Blog Update

Hey there, folks! As you can probably tell, I’ve made just a few changes to the blog.  Mostly cosmetic.  Just to give you a quick rundown:

I changed the theme to Twenty Eleven, because I was looking for something more streamlined and also more versatile.  I changed the header image.  I still love the other image, which was done by my friend Denny (whose website, Insanesoft, is over there in the Links list), but I decided I wanted something that better reflected me personally and the wide range of topics I tend to ramble about on this blog, so my great great friend, Nathan Wilson, kindly agreed to create this new header image for free (I tried to pay him, but of course he wouldn’t let me).

I’ve slightly updated the “About” page, and added a new page that contains a list (a short one) of the few articles and things I’ve had published so far.  Hopefully that list will continue to grow over the next couple years.  *fingers crossed*

I also streamlined the categories I used, and went through EVERY SINGLE POST to update both the categories and tags.  And I’ve added a category drop down list to the sidebar.

The next thing I need to do is update the blogroll.  I feel bad because there are a number of blogs I follow that have not made it onto the blogroll (I haven’t updated the thing in months and months!), but that’s next on the agenda and hopefully I’ll get to it this weekend.

I hope you like the new look to the blog.  I haven’t made too many changes in terms of content.  I’ll still be rambling about all the things I have been.  However, as you may have noticed over the last couple months, I’m not really holding myself to that 3 posts a week schedule I tried so hard to keep up with last year.  With my schedule, it was simply untenable.  So, if you all don’t mind too much, I’m just going to go with the flow for now.  I will post as often as I can (and I know it’s been a week now, sorry), but I’ll post when I actually have something interesting to share and some energy to share, as well.  I’m not going to force it right now.  Quite frankly, between school work and teaching, working on rewrites for Midnight’s Knife, the blog, and myriad other things I’m involved in, I’ve lost a lot of my energy.  So I’m trying to find a way to make this work for me, in a way that will allow to keep up both my energy and my interest, and hopefully, therefore, keep things interesting for you as well.

Hopefully, I’ll have something new posted in the next few days.  Thanks for sticking around as long as you have, and have a great rest of the week!

Old Town Charm in Brenham, Texas

About two hours north-west of Houston is the small town of Brenham, TX in Washington County.  According to the brochures and signs, Washington County is known as the “birthplace of Texas,” where the Texas government first formed.  There is an astonishing amount of history in the area, as well as an old plantation-turned-museum, and several vineyards, and two lavender farms.

But we (my mother, brother, and I) went to Washington County for one very good reason: ICE CREAM.  For Brenham, TX is the home of Blue Bell Ice Cream, a company that some people will not be familiar with (as it is regional and has not yet reached the coasts or the northern-most states), but if you live in the South or Midwest, you know the wonders of Blue Bell Ice Cream. And Brenham is where it began, and where it is still headquartered.

We’d heard that the Blue Bell creamery gave tours, and so during my mother’s short vacation we decided to make a day-trip of it.  The tour was a lot of fun.  Seeing the inside of a creamery, with the huge tanks of ice cream ingredients, the frozen-over pipes, the actual ice cream being cartooned and stored… It was all pretty cool.  But the best part was, of course, the free sample of ice cream at the end.  I got peaches n’ cream.  DELICIOUS.

Sadly, photography was not allowed inside the creamery (understandably), but here are a few photos from outside the creamery, where they have a beautiful little courtyard, and an ice cream delivery truck, circa 1920s that still runs and is occasionally taken out for a spin for carnivals and parades.

courtyard outside the Blue Bell Ice Cream Creamery

the founders of Blue Bell Ice Cream

the girl and cow that make up the logo on every carton of Blue Bell Ice Cream

my brother and I in front of the 1920s ice cream delivery truck

After we had finished the tour, however, we discovered that Brenham also has an historic main street district, with antique shops, cute cafes and restaurants, a couple bed and breakfasts, the Washington County Courthouse (which also meant lots and LOTS of lawyers offices), and the FIRST paved road in Texas.  So we had to go check out it.  My photography leaves much to be desired, but I still think the photos are better representative than any description would be, and so, and give you:

Brenham, TX!

Washington County Courthouse – I LOVE this building, seems somewhat Art Deco to me (though I’m definitely no expert)

We’ll DEFINITELY be going back. The antique shops alone made the trip well worth the gas.  And there are some more restaurants I want to try out.

‘Til next time, folks! Have a good day!

