Tuesday, July 25, 2017

But what's the most satisfying way to throw away a throwaway phone?

An old friend has two grandsons who recently spent the night at their other grandmother's house, where they heard an unfamiliar sound that made them scream in terror: an old-fashioned landline phone ringing. Further evidence, if you need it, that the world of our childhood has fallen far enough into the past to terrify our offspring, as if a ringing landline were a pterodactyl shrieking down from the sky to snatch them back into a world of prehistoric gloom.

Which makes me wonder whether I'm a sort of dinosaur: Am I the last person on the planet not to own a smartphone? 

Stupid question. My grandkids, for instance, don't have smartphones, and neither does my father or my husband. That's four whole people, plus me, making five. But soon that number will be reduced. Brace yourself: I've ordered a new smartphone that's supposed to arrive tomorrow, which means I'll soon be retiring the eight-dollar throwaway phone I've been using since the last Ohio mastodon slunk off to Johnstown to die of humiliation over never buying a smartphone.

I find myself alternately glorying in the possibilities and feeling oddly apologetic about finally joining the 21st century. For years I've avoided buying a smartphone because (1) we don't have cell-phone access at our house; (2) we couldn't afford the cost of phone plus a data plan on top of our landline; and (3) I resist being absorbed into the Borg that seems to have eaten up so many others. 

So what changed?

We still don't have cell-phone access at home, but we do have money--or at least less debt. For years I felt that every penny I earned went straight to paying our various horrible debts, but you wouldn't believe what a difference it makes to stamp debts "paid" and banish the monthly obligation. No more scrambling from paycheck to paycheck! We've actually put a little aside so we won't be flattened by the next emergency! And we can even have a few nickels to play with at the end of the month! So the financial objection is no longer so persuasive.

I've also come to realize how handy a smartphone would be even if I can't use it at home. For instance, in March when the loathsome Spirit Airlines cancelled my flight to Florida at the last minute, a few passengers managed to find and book seats on other flights very quickly by using their smartphones. I was left wandering around trying to find the only public computer terminal in the building, which specialized in producing a continuous scroll of gibberish. A smartphone would have given me other options--or at least entertained me while I was stranded.

Yes, I'd like to be able to play Words with Friends with my brilliant offspring, but I don't foresee selling my soul to every glitzy game that comes along. I'm more interested in the iNaturalist app, which my daughter uses to help her identify the interesting plants and insects she encounters on her hikes, and I want to get a good birdcall identification app. And would it hurt to be able to watch highlights of Cleveland Indians games on that tiny screen?

So I've been toying with the idea of getting a smartphone for about a year, but the incident that pushed me over the edge occurred when it became apparent that I needed to buy my husband his own Garmin so he won't have to keep borrowing mine. Why not just buy myself  a smartphone and let him have my Garmin? That would make us both happy: I'll have a smartphone equipped with gps and he'll have a gps system but no smartphone.

So I may not be the last person on earth without a smartphone, but I'm definitely married to him. Which is fine. (I'm kind of fond of dinosaurs.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Probed by a proboscis

I come back from a long, hot walk covered in sweat and plop down on the deck to cool off with a tall glass of water and a bag of cherries, and I'm sitting there spitting cherry seeds out into the hostas when a butterfly lands on my leg and starts probing my with its proboscis.

It's a plain little brownish thing, some sort of skipper with a distinctive spot on its lower wing, and it sits there for maybe five minutes sucking up whatever minerals it can find in the sweat-spots produced by my morning walk. Lacking a handy camera, I memorize the marking so I can look it up later--a silver-spotted skipper, distinguishable by a silvery blotch that's supposed to resemble the outline of India, although in this case it looks a little more like Maine.

But never mind about that: let's go back to that sweat. I don't mind if a butterfly wants to drink my sweat--after all, I'm not exactly using it--but such lovely, delicate creatures ought to feast on nectar and fairy tears, not sweaty clothes. Nevertheless I've seen butterflies sucking up sustenance from mud flats, carrion, and even sometimes feces. One of the lovelier butterflies in Ohio, the Red Admiral, is known for its appetite to rotting fruit and carrion, a word that calls to mind blood, guts, and maggots, not feathery fluttery butterflies.

But I suppose I can't begrudge butterflies their little pleasures: they may bring us tremendous beauty, but their lives nevertheless can be nasty, brutish, and short. It's not unusual to see great big showy butterflies flitting around with big chunks missing from their wings where birds grabbed 'em, and the other day when I accidentally knocked over a milkweed plant, I wondered how many monarchs that plant could have sustained.

