Monday, June 27, 2022

Finding myself at a college reunion

My first thought on seeing my husband's college classmates assembled for their 40th reunion was Who are all these old people? Not only because they are, in fact, old--a whole two years older than I am--but because I really didn't know a whole lot of his classmates 40 years ago and I don't know them any better now. But I enjoyed visiting with the woman who preceded me as editor of our college newspaper and marveling over the incredible improvements in the college's journalism facilities.

We used to put together the college paper in a spare room in the basement of a women's dorm; now, the college has a whole fancy-schmantsy high-tech building dedicated to print and broadcast journalism. When we pasted up the newspaper (using a wonky wax machine to position hard copy on layout sheets), our work often extended past curfew, in which case we had to call Campus Security to get an officer to walk us across campus and let us in our dorms. 

Which are gone. In fact, nearly every place I inhabited in that little college community has been torn down. In my freshman year, eleven of us were housed in an overflow dorm near campus, although calling it a dorm is misleading. It was an old white frame house with bunk-beds crammed into every available nook and cranny. The spot where it sat is now a parking lot, as is just about every other place I lived. My husband's first dorm is now the admissions office. And the library where I spent so much of my time was transformed into a student center after the new (and very impressive) library was built in 2020.

So the campus has changed and the people have changed and the dress code has really changed. Women had to wear dresses or skirts pretty much all the time; if we wanted to run on the college track, we would put a denim wrap skirt over our shorts lest anyone should be offended by the sight of knees while we walked up the hill to the athletic fields. I remember once that the wife of a Trustee complained to the college administration because the yearbook showed too many women wearing pants, and if a woman had shown up in the college chapel wearing a pants suit, the dean of women would have had heart failure on the spot.

So it was a little disconcerting to see all these old people wandering around the sacred environs in (gasp!) shorts and T-shirts, many of the men violating the former dress code by sporting facial hair. Some of them even had hair that fell below the level of their shirt collar, though many more had no hair at all. (Because they are old. As am I.)

I found myself in the basement of the chapel, where pictures of each graduating class line the walls. In my senior photo, I look like a ghost with a perm. I'm wearing a gray wool skirt suit that I remember well, because I sewed it myself after smuggling my sewing machine into my dorm room. (Ancient electrical wiring--excess appliances not allowed!) I bought the gray wool fabric to coordinate with some antique mother-of-pearl buttons I found at a flea market, because back then I was capable of buying yards and yards of wool to match a set of pretty buttons and turning the whole thing into my best skirt suit in my spare time. Who is that person and where did she go?

Ultimately, she went home. It was interesting to commune with my former self over the weekend but it's good to be home, where my sewing machine barely runs and I don't have to worry about dress codes and my house hasn't been converted into a parking lot. My alma mater played a big part in getting me where I am today, a lot older and maybe a little bit wiser--and with a lot less hair. I mean, who was that person?


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

More anthology anguish

My previous post has come back to haunt me. When I wrote "Such are the dreams of the everyday academic," I didn't expect to suffer lingering after-effects.

First, it left behind an annoying earworm--I can't get that stupid Glen Campbell song "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" out of my head, even though it makes me want to kick whoever wrote the lyrics, which Google suggests was Chris Gantry. I've often warned my students against equating the narrator of a poem with its author so I don't want to attribute the sentiments in the song to either Glen Campbell or Chris Gantry, but any dude who refers to his beloved spouse as an "everyday housewife" while claiming to have access to her deepest inner feelings deserves a hearty kick in the shins. Unfortunately, those guys aren't available for kicking so I remain frustrated.

Second, my curiosity about the contents of the new edition of my usual American Lit Survey anthology got the better of me and I had to take a look. The good news is that yes, there are some interesting additions, although I still don't see any sign of Amit Majmudar. The bad news, though, is more mixed.

No more "Daisy Miller"! Instead, the only Henry James work included in this edition is "The Turn of the Screw." Now there's nothing wrong with "The Turn of the Screw" except that it doesn't do what I need it to do in that particular class. We start off the American Lit Survey by talking about how writers tried to reimagine what it meant to be an American in the aftermath of the Civil War, and "Daisy Miller" serves nicely as James shows all these expatriate Americans in Europe trying and failing to understand Daisy. As an added bonus, we examine how Daisy's jingoistic little brother illustrates some less admirable aspects of American character. Ideal! 

"The Turn of the Screw," on the other hand, is a thoroughly British story, and in fact it's often taught in British Lit classes. James is one of those authors who ends up on both American and Brit Lit syllabi, but that doesn't mean that students should read the same story in both classes. "The Turn of the Screw" simply can't do for my students what "Daisy Miller" does. And besides, I'll miss Daisy! She's a problematic character but useful in her own way.

