Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Don't talk back to the jacket

First of all, I stink at selfies, so don't judge. This one shows that my hair is still thin on top where I singed it, but that's not the point. The point is the jacket.

What is it about this jacket? It's just a cheapo faux leather thing that I picked up on clearance--nothing really special at all, but every stinking time I wear it I get compliments all over the place, including from total strangers in the grocery store. "Nice jacket," they say. On Sunday an oldish man at church said it was pretty. (Not the word I would have chosen.) The first time I wore it, a student said, "You should wear that more often." (A student!) And this morning a colleague told me it makes me look like Badass Bev, which was good timing since I was on my way to a class where I needed to hold the line against a flood of excuses, which is hard to do when I'm dressed in kindly grandmother garb.

I don't get it. No one comments when I wear fuzzy red socks to match my sweater or a startling purple scarf to liven up a ho-hum outfit, but all I have to do is throw on this chunk of synthetic polymer extruded from a machine and all of a sudden I'm a compliment magnet. Maybe it's just because this jacket is so different from my other teaching clothes, so dressing like this every day would make the compliments dry up. I need to wear it strategically, save it for those moments when Badass Bev needs to make an appearance. Tomorrow I'll be back to my usual boring wardrobe; today, though, you'd better not mess with me unless you're carrying a heap of compliments.    


Monday, November 12, 2018

Desert Cabal: a compelling invitation

Desert Cabal 
In his introduction to Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey described his book as "not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hand." Fifty years later, Amy Irvine wrapped herself around that tombstone and started talking back; the result is her penetrating and elegant little book Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness. 

Abbey concluded his introduction to Desert Solitaire by encouraging readers not to drop his book on their feet but to "throw it at something big and glossy." In the years since his death, Abbey's myth has grown into a big, glossy monolith promoting a particular vision of wilderness, but Irvine throws the book right back at him to examine the flaws in that myth and formulate a new vision.

The difference is evident in the two books' titles: Solitaire versus Cabal. Abbey portrayed himself as a solitary explorer eager to protect and preserve wilderness--but also to possess it. In "First Morning," the chapter describing the start of his tenure as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, Abbey looks over the surrounding scene and muses, "I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not--at least there's nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me."

Irvine points out that Abbey was not alone but instead chose to erase his companions in the desert, including his wife and child, and reminds him that this urge for possession takes many forms. In Utah's mountains "the footwork of dinosaurs can still be fingered, a kind of earth braille by which to read the poetry of prehistory," but today the area is ravaged by "the thumper trucks, the earthmovers, the drill rigs" feeding our addiction to fossil fuels. "Like all good addicts," she writes, "we are choosing to die rather than to withdraw. and with us we are taking down every other living thing--the hoary bat, the pike minnow, the purple sage."

Irvine also schools Abbey on the added dangers women face in the wilderness and the continued attempts by outsiders to appropriate Native American culture. "So don't be that creepy white dude who's trying to siphon a sense of meaning and belonging off the desert's Native peoples, Mr. Abbey," she writes, "And for godssakes. Leave the women be--or you might get punched, kicked, maced, or worse. We're a little on edge these days."

While she admits that Abbey's "claiming of Utah's desert outback taught an entire nation what it means to be in collective possession of a place," Irvine asserts that "[i]t's the rough country, after all, that's in possession of us and not the other way around." Abbey insisted that "[w]e need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it," and Irvine agrees that we need wild places "that exfoliate our neuroses. That refuse to coddle our compulsions. That remind us, in these times of profound greed, what we really need." However, she also points out that Abbey's exalting the virtues of solitude in the desert drew hordes who wanted to follow in his footsteps, making solitude ever more rare. 

