Friday, March 31, 2006

Hands off my pizza!

An article in American Heritage about the history of pizza informs me that in the 1950s a fellow named Aldo Formica became a minor celebrity for his dough-tossing skills. If you put a character named Aldo Formica in a work of fiction and made him toss pizza dough, readers would balk. Too cheesy. Let Aldo Formica be a hit man or a con man or the front man for a band called Aldo and the Formicas, but for heaven's sake don't make him toss pizza dough.

The same article offers the following tasty tidbit:

...if cooks followed the advice offered by Good Housekeeping in 1951, their pizzas were biscuit rounds or English muffins topped with processed Cheddar cheese, chili sauce, salt, pepper, and salad oil. Cooks could also opt to add deviled ham, stuffed olives, or canned tuna to the "cheese treatment."

Or not, as the case may be.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Random thoughts of a fevered mind

1. Do doctors believe that the smarmy sitcom Full House has some therapeutic value? Every time I go to the doctor's office, Full House reruns are showing on the television in the waiting room. Today I was privileged to watch the show for an hour and a half while suffering from a high fever. The show did not make the fever any better but, on the other hand, neither did the fever make the show any better.

2. Fever dreams are intense and vivid but they're never about things I want to dream about. Last night, for instance, I dreamed that warm oatmeal was flowing like lava across the bed, threatening to engulf me, and then I dreamed that my husband was selling tickets for tourist excursions into my fever-induced hallucinations. It's unlikely that he would do this in real life.

3. An incapacitating fever bestows on the sufferer a limited measure of power. For instance, at certain times of day I can say the word "Popsicle" and within minutes a popsicle will materialize in front of me. This also works with words like "oatmeal" or "yogurt" but, sadly, not with "diamond earrings," "Toyota RAV-4," or "new garage."

4. When you're so hot you feel like your eyeballs are going to boil over, I recommend a leather sofa. The cool leather dissipates the heat in a wonderful way. That only becomes uncomfortable when you start to sweat. At that point, you're on your own.

5. My family doctor was out of the office today so I had to go to the Doctor-In-A-Box out at the edge of town. When I got there they asked for the name of my family doctor and I told them his name as I always do, this despite the fact that I have never actually laid eyes on my family doctor. On the few occasions when I've been able to get past the thick protective clot of secretarial staff in his front office, I've always seen the nurse practitioner. How much sense does it make to call a man "my" doctor if I have never actually seen him?

6. The Doctor-In-A-Box doctor was quite wonderful: he spoke gently, he did not treat me like an annoying interruption in his busy schedule, and he listened. Hats off to you, Dr. P! Will you adopt me?

7. Ideas that seem brilliant to the fever-addled brain often fail to stand up to scrutiny in the light of common day. This post, for instance, seemed pretty scintillating when I was composing it in my head last night, but now I don't know. Maybe I'd better just skip it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

An involuntary hiatus

When I left the office on Friday, my desk was clean--cleaner than it's been all semester--and I was caught up on everything. Today, after spending two days at home fighting the meanest virus I've ever encountered, I arrived to find an avalanche of papers on my desk. I'm still pretty wobbly so it was all I could do to shove them into a semi-neat pile and turn my back on them. One of these days I'll get caught up.

Some things, though, I'll never get caught up on. For two days I barely glanced at a newspaper, didn't open the mail, and let the e-mail messages accumulate unread. If any newsworthy events occurred in the past two days, I missed 'em. What's more, I don't have the energy to go back and find out whether some aging movie star finally kicked the bucket or some third-world dictator committed a military incursion or scientists discovered a new species of newt. People could make up news events and tell me about them and as long as they were plausible enough, I'd just nod and smile and say "How interesting." It would be cruel, but at this point I'm so happy to be back in the office that nothing can faze me. Not even an avalanche of papers.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Whom do I sue?

