Category Archives: Fun Stuff

My Kind of Holiday Decor… the Charlie Brown Incarceration Tree

If you’re a holiday cynic and enjoy crafting, you’ll love this post from The Art of Doing Stuff…  Karen is a felted riddle, wrapped in a macrame enigma, wrapped in awesome sauce. Not only are her craft posts interesting and helpful but she’s super funny too. I heart her and her cool blog… 





Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff

Gifts for Bibliophiles That Won’t Get Returned

So you have to find a gift for a book nerd but you don’t know what kind of books they might like? Let me clear up some common bookworm misconceptions:

1) Not all bookworms like Shakespeare. Technically he was a playwright, and not all actors like Shakespeare either. Yes he’s a big shot in literary history and required reading for anyone getting an English degree, but that doesn’t mean we’re all a titter about either of those points. So don’t think this is your easy way out, because that copy of “Midsummer’s” will end up on eBay faster than you can say “anon”…

2) We’re not all tech idiots. Now it’s true, most of us are, and many of us are even a bit proud of our neo-Luddite status, but there is a small constituency that is attempting to grasp the world of social media and all of it’s codalicious nuance. Neo-Luddites tend not to worry about such things, as we’re far too preoccupied with Derridean ethics and elbow patches.

3) We like bookish things, not just books themselves. Here comes the gift idea part of this post. Ready? Here it goes…

These are freaking cute! Anyone into vintage stuff, art, or books would love to get one of these journals

For the tech-saavy bookworm… a great little app for reading when you don’t have WIFI or 3g…

Forget bookworm for a second… Any Office Space fan would appreciate this

For the traveling worm… yes I know. I’ve resisted getting one myself (it feels like I’m cheating on my books!) but I do see how this little gadget makes a ton of sense when on the road.

And for the bookworm who has everything (or a serious E.A. Poe fetish) a rare volume is always most appreciated.

If you have a novel gift idea for book lovers please don’t hoard it… do share. 🙂


Filed under Arts and Letters, Fun Stuff

Romantic Sword-Berry Fertility Protector: The Rundown on Mistletoe

So if you ended up at tree lot this weekend, despite my compelling and articulate plea as to why it makes little sense,  I understand. I ended up going with friends, who bought a lovely tree at a charitable lot from an organization I love to support. My partner, Martin,* objects not to tree slaughter or holiday consumption, but rather to the arbitrary price points he’s set in his head that determine whether he’ll partake in a given holiday tradition. Here’s a clip of the dialogue at the aforementioned tree lot:

Him: “$80.00 is too much for a tree. We’re going to Home Depot.”

Me: “Why get a tree at all? We’re traveling, and it’ll only be up for a month. Let’s just appreciate other people’s trees.”

Him: “No. I like the pine smell. We’re getting a tree for twenty bucks.”

So, after coaxing me with an Arizmendi Bakery breakfast, we went. And just like he plotted, he found a tree, with a stand, for $25.00. And aside from being disproportionately wide in relation to its height, I’ll give it to him: the tree is pretty. I’ve named it “Fat-Prickly Bastard.”I think it’s cute.

Anyway, getting to my point. While at the Delancey lot, our friends also picked up mistletoe, which again, led me to google out its significance. Turns out mistletoe was sort of the duct tape of the pre-Christian world.

The word “Mistletoe” dates back to the 13th century, and is thought to be derived from the Norse word for sword, (“Mistilteinn”) and has long since been a symbol for manhood, fertility and romance. Other sources suggest that the word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, “mistel” (dung) and “tan” (twig), Old English “misteltann” after bird droppings on a branch. But even before that, in the 8th century, the Vikings thought mistletoe could raise the dead (I couldn’t find any results to back this claim…). The Celts used mistletoe for animal fertility but it served other uses too: poison remedy, medicine, hunter’s aid. Folks hung the branches in their houses all year long to protect against lightening and fire, and would replace it every Christmas. The connection between medicine, bird poop, and kissing seems a little blurry, but American author Washington Irving wrote about the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe back in 1820: “The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

This hodgepodge botanical doesn’t have a clear line of provenance, at least according to the twenty minutes of arduous research I did for this post. And though many of mistletoe’s uses have faded into history, it’s interesting how the tradition remained for it to serve as a potentially creepy way to kiss someone you might not otherwise have access.

