Matthew Guerruckey, Editor of Drunk Monkey interviews me for his mag

This will appear soon, possibly in an extended  or shortened  form, on the Patreon page of Drunk Monkeys:

MR: Is “Take Gutman” inspired by a real teacher? If so, what was it about her that stuck with you?

LV: Yes, the story has some parallels to actual events, though I’ve added a lot to it that’s pure fiction. As a college sophomore, I did transfer from a small Catholic women’s college in Baltimore, to Barnard in New York. Pre-Internet, there was no way to find any rating system, to learn who the best teachers were, beyond hearsay. I kept hearing this one professor’s name from student orientation leaders, and even though I had little interest in very early American Literature, I signed up for her course. She was intense, skinny, a little disheveled—and an electric lecturer. I took a second course with her the next term, and it was there that she really captivated me—her lectures were stunning: full of literary theory, biography of the authors, close readings of the texts that I think must have been hers, not something she dug up in scholarly articles by other  professors. Her optional weekly discussion sections, subdivisions of the large (80 + students) lecture in that course, were limited to about 12 students per section, and she led each one. She had a remarkable way of welcoming each student, no matter how shy or inexperienced, into the conversation. And she did die quite suddenly, after that year I took two of her classes.

MR: What made you feel that this was a story that you needed to tell?

LV: I wrote a short account of the real-life professor and her influence on me,  in response to a call a few years ago, sent out by  my college reunion committee, for a Moth project that was planned for reunion. My idea wasn’t accepted, but a booklet of all the submission was circulated after reunion, to class members. The husband of one of my classmates (someone I didn’t know—it was a rather large class, and as a transfer student I probably knew fewer of my classmates  than those who began together as freshmen) sent me a short note saying how much he’d  liked my remembrance of the teacher. I put it all aside, and found it a couple years ago, and thought it might be a good starting point for a work of fiction.

MR: As a teacher yourself, do you ever wonder what sort of impact you’re having on your students?

LV: Every day. I care about  and wonder about how I am affecting each one of them in my courses. And I appreciate it when they tell me, with candor, while they are still in my classes, though it’s also nice to hear back from them years later, when they’ve had some mileage on them and they can view their time in my writing class with a more seasoned perspective.

MR: How would you want your students to remember you in twenty years?

LV: I just saw “Whiplash,” so my first thought is– not like Terence Fletcher!

I hope they would remember me as totally committed to the teaching, wanting very much to guide them in becoming better writers, no matter what their path is after college, and also interested in them as people—where they have come from, what major life questions they are grappling with at college, how their past informs their academic journeys. I hope they would also reflect now and then that my mantra was always,  while not everyone can be the next  Toni Morrison or  F. Scott Fitzgerald, we can all be writers of something we can be proud of—with a lot of thought and even more revision, revision, revision.

 

What Do We Do When We Are Waiting

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I’ve spent the past day in the hospital’s family waiting room or at the bedside of my “loved one,” as the hospital volunteers like to say, doing what one does in these situations—waiting. It begins as soon as I park the car and make my way the fourth floor surgical unit. I wait to be escorted into the surgical unit where my loved one is also waiting—waiting for the nurse to review the medical history, take her blood pressure and check her pulse, waiting to be hooked up to the IV, waiting for the surgeon to see her and explain the procedure, waiting for the anesthesiologist to stop in to go over the conscious sedation protocol, waiting for the nurse to bring the gurney to wheel her into surgery.

We wait for over three hours. Everyone in our entourage is hungry, especially the loved one, who has fasted for 30 hours, with no more than a sip of water to take her morning medication. When she’s finally wheeled down to the operating room, I wander to the coffee stand, grab a 4 PM lunch. I return to the family waiting area, where there is more waiting to be done. Time passes, in a blur of nonstop television news coverage on a flat screen TV, reading a mystery novel on my Kindle, thumbing through a newspaper someone has left on an end table.

At last, the surgeon appears. All has gone well, he says, explaining the details. It will be a couple of hours more until the loved one is ready to be discharged. More waiting. The day slides by in minutes, half hours, hours of waiting, walking, stretching, bathroom visits, sanitizing hands for the twentieth time, more waiting.

At the end of the day it ‘s hard to fall asleep because the waiting has had an odd effect on me: after so much waiting, I am curiously energized. I find it impossible  to read myself to sleep. The digital clock says 12:30. I must be up and ready to leave for home by five. “Sleep fast,” my late, wise mother used to advise in such situations. So I do, tossing, awakening every half hour to find the green light of the clock staring at me: 3:30 4:15, 4:45. This time I wait until an hour before  dawn, when I can slip on my backpack, zip up my down coat, and head home and back to work.