Which is worse, a computer virus or an intestinal virus? The intestinal virus tends to strike quickly, make me miserable for a short amount of time, and then move on without leaving lasting effects, while the computer virus might cause damage that lingers for a long time. However, if my computer has a virus I can always hand it over to a competent person to fix; vomiting, on the other hand, cannot be delegated. Even the Powers That Be have to do their own throwing up, as the first President Bush so ably demonsrated some years ago in Japan. Given a choice, then, I'll take the computer virus. Sadly, no one seems to be interested in offering me such a choice.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Avoiding the Undead

Word just in that a British magazine has awarded the prize for the oddest book title of the year to "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It" by Gary Leon Hill. Michael Quinion explains:

It was described by Joel Tickett, the deputy editor of the journal, as "a lively practical guide to dealing with the undead". Runners-up were "Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum Standards and Best Practices from East and Southern Africa" by Simon Milledge, "Ancient Starch Research" by Robin Torrence and Huw J Barton, "Soil Nailing: Best Practice Guidance", and "Bullying and Sexual Harassment: A Practical Handbook".

Surely this merits an immediate trip to the bookstore--or to World Wide Words, where Michael Quinion provides a wealth of fascinating information about words, etymology, usage, and how to subscribe to his weekly newsletter:

Friday, March 24, 2006

Water water everywhere

This morning in the hall outside my office I saw a little girl looking longingly up at the water fountain until a slightly bigger little girl came along and lifted up the thirsty girl so she could get a drink. Trouble was, Thirsty Girl couldn't figure out how to turn the knob to make the water run, but Lifter Girl couldn't help because her arms were pretty well occupied. What they needed was a third little girl or even a big girl to come up and turn the knob.

There's a metaphor in there: as a teacher I try to lift up the small ones and help them reach the fountain (of literature? of literacy? of correct use of commas?), but I don't have enough hands to do the heavy lifting and also turn the knob. Maybe someone else lifts them up and I just turn the knob. Maybe the kid being lifted has to learn to turn the knob for herself. At any rate someone has to turn the knob or no one's getting a drink.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bad news for the Comma Fairy

"Will we ever get to stop using apostrophes?"

The question arose in a room full of writing students who were less than enthralled by my earnest attempt to encourage them to omit needless commas. "If you've developed the habit of automatically inserting a comma after the word 'although,'" I explained, "just save all those needless commas and put them under your pillow for the Comma Fairy, who might replace them with a shiny new ampersand or--if you are truly deserving--a set of dashes."

"But what if I'm using 'although' to mean 'however'?" asked one student. I stood there looking stunned, perhaps because I was stunned. "'Although' means 'although,'" I explained. He looked dubious.

Then another student raised his hand and politely asked, "Will we ever get to stop using apostrophes?"

"Some of you already have," I said.

They looked confused. I felt confused. I wanted to stamp my feet and say, "Pay attention! This is not that difficult! If you can figure out how to use all the features on a cell phone from directions written by a semiliterate slave laborer with minimal English language skills, then you can learn how to use a comma--or even how to omit a comma when it's superfluous." But I didn't. I couldn't.

"We'll deal with apostrophes another time," I said. "Now let's get back to the comma."

Enough classes like this one and the Comma Fairy will be looking for a job.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sliderule Envy

This morning in my American Lit Survey we counted things--words, sentences, words per sentence, commas, semicolons, exclamation marks--and this afternoon in Concepts of Nature we read about seemingly uncountable creatures subtracted into extinction--passenger pigeons, bison, dinosaurs. If any of my students signed up for literature courses in the sincere hope of avoiding math, they must have been sorely disappointed.

Literature professors are occasionally subject to Sliderule Envy, the fear that talking about literature lacks the aura of importance that surrounds more scientific pursuits. Sliderule Envy motivates some literary scholars to erect a fortress of complicated jargon and complex theoretical schemes around works of literature, a fortress only the elect are permitted to enter through a tiny door to which only the more enlightened scholars possess the key. We stand by our theories as if they rivalled Einstein's, but what are they really? Words. Just words.

We envy the certainty of numbers, their apparent lack of slipperiness. Let x equal 3, and by golly it does; but just try to translate a poem into an algebraic equation. A poem does not send a man to the moon, cure the common cold, or make the trains run on time. A poem cannot stop the extinction of a species, even the human species, and it cannot even prevent its own erasure. Its words are transient breaths, surviving only if someone cares enough to preserve them in the archives. The fortress will fall, the rocks tumbling to the ground and left in a neglected heap, but the poem itself might survive the cataclysm--for, as Robinson Jeffers reminds us, "stone have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found / The honey of peace in old poems."

