Friday, March 25, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse and March's Book Pick: Only a Kiss

Hello Friends! Welcome to The Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a gathering of book lovers who congregate once a month to discuss what they've read.

This month, I am doing this without having finished any of the books I started. I am currently reading five books (mistake number one). Why do I always do this to myself? I start one book, then I run across another and think, “Oh! I must read that one.” In between my own writing, and editing other manuscripts, I find I read a little of this one, a bit here, a chapter or two there…and then it’s the end of the month and I’ve finished nothing.

But here we are and I must choose something, so I’m going with my gut on this one. Of all of the novels I began reading this month, the one I’m closest to finishing as well as the one I’m most enjoying is Mary Balogh’s Only a Kiss.

Here is the blurb from Amazon:

Since witnessing the death of her husband during the wars, Imogen, Lady Barclay, has secluded herself in the confines of Hardford Hall, their home in Cornwall. The new owner has failed to take up his inheritance, and Imogen desperately hopes he will never come to disturb her fragile peace.

Percival Hayes, Earl of Hardford, has no interest in the wilds of Cornwall, but when he impulsively decides to pay a visit to his estate there, he is shocked to discover that it is not the ruined heap he had expected. He is equally shocked to find the beautiful widow of his predecessor’s son living there.

Soon Imogen awakens in Percy a passion he has never thought himself capable of feeling. But can he save her from her misery and reawaken her soul? And what will it mean for him if he succeeds?

First of all, this novel takes place in Cornwall. I visited Cornwall back in the 90s and found it breathtaking, but I’ve recently enjoyed a renewed love of the region after watching Doc Martin, Poldark, and last week’s Lifetime Movie Network’s adaptation of Agatha Christie's And then there were None. Mary Balogh is a wonderful writer and her words paint beautiful descriptions of a Cornish coast (as well as detailing some of the problems the Cornish suffered during the Regency such as smugglers, shipwrecks, etc.) Additionally, I am not much of a lover of romance, but that’s why I like this one. Aside from the romantic aspect, there is a much more serious side plot featured. Imogen is a member of the Survivor’s Club, a group of people who have survived insurmountable odds and lived to tell about them. In Imogen’s case, she witnessed the death of her husband in the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic wars. Although she was treated well, her husband was tortured (often within earshot of her holdings). In the end, she was witness to his hanging. Along with the grief of his loss, she must also now deal with survivor’s guilt.

While there is the usual hot and heavy bedroom sequence in here, considering the length of the novel, the sexual content is relatively small (although if you are offended or bothered by such scenes, best to skip this one, as it’s pretty graphic).

Balogh is master of creating secondary characters, and it’s virtually impossible not to love Lady Lavinia’s character, Imogen’s aunt and an inhabitant of Hardford Hall, who takes it upon herself to rescue every stray dog in the region. She treats them like her children, loving them back to health and providing them with permanent homes either in her own house or others. She brings extra life and humor to the story. 

The plot unfolds slowly and with much attention to detail from the Regency period. Fabrics, locales, foods, and language are all authentically created in Balogh’s novels. She is a prolific writer and has dozens of books to her credit. I read another one of her regency novels last year entitled Heartless with a similar reaction.    

What have you been reading this month?

Monday, March 21, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge Theme Reveal

We're a few days away from the beginning of the A-Z Blog Challenge, and today is the big theme reveal. I've never used a theme before, but this time I'm going to give it a whirl. So the theme is...

The Music of My Life.

Music has always played a big part in my life. Memories of many of my major (and minor) life events are marked by songs. For the twenty-six days of the A-Z Blog Challenge, I will feature songs that corresponded with some life events from the last three decades of my life. I'll begin at age ten and work my way through. I'm really excited about this, and I hope it will be a walk down memory lane for some of you too.

Since I won't be venturing back into the 70s much, I'll leave you with one from the year I was born.

Although I have no memories from this time of my life (my birth), some twenty-plus years later I was on a London tube one night riding from a central point of the city to my shared flat in Bayswater. A very drunk man staggered onto the rail car just before the doors closed. Within seconds of leaving the station, he began to sing the first verse of "The Day the Music Died (Miss American Pie)". By the time he reached the chorus, everyone in the rail car was singing along--including me.

When we reached Bayswater station, we all went our separate ways, still singing Don MacLean's legendary song.

It's not too late to sign up!

