A Nibble of Nabokov

A short story inspired by The Metamorphosis. Click to read the story.

A short story inspired by The Metamorphosis. Click to read the story.

I might not be that fond of Kafka, but I LOVE literature.

I don’t know why I care so much about the trends I’m seeing in American education. My daughter is in high school and will soon be out of the system. There is just something in me that rebels against the idea of a government organization–possibly (most likely?) influenced by gigantic corporate interests–making decisions that influence local curricula.

Why would we assume that these corporations are interested in anything but their bottom line? What if there is more to educating a person than their eventual entrance into the corporate mines?

There is also this part of me who loved reading and literature so much that I trained to become an English teacher. Now, I only very briefly worked in the field of education–I wasn’t all that keen about giving out detentions and forcing kids to read stuff they weren’t interested in reading. Yeah. That’s a problem for someone who is trying to teach in a classroom and assign things and administer tests–but I’ve been a lifelong advocate of reading, literacy, and teachers. Teachers are awesome! I love them. I so appreciate what they do, mostly because, as stated above, I can’t do what they do in a classroom situation.

I went into English education because I LOVED THE BOOKS. I wanted to share that joy with others, namely, high school students.

Now the new Common Core education standards for English are calling for a reduction in reading literary fiction and an increase in reading non-fiction–so that students are prepared to read manuals and reports and who knows what all else in the corporate world.

From the Common Core State Standards Initiative Myths vs. Facts webpage.(http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/myths-vs-facts/)

Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.

Fact: With the ELA standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary nonfiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.

I just disagree with this. I disagree with it overall, and I disagree because I think the “fact” the way it is stated is misleading. It downplays the understanding that English Lit teachers will be asking their students to read materials that aren’t literary works of art. I wonder what literary classic is going to be read in Biology? Or World History?

I suppose if there is truly just a spreading out and blending of the reading material, I couldn’t argue, but that begs another question: Is a science teacher the best person to teach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in order to talk about ethics in scientific research? Or the history teacher to discuss the narrative style of William Faulkner? Is an English teacher the best person to teach students how to write a scientific treatise? Wouldn’t a science teacher be better at that?

The thing is, while English teachers may be asked to instruct students in science, history, and technology texts, I’m skeptical that the reverse will be true–which means literature is getting the short shrift. Maybe I’m wrong. I HOPE I’m wrong. I’d never be so HAPPY about being wrong.

I am sad.

Sad, because I believe reading literature should be valued for itself, not what it can do for a student’s marketability.

Sad, because we can learn and think about the human condition when we read complex literary novels.

Sad, because literature is a huge part of our cultural history.

Sad, because I simply love books, beautiful language, the creation of layered characters and situations that reflect the world of the author.

Sad, because school can be much more than technical training and passing the SAT (the SAT is being rewritten to reflect the new Common Core standards–so in essence, anyone who wants to go to college will have to gear their educations toward those standards) and other evaluative tests.

I know that some education experts, teachers, parents, administrators, CEO’s, and government officials see the Common Core as a positive step toward standardizing the education of all students in our country, giving every child the same chance to succeed. I appreciate that point of view. I can even see the validity of the argument. I just can’t embrace it. Not as a lover of literature.

I can only hope that students will get enough of a taste of literary fiction in the curriculum that they begin to crave more and seek it out on their own.

An amuse-bouche of Byron. An appetizer of Angelou. A sip of Shakespeare.

A nibble of Nabokov.

Reading lists for both classic and modern literary works can be found all over the internet and by consulting with your local librarian or bookseller. Here are a few I found.

Goodreads top 100 Literary Novels of All Time www.goodreads.com
Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels www.modernlibrary.com
Top 100 Works in World Literature http://thegreatestbooks.org/lists/28
Pulitzer Prize Winners http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat

I wrote an opinion piece about reading classic literature in the Reporter newspaper this week. It will be up online in a week or two. Check HERE for Some Not So Light Summer Reading. It will be in the June 13 edition.

Wiggling Toward A Sustainable Garden

Red worms! Red worms!

Red worms! Red worms!

When Michelle Gardner of North Waterboro ordered her first batch of red worms last July, she had no idea how quickly her interest–or her garden boxes–would grow. From a plastic baggy about the size of a cup that held 1000 dehydrated red worms cushioned in peat moss, Michelle’s worm “farm” now encompasses several large outdoor garden boxes, 18-gallon plastic tubs, and even an old canoe.

Gardner is hoping to continue to expand her army of red wigglers–which handily compost old produce, eggshells, newspaper, cardboard, and other household garbage into highly usable fertilizer–and she wants to teach others how to utilize worms in their own gardens, as well.

