Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Summer, ascendant

From where I sit in my quiet office, I can just about get a glimpse of the near edge of Summer. At the moment it's a big blank amorphous hot-air balloon threatening to drift off into the stratosphere, so let's tie it firmly to the solid earth with some meaningful goals.

I'm not going to Louisville to grade AP essays this summer and I have very few solid commitments on the schedule, which is a good things since I need to be available at a moment's notice to rush to Akron to welcome the impending grandbaby into this world or to rush to Florida to ease my mother's journey to the next. Aside from those important tasks, how will I spend my summer?

Fitness goal: walking at least 12 miles per week. I've done more in the past but not since my bad hip starting acting up. Will I ever get back to the 15-20 miles per week I used to walk? Maybe summer's heat will ease the pain.

Research/writing goals: Finish revising last summer's conference paper and submit it to a journal; write the article that takes the next step in the project; make enough progress on the project so that it will look fundable next time I submit a proposal for a summer research grant.

Teaching goals: Revise three old syllabi and create one brand-new one from scratch. Meet with learning community partners to develop meaningful activities aimed at integrative learning. 

Professional development goals: Prepare a faculty workshop on the changes to MLA citation format--and change all of my handouts to reflect the new style. (I'm afraid I'll have to look at every handout from every class I teach, starting with the four I'm teaching this fall.)

Personal goals: Plan an overnight canoe trip with my chief oarsman. Visit Fallingwater. Spend a reasonable amount of time gardening without letting the garden take over my whole entire life. Watch birds. Write about it all.

That looks like enough rope to keep the balloon from drifting out of control. Now all I need to do is climb into the basket and begin the ascent.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Caught in the act

Wood thrush

My birding-and-botanizing buddy came out to keep me company during the latest stage in Waiting for the Phone Man, and even though we had to stay close to the house in case the service technician showed up, we found plenty to wonder over: wood ducks flying above the creek, a Louisiana waterthrush singing its heart out along the bank, yellow warblers singing invisibly in the trees, a rose-breasted grosbeak in the tulip poplar just overhead. We traced the bell-like call of a wood thrush in the back yard for quite a while before catching a fleeting glimpse of the elusive bird, and we thought we'd hit the jackpot. 

Then we saw the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Well, we heard it first, a whispery little whistle easily overlooked, but it took a while to find the tiny puff of gray and white on a tree branch at the edge of the lower meadow. A week from now that tree will have thoroughly leafed out, but today it was bare enough to allow easy observation of a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers building a nest. 

Blue-gray gnatcatcher on the nest
It doesn't look like a nest--just a bulge on a branch with some stuff stuck to it. But we watched as the two birds flew up carrying bits of spiderweb and lichen in their beaks and glued it down around the nest's exterior, and we even observed courting behavior when one bird would offer the other a bit of grub.

I've memorized the spot and noted the best place to stand to watch the nest so I acn locate it again and follow their progress. I don't know if that tree is sturdy enough to climb, so maybe a ladder would help--or a periscope. Anyone have a surplus periscope gathering dust in the attic? 

People ask me sometime why I choose to live so far out in the boonies, and today I have an answer: where else can you observe such wonders just outside the door? 


New frontiers in non-communication

Dear whoever might be listening out there at Frontier Communications:
Two years ago when a car flipped into our creek in the middle of the night, we were the only people who heard the crash. I dialed 911 and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the place was crawling with first responders within minutes.

If that happened today, I wouldn't be able to dial 911. In fact, I wouldn't be able to call anyone. Our landline has been out of service since April 22, and since there is no cell-phone access in our rural area, I have had to either contact you via live chat or call you from my work phone, which is difficult to do when you keep telling me that I have to stay home from work to wait for a service technician. Over the course of the past week and a half, various representatives (Hi, Amber! Hi, Chris!) have conveyed to me the following messages:

1.  We will have a service technician out there April 29. Someone will need to be home between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

2. No, we didn't send someone out to fix the line on April 29 because our records show that it was fixed on April 26. 

3. No, we didn't inform you that you would not need to stay home on April 29 because we assumed you would figure that out when you saw that the phone was fixed.

4. What do you mean it's not fixed? Our records show that it was repaired on April 26.

5. We will expedite this ticket and have someone out there April 30. Someone will need to be home between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

6.  We have no record that anyone was scheduled to come out on April 30, but our records show that someone will be there on May 2 or maybe May 3. Someone will need to be home between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. 

7. You'll need to provide a phone number where we can reach you at home.

I am now spending a third full day sitting at home waiting for my phone to be fixed, and it looks as if I'll be doing the same thing for the foreseeable future. (It's easy work, but the salary stinks.) I don't know where your service technician went on April 26 when he claimed to be at my house fixing my phone line, but he didn't come here. While I stay home waiting for the service technician, here are some things I can't do:

1. Call my father to get an update about my mother, who was admitted to the hospital yesterday.

2. Call my daughter to check on the progress of the new grandbaby due to be delivered in a few weeks.

3. Receive calls from anyone, anywhere.

4. Attend the employee service awards ceremony to congratulate my colleagues who are retiring and receive my 15-year service award.

5. Get my annual mammogram.

6. Attend important meetings on campus. 

I have plenty of time, however, to file a complaint with the Public Utilities Service of Ohio. (Another complaint. Because this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened.)

If this were the first time we've had trouble getting service, I would not be quite so upset, but prior experience suggests that Frontier considers landlines outmoded and would be very happy if landline customers would just give up and switch over to cell phones. But what about those of us who can't get cell-phone coverage? Do you expect us to live without a phone entirely?

It's pretty quiet out here in the woods and I confess that I don't miss all those political robo-calls, but if the quiet should be interrupted by another crash from down by the creek, who will dial 911? Will you?

All I know is it surely won't be me.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Traipsing through the Windust

"I've always depended upon the kindness of stranglers," says Maxine Tarnow, and all I can think is I can't believe I had to wade through a page and a half of inane dialogue just to get to that ridiculous punchline. 

But that's the risk you take when you read a novel by Thomas Pynchon: he'll go to any length for a gag--in fact, some of his characters exist primarily as a pretext for trotting out funny names. (Pynchon is, after all, the guy who gave us both Stanley Kotecks and Mike Fallopian in the same novel.) His 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, which only recently rose to the top of my leisure reading pile, offers up Reg Despard, Lester Traipse, a guy named Windust, and Gabriel Ice (a cold-hearted criminal, obviously), along with a mess of throwaway characters no more consequential than dandelion fluff.

What's at stake here, though, is serious: the novel unfolds in Manhattan during the six months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, which provides all kinds of opportunities for clever ironies since readers know what's coming but characters don't. Suspense mounts as we move closer to that fated day; I turn the pages more quickly, wondering which character will die in the towers or book a ticket on the wrong plane. But then the date comes and goes with little fanfare or impact: the planes come in; the towers fall; the characters pick up the pieces; life goes on for Maxine and her peculiarly named pals, many of whom are entangled in what is either a massive worldwide conspiracy or perhaps simply a bit of dodgy accounting.

Maxine, see, is a Certified Fraud Examiner, or used to be one before she indulged in a bit of dodgy accounting of her own and had her certification revoked. She plays the role here of the hard-boiled detective who gets lured into a web of deceit and corruption involving online hacking, massive shipments of fiberoptic cable, and a weapon oddly reminiscent of those rockets that provide the airborne trajectory to Gravity's Rainbow. In Bleeding Edge, Maxine finds herself drawn deep underground into a mysterious secret bunker and then into the Deep Web, the dark undercurrent of the Internet. Despite her street smarts and savvy banter, Maxine finds herself scrambling, with "no idea how to step outside her own history of safe choices and dowse her way across the desert of this precarious hour, hoping to find what? some refuge."

One possible refuge is a private online space called DeepArcher, which promises departure into a sanctuary where anything is possible; Maxine believes the Internet offers empowerment, but her father offers a darker view, reminding Maxine that the Internet's origins lie within the military-industrial complex: 

"Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid....Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future."

Soon enough, Maxine's online refuge is invaded by tourists and trolls, becoming as polluted as the Fresh Kills landfill she characterizes as "the perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence," a mound containing the city's "collected history" made up of "everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself." But the trash is impossible to contain, keeps oozing back across the invisible line, just as real life and virtual life seem to intermingle promiscuously while Maxine teeters precariously on the bleeding edge.

Maxine has her moments but I don't find her as compelling or believable as Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 (published 50 years ago!), whose encounter with a worldwide conspiracy seems much more treacherous than Maxine's, even though Oedipa's conspiracy is hopelessly low-tech. Like Maxine, Oedipa must decipher messages indistinguishable from garbage and stumbles into a morass of undecidability, but Maxine gets the satisfying resolution unavailable to Oedipa.

I started reading Bleeding Edge while traveling last week and it's the perfect book to read in transit: interesting enough to distract from the awfulness of travel but lightweight enough to leave behind without regret, consigning it to the landfill Pynchon describes so lyrically.    

Friday, April 29, 2016


Finished grading!! This calls for a celebration! Call me a wild and crazy girl, but I think I'll stay home all day waiting for the phone company to restore service to my landline! 

Frontier has promised to send a technician today within a fairly narrow time slot--between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.! I can't imagine a better way to spend my entire day than to sit and wait for the phone guy! If I get bored, I can clean the bathrooms or sweep the floors, or if it stops raining I can even mow the lawn! And if the phone company fails to show up, I can drive five miles down the road to find some cell-phone coverage and file a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio!!!! I've filed a PUCO complaint before when Frontier refused to show any interest in repairing a nonfunctioning landline, and I can do it again if it's the only way to make them care!!!!! 

What an exciting life I lead!!!!!!!!!!

