Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Emily Dickinson writes about college basketball (sort of)

"It makes more sense if it's 'March Madness,'" said my student, and he had a point. In Emily Dickinson's poem "Much madness is divinest sense," she describes how the concepts of "sense" and "madness" change with time, with the majority determining what counts as sensible at any given moment. 

Which, as my student pointed out, is exactly what happens with March Madness: If you're surrounded by people constantly yammering about their brackets, it's easy to see them as lacking sense; meanwhile, those caught up in bracketology see the non-participants as mad. 

And what happens when a bracketologist sits down at the lunch table with a bunch of people who don't care about college basketball, or vice versa? When the majority is empowered to determine what counts as "sense," then outliers can be deemed "dangerous / and handled with a Chain."

So "March Madness is divinest sense"--if only Emily had known!

Put one word in front of the other

I checked and re-checked every word, shifted a sentence around to make it flow more smoothly, edited for nuance and then hit "send," and only then did the realization hit: I just put more time, energy, and passion into a three-sentence e-mail expressing (righteous!) indignation than I've put into any other writing project this month.

That's not an auspicious way to start a new year. I can offer plenty of excuses: I've been sick; I can't think straight when I'm on drugs; the weather is depressing; after I teach, all I want to do is sleep. But the fact is that I just haven't made writing a priority.

I've got plenty to work on: revising a journal article, expanding a conference paper, taking the next step on the big multi-year writing project, even occasional blogging. I wrote about half of my thank-you notes for Christmas gifts and then gave up, for no good reason other than being tired. This does not sound like me at all. What have I done to myself?

The passion I felt on writing that petty e-mail yesterday served as a wake-up call, making me wonder why I'm wasting so much energy on relatively insignificant matters when I could be tackling a pile of serious work, work that I used to find engaging and challenging but that now simply seems to loom threateningly like the dark clouds that have recently dominated our days.

I know from experience that the best cure for writing malaise is simply to write--and not just irate e-mails. So it's time to put the cough syrup aside, ignore the awful weather, and simply get back to work, word by word. Starting now. 

Well, maybe after my morning classes....


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

But how do I assess 'awe'?

In Lia Purpura's essay "There Are Things Awry Here" from her collection Rough Likeness, she describes the difficulty of teaching students writing: "I walk into class thinking Really I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of language..." 

This strikes me as the ideal statement of purpose for my creative nonfiction class, which met for the first time this morning. I can offer my students opportunities to read and write, but how do I teach them awe, desire, stamina, and adoration? Where do these essential skills fit into the crowded syllabus, and how am I supposed to assess them?

Nevertheless I allowed this quote to shape the start of our semester together, which is appropriate since Lia Purpura will be visiting campus to work with this class and do a public reading in March. I'm in awe already, and I desire to inspire my class to make great things and finish them, with proper respect for the wonders of words. This is going to be a great semester! (If I can just survive this first difficult week....)   

Monday, January 16, 2017

Climbing every mountain (in a mere 15 weeks)

On the first day of class I ask my Concepts of Nature students to answer the roll call with something that interests them about nature. "I like to hunt," says one, and another says "I like mountains." Then it's "mountains and water," then "mountains and snow." 

Several say they like colors--of flowers and trees, of sunrise and sunset, of changing seasons. One says "I like raptors" and I tell her about the hawks and eagles I see on my daily drive along the river.

I tell the mountain-lovers that we'll soon be following Thoreau up Mount Ktaadn and Isabella Bird up a Hawaiian volcano, following John Muir into a wind-storm in the forest and Norman Maclean into some of the best fly-fishing waters in the world. We'll let William Cullen Bryant introduce us to the blue of the fringed gentian and W.S. Merwin show us the wonders of rare and precious native Hawaiian trees.

I wish we could take a field trip to all these places, all the times our authors will show us this semester, but that would require a lifetime of rambling. We have a mere 15 weeks to climb these rigorous and challenging mountains, so we'd better get moving. Let's open our books and get ready to see the world. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Please may I have a whole new January? This one's broken.

I worked just hard enough on campus today to convince myself that I'm absolutely unprepared for classes to start next Monday. Earlier this week I copied my syllabi, prepared the first-day activities, set up my class Moodle pages, and prepared as much as I usually prepare, but today I spent a mere 30 minutes leading faculty in a discussion and then I had to go home and lie down to recover my strength.

Not only am I tired of being sick, but I'm tired of hearing myself talk about how sick I've been and I'm tired of thinking about being sick and I'm tired of wondering when I'm going to be done being sick. I'm not coughing so much any more and I'm sleeping much better, but my ears are still so stuffed up that every conversation sounds like it's coming from the bottom of a deep well and my head feels disconnected from the rest of my body. I may appear to be fully present and accounted for, but it takes every ounce of concentration to figure out what people are saying and to keep my head from floating off into the atmosphere like a lost helium balloon.

