Sunday, March 29, 2009


Ever have the feeling you're being looked at? No...more than that. PERUSED ? So I started wondering why she was looking at me that way. Then I realized. She's reading my mind. She knows my innermost thoughts. And she's saying "Aren't you supposed to be writing something ? And I reply "I AM writing something. Blogs are 'something'. Go to sleep."

But I know that she knows. Because I AM supposed to be writing something, and it's not a blogpost.

Yesterday was the Regional State History Day competition, and we went as Judges (we've done that for a few years; it's quite the experience). This year I judged "Documentaries". These are kids from all over the state who've probably succeeded in some school event and now they've come to The Capital City. The ones who succceed here advance to the State competition (it's in May, also here). And the winners THAT day go to the National Competition, in Washington DC. I can tell you that Wisconsin sends on some awfully fine work - I've never followed up to see how we do in the Nationals but it's hard for me to imagine work better than what I see.


OK - "Documentaries" means they've put together a film - they're allowed ten minutes. It has to be along the lines of something seen on PBS, more or less. The theme this year was: The Individual in History: Actions and Legacies. That's it - it could be ANY individual, not restricted to Wisconsin or even America, actually. The mind reels. Charlemagne! Queen Elizabeth I! Steve Irwin! Even movie stars could be the topic, if one could prove up some legacies. Might I add, the topics are ALWAYS some form of this, and the thoughtful or creative student would have almost no limits.

Last year I judged "Exhbits" and there was one brilliant one done by a girl perhaps 12 years old on Polio. She had the facts, she had illustrations, conclusions - it was really splendid. In her interview I asked how she happened to decide on her topic. She said, "I came upon the word 'polio' in something I was reading, and I didn't have any idea what it was." Think about THAT! I instantly recalled those television spots showing Sister Kenny exercising the atrophied limbs of little children who were crying in pain........and this child did not know what the word meant. See why I like to go judge?

OK, this year I had "Senior Individual Documentaries". That means that each was the work of a kid between 9th and 12th grade, working alone. (There are strict guidelines about how much - and from whom - they can have assistance.)

It was not lost on me that this little kids were producing technology that I'd never heard of in school. I was prepared to be knocked off my pins. I always am. This year - I wasn't.

(I think blogs need pictures, even if they don't relate. Sue me.)

Oh, the technology wasn't bad for the most part. They were films, they had fades and music (some of 'em) and illustrations. Only one had text - the rest were slide shows, pretty much. I put myself in a frame of mind to envision watching a documentary on television: I should learn something about the person, I should see how their actions or experiences had an impact on their community, or state, or country. Before we watch the films we (oh - judging is done by teams of three people) look over the students' process paper and bibliography. This should indicate an idea of how they decided on their topic, something about their methods of production - and then the list of primary and secondary sources.

In this day and age we have to be watchful -- 34 citations from Wickepedia? Nawww. And I noticed very FEW citations from actual books, perhaps only one or two from newspapers. The rest were ALL from the Internet, not necessarily a failing, but come ON, boys and girls. There was a lot of material out there before there WAS an Internet and the information is still valid. It almost seemed like the kids think that, unless it IS on the 'net, it's dubious. Oy.

Two of the expected entries didn't show, leaving us with five. I consider an entry (in any category) a success if it either piques my curiosity, makes me want to look up some of their sources for more information or leads me to want more information.

One of the programs was on Steenbock, a university scientist responsible for the establishment of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). That was the best of the lot.

There was one on Amelia Earhart, which had SO MUCH potential! It wasn't bad but it didn't even touch on what it might have. There was one on Steve Jobs (of MAC fame, infamy and fame again). It was fair. Zona Gale was represented too - and again, it could've been tighter and more informative; it was mostly pictures of the subject.

And there was one that presented a problem. Now - allow me to say this: what I AM going to be writing today is the Comments. We judges get sheets on which to tick off points for various things, (Analysis and Interpretation, Historical Context, Wide Research) and then we must write a sheet of comments - things that we liked, ways in which it might have been a little more polished, &c. The thing is, these kids work hard, and long - for months - and then come to Madison .... sometimes from tiny schools upstate, and it's a HUGE DEAL for them. If their work isn't impressive, the labor behind it is, just the same. And one of the main things is that we want them to have enjoyed the entire process, and perhaps develop an interest, an enthusiasm, for history along the way. I'm good at writing positive, inspiring, appreciative comments, even for the ones that are pretty lame.

