Monday, October 22, 2018

Be the beach pea!

How to terrify a room full of first-year composition students: hand them some poetry--at 8:00 on a cold October Monday morning--and make them read it.

I know, I know, I'm a horrible cruel taskmaster. This is not, after all, a literary analysis class, but today my department is hosting a reading by Ohio's poet laureate, Dave Lucas, and my students have an opportunity to earn some extra credit by going to the reading and writing about it, so I thought I'd whet their appetite--and since my first-year writing class focuses on science and nature, I gave them a Lucas poem on a sciency, natural topic: "Beach Pea."

"Poems are made of words," I said, and then I made them look up words they found unfamiliar: lexicon and mettle and hardscrabble, conjuring and loam, xylem and phloem. "We learned that in, like, fifth grade," a student pointed out, so we talked about why Lucas would commingle science and magic to describe the plant's ability to survive in harsh circumstances.

"Poems are made of sound and rhythm," I said, so I read the poem out loud and asked them to notice sound repetitions and rhythmic patterns. We heard waves crashing in one stanza, felt dry grass rustling in another.

"Poems are made of imagery and metaphor," I said, so we examined the word-pictures, the way Lucas contrasts the sturdy little beach pea with the cultivated rose. "[P]oets, you can have it," he says of the rose, and in the end he urges the beach pea to "spread out, spread deep. / Bow to no one, to no rose."

And this is what I wanted to say to my scruffy, sturdy little class this morning: We may not all be roses, dependent on proper soil and fertilizer and careful cultivation, but if we can just hold on through harsh circumstances and spread our roods wide and deep, we'll thrive like the beach pea and bow to no rose.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Time to drop back and punt

I need more Fri-
days in my life,
more times when I
can punt the strife
and stress of week-
day work downfield
to Saturday!
(Or Sunday). Shield
me from today's
unfinished stuff:
papers to grade
(Enough! Enough!),
a book to read,
emails to write
(my students need
to do things right!),
committee tasks
that grow and grow.
Here's a brute fact:
if you should throw
another chore
(a ball) my way,
I'll punt it (Fore!)
to Saturday.
(Or Sunday, may-
be.) Wouldn't you?
Long live Friday!
(My week is through.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A place for Hopeful to sit and stay

I buried my dog this morning in a nice sunny spot up on the hill near the woods where she loved to chase squirrels, with a good view of the road we so often walked together. Ten years ago she followed me home on that road, a tick-ridden, milk-engorged stray looking for a place to put down roots, and it took her just three days to earn a home and a name: Hopeful. And so she has remained, until today.

For ten years, every time I stepped out the front door she was hopeful that we'd go for a walk, and she didn't really care where: up the hill to the butterfly meadow, along the creek, down the road to visit the neighbors' cows and donkeys. She loved to bark at deer in the meadow and she used to catch groundhogs by the garden and then hide their carcasses as if they were precious treasure, and every squirrel that ever ran up a tree filled her with the hope that surely she would someday figure out how to climb up after it. In winter she would roll and slide in the snow and jump into the half-frozen creek, and in sweet-corn season she would chew gleefully on every corn cob we threw her way.

She was free to roam fields and woods but I could go outside any time of the day and whistle and call out Hopeful and here she'd come, bounding up ready for a walk. She was good at come and walk but not so great at sit and stay, which cramped her style.

How many times did we walk that road in ten years? I couldn't begin to count, but she never tired of walking the three-mile loop and ending up back on our bridge, where she knew I would toss her a treat--and she would jump to catch it. We've both slowed down over the years, but when we walked the loop two days ago, she bounded ahead as she always had, with occasional pauses to make sure I was following. She wasn't limping but she seemed a bit wobbly, and every once in a while she'd stagger drunkenly to the right and then look back as if embarrassed. She also wouldn't jump up when I tossed her treats, instead insisting on taking them straight from my hand. 

I was concerned enough to leave a message with the vet yesterday in hopes of getting an appointment, but then a power outage hit the whole county and the vet never called back. I noticed that Hopeful didn't come running to greet me when I got home last night, but by the time I'd changed clothes and found her, it was too late for the vet.

I found my dog still breathing but looking sadly diminished, curled up under the shed out back in the same spot where her best dog-friend, Duke, died a few years ago. Gentlemanly old Duke used to come limping a mile up the road for a visit nearly every day; when he was ready to die, he made that trip one last time and then crawled into the cozy nest of pine needles under the shed and breathed his last.

