30 June 2008

July Blog Topics

I've been looking through my writing files lately to come up with blog topic ideas for the month of July. I have some ideas (listed at the end of this post), and a few things I'm planning on a more long-term basis. However, I'm always open to input from my darling readers, as well. So I put it to you: what burning questions do you have about writing and/or coffee? What do you want explained/explored/evaluated? What do you have to say that you would like shared here?

Possible July ideas:
  • Non-coffee coffee-house drinks
  • How to get the most out of your local library
  • 10 tips to a better coffee-house experience
  • Writing dialogue (a lesson from playwriting)
  • How to make coffee at home
  • Write every day vs. write productively

27 June 2008

Finally! Grammar matters!

According to this article on FOXNews.com, Facebook will be forcing users to list their gender which will prevent Facebook updates that say things like "Nicole changed their profile picture."

Perhaps they've been reading my blog?

How the Hell Did This Get Published?

While I enjoyed writing my first carnival article about the state of American education, and I equally enjoyed writing the follow-up article giving better explanation about how I feel about the state of American education, I decided I'd like to step away from education a little bit since there are things that are a much bigger part of my life that I'd like to address here.

You all know I'm a literista, as apparent from my previous articles. And as passionate as I am about writing and language (linguilitist), I am equally as passionate about literature and reading (literista). And I'm a bit of a snob when I get to Barnes & Noble and it's time for me to pick out a new book to read.

I have always loved reading. Even when I was a kid and was supposed to be cleaning my room, I would clean a little, then spend the next forty-five minutes organizing the books on my bookcase (and then reading them).

When I got to college, I loved my literature courses. My professors generally chose pieces I really enjoyed reading, and even if I didn't enjoy reading the material, I appreciated it within an academic context.

One of my favorite professors once told me "Literature rewards rereading." Her claim was that "books" are not necessarily "literature." James Patterson, for all his readers, is not a writer of literature. Neither is Janet Evanovich. Generally, when you read one of those types of books, you get all you can out of the reading the first time around, and then you move on to other titles (or other authors).

Literature is different.

One of my favorite novels is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read it twice in college and taught it to my junior classes last year. And I intend to read it again in a few years. It's a great book. And one of the wonderful things about Gatsby is that, despite all the dated elements in the story, it has a lasting power that makes it a book you can read more than once. When you reread Gatsby, you find things you didn't notice before, you relate to different things based on your life experiences, and it's just as great a story as it was the first time you picked it up.

That's literature. You're rewarded for having read it more than once.

When I'm in Barnes & Noble I like to wander through the stacks, looking at the different books available, letting my eye wander to whatever author or title it will. Sometimes I find new favorites that way, and sometimes I look at a book and (carefully) cram it back in its spot muttering, "How the hell did that get published?" I'm sure other writers have thought the same thing as they've seen or read about different books.

A book about surviving zombie attacks? Really?

While I greatly dislike that so many books are published with seemingly no respect for the quality of work contained within the brightly-colored cover, I know these books will continue to be published and sold because there is a market for them. There are people who are not avid readers or graduates of English or writers who want to escape into the pages of fiction, but don't enjoy some of the titles I do.

Just as different genres have developed to appeal to different readers' interests, different qualities of work have emerged to appeal to different readers. But come on. Zombie attacks? Really?

I try not to be too judgemental when it comes to reading material because I know how varied people's tastes are. And yet, I can't help but think there should be some sort of standard for what gets published. As a writer, it frustrates me that people stoop to such levels to be published. I understand writers' attempts to appeal to a certain reader base. I understand publisher's attempts to sell books and knowing that, yes, people want to read "fluffy" fiction.

But to step back to my anti-illiteracy stance in American education, does it really help American readership when writers and publishers write to the lowest denominator of reader? In classrooms teachers try to push their students to read at or above their grade levels. Some high schools teach novels that are considered college-level reading, knowing students may not get everything, but at least they'll be forced to stretch their reading a little in an attempt to understand what they're reading.

And yet, when they get out of school and are finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, Romeo & Juliet, and The Jungle, they turn to formulaic fiction and "chick lit" to fill a desire for intellectual advancement, and these new titles fall short. Why push yourself to read more difficult pieces if there's no incentive (grades, homework, etc.)? And the brain is like any muscle: if you don't exercise it, atrophy occurs. And the less readers push themselves, the less they want to push themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Meanwhile, many writers spend years perfecting novels that don't get published. I have writer friends who write and revise and rework and rewrite to meet the high standards of the literature they read, and while their novels get passed over, someone published a book about how to survive a robot uprising. Yep. Robots.

Where have the standards gone? Is our culture so far gone that someone will publish anything? (And if that's the case, why haven't I gotten published?) I suppose it speaks to our readers more than our writers and publishers that this is the case. After all, if there wasn't a market for schlock, it wouldn't be published, right?

What do we do?

I appeal to the readers of the world to help raise the standards of writing. When you visit Barnes & Noble to pick up something to read, choose carefully. Don't immediately pick up a book from the first display you see. Wander the stacks. Look at your options. Think about what you want. Do you really want to spend $25.00 on a book you'll read and then donate to a local rummage sale? Or do you want something with substance, staying power, and something with what it takes to draw you to the book over and over again with that little extra something that makes you feel like you're reading it for the first time?

Help eliminate the need for schlock! Show writers and publishers that fiction and literature can, in fact, be one in the same! And just because it's labeled "Romance" or "Chick lit" or "Crime novel" doesn't mean it can't be literature.

I urge you to read. But I urge you to be discerning in what you read, as well. I urge you to care about what you put into your mind as much as you care about what you put into your mouth. Have respect for yourself when you look for something to read!

And whatever else you do, keep reading!

26 June 2008

Summer Inspiration

Sometimes when the weather is gorgeous, the temperature is perfect, and the sun is shining brightly, it's hard to stay inside at a computer to work. Even worse is trying to come up with ideas for stories or articles when the garden or beach or forest is calling to you.

