Follow your bliss.

February 7, 2014

“Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.”
– Richard Bach

I’ve been having a conversation with a former student on Facebook about the difference between following your dreams and following the dreams other people are projecting onto you.

Throughout your life, just about everybody you encounter is going to have an opinion about what you should be doing with your life and what “success” is going to look like for you.

Understand two things:

1. You are never going to please those people.
2. You are not obligated to please those people.

I have had people give me the side-eye because I don’t have a master’s degree. I have had people give me the side-eye because I’m not on the evening news. I have had people give me the side-eye because I’m a [insert current job title] instead of a [insert higher-paying or more prestigious job title].

You know what those people have in common?

THEY DON’T KNOW MY LIFE.

I don’t have a master’s degree because I have no need for a master’s degree. It won’t get me a raise or make me a better reporter. At this point, a stats class and an Adobe Illustrator workshop would be far more useful. When I point that out, I get a mouthful of platitudes about the personal growth that comes from being a lifelong learner. Never mind that since I got my bachelor’s degree in 1997, I have studied dog training, horseback riding, distance running, martial arts, neon sign repair, metaphysics, trig, calculus, acoustic guitar, and the history of U.S. 66, all purely for sh*ts and giggles. Apparently it doesn’t count as “lifelong learning” if it doesn’t have an expiration date.

I’m not on the evening news because I’m a print journalist, not a broadcaster. I’ve never taken a broadcasting class, never applied for a broadcasting job, and never said anything that would imply admiration or, really, even a modicum of respect for that profession. Being disappointed that a newspaper reporter isn’t on the evening news makes about as much sense as being disappointed that Andre Dawson never won a gold medal in figure skating.

I’m not wherever it is someone else wants me to be, doing whatever it is someone else thinks I should be doing, because I am too busy enjoying what I’m doing here and now.

Wherever you go, and whatever you do, someone is always going to be more than happy to project his own hopes, dreams, disappointments, priorities and expectations onto you if you’ll let him.

Don’t.

Emily


Mathematical misconceptions

January 12, 2014

As an old math teacher, I was more than a little concerned by some of the comments I saw on a stats-driven story we ran in the paper today. Because the misconceptions I saw in the comments are fairly common — and because some of my former students read this blog — I thought it might be worthwhile to address a couple of the more egregious examples here, for the benefit of anyone who has slept since freshman algebra.

Misconception 1: If you don’t have data for the full year, any conclusions you draw based on that data are statistically invalid.

Reality: Full-year stats are nice to have, but as long as you’re comparing apples to apples, you can draw meaningful conclusions without them. If I compared an 11-month period in one year to full-year data for another year, my conclusions would be invalid. But if I compare an 11-month period in one year to the same 11-month period for several preceding years, I can make valid comparisons even if I don’t have that twelfth month.

Misconception 2: If numbers look bigger, they are.

Reality: Not necessarily. Remember fractions? Ratios? Decimals? Let’s look at some examples:

1/2 is bigger than 1/3, and 1/3 is bigger than 1/4.

If your odds of something happening are 1 in 14 (which can also be expressed as 1:14 or 1/14), then that thing is more likely to occur than if your odds of it happening are 1 in 18 (1:18 or 1/18).

At least one reader didn’t understand that. He was convinced that even though the number of crimes in a given jurisdiction had gone down from one year to the next, the crime rate – expressed in the article and accompanying chart as a ratio of crimes to population, reduced to lowest terms — had gone up. I assume he drew this conclusion by looking at the second number in each ratio. Since that second number got bigger, he thought that meant the crime rate was going up.

These folks aren’t alone in their confusion. A lot of people don’t understand how stats work — which makes them easy targets for unscrupulous people who do.

You shouldn’t trust stats blindly, because they can be manipulated, and people can make mathematical errors. But you don’t have to be afraid of them, either. Statistical data can be incredibly useful, but it’s hard to use a tool if you don’t know how it works.

Emily


Bullying: Prologue

November 4, 2013

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the effect of bullying on kids. I don’t know whether it’s gotten any worse since I was a kid. I do know its consequences have become more apparent, forcing adults to pay more attention to it and make a better effort to intervene when they see it happening. The issue has come up again on my Facebook timeline because a 15-year-old boy in my dad’s hometown committed suicide last month, citing bullying as the reason.

Beginning when I was 7, and continuing for the better end of a decade, I endured near-constant ridicule by my peers.

I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that I was being bullied. In the ’80s and early ’90s, a bully was someone who shoved you down or beat you up. People who called you names weren’t bullies; they were just a pain in the ass. (As a society, we took a while to figure out that sometimes a pain in the ass is a serious injury.)