"Everywhere you look," she writes, "there are these hyped-up, tricked-out, uber-fit, machine-like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing, it's the buzz." We need people to love wilderness enough to stay away from it:
Because if people came to care about the way the air shimmers when the rabbitbrush shrugs off the heat and sends it rolling across the slickrock, the way the antelope bolt like lightning unleashed from a squalid sky--maybe we'd stand a prayer of a chance to save the places we  treasure from those who would take some quick and dirty form of amusement over poetry, beauty, and wonder.
And to accomplish this, she insists, we need each other. "To survive without turning into heartless monsters, or soul-sucked automatons," she writes, "we'll need intimacy with people every bit as much as with place." In the end she extends an invitation to Abbey: "join me in asking your followers to do away with their rugged individualism" and join "a cabal. A group gathered around a panoramic vision."

Irvine's compelling vision fits into a dense but lyrical 98 pages (available from Torrey House Press--click here). She echoes Abbey's chapter titles, untangling the knots in his paradoxes in order to empower a new generation of wilderness advocates. She envisions her cabal becoming "a thunderous, galloping gathering, a passionate, peopled storm, nearly indistinguishable from the ground on which it rains, on which it sprinkles seeds. This," she writes, "is how hope takes root."

Edward Abbey remains rooted in the desert, resting in an undisclosed location where his friends buried him after his 1989 death. Abbey did not want his grave to become a shrine attracting disciples, but it was already too late: his earlier tombstone, Desert Solitaire, attracted a small army of zealots eager to follow his footsteps into the wilderness. In Desert Cabal, Amy Irvine reaches out to everyone gathered around that tombstone and invites them to pursue a powerful new vision together. She does not disdain solitude, urging readers to "go solo, into the desert. Yes, do this and love every minute." But instead of staying there alone, she says, they should come back--and join the desert cabal.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Long, dark teatime of the semester

Eyelids droop. Heads loll and wobble and sometimes settle right down on the desktop. Students sniffle and sneeze, reach for the tissues, run for the rest room and come back with harsh scratchy paper towels to wipe snot from tender red noses.

They're tired from play practice, football, long hours in the lab. They're missing class to compete in Model U.N., attend a funeral, row in a regatta in cold dark November. Who can sleep with so many papers and projects due all at once? Some pull all-nighters and then sleep through alarms; others panic and plagiarize, creating extra work and anguish for their harried professors.

Excuses arrive daily: sick dogs, dead grandparents, someone's dad is in jail and another needs rehab. Students feeling sick, self-harming, disgusted, afraid. I offer extensions, refer them to the health center, tell them it gets better, hope it's the truth.

November cloaks us in darkness, rides like the Headless Horseman through our dreams, drives us forward toward the breaking point--but it doesn't last forever. Thanksgiving is coming, and then Christmas, a bright beacon drawing us through the darkest part of the semester. If we can just hold on, it will all get better.

But still: better take tissues to class just in case.


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Random bullets of "You'll poke your eye out!"

My polling place got moved five miles in the extreme opposite direction from my job, so off I went at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds but I found them there already, a long line snaking out the door and down the sidewalk in the cold dark rain, in a rural precinct in the middle of nowhere. But I had the extreme pleasure of casting a vote for a friend running for county office, so that made me very happy.

Then off to the eye doctor for my annual exam, which resulted in brand-new lenses at no charge because the anti-glare coating on my lenses is crazed, which is also how I felt after my eye guy dilated my eyeballs and bombarded them with bright lights and then gave me some very important information on a handout that I can't read because my eyes haven't recovered from all the bright lights. But the good news is that it's just a tiny cataract. So far.

Now I'm at my office struggling to prep tomorrow's discussion of Toni Morrison's Sula, a novella in which many horrible things happen--a child drowns, two people are burned alive (one intentionally), and a soldier in battle keeps running after his head gets blown off--but in the whole book no phrase horrifies me more than ironing diapers. I have put cloth diapers on the bottoms of my children and grandchildren and I have washed and folded cloth diapers, but if the survival of the human race depended on my willingness to iron diapers, we'd be extinct. I know what Morrison's doing here, characterizing Nel as the neurotic neat-freak mom obsessed with maintaining order at all costs, in contrast to her free-spirited (soon-to-be-ex-) friend Sula, but still: who irons diapers? I'd poke my eyes out first.