And Now Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Program

A Letter from Your Host:

Hello Ladies and Gentlemen,

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I saw you last!  I’ve been gone far too long, and for that apologize.  As my previous posts have made clear, this past semester nearly did me in.  I’m rather disappointed with myself, actually.  During the Fall semester I managed to keep mostly on top of my blogging despite my PhD study and teaching, but for some reason I just could not do it this semester.  In my defense, it has been universally agreed among my fellow English grad students at UH that this semester was especially heinous for some reason we can’t identify.  For some reason the workload, the time-crunch, the number of things going wrong, the stress, were all WAY worse than usual.  Bad juju. Gypsy curse.  Karma biting us in the ass.  I have no idea.

Anyway, the semester officially ended for me a week ago.  I wrapped up three papers (I got an A- on one which I am particularly bitter – an A- is grad work is about equivalent with a B-, maybe even a C, in undergrad work, and I know for a fact that the prof simply did not AGREE with my argument).  I graded an enormous stack of freshman papers, and turned in my grades to the department.

The same day I turned in my grades, my mother graduated, receiving an Master of Science degree in Technology Projects Management, with a focus in Future Studies (pictures of which I have been forbidden to put online because my mother is paranoid about the internet, despite – or because of – being a computer programmer/engineer).

That was two Fridays ago.

I have spent the last week wrapping up a last bit of work as part of the editing staff of University of Houston English Department’s literature journal Plaza: Dialogues in Language and Literature.  It’s our second year doing the journal, so we’re still getting the hang of things, but we’re pretty proud of it.  It is free and (as far as I know) you don’t need an account to view it, so please feel free to take a look.  It showcases the work of my fellow graduate students, and is affiliated with the graduate student conference I mentioned early in the semester.

I also spent the last week with my mother, who took a week off her day-job to celebrate graduating and get a little bit of a vacation.  We’ve been up to a lot this past week, and it’s too much to cover in one post so I’m spreading some of the fun out over the next few days to stretch my blogging-muscles and get back into the swing of things.

Besides spending a lot of money at the mall as a belated birthday present to myself (my birthday was May 6th, right in the middle of finals, so I didn’t have much chance to celebrate), there were several highlights: a trip to Brenham, TX where Blue Bell ice-cream is made, my mother’s birthday (which was May 18th), and seeing the Irish alternative rock band Snow Patrol in concert (but more on all of that tomorrow, and probably Wednesday).

I have a lot of plans for this summer that I’ll probably be sharing with you as well.  I intend to start revising Midnight’s Knife, the novel I wrote a first-draft of last summer.  I want to start practicing the piano again (I say this every summer, and I always do for a while before it falls away again).  my mother bought me a fantastic painter’s easel for my birthday and I’m going to start drawing (again) and painting (which will be a bit new, despite a little experience from high school).  I have an ENORMOUS stack of books I want to read (I started Hunger Games – FINALLY – on Friday afternoon, and finished it on Saturday night).  And I’ll be doing a bit of traveling as well.

On top of that, I am planning to sit down and build a new syllabus/curriculum for my freshman writing course, which will incorporate a lot of student-blogging.  I was not at all happy with my performance as a teacher this semester.  I mean, I was admittedly extremely busy with PhD stuff, and I still did okay by my students – I didn’t completely slack off or anything.  But I had much more trouble this semester staying on top of things, and keeping my students engaged.  I firmly believe that what I do is important, but that only remains true if I do a good job, put serious effort energy into it, and I did not do as good a job as I could have this semester.  That’s going to change in the Fall.

I also have some ideas for ways I want to change-up the blog.  And I’ll be frank, that’s not so much for the benefit of you, my readers, as it is for my benefit.  To keep myself moving, to keep myself interested, to find a focus or a rhythm or whatever that will work for me, and will hopefully make it possible for me to keep this up through the Fall semester when things have gone upside-down-wacko again.  I’m fiddling with some ideas/plans, and I’m waiting on one major component before these changes will begin to take shape.  But I’ll keep you in formed about that.

In the meantime, I hope I didn’t lose too many of you during my extended absence, and I hope I can keep you entertained over the summer at the very least.  I’ll see you tomorrow!

Sincerely,

Amanda

Because I Do Not Hope…

I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot lately… T.S. Eliot is one of my all-time favorite poets.  And, while I love The Waste Land, my favorites poems by him are “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Ash Wednesday.”