* Not his real name. He’s not shy, mind you, just paranoid.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff

Trees on Fire: A Brief and Somewhat Dour History of the Christmas Tree

I’m not getting a Christmas tree. Not because I’m secular, or because I’m weary of Judeo- Christian holiday rituals, but because I don’t get it. Why do we drag trees into our homes, spend an inequitable amount of time and money hanging tin and glass bits on them, only to drag them out to the sidewalk a few weeks later, collectively contributing to a miserable, brown, dendrologic graveyard? As a kid I never questioned tree trimming because Christmas trees meant cash and shiny stuff was coming my way, and if sacrificing a Douglas Fur was the collateral damage, so shall it be; I was getting my Lite Bright set, dammit. But now, in this foggy San Francisco dawn, I question the practice. Ever-seeking knowledge, and being horribly lazy, I go to Google for answers.

Turns out we’ve been slaughtering trees for centuries. In 15th century Estonia, a group of unmarried merchants known as the Brotherhood of Blackheads would place large trees in the town square, light them on fire and dance around them, a la Burning Man. Later chronicles depict the Christmas tree as being decorated with fruits and goodies for the local kids to eat during the Christmas season. But the tree-burning dance party was exclusive to the Rhineland until the 18th and 19th centuries, when it caught on in other parts of Europe, the UK, and Canada.

America didn’t catch tree fever until just before the Civil War, when an image of the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was pirated by Godey’s Lady Book* in 1850. Like most cultural traditions, and not to be outdone by the motherland, Americans quickly adopted the ritual through its pervasiveness in early print culture. As seen in Wikipedia: “Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, ‘In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book‘. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.”

Granted, there are a lot of areas surrounding the holiday season that don’t make much sense upon first glance**, but a little reading usually uncovers their historical symbolism. Despite the backstory of the Christmas tree in the twenty minutes of arduous research I performed for this post, I can’t seem to find the actual significance of the tree. Is it a fertility thing? An emblem of statehood? Or does the Western world simply have an especial affinity for the scent of cut pine? And what about the evolution of these symbols? Why does having a scrawny, half-bare tree echo a sentiment of tree sympathy? Is it the American yearning to root for the underdog? If we really felt for the little guy, wouldn’t we just pardon it and leave in in the ground?

Instead of spending fifty bucks on a tree, lighting it, and decorating it for a month, and throwing it out, I’ve decided to take that money and donate it to a local tree charity. It’s hard to argue with what makes sense, despite running the risk of being a seasonal wet blanket. I can live with it.

* A personal favorite antebellum publication…drool. Must find this issue for my collection.

** stay tuned, I’ll be researching all sorts of Christmas woo ha 🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff

Sunday Quote: Checking in with Walt

Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff, Writers on Writing

Eulogy for My Vaio

Vaio was a good laptop. Unpretentious, quick-thinking, always had a get-the-job-done attitude. Back in ‘08 when I first got her she was so patient with me, sitting quietly as I scrolled through her settings and fumbled with her camera configurations. She guided me gently though her setup and made our transition an easy one, with her calm and slightly teasing, “Are you sure you want to delete this program?” She knew I was naive and insecure, so she backed me up, just in case.
Our early years were so productive together. She helped me write my Master’s thesis on Edgar Allan Poe and the scandalous business that was antebellum publishing, even though she didn’t know what antebellum meant. I added it to her dictionary, as I did with so many words, mostly ones I had made up. Vaio was a picky speller, which could be annoying sometimes, with her passive aggressive red underlines. I just clicked and we moved on. We never talked about it, but now I kind of wish we had.
She was pretty too, in those days: her slim, sleek profile always made me proud to have her on my table at the corner cafe or at the library. But as the years wore on, I have to admit, I started to notice thinner models, with their cute little apples and teeny depths you couldn’t even use the word thickness to describe them… but my Vaio, well, she was starting to look a little thick. I know it’s horrible to say, but it’s true. And if one thing Vaio and I always shared, it was honesty. She respected that.

you will not be forgotten

She knew everything about me, holding all of my secrets and compromising photos tucked away in discreet folders, within folders, deep inside her C drive. That time in Mexico City? Ella sabe. The bachelorette party in Vegas, the one where none of us were actually getting married? She never judged. She just popped open her window, asked me firmly, but politely, if I wanted to save the images. She already knew the answer, but wanted to hear me say it. We had an understanding, and I owed her that much.

