Tag Archives: work

I take back everything I said…

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes


One of the projects that came out of my first year of grad school was participating in the design of the MFA’s print anthology, “Slush,” for which I designed the cover.  I wanted to share the cover artwork with you and give credit to a great artist who donated his work for free. I meant to blog about him back in April, but…

Anyway, Michael Tino is an artist and designer out of San Fransisco and Las Vegas. And below is the artwork he so graciously donated. I strongly suggest googling him or visiting his website.


The magazine itself has work by Leslie Rapperlie, Malik Abdul-Jabbaar, Barry Graham of Dogzplot, Alexis Apfelbaum, Jonathan Deane, Matthew Charles, Daniel Wallace and more.

Res-Q Designs

Res-Q Designs

I’m currently trying to redesign some of the ad boxes on our website. As it stands now, it’s way too “busy.” I thought these softer images, with minimal text might be a little more aesthetically pleasing.

I teach therefore I am (going nuts)

OK so, I am not presently teaching. I am learning to teach. I will teach in the fall. Got the job. Yahoo. But at present, I am poring over pages of printed documents that my supervisor sends me that are quite overwhelming; documents that say things like: Perhaps you could give checks, check-plusses, and check-minuses based on a rubric that you give students. Maybe a certain number of each within the three-part range can equate to a grade that falls under a “prewriting activity” portion (worth 5% or so) of the final grade.

Hey, now. What’s up with all that? That’s getting into math. I’m a Basic Writing II teacher not a professor of Blah, Blah, Blah.

Anyway, I learned three things last night:

  • I’m as hollow as a log
  • I’m catastrophically overwhelmed
  • I’m blind as a bat (Well, that’s an exaggeration. But I did learn that I need reading glasses for bigger print now.)

More importantly, I am losing faith in my self and my ability to learn, process and retain information and ultimately, teach. And a couple more things. One, let’s not forget a general uneasiness to perform in front of students and two, I am beginning to worry about my growing disintegration of vocabulary words.  This leaves me feeling self-conscious, mindless and just plain terrified to get up in front of an audience of judgmental, snickering twentysomethings who don’t have patience for my little “oh, it’s right on the tip of my tongue” crap. I fear I’ll be up there, at the head of the class, and panic will ensue. I will need only to hear myself say: You’re a fraud, Tracy. You’re not qualified to teach anything, let alone this class. And down I’ll go. Into the hall of college adjunct fame for passing out and hitting the floor under the dry-eraser board.

Ok, so maybe that last bit won’t happen at all. Maybe I will stutter and stammer a few times until I build up more confidence and “get it.” Maybe everything will be alright. One thing’s for sure…I will definitely have to calm down about the whole thing before driving everyone nuts, including myself.

Day job

I’m quite pleased on how these turned out. Needed to share.




I decided to go ahead and buy a copy of 6S, Volume 2. It’s a hardcopy version of select six sentences stories, which I’ve been avoiding buying because, quite frankly, I thought it would be cheesy. And yet, when it came in the mail in its blue glossy cover and uncracked spine, I shivered a little to think that I am actually published in a collection of work. Along with an intro by Neil LaBute and a special six by Rick Moody, two of my sixes made it in, The Diner and Love (both reformatted below). One inspired by G, the other by S. It makes me want to buy two more copies and send them off to my old lovers with a little inscription, “See, you inspired me after all.” But really, who cares? I wrote an entire story about S and got it published locally just so that he’d see it and he never even went out and got a copy (they’re free). Whatever. 

And yet, they’re both bound together in this one book- the two men that is, symbolically linked forever. Almost as if I can now say, I am closing the book on those chapters of my life. 

Ok, there’s cheesiness for you.

The Diner

Carmela tasted the red on her lips. When she was nervous or excited she’d bite down, puncturing the skin and cause bleeding. She remembered hearing that the Egyptians used their own blood as make-up to lure potential lovers. But, when he entered the diner where she stood taking orders at the counter, holding a hand that was not hers, she wiped at her wounded lips, took their order, and skirted through the double doors to the kitchen. “It’ll be alright, darling,” George said to her from behind the line, “we’ll spit in their soup.” And as Carmela readied the bowls, she wondered how many drops of love would pass unnoticed into the Fasolada. 