It’s “Ash Wednesday” that has been on my mind so much recently.  I can’t pinpoint exactly why, though have a few ideas on it that I won’t be sharing here.  In any case, the words are ringing in my ears and vibrating between my ribs.

(EDIT: …and apparently today is World Poetry Day, which I’m embarrassed to admit I did not know.  But I’m also highly amused that I managed to post a poem on World Poetry Day despite the fact that I DIDN’T know it.  So… Happy World Poetry Day!)

“Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot

I

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

IV

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

V

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

VI

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Why I Love the Holiday Season

Happy Holidays, folks!

I love the holiday season.  Let me share with you a few of my reasons why.

It’s no secret, Christmas is a pretty big deal in my family.  Even though my brother and I are in our twenties, and we have assured my mother she doesn’t need to go overboard, she still insists on doing her best to FILL the bottom of the Christmas tree every year.  Christmas Eve dinner with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins is a HUGE affair.  My mother, brother, and I ALWAYS go to a movie on Christmas night, and spend the next day lazying around the house and playing with all our presents.

Also, we have four Christmas trees.  Yes, you read that right, FOUR.

We have the original tree, which mom started the year before I was born.  It has all the traditional ornaments — silly Hallmark ornaments, hand-made ornaments, Disney characters, and Star Trek ornaments, etc.

When I was ten or eleven, my mom decided she wanted a more elegant red-and-gold-themed tree.  So then we had two.

My brother took over managing the original tree, because he still loves buying silly ornaments, like reindeer wearing hunter’s outfits, and dancing fish, etc.  And, when I was thirteen, I started collecting ornaments for my own tree, which is a Victorian-inspired, pink and white tree.

Then, a couple years ago, Target came out with a new series of ornaments in crazy-bright colors like teal, purple, pink, and lime green, that I simply could not resist.  So I started collected ornaments for another tree.  I call it my Dr. Seuss tree.  And it is AWESOME.

My mother has also recently started collecting ornaments for a blue and silver tree, but she didn’t have enough ornaments yet to fill out of a whole tree so I didn’t take any pictures.  But next year we’ll have FIVE trees.  Yeah, we’re a little nuts.

We just love Christmas, what can I say.  We also have a side table filled with Santa Clauses:

And the fireplace mantle is lined in Nutcrackers:

We simply love the beauty of it.  We love the color and the light and nostalgia, and the new, and the elegant, and the fun.  It gives us joy, even when other things are difficult, frustrating, or depressing.  Christmas movies help too — Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, A Year Without Santa, and the Muppets Christmas Carol are some of the best movies ever.  Oh, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which I watch far more often than can possibly be normal) is totally and completely BRILLIANT.

Now, I know there are always complaints about Christmas becoming too commercial.  And I’m not denying that is often true, and it makes me sad.  So many people who only care about what they can get out of it.  Who spend all their time and effort making sure they get what they want, instead of reveling in the joy of giving to others — when the GIVING is seriously the BEST part.  Sometimes, I despair for the fate of this season.

But then I read things, like this short memoir-ish piece by Oindrila Mukherjee (a UH almnus) about the simple joy and beauty of snow: “My First Snowfall.”  Or I read the dozen or so articles about the “layaway angels” who go around to K-Marts and pay-off layaway accounts for needy families: here’s one such article.  Or I just pause in the act of addressing Christmas cards and really THINK about how grateful I am for my three best friends, who have on more than one occasion been the only things between me and total despair, who have on occasion been quite literally the only things keeping me alive.  And these things remind me of what is so special about Christmas.

(For a ton of really fantastic Christmas-y posts and links check out Tiffany A White’s Holiday Mash-Up!)

So I hope I can share a bit of this feeling with all of you.

So go hug your mother or father.  Tell your friends how much you appreciate them. Decorate a tree, or light a candle, or enjoy the weather.  It doesn’t matter what you are: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, and everything in between…  This season (while perhaps initially instigated by religion) is not ONLY about religion.  The holidays are about family and friendship and beauty and joy and hope and compassion and charity, all of this in the face of despair and poverty and the hardships that seem to keep piling up year after year.  Life isn’t easy.  And this season is NOT about pretending otherwise.  It’s about giving each other the only things that make life WORTH it, despite the fact that it’s NOT and NEVER WILL BE easy.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Holidays, Joyful Season, or Happy/Hopeful New Year’s.  There is so much to worry about, to be afraid for, to be angry about… but there is also so much to be grateful, glad, and hopeful for too.  Let’s carry those things with us into the new year.