But one in my group - is going to be more of a challenge than I've faced before. It was a documentary about a girl named Sylvia Likens. Here's a link to the entry in Wikipedia: about her and it pretty much tells the same story shown in the documentary. The recorded narration was just that...didn't include any conclusions. The process paper concludes that this girl's legacy was that she stayed strong to the end and became "one of the most iconic victims of abuse in the United States." (I haven't gone through her citations yet, but I'm sure to find that phrase.)

Thing is - there was no information in the documentary about the victim's character, and nothing about the solution other than a mention of the penalty given to the main abuser (a jail term). I was waiting for some information about a law passed, or a change in methods of reporting or investigating abuse....nothing. Oh - and the girl died in 1965. There are six pages of bibliography - and every single citation is a website origin of one of the images used. Not one single newspaper article, no reference to a newscast - the only exception is the citation of the film made (fictionalized) that premiered at the 2007 Sundance Festival (to some acclaim)about the incident. Now - we judges, in talking later, had a couple of wonderings: where was the student's TEACHER? They're supposed to provide guidance, assistance and support - did a teacher KNOW she was using this topic? And if so, W T F?? Also, the student said that she'd decided on her topic after watching the film about the incident with her mother. I repeat, W T F??

Now, most of the judges fill out their judging forms at the site in the afternoon and turn them in. My husband and I have gotten dispensation - we bring them home and TYPE them up, turning them in early Monday morning. Our feeling is that we want to put some serious and thoughtful work into the comments, considering the time put into these projects by the youngsters. So that's what I'll be writing today (procrastinating?? who said that?!?!?!).

I'm saving the Sylvia Likens one for last, because I'm going to have to drag out the BIG BAG of words to form sentences of encouragement and gratitude for doing the project at all. I'm going to have a tablet next to me on which I can scribble the things I can't say to her: Is something unhappy in your own home, that led this girl's story to appeal to you? Are you fascinated with this story - beyond the usual delicious interest all kids have in the Grotesque? Have you talked to your mom or a counselor? I won't say any of that and have no reason to even think it. But the whole documentary and the whole process paper and the whole (lame) "bibliography" made me feel really, really sad. Need I add that her film is NOT going on to State competition?

A picture of HOPE, from last summer

Monday, March 23, 2009

Learning Curve

Man would you just LOOK at the dust around here! Boy, this is some kind o' scandal. "Nice bloggin', Dale-Harriet." And this a writing blog? Swell. Dandy. Fine. OK - so what's yer excuse, Dale-Harriet?


WELL? What do you have to say for yourself, Mrs WRITER WOMAN? How're you explaining this, what lame kind of excuse are you going to insult us with, after this length of time?

(silence...but head hanging in shame)

{major sigh} OK, let me try this: I've read that writers procrastinate. In fact, I've heard that the best writers are terrible procrastinators. Do you realize what this means? *I* am in that rarified group called "the best writers"! No, huh? Oh, OK.

Truth is - I don't really know. I still haven't managed to sit down and chew through my NaNoWriMo, start to finish. Furthermore, I've dibbled here and dabbled there, but haven't really written much of anything for EVER so long. I couldn't go to my last Writers' Group meeting -- see, I was sick. (Furthermore? I didn't have one single word of anything that I could take along. That alone made me a little queasy.)

In the old days - we're talking the early 1950s when I was in elementary school (Eugene Field, no less) I used to get this heady feeling the last week of school every spring. Oh, I know, "everyone does".......but mine wasn't a "No more tests, no more books, no more Teacher's dirty looks" sort of thing. It was a "oh goody, now I can really get some learning done!!" (That's TWO exclamation points' worth.)