And it's a good thing literature lives, because otherwise the English professor would be an endangered species. I don't know about anyone else, but I for one am not ready to be declared extinct.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The English professor's secret sin

It's probably Wrong, Evil, and Very Very Bad for English professors to make fun of their students' writing mistakes...which is why I do it behind closed doors. When students walk past my door and hear a sudden outburst of uncontrollable laughter, they might wonder what illicit action I'm induling in: drugs? drink? P.G. Wodehouse? No, I'm just reading student papers peppered with sentences like this one: "The hospital traditionally gives blue or pink blankets and gourmets according to sex."

I know it's wrong. I know I've come not to laugh at students' prose but to raise it to a higher level, but sometimes it would take superhuman self-control to avoid laughing at the ridiculous statements that pop up in papers:

What makes America what it is is our freedoms.

The party seems to be gathering a lot of public sediment.

Once in the hotel room high and on drugs the striper comes.

Timson supports this theory when explaining how her daughter longs to be "Miss Britney Spears" and immolates her actions and dress.

I know for a fact that she made a bias on how small town people act with one another, especially with comments like that of the meatloaf.

Frederick Jackson Turner groped Indians with outlaws and animals.

The audience is introduced to her through a search for the lost cow in which she finds the strange man in the woods hunting.

Despite the evidence, they were not suede.

Without I or one, there is no you! That is the positive aspect.

Images of thin pouty-lipped models are thrown into our faces every few seconds, forcing that piece of equal pie we've longed for to be thrown up into that holy grail, deemed the toilet, of problems and insecurities, the toilet called society and the problem labeled bulimia.

I could go on all day. But that would be Wrong, Evil, and Very Very Bad. Instead, I'll just chuckle quietly behind closed doors.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Playing by the rules

Everyone knows that white cats are not compatible with black wool pants, but I neglected this important truth while dressing this morning and didn't discover the disastrous result until I was halfway to campus. However, a length of sticky tape works as an impromptu lint brush, and then the more resourceful amongst us might want to knit an entirely new cat out of the cat hair so collected.

It's good to be back on campus after a relaxing break. A thoughtful student in my 9:00 class brought me coffee, which I appreciate very much except for the fact that I can't drink coffee. It's absurd to share my life with one of the world's great coffee brewers when the mere taste of coffee makes me vomit, but that's the way it goes sometimes. (One of these days I'll tell the whole nauseating story about my previous life as a coffee drinker and how it changed, but not this early in the day.)

Yesterday at home we played Boggle and my family refused to allow me to use the following words: swot, qualia, and swedes (the vegetable). I still won. This afternoon I'll attend many hours of meetings where other kinds of games will be played, possibly more significant in the long run but not nearly so enjoyable. Committee meetings have their own rules, mostly unwritten, and it's not possible at any given time to know who or what is winning. Right now, judging from the condition of my pants, I would say the cat is winning.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The trouble with trillium

The trouble with trillium is that I don't know how to spell the plural. Trilliums or trillia? "Trilliums" sounds wrong, but "trillia" sounds like an obscure term in music theory or the name of an appendage on a microsopic creature. It's difficult to avoid using the plural because I'm rarely looking at just one blossom.

The other trouble with trillium is that they're easy to miss. They're pretty amazing when they're blooming, but they bloom in odd places that are easily overlooked. Two years ago when we moved in to our little house in the not-so-big woods, I wouldn't have known a trillium if it had walked up and said "Howdy," but then one day I was walking the dog down by the creek when I looked up and saw brilliant white blossoms dotting the opposite slope. If I'd known the name, I would have said, "Wow, trillions of trilliums (or trillia, as the case may be)." Instead, I walked home and got out the wildflower book.

The trillium season is short and by that time it was nearly over, but I still managed to find them growing on the slope above our driveway and in several other places. Laste year I was more alert, but last year was a different kind of season: a cold, damp spring, which apparently is appealing to trillium because they bloomed in abundance and grew larger than they had the previous year. Who knows what will happen this spring?