I wasn't surprised to find Hopeful there in a nice dry place away from the cold drizzle, but I was surprised that she didn't want to come out. I held a dog biscuit close to her mouth and she took it, thumping her tail on the ground feebly a few times, but before long she was retching and vomiting it back up. I checked her food dish: her morning portion hadn't been touched. How could she have failed so drastically in just 24 hours? 

What could I do? I found the shovel and a pair of gloves and started digging. 

It was good weather for grave-digging, cold and dark and drizzly, and as the shovel bit into the heavy clay soil I would glance at the road and think about all the miles we'd walked, all the ways she'd brought a steady stream of hope into my days. She came to me when I didn't know I needed a dog and she cheered me through cancer treatment and flash floods and campus shenanigans and grief. Remember how much the 17-year cicadas delighted her? How she would jump and snap and try to catch them? Or the time she found a chunk of sofa cushion in the woods and ran up to show me her newfound treasure? She was always finding something to be happy about, and she was always eager to share that happiness.

I took a few breaks in my grave-digging to walk down the hill and check Hopeful's status, and one time I was pleased to see that she had crawled out from under the shed and was lying in the pine needles nearby. That was her final gift to me, because I don't know how I would have gotten her out from under the shed if she'd died in there.

And it wasn't until I wrapped her up and started hauling her inert carcass up the hill that I realized the flaw in my plan: she may have looked scrawny lately, but in death she was heavy and the hill is steep. Somehow, though, it seemed right and proper to carry her up that final hill after she'd encouraged me to keep climbing so many others.

The rain had stopped sometime in the night and the sun was shining as I scooped the heavy clay back in the hole and set a big rock on top to mark the spot. I wanted to whistle and call her name and see Hopeful come bounding up eager for a walk but instead I told her Sit and Stay, and this time I think she just might do it.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

First time for everything

This morning a student brought his banjo to class and played some mountain music to enrich the class's understanding of Cold Mountain, and I feared that my face would break from smiling. The notes lingered in the air through our discussion of Stobrod's redemption, his discovery that his music could bring healing and meat to suffering people.

Another student showed me some notes a previous reader had scribbled at the end of one of the chapters: a rectangle with half-erased scribbles, the words "vellum" and "palimpsest" and some arrows pointing to traces of lost text. That very same diagram appeared on the whiteboard today in reference to our reading, and the student finally understood what some previous student had scribbled in his book. Did he add to the scribbles? If so, he may be creating his own palimpsest.

Another kind of text showing traces of previous texts appeared in my inbox in another class, where a student submitted a paper consisting of three short paragraphs that didn't respond to the prompt followed by three pages of Google Doc templates showing how to format graphs and charts, including a Works Cited in which the citations began "Last name, first name." Oh, and the title of the paper was, and I quote, "Title: Subtitle." I've never before received a template masquerading as a paper, but at least it will be easy to grade.

I suppose there's a first time for everything, but some firsts are significantly more satisfying than others. 


Monday, October 08, 2018

Snakes in the bailiwick

My son was coming down the steps to the basement where I was watching Chief Inspector George Gently solve a murder when he (meaning my son, not George Gently, who would be unlikely to come down the stairs to my basement because (a) I don’t keep any dead bodies down there; (b) we’re outside his jurisdiction; and (c) he’s a fictional character)—now where was I? If I keep getting distracted I’ll never get to the issue at hand, or afoot, as the case may be.

So anyway: my son was coming down the steps when he stopped suddenly and said, “There’s a snake.”

And I am pleased to report that I did not run screaming from the room, because (a) I grew up with snakes in the house (confined to terrariums) and long ago lost that primal fear; (b) I’ve long suspected that we had snakes living in the crawl space, which opens to the furnace room, ever since we found a snakeskin above a damaged ceiling tile; and (c) a snake in the house means fewer mice I’ll have to contend with come winter.

And besides, in order to run screaming from the room, I would have had to run toward the snake—barefoot. (Meaning I was barefoot, although I suppose the snake was too.) I do confess, however, that I pulled my feet up onto the sofa. If the snake developed a sudden urge to watch George Gently grimace toward a suspect, I didn’t want him slithering over my feet. Or her, as the case may be.

Instead, I calmly started asking questions. “Where is it?”

“In the furnace room. Near the door.”

I pulled my feet up more securely.

“What does it look like?”

“About two feet long, skinny, with a stripe down its back.”

So a garter snake, probably, like the ones we see all the time out around the front porch. In fact just last week I tried to interest the dog in a garter snake that was crawling beneath her feet, but instead of looking where I was pointing, she licked my finger. This makes a certain kind of sense: after all, she’s more likely to receive a dog biscuit from my hand than from a garter snake.

“Now it’s moving,” he said. (Meaning my son, not the dog or the snake.) “It’s going back behind the furnace.”