I used to try and fight my urge to go outside and be in nature during the summer months, and while I spent a lot of time at my computer, my writing suffered. My mind was elsewhere, and no matter what I did, I couldn't come up with a writing topic.

Now I don't fight these urges. Instead I let myself take a bit of time to be in nature, and I've gotten great ideas as a result. But on the days I simply must sit and work, I've even come up with writing prompts to keep my mind from fighting the summer weather without sacrificing my writing and writing time. Some have to do with weather, others with animals, a couple deal with vacations, but all get me in the summer mindset.

I find that when I embrace the weather instead of fighting it, the summer becomes an ally in my writing life instead of a distraction. I don't feel guilty for thinking about what's waiting outside my window. And then, when I've been writing about the family of ducks that lives in our pond all morning, my break is all the sweeter at lunch time when I go feed them from my stale bread bag.

Happy scribbling!

The Six-Word Memoir

The Progressive Conservative over at The Big Stick tagged me with the following:
The idea is to write your memoir or epitaph in six words. If you can add an image to go along with it, so much the better. Then, simply sneak up behind 5 unsuspecting friends and whap them in the back of the head with it. Links need to be provided to the person who whapped you and to the originator of the meme, so they can see how far the thing goes. You can check out the place where it all began for a better explanation of the rules.

It took me some time to decide how to sum up my life in six words. There have been many wide and varied experiences in my life already that could be worthy of my six words. This task is more difficult than I originally thought, and each time I thought I'd come up with the perfect six words (in the right order), I thought of something else that seemed equally as perfect. So finally I settled on this:

Writes often, loves fiercely, drinks coffee.

I think this sums me up nicely. I am a writer, which takes up the bulk of my day (happily, of course), and because I have a life of faith, I do my best to love people in the way I would want them to love me. And, as you know, I do drink coffee. I could explain each of these further and in greater detail, but I'm much more interested in what my friends have to say about themselves. (Although if I ever write a memoir, I think I have the title!)

And who do I want to guilt into writing their own six-word memoirs?

Dana of En Tequila Es Verdad (I don't care if you hate it! Do it!)
Angie of Adventures in Home Cooking
Lisa of Work at Home Mom Revolution

Sorry--that's all I got!

25 June 2008

Prasad(a) Update

I've been happily working (although a little slowly) on the coffee house book. I have to discard much of what I wrote before, but the book will be better for it, so I'm happy to red-X many of the pages in my folder. And if I continue to use my writing time wisely, I'll be finished with the first draft soon!

The new path of the book is leading me to do new research, which I'm enjoying. I'm a bit of a nerd, so I love learning about new things and learning more about things I'm somewhat familiar with. I think I'm going to have to make a trip to Barnes & Noble this week to get a couple of reference books. (I know...what a tragedy!) In the meantime, I'm bookmarking a lot of websites and taking lots of notes on my yellow notepads here and there around my office. I think I'm going to need a proper filing cabinet soon!

I'll keep scribbling, and soon my dear readers will have something to get them by until the book gets published!

24 June 2008

Specialty Coffee Glossary

Ordering specialty coffee can be confusing to those new to coffee houses. So I found this wonderful glossary that should be helpful to anyone who hears a bit of jargon thrown around and wants to know what it means.

Good baristas will help you understand what you're ordering, and at some places when you go in and order "something cold with chocolate, but not like a milk shake," the barista will know you're asking for an iced mocha latte. If you're not sure what something is or means, ask! Your coffee experience will be so much the better if you know what you're drinking!

23 June 2008

Who says Irish only drink whiskey?

Comhghairdeas a ghabháil Stephen Morrissey! The "Irish Barista" has obtained the World Barista Championship title for 2008 with 738.5 points at the end of the competition. (Second place went to David Makin of Australia with 733 points.)
This is the champion in action.

Webcast by Ustream.TV

Tips for Motivation

As any writer knows, there are times when you sit in front of your computer (or typewriter or notebook) and just...stare. And as badly as you want to write or be productive, nothing happens. You're just not motivated to write. Unfortunately, it can just be a part of the writing life.

I'm finding that since I have much more time to write these days, my motivation wanes more quickly than it did when my writing time was more limited. So I've had to develop tricks to keep myself productive so I don't sit around all afternoon and watch I Love the 80s reruns on VH1.

Editing sometimes gives me the break I need from writing while still maintaining productivity. And many times the process of editing gives me ideas of how to continue the writing or where to take a plot, character, or setting once I've finished editing. and when I'm editing, I don't feel like I'm wasting valuable working time!

As much as I value the time I have to write, sometimes when I'm unmotivated, I just have to do something else for a while. Sometimes the best thing I can do is walk away from what I'm working on, give myself some space from it, then come back to it with a refreshed mind and a new perspective. Even teachers suggest students should take a ten minute break for every hour of studying, so why would writing be any different?

Though it may be cliche for a writer, it can be helpful to take a walk when feeling unmotivated. This goes along with doing something else for a while. It gives you the opportunity to step away from what you're writing to clear your head a bit, then come back to it with renewed energy and motivation.

You should be careful about these next two tips. Each of them can be helpful, but they can also suck you into a black hole of procrastination and feeding into lack of motivation. If you're feeling unmotivated, try calling a friend or catching up on email. As I've said before, writing can be a lonely life, and by reaching out to other humans on a semi-regular basis, you may find that you find stores of creativity and the motivation to keep working. And the added benefit of communication with friends is the possibility of picking up great dialogue for stories!

You'll find your own methods to boost your motivation, and while I encourage you to use them, just remember that every artist, no matter the medium, needs a little bit of down time. A little time away from writing doesn't hurt!

Happy scribbling!

20 June 2008

An Introduction to Specialty Coffee

Some people are specialty coffee virgins, and while they'd love to go into Starbucks and order a Venti double-shot half-caff skinny mocha latte with extra whip, they don't know the first thing about specialty coffee, and let that intimidate them into sticking to their "cappuccino" out of the machines at the local gas station.

I urge you: STEP AWAY FROM THE GAS STATION COFFEE! Such a deliciously rich, wide world of caffeine exists for you just around the corner at your local coffee house! Life is too short to drink bad coffee!