The drama problem is of a different sort. My students tend to fear poetry and dislike the length of prose fiction readings, but they just don't seem to have much experience in reading dramatic works. They'll take a stab at Susan Glaspell's Trifles, which provides a good introduction to elements of modernism in one action-packed act. Anything longer or more demanding sends students straight to online summaries, while those who attempt to do the reading offer the same tired complaints year after year. Long Day's Journey into Night: too many long boring speeches. Glengarry Glen Ross: too much cursing. Topdog/Underdog: couldn't keep the characters straight. And so on.

The new anthology still offers Trifles and Long Day's Journey into Night, but instead of A Streetcar Named Desire, it includes Death of a Salesman. The last time I taught Death of a Salesman, I swore that I'd never do it again. In class discussions, the play serves primarily as a cliche-generating machine, and I've never seen a student paper on Death of a Salesman that didn't reek of online summaries. I also find it annoying that this anthology acts as if American drama ended around 1950. Surely some playwright has written something interesting since Death of a Salesman?

So now what do I do--find a different anthology or supplement this one? Fortunately, I don't have to decide for a couple of months, by which time I may have managed to remove that annoying earworm. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

Such are the dreams of the everyday academic

Months before classes start I'm already having first-day-of class nightmares. Last week's horror-fest featured the usual elements--no roster, no syllabus, nonfunctional technology--plus a new twist: poison ivy growing in the corners of the classroom, which one student gathered into lovely bouquets to share with others. 

Last night's nightmare was inspired by the newly revised edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature that arrived on my desk last week: I was desperately trying to assemble a last-minute syllabus but couldn't find anything I needed  because instead of the usual densely printed pages of poetry and prose, the new anthology was full of colorful ads for luxury handbags and watches. It looked like 900 pages of advertisements torn from the Style issue of the New Yorker. How am I supposed to teach from that?

Well the good news is that I don't have to. The new anthology is fatter than the old one, which is not surprising since the time period covered keeps expanding. Post-Civil War American Literature now covers 22 more years than it did when I started teaching the subject, and a lot can happen in 22 years: Amit Majmudar! Colson Whitehead! George Saunders! I haven't opened the new anthology but I see from the publicity material that it includes a cluster of science fiction selections including works by Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin, which my students might find interesting. Will it include works inspired by the Covid pandemic, or is it still too soon for those works to have entered the canon? Will it include more drama or just the usual offerings? I get tired of Long Day's Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire, but in the absence of meaningful alternatives, that's what I teach. And what will be left out?

The anthology sits on the desk in my office still unopened. I'm scheduled to teach the class in spring of 2023, but given the declining enrollments in literature surveys, I may not have enough students to even offer it, so what would be the point of opening the book at this early stage? And yet that's what I'm doing, if only in my dreams.   


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Early lessons from the World of Work

My son was excited last week to receive notification that he'll be getting a check as part of a settlement from a former employer, but I warned him not to get too excited. I was party to a similar settlement as a teen after a restaurant where I'd waitressed went bankrupt, and for several years I received an annual check. I think the biggest one was for 59 cents.

I never cashed the checks. I was more interested in messing up their accounting than in spending the 59 cents. Like my son, I was not party to the lawsuit and to this day don't even know what the settlement was for, but I guess it was nice to be remembered.

That restaurant was one of a sad series: for a stretch of three years during my late teens and early 20s, every company I worked for went through bankruptcy either while I was working for them or soon thereafter. It was quite an education for a naive kid just starting out in the world of work, and it took me a long time to get over the fear that I had somehow jinxed all those fine employers. Well, maybe fine isn't quite accurate. Pick your own adjective:

The restaurant was my first real job, and I confess that I was not a great waitress--but in my defense, it wasn't a great restaurant either. I started waitressing at 17, and by the time I quit eight months later, only one other waitress on the afternoon shift had worked there longer. Training was hit-or-miss, and I made a lot of mistakes. I was really good at keeping things organized and working efficiently, but I was very bad at what they call "soft skills," meaning I wasn't willing to flirt with every idiot who walked in with the price of a cup of coffee in his pants. I also wasn't willing to spend time in the breakroom with the skeevy hosts, who would guide the best tippers to the tables of waitresses who didn't mind getting groped.

I got into trouble once after I got caught in a sudden storm on the way to work and ran my mom's car through water just a bit too deep. It stalled out and I decided, in my adolescent wisdom, to leave the car where it was and walk the remaining mile to the restaurant, because abandoning my mom's car somehow seemed less horrible than being late to work. However, I couldn't bear the thought of walking through knee-high water in the ugly leather waitress shoes that had cost so much of my first paycheck, so I took off my shoes, hiked up the skirt of my ugly uniform, and walked in my panty hose through the deep water. By the time I got to the restaurant, I was drenched and exhausted and my panty hose were shredded, which the manager duly noted as he reamed me out. He was not impressed by the dedication that propelled me to walk a mile through knee-high water, and my parents were even less impressed by my stupidity in driving through that water. But I don't think you can blame the restaurant's decline on that incident.