“They multiply very fast,” Gardner said as she walked around her Lake Arrowhead property showing visitors her various composting boxes full of worms, table scraps, and shredded newspaper and leaves. “The worms are hermaphroditic. They will lay two eggs from which hatch two to twelve babies. In less than a month, these newborns are ready to reproduce.”

According to Gardner, worms are extremely helpful for building gardening soil. They increase air flow in the soil by making tunnels. The break down organic matter into castings that act like time release capsules of nutrients into the soil. The speed up the composting process. They also add microbes and good bacteria to the soil. A study at Cornell showed that not only are worm casting good for fertilizing, but it also could help suppress plant diseases caused by pathogens. Beneficial microbes can colonize on a seed’s surface and release a substance that protects the seed from a pathogen.

Worms do not eat living plants, Gardner explains, but rather ones that are already starting to break down. She put some worms in her indoor plant pots with some compost and was amazed at the prodigious growth of the plants once the worms went to work. “I’ve become increasingly successful with them,” she said. She is hoping to start teaching classes on vermiculture, calling her venture Michelle’s Happy Worm Farm. Students will learn how to build their first tub for composting–drilling holes in simple plastic tubs, adding strips of newspaper and leaves, a little bit of soil, and the worms. Worms like coffee grounds, but Gardner warns that because of its acidity, grounds should be accompanied by some other organic matter such as fruit or veggie scraps, manure, or plant debris.

One of the most sustainable ways of using worms is to compost manure. Placing a box of worms and soil under a rabbit hutch, for example, can quickly turn something unpleasant into valuable fertilizer for your vegetable or flower gardens. Red wigglers will not outgrow their container, Gardner assures, although sometimes they seem to be crawling out of the bin. The reasons for this include too high temperatures, too much moisture, or too much acid in the mixture. Adding more air holes, opening the top of the bin, or adding ashes or lime to the soil can remediate these problems.

Getting started with red worms is as easy as creating a bin and keeping it in your cellar, adding a bit of table scraps every so often. They won’t survive freezing temperatures, but once spring comes, the worms can be added to outdoor compost bins. Vermicompost “tea,” which is worm castings steeped in liquid, is also a good liquid fertilizer for household and garden plants.

Is Winter Finally Over in Maine?


Dear Reader:

I see bare lawn.

Normally this would not be a big announcement, but really. It is the second week of April, and still large snow patches crouch beside the rock wall, cling to the back yard, depress me with their grainy, crystalline whiteness.

I want green. Green grass. Green leaves. Green buds.

I want yellow. Yellow daffodils. Yellow dandelions. Yellow-centered daisies.

I want purple. Purple crocus. Purple lilacs. Oh, the heady purple scent of the lilacs in May.

The garden boxes are mostly free of snow, and the dog has been digging in one of them. Beech leaves left over from fall are scattered all around, gathered in front of my steps. The sky is blue today. I can almost, almost imagine that spring is here.

WordPress notified me that I had reached my five year anniversary with this blog. What? How did that happen?

It is spring. It is time to plan my goals for the year. The keyhole-shaped, apple guild garden area will finally be ready for planting this spring. I think I tossed a few tulip bulbs in there last fall (you’d think with this blog I would keep track of these things, but I get loosey-goosey come October) and planted some perennials last summer anyway. So I will be figuring out what kind of apple trees to plant. I want the kind of crab-apple that can be used for making jelly and maybe a companion tree with regular-size apples that can cross-pollinate. I’m open to suggestions.

Around the apple tree will go garlic chives (I did that last year with my miniature crab-apple tree. That was pretty cool), comfrey, yarrow, fennel, bee balm, maybe some artichokes, dill. I know I’ve been talking about this for years, but it has taken that long to build the soil there by the compost bins. This year, it will happen!

Thinning out a bunch of pines created more space for gardens. I have a hugelculture bed that needs planting this year (again, left it to rot down a bit over the winter) and I think I will try potatoes there. Not sure what else.

I will, again, grow many herbs for the bees and other beneficial insects and for cooking. Cucumbers, yes. Cherry tomatoes. Many lettuces and greens.

I also want to create some major perennial beds in keyhole gardens facing south, mixtures of flowers and food.

And then there is the back yard with all the cleanup from the tree-cutting. I have huge brush piles growing at the edge of the property. Some of this could be used for more hugelculture beds.

Pretty soon all this activity will start. I’ll get out my camera and post photos for those who are following along. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be writing this blog. It has been an instructive five years, but somehow I feel that time is drawing to a close. I’ve learned much, incorporated so much into my lifestyle that it no longer feels new or interesting, just normal. I have a few more projects I want to try. I’d like to get a clothesline now that I have more space with sunlight. I’d like to start making my own laundry detergent…

…and man! I still haven’t got that sewing machine out!