Yesterday on my walk I didn't see a trace of trillium, but I'm determined not to miss them this time. I know now that when the trillium blooms I can start looking for fire pinks and trout lilies and soon Dutchman's breeches, but by then there will be dozens of different kinds of wildflowers blooming everywhere I look. The trillium comes first, blooming when the ground still looks brown and cold, a harbinger of coming events. For now, every time I go down the driveway I scan the slope for the first trillium of spring. After the first, though, I'd better find a dictionary. Trilliums or trillia? I'd rather not say.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Recipe for perfection

What are the ingredients of a perfect day? Yesterday felt pretty perfect but when I try to measure out the reasons, they don't add up to much: a pinch of good reading, a dab of interesting writing, a modicum of mundane cooking, and a midafternoon walk to the mailbox. Yesterday's perfection may be a function not of what I did but of what I didn't do: attend meetings, listen to students' excuses, wrestle with cranky electronic equipment, rush anywhere. The absence of annoyances is certainly one essential ingredient of perfection.

When I try to remember more perfect days and identify their common elements, I come up short. I can remember some nearly perfect days: our tenth anniversary, for instance, was well on its way to perfection until late in the evening when my husband came down with a bad case of chills and fever that wracked his body for the next six weeks. Not a perfect day. The day of my PhD graduation was running perfectly until the moment when someone who shall remain nameless locked his keys and my coat inside our car. No car, no coat, and temperature below zero with a biting wind: never have I been more grateful for full regalia.

The day I recall that comes closest to perfection occurred in Key West three Christmases ago. It really shouldn't have been perfect at all, because the week before our long road trip, we all came down with the flu one after another. I was the last to be stricken and so was totally unable to pack or prepare in the days before the trip, days which were also memorable for the sudden unexpected lack of running water in our house, a lack caused by an arson down the block at the oldest house in town, a house that had been slept in by generals and presidents but in recent years had been divided into low-rent housing units where, one evening in the week before Christmas, an angry woman kicked her boyfriend out of their apartment, upon which he, also angry, walked over to the corner store and purchased a cigarette lighter and announced to anyone in earshot (this is true) that he needed the lighter so he could burn down his girlfriend's apartment. The house burned and the residents escaped safely, but the firefighters drew so much water that a water main burst, leaving the entire town dry, including those of us who were trying to do laundry and pack for a long road trip while suffering from the flu.

After three days without water (and with the flu) we were happy to get away to sunny south Florida. The trip itself was a blur but I clearly recall Christmas Eve, my daughter's birthday, which we celebrated by eating take-out Chinese food on the beach while watching the sunset. I think I was a little bit sunburned by then but I no longer had the flu and as for water, it was everywhere as far as the eye could see. The sushi may have been a little dry but the day itself was perfect. Still, I wouldn't want to try to repeat the experience. For starters, I wouldn't know where to find an arsonist.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

But he doesn't do windows

I heard an unusual sound emanating from my 16-year-old son's room and went to investigate. The door was shut. I silently debated: knock and interrupt or wait until it was over? First I hovered but then I thought, "What if he opens the door and finds me here listening?" Finally I went away, hoping he would want to talk about it afterward.

Later I screwed up the courage to ask: "Before, in your room, I thought I heard something."

"I was vacuuming," he said.

"Vacuuming," I said. "On a school night. With the door shut."

He shrugged. "The floor was messy."

I said nothing.

"It was distracting me," he said.

Distracting: that's when it struck me. Why on this night above all other nights would a 16-year-old boy who had never before been spontaneously seized by the urge to vacuum suddenly suffer such a compulsion? "Tell me the truth," I said. "Do you by any chance have a major writing assignment due tomorrow that you have not yet started?"

His guilty look told all.

He's one of us, I thought: he belongs to the tribe of those who must write but can't write without the proper preparatory rituals, the pencil-sharpening or dish-washing or room-straightening or even checkbook-balancing, who must dust the computer desk before touching the keyboard and then, while the dustrag is handy, decide not to stop with the computer desk but move on to the piano and the coffee table and the dusty bookcase where, come to think of it, the books need to be put back into alphabetical order before another minute passes. He's long and lean and looks nothing like me but here I see proof of my contribution to his genetic makeup: he cannot begin to write an essay for English class without first vacuuming his room to eliminate distractions.

I heaved a sigh of relief. "So what are you writing about?"

"Just an essay. On The Scarlet Letter. You know, sunlight and shadow and stuff."

"The scene in the woods," I said. "You could write about that, and---"

But he put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me. "I can do this myself," he said.

And you know, I think he can.

A scintilla of sparkle-free space

In “Buoyancy,” a short story in Richard Russo’s collection The Whore’s Child, a professor named Snow arrives at a country inn and encounters a nosy hostess, Mrs. Childress, who expects him to entertain other guests:

"Well I don't know these particular people," Mrs. Childress said, ... "but they were quite delighted to learn we'd have a distinguished professor of American history in our midst. I warn you in advance that we're all bracing for a weekend of scintillating conversation."

"Ah," said Snow, whose discipline in fact was literature, "I'm retired, I'm afraid."

Mrs. Childress blinked, seemingly confused.

"I no longer scintillate," he explained, "though of course I used to."

I suppose even the most scintillating among us must occasionally relish a chance to suppress the sparkle. I do not always scintillate but I am sometimes the cause of scintillation of others. Today, for instance, I inspired scintillation simply by making tuna melts for supper. I haven't seen the young men so excited about a meal since I served the Christmas sauerbraten, which required dozens of complicated steps over days and days of preparation. The most difficult step in making tuna melts, on the other hand, is finding the can opener.

Tomorrow is another day. Today, let someone else do the scintillating.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Podium, positivism, pages

Three times today Javier Marias has made me laugh out loud, but I'm not quite sure how to share that experience. I'm reading Dark Back of Time, which explores in some depth the bizarre public responses to his novel All Souls, which I enjoyed but found rather thin and lacking in intensity. Dark Back of Time is another thing altogether, although I'm not quite sure what. Still, I keep reading it for at least three reasons.

1. The Podium Effect:

...all the world's professors, male and female, enjoy what could be called "the podium effect," due to which even the ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical and despicable among them arouse spurious and delusional passions, as I know all too well. I've seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.

2. You could look it up:

I saw myself freed from the specter of being accused of the wide variety of depravities I had been dreading for a week by then, balanism, strangury, satyriasis, nequicia, mictionism, pyromania, enfiteusis, positivism, erotesis, felo-de-se, or perhaps even lardy-dardiness, though I don't know if any of those words, which have cropped up here and there in my translations, correspond to vices (I think not) and I'm not about to go and look them all up right now, but their obscene or sinister sonority alone makes them all, without exception, deserve to be tremendous perversions--irreversible degenerations. It would have pained me to be accused of enfiteusis.

3. Reading instructions:

Those who have already read these pages in that novel [All Souls] can skip them--I believe--without feeling cheated (it's always a pleasure to skip a few pages and it's almost never possible), and those who have no prior acquaintance with them can read them now without having to spend a cent more to acquire them, though undoubtedly the reproduction will not be verbatim and may include a few marginal notes or scattered comments, so in the end I don't know if those who are already happily and frivolously preparing to skip them would be wise to do so. Of course they can also skip all the pages, all these pages, without very serious consequences.

To which I answer: No I can't. Can't skip one of 'em. Must keep reading, despite Marias's habit of simultaneously offering and withholding delectable treats, waving them in front of the reader's nose and then whisking them away with such style and panache that we barely notice that we have not partaken. Sly guy, that Marias. Quite lardy-dardy. Wouldn't surprise me at all if he'd committed enfiteusis.

My life as a geisha

Here I am at about age 6 getting ready to perform at a dance recital. Picture a high school auditorium crowded with proud dads in dark suits and skinny ties and proud moms wearing dress suits and Jackie O hairstyles as their adorable graceless roly-poly daughters fumbled about onstage to a tinny recording featuring a vaguely Asian-sounding breathy female voice singing, "Me little geisha girl, all dressed up in silk and pearl, me little geisha girl, they call me Lotus Flower."

That's my life as a geisha. Hey, that would make a great title for a book!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Partly windy with chance of pollen

On the road again, this time for a brief visit to Kentucky, where all kinds of interesting things are blooming and pollen is flying visibly through the air but I am no longer coughing, sniffling, sneezing, or otherwise experiencing nasal discomfort. Meanwhile, back home, where the ground is still winter-brown and the trees are skeletal, I couldn't make a move without carrying a jumbo-size box of tissues. Who can explain it? After supper I'll pack the young men into the car and head home, where perhaps I'll find a foot of snow or, I don't know, a plague of locusts. Spring: the season of possibilities.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Songbirds in the sun

Saw a red-winged blackbird this morning. In the summer they perch like sentinels on fenceposts along every highway in the state, but then they all go away and we forget about them for a while until we spot a flash of color and there they are again.

