Monday, January 17, 2022

When travel is for the birds

As I look at the snow piled high on the driveway, I thanked my lucky stars for a Monday holiday, a husband who loves to get out on the tractor and push snow around, and a house well stocked with food. Snow day! I'll have to get my car out of the driveway tomorrow, but today it can sit there looking like a snowdrift until the cows come home--or the cowbirds, as the case may be.

As soon as we had light enough to see outside, I opened the bedroom window and hunkered down with the camera to see what kinds of birds would visit the feeders. That window serves as a natural bird blind, partially concealed by vegetation and far enough from the feeders so that I don't spook the birds. At first I saw the usual mixture of winter birds--juncos, woodpeckers, chickadees, a lone titmouse--but then suddenly a black wave swooped down from above and colonized the feeders.

Darn those starlings I thought, until I looked closer and saw that they were not starlings but cowbirds. The dim light made their brown heads hard to see, but the size and shape and coloration all said cowbird. I've never seen so many together, at least 50 attacking the feeders or perching in nearby trees. A few gathered on the front porch and looked in the big picture window, lured, presumably, by the mass of green plants just inside. They scattered when I closed the window, but they've come back for a few more visits. I'm not a fan of cowbirds but I'm not sure what I can do to keep them away--I can't go slamming windows all day long.

I could have gone to campus today for some Martin Luther King Jr. day events, if I could see my driveway. The sheriff's office tells us to stay off the roads unless travel is absolutely necessary, and I'm happy to comply. On a day like today, travel is strictly for the birds.




Friday, January 14, 2022

Dispatches from the first day of class

Twenty minutes until class begins and I am SOOOOO looking forward to seeing a room full of freshpersons on a cold dark January morning!!!!!  Except the room won't actually be full because who wants to take an 8 a.m. class? And one student will be on Zoom because of Covid quarantine, so that means I have to remember to turn on the camera, turn on Zoom, check the microphone, share the screen, and include the quarantined student in class discussion....How about if I just give up and go back to bed instead?

And now here we are in the middle of class and the Zoom link doesn't work inside Moodle. It worked fine yesterday! I can open up the Zoom link outside Moodle, but all I get inside Moodle is an error message. Nice! I have to email the Zoom link separately to my quarantining students and try to figure out the problem later. 

Am I allowed to refer to our Zooming student as quarantining? Does it violate the student's privacy? I've announced that the class Zoom link isn't intended to accommodate students who  just don't feel like getting out of bed and walking to class, but it is available to those with valid medical excuses, like a need to quarantine because of Covid, so even if I don't mention that Zooming students are in quarantine, their classmates will surely figure it out.

Everyone writes on the first day of class, not for a grade but to give me an idea of their writing and thinking skills. My first-year students are writing about a personal goal and some obstacles they might face in reaching that goal, and they're pretty united in wanting to improve on their academic performance from last semester (I clearly have some repeat customers in this class) while about half of them say they want to be their best self, in those exact words. If I were Oprah I might be able to help them with that, but all I can promise is to try to help them become better writers, which might come in handy if that best self ever needs to communicate. (At 8 a.m., I'd be happy if my second-best self showed up.)

About a third of the students on my roster didn't show up for class at 8, which is a bit alarming, but the 9:00 class did better--perfect attendance, plus an extra who wandered in a bit late. We later determined that he's on the waitlist and I was happy to admit him to the class, since I suspect that the amount of reading and writing on the syllabus will scare away a few students.

And if the reading doesn't scare them away, the writing might. What a horrible person I am to make students in a literature class look at a work of art and write a paragraph or two about what they see! I don't let them see the name of the work but you can view it here. When we meet again next Wednesday, we'll look at the work again and discuss how to start analyzing an  unfamiliar cultural artifact, and I'll try to discourage the secret hidden meaning approach to literary analysis. "The meaning isn't hidden," I'll tell them; "It's right there in front of your face, but sometimes you have to look at it a little sideways before it clicks."

Back in my office--two classes down, two more to go, but I could use a nap already. I'd like to wander down the hall to visit with a colleague, but she's on sabbatical this semester and so keeps not being there, lucky her. Who's going to step in and take care of my emergency chocolate needs? If the Professional Development committee had known how much I rely on this colleague when I desperately need a bite of chocolate, they never would have approved her sabbatical. 

But it's time for my 11:00 class, which seems crowded. How did 20 students get into a course limited to 18? Good thing I made extra copies of the syllabus!

It's my first time teaching the new sophomore seminar course so I spend a little time explaining to students why we felt the need to add this course to the general education curriculum: It's all about scaffolding. The sophomore seminar will reinforce the skills students learned in their required first-year courses (information literacy, writing, public speaking) while building a bridge toward the junior core class, which I'm teaching this afternoon. 