I love you all!

Let Me Explain…

Let me explain…  No, there is too much. Let me sum up (bonus points to anyone who knows what that’s from):

1)     On Friday, Dec 9th, having completed one 20pg paper, one 10pg paper, one portfolio with various elements, one 20 min presentation, a final French translation project, graded approximately 50 student papers of various lengths, and compiled my final grades, I reached the official end of my first semester as a PhD student.  And survived!

2)     I spent yesterday (Saturday, Dec 10th) with my grandmother, as I had been too busy over the last month and a half to go visit her.

3)     I spent most of today (Sunday, Dec 11th) trying to clean the house, which became excessively messy and cluttered over the semester, so that I can start putting up Christmas decorations.  I will probably be cleaning and/or decorating all this upcoming week especially since we are Christmas-crazy in this house and I have four (count them, FOUR) Christmas trees.

4)     Beginning tomorrow (Monday, Dec 12th) I am participating in a series of blog tours with Novel Publicity. The first is for Terri Giuliano Long’s debut novel, In Leah’s Wake.  I am about halfway through the book myself (having started reading it the MINUTE I wrapped up my grading on Friday afternoon), and should have my own review up in a day or two.  The second is for Scorpio Rising by Monique Domovitch.  And third is for Emlyn Chand’s Ya novel Farsighted.

5)     I am planning some time over the next week or two to revamp a few things on the blog.  I’ll keep you updated on that.

6)     I have a list of 20 books I’m hoping to get through over winter break.  I probably won’t make it through even half of them, but I’m allowed to dream.  Be prepared for plenty of book reviews over the next month or two.

7)     I am also planning to get back to writing over Winter break.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to work on the story I started (and didn’t get far with) for NaNoWriMo 2011, or get back to editing Midnight’s Knife.  We’ll see.

In short, the hiatus is over.  I’ll be around for regular posting times again (MWF), through winter break.  When the Spring semester starts in mid-January I may have to adjust my schedule, but we’ll see what happens when we get there.  I look forward to getting back into the swing of things here, and to hearing from all you lovely folks again.  So please feel free to stop on by when you can.  The next few weeks are going to be fun!

Happy Thanksgiving and a Brief Hiatus

First: Happy Thanksgiving to all those who celebrate!  I hope your day (and week) is joyful and filled with family and good food.

My Thanksgiving is usually pretty small: just me, my mother, and my brother, but we like it that way.  For years and years we never lived close enough to the rest of the family to have the classic huge family get-together.  Now that we do live fairly close to some of our aunts and uncles, we still generally don’t get together for Thanksgiving as there is a usually some tension over which house should host, and how many of them are going to their in-laws places instead, etc.  I love my big family but they are rather… exhausting.  So my mother, brother, and I enjoy a quiet day: getting up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, cooking and eating very good food (we go the traditional route mainly, though my brother became a vegetarian this year so we’ve added stuffed flounder to the menu), watching 1 or 2 of the scheduled football games, and then in the evening going to a movie (I think it’s going to be the new Muppets movie this year).

I always love hearing what kinds of traditions others have.  I am always fascinated by, part-jealous/part-terrified of stories about enormous family get-togethers.  Some of my friends have really epically HUGE family dinners that I can’t begin to imagine — especially since they mainly get along really well with their aunts, uncles, and cousins (not something I can only claim).  So if you have any interesting traditions, or if you like a nice quiet day like me, I’d love to hear about it!

Second: I want to let all my lovely blog followers know that I will be taking a short hiatus for the next 2-3 weeks.  I am at the end of the semester, and between portfolios, presentations, term papers, and grading, but plate is over-flowing.  Add to that the fact that my NaNoWriMo plans got derailed by my work load, and I just can’t keep up right now.  I’m sure this has become obvious by my spotty posting record the last few weeks.  So I’m taking a short break while I wrap up the semester.  I should be done somewhere around Dec 9th-11th, and then I will be back on schedule.

Also, I am participating in a blog book tour in the second half of December, so I will definitely be back in time for that.

I am highly thankful for all of you who read this blog.  It’s been almost a year and half now since I started here, and I’ve learned a lot, met a ton of awesome bloggers, and managed to write more about random things than I ever thought I could.  I will miss writing here, and I will miss of the lovely comments I get from some of you.  I hope to see you all when I return.

In the meantime, have a wonderful end of November and beginning of December.  Be safe, be happy!  Bye!

— Amanda