I will be busy then, back in my teaching orbit, and done with the waiting, at least for the time being.

 

Waiting for Snowstorm # 6


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Blankets, yoga strap and two foam blocks rest on the yoga mat that I’ve stretched out before the fireplace. To make room for our impromptu back-stretching sessions, the rug is rolled up, placed tight against the CD cabinet. Sun pours in through the picture window. In the kitchen, containers line the windowsill, catching to drips from the ceiling, the result of ice dams on the roof. The compost container in the kitchen sink is stuffed with used coffee filters and their grounds, old tea bags, and vegetable parings. The freezer holds more compost, because it would be foolhardy to attempt our way through the five-foot high snowdrifts to reach the composter by the back fence.

Our 21-year-old cat hasn’t been outside for two weeks, and shows no signs of missing her nightly ten–minute strolls from kitchen to back deck and garden.

We’re caught up on laundry, and we’ve sorted through all the old bills, statements and old grocery lists that normally clutter our desks. We have gathered all our tax documents for the annual April ritual with the IRS, weeks away.

We’ve called my husband’s nonagenarian parents every day, even though we know they are safe, warm, and well nourished, tucked in at their senior living residence 22 miles away. Our sons email or text from their apartments in town—we’re fine, we’re digging out, we’re making pizza/chili/tacos tonight.

We have listened to Aretha Franklin singing diva favorites, Bill Evans on the piano—a 57-year-old recording that sounds strikingly contemporary, young Cecile McLorin Savant working her vocal magic on jazz standards, the Senegalese Orchestra Baobab. We have watched The Americans, Downton Abbey, and the Bruins on television—as well as twice daily weather reports on the New England News channel, where the reporters seem to have camped out for days in the studio.

Snow. More snow. And then, after a few days, more snow. Biblical snow, says our friend Elizabeth. We have no need of a gym to work our muscles: instead of using hand weights or fancy exercise machines, we shovel snow and hurl it five, six feet high, over the growing snow hill beside the driveway, or we carry it into the garage and tip the white stuff out the garage window onto a hollow made by the high winds.

Our next-door neighbor walks down the middle of our newly plowed street, walking Lily, his beagle. Lily sniffs the road and pulls at the leash. I lean against my snow shovel for a moment and say, “We are hardy New Englanders.”

“That’s what we need to keep telling ourselves,” Mark replies, and we both laugh. Lily pulls at the leash again, and off they go down the street, stopping at each house where an intrepid shoveller is clearing a walk or driveway. The wind is strong, dusting newly dug-out cars.

For dinner, we roast a chicken and make popovers. Tearing the golden rolls open, we inhale the aromatic steam, and settle in for another winter evening.

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Upon Finding That The Ceiling at My Office at Work Has Leaked

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The ceiling in my office leaked,

my carpet is a mess.

How long it will remain like this

is anybody’s guess.

 

Some books are trashed, some DVDs

are bathed in flakes of paint;

The scent of mold, and mildew there’s

enough to make one faint.

 

My 9th grade Odyssey is fine,

my con law books as well.

But one tenth of my holdings

are really shot to hell.

 

My car trunk’s packed with cartons

of stuff I want to keep.

I’ll have a Buddhist outlook,

and try hard not to weep.

On City Snow Days Gone By– Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, 2/8/15

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I grew up in the 1960’s, in a housing development that backed onto a small woods. Until our woods was razed and supplanted by apartment buildings, we used the “forest” to build forts and act out scenes from televisions shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We wore coonskin caps, carried toy rifles and used paper percussion caps to simulate gunfire. In summer, we played baseball in our backyards. Sometimes a fly ball would vault into the woods and get lost. Or a loose foul tip broke a basement window behind the makeshift home plate. There were rivalries: the boys against the girls, the bigger kids against the younger ones. But snow was the great equalizer.

More than two inches meant an official Snow Emergency in Baltimore. All cars were ordered off the major thoroughfares, and sometimes even the smaller residential streets like ours in Northeast Baltimore near the county line. Snow tires weren’t unheard of, but more often, people drove to the local gas station and had chains installed on their tires. Riding in a car with chains was a noisy enterprise at best, and sometimes one of the links would come loose and rap at the wheel cover—we called them hubcaps. Soon the ride sounded like a morning in a noisy Lowell textile mill— crash, clatter, crash, clink, bang….

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Click here to read the rest of this story  online in the February 8, 2105 Baltimore Sun.