(Oops: It's only April and I've already used up my entire annual quota of exclamation points. Time to bring out the ampersands&&&&&&.) 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Three cheers for final exams! (Well, maybe two and a half)

My first exam as a college student was in a Western Civ class and consisted of a single question: "Outline the history of ancient Egypt."

I'm doomed, I thought, because let's face it: no matter how many names, dates, and events you frantically scribble on a page in an hour's time, you're bound to leave something out. I left that exam certain not only that I'd flunked but that I would soon flunk out of everything, lose my scholarships, and go back to Florida to work at the orange juice bottling plant. Doomed.

I'm sure some of my students felt that way this week. One student told me my American Lit Survey final exam was the hardest exam he's ever taken, and I don't doubt him because it's the hardest exam I ever give. The questions are not tricky or obscure or even unexpected (since I provide a thorough study guide), but students have to write a lot and do some original thinking about a mess of poems. Most students took two hours to complete the exam and several took the full two and a half.

And most of them aced it.

Seriously: the vast majority of grades on this exam were A's and B's, suggesting that when students are challenged to show what they've learned and given sufficient time to do so, they can produce some really amazing work.

We all complain about the burden of grading all those final exams, but let's not overlook the rewards: when we give students a chance to shine, we get to bask in the glow they produce. Even on my most brutal exams, students find interesting connections among literary works, write engaging analytical essays, and demonstrate mastery of concepts we've been developing throughout the semester. 

And they do all this even though final exams don't really make much difference in their grades.

Dirty little secret here: unless a student totally bombs a final exam, it won't have much impact on the student's final grade in my classes. It might nudge a borderline grade one way or the other, but final exam grades rarely move the world or send a student packing for the orange juice plant.

And my first college exam didn't send me packing either. Much to my surprise, I aced it, which provided a boost of confidence that carried me through the rest of the semester. I may have encountered more difficult tests since that time (I'm looking at you, Comprehensive Exams!), but that first baptism by fire made me feel first I'm doomed and then I can do this. This week I'm passing that experience on to my students, and every time they show me that they really can do it, I want to stand up and cheer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Get your procrastination here!

In case anyone needs a distraction from grading:

Apparently I'm the last to learn about this great blog called Awful Library Books, in which librarians from all over post comments about awful books they've discarded. I love books too much to enjoy the prospect of large-scale book purges, but on the other hand, how many books about psychic Sasquatch does a library need?

The Atlantic hit a nerve this week with Neal Gabler's article "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans" (read it here), concerning the financial fragility of the middle class. Gabler writes, "the primary reason many of us can't save for a rainy day is that we live in an ongoing storm," and I think, Yep, that's me. 

But then I read "Why So Many Smart People Aren't Happy" and I think, Me again. In the article (here), Joe Pinsker interviews Raj Raghunathan about his book, If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy? Raghunathan discusses the constant dissatisfaction caused by the search for extrinsic rewards and claims that "what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis. When you observe children, they are very good at this. They don't get distracted by all those extrinsic yardsticks. They go for things that really bring them a lot of enjoyment." So I guess spending time with my granddaughter really is the key to happiness.

I know it's been a few weeks since this came out but it still makes me laugh out loud: if Donald Trump had written Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (here). ("And by the way, this snow is pathetic.") It's brought to you by a fun quirky blog called The Rotting Post, which is addictive enough to seriously interfere with my grading.

Finally, if you've familiar with the evangelical Christian community, please run--don't walk--over to The Babylon Bee, the Onion for the churchy set. The headlines alone are enough to make me giggle: "Youth Pastor Forgets What His Hebrew Tattoo Means"; "Adult Coloring Books to Feature Favorite Imprecatory Psalms"; "Church Small Group Looking Forward to Six-Week Study of Awkward Silences." My people, my people!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Once were--what? Was I saying something?

Last week when I was out of town I didn't spend one nanosecond worrying about my classes because I knew I'd left them in capable hands--and sure enough, they did what they needed to do and did it well. This morning I've been grading quizzes and interpretive maps and fielding a few last-minute questions about exams and papers, but mostly I'm seeing students demonstrate that they learned the things they needed to learn despite (or perhaps because of) my absence. 

It's true that the postcolonial class hated the film they had to watch, but that's not surprising. I'd be concerned if they didn't find Once Were Warriors disturbing, what with the poverty, drinking, fighting, domestic violence, rape, suicide, and wholesale cultural marginalization. It's supposed to be a disturbing film because it depicts a disturbing reality--so much so that when it first aired, many viewers recognized their own lives reflected on the screen. Now that's disturbing!

Now my students have the chance to show what they've been learning: I'm giving two final exams today and one tomorrow afternoon and collecting final papers in the film class tomorrow morning. My brain still seems to be working in slow motion, but maybe it'll get up to speed once I get back into the grading groove. Meanwhile, there's chocolate. I brought some for my students who have to take long final exams at odd hours like 3:00 to 5:30, but it won't hurt if I have just one piece, right? (Or maybe two.)