Tuesday, January 31, 2006

You snooze, you lose

Kid in one of my classes yesterday pulled his baseball cap down low over his eyes, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall for a snooze. I was tempted to grab the cap off his head and toss it down the hall, but that room is crowded and I would have had to levitate over a lot of bodies and backpacks to reach him. At least he wasn't snoring.

I thought of him later in the day at a meeting when I had to mightily fight the urge to put my head down on the table and fall asleep. It was an important meeting and interesting things were being said, things like "We don't deal with chimps" and "I can create a new parameter for that," but I hadn't had enough sleep the night before and midafternoon sandbagged me. But I fought it: I stayed awake, I paid attention, and I occasionally emitted remarks, although I would not vouch for their profundity. Next time I'll wear a baseball cap and just give up the fight.

Meanwhile, I'm working on my levitation skills.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Things I saw on the way to a meeting

1. On a country road in the middle of nowhere, a small white church with what looked like a For Sale sign out front, except it wasn't a For Sale Sign. Instead, it said "Minister Needed," followed by a phone number. If the pool of candidates is limited to those who happen to drive down that dusty country road, the congregation may be waiting a while.

2. In front of a vaguely Victorian-looking red house on Main Street in Granville, Ohio, a sign for the Granville Lifestyle Museum and a smaller sign announcing "Hubert's Porch (Adults Welcome)." What would happen if someone maliciously switched this sign with the one on the church?

3. High above Denison University, the prettiest campus in Ohio, a whole flock of turkey vultures swooping in slow, gentle circles. I never saw any of them dive for prey; they just kept circling as if for the sheer joy of it. I wonder what the prettiest campus in Ohio looks like to a turkey vulture?

Friday, January 27, 2006

An offer you can't refuse

"Beware of deals in parachutes, brain surgery, and tattoos." --Miller Cotton, tattoo parlor owner.

Dwayne Dearth goes door to door selling goods and services, but he doesn't call himself a traveling salesman. "I specialize in changing lives by selling people the things they don't even know they need," he says, his eyes glowing with evangelical fervor. "It's not a job. It's a ministry."

Dearth, 47, pursues his ministry in small towns across the midwest, where stay-at-home moms and elderly shut-ins welcome his visits, eager to see the new items he's added to his line: auto-accupuncture kits one month, bikini-wax booths the next. "The cockfighting starter kits were selling like Tupperware last season," he says, "but the market got saturated pretty quick. I mean, how many cockfighting parties can one soccer mom host?"

Today he's showing his new line of home brain surgery kits to Norene Stinkel, 82, of Glimpse, Iowa, and her 37-year-old daughter, Wanda. "That genuine naugahyde carrying case sure looks sharp," says Norene, "but does it come in red? Wanda likes red."

Wanda rocks back and forth on the sofa, looking intently in Dwayne's direction. "Red," she says. "Red."

"She don't talk much," explains Norene, "but she sure do like Dwayne. Once when I got her the do-it-yourself root canal kit, she got so tickled I had to lock her in the closet. Last month I got her the tattoo gun. Wanda honey, show the nice lady your tattoo."

Wanda shyly pulls up her shirt to reveal a vivid red heart tattoo with the name "Dwane" centered upside-down just above the belly button.

"Not bad for a amateur, is it?" says Norene. "She practiced on the cat first."

Dwayne beamed with pride. "These are the kinds of folks that make my life worth living," he says. "If I can bring one spark of sunshine, one hint of joy into the lives of these people, then I can die a happy man."

But will he die a rich man? Dwayne admits that he has taken a beating on some items that just didn't sell. "The Create-an-Antibiotic kits were a mistake," he said, "and I've got a whole storage unit full of Insta-Subs. One little incident involving a rogue nuclear submarine and all of a sudden the bottom falls out of the market."

Dwayne seems well on his way to making a sale today. "I've got you down for one home brain surgery kit with the red naugahyde case, and since you're such good customers I'm willing to throw in a genuine military surplus parachute in its original packaging, never been used, complete with harness and instructions, only $14.99."

"Red!" says Wanda, clapping her hands. Norene reaches for her walker and moves slowly toward the kitchen to find her checkbook.

As we leave the Stinkels' tiny house, Dwayne gives the women warm hugs, but by the time he turns around he's already thinking about the next customer on his list. "Next up is the Cornfords," he explains. "They'll love this new line of personal hair transplant products. You know you might think about getting one for the man in your life--he can kill two birds with one stone, get rid of some unsightly back hair while he starts a new crop on top. Only $27.99 plus postage."

As our time nears its end, I ask Dwayne whether he ever plans to stop selling.

"God rested on the seventh day, but Dwayne Dearth doesn't stop selling," he insists. "As long as there's someone out there who needs what I've got, I won't stop until I find 'em. Today do-it-yourself psychoanalysis, tomorrow lessons in advanced Sanskrit. There's always another product, and there's always another buyer. The challenge is in bringing 'em together. That's what I do best."

"By the way," he adds, "did you ever think about taking up forklift repair?"

To read the article that inspired this entry, go to:

Monitoring the computer problem

And while we're on the topic of technology, why is it so much more difficult (and sometimes more expensive) to buy a computer without a monitor than a computer with a monitor? I don't need a new monitor! I do, however, need a new computer. My Neanderthal computer at home does a few things well-- it crashes, it sends error messages, and it makes noises more appropriate to a professional wrestling match than to word processing--which is about what you'd expect from an eight-year-old computer. I'm tired of spending money on repairs and upgrades, so it's time to send this guy out to pasture.

But not my ergonomic keyboard. I like my ergonomic keyboard. And not my nice bright shiny flat-screen monitor either. And come to think of it, I'm happy with my printer, speakers, scanner, and mouse. All I want is the tower, but all the computer retailers want to sell me is a big ol' box o' stuff, with a free printer thrown in for good measure. We seem to be at an impasse.

Which makes me wonder: how do so many of my students manage to come to college without printers? The most common excuse for missing or late assignments is "I don't have a printer so I e-mailed it to myself and went to the library to print it off and I waited and waited and waited and waited and it didn't come out and now I don't know what to do!" They have computers; I've seen them carrying their spiffy new laptops all over campus. How did they ever get out of a computer store without being forced at gunpoint to buy a printer?

Wherever they're shopping, that's where I want to go.

Writing machine

In the 1927 script for a radio debate between Virginia and Leonard Woolf (reprinted in the January 2006 PMLA), Virginia Woolf says these words:

You say that too many people write. I say, on the contrary, not enough people write, but the people who do write write too many books. Most people have it in them to write one good book; many people can write fifteen or sixteen good books; but no one—not even Shakespeare himself—can write fifty or sixty good books. Yet some of our novelists have already written over 100 volumes. Once a writer starts writing, nothing can stop him. On he goes year after year, season after season. He ceases to be a human being: he becomes a machine into which you put a ream of paper in August and out drops a novel in October. It would greatly improve most people’s writing if they were forced to stop now and then and take up some other occupation. Ideas and images and words themselves become stale when they are always made by the same sort of people living the same sort of lives.

Which raises the question: would Virginia Woolf have written a blog?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bananas about machines

So I'm standing in the damp dark dusty furnace room brushing cobwebs out of my face with one hand while holding the phone to my ear with the other so I can relay instructions from the husband, who happens to be at his brother's house in Florida, to the adolescent squatting in front of the water heater. The kid and I have just emerged from cold showers and we are not happy that the water heater has selected this dismally cold morning to take a hiatus from responsibility, so we're pleased when, following the husband's telephoned instructions, we finally find and press a button featuring tiny letters that might say "Reset" or might just as well say "Detonate," and then all we have to do is find and replace the screw I dropped on the cold damp dusty floor. Mission accomplished. "By the way," says the husband, "I'm out in the yard right now, picking bananas."

May he drive through cold drizzle all the way home.

This morning I asked my American Lit students what Henry Adams might have meant when he described the dynamo as a moral force inspiring awe: "Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force." Does anyone really worship machines? Do we go out to the power plant at sunrise to offer sacrifices to the gigantic turbines? If only it were that easy: lay a burnt offering of last night's leftover lamb before the water heater so it will continue to supply hot showers, or heave a wave offering of homemade bread before the furnace so it will keep our toes toasty at night. Instead, we genuflect on the damp floor and mutter imprecations while hunting for a wayward screw, and we hope we've pressed the right button.

If not, the husband will soon be home and he'll know how to placate the furnace and harness the mysterious silent power of the water heater. May the sun shine on him all the way home, and may he bring us offerings of bananas.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Spring semester spin

First day of classes for the spring semester and my desk is already stacked: meeting announcements, posters for a student writing competition, requests for recommendation letters, glossy flyers advertising textbooks I'll never use, and a stack of paragraphs penned by my American Lit Survey students (is it cruel to make students analyze an unfamiliar poem at 9 a.m. on the first day of classes?). Above it all stands my new Mr. Potato Head, Darth Tater, light-saber at the ready and big bulgy eyes looking intently forward as if to say, "Luke, I am your tuber!" It's already been a crazy day and it's not half over yet.

I've been doing this for long enough to know what I'm doing, but I still get nervous the night before a new semester. Last night I woke up with that feeling of panic you get when the phone rings at 3 a.m., except it wasn't the phone: I just had an urgent feeling that my washing machine was trying to communicate with me. I rushed half-awake into the laundry room to see what kind of mayhem my major appliances might be manufacturing in the middle of the night, but the washer just sat there silently, which, when you think about it, is pretty much what a washing machine ought to be doing in 3 a.m., but somehow I found the silence even more disturbing than any message it might have sent. What would a washing machine want to say at 3 a.m. anyway? There are very few messages that merit waking someone up at 3 a.m. on a Monday; "The house is on fire" is one and "Mom? I'm at the hospital" is another, but "add fabric softener" does not quite cut the mustard.

I went back to bed confused and slept fitfully, and this morning I paid a return visit to the laundry room. I saw the usual mops, brooms, buckets, and stacks of dirty clothes, and standing against the wall the impressive white gleaming mass of the washing machine and dryer, silent as usual. I wanted to ask the washer questions, but "why" is not a question that can be satisfactorily answered by a major appliance whose repertoire of language pretty much starts and ends with "spin cycle complete." So I stuffed it full of dirty laundry and set it spinning.

Meanwhile, back on campus, I'm spinning through another cycle of teaching and learning. I only hope that today I can say something more coherent than "Luke, I am your tuber!"

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kibbles and Bits

A bit of business from a funeral scene in the novel Whale Season by N.M. Kelby:

You may ask why I bark at a time such as this,” he says to the fifty or so assembled. “I have recently come to barking because I believe it is a form of prayer. I bark to honor my inner dog.”

Then he barks again. This time it’s a dark poodle of a rumble.

“You see, we are loved and nourished by mysterious hands, the hands of our master—be it God, Buddha, Shiva—whatever the name—they got your kibbles. They got your bits.”

I think the only appropriate response to this is: woof.

Partly sunny with chance of snakes

A golden light falls across the fields this morning and the spindly trees outside my window look like kite strings stretched taut toward the sky. Sixty degrees: warm for January, but the forecast calls for the temperature to dip into the 20s tonight, with warmer weather and rain promised tomorrow.

Warm weather is nice, but what we really need is a blizzard--a good, old-fashioned, everybody-stay-home-and-shovel-snow blizzard, a guilt-free excuse to lounge in front of a roaring fire and read a good book, and if the power goes out we can always light candles.

Of course a blizzard might send more mice into my house seeking sustenance and warmth. We don't know how they're getting in but we know where they're going and we don't like them there. When I say "we," I do not, of course, refer to the cat, whose attitude towards mice might be translated as, "Whatever." My daughter suggests that we get snakes to get rid of the mice, but then who would get rid of the snakes? "The cat," said my son, but this is the cat who cannot be bothered to take an interest in the hundreds of birds that visit feeders right outside the front window; if she doesn't care about birds or mice, why should she care about snakes? "We'll rub catnip on the snakes," said my husband. "Right," I said. "You first."

So for now we're living with the mice (or we are living and they are dying daily in our traps) and trying to find where they are getting in. The sun is shining, the cat is snoring, and the snow, so far, is failing to fall.

If you don't hear from me by Wednesday, send the St. Bernards.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ordinary horrors

Today I received via e-mail an invitation to purchase chapbooks with the following titles:

Sauce Robert
Add Musk Here
The Root
Shooting the Strays
War Holdings
Their Shadows are Dark Daughters
The People Instruments
Tampon Class

Assembled this way, these could be chapter headings in the imaginary memoirs of a very peculiar person. Is "Sauce Robert" a recipe or a command? Do the dark-shadow daughters shoot the strays, and are the pants in chapter 8 dropped by the disrobing person in chapter 3? In "The People Instruments," are the people playing instruments or becoming instruments? Who attends the Tampon Class and what kind of test is given at the end? It's a story just begging to be written.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javiar Marias, who loves to send readers hunting for other books. In A Heart So White, a quote from MacBeth, dropped casually into conversation, gains resonance and significance as the novel moves inexorably to its horrible conclusion, although perhaps "horrible" is not the right word, suggesting as it does cataclysmic events involving massive death or dismemberment. The horrors on Marias novels are small, interior horrors, apparently insignificant decisions or minor secrets that fester over time until they finally poison the soul of one or maybe two people, three at the most. Nothing much really happens in a Marias novel; characters think or talk or think about talking, often about distant or incomprehensible events, but over the course of the novel suspense builds and these small events and minor conversations take on an almost unbearable weight of foreboding, and then comes the horror, which is really not all that horrible in comparison with, say, anything that happens in MacBeth. What makes Marias's horrors so much more horrible is that they are perpetrated not by power-hungry princes but by ordinary people just doing what they do best, which sometimes includes murder or arson and often includes lying to themselves or others about why they do what they do.

In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, Marias refers repeatedly to Shakespeare's history plays, which at first seems odd given the dearth of royalty in the novel. There is a visit to the palace and a talk with a royal personage about Chimes at Midnight, but the title quotation from Richard III is introduced at a very strange moment: while the narrator is watching a woman die. Why Richard III? What battle? Think on whom? I'm halfway through the book and I don't know the answers to these questions, if there are answers or if the answers matter. But now I want to go back to Richard III and see what relevance it could possibly have to this novel.

Marias novels include some disrobing, some pants, plenty of shadows and daughters, but I'm pleased to report that Marias avoids any mention of tampon class, for which I am truly grateful.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A banner with the strange device

A hotel in New York. A city in Minnesota. A poem by Longfellow. And what came before styrofoam peanuts? Those little curly wood shavings used as packing material were known as excelsior.

A Latin term, comparative of excelsus, excelsior is the "strange device" printed on the banner carried by the youth in the Longfellow poem. What kind of fool runs straight up the side of an Alp on a dark and stormy night while carrying a banner featuring a word no one understands? The youth offers no clear rationale for his foolhardy errand: is he in training for the Olympic Uphill Alp-Running Event, or does he have promises to keep and miles to go before his sleep? He's not saying anything except "Excelsior." Old man and maiden try to warn him, but they don't even get the satisfaction of saying "I told you so" when the youth ends up dead. It's a beautiful and noble death, or so Longfellow would have us believe, but the only evidence we receive is a message from the sky: "Excelsior." Apparently the sky speaks Latin, but since no one else in the world of the poem understands the term, the message seems a tad futile.

"Excelsior" is the sort of sentimental poem third-grade teachers used to require students to memorize and recite before an audience of their beaming parents, but if Dad had put some thought into the meaning of the words coming out of little Timmy's mouth, he would have dashed to the stage and hauled Timmy off for a good talking-to before filing a complaint with the school board, and Mom would have said something soothing like, "You know, honey, it's really not a good idea to go running up an Alp in the middle of the night, especially without your scarf and boots on. Now let's bundle up and we'll go have some nice hot cocoa and forget all about that silly poem, okay?" Timmy, meanwhile, keeps thinking about how neat it would be to get rescued by a St. Bernard.

Well, if excelsior was good enough for Timmy and Longfellow, then it's good enough for me. Here the curly little shavings from the wood block of my mind will venture ever onward and upward until the St. Bernards come to save us.