We always do it missionary; you above me, staring down. Me, buried in the tattoos on your right arm. Buried between the pin-up and the Devil with a cigarette, the eight ball at my nose, the dice at my eyes. Silently, you ask me to tuck away my need for something deeper and save it for another time. Yet somewhere in between the vulgar emptiness and tired release, you always say, “I love you.” As if you knew that seeing God were not enough.

As “off the grid” as it gets

A visit to a Burlington County resident’s rustic home exposes what it takes to “live green.” It’s harder than you think.


Shamong, NJ: When you drive up the long, dirt driveway, canopied by scrubby pines and overgrown deciduous trees, there’s an undeniable rustic beauty that unfolds right before your very eyes—even in the dead of winter. And as you get closer to the old log home that sits back from the road on three acres of open space you might be able to dream of the days when early Americans lived off the land, claiming nature as their own.  The grass, at the moment, is tall and brown. The blueberry bushes and Mountain Laurel aren’t trimmed. And the house is shrouded from view by huge, old, gnarly maples whose branches keep it a mystery from the road.

That seems to be where nature leaves off and humanity’s carbon-footprint begins. The stretch of space that wraps around the back of the house has the inherent look of a scrap yard. There’s a Geo Metro parked around the drive. Two old Ford pick-up trucks. Piles of scrap wood. Two-by-fours for burning.  Buckets filled with rainwater. And an enclosed area filled with what looks to be a vintage tractor, scrap metal from old cars and various architectural salvage like old windows, old doors, and a few wrought iron gates.

But what looks like a yard filled with junk and waste, in actuality, is evidence of a green life.

There is no front entrance to the house, so I walk up the L-shape ramp on the back deck to meet the owner. I’m faced with a wall of sliding glass doors and I knock on one that seems to lead to the living room. I don’t have to wait too long before I’m ushered in. John Green (not his real name) shakes my hand. He’s a short man in his late forties, with a full, wiry beard and butt-length dark brown hair that he rolls up in a ponytail and tucks under a baseball cap as we say our hellos. He’s a musician and a restaurant owner, and dressed in what he calls his “usual.” Black workpants that he buys used from Columbus flea market and an off-white waffled thermal undershirt that looks like it needs to sit for a couple days in a bucket of bleach. There’s traces of dirt under his fingernails from working outside all day (it’s his day off), and an earthy smell of cedar, incense and firewood permeate the room.

The inside of the house is much like the outside. Cluttered and dusty. Decorated with antique-ish country kitsch. Tin Coca-Coca signs and pin-up girls from the 50’s. Cast iron skillets hanging from the wall. An extensive collection of oil lamps. The structure, itself, is stunning. Cathedral ceilings with skylights, exposed beams, untreated, unstained hardwood floors, log walls, mohair sofas, an intricately built stone fireplace in the living room. Well-worn orientals throughout. At first glance it looks like a model log home with all the amenities of rustic living. But there’s definitely something unusual about the house. For starters, it’s cold. Maybe 50 degrees, relatively warm compared to the 37F outside, but still cold by most Americans’ standards.

I ask him at what temperature he keeps his thermostat, as I rub my hands together for a little bit of friction. He laughs and tells me it’s not turned on right now. He might turn it on later, in the middle of the night, if it gets below 20, but only to keep the pipes from freezing.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to have the thermostat turned up to seventy-something. We lived in fifteen different houses when I was a kid, and every one of them was big and drafty. My father was the king of excess. Possibly responsible for half the deforestation of America due to his job selling copy machines along with reams of chemically treated copy paper. The most I ever knew about conservation back then was my best friend’s dad. He kept the thermostat at 65 degrees no matter what, even through the dead of winter. I remember visiting their house in January, feeling resolutely uncomfortable in sixty-five degrees. Much like I was feeling here in fifty.

John tells me to look around. So, I do. I notice that the kitchen, a small galley-style room to the right of the living room, looks like it doesn’t get much use. There’s an industrial-sized glass-door refrigerator that’s not turned on. A microwave that isn’t plugged in. And a stove sits, unused, collecting dust. There’s a very small trashcan on the floor, which looks as if it doesn’t get much use either. Stairs lead down to a partially finished basement from the kitchen that, as he tells me, he’s finishing himself. There’s a music room lined with at least twenty different well-worn instruments, electric guitars hang from the walls and an old piano with yellow keys sits in the corner.

