Thursday, September 17, 2020

Don't try this at home, people

I've been trying to identify the culprit responsible for an angry red spot on my back that feels like it's on fire, but it's not as easy as you might think. I can't blame a biting bug that may or may not have entered the picture, and I can't blame my husband's habanero-cutting scissors without blaming myself for marrying a man with an insatiable appetite for habanero peppers. So let's cast a wide net and blame Covid-19. It's already carrying the blame for so many problems--a little more blame won't hurt.

But my back does, and here's why: pandemic teaching has been wiping out my energy and sanity to such an extent that when I realized I didn't have to be on campus today and I don't have any new grading coming in until tomorrow--AND I had to drive an hour north anyway for an appointment in Zanesville--I decided to leave the house early and do some hiking before my appointment. Through heavy fog I made my way to Black Hand Gorge, where a paved bike trail leads through rugged  rock formations alongside the Licking River. 

For two miles I walked without seeing another soul, and then I sat on a bench for a while and watched a kingfisher swoop and dive in the fog before I picked up my pack and headed back to the parking lot, where a couple of Amish women pulling children in wagons and a group of masked couples speaking an Asian language were just setting off on the trail. For two hours I felt the trail was all mine but of course it belongs to the world.

Then off to my appointment and the long drive home, during which time I kept feeling a tickle in the middle of my back, as of some multi-legged creature creeping around under my shirt. Not much I could do about it at the time, although I suppose I could have flagged down the state patrol car behind me and asked the nice young man to look inside my shirt and see if I had a tick on my back. 

Probably a bad idea. 

And when I got home I was so appalled by the mess on the front porch that I set right to work sweeping, knocking down spider webs, and washing windows, and then there was a kitchen to clean, and there I stood with a hand full of cleaning rags when the tickle started up on my back again. 

In an ideal world, of course, I'd have a person on staff whose sole purpose would be to look for ticks on my back after I come in from the woods, but dream on! I just wanted the tickling to stop, so I grabbed the nearest long-handled object and stuck it down my shirt to try to rub whatever it was off my back. 

It took only seconds to realize that this was a really bad idea, and the first clue was when I started tasting habanero peppers. I was rubbing my back with the kitchen scissors my husband uses whenever he makes a sandwich, because he believes no sandwich is complete until he grabs a whole habanero pepper from the freezer, cuts it into strips, and places them on the sandwich, which to my mind ruins a perfectly good sandwich but nobody's asking me.

Now I don't mind habaneros in small doses--maybe one habanero to a crock-pot of chili, and I have to wear gloves when I cut them up--but contact with whatever habanero oil remained on those scissors made my back burn and turn bright red.

I never found a bug on my back, but my attempt to find it made everything worse for a while. I wanted to yell some choice words at someone, but with no bug to stomp and no tick-remover to berate whom could I blame? It's simply not that satisfying to yell at a pair of scissors. So I'm blaming the virus that made my job so demanding that I have to flee for the woods for solace. It may not do any good to throw a pair of scissors toward an invisible virus, but just for a moment, it made my anger burn a little less hot.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Making Zoom office hours work for me

I hesitate to buck the prevailing view, but I'm coming to appreciate the value of Zoom office hours.

Yes, I'm tired of Zooming. Yes, it's frustrating when students zone out on Zoom and pretend to be fully present--but that happens in face-to-face classrooms too. And yes, it's frustrating to set aside time for Zoom office hours and then have no one show up--but again, that happens with face-to-face office hours ALL. THE. TIME.

But here's what just happened: a student is revising a draft in her room, and she emailed to ask about a format problem she can't figure out how to fix. I asked her to Zoom with me, and within seconds I was sharing my screen with her and showing her where to find the setting on Microsoft Word and how to fix her format. She didn't even have to leave her room.

If I can grade or do course preps or complete other tasks during face-to-face office hours, I can do the same with Zoom: I leave Zoom running in the background with the sound and video muted, and if a student enters the Zoom waiting room, I hear a ding that alerts me. My only problem is that sometimes I forget to turn off the Zoom link when I go to teach a class.