Last week a flock of robins descended on my lawn en masse, held a brief food fest, and then moved on. They wouldn't stand still to be counted but I got to a dozen before I gave up. Where do they go?

This morning I heard songbirds singing a lovely whistling tune I didn't recognize. This is not surprising; I'm good at visual recognition but the birdsongs I know can be counted on the fingers of one hand: kingfishers, hawks, chickadees, crows, and the strange croaking "fronk" of the blue heron. Geese, of course; everyone knows geese. The resident poultry expert can distinguish among the calls of many different types of geese, ducks, and other wildfowl, but what do you expect of a man whose childhood hobby required a chicken coop with room for 100 birds?

Last spring I followed the distinctive song of the oriole and finally spotted the bird sitting in the top of a sycamore, but apparently Mr. O didn't find a mate because the call and bird disappeared soon thereafter. In the upper meadow once I followed a metallic "chip" to its source and found an indigo bunting sitting at the top of a gnarly old apple tree, but then the next time I followed what I thought was the same sound to the same tree, I found a boring old cardinal. My bird book wants me to hear things that sound like "to-whit, to-whee" or "drink your tea," but my birds don't speak that language.

I couldn't find the source of the lovely birdsong this morning and now I have no clear memory of its melody. On the other hand, the other morning my clock radio woke me from a sound sleep by loudly playing the annoying 70s song "Seasons in the Sun" and I could not get that tune out of my mind for the rest of the day. (I'd like to know who fiddled with the dials to cause this catastrophe, but no one has stepped forward to claim responsiblity.) Why can't I delete from my memory wretched songs like "Seasons In the Sun" and replace them with the songs of birds? We'd have joy, we'd have fun, we'd have seasons in the sun, but best of all, I'd be able to report accurately on the birds I encountered this morning.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Spring fling

High winds all night and this morning, sirens outside my office. In the halls students in shorts and flip-flops head straight from Midterms to Spring Break, leaving me piles of warm, steaming scribbles. That test was too long, too hard, too much writing, they say. "Please be nice," begs one. "I'll be your friend forever."

Right now what I need is not another eternal friend but another box of Kleenex, the kind with lotion in it to prevent my nose from becoming redder. Yes, friends, I know what I look like! I realize that my nose glows like a harbor beacon! There's no need to point that out more than twelve times a day! I'd make it stop if I would but there's not much I can do against the allergens that are taking advantage of an early spring to attack my nasal cavities. So get over it, okay? Thank you.

I wonder: would it be better to grade exams on antihistamines or wait a day or two and hope for some mental clarity? The easiest path would be to issue blanket A's. That would be wrong, but who would complain?

Whatever this wind migh be blowing in, I hope it starts blowing the cobwebs out of my brain pretty darn soon, because I'm tired of hearing myself complain. Besides, I'm just about down to my last Kleenex.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Abecedarian abderites?

Is it ever effective to call a person an "abderite"? Anyone with abecedarian skills advanced enough to look up the word is probably not an abderite, while true abderites would just say "Thanks!" and move on, oblivious of the insult. Perhaps it's a word best kept for private delectation, uttered just out of the hearing of the person so described. Abderites. The place is crawling with 'em.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Computation of sneezes

Wendell Berry, in "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front":

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbor and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute....

Today I sneezed. While driving to work I sneezed so hard I almost had to pull over, and then I sneezed again. Fumbling for the Kleenex box I swerved all over the road sneezing and hoping I wouldn't die in such a ridiculous manner: Sneeze-Fest Leads to Smashed Nissan. Then in class while reading the above poem aloud, I had to sneeze so badly I thought my eyeballs would pop right out of my head and go rolling across the filthy classroom floor. Somehow I held it in and made it to the end, but then there was all that sneeze-energy bottled up in my head and it had to come out somehow. I could not begin to compute the number of times I sneezed today. Someone owes me a lot of Gesundheits.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


I gave a midterm exam this morning to a class that sounded like it was competing in a Cough-A-Thon. I suppose all those coughs and sniffles could have been part of an elaborate system of secret signals: two coughs = "True," three coughs = "False," and a cough-sniffle-cough combination = "Robert Frost." An alert brain might have detected a pattern in the coughing, but my brain is less than alert thanks to a bout of night-time sniffles. My head feels like an oozing mass of phlegm, if phlegm had little feet that could tap-dance inside my nasal cavities. Good thing I don't have to lecture today. Another exam (and another Cough-A-Thon) this afternoon, and then home to sleep. Meanwhile, here's some free financial advice: invest in Kleenex.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Running on empty

The first thing I noticed on entering the church was that I could see my breath. Forty-four degrees might be downright balmy for the first Sunday in Lent, but we really expect it to be warmer than that inside the church. Did the Powers That Be decide that the entire congregation should give up heat for Lent? That's one way to mortify the flesh.