Friday, March 18, 2016

April and A-Z Blog Challenge 2016

For the past two years, I have participated in the A-Z Blog Challenge. I wasn't going to do it this year since I am swamped with work, writing, and editing, but I decided to keep up with the tradition and take the plunge.

So once again this year I am participating in the A-Z Blog Challenge. For those who don't know, the challenge consists of daily blogging alongside over a thousand other bloggers covering all manner of topics from a to z. This is only for the month of April and corresponds with 26 of the 30 days (no blogging on Sundays). Each day, bloggers write on a topic that begins with the letter of the alphabet (A is for appetite, B is for Brooklyn, etc.).

It's a lot of fun, and you meet fellow bloggers, writers, and all-around great folks!

In years past, my topics have been quite random, but this time I've decided to take on a theme. The big reveal for this year's theme will take place on March 21st, so stop by then to see what I will be busy writing about in April.

In the meantime, sign up for the 2016 A-Z Blog Challenge or just check out the extensive list of this year's participants (click on the badge to visit the site).

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Troubling Trend of Teens Using Prescription Drugs for Fun

As soon as he walked into the room, I knew he was high. The staggering steps, slurred speech, and the slide of his arms over the side of the desktop as his head found its resting place were all the signs I needed. But the words of the other freshman boys around him confirmed it for me.

"You all right, man?" one of the boys asked,  slapping Jake* on the  shoulder. "I don't know," said another laughing boy. "Doesn't look to me like Jake's walking too good." The laughing continued as all the boys watched him. "I think Jake might need some help," said a third who was so amused by the whole scene that he gasped for air.

I tried to keep the rest of the classroom calm. After all, there were twenty other students there. Some of them quietly sat at their desks and looked at their phones, others were already starting to work, and some were observing the drama as it unfolded.

Surreptitiously, I sent for help, and when an assistant principal arrived in my classroom to remove Jake, the boys who had been laughing and making remarks suddenly seemed shocked into silence. The room quieted down, but I could still see some of the students asking each other what had happened. In answer to one girl's question, a boy made a drinking motion with his hand to show how Jake had ingested whatever drug he took.    

This has been a strange couple of weeks for me. Last week our school lost a student to a prescription-drug combination that resulted in an overdose. That incident started at a party where she took the initial OxyContin and drank alcohol. The doping continued once she got home where she added Xanax to the mix. She was found dead the next morning.

Then this incident. After talking with some other teachers and doing a little research, I have since learned that there is a widespread and growing problem of prescription drug abuse among teenagers. According to the National Institute of Health, prescription drug abuse is highest among youth aged 18 to 25. In 2014, the NIH reported that 5.9 percent of  young adults surveyed reported non-medical use of prescription drugs. And that's only those who fessed up to it.

Where are they getting the drugs? Through their parents' medicine cabinet. Or through their friends' parents' medicine cabinet. Or they are buying it through an on-campus "dealer." In short, the drugs are easy to get. Painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, forms of morphine, as well as stimulants and sedatives like codeine are not just being washed down with swig of water. They are being snorted and even injected for a quicker, easier high.

And this is no longer about peer pressure. Once upon a time, parents worried their kids were being coerced or pressured into using illegally obtained substances in order to be popular, but that is no longer the case. Kids are using it because they're hanging out with other friends who have easy access to it, and they are using too, and together they can all "have a good time." It's about the element of fun, not force.

In 2014, Purdue University conducted a study in which they interviewed 618 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who admitted to using prescription drugs recreationally. Most of these people were frequenters of bars, clubs, and other nightlife locations, and on average they confessed to having used prescription drugs "for fun" 38 times in a 90 day period.

I have been teaching freshman for over ten years. This is the first year where I've known that some students come to class high. They do the stuff before school, between classes, or during lunch. The bathroom is apparently a popular spot for doping. The trouble is, we can't always prove it. We can't deny them bathroom breaks, and we can't follow them in there. Sometimes evidence of a high is a little ambiguous. It might manifest itself in odd behaviors, sleeping in class, or altered personality (suddenly a student becomes "the life of the classroom" when before they were an average kid). Nearly all the kids drink power-drink type beverages of all different colors and flavors. I've been told this is a common solution to mask the drug of choice. But we can't test their drinks for drugs.

Apparently, drug use within the US has escalated in the past few years, and there are now more deaths due to drug overdose than to car crashes. In response, just yesterday, the Senate passed a bill that offers more drug treatment and prevention programs to states as they attempt to combat this issue.