Gratuitous Grilled Brats Picture

Now then, what was I saying? Warm weather...meal No, it was something else. OH yes, summer vacation! OK - so what that meant was, as soon as school was out I headed for the library. I spent my happiest summer days reading about whatever it was caught my fancy at that particular time.

One year it was Ancient Greece. I studied books of myths, and read about all the gods. I looked into the festivals and found costume books with illustrations of the Stola and Pallas. I found out what I could about the diet and about the different roles of different genders and classes. I even borrowed a book that taught me the Greek alphabet and a few words of vocabulary. (The only one I remember is "tatto", which meant "tactics".)

I also tried to "live the Greek life" that summer. I refused to wear anything but a white bedsheet, draped in the appropriate way (Mommy wouldn't let me out of the house dressed that way); I didn't want to bathe but rubbed a "fragrant oil" into my body. (I wanted Mommy to buy me some fine white sand to rub my skin with, too. She wouldn't.) I wanted to recline at my meals, drink only grape juice and have honeyed fowl stuffed with dates and almonds. (Mommy wouldn't do any of that either.) Now...I have to say - in retrospect (and suggested by my sister a while back) I was probably a 24k paininth'arse to my poor, traditional, accomplished 1950s housewife Mommy. This was just revealed to me last summer. I feel confident that it's correct. Oh - I think I was nine years old for my Greek summer.

The next year it was Ancient Egypt. I outlined my eyes in "kohl" (ok, so it was Maybelline, shut up). My ancient Greek scented oil served to slick my hair down. (Think on that.) It was the best I could do - this was pre-Internet so I didn't have an ice cube's chance in Hell to find cones of solid perfume to wear on my head.

I tried again for the honeyed fowl stuffed with dates and figs and almonds. Mommy said "NO" again. I wanted coarse whole-wheat bread. I wanted to drink beer mixed with honey. But hey, I agreed to sit at the table! Mommy said "NO!" I read about all the numerous gods and goddesses - and worshipped a select few. I studied hieroglyphics most earnestly. Mommy wouldn't look for "white pleated linen so fine you could see through it" so I wore t-shirts and shorts. It was a great summer -- from my point of view.

NOTE: As I sit here, I have a nagging worry - I hope none of that affected my poor mother's long-time history of severe migraines. She had them before I came along - but I do here apologize to her for being such a trial and I will tell her so, should the opportunity present itself in the Other World

Have I ever mentioned on this blog that I digress? No? Well....I do. FYI. Enjoy another gratuitous picture:

I am LAWVINGK on these zucchinis!

All right, so here's the deal. It's SPRINGTIME again. We're fast approaching what my internal clock tells me is "Out for Summer Vacation" -- and I'm feeling all over INSPIRED again! What all this boils down to was my Writers' Group meeting again. I got up at 6:30 AM and wrote until 9:30 when I had to leave. I had a named character and not much else. ("Endear Louisa Hannah P---".) She was given a journal for her birthday ("today" in the story) and it's the third part of the 18th century, on a farm, probably in Ohio or thereabouts. She has two brothers, a baby sister, a genteel, well-bred mother and an educated father who now farms.

I took it with me to Writers' Group. (Just call me "cheeky as all hell", I deserve it.) They liked it! P and S said I have an "incredible voice" and a "gift with descriptions and evocative scenes". J said I needed only conflict, and JP gave me some suggestions, which the others added to: I suggested that the baby sister might die -- there was a suggestion that she might have died prior to the beginning, perhaps the journal was a gift to help her deal with the death. She might feel guilty about it - or be responsible for it.

And wonderful questions were posed: Why is this educated father farming now? What factors are responsible for the parents, who seem to be "citified" and scholarly, winding up in humble means on a farm anyway? I thought perhaps the mother is pregnant again...and perhaps she could die in childbirth. Endear reads and writes, and her father is educating her -- she dislikes her training from Mother in needlework and "womanly arts".

Bottom line? I now have a better handle on what is meant by conflict; I have some further ideas for this story; I have the "school's out and I'm inspired" feeling; I'm feeling motivated to truly de-crappify my nest this spring -- and I'm inspired to write again. It all feels very, very good indeed.

Now then..........gotta go buy me some brats.