So for those who would like to venture into this new territory, don't be afraid to try things! But before you get wild and go for the Mint Mocha Chip ("blended coffee base, Mocha syrup, Mint Chocolate Syrup and Chocolate Chips. Served with chocolate whipped cream and chocolate drizzle"), why don't we ease into things with one of these varieties.

Coffee is a good place to start at a new coffee house. Since it's a staple, it can be a good indicator of whether or not the place serves good drinks. So if you're totally new to anything other than your Sanka, go in and order a regular (or decaf) coffee. If you can, try drinking it without sugar or creamer. You'll be able to judge its flavor a little better. Coffee is made by grinding coffee beans and passing hot water through them to extract the flavor from the grinds.

A latte is the next least potent coffee drink. Outside of Italy, a latte is one-third espresso, two-thirds steamed milk, and there is a layer of foamed milk on the top. Again, it can be a good indicator of whether or not a coffee house serves good coffee. Try it without any sugar. The process of steaming milk sweetens it a bit, and many people who load their coffee with sugar find they can drink a latte without anything in it.

A mocha latte is the same as a latte, except it has a shot of chocolatey-flavored syrup in it. Some mocha lattes also have whipped cream on top.
Cappuccinos are a little more potent than lattes. Like a latte, a cappuccino is made with a shot of espresso, but uses less steamed milk than a latte. It also usually has a thicker head of foam (called froth) on the top, and many coffee houses sprinkle the top with cinnamon and/or include a cinnamon stick.
In the next installment about the basics of specialty coffee, I'll give a glossary of important terms that will help you translate what you're ordering.

19 June 2008

Readers, Show Yourselves!

The Coffee-Stained Writer will be hosting its first photo carnival!

I want to see you (or someone) reading. At a library, coffee house, on the bus, walking in the park, swimming, hanging from a tree, or playing WiiFit. Show me a picture of you (or someone) reading that best represents your personality.

You may begin sending your photos on June 20th to coffeestainedblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

Be sure to include your name, the name of the person or people in the photo (if different), a title/caption if you want, and a short bio. All photos will be posted on the blog.

The deadline to submit a photo is June 30th.

The photos will be posted beginning July 1st.

WBC 2008

Today marks the first day of the World Barista Championships! Isn't it exciting?

For those new to the world of baristas, the WBC is just what its name suggests: a world championship for those who make specialty coffee drinks. This year it is being held in Copenhagen, and runs from June 19-22, 2008.

According to the WBC's Mission Statement and Goals page, the goals of the WBC are:
  1. To promote the growth, excellence & recognition in the Barista profession.
  2. To grow the Barista's knowledge of and expertise in, the preparation and serving of specialty, espresso coffee through competitions.
  3. To promote the knowledge and consumption of specialty coffee to the consumer through the Barista.
  4. To become globally recognised as the premier World Barista Event in the coffee calendar.
For the rules and regulations of the WBC, go here.

The judging committee for this year's WBC are Justin Metcalf of Australia (Chair), Fritz Storm of Denmark, Jose Arreola of Mexico, Brent Fortune of the United States, Chris White of New Zealand, and Matts Johanssen of Sweden.

The baristas are evaluated on many factors.

On the sensory score sheet, for example, there are five parts to the sensory score of 164.

Part One--Espresso Evaluation
Taste evaluation:
  • color of crema (hazelnut, dark brown, reddish reflection)
  • consistency and persistence of crema
  • taste balance (harmonious balance of sweet/acidic/bitter)
  • tactile balance (full bodied, round, smooth)
Beverage presentation:
  • all 4 espressos served simultaneously
  • correct espresso cups used (60-90 ml. w/ a handle)
  • served with accessories (spoon, sugar, napkin and water)
Part II--Cappuccino Evaluation
Taste evaluation of cappuccino:

  • Visually correct cappuccino (traditional or latte art)
  • Consistency and persistence of foam
  • Taste balance (served at an acceptable temperature, a harmonious balance of rich sweet milk/espresso)
Beverage presentation:
  • All 4 cappuccinos served simultaneously
  • Correct cappuccino cups used (150-180 ml. w/ a handle)
  • Served with accessories (spoon, sugar, napkin and water)
Part III--Signature Beverage Evaluation
Evaluation of Signature Beverage:

  • Well explained and presented
  • Appealing look (elegant, clean, usage of cup/glass)
  • Creativity
  • Taste balance (according to content, taste of espresso)
Beverage Presentation:

  • All 4 signature beverages served simultaneously
Part IV--Barista Evaluation
Customer Service Skills:

  • Presentation: Professionalism/Dedication/Passion
  • Attention to details/All accessories available
  • Appropriate apparel
Part V--Judge's Total Impression
Overall view of barista skills, taste of beverages, and presentation

On the technical score sheet, there are six parts that make up the score of 89.

Part I--Station Evaluation at Start-Up
Competition Area: Clean working area at start-up/Clean cloths

Part II--Espresso Evaluation
Technical Skills:

  • Flushes the group head
  • Dry/clean filter basket before dosing
  • Acceptable spill/waste when dosing/grinding
  • Consistent dosing and tamping
  • Cleans porta filters (before insert)
  • Immediate insert and brewing
  • Extraction time (20-30 seconds)
Part III--Cappuccino Evaluation
Technical Skills:

  • Flushes the group head
  • Dry/clean filter basket before dosing
  • Acceptable spill/waste when dosing/grinding
  • Consistent dosing and tamping
  • Cleans porta filters (before insert)
  • Immediate insert and brewing
  • Extraction time (20-30 seconds)

As you can see, a lot goes into the evaluation of a barista, and you can see why the competition lasts four days!

Good luck to all the competitors!

Prasad(a) Update

I realized I haven't given anyone any news about my coffee house book lately, and since I know you're all eagerly awaiting its publication, I thought I'd give you a little nibble.

It's not going to be done in time for the novel contest I was originally going to enter. There's far too much work that needs to be done on it. It's a little sad that I won't be entering, but I'm excited for the changes I'm making on the book. It's going to make it much more cohesive and I think a better book overall.