But at least I voted before getting my eyes dilated and bombarded this morning. Otherwise I would surely have cast votes for Mr. Smudge and his running-mate Blur.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Hiatus in the haze

Yesterday was that rarest of days: I was caught up on grading and class preps and did not have any reason to be on campus, so I stayed home and did some deep thinking and reading and cooking and walking. Thick fog in the morning softened the edges of everything, muting the fall colors and making my cozy little holler look like a place hiding some deep secret. Then the rain and wind blew up so that this morning the road was covered with small limbs and slippery wet leaves, and soon the trees will be bare and the woods bleak. So I'm glad I had a chance to enjoy my brief hiatus in the haze, but now I need to grade a pile of papers, which I hope will be entirely fog-free.

Two dead trees propping each other up...hope I'm not walking by when they finally fall.

Ever get the feeling you were being watched?


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Turning up the heat on chocolate

At a colleague's house recently I bit into a brownie that first filled my mouth with rich chocolatey goodness and then kept developing new layers of flavors that made my taste buds sing. I had to have the recipe, and now I've made the brownies at home and I honestly believe these are the best brownies I've ever eaten. Anyone who doesn't like cayenne pepper or chili powder probably ought to leave the room, though, which is fine because that means more brownies for the rest of us. The chili flavor is subtle but it bursts on the tongue in a way that makes the chocolate feel that much more wonderful, and the walnuts complement the gooey texture. But don't take my word for it--try 'em yourself.

Dave Brown's Brownies with Chili and Walnuts

1 cup butter (2 sticks)
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 tablespoons chili powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
3 eggs
½ tsp salt
¾ cup flour
1 ½ cups chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 324.

Melt chocolate and one stick of butter in microwave and then cool.

Grease and flour 9x13 pan.

Cream second stick of butter, sugar, and vanilla in mixer. Add chili powder, cayenne, and cinnamon. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. Add chocolate/butter mixture and blend thoroughly.

Stir in flour and salt and nuts. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Maybe the HVAC is playing a Halloween trick

Yesterday afternoon I sat in a classroom shivering through a meeting even though I was buttoned up in my winter coat with my hands in the pockets, and then I stepped outside the building and found people walking around in short sleeves. Yes: it was warmer outside the building than inside. Somehow, in the heart of autumn, with temperatures falling regularly into the 30s and 40s, the perverse HVAC system in my building now requires me to put on a winter coat to enter the building.

And speaking of perverse: heat rises, right? So why does all the heat in the building seem to pool in a few rooms down in the basement?

The amount of mental real estate I'm currently devoting to keeping warm is outrageous and unsustainable. All day long I obsess over how I'm going to do my work without touching the top of my ice-block desk, and all afternoon I obsess over finishing work in time to get home before dark so I can feed the wood-burner, because God forbid I should have to go out there in the dark and carry massive chunks of tree through the mud. If I slip on the mud and break my neck, I'll die of exposure before anyone even notices that I'm missing.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Last week when a physical plant worker was in my office after my space-heater blew the circuit for the millionth time, he asked why I don't report the heat problem to the Powers That Be, at which point I laughed that hollow laugh and said, "Again?" We've been fighting this battle for years, but this year seems worse than ever. Maybe I'm just getting old so the cold bothers me more. Maybe I'm a wimp who needs to get used to wearing a winter coat and gloves inside the building. Or maybe it's time for someone who knows something about heating and cooling to find a way to fix the problem.

I fear, though, that I'm going to keep fighting this fight as long as I'm working here, which makes retirement look so much sweeter. Imagine retiring to a place so warm that I don't have to worry about coats and gloves and hauling wood across cold dark damp mud! I won't have to obsess all day about how to keep warm, so I'll have plenty of time to complain about the air conditioning.