The sophomore seminar is supposed to be an interdisciplinary approach to a big question, so in my class (My Happy Place) we'll examine what connects people to specific places by reading and responding to place-based literature alongside some history, psychology, and science. Fun? I hope so, but then an English professor's idea of fun may not be the most reliable gauge.

Lunchtime, and yet another reason to be glad my husband has moved back home from Jackson: the man can make a sandwich! Homemade ciabatta bread, sliced turkey, cheese, and mustard--if that sandwich can't power me through my final class, nothing can. (Though a little chocolate right about now wouldn't hurt.)

Last class of the day! Five bright young English majors wondering why they're required to take a class called The Ethical Author. This is my dessert class--my end-of-the-day reward for all those 8 a.m. composition classes. Right now my English majors are writing about the role poets would play in their ideal society, a question that will loom large in our readings for the next couple of weeks. What is literature for, anyway? I'm eager to see what they say.

But mostly I'm happy for the chance to sit down and shut up. By the time I've gone over four different syllabi, I'm tired of hearing the same sentences come out of my mouth over and over, so I've changed things up bit: "I live in the woods, where we communicate by whispering messages into the fuzzy ears of woodland creatures. If you can't reach me after hours, you're talking to the wrong raccoon."

And now they're done writing so my teaching day is over. I'll take care of a few things in my office before heading out, and the really good news is that I don't have to make that 90-minute drive to Jackson every Friday afternoon but instead I can head straight home, where the most pressing issue this evening is whether to call that new squash-and-sausage dish squasage or sausquash

I miss teaching when I'm not doing it and I never feel more alive than when I'm with students, but at the end of the day, I'm worn out. Next week I'll be back in the classroom trying to add some new twists to the same old song and dance, but until then, it's squasage time!

(Though I really could use a little chocolate. Help?)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Flights of fancy in the midst of the mundane

A friend texted to encourage me to "have a glorious day on campus," but I spent the morning sitting in meetings full of administrative PowerPoint followed by a long, lonely session with the photocopier. Glorious is not the word.

On the other hand, I finally picked up a package that's been waiting in campus mail--a new mug and a bunch of tea sent by an old friend. The mug is kind of special; it's called Fowl Language and it features pictures of birds with names that sound a little off-color: the dickcissel, the rough-faced shag, the blue-footed booby. Very cute, and it was comforting to camp out next to the nice warm photocopier with hot tea in my new mug while zillions of syllabi rolled through the wheels. 

This mug is the fourth bird-related gift I've received this Christmas season; also under my tree were three books with pictures of birds on the cover. I have not yet begun reading A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul with its flock of migrating birds on the front, but I'm about halfway through On Animals by Susan Orlean, with a spare front cover adorned by a single adorable chicken. Chickens play a large part in the essay collection, although guineas, turkeys, and pigeons also make an appearance, plus donkeys and mules and lions and a killer whale and I don't remember what else. Despite some distressing details on animal extinctions and cruelty, it's a joyful reading experience.

And I read right through Ann Patchett's new essay collection, These Precious Days, with a painting of her dog on the front and a pileated woodpecker on the back. Those paintings play a role in the title essay dealing with an unexpected pandemic friendship with an artist; another essay called "Covers" explores the vagaries of book-cover design, with interesting examples from Patchett's experience. I had read many of these essays before but they play well together as a collection, and the book as a whole made my mind take flight.

Another Christmas gift finally arrived this morning--a new set of tires for my car--so I'm a little less nervous about taking flight on the wintry roads. I have a few more boxes to unpack at home and a few more details to prepare for my classes, but when I'm surrounded by so many charming birds, how can my day be anything but glorious?



Saturday, January 08, 2022

Click and breathe, slowly

As much as I complain about my slow internet connection at home, I appreciate its advantages. Here I sit on my comfy sofa constructing a new course page on our course management system, the last bit of Moodling I need to do before classes start next week, but I have a ton of documents to upload and each one takes a while. At the office I sometimes click-and-scroll so quickly that I make myself dizzy, but at home I click on "upload" and then wait a minute or two or even three while it loads. Meanwhile, I look out the window at the bluejays visiting the feeders, juncos jumping around in the snow, sunlight glimmering on frosty trees, and I relax until it's time to upload the next document.

