Friday, July 22, 2016

In search of the elusive yellowthroat

My only decent shot today.
One of these days I'll post a photo of a fencepost and call it "The One that Got Away." I swear there was a bird sitting there a minute ago! 

This morning I stepped up the hill behind our house to see if I could track down the common yellowthroats that have been witchety-witchety-witchetying away up there all summer, but those little yellow birds have a very clear sense of personal space. I walk around the low bushy trees where I hear them chip and they hop to the other side; I glide silently toward the other side and they plunge deep within the thick foliage. 

I move slowly, one eye on the birds and one on the ground, scanning for poison ivy, and suddenly a bright yellow bird shows itself clearly at the end of a prominent branch--with the sun shining right behind it so all I get is a dark silhouette. Or it hops to the top of a fencepost but zips away the minute I raise the camera. Or it shows itself behind a branch and I get a photo with a leaf obscuring the bird's head. 

I keep reminding myself that the hunt is more important than the result, but wouldn't it be great to have my persistence rewarded with a clear shot of this lovely little bird? I've got sweat dripping into my eyes and poison ivy around my feet and I'd really like to have something concrete to show for my efforts.

Glide again. Slide to the side. Listen for the chip. Glory in the witchety. Maybe someday I'll get something more than an empty fencepost.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Don't call me Henry (or diss my hydrangeas)

I’ve been wanting to write about this and that--the birds, the garden, the usual stuff--but a short story by Joy Williams in a recent New Yorker stopped me in my tracks. It’s called “Stuff,” and the main character is a mildly ridiculous old guy who takes great pride in the column he writes for his local newspaper:

Henry wrote about the seasons—companionable winter, radiant spring, mellifluous summer, and the tinglingly vivid fall. He wrote about hydrangeas—though he was wearying of hydrangeas—and twice a year he was depended upon to write about the equinox (the moment when a precise division between day and night occurs should not pass unnoticed). He wrote about screened porches and baked-bean pots.

He enjoyed a modest but loyal following as one of the town’s steadfast and honorable lights….Only last year, he had been on the cover of the telephone directory, looking kind, fit, and comfortable.

Naturally he cannot be allowed to remain comfortable in his complacency, but he’s not well equipped to deal with mortality when it sticks out a leg to trip him up. Stuff happens! And when it does, hydrangeas don’t help.

Who wants to be remembered (or, more likely, forgotten) as the guy who wrote about screened porches and baked-bean pots? Surely there’s something more edgy and earth-shattering, more likely to expose injustice and inspire action!

But what I really want to write about today is how great my garden is doing, how much we’re enjoying the zucchini quiche, fried okra, broccoli salad, and kale, how remarkable it is to see the red stems of the Swiss chard glowing brilliantly in the sunlight, how much hope those little green tomatoes provide.

I have nothing to say about hydrangeas except to wonder why mine have not  produced a single blossom this year, and I don’t even possess a screened porch or a baked-bean pot. I guess that means that unlike Henry I’ll never appear on the cover of the local phone directory, a sort of fame I’m happy to forego. There are worse fates than being mildly ridiculous, and if that's all I can hope for today, I'll take it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Teacher, advise thyself

A colleague wanted to speak with me in private. “I’m looking for a sage and I thought of you,” he said, and I wanted to point out that sage isn’t really my style—I’m more a basil or rosemary kind of girl. But he wanted sage advice so I put on my Senior Faculty hat and tried to give him some. I didn’t have any clear solutions, but I think I helped him formulate the question and determine where it should be directed. Just doing my part to keep the campus machine running smoothly—even if there’s no measurable reward.

Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to just phone it in. Let’s face it: there are no more promotions available, and in the absence of merit pay, I don’t have much external motivation for writing and publishing and designing new classes and serving the campus in a hundred little ways and a few big ones. Why not just lean back and coast? 

I find this especially tempting this week as I’m struggling to finish the syllabus for a brand-new service course I’ve never taught before and may never teach again while also working on a conference paper and designing a presentation for a campus workshop—not to mention spending an entire day at a planning meeting. In July! Without compensation! What kind of fool am I?

I’ll tell you what kind of fool I am: I’m the kind who can be sweet-talked into volunteering for way too many new initiatives and programs and who then runs out of time to tackle more interesting challenges. And frankly, this has to stop. Which is why I’ll be asking Faculty Council this fall to look into the amount of time faculty are being asked to contribute to campus activities during summer, when we are not under contract and are therefore working without compensation. Support for summer research has declined while demands on faculty time in the summer have increased, which puts the squeeze on those of us who are trying to pursue a rigorous research agenda.

It’s too late for this year, of course. This summer is just shot, and my work isn’t even half done. But it’s time to put on my Senior Faculty hat and give myself some sage advice: from now on, just say no to uncompensated summer labor.    

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On the dangers of trying to think before breakfast

I probably shouldn’t try to interpret the text on my cereal box while I’m still feeling my way around the kitchen, but this morning I was puzzled by the promise of “Less processed nutrition you can see.” Does this mean that the nutrition I can see is less processed or that there is less of the processed nutrition I can see, and what about the nutrition I can’t see? What does nutrition look like anyway? I give up.

And then over breakfast I posted what I thought was a clever little tidbit on Facebook before leaving for an all-day meeting to which I did not take my laptop computer because of an unfortunate incident involving an exploding bottle of Diet Coke inside my tote bag, so I did not even know until many hours later that certain people had interpreted my early-morning tidbit as an invitation to indulge in unfortunate political and geographical stereotyping. Note to self: never post to Facebook before ingesting the full morning quota of caffeine (which, let’s review, ended up distributed unevenly within my tote bag).  

But the good news is that the day-long meeting was highly productive and promises great progress for our struggling campus community. Put a bunch of smart people in a room with a dynamic leader and a clear task and it’s amazing what we can accomplish. Especially if you keep the caffeine flowing. (But not all inside my tote bag.)