So I give butterflies their due: they make the best of a difficult situation, finding sustenance where they can. And I give them my dew, staying still as the skipper sips sweat from my leg so delicately that I can barely feel the touch of its proboscis. Giving of my sweat is a small price to pay for the beauty butterflies bring into my world. (I draw the line, though, at becoming carrion.)


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sounds of silence on the Shade River

Early on a weekday morning, Forked Run Lake is still as glass with little plumes of mist rising above the water. We paddle the length of the lake and far up the headwaters without seeing another person or boat--and in fact the only other sign of civilization is the helicopter that zips over hours later as we head back to the boat ramp.

It's a little lake and not too far away but somehow we've never been there before. The narrow lake winds between low hills and stretches into cozy coves, and the headwaters meander through marshy wetlands and curve past overhanging rocks and trees. At one point we have to maneuver beneath a massive cedar tree, its feathery needles stretching across the narrow stream and filtering out the hot sun. No wonder they call it the Shade River.

We welcome the shade--we've been experiencing oven-like temperatures lately with lots of humidity, but storms are in the forecast for the next few days so we decided to set out early to beat the heat. All morning we have the lake to ourselves; we see kingfishers and a few ducks and plenty of swallows and what may be a muskrat, but mostly we're accompanied by waterstriders, dragonflies, and a deep, restful silence.

I need that kind of silence. This week I've finished an article and submitted it to a journal, written a syllabus, started research on my next writing project, picked blackberries, pulled weeds, made carnitas and guacamole and black-bean soup, and spent so much time pecking away at the edges of a whole bunch of projects that I feel as if my brain is heading in twenty directions at once. On the lake it feels good to move slowly and smoothly in one direction, meandering upstream with no particular purpose before turning around and heading back down.

Now I'm so relaxed that I may just drift off in the middle of a sentence, sliding smoothly into the Shade River of my dreams. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Put a pencil to my temple, connect it to the syllabus...

The other day I confessed to a colleague that I've been blasting the Hamilton soundtrack in my car all summer (even the parts that leave me helpless) and I'm working nonstop to squeeze the play into my American Lit Survey class next spring, but he got a sour look on his face and said, "I understand that Hamilton is very"--sniff--"popular," in the same tone in which you might say "I understand that bubonic plague is very"--sniff--"uncomfortable" or "I understand that genocide is very"--sniff--"messy."

So okay, it's not every day that I include popular music in a literature class; in fact, last spring's experiment with Nobel-Prize-winning poet Bob Dylan may have been the first time. Students enjoyed that exercise even if I found it less than enlightening, but then I'm not a Dylan fan. Hamilton, though, is a different story--when I find another fan, I just can't shut up about it. You should hear me babbling with my daughter, the music theory expert: I go on and on about narrative structure and how certain phrases gain depth and richness as they recur in different contexts, while she talks about musical structure and how the rhythm reinforces important ideas. I will never be satisfied until some part of Hamilton gets dropped in a forgotten spot on the syllabus.

A few weeks ago I was talking to an English major who's due to take my American Lit Survey next spring and when I mentioned that I'm trying to find a place for Hamilton, her face lit up. When students get that excited about an assignment--well, I want to be in the room where it happens. Fortunately, Hamilton will fit right in with the reading list.

For years my theme for the class has been “Discovering America All Over Again,” which is what American writers were doing after the gaping wound called the Civil War. We look at each new literary movement as an opportunity for authors to explore and expand upon what it means to be an American, watching as the canon opens ever wider to embrace different kinds of voices, a theme that will easily embrace the young, scrappy, and hungry immigrants who get the job done in Hamilton. If I have one chance to capitalize on the popularity of the show, I’m not throwing away my shot.

But how do I include it on the syllabus? I doubt that we'll have access to a filmed version of the play before next spring, and only a few scenes are available online. On the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the opening number at the White House Poetry Jam would follow nicely after the Beat poetry section of the syllabus, with its emphasis on poetry as performance. Here’s a thought: assign that early version of the work alongside a video of the finished piece and talk about the fluid connections among poetry, music, storytelling, and drama as an interactive process instead of a set of static categories. Showtime!

The assignment would be popular with students, who don’t often apply the p-word to other authors on the syllabus--Henry James, for instance, or even Toni Morrison. (“Why does the story have to be so long? Why can’t she just tell us what she means?”) Students sometimes say these authors are intense or they’re insane, but that's just because they've never seen a rap battle between Henry James and Toni Morrison about the nature of American literature. If there’s a reason Hamilton’s in line when so many other authors decline in popularity, that would be nothing to (wait for it!) sniff at.

So there it is: a task, a goal, a purpose, a vague idea that needs to be developed into a workable plan. There’s a million things I haven’t done—but just you wait! I’m teaching Alexander Hamilton.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Writing in lotusland

Pink lotuses blooming all over the place!
Why is it so difficult to finish an academic article? I've researched until my eyeballs are falling out of my head, drafted and revised and polished and repolished the entire text until it sparkles, written the Works Cited and endnotes, and I've even sprinkled witty subtitles in appropriate places. All I need to do is write one concluding paragraph.

Well, I've written that paragraph over and over and over, but every version makes me want to run screaming from the room. And since I don't have a firm deadline, it's hard to motivate myself to just buckle down and finish it.

Instead, I made my escape to lotus-land. Is there anything more peaceful than a group of iridescent dragonflies flitting amongst tall pink lotus blossoms? Add some dulcimers playing softly under the trees and you've found yourself at Lilyfest, the small but delightful garden and arts fair that draws me over to Hocking Hills every July while I ought to be putting the finishing touches on the current writing project.

This year's visit seemed doomed from the start: I was scheduled to work freshman registration yesterday, and the weather forecast called for thunderstorms and flash floods throughout the area. But then it turned out that I wasn't needed at registration after all and the storm clouds decided to loom threateningly over the area and then move on, so I grabbed a friend and off we went, leaving behind all thoughts of academic writing.

My little mascot.
The lilies were so stunning that I wanted to take some home with me, but I resisted the impulse. I could not, however, resist this little twisted-steel preying mantis that now stands in my front garden. He followed me home--may I keep him? To earn his keep, he'll have to inspire some great idea about how to finish that article. (Wait, maybe he's a she. How does one establish the gender of a twisted-metal mantis?)

Now that I'm back and thoroughly refreshed, I have no excuse for not finishing that article--except that today they really do need me to work freshman registration. Well, there's always tomorrow. 

I don't know what this tall ornamental grass is called. Gorgeous.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Pass the pig slop, please

You need to eat more fiber they said, but we already eat lots of salads, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, so to take the next step I adjusted all my favorite rice recipes and learned to cook with brown rice, which is fine, but then they said you ought to try black rice, which only recently became available in the local grocery stores. It's more nutritious than brown rice, they said, and it has a nice nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture.

Which is all true--but (you knew there had to be a but) it looks like garbage.

More specifically, it looks like what you'd get if you just took the coffee grounds out of a coffee-maker and dumped 'em on a dinner plate. Not particularly appetizing.

For my first attempt at black rice, I made an old favorite one-dish recipe involving onions, peppers, garlic, cilantro, chorizos, and tomato sauce, with gooey cheddar cheese mixed in at the very end. Delicious! The flavors worked well with the black rice, and the rice's slightly chewy texture was perfect with the sausages and cheese. However, as previously noted, the whole thing looked like something you'd want to dump straight into the trash: Pig slop. Compost. Loam.

My next challenge, then, will be finding a way to make black rice dishes more aesthetically pleasing. If everything that gets mixed in with the rice ends up looking like coffee grounds, maybe I need to keep the black rice separate from other ingredients. Alternately, I could go back to brown rice--or even white! What would they have to say about that?

(If I ever figure out who makes up this mysterious they, I'll force-feed 'em a plate of warm coffee grounds.) 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Where the wild moo-cats roam

Like a farmer, outstanding in his field.
Today's nature lesson comes from my one-year-old grandson, who has so fully mastered the word cat that he applies it to every non-human creature he sees. He points and says cat when he sees cats, dogs, squirrels, or even the neighbor's chickens. He ran after the chickens while calling out cat! cat! cat!, but he'll never catch them while he's wearing shoes that sound like squeaky dog toys every time he takes a step. 

Then I took him to the edge of the cow pasture and showed him a herd of cows. Moo-cow I said, and he gave me that very intense thinking look, so I said it again: Moo-cow. And he pointed and said MOOOOO-cat.

So that's where I'm living this weekend: where the wild moo-cats roam. If you don't hear from me for a few days,  send the St. Bernard-cats.
Chasing the chick-cats