Good place for it, if you ask me. Out of sight, out of mind, free to curl menacingly around the subconscious. Once inside the house, a snake could probably get into all kinds of interesting places, but a hungry snake is going to stick to the areas most likely to be frequented by mice and bugs and other vermin, like the creepy-crawly crawl space or the musty dusty furnace room. I don’t envision a garter snake rummaging around the silverware drawer or curling up on my computer keyboard. So as long as the snake stays where it belongs, I’m okay with it.

Then again, how will I know? It’s not exactly going to be gallivanting around the house carrying a flag reading “Don’t tread on me.” What if I should happen upon the snake while stumbling about barefoot on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Some screaming might occur. I could break a leg while trying to levitate off the snake. Or, worse, what if the snake were to startle my adorable grandkids? The trauma might put them off visiting for a long time to come.

I have lived with mice and I have lived with spiders the size of small puppies and once, years ago, we lived in a parsonage where hornets had built a nest that filled in the entire space beneath a kitchen cabinet (and when they all died of hornet spray and the nest started deteriorating, it smelled like a dead horse in the kitchen), but I don’t know how long I can go on living with a snake (or snakes!) in the furnace room. But how does one discourage snakes from invading? Do we invest in poison, traps, or a mongoose? Who ya gonna call?

Just don’t suggest Chief Inspector George Gently, because snakes are outside his bailiwick.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Of "Cane" and Capoeira

In retrospect, I probably should have cancelled my 1:00 class and told my students, "Go learn to samba!" We'd been watching a group of talented visitors playing Brazilian percussion on the mall and demonstrating the Afro-Brazilian dance/martial art form called capoeira, but we had to leave for class just before our visitors started teaching students to samba.

Instead, my students and I sat inside and grappled with Jean Toomer's Cane, in which conflicting styles, characters, and concepts come together in an impressionistic collage. Toomer's energy-infused lines carry readers irrevocably onward, although we don't always know where we're going or understand what we've seen when we get there.  His lyricism effortlessly carries a heavy burden of poverty, hatred, and racism, suggesting that in the Jim Crow south, beauty comes tinged with the ash of burnt flesh and there is no separating love from violence.

Capoeira also combines beauty and stylized violence without the threat of bloodshed. Legs swing high toward a partner's head before he ducks gracefully backward or leans improbably to the left; energy flows in leaps and bodies intersect in lines that keep shifting. Hands black white and brown clasp in the dance, pound on the drums, clap in time in the audience, all eyes enthralled by the whirling bodies and faces radiating the joy of movement, the thrill of creating beauty together.

In my classroom we heard no drums aside from the beating hearts within Toomer's characters, who dance across the page in an anguished cry across the years, begging us to pay attention to the lives of outcasts, oddballs, and the invisible people who lead lives of quiet desperation on the edges of society. I don't always understand where Toomer is taking me, but I hear his lines sing and see his characters dance and I cannot look away for fear of missing something important, some essential answer to a question I don't even know how to ask, about pain and love and joy and loss and how we make sense of it all.

Or maybe sense isn't what we need to be making today. Maybe we'd be better off making music, creating beauty, joining in the dance and the drumming and the clasping of hands, in a timeless place where tension and energy skirt the edge of violence and erupt into an ineffable joy.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Answers in the alphabet

In this time of great national turmoil, when the very pillars of our society seem to be crashing down around our heads on a daily--no, make that hourly basis, it seems petty to gripe about my students' difficulty with alphabetization, but that's where we are right now: I can't listen to the news without getting annoyed, angry, or appalled (and that's just the adjectives starting with A), so let's attend to something more manageable: the alphabet.

I hasten to note that not all students have trouble managing the alphabet, or not even most of them, but a not insignificant number could not figure out how to alphabetize entries in a Works Cited and had trouble locating a book in the library stacks despite having taken a photo of the call number. I can't find the F section, they said, but that's because they were standing in front of a row clearly labeled P and could not figure out which way to go to find F. But all these books say F on the label--how do I know which one is the right one? That's when we look at the next letter. And then what?

I've been told that this is Tutor Appreciation Week, but I do not believe our tutoring center will appreciate it if I ask them to tutor my students in how the alphabet works. I don't know if they be appalled, angry, and annoyed, or if they'd move on to befuddled, bemused, and bewildered, but someone needs to take these students in hand and introduce them to the wonders of the ABC's, and I fear that someone will have to be me. 

One of these days I'll end up wandering the library stacks while singing the alphabet song incessantly under my breath, and who will be bewildered then? (Look for me in the P section.)