The oddness of this house is that parts of it look functioning and lived-in, while other parts look as though they’ve been left for abandoned; untouched, vacant.

As he leads me around, I can’t help but wonder where the main “living” goes on in here. Not that I’ve been to every house in Burlington County, but I’m statistically guessing that 95 percent of all homes, though designed differently, all have a central living space with sofa, television, throw pillows, something that generates the business of relaxing and consuming. Aside from the kitchen, this “living space” is usually the room that eats up the most energy. Due largely to our American overindulgence in comfort, the living room is a point of convergence and excess. When I think of my own not-so-green living room (I also have  a family room), I’m a bit ashamed: I have ten lights that work on dimmers, a wide-screen TV hooked up with an X-box, a Wii and some an old Nintendo game system. My children’s computer is in there, equipped with all the necessary printers and speakers and cable box, and so on. The cell-phone charger is in there as well, and in the summer, there’s an air conditioning window unit usually blowing from noon till dusk—but only on the hottest days.

Think about it. Ninety-nine percent of Americans own at least one television set. And the average American household has 2.24 of them. Despite the fact that television use only eats up roughly 2.9% of a household’s energy expense, there’s 26.7% of energy use that comes from computers, cell phone chargers, stereos and so on. Whether in one room, or scattered throughout the house, these technologies increase our carbon footprint dramatically.


 U.S.Household Use of Electricity, 2001


As we come back upstairs, he takes me back through the bedrooms; two small bedrooms with closets filled with old clothes, and finally the master bedroom, which indeed, looks lived in. Here it is, I think. The room most used. Clothes strewn about. Hundreds of tiny pieces of paper with phone numbers on the dresser. Books by the side of the bed. And yet, as I scan the walls, outlets and floors for energy-sucking appliances there is literally only one radio on the end table, perpetually tuned to NPR, and a heating blanket plugged in and set on low. Nothing else. Aside from a light fixture above us, which is turned off, traces of inefficiency and energy consumption are simply non-existent. 

“Let me explain…” he says, as if he’s read my mind based solely on the expression on my face; a look of longing for an answer to one simple question: how can anybody live like this? When I think about how much stuff I have plugged into my walls—toaster, refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, coffee machine, hair dryer, stove, stereo, wall adapters, chargers, phones, DVDs, game systems, power supplies, computers, TVs, air conditioning units, lamps, —I feel like my own power station compared to John. And I certainly couldn’t live without these things.

Can any of us?

He walks around the open rooms pointing to empty spaces, unused outlets. He has no television, no computer, no cell phone. He showers about three times a week unless he’s been working hard and gets exceptionally dirty. He has no need to store or cook food because he works at his own family-owned restaurant and so none of the kitchen appliances are plugged in. The little food he does keep at home is usually in the form of dried fruits or nuts, stuff that doesn’t require refrigeration. He uses approximately 270 gallons of oil per year. His electric bill is roughly $20 a month. (mine is a $175 a month). Despite his single status, that’s almost unheard of for a homeowner with a 2,000-square-foot property on three-acres of land in southern New Jersey. By comparison, the average electric bill for a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey is $60.

It gets better. He rarely buys new clothes, not because he can’t afford them, but because he prefers the vintage look. So, he mostly shops at the Good Will or men’s consignment shops. When he washes his clothes, he does so when he showers, with mild soaps, hanging them in one of the spare rooms to dry. He never uses bleach or pesticides (these chemicals create what is known as organochlorines, or chlorinated organics. Environmentalists say organochlorines are extremely toxic and harmful to the ozone layer ). If he needs building materials or supplies, he borrows or trades with his neighbors first, before going out to buy something. And he rarely, if ever, turns on a light in a room he is not presently in.

Considering that our homes account for 18 percent of both energy consumption and CO2 emissions, I was curious to see how John’s capacity for conservation and minimizing waste stacked up to the national average. The only way to do that was to plug some predetermined household facts into a carbon footprint calculator online.  Out of the myriad carbon footprint calculators online I chose one from the UK. The calculators for U.S. residents didn’t offer an opt-out option for things like washers, dryers, stoves or refrigerators. The calculators assumed that your household had an average of two televisions, a computer and a stereo system. John didn’t have any of those things. I needed to be as specific as possible.