Office hours have always been largely under-subscribed, with few students willing to interrupt their busy schedule to get first-hand help with problems. If Zoom makes it a little easier for students to call for help, I'll make it work. 


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Neverending story

Woo-hoo I've just finished grading a massive pile of papers and I'm prepped for tomorrow's classes and I don't have to take any work home with me so I think I'll pop a pork tenderloin and some root veggies into the oven and go out for a walk in the fresh fall air!!!!!

Okay, so maybe I've used up more than my daily quota of exclamation points, but I've been digging my way through this pile of papers since the middle of last week and I can't believe they're finally done: drafts in one class, short essays in three others, plus two sets of online discussion posts. These papers ate my weekend alive and devoured my peace of mind but now I'm at the end and I can take a break!

Until tomorrow, when I'll be receiving another set of online discussion posts, followed by another set of essays on Friday, and isn't it about time to start figuring out the online proctoring system and writing my first set of exams?

It never ends, but neither do I. No days off and no breaks until Thanksgiving, and I can't travel anywhere because of the pandemic, so I've promised myself a vacation as soon as this semester is over. I haven't been anywhere but home and Jackson since March and I don't really care where I go, but the minute those final grades are submitted in November, I'm outta here, headed straight toward the grandkids if at all possible.

Meanwhile, though, I'm going home to cook and walk and not think about grading for one single minute. Until tomorrow.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Meandering through a puzzling time

I was halfway through a morning walk along the country roads near my house when a car stopped beside me and the driver lowered her window to ask, "Don't you have a new baby?"

Unlikely, since I lack a uterus and all--but it turns out she thought I was attached to the nearby donkey farm, which may well have a new baby although I didn't see any sign of it. "I don't live here," I told the driver, "I live down the hill on Big Run."

She looked skeptical, and well she might: the distance from my house to the donkey farm is a good mile and a half, much of it up a steep hill, and my interlocutor looked like she'd get winded walking to the kitchen to fetch another beer. Frankly, I got a little winded myself, mainly because I haven't walked up the Big Horrible Hill in a while. I've been spending my weekends in Jackson, see, and on weekdays I come home so exhausted that it's all I can do to keep up with the mowing and grading and housework.

But this weekend I didn't go to Jackson and I'm caught up on the mowing (but not the grading) so I thought I'd head up the road and see what I could see.

Not much is the answer--or not much that would impress anyone: pretty clouds, thistles, donkeys, nondescript little brown birds, tall Joe Pye weed blossoms fading into delicate tracery against the sky--even the luscious purple ironweed is starting to droop. At one point, though, I saw a great blue heron flying low over our creek, which suggests that even at its lowest ebb our creek offers something to sustain a heron.

How long will my morning walk sustain me?     

This week a former student showed me a photo of her new emotional support animal: a snake she keeps in a terrarium in her dorm room. (Snakes are low-maintenance and quiet--what's not to love?) If a snake keeps her going through difficult times then I'm all for it, although I'm less enthusiastic about another coping mechanism suggested this week by a person in a position of authority. What our hard-working faculty and staff members need to support them through this difficult time, they said, is simple: jigsaw puzzles. So that when we're not teaching or preparing to teach or grading or struggling with technology or helping students cope or, you know, having a life, we can use our abundant free time to lean over a table and puzzle away.

I can't speak for everyone but puzzles are not what I need right now. What I need is an IT person to follow me around and fix all my tech issues, a personal assistant to mow my lawn and do my shopping and make sure I eat healthy foods, and while we're dreaming, how about a few more hours in the day? 

If none of those things are happening then I'll take what I can get: a heron, some hay bales, a few scattered birds and blossoms, and  along walk down country roads where there's not much of any interest to see. 



Friday, September 11, 2020

A brief pause in the finger-pointing

My honors students this morning confronted the problem of pain when, in the first chapter of Cold Mountain, Inman asks a blind man "Who put out your pair of eyes," and the blind man answers "Nobody," an obvious echo of the scene in Homer's Odyssey when the Cyclops shrieks about the little nobody who has blinded him. But it's also, I reminded my students, an echo of the question Jesus is asked in John 9: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that this man should be born blind?"

The desire to point a finger of blame when people suffer senselessly is almost irresistible, but like the blind man in Charles Frazier's novel, Jesus points the finger directly at Nobody. The blind man suffers not as a result of sin but to serve a larger purpose: so that the works of God might be seen in him. And this, in turn, reflects what Alcinous says in Book 8 of The Odyssey when he says the purpose of human suffering is "to make a song for those in times to come"--an idea that shows up in Cold Mountain when suffering inspires Stobrod's fiddle to new heights of healing sound.

Which is all well and good but on a day when my newsfeed is full of pictures of today's wildfires and yesterday's falling towers, it's not so comforting to think that such horrors happen so that someone in the future can make beautiful music or poetry or art. Can't we have beautiful music and poetry and art without suffering?

Still, we find comfort where we can. On a day of burning timbers and falling towers, Robinson Jeffers reminds us that "stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found / The honey peace in old poems," and W.S. Merwin in "Rain Light" bids us find comfort in what endures "even though the whole world is burning." 

I'm not interested right this minute in figuring out who is responsible for every horrible thing that's happened; instead I'll pause and reflect on those who work so hard to keep us safe and seek some honey of peace and comfort in the midst of the blaze.

So today I'm pointing the finger of blame at Nobody--but I'm not making any promises about tomorrow.


Monday, September 07, 2020

One of those indescribable days

If I'm having a more piquant day than I'd expected, it's my own fault: I didn't look closely at the jelly jar while making my peanut-butter sandwich this morning so I didn't realize it was hot-pepper jelly until I bit into my lunch. But at least I had some calming companions out at the pollinator garden. I saw a fritillary but it flittered off before I could get a photo.

Meanwhile, teaching has been tough. Some days teaching is like trying to bathe a cat, and other days it's more like trying to bathe a dozen wildcats with their tails tied together while the house is on fire. Guess which kind of day I'm having? And it's supposed to be a holiday!

My office computer is currently possessed by gremlins that make the monitor go black at random moments, like in the middle of a Zoom class--my students are still there, but I can't see them. And then I've been having trouble with the internet connection in one of my classrooms all semester, making it difficult for students in quarantine to join the class via Zoom, but just today the IT people told me the internet connection has always been unstable up there and they're not sure they can improve it, which makes me wonder: how can anyone expect me to include remote learners in a classroom where the internet thinks every day is Labor Day? I mean, if the rest of us have to work, surely the internet should have to work today! And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!

But this too shall pass. My sandwich was surprisingly good and the pollinators never fail to amuse. Now if I can just subdue the wildcats and get some cooperation from all my tech, it might almost feel like a holiday, even if I have to teach.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Catching the early light in sun-dappled woods

In the deep woods this time of year the only blossoms are so tiny they're easy to miss if you're not paying attention, and I must have being paying very poor attention this morning at Lake Katharine because I suddenly realized I'd passed by one of my favorite spots on the trail without even noticing.

I was a little preoccupied, trying to figure out how to persuade students that the online citation engine isn't always right because the result is only as good as the information you feed into it and if you don't know what the word "publisher" means or how to locate the name of the publisher, you're going to make a mess. But who wants to mull over such a muddle in the middle of the early-morning woods?

In the early light the woods are dark but dappled with sunshine. A hike that felt gruelling last week when the temperature was nearly 30 degrees hotter and the humidity was unbearable was much more pleasant today, and others must have agreed because I kept encountering other hikers. Recent storms had knocked a few limbs onto the trail, but nothing unsurmountable. And now, after such a refreshing hike, other obstacles seem less intransigent. Time to do some school work!