Sunday, July 31, 2011

A mostly lazy, lollygagging summer

My daughter wanted a mostly camp-free summer and I have granted her that wish—one week of art camp (which she requested) will be her only camp this year. This means that I am the default activities director for what has become our two-person camp.

I can grant her that wish because I work from home as a part-time editor. I know most parents can’t afford this luxury of time and must put their kids in a long string of camps to cover their time at work. But I’ve observed kids getting camp fatigue after a few weeks of it, begging and whining busy, stressed parents to give them some kind of reprieve, and the parents left to cajole or threaten them into going back.

I tell myself that kids need time to lollygag around and find ways to entertain themselves, that over-structured activity time suppresses creativity, and that sometimes it’s best to focus on one thing at a time. But I’m not sure that I’m really good at this—or that a real camp director couldn’t do a better job.

In an effort to help her earn the Junior Girl Scout Sew Simple badge, we spent nearly a full day cutting out and sewing a Butterick “See and Sew” dress pattern—which I soon renamed “Scream and Sew” after ripping out many wrong seams. I’m sure a crafts teacher at a real camp would have shown more patience, would have made it a more fun activity (since she would have hopefully known what she was doing).

And our little camp comes at a price. I have mostly quit writing; any free time has been spent on paid editing work. I find myself sometimes secretly counting the days until summer’s end.

Then I remember how wearying and over-scheduled the school year was last year. And I see E-girl happily writing books and drawing in homemade sketchbooks, without any prompting on my part. She also reads books, makes videos, and hangs out at the pool (and, yes, she plays computer and video games when it's too hot to go outside). Earlier in the summer, before it got so hot, we gardened together in the mornings and managed to re-landscape the side yard.

I’m not sure we’ll do this again. Next year, I’m already eyeing away camps and more structured activities. But this year, we have this temporary luxury of time and, sometimes, it seems like we aren't entirely wasting it.

(Photograph Copyright 2011, Beth Blevins)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The electronic rewriting of history, email by email, page by page

Earlier this summer I visited my hometown of Moravian Falls, N.C., and discovered it has become a point of pilgrimage—some newcomer ministers are proclaiming its falls is a portal to heaven.

The obvious image here is of people eager to slide down the falls to their deaths, but what they are saying is that you can talk to angels if you hang around there.

Yes, the falls where teenagers once swam in the muddy lake it fed, the falls where my great-grandfather ran a grain mill, is now suddenly an angelic chat room. The idea is being promoted via  web sites and YouTube videos as well as some local pulpits.

OK, whatever, maybe this will bring some much-needed tourist dollars to the area. But the same fellow who told me the falls is a heavenly portal also told me that there is a prayer rock in the nearby Brushy Mountains where the Moravians who founded the town prayed 24-hours-a-day for 100 years.

I'd never heard this before even though some part of my family has lived in the area since at least the late 1800s. I'd always heard that the Moravians were there only a few years before giving up and moving to what is now Winston-Salem. So, when I got home, I googled "Moravians and prayer rock" and found new web pages mentioning this as fact—a history quickly being rewritten. Only when I went into Google Books and looked at pages in an actual history book (the only one I could access online) did I see references to the Moravians' short stay in the town.

The book was the authoritative source—well researched, edited, verified. But I had to dig to find it and if I wanted more on the topic, I would have had to make a trip to a North Carolina history collection. When it comes to research these days, how many people would make the trip, or any kind of effort to consult a book? Most would just go to Wikipedia, or use whatever first pops up in a Google search.

There is a danger that whatever is most accessible will become the truth, repeated and repeated until it becomes a fact, or even part of the historic record. Crazy email rumors can be checked on (although, obviously, a lot of people don't bother to verify them, given the multiple layers of email addresses in some of the emails I've received lately). Put something on a web page and it seems even more valid or authoritative, perhaps because it is more static, more "there."

My son told me a while ago that it's a game among quiz bowlers to go into Wikipedia and create false citations, sometimes even false histories, to see if anyone notices. So far, almost no one has.

(The photo above is of a painting, done by my great aunt Maxie Pardue many years ago, of the Moravian falls, where her family lived when she was young. Any appearance of angelic halo or aura is caused by my camera's flash.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where The Wire was

The Onion's AV Club is posting a two-part series on locations in Baltimore used in The Wire. Given my reluctance to visit Baltimore (post-Wire), I'm not sure I'll be making this particular pilgrimage.

If the video doesn't show up above, go to: Baltimore: The Wire locations, part one

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just saying ‘No’

A couple of years ago I read an article about Karen Zacarías, a local playwright and mother of three, who confessed that she was only able to write (and be a good mom) because she had quit being a volunteer. The article struck a chord with me because I was at the start of my tenure as a high school PTSA vice president. Much of my free time was being spent in meetings, running events, and creating web site content—all adding up to more than 300 unpaid hours in 12 months.

[Maybe you’re wondering how it’s possible a school organization could suck up so much time. It's mostly because, in my experience, there are few parents left who will volunteer for high school PTAs. Their cute elementary students have become sullen teenagers, or they're burned out from past volunteering, or they don't feel as connected to a big school. The result was that, in a high school of 2,000 students, and potentially 4,000 parents, there were maybe seven or eight people who ran the PTSA and did most of its committee work.]

It took me a good part of this school year to catch up on all the things I had put aside the year before. I found unanswered correspondence, piles of papers that hadn’t gotten filed, even sheets that hadn’t gotten washed for a year, hidden away in the laundry bin. And I erased more than 1,000 email messages I had written as a PTSA VP.

This year I set out to just say ‘No’ if anyone asked me to help out. And, other than managing to do a few things for E-girl’s GS troop and serving as a room parent and occasional volunteer at her school, I’ve mostly accomplished this. But it wasn't without some degree of guilt. The year before, when I went to PTSA meetings I'd rather have skipped or worked to near-exhaustion, it was because I knew that if I didn't do it, one of the other seven or eight people would have had to shoulder even more work; the naysayer I am now would have pissed us all off.

There’s something callous and selfish about not offering help when it is needed and yet, if I said yes every time someone has asked me to volunteer in recent months, I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel last fall. As it is now, too often I feel like I am feeding the creative person inside me crumbs of time. When 20 minutes is all you feel you can guiltlessly spare in a day (or week), you get a blog post, not an essay or story. Perhaps if I can see my need for self expression as another child that needs to be nurtured, I can ease the guilt a little.

Postscript: In preparation for this, I googled "women writers volunteers" and mostly got articles about female writers serving as mentors to younger writers. But this blog post from Feministe popped up, which I thought was apt: Over-booked moms opt out of volunteering.