Until next time, happy spring!



Dear Reader:

I’ve been all caught up in Wattpad mania, as my regular readers all know. At first I wasn’t sure about it–would it just be another of those social media sites where people all like and follow each other to be polite but nobody actually reads anyone else’s work–but surprise, surprise! It is even more exciting than I could have imagined.

Not only have I found readers who genuinely seem interested in the story I’m writing, but I’ve also found some wonderful writers to follow and some interesting and inventive books and stories and poems to read (some I think are of publishable quality)! Wattpad allows a user to create multiple “reading lists” to help organize your experience. I’ve added so many to my master list, I wonder when I’ll ever get to read all of them! I’m planning on reading through much of that list once I complete my novel-in-progress, DISGUISED. But while I’m writing that, I have to keep focused and maintain momentum. I’ve reached over 1,000 reads, over 100 likes, and am just shy of 200 comments. In, what, three weeks?

It is addictive. But the best part, by far, is being able to interact with readers. I love to hear what they are thinking about the characters. So much fun! I wonder if this is going to change the way we publish and read. The New York Times explores this issue in a recent article.

I find writing a serialized novel (novella?) to be challenging but extremely motivating. I feel as if my readers are depending on me to get something out there for them to read. They want to know what happens! It is pushing me to create two installments a week, about a thousand words in each installment.

In fifteen weeks, then, I’ll have created at least 30K words. If I could push myself to write an installment a day, I’d be done in less than a month. But why hurry?

Here is the link to the next installment, for those of you who are following along. TWISTED.

I know there are probably some of my Localista readers who are wondering when I’m getting back to the outdoorsy stuff—well, mother nature has to cooperate first! I still have a sheet of ice on my driveway. The temps were down to 6 degrees F yesterday. Today, more snow expected.

I did go to a recent author event at the Portland Books A Million. A small, Maine publishing company was highlighting its authors and recent books. I will be writing about that very soon, I promise.

Enjoy your week, my dear readers. If you are lucky enough to have sunshine and warm weather, drop me a line so I can be jealous!

Of Game Nights and Word Games

photo 2

Hello Dear Reader:

Things are heating up over on Wattpad…my story DISGUISED hit #34 on the mystery/thriller list (that is out of hundreds!)yesterday, and I’m trying to keep the momentum going. Sometimes it feels like a word game challenge, trying to come up with a new installment every few days.

If you are following along with this story, here is the link. http://www.wattpad.com/42517500-disguised-breach-of-ethics. And here is the graphic I designed on Polyvore.com to go with it.

Breach of Ethics

Speaking of games…

photo 1

On the local front, I spent last Friday evening playing board games at our local toy store, At Once All Agog. It is totally locally-owned, run by a wonderful local person who also employs another local individual. The store is located in one of our more historically-storied buildings, and At Once All Agog is a pure delight. Makes me want to be a kid again!

What whimsical and wonderful shops do you have in your town or neighborhood? When is the last time you visited, talked with the local owner, shopped for something unique and fun?

Skimming the Till

Skimming the Till

Dear Reader:

So, I’ve been writing a serialized mystery story on Wattpad.com. I wasn’t sure how the free reading/writing site would work for me, but I’m actually finding some good stories to read and some readers for my experimental story that mixes fashion, romance, and detective fiction into one (hopefully) amusing romp.

Writing fiction gets my creative juices flowing these days, but spring is coming. Soon it will be time to get out into the garden boxes and start focusing on growing things.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day weekend. Slainte!

Country Prom Queen


Latest flash fiction. Could also be called Best Laid Plans.

Originally posted on 52 Flash:

country prom queen

By Shelley Burbank

Her mother named her Amy, after the character in Louisa May Alcott’s book, the youngest sister who longed for elegant surroundings, art, clothing. A stylish, sophisticated Little Woman.

Our Amy grew up in a tiny, rural community forty minutes west of Portland, a place where the men congregated at the Village Variety for a cup of coffee and a chat before heading out to haul logs, drill wells, pump septic tanks, or blast some rock up to the gravel pit on Hildebrant Mountain. At home, the women sipped sweet tea out of mugs printed with names of local businesses, Three Lakes Credit Union, Conway’s Feed & Supply, The Country Grocer, and chased toddlers around all day in their home-based daycares.

The toddlers’ mothers got dressed up in skirts and blouses from JC Penney and drove the back roads over to Portland to work, putting in sixty-hour weeks…

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