I have a few people who will be reading sections once they're finished. Those people don't have to wait too much longer. I have a section or two almost ready to be proofread, so just hang on a little longer!

I went to Starbucks Tuesday for a little inspiration. It helped. I got home and worked on one of the sections for a couple of hours. I felt incredibly productive! If I keep it up, I could be finished with my rough draft sooner than I thought.

Happy scribbling!

18 June 2008

Writers' Support Systems Post

Writing can be a lonely life. Hours spent in front of a computer (or typewriter or notebook) or in a library are hours spent away from other people. Sometimes unfortunate, but often necessary to a successful writing career.

However, it is important for writers to have a support system of writers not only to stave off those feelings of isolation and loneliness, but to share ideas, seek proofreading skills, and to talk shop.

There are, fortunately, lots of options for writers seeking connections with other writers for those brief moments when the Muse ceases her lashings to take a sip of vodka.

Message boards Yes, message boards are everywhere. Like chatrooms, they offer opportunities for posters to contribute to discussions, ask and answer questions, and network with colleagues from anywhere in the World(wide Web). There are message boards for all areas of writing (even areas you probably didn't know existed), and there are people looking for you on those boards to seek your advice, to answer your questions, and to build connections with you. [WARNING: Message boards can be a bit addicting, and while they can be a valuable resource, remember that time spent on message boards is time that is not spent writing. Writers can justify just about anything as "for the craft," so be careful you don't get drawn into the message boards and neglect what you should be doing.]

Email/Internet Friends I met a very, very dear friend through a message board. We email regularly, chat on AIM when we catch each other, support each other's writing careers, and are always there for each other. We've never met in person. Dana and I are online friends, and to be honest, I wouldn't be where I am in my writing life if it weren't for her. When I need advice on a character or plot or setting or timeframe, I send her an email and she's happy (or at least she seems happy) to email me back with answers to questions, advice, criticism, and ego-boosting praise. That connection with another writer can be incredibly helpful. Not only can you take a break from researching or writing to email your friends, but when you have these friendships with other writers, you have someone "in the business" that you can turn to when you have questions, need advice, or simply want to share good (or bad) news with someone who will understand.

Real-life friends Like email/Internet friends, real-life friends are a great source of encouragement, advice, and human interaction. There's nothing like getting a cup of coffee with a friend and chatting about what you're each reading or writing and being able to get away from the computer for a little while. Really, as much fun as it canbe to sit and stare at a computer screen all day, sometimes you just need to get away and be with real people for a while. Friends give you the opportunity to do just that. (Just don't let that coffee date with a friend turn into a huge shopping session that keeps you from finishing your work!)

Writers' workshops Going to workshops is an excellent place to make connections for writers. Not only do you get the opportunity to meet (and learn from) people who could potentially be your editors/publishers, but you have the chance to meet fellow writers who are often in the same position as you and can relate to what you're going through on a personal level. These workshops may lead to some real-life friends mentioned in the above section, and the notes you take a different sessions could be the advice you give to other friends or answers to questions posted on message boards.

Writers' groups Like writers' workshops, writers' groups let writers get feedback on their work, as well as making connections with other writers. Writers' groups are a little different, though, because the group is usually significantly smaller than a workshop, and writers' groups meet regularly, which allows you to form stronger bonds with the people in the groups.

Classes Writers can and should always be learning about their craft. While some of this information can be gleaned from Internet and library research, message boards, friendships, and workshops/writers' groups, some information is best learned in the classroom. Even if you have a degree, it doesn't hurt to take a writing or literature class to brush up on a few things, make some friends in your classmates, and add your professor to your networking address book.

Regardless of how you decide to reach out (and I do recommend more than one method), be sure that you do. Writing is solitary, and people need contact. (Sorry, but talking to your cat while she glares at you from the couch doesn't really count as contact!) After all, where do writers get their stories but from life? And you need to observe and live life if you expect to write about it!

Happy scribbling!

14 June 2008

Latte Art Printing Machine

As if fully automatic espresso machines weren't enough, baristas don't even make their own latte art anymore?

Readers, I Need You!

The Coffee-Stained Writer will be hosting its first photo carnival!

I want to see you (or someone) reading. At a library, coffee house, on the bus, walking in the park, swimming, hanging from a tree, or playing WiiFit. Show me a picture of you (or someone) reading that best represents your personality.

You may begin sending your photos on June 20th to coffeestainedblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

Be sure to include your name, the name of the person or people in the photo (if different), a title/caption if you want, and a short bio. All photos will be posted on the blog.

The deadline to submit a photo is June 30th.

The photos will be posted beginning July 1st.

What is Good Coffee?

There are many variables in what constitutes a "good" cup of coffee, and it is something that is not only hotly debated in coffee circles, but something that is as subjective as a favorite color.

As David Smith, reporter of the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter points out in "Spill the Beans: Three keys to what makes a good coffee":

Variables such as the café décor, the music it plays, your relationship with the folks behind the counter, even the kind of cup your drink comes in, all affect your enjoyment.

As you probably know, and as Smith tells us, it isn't just the flavor and aroma of the coffee that makes the drink. The atmosphere of the coffee house, the personalities of the baristas, even whether or not you like the furniture of the shop, all play a part in your reaction to the drink.

However, when you leave the coffee house with your 100% recycled coffee cup with a functional and fashionable sleeve to protect your fingers from the delicious heat radiating through the cup, all you have left is the coffee itself to judge.

Smith's article judges the coffee on three things before it even crosses the counter to you. He says:
One, the coffee itself: the beans or, more accurately, coffee seeds.... Two, if you're getting a cappuccino or latte watch how the espresso comes out of the machine.... Three, steaming of the milk. Milk makes up the largest percentage ingredient in a latte or cappuccino, making its preparation at least as important as the espresso.

The Beans
The beans used to brew your espresso should be fresh. The beans should be oily-looking and they should be ground just before they are used. Once beans are ground they become stale quickly.