When I was in school, there was a huge anti-drug movement, and the schools were really pushing the "just say no" campaign headed up by Nancy Reagan. I knew of a few kids who did marijuana. I didn't, and I didn't hang out with them. Now, kids from all walks of life are using, and we seem to have gotten away from (or turned a blind eye to) the awareness of young people and drug use prevention.

The motivations of kids using drugs are different now. In a culture where we are all entertained to death, drugs are a fun pastime to kids. Prescription drugs are especially insidious because they are in the home and in the hands of kids.

It's all a little too reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I pray that's not where we're headed.

"If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution-then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise." --ALDOUS HUXLEY     

*Jake is not the student's real name.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Teens, Anonymity, and Online Darkness

I arrived at work Wednesday morning to an e-mail that informed the staff of an emergency meeting. Just as I was opening it, my coworker stopped by my desk. “Did you have a student by the name of Alicia Wyles*?”

“Yes,” I replied. “She was in my 9th grade class two years ago. Why?” Even as I asked, my body tensed with dread.

“She’s dead.”

I looked down at the e-mail on my screen. The message confirmed it. The emergency faculty meeting was to discuss the demise of the junior and strategies we could use for talking points with students and how to aid those who grieved.

Apparently, Alicia had attended a party during which she snorted Oxycontin, drank alcohol, and then returned home at 2:45 a.m. to take more Xanax. The combination was lethal. Because schools were closed the following day, her parents went to work thinking she was still asleep—completely ignorant to the fact that her heart had ceased beating hours ago. A friend found her.

Sitting in my classroom a few minutes later, I scoured the internet for news about the tragedy. Although nothing had been formally released yet, an underground internet forum had already started a thread on her death. What I read there made my mouth drop and my chest ache.

Although some posts were obviously from adults, parents, cautioning kids against using drugs and partying in unsafe environments, others were horrifying and stomach-turning examples of teenage vitriol. Messages like: She was a hoe that got knocked up by my friend and She was an amateur. She didn’t even do any coke. I couldn’t believe it. Twenty-four hours after her death, this was the trash that her family and friends had to read.

Last week, I had been chatting with a fellow teacher about how Alicia was doing this year in his class. He said she was doing well academically, but that she was “caught up” in a lot of the popularity posturing and social media. As I read down through this underground forum, I was shocked to see names of students at the school mentioned in connection with her, details about things she had done with them, how she deserved what happened to her—and who cared anyway?

I've read a lot about cyber bullying, and my students confirm that it happens all the time. I had just never witnessed it with my own eyes on the screen...especially not toward a girl who was no longer alive. 

Social media is a huge part of teenagers' lives; in fact, I might even suggest that they are consumed by it. But it’s the crassness, the insensitivity, the outright lack of respect for other living, human beings that disturbs me. I can't help wonder if the anonymity of the web and the ease with which they can insult their peers without any consequences hardens them to emotions and the realization that these are REAL people.

Kids are suffering from depression and attempting suicides at unprecedented rates, yet we think their social media dramas are not connected? Teenagers may say that their main stress is school, but does it follow that the “school stress” they speak of means homework and classroom expectations? Or could we conclude that these school stresses have more to do with social pressures, gossip, and sexual status? I, for one, refuse to believe that the little bit of homework most teachers give is the catalyst for a mental breakdown. However, I could completely understand how a leaked, sexually-explicit picture, or a rumors spread about what happened at a party could bring a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl to the breaking point. Or at least to the point where she wanted to blot it all out with a hit of Oxycontin.

When asked, many kids will readily admit that to them, school is not a learning environment but a social one. It's a microcosmic world with hierarchies and a lot of secrecy aided by the cloak of online anonymity. Just this week, I was told about sites where kids "confess" to things they've done (sexual or otherwise). These sites suggest that students "let it all out" and tell the dark secrets of their school. This becomes a free-for-all for kids to gossip, slander, and bully other students (or tell about things they, themselves, have done). This online corner has become a hunting ground for predators who troll such sites looking for young, willing prey.

Often, a teenager's online world is cloaked in darkness. When asked, they will deny they practice risky behaviors or that they're being bullied, choosing instead to suffer in silence. Parents may not realize their children are so deeply involved until it's too late.

I think it's time to shine a light on the seedy online world that has such a grip on America's teenagers.

*Alicia Wyles is a fictitious name.

"So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." --Matthew 10:26