Competent men strode in and fiddled with circuits and switches; with hearty, he-man voices they said, "We'll have this fixed in no time." They didn't. Eventually someone decided to check the fuel supply. Empty. Talk about mortification.

So we made our own heat. The entire congregation huddled together to sing hymns on hard benches in a sunny corner of the social room. Coats stayed on and hot cocoa was served. The offering plate got left behind in the cold sanctuary, so a piece of harvest gold plasticware played understudy. The preacher propped his notes on top of an old television set, and in the end we all passed the communion elements to one another as if gathered for a casual meal. Which, I suppose, is how it ought to be.

We all agreed that it was a fun service, but that doesn't mean we want to do it that way every week. We like our cushioned pews, our offering plates, our flowers and our candles, but most of all we like our heat.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Chili nirvana

There's nothing better on a cold day than the smell of homemade chili wafting through a warm house. The crock pot has been bubbling all morning, significantly spicing up my mundane Saturday activities: paying bills, plugging numbers into an online FAFSA, and grading papers featuring sentences like "During certain time periods, specific events were taking place in history." Every once in a while I reward myself by tasting the chili--just to make sure the spices are correct. Since we've started grinding our own chilis into chili powder, I have to be careful how much I put in; just a dab too much and the chili is inedible. But this batch would please even Goldilocks, assuming that Goldilocks likes her chili hot. We'll serve it with some homemade bread made by the househusband and forget all about bills, forms, and papers. Tonight's menu: chili nirvana.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

People who write in ice houses shouldn't stone writers

I know the Olympics are over but the sport of Mocking the Olympics goes on, most unmemorably in Nancy Franklin's article in the current New Yorker. I have been reading Nancy Franklin's television commentary in the New Yorker for as long as Nancy Franklin has been writing it, but in all that time the woman has never yet written one truly memorable sentence. Not one. And this article on the Olympics was just, um....I forget. Sort of like the Olympics.

I propose that we liven up the winter Olympics by merging some sports to eliminate the long, dull stretches that tend to occur between the exciting bits. Take an almost-perfect sport like curling, with its brooms, stones, ice, and polo shirts; borrow the guns from biathlon, the scoring system from figure skating (which should add some elegance to all that sweeping), and, from a summer sport, the horses from the dressage event. Equestrian Biathlon Figure-Curling: I'd watch that. Especially if they used Nancy Franklin for the stone.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

You say tomato

Today I've been thinking about tomatoes. It started, I think, in the Concepts of Nature class when we discussed Meridel LeSueur's short story "Harvest," with its marvelously evocative description of the woman getting her hands dirty in the garden. "That's not the part of gardening I like," I said. "The part I like is when you take the fresh tomatoes inside and eat them."

Then later at the grocery store I looked with disgust at the pathetic packages of tiny, hard, flavorless tomatoes. March is a bad time to be a tomato lover. It's starting to look like spring outside, but the ground is still too cool to nurture tomato plants. It'll be months before we see any fresh tomatoes from the garden, and last season's tomatoes are just a dim memory. It seems impossible but it's true that not so long ago the kitchen counter was covered with tomatoes: big red juicy slicing tomatoes and tiny yellow salad tomatoes that burst in your mouth and Roma tomatoes for sauce and purply-black tomatoes full of luscious juices and low-acid yellow tomatoes glowing like sunshine.

They're all gone now except the ones that went into sauce. Recently I discovered how to turn homemade tomato sauce into a pretty fair approximation of Campbell's canned tomato soup. There are only three essential ingredients (tomato sauce, salt, sugar), although I'll add pepper, onion, cream, and worcester sauce to liven it up. It's not at all the same as fresh tomatoes sliced and eaten as a side dish at every meal, but the sauce preserves a bit of summer sunshine, which is just what the doctor ordered to combat the too-long-til-tomato-time blues.