And you definitely can't blame me for my next employer's problems. Sears was already in bankruptcy protection when I started working in the regional HR office. I did a lot of typing and filing and answering of phones in an office staffed entirely by women--except for the male HR director, who wasn't around much and never learned my name. I remember once a girl I knew from church came in for an interview wearing a tight dress slit up to there, and afterward the HR director came out and announced to all the women in the office, "I think we'll hire the dress and you can all take turns wearing it."

But that was a part-time job and I needed full-time when summer hit, so I started working in the office of a citrus processing plant that suffused my life with the bitter smell of burnt oranges. At first I worked primarily in the Traffic office, where I typed and filed paperwork related to deliveries, but then they started moving me around to whatever department needed a hand, which is how I briefly served some time processing complaints--and trust me, you don't want to know what kinds of things people reported finding in their orange juice. After another employee was fired for lying about having a high school diploma, I was placed in charge of processing and reconciling daily bank deposits, which should tell you something about the company's problem finding qualified accounting help. I spent the rest of my time there, two summers and a long winter break, working on various projects in Accounts Payable or Accounts Receivable.

Early in my tenure, the Powers That Be decided to put me to work on a big pile of paperwork at a spare desk in a small office in which the only other person was the twentysomething son of the company's owner. This son had to be treated with exaggerated respect whenever he turned up despite the fact that no one could ever figure out what he did for the company, but that day I found out how he spent a large proportion of his company time: talking loudly on the phone, recounting sexual escapades in great detail to whoever was on the other end. And all I could do was sit there with my back to the owner's son and try not to hear.

That company went bankrupt a year or so after I quit, to no one's surprise. For a little while I worked for a small community newspaper, which was my dream job until my first paycheck bounced. I don't recall how long I worked there but one day they just closed up with no further word, and a year or two later I heard that the owner was in legal trouble over some kind of fraud. 

The next small community newspaper I worked for--in a different state but essentially the same job--closed up in the middle of summer without any warning. I showed up one day to collect my final paycheck and the owner told me there was no money to pay me the $60 he owed me. I told him I didn't have enough money to fill my car with gas to get home, so I would just sit in his office until he found my money. It took a while, but he paid me--in cash. That $60 had to get me through the rest of the summer, so I wasn't about to leave without it.
That was the summer after my sophomore year of college, so I was all of 20 years old and flat broke, but fortunately, that was my last brush with bankrupt employers. I later worked for a truly horrible newspaper that maintained a healthy bottom line by allowing the advertisers to call the shots, and then later I moved into the heady world of academe, where everyone complains about budget cuts but at least the paychecks don't bounce. And I don't have to flirt with idiots, get groped, or listen to some moron's sexual escapades just to remain gainfully employed. I still do stupid things once in a while, but no one's going to require me to wear ugly shoes while being reamed out. 
The best part is that every once in a while I get an unexpected reward for my hard work--and it's usually a little more than 59 cents.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Positive I'm negative, unless I'm not

Which is more stressful: a home Covid test or a home pregnancy test? The pregnancy test is much quicker and less complicated and a positive result can lead to new life, while the Covid test is slow and clunky and may portend disaster. 

I'm pleased to report that my home Covid test was negative this morning, which is really good news for the approximately 80 people with whom I spent time over the weekend. It felt fabulous to do so much face-to-face socializing after a long dry spell, but then it was sobering to learn that I'd been exposed to Covid just before all the socializing began.

It started on Thursday morning, when I had coffee and a long face-to-face chat with a friend, blissfully unaware that she would soon develop mild symptoms and test positive for Covid. 

On Friday I drove north to attend my grandson's birthday party, a raucous outdoor affair involving squirt-guns and water balloons, where the youngest attendee was the three-week-old sibling of one of the guests. I never even got close to the baby, but my grandkids were in my face and on my lap often enough.

On Saturday I drove south to attend a friend's 50th anniversary celebration, where I spent two hours indoors with about 50 people, mostly over 50 and a few in poor health. A joyful event with hugs all around. We ate cupcakes and sang songs and played a ridiculous version of The Newlywed Game in which long-married couples tried to answer questions about their spouses, to amusing effect. It didn't surprise me to learn that my husband does not know my ring size--but then, neither do I.

Then yesterday I went to a church service, but it was a small number of people who mostly kept their distance. Aside from that, during my road trip I had fleeting encounters with random strangers in various gas stations and rest areas, and let me just say that based on my experience, Circle K has the dirtiest rest rooms along major highways in Ohio. 

