the rest of the barn. Their long, prehensile tongues licked our hands and left trails of slime on our forearms as we moved from stanchion to stanchion. Every couple of feet, when we stopped to visit with a particularly friendly or pretty calf, a friendly, buff-colored cat rolled at our feet, begging for a scratch or two before we walked on. When we moved, he moved, trotting along behind us, mewing and batting lashes at us. When we left the barn, he followed us up the driveway to the car. As we were leaving, I mentioned to Lee Robie that he had quite the barn cat. Most barn cats are aloof. They understand that their job is to keep the mice in check and in return, someone might squirt some warm milk in their direction. This cat, though...he craved attention. Lee laughed. He said they call him the "Cow Kitty" because he follows behind the cows and herds them when they move from the pasture to the barn for milking. Cow Kitty needs a family, Lee said, and he instructed me to take him home. 

I don't need another cat. Tim's allergic to the cat we already have. He'd kill me. It's preposterous. I really couldn't. 

But I did. 

Cow Kitty, like Beatrice, needed a new name, and after hundreds of submissions (Bob, Percy, Ice Fang, Sugarball, Draco, Hairy...) Benjamin landed on the right one: Pip. 

The first chapter of my new book is about teaching Great Expectations, and its characters occupy my thoughts as I attempt to make this August third deadline. Now Pip - our Pip - occupies my home as well. And that seems just about perfect. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Report Card Composting

I have mentioned in the past that a lot of work goes in to the narrative-rich, error-free report cards my school sends out three times a year. I try to do my part for the trees and hold off on printing the reports until I have proofed the hell out of them on my computer screen, but plenty of teachers still print in order to do their proofreading. As we can't dump those confidential reports in the recycling, we have to shred them, and they fly all over the place in the recycling dumpster, so we have been instructed to put them in bags and then dispose of them in the regular trash dumpster. All that perfectly recyclable paper in a landfill? That just kills me.

I have done my very best to come up with creative and environmentally beneficial uses for the bags and bags of shredded paper our school produces each year. My favorite use for the paper is as bedding for the chicken coop, and the students love the poetic justice of my chickens shitting on their grades, but sadly, my chickens were slaughtered by a marauding weasel last winter. I can't use it in the rabbit tractor, because the rabbits eat the bedding. The thought of all that bleach and ink in their sensitive rabbit tummies freaks me out. I plan to raise a new batch of chicks next year, but until then, I am going to have to get creative and find other ways to keep all that shredded paper out of the school dumpster.

Today, I shredded a huge pile of old reports, confidential student evaluations, secondary school recommendations, and other sensitive papers. This summer, we are re-carpeting the middle school building, and that means the teachers have to clean up and clear out the mountains of "stuff to be filed" that piles up on our desks, floors, bookcases, and file cabinets. By the time I finished shredding, I had emptied the machine five times and had four enormous bags full of tightly packed shredded paper and managed to give myself three paper cuts. I may have also sent one paperclip through the machine, but kudos to Staples - despite the warning on the lid, it actually handled the paperclip quite nicely. I stuffed the four bulging bags into my car and headed home with my loot.

Now, in order to understand the nest part of the story, you must know that I take my gardens fairly seriously. I have tilled up most of the yard around my house, and grow a lot of what we eat, vegetable-wise. It's what I used to blog about, and was the subject of my first (unpublished) book. I have been known to use tractors to till up huge tracts of my front yard in favor of garden space, and I can talk endlessly about the virtues of rabbit versus goat versus cow manure as a garden amendement. I once asked for a dump truck full of cow manure as a birthday present, and once received a wheelbarrow full of it as a Mother's Day gift. I have promised my family that I will preserve yard space in front of the house for bocce and in the back for a soccer pitch, but any other sunny patch of yard is fair game.

That said, I found a perfect use for those bags of shredded paper. I selfishly convinced my younger son that he's grown out of the sandbox so I could re-purpose it for use as a new cold frame system. I lifted the frame off of the sand and moved it close to the house for easy access, even when there's a couple of feet of snow on the ground. I then raided the Lyme Country Store's cardboard and newspaper recycling bins and placed a thick layer of paper over the grass, weighted down with a thin layer of leftover sand. I then took those four bags of paper and dumped them into the frame, like so:

No, that yellow in the middle is not pee, it's a shredded yellow slip. At my school, we have a green (good), yellow (warning), and pink (you are in trouble, buddy) slip system, and one of the slips must have been in my pile of shredding. But it sure does look like the dog took advantage of the nice, white bedding in this shot.

As the wind was picking up, I freaked out and watered the shredded paper in order to keep it from flying all over the back yard. Crisis averted, I rolled the big compost barrel over to the box. I have been aging some rabbit manure and bedding along with the accumulated kitchen scraps from last winter. It was a little smelly, but as I was desperate to weigh that paper down, I went ahead and dumped the entire barrel on top of it. There will be at least five inches of dirt and composted cow manure on top of that, so it will have time to break down if I plant only shallow-rooting veggies in the box. Phew. Rabbit urine is stinky stuff because of all the nitrogen, so don't try this at home unless you are willing to risk burning your plants' roots.

That done, I hauled five garden carts' worth of topsoil and composted cow manure from the lower garden plot and dumped that into the 80" x 80" plot, along with a liberal dose of North Country Organics Pro-Gro 5-3-4. Once the box was marked off in quadrants, I sprinkled my favorite lettuce seeds on one quarter, arugula in another quarter, and then transplanted some ill-placed basil plants and two runty pepper plants. Yeah, yeah, root burn...I know what I said about limiting this to shallow-rooting plants. Whatever.


Before winter, I will surround the frame with bales of straw and install additional boards across the middle of the frame in order to accommodate the dimensions of of the storm windows I use over the cold frames. I grow corn salad, spinach, kale and some lettuces in the frames, and we have greens all winter long, even when it's well below zero. And in September, I must remember to let my students know that their all those comments, grades, and effort scores are serving as fodder for my family's winter greens.