So today I faked my way through a pedagogy discussion and I fear that I'll be doing the same in all four classes next week: speak with an artificial sparkle in my voice and look lively while internally scrambling to hold body and soul together. Of course, I've got three days to recover fully before classes begin. Maybe by Monday I'll be a whole new person and all this January crud will be a dim and distant memory. Or maybe the whole week will be a train wreck followed by a dumpster fire followed by scenes out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

However next week turns out, I think I'll be happy to write off the first two weeks of January as a dead loss. Let's just forget this ever happened and move on, okay? Preferably without coughing.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Eagle season

Here we are nine days into the new year and I've already seen three eagles, or the same eagle three different times. This morning I stopped by the lock at the crack of dawn in hopes of seeing eagles but saw nothing but seagulls, but then on the way home I stopped to gawk at a great big bald eagle in what we've come to call "the eagle spot": a tree on the west side of the Muskingum just across from Bear Creek Road.  It flew off, of course, the minute I got the camera out, but wow, what a beautiful bird. Now let's hope it wasn't just visiting!

Fulfilling our National Coughing Quota

After spending more than a week in a drug-induced haze characterized by coughing, sleeping, coughing, nose-blowing, and coughing, I've returned to campus to prep for the start of classes next week, and so far I've made it through an entire morning without utterly collapsing. At this point staying upright is a major accomplishment. ("What did you do at work today, sweetheart?" "I didn't end up flat on my back on the floor." "Well done you! Gold star!")

Along with remaining upright, I've managed to make some photocopies, write a letter of recommendation, and clear the detritus of fall semester off my desk. And I've discovered some interesting things. 

For instance, I've found two people who are not coughing. Two! They may well be the only non-coughers in the entire county at this point, but on the other hand, they might just start coughing the minute I turn my back. We've definitely done our part to fulfill the National Coughing Quota this year. Time for someone else to step up and take a turn.

And I have discovered the source of all Namibians. Well, not all Namibians, but I've found the source of the computer glitch that resulted in every single student in my spring classes being listed as hailing from Namibia: in a column on our course management system designed to list the student's nationality, some brilliant person(s) (not me) inserted "NA," meaning "Not Applicable." Except the course management system thinks "NA" means Namibia, which explains the sudden glut of Namibians in my classes. I'm a Namibian; you're a Namibian; we are all Namibians.

Now if someone can figure out how to send all this coughing to Namibia, we'll be sitting pretty.  

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Nebulizers on "stun"

"I don't like your breath sounds," said the doctor, and what I wanted to say in reply was, "You don't like my breath sounds? How do you think I feel about 'em? Every exhalation sounds like a creaky horror-flick door slowly opening  wider to reveal the great green mucilaginous Phlegm Monster reaching out its slimy tentacles to invade every last inch of your bronchial tubes. How am I supposed to sleep with a chest full of B-movie sound effects?"

But I lacked the strength, so I said "oh" and she said "Let's put you on a nebulizer." And so I was nebulized, which sounds like something Marvin the Martian would try to do to Bugs Bunny, except he would aim the silly thing the wrong way and end up nebulizing his own little adorable self into oblivion. 

I've been battling the Phlegm Monster for five days now, along with half the county if the line at the walk-in clinic is any indication. Last night was the breaking point, when I realized I simply couldn't take another all-night cough fest. The good news is that it's not pneumonia. "Just bronchitis," said the doctor, but I'll bet she'd skip the "just" if she had to spend one night grappling with my breath sounds.  The bad news is that there's nothing much to do for it beyond rest, fluids, and an inhaler when the cough gets unbearable. 

So here I sit--nebulized, resting, drinking fluids, and getting diddly squat done. And the cough? It could last another week or more. Yes! Another week in the company of the Phlegm Monster! May as well get some popcorn so you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Monday, January 02, 2017

A winter feast of color and light

On a fog-shrouded morning, when a cold gray blanket locks the world in misery and throws away the key, the cheerful voice of my granddaughter reaches out from the middle of last week: "Grampa, can you read to me more about bell peppers?"

She has a room full of charming children's books but he'd been reading to her out of a seed catalog--descriptions of carrots and kale, seedless watermelons, tomatoes glowing with summer sunshine--and she'd been eating it up. The pictures alone could sustain large family through a Siberian winter, but Grampa's warm voice reading about bell peppers adds a nourishing broth, seasoned with our granddaughter's questions.

This is why seed companies send out catalogs in the bleak midwinter, just at the moment when we've forgotten that the sun ever shone on us, that the warm earth ever sent forth hopeful green sprouts or garish purple eggplants or carrots that can only be described as carrot-colored. All the rich colors that fled our environs with the arrival of winter have taken refuge in the seed catalog, where they tantalize us with the promise of spring's return.

Those bell peppers! Green ones and yellow and orange and red--who wouldn't want to feast her little eyes on such bounty? Look at this bunch of hybrid purple carrots and you can smell warm earth, feel its grit on your hands. Parsnips! Rhubarb! Kohlrabi! Sugar snap peas! They make me want to go out and start digging right now, even though we've had little success growing peas here.

Seed catalogs make us believe: that winter won't last, that color will come back, that someday we will once again hold a red ripe tomato in our hands and bite down and taste every ounce of sunshine that made it grow. So read to us more about bell peppers, Grampa.  Feed us from the seed catalog--all of us--until we can eat no more.