The Brewing
When a shot of espresso is pulled, the stream coming into cup should be a thin stream. The description given is that it should look like a mouse's tail. The espresso should be brownish-red in color. Once the shot is finished (which should only take about 30 seconds if it's a regular shot), there should be a nice, thick head of foam (called crema) on the top.

The Milk
When I worked as a barista, steaming the milk was a more difficult aspect to master. There is a balance between the steam and the depth of the wand in the milk and how long the milk is steamed that creates a perfect milk for use in coffee drinks. When you're standing in the coffee house, listen to the sound of the milk as it's being steamed. It should make a low, rumbling sound. When the milk is steamed, there shouldn't be a foam on top (unless you ordered a cappuccino, of course). If there is, the barista held the wand too high in the frothing pitcher, not properly steaming the full pitcher of milk. Properly steamed milk should have a creamy texture to it.

These are not, of course, the only factors in good coffee, but they are important, and if you're careful about your beans, brewing, and milk, you'll be well on your way to being a good coffee snob.


13 June 2008

The Coffee-Stained Bookshelf

I've started a reading journal not only to track how many pages I read (for work and pleasure), but also to review books for those looking to add to their own reading lists. Enjoy!

Frost Home Vandals Take Poetry Classes

Posted: 2008-06-03 10:01:35

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (June 2) - Call it poetic justice: More than two dozen young people who broke into Robert Frost's former home for a beer party and trashed the place are being required to take classes in his poetry as part of their punishment.

More than two dozen young people who broke into the former home of Robert Frost in Vermont and vandalized it while holding a party are being required to take classes on his poetry as part of their punishment."I guess I was thinking that if these teens had a better understanding of who Robert Frost was and his contribution to our society, that they would be more respectful of other people's property in the future and would also learn something from the experience," said prosecutor John Quinn.

The vandalism occurred at the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, where Frost spent more than 20 summers before his death in 1963. Now owned by Middlebury College, the unheated farmhouse on a dead-end road is used occasionally by the college and is open in the warmer months.

On Dec. 28, a 17-year-old former Middlebury College employee decided to hold a party and gave a friend $100 to buy beer. Word spread. Up to 50 people descended on the farm, the revelry turning destructive after a chair broke and someone threw it into the fireplace.

When it was over, windows, antique furniture and china had been broken, fire extinguishers discharged, and carpeting soiled with vomit and urine. Empty beer cans and drug paraphernalia were left behind. The damage was put at $10,600.

Twenty-eight people - all but two of them teenagers - were charged, mostly with trespassing.
About 25 ultimately entered pleas - or were accepted into a program that allows them to wipe their records clean - provided they underwent the Frost instruction. Some will also have to pay for some of the damage, and most were ordered to perform community service in addition to the classroom sessions. The man who bought the beer is the only one who went to jail; he got three days behind bars.

Parini, 60, a Middlebury College professor who has stayed at the house before, was eager to oblige when Quinn asked him to teach the classes. He donated his time for the two sessions.

On Wednesday, 11 turned out for the first, with Parini giving line-by-line interpretations of "The Road Not Taken" and "Out, Out-," seizing on parts with particular relevance to draw parallels to their case.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," he thundered, reciting the opening line of the first poem, which he called symbolic of the need to make choices in life.

"This is where Frost is relevant. This is the irony of this whole thing. You come to a path in the woods where you can say, `Shall I go to this party and get drunk out of my mind?"' he said. "Everything in life is choices."

Even the setting had parallels, he said: "Believe me, if you're a teenager, you're always in the damned woods. Literally, you're in the woods - probably too much you're in the woods. And metaphorically you're in the woods, in your life. Look at you here, in court diversion! If that isn't `in the woods,' what the hell is `in the woods'? You're in the woods!"

Dressed casually, one with his skateboard propped up against his desk, the young people listened to Parini and answered questions when he pressed. Then a court official asked them to describe how their arrests and the publicity affected them.

"I was worried about my family," said one boy, whose name was withheld because the so-called diversion program in which took part is confidential. "I'll be carrying on the family name and all that. And with this kind of thing tied to me, it doesn't look very good."

Another said: "After this, I'm thinking about staying out of trouble, because this is my last chance."

"My parents' business in town was affected," said a girl.

When the session ended, the vandals were offered snacks - apple cider, muffins, sliced fruit - but none partook. They went straight for the door, several declining comment as they walked out of the building. The next session is Tuesday.

"It's a lesson learned, that's for sure," said one of them, 22-year-old Ryan Kenyon, whose grandmother worked as hairdresser in the 1960s and knew Frost. "It did bring some insight. People do many things that they don't realize the consequences of. It shined a light, at least to me."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

The Anti 9-to-5 Action Plan Update

I've finished the next stage of the Anti 9-to-5 Action Plan, and here's where I am. The comments in brackets are mine.

Create or update a profile that includes your work history on LinkedIn or another social network. [Done.]

Update your resume. [Done.]

Update your resume or portfolio on your website or blog. [Done...mostly. I just have to put my resume up and add a couple of things to my porfolio on my website.]

Select three networking events to attend in the next two months. [Okay...I haven't done this, but I have some in mind and just have to narrow down which three I plan to attend.]

Create your thirty-second face-to-face intro and practice on a couple of friends. [I've done this, but I plan on reworking it a bit because I'm not happy with it.]

Overall, I'm doing well on my checklist; I'm pretty much right on target. I think the next stage is going to take me a bit longer than two weeks to do, but as long as I keep moving forward, I think I'll be able to feel like I'm staying productive.

Though this isn't on the action plan, I've also begun applying for freelance jobs. I know that a big part of my career is marketing and advertising, so I'm also coming up with a marketing package to send to clients who request more information.

And today is my official grand opening. Woo hoo!

12 June 2008

Grand Opening

Ladies and gentlemen, Coffee-Stained Writing is officially and completely open for business! Beginning today I am completely done with the day gig, and am able to devote my full attentions to my real job: writing!

So if you need any freelance writing done, maybe a brochure or something drawn up for your business, proofreading of a manuscript, essay, letter to the editor...let me know! I'd be happy to help!