So, I plugged in information from his electric bill and oil bill, his transportation habits and appliance use, trying to be as detailed and as honest as possible. Things as seemingly inconsequential as diet needed to be accounted for—a carnivorous diet, for example, may put a much greater burden on the planet than, say, a vegetarian diet. Buying groceries locally or at a co-op is better than eating out frequently, and so on. I went on to plug in mine, as a comparison, and out of curiosity.

The results put me to shame.

The average American produces roughly 20 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. John’s average was 6.75.  Mine, for my four-bedroom rancher with two cars and two kids, was 25.7!

It’s not like I haven’t been trying. I always recycle paper, plastic and cans. Fifty percent of my light bulbs are energy efficient and I keep my thermostat between 66-68F in winter, as suggested. I shop at Whole Foods and buy organic and local when possible. In the summer I dry my clothes outdoors. I never use bleach or hot water in the washing machine. I try to use public transportation whenever possible. In fact, I was so determined to live green that for my 40th birthday I took a trip to Taos, New Mexico to stay in what is popularly known in the green housing industry as an “earthship.” An earthship is a thermal mass building, which is completely self-sustaining. It has its own contained sewage system, its own solar/wind powered electricity and it’s built of all natural and recycled materials like old tires, bottles, cans and so on. The idea was to gain insight into how I could redesign my own home into a more efficient one.

But the idea of staying in an artistic, earthy and futuristic hut, filled with a greenhouse of banana trees and berry bushes at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains sounded  more ideal than it actually was. The reality was harsh. Because the house is not attached to any electrical grid or community water system, there was the latent feeling of being eerily detached from society’s network of water lines and electric wires. When you are completely off the grid, you alone need to have the resources to sustain your own living. You alone are responsible for what goes wrong. If the sun doesn’t shine for a month straight in the winter, you will be cold. If there’s a draught, you will go without water.

I realized then, that most of us were not taught to be survivalists. That we are almost completely dependant upon “systems.” And that it would not be wrong to say that most of us find strange comfort and security in our connection to power infrastructures.

The idea of living 100% green is not easy. Nor is it possible.   

Most of us could not make the sacrifices that people like John make on a daily basis. We could not give up our televisions, our cell phones, our stereos and the myriad other appliances that have come to represent comfort and necessity. But how do we reconcile technology and advancement with green living? How does “choice” co-exist with “responsibility” to the environment? Perfect green living may not be possible, but progress toward greener living is.

But it takes sacrifice. It takes a lot of effort. It takes changing the way you think and feel about the simplest of things like diet, food shopping, clothes shopping, recreation, relaxation. These have become such a part of our lifestyle that to nudge the thermostat down to 50 degrees would seem, for many of us, nightmarish, an affront to manifest destiny, our natural calling to move forward and perfect living. But taking two steps back in the case of global warming is not exactly what I would call regression. In this case, it’s progress. Conservation is progress.

In order to attempt a greener life there’s an easy path to follow: the more you do for yourself, the less dependent you become on consumerism. This is the key. For example:

  1. Collect your own rainwater for hydrating your plants or washing your car.
  2. Keep your thermostat below 65F and bundle up with blankets instead.
  3. Instead of watching the news at home alone, watch it with friends.
  4. Grow your own fruits and vegetables.
  5. On warm sunny days, dry your laundry outdoors.
  6. Unplug appliances that are not in use (some will continue to eat up energy even if they’re turned off).
  7. Trade or borrow items with neighbors so that you don’t buy a new one.
  8. Eat less meat.
  9. Keep your lights turned off when you’re not using them, and switch all bulbs to energy-savers.
  10. Overall, buy less. The less you buy, the less waste you produce.

If we assign value to each action we take toward greener living, we can change our behavior. We can start to see the importance and the impact we all have on the environment. There’s an old Kenyan proverb: Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was loaned to you by your children.

Before I left John’s house, I asked him if it takes a lot of effort to live so green. He looked at me as if I had five heads. “I don’t live a certain way to save anything…I live this way because it’s who I am. Because I was taught to live this way. And because I enjoy it.” Unfortunately, nature nor nurture graced me with those same values. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn them. It doesn’t mean it’s OK for me to give up trying a little harder every day to be a better person. 


The first step to living green is knowledge.

Global carbon footprint calculator:


UK carbon footprint calculator:


US carbon footprint calculator:


Other helpful links: