Tag Archives: nonfiction

textbooks, vodka, and elvis impersonators:

Textbook Stack

Image by greenasian via Flickr

a nearly impossible dilemma.

you might not consider me a “textbook expert” (is there such a thing?), and you might consider me even less an expert because my post has no capital letters (forgive me, i’m a little tired).  in my defense, i’ve purchased textbooks, sold textbooks, and assigned textbooks.  after reading an uninformed editorial in the stylus, i was reminded of the issue.

here are the three people in the back of my mind when i think about textbooks, because i’ve been all three.

1. the student:

i might stand in line for an hour to pay  $40, or $70, or $125 to read this thing.  the cashier, who cracks her gum, texts or talks to the person at the register next to her, will ask me, when the third week of class comes, if she can copy my notes or borrow my book.  my eyes will glaze over as i read the 3rd line of the 2nd paragraph forty times without an ounce of thought to show for it.  or, if my instructor doesn’t require me to read it, i will use it as a coaster or a hotplate–either way, it’s holding my beverage or my meal, two things way more enticing to me than anatomy and physiology.  then i’ll be graded.  once the end of the semester comes, i will sell the book back for either half of what i (or my parents, or my student loans/grants) paid, or less than that, if my professor isn’t using it next semester.

most importantly, i desperately want to celebrate the end of the semester. i want to get dressed up, wear stilettos in the snow, maybe a coat if it matches, and walk, drinking vodka straight from the clear bottle, until the christmas lights turn into strobe lights and i scream the lyrics to “livin on a prayer” in chorus with people who will disappear in a few days.  i want to stumble down to the bar and dance my face off, which i cannot do without the money i should get from selling my books back.  i am pissed.

this is me circa 2000-2006.  note that some responsible students desperately need that money for other things, like bills.  they are even more pissed.

2.  the textbook seller:

i work for an independent bookstore or a corporate bookstore.  i could work at either, or both, but probably not at the same time.  i manage this department.  people are never happy to walk in here and buy my merchandise.  textbooks are never christmas gifts or birthday presents.  could you imagine?

“be careful, it’s heavy and expensive,” #1 says, handing the candy cane-papered theory of modern algebra book to #2.

“ok.  ohh is it that painting i wanted?” #2 says.

“no.  but it’s enlightening, too.  and it’s glossy with a picture.” #1 says.

“a book?  please tell me it’s the history of rock from 1970-1990!” #2 says.

“can you just open it? it’s getting worse.”

no one wants to pay $100 for a western civ book, and i don’t blame them.  here’s my dilemma: the publisher charges x.  i charge roughly  x + .25(x), depending on the publisher (the better discount we get from the publisher, the better retail price the student pays).  this is not a secret.  just ask.  i will tell you all about it.  here’s what that cost does–pays x to the publisher, pays shipping costs, pays wages to every hand that touches the book from the back door to the shelf, pays for light so i can see to shelve them, and the heat in this store so i’m not out sick once the temperature dips below 30.

it also pays my salary, which is enough to feed my family and pay the mortgage.  i am not rich.   my job is a tough one.  i am a counselor, a shelver, a secretary, and extremely apologetic if i make a mistake.  i will give students $$ after they’ve used the book for the semester as long as i know i will be able to sell it again.  the more sell-able the book is, the more $$ they will get.  supply and demand.

i would address the issue of publishers, but i don’t want to make any enemies.  let’s just say that next year the book will be in a new edition because the 50th word on page 422 will be different than the last edition.  most of the time, that’s it. once the 4th edition is in print, the 3rd edition is doable, but only for so long.  the more time passes, the harder the 3rd is to find.  oh, and the new edition comes with a passcode that restricts it to one-time use.

i live by the philosophy that every time a student buys a used book, not only does an angel get its wings, but the student has more money in their pocket, which is good.  especially if my store offers some item (like a hoodie or cute journal) they might actually enjoy spending that money on.

lastly, if you can find it cheaper somewhere else, go for it.  i believe in the health of competition, how it forces me to do what i can to get used books in the store, how it urges me to fire the cashier who is texting her friend at the front counter.  just don’t ask me to copy the isbn numbers of all your textbooks so you can buy them from an online seller.  i’m busy.  email your instructor.

3. the instructor:

you don’t want to read a textbook, and i don’t want to teach from one.  they are boring and create horrible discussions, for the most part.  beware, these are the kind of generalizations i warn my students about.

luckily, i teach creative writing, where i can have discussion on craft, give small entertaining handouts to teach students what they need to know, and spend the rest of the time having each write a story with the following elements:

a homeless man

an elvis impersonator

an apple

the abstraction “ambition”

a city street

then we will dissect this as a group.  we will use “key terms,” not just memorize them.  they will have to say the term “third-person omniscient” in context and know what that means.  but we’ve talked about it, not just read about it, so they understand.

thankfully, i’m not a science or math instructor.  then i would be in trouble.  all of my ideas would be vapor, and i’d long to be the creative writing instructor with a light book bag, maybe even something stylish.

ultimately, i relearn one thing when the student, the bookseller, and the instructor argue, and it’s that education is both expensive and valuable.

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Backyard Casualties


That day was so bright I wore sunglasses to avoid laugh lines at the crook of my eyes, but then removed them for fear of round tan lines from my forehead to my cheeks.
I watched my son, Johnny, regardless of shades.
How could I not?  He approached everything with curiosity and lush.  However I stepped, he stomped. What I said, he yelled.  If I cried, he wailed.  


Before Johnny, I used to drink a glass of pinot grigio on the bench by the pond in my backyard, where I waited for my husband, Cory, to come home.  Then, after only four years, I was at a loss for that blanket of sun, my feet tapping the crisp leaves, the calm of the koi fish lulling in the water, without my worry that I had become responsible for them.


We drained the pond for my fear of Johnny drowning, and Cory's dismay at maintaining its cleanliness, the “balance” of algae and bacteria in the water for the koi.  It was some kind of science.  After, though, we had a hole of tarp, dying lily plants, and occasional puddles for bugs to wade in.
Because of the pond that had once burrowed into our dirt, Johnny had a high number of snails and toads to marvel at.  The creature’s displacement was pretty evident.  These nomads hopped and slugged around our yard, searching for some place to live.
Finally I had bought a yard-plaything to attract Johnny from the pond wreckage and the edges of our yard—rows of trees and poison ivy, gatherings of mosquitoes and gnats.  For forty dollars at a garage sale, I bought a large plastic jungle gym, with holes like swiss cheese, and a slide faded to pastel green from someone else’s heavy afternoon sun.
Johnny was apprehensive at first, as he sized up the height of the slide, circled around the gym, peered in the holes under the platform.  Finally, he giggled and crawled through into the shade and out again.
“Johnny,” I said. “Try the slide.”
“Yeah,” he said and walked over, anxious to climb up its incline.  There were two snails lazing in the very middle, having claimed their resting place.  “Mommy,” he said. “Look!”  He plucked the snails up between the chub of his fingers and threw them down.  Then he stomped on one, and laughed.
“No,” I said.  That’s it, I thought.  I’ve raised a snail-killer.  “Don’t hurt them.”
He stepped on the other snail and delighted in its crunch.  When I squealed again, he hung a finger from the corner of his mouth, and stared up at me.

“Why?”  Johnny asked when I told him not to stomp the snails.
“Because,” I said. “That snail has a mommy and daddy snail.  They will look for him.”
“Oh,” Johnny said.


More than two years before, when we still had the pond, I saw my first blue heron--at least the first that made any impression on me.  Its wing span flapped prehistorically, and at first, its size frightened me.  It would take flight as I pulled in the driveway, having perched at our pond hunting our expensive koi pets.  Cory draped orange plastic netting over the length of pond after we found the heron nipping at our large gold koi one morning.  I admired the heron from the kitchen window, and was sad that we were being unfriendly.  It was the gap of scales and flesh the heron's beak tore from our largest fish, as he lost grip of the heavy meal, that made him my enemy.  Cory took the weighty fish out of the pond since the front of his face (do fish have faces?) was missing.  I tugged at the sides of my skirt, and gritted my teeth to keep from crying over a pet I hadn't even named.  Cory's long arm threw the fish, still floundering about, to the ditch next to our yard.  I swore the other fish never swam the same after.  

The summer after Johnny's snail stomping, we played with the toads, since his touch was gentler, and more precise.  He had a creature cage for caught insects or toads.  This way, Johnny could poke and prod and scrunch his nose at the things.  He sometimes jerked his head back if they darted against its sides too hard.  Like everything, even hot dogs, toads lost their appeal to Johnny.  I set the cage down on a chair and ran after him while he slapped wildly at his Spiderman ball, rolling it through the grass. 

The next week, I told Johnny we couldn't close the toads in the cage, so he threw a tantrum, pounded at the ground.  I debated showing him the perished toad I had mistakenly imprisoned since the last time we played in the yard, how it had starved probably some time around Wednesday.  I kept that secret to myself, and let him scream at the grass beneath him so all the ants could hear.  

Later that afternoon, Johnny was gathering the snails from the walkway parallel to our back door.  There were four of them spaced out over ten feet of cracked field-stone.  Meticulously, he lined them up, similar to how he lined up his matchbox cars on the windowsill. 

"Johnny, whatcha doing?"

"The snail family wants to be together," he said.  The tips of Johnny's nails were little brown grins, bobbing up and down as he picked the snails up and moved each forward, and forward, and forward, his own version of checkers. 

"They are going for a walk," he said.