Writing Workshop: Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper

Materials needed: a sheet of paper, a pen or pencil, a highlighter, and your imagination
Step 1: Envision
For the next four minutes I want you to close your eyes and imagine a place. This can be any place you choose it to be. It can be in your room, it can be at the beach, or it could be your favorite quiet place. In your mind's eye I want you to really see your place. What does it look like? Can you see any colors? Can you hear any sounds? Are there scents in the air? And if so, what do they smell like?

Step 2: Free Response
Now for the next four minutes I want you to write without stopping about what you just saw in your mind's eye. Try not to censor yourself. Don't worry about punctuation or spelling. Just keep that pen or pencil moving on your paper. If your mind wonders off of your place, then write what your mind is thinking. For example, if your place is the beach and it reminds you about the last time you ate crab, write that. This is a writing workshop. It is a work in progress. You can't do this wrong!

Step 3: Edit Thyself
After four minutes, stop. Relax your hand. Now take your paper and fold it in half. For the next four minutes I want you to rewrite what you just wrote on the front side of your paper. Take out all of the riff-raff. Take out the sentences or words that don't pertain to your sense of place. Add anything you like but you must remember you have limited space here!

Step 4: Edit Thyself Again
Now you are going to fold your paper in half again. You will only have a very small space to write in now. (Your paper should be in four quadrants at this point if you opened it up to its original size.) You will fill this block with what you have just written in Step 3. You will have to decide what can stay and what needs to be edited out due to your lack of space.

Step 5: Adjectives
Highlight all of your adjectives. As a rule of thumb, for every ten words you write you should have at least two adjectives. Did you find you didn't have many (or any) adjectives? That is usually the case. The more describing words the better!

This is a process that can be repeated to help inspire you to write or to practice improving your imagery.

11 June 2008

Summer Coffee

I love coffee. But when the weather gets warm, I find myself drinking less of it. There's just something about hot coffee in the summer that doesn't work for me.

The great thing about specialty coffee drinks is the variety that exists for summer coffee drinks. For people like me who really love the taste of coffee, iced coffee drinks provide a cold option that quenches that espresso thirst.

Iced Coffee
Some specialty coffee shops are happy to give you regular (or decaf) coffee poured over a cup of ice. Sugar or flavored syrups are often added.

Iced Cappuccino

Like iced coffee, this drink is a cappuccino over ice. After pulling a shot of espresso, milk (sometimes heated, sometimes not) is poured over ice, followed by the espresso. Often the froth present in a cappuccino is omitted in favor of whipped cream. Sugar or flavored syrups are often added.

Iced Latte
This drink is similar to an iced cappuccino, but comes in a larger size (as with the hot version).

Blended Coffee Drinks

Called Frappucinos by Starbucks, these drinks are where iced coffee drinks and smoothies meet. Many blended coffee drinks are created using powdered mixes, flavored syrups, and milk, then topped with whipped cream. The strong flavoring in these drinks provide a great option for people who want to order something at a coffee house, but aren't sure if they like coffee.

This isn't really a coffee drink, but is often found in coffee shops. It's an Italian drink made up of ice, carbonated water, flavored syrups, and cream. The water is poured over ice first, then the syrup, and it's topped with the cream to allow it to swirl together on its own. These drinks are available without the cream, which is a drink called an Italian soda.

Feng Shui Your Desk

Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese practice of space arrangement to achieve a sense of harmony. Feng Shui was developed thousands of years ago in little villages of east Asia, and was used by emperors to ensure their success. By applying Feng Shui to your work space, you will have the chance to experience a positive flow of vital energy. Divide your desk and workspace into the nine different areas of your life, as follows:

  1. The left side of your desk is the Knowledge area--store reference materials here.
  2. Place symbols of Family here also.
  3. The back left corner of your desk is the Money area. Keep this corner clean, dust-free, and uncluttered.
  4. The back center area of your desk, or on the wall directly in front of you, is the Fame area. Display awards, diplomas, and certificates here.
  5. The right corner of your desk is the Romance area. Place symbols of love here.
  6. Closer to you on the right is your Creativity area. Keep your smaller work tools here, along with some "fun" items.
  7. At your immediate front right is the Helpful People and Travel area. Place your rolodex and vacation pictures here.
  8. The center of your desk is the Health area. If you want a healthy career, your work area should be clean and "happy-looking."
  9. Finally, your chair represents your Career area. Keep your chair well-oiled and clean. Polish any chrome and keep it dusted.
Applying Feng Shui to your desk may not guarantee success, but it's a bold step in the right direction!

10 June 2008

Readers! Let me see you!

The Coffee-Stained Writer will be hosting its first photo carnival!

I want to see you (or someone) reading. At a library, coffee house, on the bus, walking in the park, swimming, hanging from a tree, or playing WiiFit. Show me a picture of you (or someone) reading that best represents your personality.

You may begin sending your photos on June 20th to coffeestainedblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

Be sure to include your name, the name of the person or people in the photo (if different), a title/caption if you want, and a short bio. All photos will be posted on the blog.

The deadline to submit a photo is June 30th.

The photos will be posted beginning July 1st.

Shattering (My) Pre-Conceived Notions

In reading the comments generated by my Carnival article when it was posted on En Tequila Es Verdad, I feel the need to write a follow-up article to clarify some of my points, and perhaps give commenters a better idea of my intentions with said article.

Let me begin by making something very clear: I'm a bit of a language snob. I shudder when I see poor, abused apostrophes (particularly on store signs or in movie titles), and roll my eyes at misuses of their, there, and/or they're. I am not claiming to be a perfect linguist by any means, but I do pride myself on having what I consider to be a good grasp of the English language.

That said, I should probably also make you aware of the fact that my article was less an assault on the changing English language constructs and more expressing my frustration at a failing education system. So in this follow-up article, I would like to explain that frustration with American education (or lack thereof) through the lens of English classes, since that seems to be what the administrators at my school do. (More on that later, though.)