Back in the dial-up days, uploading a document in 60 seconds would have felt like a miracle, so I'm not complaining. And I appreciate the way my son-in-law reconfigured our antenna setup so my slow connection is significantly less slow--not so long ago I wouldn't have been able to upload documents at all. But mostly I appreciate an excuse to slow down and take a breath between clicks. Some days I have a need for speed, but it's nice to spend a lazy Saturday sitting at home and looking out the window while my documents slowly upload.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

A time to hunker

My inbox is full.

My gas tank is empty.

My house is crowded with boxes but less crowded than it was a week ago, and it will be even less crowded today after I make the first of several trips to the Goodwill store.

My eyes are tired from a quick road trip to North Carolina to see Dad, who is doing great despite everything, but now I need to unpack and get back to work. 

Classes start a week from today and if I'm not quite ready, I'm well on the way to being ready. 

A winter storm is coming this afternoon and my Christmas gift of new tires has still not arrived so I don't trust my car in the snow. I arrived on campus at 7 a.m. and I intend to get a pile of work done before noon today and then grab some groceries, deliver a pile of boxes to the Goodwill, and get home before the snow starts falling. 

For the next couple of days I'll be hunkering down, unpacking more boxes, and putting the finishing touches on syllabi. At some point I need to get my brain back in active mode, but for now I'll mindlessly scroll through my inbox hitting delete delete delete. I want an inbox as pure as the driven snow, as long as I don't have to drive on that snow in my car.

Friday, December 31, 2021

The joys of winnowing

Yesterday I looked out my big picture window and saw the back end of a U-Haul blocking the view. Today the truck is gone, having disgorged its contents into my house, my son's apartment, and the Habitat for Humanity Restore, where our excess furniture will find a new home, provided that someone out there wants a 30-year-old particle-board computer desk or a wobbly side table.

We still have a huge task ahead of us, emptying boxes and rearranging the contents of cabinets so everything fits, but just at the moment I'm letting it all sit. I woke up in the wee hours with shooting pains in my shoulder from all the lifting, so today I intend to focus on less strenuous tasks, like thinking about beans. Where are we going to store all the varieties of dried beans we kept in the pantry at the Jackson house? The one cabinet here that still has space is susceptible to mouse invasion, so I can't put anything down there that's potentially gnawable, if that's a word. 

My favorite part of the process of combining two households is winnowing out duplicate items. We now have an excess of cake pans, so let's toss out the old dented ones! I can't tell you how delighted I am to get rid of a broken floor lamp and an ugly table lamp and replace them with the newer, nicer ones from the other house. Too many coffee mugs? Let's take everything that features an advertising logo and throw it in the Goodwill box.

Or one of them. We have three boxes full of things to take to the Goodwill, and we're not nearly done yet. Anyone need a microwave? I'm keeping the newer one but the old one still works. I'm not getting rid of the extra iron, though. Given the volume of ironing my husband does, it's only
a matter of time before our iron wears out. I'll keep the other one as a backup.

We probably could have made some money on some of the things we gave away, but who has time for a yard sale? Let someone else get some use out of my old worn-out stuff and I'll put my time to better use, like thinking about beans and drinking tea and enjoying the unobstructed view out my front window. At some point all these boxes will have to be unpacked, but for the moment I think I'll just sit and enjoy the absence of trucks. 



Monday, December 27, 2021

Boxed in and matchless

From where I sit in the living room the view is more eclectic than usual: a weight bench next to an empty bookcase next to a barren Christmas tree next to a pile of boxes, because yes, we spent Boxing Day boxing things up so we can reunite our two households into one, although I'm a little worried about where everything is going to fit. Who needs two crock-pots or three cheese-graters or several superfluous floor lamps? I foresee some visits to Goodwill in my future.

I spent most of the afternoon packing up the kitchen and I feel it in my back and shoulders. The easy stuff is done, so the kitchen island is piled high with all the things that don't fit well anywhere, and I don't want to think about where they're going. When I look at the pile I'm tempted to burn it all, so it's a good thing I can't remember where I packed the matches.

Last year I spent Christmas vacation painting the entire interior of this house and this year I'm packing everything up, so this house has certainly given me a whole-body workout. I will miss the kitchen (except for the ovens with their incomprehensible controls), but more than anything I will miss our neighbors and Lake Katharine, which has been my reliable happy place through all the insanity of the past three years of commuting between households and that one bizarre semester of online teaching. I know Lake Katharine and our wonderful neighbors will call me back to Jackson for occasional visits, but I can't think about that until we get outta Dodge.

More packing and cleaning tomorrow, and then we'll pack up the truck on Wednesday and head home. If everything goes according to plan, by Thursday I'll be sitting on a different sofa in our own house contemplating a view very much like the one I'm seeing now--piles and piles of boxes that need to be unpacked, and not a clue as to which one holds the matches.