Friday, December 29, 2006

All work and all play

I was on campus for only about 10 minutes today to attend to an annoying administrative task (placing check-marks in seven little squares to approve December's departmental expenditures, which seems like a ridiculous reason to drive into town, but it had to be done by the end of the month so there I was), but in that short span of time I ran into four of my colleagues. This happens every time I go to campus during down times: Sunday afternoons, Friday nights, weekends, holidays, early in the morning--there's always somebody else there working. It occurs to me that we academic types just aren't very good at taking time off.

If you need more evidence, look at how tens of thousands of us spend our Christmas holidays: attending academic conferences. I'm not at MLA this year but I've been there before and there's nothing relaxing about it. Any event that requires me to prominently display my credentials on my chest is not a vacation, and any event that involves interviewing or being interviewed is the antithesis of a holiday.

I've thought about this problem and I think the reason academics are so bad at taking time off is that so much of our job simply doesn't look like work. Grading papers, teaching, and attending committee meetings all appear to be work, but everything else I do for work also looks a lot like what I do for play: reading, writing, thinking. I can do those things just about anywhere, and I do, which means work and play intermingle promiscuously. Since I'm always sort of working, why not do it at the office?

And if that kind of logic takes me to the office when no one has any business being there, I shouldn't be surprised to find others there doing the same thing.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Under the tree

I found a lot of great loot under the Christmas tree this year--books, hand lotion, lots of warm socks--but the best gift couldn't fit under the tree. After two years of work, the garage is nearly done. The photo was taken a few weeks ago; since then workers have finished the drywall, installed the furnace and water heater, hooked up the water and septic system, and who knows what else. This week they're stomping the ceiling and priming the walls and we'll be down to the small stuff: doorknobs and light fixtures and cabinets. By the time the cold weather hits, I expect to be able to park a car in there.
But it's more than just a garage, of course. Our driveway is nearly a quarter-mile long and climbs a gentle slope up the side of a hill; at the very end, it makes a sharp right turn and goes straight uphill to the house. The driveway is manageable most of the time, but when snow and ice hit, our cars just can't make that final turn up to the house. The garage is located one level down from the house, at the point where cars roll back to when they can't make it up the last hill. We'll be able to pull into the garage, walk up the interior steps, walk out onto the back deck (still in the planning stages), and walk about 100 feet to the fr0nt door of the house. The best part, though, is upstairs: our house has no spare bedrooms and very little storage, but the garage will fix both problems. There's a little apartment up there, complete with sleeping area, bathroom, kitchenette, built-in bookshelves, two gigantic storage closets, and big picture windows with views of woods, meadow, creek, and the colorful bluff across the road. The deck in the back will be nestled in the woods where the best wildflowers grow in spring: mayapples and trillium and fire pinks and twinleaf and stonecrop. It'll be a great guest room or retreat or perhaps someday a rental property.
Right now, though, it's a gift, even if it can't fit under the Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

To words!

Done! I've just closed the file containing the biggest writing project I've attempted since the dissertation. I wrote 2500 words yesterday and 5000 today, plus untold numbers last week and the week before and various weeks going back close to six years. I'll proofread, of course, and tomorrow I'll send the manuscript out to a few trusted readers, but unless they suggest major changes, the hard part is done and there's nothing left but the mopping-up.

How do I celebrate? A walk sounds about right, especially since my body feels like it's been chained to a computer desk for two days. Maybe I can find a Christmas cookie somewhere and a mug of hot cocoa. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Too hot for a fire. I'll settle for marzipan and a communal toast: to words! Long may they flow.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A tempting tradition

Tree decorated: check.
Gifts wrapped: check.
Stockings hung by chimney with care: check.
Traditional Christmas lasagne assembled: check.

Hold on there. Since when did lasagne become a traditional Christmas meal? Shouldn't that be a ham or a roast or a turkey? What kind of person cooks lasagne on Christmas?

This break from tradition is not entirely my fault. I tried to come up with another plan; in fact, I spent several weeks periodically asking family members what they wanted for Christmas dinner, and the most useful response I received was "something good." "Okay then," I said, "I'll just have to adjust that liver-and-onions with brussels sprouts menu and cancel that big order of Salmiak. What'll I do with this case of Spam, though? I know--let's exercise some holiday spirit and give it to the poor! I'm sure the poor like Spam!"

After going through this ridiculous exercise a few times, I realized that an important part of my constituency had gone unpolled. I immediately repaired the oversight: "Self," I said, "What would you like to eat on Christmas?" Hence, a big pan of lasagne is now nestled snug in the fridge, waiting to be popped in the oven tomorrow. That's right: all the hard work is done, so tomorrow I can just relax and enjoy. I think I like this tradition.

I'm not quite so crazy about the traditional Christmas Eve turnips, but I had to make room in the fridge for the lasagne so those turnips had to be cooked and consumed. I'm more sanguine about the pre-Christmas-Eve tacos and flan, which is also not traditional holiday fare but is quite appropriate for a house full of young people celebrating a birthday. The college chick turned 20 today, which means that 20 years ago today I was enjoying the traditional I.V. drip following an emergency C-section. That was the year I baked 14 dozen traditional Christmas cookies to serve at our Christmas Eve open house, but the trip to the hospital sort of relocated the party. I hope the maternity ward nurses enjoyed all those cookies. They earned them: on Christmas morning they brought me a Christmas stocking stuffed with a beautiful baby girl. We still hang that stocking by the chimney every year to remind us that tradition isn't everything, that sometimes the best gifts are unexpected. Twenty years ago, a baby girl; tomorrow, lasagne; a year from now--who knows?

For tonight, everything's checked off the list, except I ought to leave a little something out for Santa. Hope he likes turnips.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Home for Christmas

'Twas the week before Chrismtas and all over the blosophere, not a creature was writing or reading or visiting--or at least precious few creatures. Apparently my favorite bloggers have other things to do, things I'm not doing this year: visiting relatives, writing conference papers, interviewing (or being interviewed) at MLA. This year, for the first time in years, I'm staying home.

For the past two years I've gone to MLA to give papers and interview people for job openings, and while it's much more fun to be the interviewer than the interviewee, the task is not without its horrors: the big room lined with intelligent people oozing desperation, the lineup of dark suits, the strangers crying in the ladies' room, those awkward pauses when it becomes clear that the interviewee simply won't do but the interview must nevertheless grind on to its sorry conclusion. This year, thank heaven, my department has no openings to fill, so I'll just sit back and enjoy the status quo.

And we're not going to Florida to visit relatives this Christmas either, much as we'd enjoy a dose of sunshine right now. (Note to whoever is in charge of the weather: the song says "white Christmas," not "wet Christmas.") These days, most of our traveling involves visiting the college kid at her campus or taking the high school senior to visit colleges, so the travel funds have been hopelessly depleted. A year from now I'll have two kids in college, and any family travel will have to work around their various course schedules. I keep telling myself that this is just a stage, that one of these days both kids will be done with school and we'll have no schedules to consult but our own, but meanwhile, we'll just have to be patient. And this Christmas, that means staying home.

But that's okay. We have what we need for a cosy family Christmas: cookies, eggnog, board games, books, plenty of firewood. Now all we need are visitors to share the fun. Come by any time--we're ready for you.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ai-ai-ai eyes!

Pet peeve: white text on a dark background. I just can't read it. Thirty seconds, max, and I'm going cross-eyed and blindly reaching for the "back" button. Why do people do this? Do they enjoy causing me pain? Why don't they just come over to my house and stick a hot poker in my eyeballs instead of luring me on with promises of thrilling repartee and then stabbing my eyeballs with white text on black background? I would rather rub sand in my eyes than try to read it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

With the procession

I was driving home from the dentist's office this morning when I fell in line behind a funeral procession. I hadn't really intended to follow a hearse halfway home, but there are only so many ways to get from point A to point B and if a funeral procession is in the way, there's nothing to do but follow. This meant driving about half the speed limit, but I wasn't in a tremendous hurry--and besides, if death is the price we have to pay for being alive, then I don't mind showing some respect for the dead by taking my life a little more slowly.

One thing I found a bit disconcerting: as the hearse and the long wagging tail of cars made it slow way down the highway, cars traveling in the other direction pulled off the road in respect. Some of the drivers got out of the cars and stood with their heads bowed while the procession moved past. This is a charming gesture although I confess I don't quite understand it: surely everyone who stops can't possibly know the dead guy, so for whom are they showing respect? For death itself? For the mourners? For me? I was, after all, attached, through no fault of my own, to the tail end of this funeral procession. As I saw these strangers bowing silently in my direction, I wanted to open my window and yell out, "I'm not with them!" But that would be rude. And so I drove on, silently accepting the solemn gestures despite my unworthiness to receive them.

Then we reached a fork in the road where the funeral procession took the road less traveled by while I stayed on the main highway. I'll take the other fork another day, but for now, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Do the math

Yesterday we celebrated 24 years of marriage. Twenty four years! Seems like a long time to do anything. I've been trying to make the numbers add up but this is the best I can do:

Two children, one exchange student, 12 foster children, if I'm remembering correctly. How many birthday parties? Difficult to say. One dog, one cat, one rabbit, and long ago an aquarium full of fish. How many fleas?

Two B.A.'s, one M.Div., one M.A., one Ph.D., and a kid almost halfway through a degree in Music Education. How much have we paid for tuition? Too scary to count.

One shoebox-size apartment, two rickety mobile homes in the same trailer park, one 18-foot travel trailer that we lived in the two summers we worked in campgrounds (and if you really want to get to know someone, spend two summers in a space that small), five parsonages (and only the first and last were truly awful), and one home of our own with an emerging garage. Ten dwellings in 24 years!

One 1970 puke-green Dodge Dart (sold to a kid who wanted to use it "to race cops"), one Mazda GLC (sold, dying), two Honda Civics (both wrecked, not my fault), two Honda CRX's (one sold, dying, and the 1991 model still sputtering along with 170,000 miles on it), two Toyota minivans (one sold, one still running with 190,000 miles on it), one Dodge Neon (needs a paint job that would cost more than we paid for the car), one Nissan Sentra (currently in the possession of the college kid). Ten cars in 24 years! Four of them still running! How many miles have we driven? Impossible to say.

Five thousand miles in two weeks on the Grand Canyon trip, camping all the way. Five hundred miles each week during the three Kentucky/Ohio commmuting years. Forty miles a day for my round trip to work. Road trips to Michigan, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida Florida Florida. That long drive to Albuquerque when I was pregnant and slept the whole way back. Trips to Iowa, to Kentucky, to Indiana to look at colleges. To D.C. for MLA, and to Philadelphia for same. To West Virginia to ski. Does it count if it was a rental car? But then we've got to add airline miles--to California, Vancouver, Madrid, Auckland, Florida Florida Florida. How many of those flights did we pay for? How many did the college cover because I was giving papers?

How much money have we earned? Spent? Borrowed? Difficult to say. We've worked for three campgrounds, five newspapers, 13 churches, two institutions of higher education, one Farmers' Market, and a whole host of schools that employ the bearded wonder as a substitute teacher. Supported the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, marching band, pep band, basketball, softball, Spanish Club, and the National Honor Society. How many fund-raising drives? I'd rather forget.

How many pairs of shoes? Tubes of toothpaste? Bottles of aspirin? How much for electricity, water, garbage pickup, television, movies, trips to see The Nutcracker? How many cloth diapers washed and folded? How many disasters avoided by the skin of our teeth? (By fire, one; by water, two; by car, too many to count.)

How many arguments? How many laughs? How many times have we wondered how we'd make it through another day? Somehow it all has to add up to 24 years, but I can't seem to do the math.

Instead, I'll do the marriage. Maybe I'll try the math again after another 24 years.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Progress report

Totally didn't feel like writing this morning but I made myself do it and behold, it was good. Okay, maybe it isn't all that good just yet, but it's heading in that direction. This project has been stalled for so long that it's good to see it heading in any direction. Ditto with the garage addition: the water was hooked up today so all that remains is a little paint, a little flooring, some doorknobs and light fixtures and other indoor finishing. Ditto the Christmas shopping: I've been postponing making a final decision on a few important items, but today after I wrote my quota of words I headed for the mall and didn't come back until I was done. Done for now. I know I'm neglecting some other important things while pursuing progress on these projects--the laundry comes to mind, for instance, and the pile of photos begging to be put into albums--but those things can wait. Tomorrow I'll get up and I won't feel like writing but I'll write anyway, and it may not be perfect but it's progress, and that's good.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Making the grade

I posted final grades a week ago and so far I've had no angry or pleading e-mail messages from students. Granted, for those students able to use a calculator or visit webct, there were few surprises; however, usually there are a few who think they can wheedle their way to a better grade even after the final grades are in. So far, nothing.

I did, however, receive a message before finals from a student who knew she had bombed the class and wanted to know when it would be offered again so she can re-take it in hopes of improving her grade. She asked for my suggestions on how she can improve her performance, "aside from attending class." Well, I would say that attending class is a good start, and once she gets that little detail figured out we can talk about some other helpful habits, like doing the reading assignments and remembering to turn in papers. But I have no other suggestions at this time "aside from attending class."

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Here is what sometimes happens in a house full of eclectic talents: the young man is playing Latin riffs on the conga while his sister, just home from college, plays some Andrew Lloyd Webber selections on the piano--and meanwhile upstairs the college girl's boyfriend practices Christmas carols on the accordion for tomorrow's service, occasionally accompanied by the old guy on the harmonica.

And what am I doing while all this music swirls around me? Tap-tap-tapping on the computer keyboard, of course. In a house full of eclectic talents, this just happens to be mine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

High stakes

From David Mitchell's Black Swan Green:

If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened
stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, "When you're ready."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Climbing the mountain, one word at a time

Folded laundry. Washed shower curtains. Made fudge. Bought groceries. Chatted with the garage contractor. Lunched with colleagues. Read the paper. Stared out the window at birds. And oh yes, wrote roughly 2500 words on a major project. They may not have been the best words or even the right words, but they're 2500 more words than I had written yesterday, and that's something to celebrate.

I've been working up the courage to call this writing project a book, but it's difficult. Back in grad school everyone always referred to the dissertation as the "little writing project," as in "I understand you're working on a little writing project." If "dissertation" sounds frightening, then "a little writing project" ought to sound comforting, but somehow it didn't then and it doesn't now. Minimizing the size of the mountain only makes me wonder why I find the climbing so difficult.

For a while now I've been immersed in a different kind of little writing project but I'm not yet ready to call it a book. Just a little something I'm fiddling with in my spare time, you know, nothing serious, just an insignificant bunch of words--and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I even know exactly how many.

The more important question is: How many more?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ammo a la mode

A big stack of Christmas music CDs sit next to the CD player upstairs, but they are not merely music. They are ammunition.

Suppose the young man is having trouble motivating himself to get out of bed in the morning, a not uncommon occurrence. Crank up Christmas with the Chipmunks to full blast and before you know it, the young man is stomping into the kitchen to turn it off. It's more fun, though, to annoy the resident bread-baker when he's up to his elbows in bread dough: just put that new Aaron Neville CD on and wait for the falsetto spots. The breadman cringes every time, but he can't adjust those little buttons with bread dough all over his hands.

When it comes to Christmas music, we all love it--most of it--but we also know how to take advantage of each other's dislikes. Right now, for instance, the men are playing a CD that offers them ample opportunities to poke fun at me. Why? Because no matter how many times I'm reminded of the name of the group, I can't remember it, and I always end up calling them something totally inappropriate like "Subterranean Railway." (It's Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but I can say that with assurance only because I just hollered up the stairs to pry that piece of information out of my son, who is seeking revenge for all those times he's been awakened by The Chipmunks.) If you ask me again in an hour, I'll wrinkle my brow and say something like "Not Mannheim Steamroller."

I have the same problem remembering the French phrase used to describe a road that ends in a circular turnaround; I have to run through a whole litany of phrases and then half the time I still can't come up with the right one: coup d'etat, tete a tete, rue morgue, vache du plage, higgledy-piggledy, Perth's useless. I'll remember it an hour from now when I no longer care.

But how can I concentrate on such a minor matter when lovely Christmas music is playing and my taste buds are being treated to warm apple crisp served with vanilla ice cream? I know the word for that: a la mode. Why worry about ammo when we can enjoy apple crisp a la mode?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Holy jokes! That's REALLY not funny!

So we were discussing that annoying Christopher Hitchens article--the one that links the ability to bear children with a significant decline in funniness--when someone raised the question, "Was Jesus funny?" Far be it from me to try to resolve the thorny theological issue that caused so much bloodshed in The Name of the Rose, in which merely speculating about whether Jesus had a sense of humor could result in the gruesome death of the speculator and the immersion of his body in a vat of blood drained from freshly slaughtered pigs. There's something about torture that just takes all the fun out of humor, you know? So rather than risk such treatment, I'll just paraphrase the words of Umberto Eco himself: if Jesus wasn't funny, why did he get invited to so many dinners?

A laughing Jesus I can envision, but a laughing Mary? She's not laughing in all those byzantine icons, but then neither is anyone else. In fact, if religious art is any indication, the laugh was a heresy introduced after the Second Vatican Council. I'm trying to recall an image of Mary that suggests laughter, but nothing is coming to mind; the most we ever see is a sort of Mona Lisa smile--quiet, subtle, mysterious. If Hitchens is right, then Mary was less likely to crack a joke than to purse her lips and say, "That's not funny." And the minute those lips were pursed, you can bet some byzantine artist would come along and start slathering on the gold leaf. Did you ever try to crack a smile through half an inch of gold leaf? That's gotta hurt. If Mary followed the Hitchens model of humor-free females, where, then, did Jesus get his excellent sense of humor?

Our furry green friend points out that Hitchens's argument relating humor to powerlessness is a bit circular: men use humor as a smoke screen to hide their own powerlessness, while women use humorlessness to hide their power. If this theory is correct, then surely ultimate power should be linked with ultimate humorlessness, which gives us a stern Jesus straight out of The Name of the Rose. Meanwhile, Mary, the submissive, servantlike handmaiden of the Lord, ought to have a lucrative career in stand-up comedy.

But this is all, of course, mere speculation--as is Hitchens's article, for that matter. I'm sure it would never enter into anyone's head to immerse either of us in a vat of pigs' blood simply for the sin of getting serious about humor. But if someone has to suffer for the cause, let it be Christopher Hitchens. He's the one who links humor with powerlessness, and the way I see it, he can use all the powerlessness he can get.

Monday, December 11, 2006

That's not funny

In the January Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens attempts to answer the age-old question, "Why are men funnier than women?" (Read about it here.) He covers the topic in some depth, including results from an unfunny study on the topic and concluding that "the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates. This is the unspoken compromise."

I've been mulling over possible responses, most of them remarkably unfunny, which would just provide further support for his underlying assumption that (most) women aren't particularly funny, or that women don't feel the pressure to be funny that men do. I know some very funny women, but they're not professionally funny--their humor is not a career in itself but a byproduct that bubbles out while they're otherwise occupied. This suggests that Hitchens is right, sort of, but this annoys me because I want him to be wrong, but proving him wrong would require a whole lot of serious, articulate prose, preferably with a coherent argument involving bullet points and scientific studies quantifying differences in humor levels. And you know what? That's just not funny.

So let Christopher Hitchens be funny today. I'll go back to being morose.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A one-sided conversation

Every January I indulge in the same little conversation with myself. "Self," I say, "Wouldn't it be a good idea to keep track of all the books I read in a year's time?"

"Why?" I respond.

"Why not?"

"Because one of us would have to remember to write down the title of all those books and I for one am not in the mood."

"Piffle," I reply. "Don't you think it would be interesting to know how many books I've read in a year?"

"Interesting to whom?"

"Well, to me, of course, and possibly you."

"Or possibly not." I pause. "What's the payoff?"


"You know, is there a prize at bottom of the box? Some sort of reward to make all that record-keeping worthwhile?"

"There would be a number."

"Like I need another number in my life. Who cares how many books I read in a year's time?"

"But it's not just a number. It's a list. You know how fun it is to dissect a person's personality based on the books stacked on the nightstand. A list of books I've read in a year might reveal interesting personality traits."

"Reveal to whom? Is there anyone out there who needs to know how many times I've read A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--or failed to finish The Magic Mountain?"

"You've got a point there," I admit. "How about this: I'll start the list, and if it gets annoying, I'll quit."

"Fine," I reply. "I predict that before March roars in, you'll forget the whole thing."

And of course I was right: I started a list somewhere, but then I got distracted, and I didn't think about it again until right now. But that doesn't have to be the end of it. January is coming, and with it a whole new year. "Self," I say, "I've got a great idea."

But all I can do is roll my eyes and sigh, "Here we go again."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Happy birthday to me

Sure sign that I'm becoming a POP (Pathetic Older Person): I'm celebrating my birthday by staying home in a quiet house, reading.

Okay, there's a little more to it than that. Last night I persuaded the family to play the Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers' Edition for the first time, and never have I been so grateful for having once read Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. We stopped after nearly two hours of play, when I had four wedges, my son had three, and the bearded wonder--well, he kept responding with variations on The Catcher in the Rye, so what do you expect? "The Cupcake in the Rye," he would say, or 'The Admiral in the Rye." I kept getting questions about books written by baseball managers and professional wrestlers, not exactly the kind of reading you'll find on my bedside table.

This morning the bearded wonder redeemed himself by making a wonderful birthday breakfast, which had to take place fairly early because our son was off to take the ACT, followed by a haircut and Christmas shopping and playing drums in the pep band at the high school basketball game, so 6:45 a.m. was the only time we would be together all day. I got some great birthday loot, including two books from my wish list: Jose Saramago's Seeing and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. And I spent most of the afternoon just sitting around reading.

Now we're thinking about getting out of the house and going to that basketball game. I don't really care about the game, but it would be a good chance to see the unlittle drummer boy in action again. ("The Drummer in the Rye"?) So off we go into the cold dark night to yell hurrah at young people with seemingly unending reservoirs of energy. They'll never be POPs--and just for tonight, neither will I.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Squinting toward bedlam

I have just finished grading the last set of final exams--the final finals--and I am about ready to tear my eyeballs right out of my head. I do not complain about bad handwriting because my own handwriting is no more legible than the footprints of plovers on wet sand. I do, however, have a few words to say about small handwriting. If I have to squint to read it, it's too small. This morning I actually borrowed a magnifying glass from the secretary to help me read these exams. Where do they learn to write such teeny letters? Are students involved in a vast conspiracy to destroy professors' vision, or are they hoping to annoy me into allowing them to take exams online?

Either way, my eyes hurt. I intend to take them home and give them a rest, preferably in front of a roaring fire. They've earned a break. After reading all that microscopic print, my eyes deserve an A+.

Good thing I don't give grades for penmanship.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Traumatic teeth

"Have you been chewing on rocks again?"

This is just the beginning of a long litany of questions my dentist asks when contemplating my molars.

"Were you ever in a bad car wreck? Beaten frequently as a child? Ever fall head-first out of a fourth-floor window?"

No, no, and no.

"These teeth show signs of severe trauma," he says.

"I used to chew on ice a lot," I tell him, and he just leans back and rubs his forehead. I'm doing my best, really; can I help it that I'm brutal on teeth?

Since 1998, those two upper molars have been through Dental Hell: root canals, temporary crowns, fractures, permanant crowns, surgery, more fractures, another crown made with an experimental material, and today a fractured crown. These teeth are both traumatized and traumatizing.

I like my dentist, but that doesn't mean I want to see him every other week. But that's what happens when you carry around the teeth of a person who has fallen head-first out of a fourth-floor window. Wish I knew who that person was so I could give her back her teeth.

Meanwhile, I'll go chew on some gravel.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Loose ends

It occurs to me that I need to do a little housekeeping here, tying up loose ends left hanging in previous posts. Thus:

1. Some time ago, I asked for creative uses for the acronym BUH (read about it here), and I received several clever responses. Oh for a world in which one needed an acronym to describe Burly Urchin Huggers! But no: BUH is actually used on our campus to refer to Budget Unit Heads, a horrible enough title in itself but perfectly wretched when abbreviated as BUH. All I can say is "Blech."

2. I never revealed my personal contribution to our collective faculty wish list (here). I would gladly second many of my colleagues' suggestions, but the items I contributed to the list were "a day without excuses" and "Diet Coke with Lime in the faculty lounge." I suppose I shouldn't make professors at other institutions envious by mentioning that our faculty lounge is stocked with free soft drinks and sometimes snacks, which I appreciate very much; the problem is that we are a Pepsi campus, so anyone who prefers Diet Coke (with or without lime) has to smuggle it in from outside. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?

3. No, I didn't really give my friends giant turnips for Christmas, as I threatened to do here, and I know at least one of my colleagues was deeply disappointed. (Sorry, J!) Instead, they'll have to content themselves with the transcendent dark chocolate mint fudge described here.

That's all for now, unless someone can think of any other pressing reason to delay grading all those final exams.

What I couldn't tell a student 30 seconds before the final exam

Dear Student,
Questions are good. I welcome them. I wish more students would ask questions about concepts they don't understand. However, 30 seconds before a final exam is the wrong time to ask a professor to explain a concept she has spent the previous 15 weeks trying to convey to you through lectures, class discussions, readings, and writing assignments. If you haven't made the effort to master the concept all semester, what makes you think you can learn it in 30 seconds?

I understand that we don't all share the same vocabulary, and I know you must be befuddled to see an unfamiliar phrase in the first essay question, but no, I'm not going to explain what I mean by "conventions of narrative." It must have been frustrating all semester not to know what the word "conventions" means on the frequent occasions when it has come up in class, but if you didn't understand the word, why didn't you ask about it in class? Or if you're not comfortable asking questions in class, why not write the word down so you can look it up later? But that would require actually (a) bringing writing materials to class; (b) paying attention to lectures and discussions; and (c) caring. I suppose it's easier just to let an unfamiliar term waft past unmolested.

As for "narrative," you will recall that the class actaully read a chapter of the textbook dealing with that very topic in some depth, and that we discussed the concept in class and looked at specific examples of various methods of narration--including, as a matter of fact, the very example the final exam question asks you to discuss. If you didn't understand the term "narrative," how did you make it through that lengthy chapter? I suppose it would be rude to ask to what use you put your textbook, assuming that you purchased it.

If not, then I understand your confusion, but that doesn't mean I'll answer your question. For one thing, the concept is not conducive to being boiled down into a 30-second sound bite, and for another, just-in-time delivery works well for Santa, but what you are engaged in is not wish fulfillment but education and education requires long-term effort. Exams are learning experiences and if the primary lesson you learn from this exam is that you need to start putting some effort into your education at some point earlier than the final exam period, then all I can say is Merry Christmas.

Any other questions?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Old news

This morning while driving to work I heard an NPR report about a new 24-hour French news network, and one of the interviewees contrasted the new French outlet with "Anglo-Saxon and Arabic" news networks, as if those two categories pretty much covered the possibilities. This made me grin for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I savor the mental image of an Anglo-Saxon news anchor reporting on the latest depredations over at Heorot:

Scop Smith: A foreigner arriving for a face-off with a fen-dwelling demon, but does Beowulf stand a chance? Hrothgar remaining cautiously optimistic for a swift end to the violence, but his pal Hunferth hedging his bets. He's with our roving reporter Hrolf Hraether at Heorot. Hrolf?"

Hrolf: I'm standing here with Hunferth, one of Hrothgar's loyal thanes. Tell me, Mr. Hunferth, what makes you think Beowulf will fail?

Hunferth: Who is this Beowulf anyway? Sure, his win-loss record is impressive, but he bombed that swimming-match with Breca, and this time he's fighting a real monster--with no home-field advantage!

Hrolf: Is there any concern about the fact that he's a foreigner?

Hunferth: Darn tootin'! Hrothgar has an impressive team of talented retainers right here, so why draft an outsider to do a Dane's work? And what does Beowulf want anyway? Another ring? How many rings can an armed man wear?

Hrolf: That's Hunferth on the scene at Heorot. Back to you, Scop.

Scop: Thanks, Hrolf. By the way, what's the weather look like out there?

Hrolf: The forecast says partly murky with chance of mist, and we're seeing a little of that mist rising from the fen in the distance right now.

Scop: There you have it, fair and balanced as always. Next up: The View welcomes Wealhtheow for a segment on choosing the right goblet for the well-appointed meadhall. Reporting from the Anglo-Saxon News Network, I'm Scop Smith.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Left-leaning letters on the loose!

I'm grading a pile of papers and I keep finding myself writing the same annoying sentence on Works Cited pages: "Do not mix italics and underlining in the same document; pick one and use it consistently." As often as I'm called upon to make the comment, it would be helpful to have it on a rubber stamp. The problem crops up in all my classes, from freshman composition to upper-level literature courses, and I see it on papers written by intelligent students just as often as the mediocre. I suppose mixing italics and underlining is a fairly minor problem compared to, say, failing to formulate a thesis and support it with evidence presented in clear, coherent prose, but still, when I see a Works Cited in which some of the titles are underlined and others are italicized, it's like fingernails on a blackboard--it makes my brain cells scream.

I have tried to educate students about the origin and development of italics, how in the old days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people had to write out important documents longhand or on a typewriter, italic print simply was not available to the average person, so underlining was used instead. Today anyone can italicize, and they do so wantonly and promiscuously--italicizing here, underlining there, and sometimes (gasp!) doing both at the same time.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of the whole topic. An easy solution would be to outlaw italics--round up all those little left-leaning letters and haul 'em off in handcuffs until they learn to behave. But then I would loose upon the unsuspecting public a generation of students who believe the only way to get italics right is to leave 'em out. Wouldn't it be better to teach students to apply critical thinking to their typographic choices?

That's the approach I've taken so far, and it's clearly not working. I've been writing it all semester and it looks like I'll be writing it for a while longer: do not mix italics and underlining in the same document.

Where's that rubber stamp when I need it?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A stirring experence

Recipe for the sweetest spot in a busy season:

Put sugar, cream, and butter in a heavy saucepan. Pull up a tall chair, turn your back on the world, and stir.

Laundry needs folding? Sorry--keep stirring. Cat throwing up? Someone else will have to clean it up. Bills beg to be paid? It's not worth ruining the recipe.

Focus full attention on the pan. Watch the bubbles bursting open with a bloop. Give a stir. Glance at the candy thermometer. Stir some more. Drag the spoon through the bubbling sugar to make serpentine lines in bubbling chaos. Look at the thermometer. Look at the bubbles. Stir, stir, stir.

Wait with sweet anticipation for that moment of tension toward the end, when it appears as if the mercury might be ready to rise past that little line. Wait for it! Getting closer! Not quite yet, but maybe--yes, there it goes! Grab the pan off the heat and get ready to burst into action.

The moment of transcendence is over--but while it lasted, ahhhhh, how sweet.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Drop until you shop until you drop

This morning before I shopped I dropped things everywhere I went--socks in the laundry room, glasses in the hallway, photos in the kitchen--and then I went out and shopped until I dropped again, this time on the sofa at 6:30 in the evening, where I slept soundly despite the fact that the young man was beating his drum set into submission for a solid hour in the basement and the middle-aged man was beating cake batter no more than 15 feet from where I snoozed.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Faculty wish list

Yesterday the student newspaper printed a Faculty Holiday Wish List consisting of suggestions submitted by my colleagues. Here are a few selections; I'll let you guess which two were mine:

An elevator in [a busy classroom building]
A day without excuses
A jet pack to get me to work
More the right places
World peace and an end to hunger
Diet Coke with Lime in the faculty lounge
For the Detroit Lions to win the Superbowl
A pony
Borders gift cards
A pool
A sixth platonic solid
Proper climate control in my office
Water from the fountain of youth

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Attack of the turnips

Maybe that should be attack on the turnips. Yesterday I felt positively barbaric while trying to cut into a turnip the size of a person's head. It was a wonderfully fresh turnip that popped open with a satisfying snap, but still: what can I do with a turnip that big? It turned up in a Moroccan stew with chicken and currants and sweet potatoes and cinnamon, a hearty meal that made the house smell like heaven, if they have turnips and cinnamon in heaven.

The resident turnip-monger tells me that there are 30 more turnips that size still in the garden and he has to pull them up before the first freeze. What can we do with 30 melon-sized turnips? We'll sell a few at the Farmers' Market, but the rest will have to make their way into our winter meals. When we have more tomatoes or hot peppers than we can handle, I take them to work and distribute them among my grateful colleagues, but I'm afraid turnips are a hard sell. A few years ago when weather conditions produced a glut of turnips in our valley, one of the you-pick produce places had a big sign by the highway advertising "You-Pick Turnips," but I didn't notice any long lines of pickers waiting to partake. A little turnip goes a long way, and a big turnip longer, and 30 big turnips--well, let's just say it's a good thing Christmas is coming.

Now the only challenge is to figure out how to wrap 'em.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Loving literature, sort of

This morning I did something I've never done before: I told a student to drop his English major. First, though, I invited him to explain why he wanted to be an English major.

"I just love literature," he said.

"Really," I said. "Because when I consider what I've seen of your work over the past three years, I don't see any of the usual signs of a love for literature, such as actually attending your literature classes, reading the assigned literature, or writing papers demonstrating any interest in or skills for analyzing literature."

The student agreed that he had been remiss in those areas--and, as it happened, he had already decided to drop the English major and focus on his second major, so all is well. Still, I couldn't help feeling a bit guilty, the way a top chef might feel telling a young person to go ahead and eat another Big Mac, or the way a true believer might feel telling a pagan, "You know, heaven's overrated." Being an English major is a sort of nirvana I wish everyone could experience. Everyone, that is, who loves literature enough to suffer for it, something my student was unwilling to do.

So the world is now down one English major. Somehow, my heart will go on.

Monday, November 27, 2006

To BUH or not to BUH

I've just encountered an infelicitous acronym: BUH. Certain persons on our campus are capable of being referred to officially as BUHs. The actual meaning is downright uninteresting, but before I reveal it, I'd welcome some suggestions. To whom would you apply the acronym BUH?

Unexpected gifts

It was a stupid thing to do but I have no one but myself to blame: I'm meeting individually with my literature students all day today and tomorrow and part of Wednesday to talk about their final papers. Every 15 minutes, a student comes walking through my office door prepared to discuss ways to improve his or her paper, or possibly not. Anything else I need to do--class preps, reading and responding to e-mail, visiting the ladies' room--has to get squeezed between appointments. The only reason I'm able to write this right now is that someone missed an appointment. As a compulsively punctual person, I generally get annoyed when people miss appointments, but today every missed appointment is like a gift, like a small quantity of breathing room tied up with a bow. If I knew where to get more of the same, that would pretty much take care of my Christmas shopping list.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Games people play

Twenty-six years ago just at this time of year, a young man I had met the day before beat me at Scrabble. What could I do? Reader, I married him.

Last night he beat me at Scrabble again, but not by much. For a long time he was the only man to ever beat me at Scrabble, but then once a few years ago our son put a Q on a triple-word score and beat the socks off the rest of the family. Recently the kid came close to beating me at Boggle, but not quite close enough. One of these days he'll beat me and I'll be happy to hand over the Boggle Champion crown. One of the crowning achievements of my life will be raising a child who can beat me at Boggle.

But who will beat me at my new game? Today I happened upon the Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers' Edition on sale at 50 percent off, so naturally I snatched it up. Generally we play Trivial Pursuit in teams, with one parent and one child per team; the Dad team gets all the sports questions right while the Mom team excels at arts and entertainment, and this way everyone gets a chance to win occasionally.

But the Book Lovers' edition is another kettle of fish entirely. I'm afraid I'll never persuade any of my family members to play. I could take it to my office, but who has time to play at work? Here's an idea: my 45th birthday is coming up next month, and nothing would please me more than to gather some book-lovers 'round the game board and play the day away.

Now I just need to locate some book-lovers who also love games. Any takers? I promise not to marry the winner.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Home free

So it's the day before Thanksgiving and I'm in the kitchen making corn chowder at the request of the college kid who's on her way home from Kentucky, and suddenly I hear on the radio that an accident has closed I-64 in both directions near Ashland, Kentucky. It's going to be a very long afternoon.

This is the worst part of being a parent: knowing that my child could be in danger but not being able to do anything about it. I try calling her dorm room; she's already left. I know she's traveling with a friend who has a cell phone, but I don't know that friend's number and even if I did, she could easily be out of range of a tower. The radio tells me traffic could be stopped for hours while the accident is under investigation. What can I do but chop vegetables?

There are thousands of people driving that road today, I tell myself. The chances that my daughter would be involved in that wreck must be infinitesimal. Still, I can't help recalling that last spring when she was driving home alone, she made a pit stop in a remote area and a male maintenance worker followed her into the ladies' room. What are the odds that she would be the only person stopped at a rest area at any given moment? She's not traveling alone this time and she's carrying pepper spray, but a lot of good that would do against an out-of-control tractor trailer.

I need to stop thinking about mangled automobiles and focus on the soup. Corn chowder: her favorite. Hope she makes it home to eat some. Hope I can make myself stop picturing nightmare scenarios long enough to finish cooking. Hope against hope that all is well.

When she finally arrives home unscathed and we gather round the chowder, that's my Thanksgiving. Everything that comes later is just gravy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thankful for nothing

The young man just left for school, the college kid is driving home this evening, and the bearded wonder got called to substitute at a school with a name so ridiculous that if I mentioned it no one would believe me so let's just call it the Everyone Is Special Academy.

You know what that means. Yes: I'm home alone.

No classes. No meetings. No need to leave the house.

Think of the possiblities: I could curl up with a good book, get caught up on my ironing, clean bathrooms, go for a walk, pay bills, visit the emerging garage, tackle that pile of student papers, put photos in albums, or even eat buttered popcorn while watching Law and Order reruns. We're going to the in-laws' house for Thanksgiving tomorrow, so the only thing I really need to do today is bake two pecan pies. Piece of cake. Or pie, as the case may be.

Of all the things I could be thankful for today, there's nothing I appreciate more than the freedom to do absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Putting students to sleep

I put a class full of students to sleep this morning, which isn't my favorite way to start the day. Afterward I was griping to one of my colleagues--"I just wasn't at my best this morning; last day to cover material for the research paper and it wasn't scintillating"--and she said, "How often are your students at their best? How often do they give you stuff that's not scintillating?"

She has a point. Having just read a pile of papers with an extremely low scintillation rating, I'm well aware of students' willingness to offer me heaping masses of mediocrity. If they can have an off day (or an off week or off semester), why can't I?

So I'm giving myself a free pass today. I'll admit that it wasn't my best performance, but so what? I'll scintillate tomorrow.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"I can't e-mail," he e-mailed

All my students have papers due so naturally it's Horrible Excuse Week. I've heard about more broken alarm clocks, midnight vomiting episodes, and family emergencies than I'd ever imagined could happen in one week; apparently our campus has become a vortex of personal disaster.

Or not, as the case may be. Far be it from me to suggest that students are devoting time and energy to inventing imaginary disasters when they could be devoting those resources to the papers they're supposed to be writing. But then how much time and energy do I want to put into investigating these implausible stories? The correct answer would be none.

Still, there are excuses that earn such low scores on the Plausibility Meter that I'm tempted to follow up. For instance, a student who has failed to turn in about half the assignments for the class e-mailed me to tell me he can't e-mail me his draft because he currently has no access to e-mail.


He's at a conference, he says, an academic conference in a major city, and we all know how difficult it is to get access to the internet at academic conferences in major modern cities, so I'd just better go ahead and accept his draft on Wednesday because he has no access to e-mail today. And he said all this in an e-mail message that I received when? Just after class today, naturally, just at the moment when it dawned on him that whoops, he's missed class again and this time it really matters, unlike all the other times when he missed class without any excuse whatsoever.

Which is worse, a ridiculously implausible excuse or no excuse at all?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Writing about thinking about writing about thinking

"Writing is a technology to think with," wrote Richard E. Miller--or so I've been telling my freshman composition students all semester. Now that I need to actually locate the original quotation so I can get the wording just right and cite it properly, I can't find it.

I know it's marked in my first copy of Miller's book Writing at the End of the World, but that copy of the book is missing. It may have been stolen from my office, but with an office full of books, why would someone steal that one? More likely I loaned it to someone and then forgot. I do this all the time. I still don't know who has my first copy of the Whale Rider DVD, nor do I know what ever happened to my first hardback copy of The Thurber Carnival. I say "first copy" because I finally gave up on trying to get the loaned copies back and purchased new ones, which happens more often than I'd care to admit. If I charged late fees on borrowed books, I'd be on my way to the Bahamas by now. I need to just give up on lending out any book I ever want to see again.

Instead, I learn to live without them or buy a second copy. I recently repurchased Writing at the End of the World for the express purpose of locating the "technology to think with" statement, and I have just finished re-reading it, which I didn't mind doing because it's a wonderful book, but even though I was on the lookout for that statement, I never found it. Found all kinds of other good stuff, but not the particular sentence I need to find. Not even anything close.

Now I'm starting to doubt my memory. Did Richard E. Miller really write that or did I see it somewhere else and falsely attribute it to him? Should I go back and re-read everything I might have been reading at the time I first read Writing at the End of the World? Where do I start?

Back to square one--or page one, as the case may be.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A pougham too farrh

If the vagaries of English spelling interest you, there's an amusing poem (or perhaps I should write "pougham") on the topic over at Language Log today. My favorite lines:

With their flash cards looking like prescriptions for the catarrh
And their mnemnmonics, blast 'em. They go too farrh.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gruel R Us

Yesterday I ate at a new local lunch spot where I was served the worst potato soup I've ever encountered--it looked like gruel and tasted like seasoned cornstarch. With so many other local restaurants serving excellent soup, I doubt that the new place will last long. What annoyed me most, though, is that potato soup isn't exactly rocket science. It's not that difficult, people! Listen up:

In a large stock pot with a heavy bottom, melt a little olive oil and a little butter. (No cheating; use the real thing.) Toss in some chopped onion and celery and one chopped sweet red bell pepper or fresh pimento. If you like garlic, throw some in there. Saute for a few minutes and then throw in a pile of peeled, chopped potatoes. Add some salt and pepper and just enough water or chicken broth to cover the vegetables, and then put a lid on it and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so. If the potatoes aren't soft, cook it longer. If you like it smooth, puree the whole thing; if not, use a potato masher to smoosh some of the potatoes and leave it lumpy. Stir in just enough half-and-half to make it creamy. Heat just until warmed through. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve with hearty bread.

This is an easy dish: ten minutes to chop stuff, 30 minutes or so to cook it, and all the ingredients are readily available. When it's this easy, there's simply no excuse for serving gruel.

Deadline experiment

I conducted an experiment in an upper-level literature class this semester, and I am now prepared to share the results.

In the past, I have assigned four short papers and one long paper in that class, with set dates for each of the short papers. This semester, though, I gave the students a list of 13 short-paper topics with 13 deadlines; students were free to choose any four of those papers and turn them in on the appropriate deadline. The only caveat was that they had to turn in at least two of the papers before midterm.

At the beginning of the semester, I encouraged students to select topics they cared about and were equipped to write about, and some did. On many class days, I could be certain that at least a few of the students had written short papers about the material under discussion and had therefore thought about the literature before class. Also, since deadlines were spread out, papers trickled in on various dates and I was never overwhelmed by grading in that class.

I had expected that some students would procrastinate and write the last possible papers, and that proved to be the case. Of my 14 students, one completed all four papers before midterm and then had plenty of time to work on other projects. Two more completed three papers before midterm. Two students missed so many deadlines that they completed only three short papers. The remaining nine students completed two papers before midterm and two after, with most of them settling for the last possible papers.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased with the system. Students who were motivated to get projects out of the way early were able to do so, and I received papers on a wider variety of topics than I normally would. But here's the question: given some flexibility in deadlines and topics, why do most students select the latest possible moment to do the work regardless of whether they found the topic appealing? And why did two out of 14 students allow themselves to get so far behind that they ran out of deadlines entirely and turned in only three papers? I know everyone procrastinates, but this seems a bit excessive. Now the students who just turned in the final short paper have to scramble to work on the long paper, due next week.

If I had been given this kind of option as a student, what would I have done? I don't know, but I like this system well enough to use it again--and hope my students can motivate themselves to choose appropriate deadlines.

Bluebird of happiness?

It may not be the official Bluebird of Happiness, but it did make me very happy last month when a flock of bluebirds came flitting around our woods. They're gone now, but they were delightful for a time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Incomprehensible ignorance

I've been trying to comprehend this morning's news out of Iraq: over 100 educators kidnapped, universities shut down, classes cancelled. This incident is shocking on so many levels, but here's what I've been puzzling over: what kind of organization thinks it can gain power by shutting down education? How credible is a group willing to die (or kill) for the belief that ignorance is bliss? All my years of education leave me speechless.

Monday, November 13, 2006

In the stacks

Not long ago my daughter was telling me about a recent date: her boyfriend took her to a large acacemic library, and "Mom, you wouldn't believe it, they have shelves that move!"

Next time I'm in despair because ignorance is a renewable resource and nothing I do seems to make a dent in the supply, I'll comfort myself with the knowledge that I have raised a child (a) whose idea of a terrific date is a visit to an academic library and (b) who can get really excited about shelves that move.

When "no" means "yes"

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch included an article about a junior high school in Columbus that is trying to cure an outbreak of inappropriate touching among the students. One 14-year-old boy was quoted saying, "The girls say they don't like it, but they really do."

There, in a nutshell, you have every rapist's justification for his action. Where did a 14-year-old learn that a woman's "No" is just a flirty invitation? Let's hope the boy's parents saw his name in the paper and decided to give him a more complete education. If not, let's hope the girls at that school will soon learn how to deliver a well-placed kick.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Chiropodist in Pangea

I've just finished Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, which drills ever deeper into the mountain of history until it bursts out into sunlight on the other side, and I don't want to give away the wonders of the book but I have to share a delicious moment of satire--Whitehead's description of a party celebrating the release of a new book: "They had gathered in a club called Glasnost to partake of the spread, the panoply of bite-sized widgets laid out by the publisher of Godfrey Frank's A Chiropodist in Pangea, a fifteen-hundred-page grimoire of mysterious content that would debut in a few days on the New York Times best-seller list. There was some question as to whether it would be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Someone had to read it first."

Among those who have not read it, a variety of theories about the book are bruited about: is it about a "lecherous haberdasher who's really the head of Conde Nast" or "a history of the twentieth century as seen through a bunion"? And what of its author? Godfrey Frank "quoted French theorists who liked to inflate helpless nouns with rhetorical gases until they burst into italics" and wrote hip scholarly articles about a pop band called Fire Drill and the Orderly Fashions: "He situated them in a lineage of the Dionysian going back centuries, he located their Thanatotic flourishes as a necessary guise in the final days of a self-conscious century." In the end he becomes one with the band, performing a song about the death of Roland Barthes.

What does this have to do with John Henry? Everything. But you'll have to read the book to find out why.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Perpetual construction project update

Drum roll, please:

There is siding on my garage.

That's right: siding! On my garage!

First windows and now siding! What's next: doors?

I don't want to go overboard here, but I have a feeling that one of these days I might actually be able to--wait for it--park a CAR!!! In my GARAGE!!!!

Siding on my garage!



Cancelled class this morning to cope with a minor dental emergency: a crown fell out. My dentist glued it back in this morning (and let me just say how much I appreciate office hours that begin at 7:40 a.m.), but he said this is only a temporary fix, that because of problems with the interface (!) between the crown and the tooth we'll have to start looking for "a permanent solution," which sounds close enough to The Final Solution to suggest euthansia, which would be perfectly fine with me right now because even though there's nothing remotely resembling a nerve left in that tooth, my entire face hurts enough to make me want to put it out of its misery.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

No waffling on whifflers

Today I learned a new (very old) word: whiffler, an attendant who clears the way for a procession, derived from a Middle English term for an armed attendant, which in turn derives from OE wifel, meaning battle-ax. Whifflers are the big brawny (sometimes armed) guys who shove the adoring crowd out of the way before the parade passes by, the crowd controllers in the entourage.

Imagine how smoothly my life would proceed if I were accompanied by a whole host of whifflers. A bevy of whifflers would make a visit to the mall much more productive, particularly in the Christmas season, and I could really use some whifflers when I'm trying to use the drive-through at the bank at 5:30 Friday afternoon. My whiffler contingent would be trained to respond to whistled commands issued by my official Whiffler Whistler, who would supervise the guy in charge of keeping the other whifflers in line--the Whiffler Wrangler. Woe to the whiffler who oversteps his authority! The Whiffler Whistler would whistle for the Whiffler Wrangler, who would wrestle the scofflaw whiffler into awareness of his authority. And then the Whiffler Whistler, the Whiffler Wrangler, and the entire entourage of whifflers would play a refreshing round of whiffle-ball and eat a stack of fluffy waffles.

There's only one problem with this plan: in today's world, where do I find a mess of whifflers? Wal-Mart?

Found poetry

Lines Encountered a Few Paragraphs into a Student Paper, Where They Work Better as Poetry than as Argument

The poet is a way
for the world to keep moving
and for the people
on its surface
to stay faithful.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Unveiling John Henry

Alphonse Miggs sits in the Social Room of the Millhouse Inn, he sits on his hands at a table of eight, with seven folks he doesn't know. At the start of the evening his knuckles brushed against a lump in his jacket pocket. He withdrew a mothball and, supremely embarrassed, thrust it back where it came. He wasn't sure if anyone noticed his mark of shame. For the rest of the night he felt cursed with invisible pockets and all at the dinner can see his shame, the great pearl of napthalene clinging to his person, smell the fumes of social incompetence emanating from it.

Invisible pockets! Fumes of social incompetence! Apparently Alphonse Miggs has been raiding the closets of my nightmares. Miggs appears in Colson Whitehead's second novel, John Henry Days, which I am just now getting around to reading although it was published five years ago. I loved The Intuitionist and I've put Apex Hides the Hurt on my Christmas wish list, hoping that Whitehead can live up to the promise of his first book.

His second book, John Henry Days, is delightful, certainly more coherent than reviews led me to expect. Its quirky cast of journalists on a junket includes one J. Sutter, described as an "inveigler of invites and slayer of crudites, this drink ticket fondler and slim tipper, open bar opportunist, master of vouchers, queue-jumping wrangler of receipts." Sutter ventures into West Virginia for the unveiling of a new postage stamp commemorating John Henry, and there he encounters the aforementioned Alphonse Miggs, who at the moment seems to be on the verge of going postal, but I'm only 80 pages in so what do I know?

Well, I do know one thing: wherever Alphonse Miggs gets his clothes, I'm not shopping there.

On jargon

I used the word "jargon" in class yesterday and my students asked me to define it. Apparently "jargon" has become jargon.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Exit poll

The polls have closed and my own personal exit poll indicates that in the one race I really care about, my husband's ballot cancelled out mine. We could have stayed home and achieved the same effect, but at least this way we can congratulate ourselves on doing our civic duty. I wanted to do my civic duty before my 8:00 class so I wouldn't have to make a special 17-mile trip out to my polling place and back in the middle of the day, and I mistakenly assumed that the polls wouldn't be crowded at 6:45 a.m. Amazing how many people vote that early. We could have held a barn dance if it weren't so difficult to fit an accordion inside a voting booth.

One thing I'm looking forward to is a decline in the number of annoying political phone calls. This will leave us more energy to deal with the endless annoying phone calls from colleges trying to recruit the resident high school senior. He definitely gets my vote for Most Popular Resident of Our House Right Now, which is quite an achievement for a kid who's not even old enough to vote. Exit polls on the college recruiting phone calls suggest that the race is still too close to call, but a rapid influx of cash could make a big difference in the outcome.

Monday, November 06, 2006

How annoyed should I be

...when a whole mess of students miss my class because they have a big project due in another class later that day?

Moderately annoyed? Annoyed enough to put a question on the final exam that will be comprehensible only to those who attended to day's class? Or not annoyed at all?


"Threes are being planted all over campus," wrote one of my students, and another student who was rather tickled at this image quickly created the illustration. My question is: if threes, why not fours or fives or even seventeens? Do I detect the specter of a 42 lurking just beyond the horizon?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Failure to launch

Because we're done with band competitions, because my son is interested in aviation, because the film won lots of awards, because we never saw it when it was showing in theaters, we stayed home last night and watched The Aviator on DVD. All day I've been trying to figure out why I found the film utterly awful.

For one thing, it's too long by at least half an hour; I kept hoping another airplane would crash and burn and put the entire film out of its misery. But that's not the only reason. Too many of the characters are thoroughly one-dimensional, including Alan Alda's sleazy politician and Alec Baldwin's reprise of his role from Glengarry Glen Ross. Cate Blanchett's cartoonish caricature of Katherine Hepburn was laughable, one of the few amusing spots in an otherwise humorless film. She tromped and sputtered like Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but in that film Hepburn's energy was more than matched by Cary Grant's. Poor Cate Blanchett has only Leo DiCaprio, who is just, let's face it, small--and I'm not talking about physical stature. I kept having this feeling I was watching an elaborate dream sequence in one of the Our Gang comedies, with DiCaprio as Alfalfa.

But there's one other thing that really annoyed me about this film, and it's taken me all day to put my finger on it: It's clear that Martin Scorsese wants us to view Howard Hughes as a sort of David righteously defying the twin Goliaths of the film and airline industries, and while it's true that Hughes was a victim of his own peculiar neuroses, he was, after all, Howard Hughes. Since when does the richest man in the world get to play the role of spunky little David? Especially when the penultimate scene features one of Hughes's minions reassuring him by saying, "Howard, everyone works for you."

Despite all the lovely airplanes, The Aviator doesn't work for me. My only consolation is that I didn't have to spend $8 on a ticket.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The truth about chipmunks (well, sort of)

Some poor misguided soul, possibly a student eagerly pursuing knowledge, ended up on my blog after typing the following question into Google: "What are the behaviors and factoids of the chipmunk?" If memory serves, the only chipmunks I've mentioned on this site have been dead ones dangling from the mouth of a stray cat eager to bribe its way into our warm house. I don't know if that counts as a behavior or a factoid, but either way, it's not enough to fill a research paper. In order to rectify the dearth of information re: behaviors and factoids of the chipmunk, I offer the following:

Chipmunks are related, both etymologically and genetically, to Chia Pets. The two species have been known to reproduce, but their offspring are infertile and require frequent mowing.

Fossil evidence suggests that an early cousin of the chipmunk grew twelve feet tall and trolled for mini-marshmallows in the lakes of lime Jello that once covered most of Wisconsin. Their extinction was hastened by the introduction of Jello Lite.

Chipmunk behavior results largely from a strong instinctual drive to watch hours and hours of Chip 'n' Dale cartoons, which provide young chipmunks with models for their own antics. In chipmunk cosmology, Chip 'n' Dale are the primary deities.

Chipmunks' cheeks can stretch wide enough to allow them to swallow themselves, primarily because their factoids are larger than their deltoids.

Chipmunks may not be smart enough to be president, but they know a thing or two. For instance, you would never find a chipmunk searching for information about the behaviors and factoids of the chipmunk on an academic blog. Chipmunks know better. They use Wikipedia. In fact, you know all those editors who obsessively sort and store information on Wikipedia? Chipmunks, every one of 'em.

That's all I know about chipmunks.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Everyone's edgy

"Everyone's on edge this week," said our student office assistant, and she's right, but perhaps there are good reasons. Everyone is registering for spring classes or advising students or trying desperately to contact intransigent advisees, and those who aren't offering heartfelt stories about why they should be allowed into a class ahead of everyone else on the waitlist are listening to such stories.

Everyone is also writing or reading or grading papers or listening to excuses about why papers are not done, and everyone else is preparing or viewing or evaluating presentations. Everyone is getting ready for the two academic conferences meeting campus next week, and everyone else is making plans to get away for the weekend or hunker down in the library.

Everyone's attending committee meetings and football games and open mike nights and information sessions about the January cruise, except for those who are taking advantage of the beautiful weather to play hooky from all their responsibilities.

With everyone carrying on at such a hectic rate, it's no wonder everyone is on edge. The challenge, of course, is to avoid falling over the edge, because no one knows what's on the other side. Maybe everyone just needs to take a deep breath and relax. Let's all put our feet up and stare out the window for awhile, and if we feel ourselves drifting away from the edge, that's okay: it'll still be there when we get back.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

It beggars the imagination

Yesterday I received a paper from a student who apparently has no awareness of the sexual connotations of the word "bugger," resulting in sentences referring to a certain character as "an outstanding bugger" who attends "a bugger convention." The character in question is, as you may have surmised, a surveillance expert.

Is it possible that this student has never been exposed to the vulgar use of "bugger"?

If so, how do I inform the student of this connotation without coming across as the Guardian of the Dirty Words?

Advice for the advisor?

Another season of advising is nearly over and I've concluded that I'm not a very good advisor. I'm a pro at filling out forms and fitting together courses to suit a student's needs, and I'm pretty good at guiding students through the general education maze since I know our curriculum inside out.

What I stink at is giving advice. I can give pretty good advice to students looking for the right courses to help them achieve their goals, but I never know what to say to students with no clear goals or with incompatible goals. What do I tell the kid whose mom wants him to major in engineering but whose coach doesn't want him to take any lab courses this semester? Should I tell him not to listen to his mother or not to listen to his coach?

And what do I tell the sophomore who has nearly completed his general education requirements but still has no idea what major he wants to pursue and insists on taking courses that will "count" for something? I'm tempted to suggest that he first figure out what his life is going to count for and then we'll fill in the details, but there's no little box on the degree audit sheet for that.

What do I tell the student who wants to pursue a demanding major despite failing every class she takes in that department? I can't say, "You know, there's no shame in being a welder. The world needs welders."

What do I say to the student who is clearly here to party and does not care what classes he takes as long as he doesn't have to get up before 11 a.m.? I want to remind him that someone somewhere is paying a big wad of money for his perpetual party, but I'm sure he's already heard that argument from his mom--and if he's not listening to her, why would he listen to me?

Advisors ought to advise: it's part of the job. Students, in turn, ought to study: that's why they're here. I am always happy to advise students willing to devote themselves to studying; it's the other type that makes me crazy. Where can the advisor seek advice?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Extreme grading

In the past few hours I've read both the best student paper I've seen this semester and the worst.

The terrific paper opens with a zippy sentence that ignites fireworks in my mind. The bad paper begins with a vague generalization.

The terrific paper approaches the topic in an unexpected and exciting way. The bad paper restates the same tired opinions that bored me when I first encountered them in student writing twenty years ago.

The terrific paper takes the assignment as a starting point and exceeds all expectations. The bad paper fulfills the bare minimum and then just sputters out.

The terrific paper relies on clear reasoning and information from reliable sources to make its points. The bad paper chases its own tail without ever really achieving anything except the required word count.

The terrific paper presents an original argument that advances the scholarly conversation on the topic. The bad paper was copied directly from a web site without attribution.

Despite these vast differences, these two papers have one important thing in common: they're both really easy to grade. If every paper resembled one of these extremes, I'd have that pile of papers finished in no time.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The perils of anonymity

The chief advantage of online anonymity is the ability to speak without being known. This is also the chief disadvantage.

Say you've been reading an academic blog off and on for a while and you've grown to enjoy and appreciate the blogger, inasmuch as it is possible to appreciate someone whose name you don't know. You may know a lot about the blogger, including names of pets or cars and attitudes toward both students and supervisors, but that one key piece of information is always withheld.

Then suppose one day that blog just disappears with no forwarding address.

There could be plenty of reasons for the disappearance: technical difficulties, head lice, high dudgeon, incarceration, chemotherapy, or a sudden desire for a whole-life makeover. But you'll never know, will you? Without a name, you can't even track the person down without devoting a lot of time and energy and technological know-how that you never got around to developing because of all the time you've spent building up your tenure file, and then if by some freak of nature you did manage to track the person down, what would you say? "Um, you don't know me but I've been reading your blog and I've been wondering: you know that job situation you were talking about? How did that ever turn out, anyway? None of my business, of course, but what ever happened with that head lice infestation?"

No, that blogger has become yet another story you'll never know the end of.

That's the problem with anonymity: it's too easy for individuals to fade out of the community. If this is, indeed, a community. It's tempting to think of the blogosphere as a sort of amorphous online community of compulsive communicators, but it's more like an twelve-step group in which individuals are represented by shape-shifting puppets. When a puppet disappears, what can the community do? Laugh, mourn, move on? It's impossible to know.

The solution, of course, is simple: eliminate anonymity. Name names. Reveal faces.

You first.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


I took advantage of a brief hiatus in the deluge to take a walk and survey conditions. Our babbling brook has reached full Raging Torrent stage but it's not out of its banks or over our bridge, although I imagine that some of our neighbors with lower bridges are pretty much stuck at home today. I saw three deer crossing the creek at a relatively low spot and even they were struggling to keep their heads above water. The bluff across the road from our meadow is awash in rollicking little waterfalls that will last as long as the wet weather does, and the path up to the upper meadow looks like one oozing mass of mud. All in all, it looks like we'll have a lovely weekend--Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

Indecision in the dairy section

All I wanted to do was make some kohlrabi soup--a simple desire born of the abundance of kohlrabi in our garden combined with the kind of cold, wet, nasty weather that drives one soupward. I didn't expect to be faced with a crisis of indecision in the dairy section.

The problem is that the recipe calls for heavy cream. While heavy cream imparts a lovely texture that makes the tangy taste of kohlrabi cuddle right up to one's tongue, it also tends over time to put the squeeze on one's heart health. I could just subtitute milk for the cream, but I don't like to give up the texture entirely, so I usually buy half-and-half.

Yesterday, for the first time, I was faced with the following options: traditional, low-fat, or fat-free half-and-half. Now I'm really confused. The problem, I think, stems from the fact that I'm not entirely sure what half-and-half is. It's creamier than milk but wimpier than whipping cream, and I've always assumed that the difference is in the fat content.

Now I have to wonder: how is fat-free half-and-half different from skim milk? Would low-fat half-and-half impart the requisite creamy texture to the soup? Do I have to try each one of these varieties to find out? I've got a lot of kohlrabi, but even I don't want to eat kohlrabi soup every day. And if half-and-half can be fat-free, why can't we buy fat-free whipping cream?

That's just too much to think about on a Friday afternoon, so in the end I wimped out and opted for traditional half-and-half. The results were excellent: creamy but not overly rich, tangy but not bitter--an ideal soup for a cold rainy day. That warm, soothing soup blanketed my mind and removed all desire to interrogate dairy products. Fat content? Who cares! Just pour me some more of that kohlrabi soup.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Morning exercise

I had a little fantasy this morning while doing my pre-dawn exercises involving an ice scraper and three cars with ice-covered windows. I reach and scrape and do a little hop and reach and scrape and wish I had a garage, except I do have a garage--an incipient garage or, considering the construction materials piled all over the floor, perhaps a garage kit. The saga of our emerging garage goes back to early 2005, and it's too painful to tell in any detail. It was supposed to be usable in August of 2005 and then in November. A year later, it still isn't. If we had all the money we've poured into this project, we could sew it together into a nice blanket to keep the ice off our cars.

But there are signs of hope: our new contractor has been squeezing in some work on our garage while trying to finish another larger project; last week the power company hooked up the electricity, and yesterday someone tied bright orange construction tape to the sign at the end of our driveway to signal that this is the place where stuff is happening. Bring it on! I need a garage.

Meanwhile, I'll reach and scrape and reach and scrape and indulge in elaborate fantasies about my emerging garage.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Time out

I've just succeeded in making a recalcitrant computer program do its job by following the complex and sophisticated instructions of our IT department: "Didja try rebooting?" Power down, power up, bingo: it works. It's not quite as satisfying as kicking the Coke machine, but it's definitely more effective.

I'm trying to think of a human equivalent for this technique: "Common cold? Let's just stop that heart for a few minutes and start it up again and see if that solves the problem."

With all the technological know-how at our disposal, it's astounding that the most frequent remedy for computer problems is something as simple as giving the computer a little nap. If it works with toddlers, why not with computers?

Next time my computer acts up, I'll send it to the time-out box.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Nothing to say

I'm not sure what to write about today but I know a few things I'm not going to write about. I definitely won't mention the resume that listed, under Work Experience, "assassinating new mangers," and I don't intend to say a word about the Washington Post article proclaiming that grammar is back in fashion (but you can read about it here). I don't intend to talk about the aspect of student advising I enjoy (putting data into little boxes on forms) and the part I really dislike (dealing with students who don't have any kind of plan, vision, or purpose for their lives and who are happy to remain blissfully ignorant of the requirements for their programs).

I'm not going to talk about the weather (cold but crisp, a perfect fall day) or the fact that when I reluctantly left the house at 7:00 this morning I had to walk away from a lovely fire blazing in the fireplace, the first fire the resident firebrand has started this season. I won't puzzle over possible reasons for the excellent quality of my freshman students' most recent papers, and I won't mention how much I enjoyed reading them or how proud I am of their progress.

I certainly don't intend to write about how disappointed I've been in Sia Figiel's fiction, which seems unpolished and derivative, and I don't even want to think about whether I should force myself to read a book just because I spent good money on it. I'd rather not revisit the angst I experienced yesterday when the server was down and I couldn't check my e-mail for more than three hours, and I really don't want to write about the disturbing new noise emanating from the underside of my car.

Now that that's settled, it looks like I really don't have anything to write about today. Guess I'll just put it off until tomorrow.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The journey that never ends

When asked what readers should think about the ending of Voyage along the Horizon, Javier Marias responded thus:
That the end of the novel isn't usually very important. In fact, people never seem to remember the endings of novels (most especially crime novels--that's what makes them so re-readable) and movies (especially, once again, thrillers and whodunits). Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant--and disappointing--parts of a novel. What counts the most--and what we remember the most--is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days while reading a novel or watching a movie. What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon--in other words, the journey that never ends.

How many roads?

Last week Jan Freeman tracked down the origin of a particularly egregious bowdlerization of a Bob Dylan song; you can read about it here.

Now, everybody, sing it with me! "How many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult...."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nominally, spelling

I've been trying to grade a pile of papers this afternoon but I keep getting distracted by an annoyingly insistent internal debate regarding spelling. The writing assignment calls for a straightforward summary of the ideas of a particular literary theorist, and the papers I've looked at are competent if not brilliant; however, in three out of four papers, the author's name is spelled wrong. We're not talking about Baudrillard either; the names under discussion are no more difficult than Smith or Jones. It annoys me to see the same author's name spelled three different ways in the same paper, but how do I translate this annoyance into a grade?

If a name is a word like any other word, then spelling the author's name wrong should be no more serious than spelling any other word wrong. But somehow it is more serious--of this I am certain. How can anyone write an entire paper about a particular author and never bother to notice how that author spells her name? That kind of carelessness makes me wonder how accurately the paper conveys the author's words and ideas--and sure enough, further checking reveals a whole host of inaccurately transcribed quotations and sloppy paraphrases, all brought to light by a bit of carelessness with names.

Before I make big red marks all over the page, though, I am reminded of a book by a noted ecocritical scholar (and published by a university press) in which he spelled the same author's name three different ways on the same page. That combination of carelessness and bad copyediting made me question the reliability of the entire book, a response that strikes even me as excessive.

After all, it's just a name. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, regardless of how they're spelled. As long as the ideas are explained clearly, who cares how the names are spelled?

The answer, I'm afraid, is I do. I care deeply. I realize this makes me a bit of a pedant, but I frimly bleieve that anyone wishing to be taken seriously in a conversation, literary or otherwise, ought to accord others the basic respect of calling them by their names--their own names, and not some clumsy approximation.

Now that that's settled, my next challenge also involves putting letters in the right place: what leters will I place on that big pile of papers?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Living for the weekend

Friday! And after a week of rain, our babbling brook has become a raging torrent. The road isn't under water (yet), but the river is rising and more rain is on the way. Could be an exciting weekend.

This morning's class involved a heated discussion of Amiri Baraka's play "Dutchman," heated not because of the topic but because of the temperature. We have a campus crawling with smart people but we can't manage to keep our environment comfortable: a week ago it was freezing in here and now I sweat through every class. Some brilliant person turned the thermostat up to 80 degrees in one of the rooms, which inspired someone to open the window, which made the heating system work even harder, which goes a long way toward explaining why the bills are so high. The room I was in this morning doesn't have windows, so we were stuck with the heat--unless we wanted to meet outside, which is difficult when the rain won't go away.

But despite all the griping and groaning, there's one important fact to remember: it's Friday, and neither rain nor heat nor dark of night can keep the weekend from making its appointed rounds.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mark my words

I come before you today to address a serious problem that threatens the moral fiber of this institution and indeed of this great nation. I speak, of course, of smelly dry-erase markers.

I stand before a class full of students engaged in the pursuit of knowledge when suddenly the intoxicating scent of dry-erase markers wafts over me, making me woozy, loopy, and disconnected from reality, which results in a struggle to maintain dignity and order. Then the scent drifts among the students and in no time at all they're begging for more: "Bring it over here! Let me sniff it! Dr. X always lets me sniff his markers!" Before you know it, the class has devolved into chaos, with scent-addled students fighting for another sniff from the marker. Over time, this results in our loosing upon the unsuspecting public a generation of loopy students intent upon pursuing their next hit of marker and willing to run over anyone who stands in their way.

Now is the time to prevent this tragedy. Nip it in the bud, I say! It's time to demand that Congress enact comprehensive marker-control legislation, because when smelly markers are outlawed, only outlaws will have smelly markers. I could list the benefits of such legislation on the dry-erase board right here, starting, was I saying something?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I generally don't make a habit of noticing my visitors' undergarments (or lack thereof); after all, out of sight is out of mind, and I'd have to be out of my mind to pay attention to what my visitors choose to keep out of sight. However, when a woman old enough to know better comes sashaying into my office with her assets swinging in the breeze, it's difficult not to notice--and wish I hadn't.

Some people just shouldn't go braless, and I would include in that category most well-endowed women over the age of 60. The last time the Braless Wonder came into my office, many people noticed her lack of appropriate undergarments, so this time they were on the lookout. "Didja see?" they asked. Yes, I saw; I had no choice but to see. I tried to maintain eye contact and avoid any knowledge of anything below the neck, but then she sat down and let it all hang out right at my eye level. It's difficult to keep an intelligent conversation going in the presence of such pendulous, prominent, unprotected bosoms.

After she left, some of us were talking about taking up a collection to buy her some bras, but there's no tactful way to broach the delicate topic of cup size with a woman far past the bra-burning age. When I am old I shall wear purple--but I'll be sure to accompany it with appropriate undergarments.

Better living through punctuation

I drove to work in the dark this morning, the wet black pavement reinforcing the feeling that I was driving straight down into the maw of a ravenous beast, and then I found my 8:00 composition students sitting in the dark classroom with the lights off and their heads on the desks. A bleak beginning--and a perfect time to delve into ideas about how to make the world a better place.

"An ideal world would be full of friendly soccer players that own exotic pets," wrote one group of students, while another insisted on less formal education and more gadgets. My students want to live in luxurious houses with plenty of technology and people to serve their needs, but they also want an end to poverty and class distinctions. They want world peace, but they also insist on voice-activated televisions. One would outlaw early-morning English classes and all fine arts classes, while another student calls for more music in the world. Some want no rules at all, while others want more rules and better enforcement.

In my ideal world, everyone would write elegant, effective sentences all the time--which is why we spent the rest of the class period puzzling over punctuation. By the end of class, the rain had stopped and the sun was out and the world looked like a better place, or if not better, at least significantly brighter.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Better than Tetris

A gentle buzz fills the room as my students discuss some literary theory in groups, and a bigger buzz fills my brain as I stand before the class blogging while they work. I get a particular thrill out of blogging during class, the same kind of thrill I used to get as a journalist when I would sit at the back of a meeting of the Board of Public Affairs frantically tip-tapping on the keys of a laptop computer while three old farts sat up front discussing, say, water and sewer rates. They would occasionally look my way as if eager to have their words preserved for eternity, and I would nod and smile mysteriously and keep tapping away at a game of Tetris.

Blogging is better than Tetris, and blogging in class is better than anything that ever happened during a Board of Public Affairs meeting, including the meeting in which the chair of the BPA called the water and sewer superintendent "Baldy" on the public record. But even this would lose its thrill if I did it all the time--and besides, my students need me. So I'll just hit "publish" and get back to work.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Remedy for relevance

The latest PMLA arrived chock-full of articles about the relationship between the Humanities and Human Rights, an important and interesting topic to be sure but it made me wonder whether the discipline is entering into another bout of Relevance Envy, when scholars who have spent their lives developing expertise in, for instance, 17th-century poetry feel the sudden urge to prove that the topic plays an essential role in our understanding of current political and social issues. Relevance Envy is a cousin to Sliderule Envy, which compels literary scholars to quantify uncontrollably while attempting to introduce scientific rigor into the study of literature. Both maladies are characterized by feverish bursts of scholarly activity pursued with evangelical fervor, followed by a quick fall into torpor acompanied by feelings of regret and futility. There's only one remedy--bed rest and a good book--and while the bed rest may be superfluous, there's no better way to convince one of one's utter irrelevance than to curl up with a good book.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Don't tread on me

If an ad in the Oct. 16 issue of the New Yorker can be believed, then today's well-dressed woman is wearing on her head a shoe. At least I think that's a shoe; it bears a striking resemblance to either a medieval torture device or a complicated piece of plumbing paraphernalia, but it bears the Louis Vuitton label so whatever it is, I can't afford it. Which is just as well because I'd hate to end up looking like the woman in the ad, whose expression suggests that she's only vaguely aware that something strikingly inappropriate has landed on her head.

I realize that it's a mistake to seek sartorial advice from slick magazine ads touting products that aren't even available out here in the sticks. If I looked to New Yorker ads for fashion advice, I might show up for work one day wearing little more than sequins, feathers, and an elephant, and that would be traumatic for all involved, not least the elephant. If I wore that Louis Vuitton shoe on my head, my colleagues would not exclaim over my fashion sense or rush out to buy Louis Vuitton shoes to balance on their own noggins. No: they would back slowly away saying soothingly, "There there now, everything's going to be just fine," and then they'd bolt for the phones to call for reinforcements.

So thanks just the same, Louis Vuitton, but if shoes on the head are the latest fashion trend, I think I'll sit this one out. It isn't the first time and it won't be the last that I'll sit on the sidelines watching the fashion parade and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Birds of a feather

A pair of plump woodpeckers paid a visit recently. They tend to stick around all winter long.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Important Imput

I just received a message thanking me for my "imput" on a particular topic and I was ready to guffaw loudly, but then I wondered: what term would you use to describe information received via Instant Messaging? IMput sounds about right; it's still not right in this case, though, because whatever input I put into this project was not communicated via IM. However, the popularity of Instant Messaging suggests a brave new world of innovative vocabulary. How do you describe former Rep. Foley's instant messages to congressional pages? IMmature. How do Instant Messagers regard conventional spelling and grammar rules? IMmaterial. What happens to a student whose addiction to Instant Messaging causes him to crash and burn in his classes? Self-IMmolation.

I could go on all day--but I'd rather hear from others. Come on: send me your imput.