At the school from which I recently resigned, I was told many things about how the school curriculum is run. I was warned that Honors classes are "watered down," and that a good portion of my time as a teacher of English would be spent helping my junior students prepare for their science standardized test in the spring. I was also told the curriculum for sophomore English students focused around taking and passing the English writing standardized test. And in the time left, teachers split their time between teaching literature and grammar and taking students to registrations, passing out report cards, and going to assemblies.

I expected the standardized tests. After all, how else can the government decide that a school is doing its job and worthy of receiving any kind of funding except to give every student, regardless of situation, the same test and compare the scores to some national average? I mean, that's the most objective way to evaluate humans, right? Particularly in such objective subject areas as English and social studies?

So teachers, expecting the standardized tests, realize how important the scores are to their jobs, office supplies, and curriculum materials, and not only take the time to explain the test process to their students, but perhaps give them practice tests in preparation, and devote time away from the general curriculum to ensure the students are well prepared to make the school look good, regardless of how the students are actually able to perform.

And as these teachers are spending their time preparing students for the standardized tests, the rest of the curriculum gets sort of lost in the shuffle, and students leave high school able to answer objective questions about reading comprehension, but are unable to tell the difference between their, there, and they're.

Of course, when approached by parents and community members, schools make sure that everyone knows that they do not actually teach to standardized tests, but teach their curriculum, and if it happens to include making sure students are prepared for the tests, well, there you have it.

I expected all this. I did not, however, expect the attitude toward Honors classes I encountered.

I was hired to level classes. That is, I was hired to help offset the overcrowding of some classes. I was fortunate enough (or so I thought at the beginning) to have a full load of Honors classes. And most of the students in my classes were not new to Honors classes. And yet, they were appalled when I told them they'd be expected to read novels outside of our regular reading assignments. In fact, some of the junior students frequently and sullenly informed me that even the AP classes didn't "do so much work." (My response: "Wow. Really? Can you imagine what my AP classes would be like, then?")

These students were encouraged to push themselves academically by enrolling in Honors classes, but once there, they weren't pushed.

I have to be honest with you: this perplexed me. In his piece, "Academia: Grade Inflation," Kaden says:

Now, not too long ago, straight-A students were part of the rare elite, the best-of-the-best valedictorians who seemed to know everything anyone could ever need to. This is because C was actually considered "average". It was the baseline, the starting point. A C was what you used to get when you did an okay job - something that every student should, with only a little effort, be able to achieve. B was above-average. They tried a little bit harder, they studied longer, but a B was a good grade. Bright students were B averages. An A was "exceeding expectations". "A" students went the extra mile. They aced most of the tests, they turned in all the homework, they were early to class every day. It took effort to get an A....

It makes sense to me. When I graduated high school, I was a B student, and I was in the top 20% of my graduating class. I was a good student. And yet, I didn't take Honors classes because I wasn't able to handle the workload on top of my extra-curricular activities. The teachers of those Honors classes expected their students to receive Cs and Bs in the class because the material was more advanced. That was the point of the classes.

At the end of May, one of my students came to me nearly devastated she had a B in my class. She asked me about extra credit. "I have to get an A," she said. Things have changed.

And perhaps it's that change that has been part of why Honors classes aren't what they used to be. With more students taking Honors classes, and higher grades being demanded by parents and students, perhaps teachers are compensating for the gap by meeting the students somewhere in the middle. I myself offered extra credit in my classes for struggling students. The final grades within one class period ranged from 56% to over 100%.

There is a contradiction, however, to the parents who demand more-than-excellence in their students' academic achievement. In his most recent post, Academia: Age of Intelligence, Kaden wrote:

How are we to be expected to value our education, our intelligence, if adults don't take us seriously? Sure, our teachers and principals expect us to learn and to thrive in an academic environment, and our parents certainly demand high performance, but when you are taken out of a strictly educational environment, we're just those damned skateboarders again.

I agree, Kaden. There is certainly a conflict between what is expected of students within the walls of a classroom, and what is expected of those same students once the bell rings in the afternoons.

And this, too, is one of the problems that arises in education. Just as I have students who are unable to separate the style of writing they use in their notes from formal paper style, some of my students were unable to separate what is expected of them inside the classroom from what is expected of them outside the school. As a result, many students decide they simply don't care about their academics. Why should they when, as Kaden points out, adults don't care about whether or not they're intelligent or successful?

Sadly, I don't know what to suggest to make changes in the education system. There are so many things that come to mind, and it seems that even if those things are somehow implemented into a good number of schools across the country, it is the mindset of Americans that really needs to be changed. Unfortunately, that's significantly harder to do unless we take notes from Vonnegut.

Of course, with the way the country is headed with watering down Honors classes, adjusting testing, grading, and classrooms to the lowest denominator and not offering anything higher for other students...perhaps we're not far off.

04 June 2008

First Book of the Summer

I've begun reading The Gathering by Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2007.

I was given the book by a colleague who "hated it." I can see why she disliked it, but so far I'm enjoying it. It's strange and a little disturbing and beautiful and heartbreaking.

I'll give you a bit more information as I progress through the story, of course.

A Space of One's Own

Part of my preparation for becoming a full time freelance writer this summer has been preparing a writing space for myself. Not only do I need room for all my research, projects, and books, but it helps me feel more professional to have an office space. It keeps me organized and allows me to separate my writing life from my personal life.

So I'm taking stock in the space I have to try and make it as efficient as possible. I don't have the luxury of an entire room to myself right now, so I have to do the best I can in a corner of our living room.

One determination I've made is that I will need to keep as much of my research and filing on the computer as possible. Though I wish I could, I can't have a wall of filing cabinets with scads and scads of hanging files in them, or a wall of bookcases with books and binders stacked as tightly as they can be.

Instead, I'll be relying on bookmarked websites, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and Word documents. Yes, there are some reference books I'll need to have nearby, so I'll have to have at least one bookcase, but for the most part, today's society allows me to run a freelance writing company from a very small office space. (Eventually, I know I'll have an office with a door that can close, and I already have an idea of how it will be decorated.)

Writing spaces can be as personal as handwriting. Between decorating, computer models, and inkpen colors, writers have to feel completely comfortable in their spaces in order to be productive. It's one of those quirky things writers can cling to the way actors cling to their pre-show rituals. I know a writer who has to take notes and write rough drafts in green ink before turning to the computer. It's all part of the writer's experience.

So what have you done to make your space comfortable? What does your writing space look like? Email me at nicolepalmby (at) gmail (dot) com with a photo and/or description of your writing space to be posted on the blog!

03 June 2008

I'm it!

The rules:
Each player answers the questions about themselves. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read your blog. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

What was I doing ten years ago?
I was finishing up my freshman year of high school at a new school, worried that I'd spend the summer by myself because I didn't know anyone.

What are five (non-work) things on my to-do list for today?
1. Go grocery shopping
2. Clean the apartment
3. Clean out the car
4. Set up the TiVo to record L&O:CI on USA this summer (Yeah, baby!)
5. Update my calendar

Five snacks I enjoy:
1. Cheez-Its
2. Salt & vinegar potato chips
3. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
4. Veggies (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers) and dill dip
5. French fries

Things I would do if I were a billionaire:
1. Pay off my student loans
2. Buy a house
3. Buy Mom a new car
4. Get my Master's degree
5. Expand my personal library

Places I’ve lived:
1. Rockford, Illinois
2. Biloxi, Mississippi
3. South Dakota
4. Alabama
5. Clarksville, Tennessee
6. Ansbach, Germany
7. Byron, Illinois
8. Jacksonville, Illinois
9. Orlando, Florida

Jobs I’ve had:
1. H.S. office worker
2. Barista
3. English tutor
4. Admissions Counselor
5. Admissions Marketing Director
6. H.S. English teacher
7. And always, always a writer.

Tag! You're it...
Well, Dana, of course, and anyone else who reads this and feels an inclination to share a bit of information.

02 June 2008

From No Blog to Carnival in 10 Easy Steps

I'm sneaking away from the cacophany at my cantina for a bit. Shh. It's our secret.

Just a little overwhelmed by the response over there. You see, the first ever Carnival of the Elitist Bastards set sail on May 31st. PZ Myers of Pharyngula plugged us on his site, and my swarthy crew got the recognition they deserved - and then some. Can I hear a Huzzah! for NP? Her contribution has done precisely what the Carnival was intended to do - make people think.

All of this - the huge response, the compliments, the excitement - has made me very thoughtful indeed. As writers, we know that words have power. We just don't always see their impact.

Writing can change the world.

It can certainly change the writer.

The entire course of my life has been changing since I started En Tequila Es Verdad. A few months ago, I was an isolated scribbler, struggling with a recalcitrant (and alcoholic, I'm certain of it) Muse, doubting every day that I'd ever get words out to enough people to justify the sacrifices I make for them. Today, I have a rabble-rousing blog that's frequented by some truly incredible thinkers, and I'm the captain of the HMS Elitist Bastard, freshly returned from a maiden voyage that succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Here's what I've learned on the journey:

1. If you have an alcoholic Muse who's frequently absent, start a blog that doesn't require her.

2. Write what you're passionate about. It may have nothing to do with your magnum opus. All it has to do is get you to write.

3. Read a plethora of blogs that are related to what you're writing. You'd be amazed what you'll learn about blogging just by reading blogs, and reading the comments sections.

4. Comment! When something grabs you, don't keep it to yourself. Say so in the comments! It helps you practice getting short, relevant responses together, which is good practice for writing blog posts. It tells the poor beleagured author of the blog that somebody actually gives a damn about their words. You get to interact with a lot of wonderful people. And some of those people will follow you home to your own blog to continue the conversation, and you'll end up with readers who are far more than just readers - they're your friends.

4a. A caveat: do not use another blogger's comments section to shamelessly advertise your own site. It's bad manners and it puts people off. If you wrote a post that has a different take on the issue discussed in the other blogger's post, you might be able to get away with a link in a comment - but observe the norms of the community you're in. If other bloggers get thumped for linking to themselves, don't do it. And only leave comments if you have something to contribute to the conversation.

5. If you get a lively community going, and many of you are of the same mind, and there's not yet a blog carnival for your interests, don't be afraid to start one.

6. Don't be afraid to reach out to your favorite bloggers and give them the opportunity to join your Carnival. More than a few of the contributors for the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards were bloggers I'd actively approached, because I loved and respected their work and I just knew they'd be an excellent fit. Others I would have approached if they hadn't signed on to the idea immediately. (And then I ran out of time, so not everyone I'd like to see on board got a personal invite, but that's okay - there's always another voyage!)

7. Have your contributors advertise shamelessly on their sites.

8. Put the contributions together in the liveliest fashion you can, make sure it's perfect (DON'T forget any of your contributors in the heat of the moment!), and then go live.

9. And then, if you know of a popular blogger who's a generous soul and who's likely to enjoy what you've put together, and is never averse to giving baby blogs a leg up, by all means don't be afraid to shoot off a little email request saying, "If you like this and you could, would you please give us a mention?" The worst they can do is say no. The best they can do is give you a beautiful plug on their site, and ensure that your amazing contributors get the recognition they deserve for all their hard work.

10. Watch your life change, and possibly see your words change lives.

That, in a very brief nutshell, is the path this writer took to get where she is today. Your path may be very different. Use the guideposts that are of use to you and discard the rest.

And never, ever, give up on your words.

01 June 2008

Readers, Where Are You?

The Coffee-Stained Writer will be hosting its first photo carnival!

I want to see you (or someone) reading. At a library, coffee house, on the bus, walking in the park, swimming, hanging from a tree, or playing WiiFit. Show me a picture of you (or someone) reading that best represents your personality.

You may begin sending your photos on June 20th to coffeestainedblog (at) gmail (dot) com. Be sure to include your name, the name of the person or people in the photo (if different), a title/caption if you want, and a short bio. All photos will be posted on the blog.

The deadline to submit a photo is June 30th. The photos will be posted beginning July 1st.