Admittedly, my ugly-duckling phase was spectacular by any metric, and asking a bunch of immature brats to overlook it would have been a wholly unrealistic request — but regardless of the relative accuracy of their comments, my peers’ tactless behavior left scars, some of which I’m just discovering 20 or 30 years later.

For instance:

I am desperately uncomfortable in social settings that involve large groups.

I rarely trust people when they compliment my appearance — and if I do believe them, my first instinct is to deflect the praise.

I have an extremely self-deprecating sense of humor.

I don’t dance.

I cuss like a sonofabitch.

I would rather chew off my own leg than let anybody see my tears.

That last bit is why I am not particularly looking forward to the project I’m about to do.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at each of these battle scars — partly to satisfy my own curiosity about the shapes they took, but mostly because I’m sick of hearing about kids closing the book before they get to the good parts, and if the story of how I survived a decade of verbal attacks and grew up to have the world by the tail can keep even one kid from killing himself over somebody else’s bullsh*t, then I need to suck it up and tell that story, even if it means giving up some secrets I’d rather keep.

Stay tuned. We’re finna kill some dragons.

Emily


Remember when?

May 24, 2013

This post is an open letter to the Daniel Webster High School Class of 2013:

Dear Seniors,

I love you with all my heart and wish I could be there to celebrate with you, but life — as you are learning — is a vibrant, glorious parade of unexpected adventures that help us grow into our potential, and like you, I am still growing and learning and moving forward. My adventures have taken me to my mom’s hometown to work for the newspaper there.

I didn’t expect to leave Tulsa quite so soon, and I certainly didn’t expect to find my way back home, but life has a way of sending us where we need to go at that moment, whether we’re expecting it or not. Some of you will end up exactly where you thought you’d be in 10 years. Most of you probably won’t. All of you will change the world, just as you’ve been doing since the day you put those protest slogans on notecards and stapled them to the bulletin board in sophomore English.

As your time at Webster draws to a close and you head out on your own adventures, I’d like to look back with my own set of “remember whens.”

Remember when Alex made that Venn diagram comparing and contrasting Chewbacca and Sasquatch?

Remember when Gabbie talked me into participating in Day of Silence? I didn’t know it was possible to disrupt class without making a single sound, but Keyonna managed to do it.

Remember when we came back from Christmas break to find a mysterious stench in my classroom, and Chasity decided the ghost must have spent the whole break eating Mexican food?

Remember Carmen’s crush on Coach Williams?

Remember when Dionne, Kalynn, and Keyonna translated Hamlet into modern English?

Remember breakfast in the classroom?

Hey, Jasmine — remember Jerome in advisory?

Remember Meeyotch the class fish?

Remember Chris and Ricky’s “that’s what SHE said” jokes? (Why would she say THAT?)

Hey, Anthony — remember when Daryl was “fit’nna rag”?

Remember Fernando’s ironic hat?

Remember the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?

Remember That Guy?

There are not many things I am sure of in this crazy world, but here is a thing I know: No member of the Daniel Webster High School Class of 2013 will grow up to be That Guy. You are some of the smartest, sweetest, funniest, and most passionate people I have ever known. I love you all, and I am ridiculously proud of you.

Love,
Ms. Priddy


Madison

May 3, 2013

Today was glorious — chilly and drizzly, but just right for a trip to Makanda to wander through Dave Dardis’ secret garden. Dave has put in a new gallery next to Rainmaker Studio to display his work, and it’s really nice. A precocious fourth-grader named Madison, who apparently is a frequent flyer on the Boardwalk, decided I needed a guided tour.

You have not lived until you have experienced the Makanda Boardwalk through the eyes of a little girl with a big imagination. What an awesome place for a kid to hang out.

Madison and I had a very artsy, creative conversation that I am pretty sure inspired both of us. She has been studying Greek mythology at school, and she thought one of Dave’s sculptures — a woodcarving of a woman’s face with little brass people scurrying over it — represented Mother Earth and her children. Can you imagine? Fourth grade, and she’s already looking at esoteric sculptures and expounding on their underlying symbolism. As an old scholar bowl coach, the first thing I thought was, “Somebody needs to put this kid on a buzzer.” But when I suggested that she try out for her school’s team in a few years, she said she didn’t think she could do something like that, because she was in special ed.

Do I have to tell you what Mama Bear thought about whoever put that idea in this child’s head?

I assured her that I had known some awesome players who were in special ed, and if she thought something sounded like fun, she should go for it and let the chips fall where they may.

It really bugs me that people act as if a learning disability somehow disqualifies a kid from being gifted. Hell, I’m convinced that half the things we classify as “disabilities” are just gifts we don’t know how to use. We don’t know what to do with them, so we slap a negative label on them and try to train or drug them out of kids because it’s easier than trying to figure out how to harness lightning. And in the process, we end up introducing the false god of “I can’t” to a 10-year-old who spontaneously interprets modern art through the lens of ancient literature and articulates her findings to a receptive stranger.

Sometimes I really hate our educational system.

Emily


Life, the Universe and Everything

March 30, 2013

One of my former students slipped away from us today after a long illness.

Keiyana was a senior this year. During her brief sojourn on Earth, she laughed often, fought bravely, and loved much.

I had the pleasure of being Keiyana’s sophomore English teacher. We read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams that year, and on Towel Day, I awarded bonus points to students who brought a towel to class. Keiyana never needed bonus points, but she still brought a towel, just for the fun of it. She was grinning from ear to ear as she held it up for me to see. I was grinning, too. Keiyana had that effect on people. You just couldn’t be around her without smiling.

Keiyana was, in Hitchhiker parlance, “a frood who really knows where [her] towel is.” I think she got that from her mom, who came to parent-teacher conferences, asked me what I needed for my classroom, and then sent Keiyana to class the next week with about umpteen dozen dry-erase markers. (If you know how expensive those markers are, you realize what an incredibly generous gift this was.)

Even when she was stuck in the hospital, enduring all manner of painful indignities, Keiyana maintained her sense of humor, joking about her “lil bald head” after undergoing chemo and celebrating when she felt well enough to play her favorite video game.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer is asked to calculate “the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.” After seven and a half million years, it announces the answer: 42. The problem, of course, is that no one knows the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything, so the computer’s answer doesn’t make any sense.

I don’t know whether Keiyana has discovered the Ultimate Question yet, but it soothes my broken heart tonight to think of her hitchhiking through some uncharted part of the galaxy, towel in hand and a twinkle in her eye, on a grand quest to find it.

So long, little hitchhiker, and thanks for all the dry-erase markers. Your classmates and I miss you already, but we’ll do our best not to panic as we look up at the stars and think of you cruising through the night on the Heart of Gold.

Love,
Ms. P.


Hippie Writing Coach Vol. 1, Issue 4: TMI

February 4, 2013

Creative writing instructors say it over and over: “Show; don’t tell.”

What they mean is that good writers use words to paint a mental picture of something, as opposed to simply stating facts or opinions. Show-don’t-tell is especially useful in establishing character and setting. Rather than saying, “John was a slob,” show me. Describe his greasy hair, the sweat stains on his dingy white wifebeater, or the tobacco stains on his teeth. Give me some details and trust me to draw my own conclusions.

At the same time, don’t give me too much information. I don’t need a list of everything you know about John; I just need a couple of really specific details that give me some insight into who he is.

The trick is to know the purpose behind every word you write, then choose words that will accomplish that purpose as efficiently as possible.

For instance, let’s say my character is sitting in front of an old motel in a small town in New Mexico, and I want the reader to know the following:

1. The wind blows a lot in New Mexico.
2. It’s cold outside.
3. The town is kind of run-down.
4. The motel is kind of run-down.
5. The character isn’t from New Mexico.
6. The town is pretty rural.

I could write something like this:

Sierra was sitting on an old metal lawn chair with a red back and seat and a white base with alligatored paint and rust spots all over it. The wind was blowing, which happened all the time. It was cold out. She was sitting in front of an old motel with stucco walls, brown trim, a green roof, and peeling paint. The stop sign, ornamental windmill, clotheslines, chair, and the neighbor’s porch swing were all creaking. Coyotes sang, prairie dogs called to each other, and road runners scurried across a field at the edge of town, which seemed very exotic to her, because she was from St. Louis.

That passage contains a lot of detail, but it feels clumsy and kind of boring, because it’s basically just a bunch of lists.

Instead of including everything I know about the setting, what if I just pick a few critical details and weave them together into sentences?

Sierra shivered in the ever-present New Mexico wind. Her chair protested the sudden movement, its faded back groaning against its rust-ravaged frame. The chair seemed to go well with the paint peeling from the motel’s cracked stucco walls and the brittle asphalt shingles on the roof, she thought. A coyote yipped somewhere in the darkness just beyond the property, and Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin. 

See the difference? In both paragraphs, I’ve established basic facts about the setting and the character. But while the first paragraph includes a larger quantity of detail, it ends up using more words to provide less information. The second paragraph gives just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the rest.

Try this: Write a paragraph describing a tired mother trying to get two young children out of the grocery store before the little one throws a temper tantrum. Establish the setting, the characters, and the situation as clearly as possible, using as few words as possible.


Hippie Writing Coach Vol. I, Issue 3: Expletives

January 28, 2013

Today, we are going to talk about how to keep those @#$%!&* expletives out of your writing.

No, not that kind of expletive. Under the right circumstances, the expletives you use during rush hour can add emotion to your writing, provide insight into a character’s personality, or emphasize a point. (Don’t believe me? Watch a @#$%!&* Quentin Tarantino flick.)

For purposes of this blog post, when I say “expletive,” I am referring to syntactic expletives — pronouns that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence but are there for structural reasons.

Examples:

There are many fine swear words in the English language.
During class, it is inappropriate to use those words.
There were fifteen kids in detention after the teacher cracked down on profanity.
Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
It is entirely possible to drop an f-bomb without ending your sentence in a preposition.

Sometimes you just can’t avoid an expletive. For instance, there are only so many ways to say, “It’s raining.” (See what I just did there?) Just don’t get carried away. Like passive voice, expletives often add unnecessary words and can make your writing sound dull and flat. Removing expletives can improve your writing.

Meh: There are many fine swear words in the English language.
Better: The English language contains many fine swear words.

Meh: Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
Better: I will not tolerate insubordination, cheating, or grammatically incorrect profanity in my class.

Notice that removing the expletive not only shortens the sentence, but also makes it more active by giving it a clear subject that is actually doing something.

Use the search feature on your word processor to find instances of “there are,” “there is,” and “it is” in your writing. When you find one of these phrases, try rewriting the sentence to remove the expletive. If the new sentence makes sense and sounds OK, use it. If it sounds awkward or confusing, keep the expletive.

If you need practice, try rewriting the example sentences to remove the expletives.

Emily


Decision

January 27, 2013

Sensory Overload (Interacting with Autism Project) from Miguel Jiron on Vimeo.

I worked with several kids with Asperger syndrome or other autism spectrum disorders during the course of my four years at Webster.

I adored those kids.

They don’t know it, but just by being part of my class, they gave Riggy a better mommy. That seems fair, since Scout gave them a better teacher. “The gift goes on,” as Sandi Patty says.

This video made me cry.

I am applying to grad school this week. For reasons.

Emily


Hippie Writing Coach, Vol. 1, Issue 2: Passive Voice

January 21, 2013

If you want to make your writing sound dull and hackneyed, using passive voice is probably the fastest way to do it.

In grammar, “voice” basically has to do with whether the subject of a sentence is doing something or having something done to it. English verbs can have two voices:

Active voice – The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is doing something.
Passive voice – The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it.

Voice is difficult to define without using a lot of linguistic jargon. Fortunately, the concept is pretty easy to understand once you see a few examples, so let’s dive right in.

Active: Carly Rae Jepsen released a cover of “Both Sides Now.”
Passive: A cover of “Both Sides Now” was released by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Active: Canada rejected the U.N.’s demand for an apology.
Passive: The U.N.’s demand for an apology was rejected by Canada.

Active: The president sent troops into British Columbia.
Passive: Troops were sent into British Columbia.

When I taught sophomore English, I always told my kids that passive voice is what you use when you’re trying to get yourself out of trouble, and active voice is what you use when you’re trying to get somebody else in trouble.

Passive: Mom, the window got broken.
Active: Mom, Ryne hit a baseball through the window again.

See the difference? Politicians use passive voice a lot to deflect blame for crappy decisions. Kids use it to deflect blame for mistakes. Grad students use it to sound smarter than they really are. It’s a weaselly way of writing. At best, it makes you sound prissy; at worst, it confuses your reader.

Try rewriting these sentences in active voice:

1. Plastic lightsabers were purchased for the boys by their Aunt Emily.
2. Marjorie’s cell phone was hacked by some pervert.
3. I was hit by a foul ball while ogling the third-base coach’s backside.
4. The body was discovered by a newspaper carrier early Tuesday morning.
5. My patience was tested by his constant use of passive voice.

Incidentally, one of the best riffs I’ve ever read on passive voice was from a book called How to Write a Romance and Get It Published. I know we’ve already established that steamy love scenes are more trouble than they’re worth, but if you can score a copy of the book somewhere, read the chapter called “Beware of the Pillaging Mouth.” The author, Kathryn Falk, offers a brilliant (and hilarious) explanation of why passive voice is the enemy of good writing.

Emily


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