She traveled with me everywhere: India, Hong Kong, Europe. Quick to adapt, Vaio always found a safe Wifi and could translate in any language without much fuss. She never complained when I accidentally left her at the ski lodge in Innsbruck, or hid her in the closet in Dubai. Sure, she bitched when I installed a German hotspot program in her, then couldn’t get it out when we returned to the States… (but really, who wouldn’t?). She sighed and just learned to live with it. If there’s one thing I can say about her, Vaio always sucked it up. She was tough.

But this year, things really changed. Our communication slowed way down, sometimes to the point where she’d just shut down. I knew she was fighting a virus, but what did that have to do with us? Mac Air was so  thin and fast, I… well, I couldn’t resist. Air and I had been having an emotional affair for weeks, and I sensed Vaio knew, but again–we never discussed it. Then, when the box came, she just started at me, monitor agape, for what felt like an eternity. Then before I could say anything, she just went black. That was it.

she knows I love Chai. all day with the flirting...

I’ll miss you Vaio. Sure, Air is sexy, and fun to have around, but she’s no you. Know that you meant so much to me and I’ll make sure your death was not in vain. You’ll be recycled into your next life, go to a better place, and you can start over again, as I am doing right now.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff

Dragonballz and Runaway Trains: The Engaging Classroom

A classroom irony: when it’s time for students to drill down and complete assignments, they want to chat, but when discussion time hits, they clam up. Often the silence is not for lack of doing the work, but kids, when asked an evocative question, find themselves fearful of getting the answer wrong, so rather than risk looking “stupid” in front of their peers, they say nothing.

In defense of language arts, English teachers do try to mix it up. We dutifully put desks in circles instead of rows to encourage kids to share ideas and insights, not just dispense “the right answer” to the teacher. In literature, there’s really no right answer, no sum of all the parts. My old thinking was that language is an interdisciplinary subject, taking into account history, architecture, politics, human experiences. But really, all subjects are this interdisciplinary. “A train track is 300 miles long. On one end of the track, Train A leaves the station at 4 p.m. On the opposite end of the track, Train B leaves leaves at 6 p.m.. If Train A travels 45 mph and Train B travels 60 mph, when will they meet?” I have absolutely no clue what the answer is, but it seems to me that math, science, finance… all of the subjects we teach, we teach under the guise of allowing kids to engage with each other, but somehow, they still aren’t engaged. So what are we doing wrong?

Every morning in my Book Club class, a group of boys would gather together in the back of the room around a tiny screen before I arrived. Once I began class, everyone would settle in, but I always wondered what they were up to. Finally one morning, I came in a bit early and asked.

“It’s this virtual world game,” one boy explained, “you set up a world and create characters and basically have control over this whole universe of stuff.”

“Yeah,” said another kid “it’s pretty awesome. I play about eight hours a day.”

I then collected their essays. The boys weren’t writing at grade level. They both were“calling it in” on creative assignments, where again, there’s no wrong answer, but the lack of imagination and use of vocabulary was obvious. How could boys—smart boys—have so much imagination as to spend their days creating universes on their computers, but couldn’t muster a fraction of that inspiration onto a piece of paper?

The next day I asked the two boys to write a short essay on why each of their game “worlds” was better than the others’. I also told the boys they could share their work with each other… sort of like writing partners. This was a bit of a competition for the two of them (they got loud), but more importantly, an exercise in writing the persuasive essay. I asked them to use the structures I had provided that week, but instead of writing about our curriculum topics, I wanted to see if they could work on their own terms. They did the assignment together. That night I went home, made some tea, and graded papers for the following morning.

The results were staggering. Sure, some spelling and grammar errors remained, and it was clear where they shared ideas, but the imagination and use of language blew my mind. I could experience these worlds and the dwellers within, the pineapple-rough skin of the dragon, the crunch of the sugar in the bubble gum pie… these kids were brilliant writers. Sitting in my living room I felt my eyes well up, not because I had succeeded with these kids, but because for so long, I really hadn’t.

If we don’t allow students to drive education, to tell us how to engage them in real ways to inspire their imaginations and growth, teachers will continue to pass out exams with foregone results, to a wary classroom, still afraid to speak up.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fun Stuff, The English Department