Now I'm at home enjoying memories of a joyful weekend alongside the dread associated with Covid exposure. The good news is if I was exposed on Thursday, I'm unlikely to have been contagious on Friday or Saturday. Today's negative Covid test is encouraging, but I ought to test again tomorrow just to be sure. Meanwhile, I'm staying home, just to stay on the safe side, and trying to cherish the joy despite the persistent dread.




Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Seeking the password into the secret clubhouse

Bored with being in limbo, I promised myself I'd come up with an idea for my next big writing project by today, and bingo--it happened. Last night I ran across a two-word phrase that sparked an idea that could inspire interesting academic writing for the rest of the summer, if not longer. 

But by this morning, the second-guessing had set in. The problem is simple: I keep finding myself restating things I've said over and over again, each time with more urgency. What makes me think that this time someone will listen?

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with academic writing: The process is so slow and uncertain that it's nearly impossible to know whether the words are having any impact. I can look back and see that the articles I've written have aided my tenure and promotion cases, but with no more promotions available, nobody on campus really cares whether I keep writing and publishing.

But I care! Last summer I worked very hard to research and write an essay that serves as an analysis of a particular poem but also engages with current discussions about intersections of race, history, and literature, but the pace of academic publishing is so slow that seven months after submission there’s still no word on whether the essay will be accepted for publication. If it ever gets published, the discussion will have moved on.

I look at my Google Scholar account and see that several of that my articles are steadily being cited, two in particular, but the citations tend to be perfunctory, as if the authors are just checking my work off a list to satisfy someone's demand for comprehensiveness. I tell my students that it's important to contribute to the "scholarly conversation" about their research topics, but I don't see much evidence of such a conversation. I wonder whether that thrilling exchange of ideas is happening in some secret clubhouse where all the cool kids gather while I stumble around trying to find the entrance and remember the password.

I know I have more to say about many topics, but the reading public isn’t exactly lining up outside my door begging me to share my thoughts. Lacking external motivations, I will need to rely on the internal kind. Why keep writing when it's impossible to gauge impact and there’s no clear reward?

Because I still have a few more years of teaching to do and I want to model for my students the importance of maintaining a regular writing habit. (As if they cared.)

Because playing with words engages a part of my brain that I fear will atrophy for lack of use. (Already this week I’ve hovered long over the keyboard to try to dig up the word “unwieldy” in a context where it was the only right word but for some reason my brain refused to supply it.)

Because I’ve always imagined my retirement as a time when I can write for pleasure, but it won’t happen if I’ve forsaken the habit of writing.

Because I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I was about eight years old, and a writer writes.

And there it is: If I am a writer, I will write, regardless of whether anyone ever reads my words.

And if I can't think of anything to write about, I'll write about not writing, a topic on which every scholar I've ever known is an occasional expert.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Sure, go ahead and shoot laser beams into my eyeball! I can take it!

With a blink of an eye I can change the world--or at least its appearance. Close my left eye and open my right and I see whiter whites and brighter brights; close the right and open the left and it looks as if someone has pulled down a yellow scrim, making the world look like an antique sepia-toned photograph.

And that dulled view is apparently how I've been seeing the world for quite some time. I had the cataract removed from my right eye Wednesday and a new artificial lens inserted, and at first I couldn't see much because it felt like someone had dumped a truckload of sand into my eye. I walked around for a day and a half with my eye either clamped shut and weeping or open and blurred. Today, though, I can see, and what I'm seeing with my new lens only reveals how faulty the old lens must have been. 

Getting it out was both easy and awful, in different ways. There was some discomfort, but the only real pain occurred after the surgery, when they tore some tape off my forehead. Two days later, I can still feel that sting. 

Every aspect of the experience is designed to keep patients calm and comfortable, including the small dose of Valium that didn't seem to do much for me. When the nurse asked me whether I was feeling relaxed, I told her that relaxation isn't my spiritual gift--and besides, the word relax simply doesn't fit into any situation involving lasers pointed at my eyeball. When James Bond was strapped down on that table with the laser overhead, did Goldfinger tell him to relax? Maybe he should have given him some Valium.

My doctor's surgery runs like a well-oiled machine, with squads of specialized staff people moving efficiently from patient to patient to perform their essential roles--vitals, history, Valium, eyedrops, and on and on. By the time I was wheeled into the laser-surgery suite, I had spent a total of maybe 30 seconds with my actual doctor, and by the time he was done, I'd spent, at most, 10 minutes in his presence. The result of all that machine-like efficiency is a patient who feels like no more than a cog in the machine--a sore and sorry cog that can neither relax nor see straight.

But it's all good, or it will be soon enough. My eyes have always had trouble playing well together, but now they have to learn to cooperate all over again, which leads sometimes to double vision, or not quite double but one-and-a-half vision that resolves only with squinting. The doctor reassures me that everything will be fine with time, especially after I get the other cataract removed sometime next month. Meanwhile, I'm feeling my way around and enjoying changing the world with every blink of my eye.