Friday, June 30, 2006

Not too suave a sentence

"If there had been a bachelor in this place, in the intervening decades, he seemed not to have been too suave of one."

If there were a contest for the Worst Prose to Appear in the New Yorker, the sentence above would surely be a contender. It appeared in a short Talk piece by Nick Paumgarten, who packs a mess of infelicities into a mere 23 words. The first comma is intrusive and the phrase "seemed not to have been" is wimpy and wordy, and then that "too suave of one" at the end sounds as graceful as a Tonka truck falling down a flight of stairs.

Who would say "too suave of one"? Begin with the sentence "He is not too suave a bachelor" and then replace "bachelor" with "one" and you get "He is not too suave a one," which sounds perfectly wretched, making me wonder why Paumgarten or his editor didn't simply recast the sentence in one of a number of ways:

Any bachelor who might have inhabited this place in the intervening decades was not too suave.
If a bachelor had inhabited this place in the intervening decades, he was not too suave.
If, in the intervening decades, someone had inhabited this place, he was not too suave a bachelor.

These sentences don't exactly thrill me but at least they don't fizzle out at the end. The next time one of my students insists on ending a sentence with the least significant word, I'll accuse him of pulling a Paumgarten.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Return to sender

The weather we've been experiencing lately seems to have been incorrectly addressed. These cool, damp days were clearly intended for the Pacific Northwest, where residents have been experiencing the clear skies and scorching heat clearly intended for Ohio. Perhaps we should set up some sort of Weather Exchange Program: meet in the middle and hand over the prisoners. With our luck, there would be a mix-up at the exchange point and we'd end up with Louisiana's weather. Ideally, our weather should mix with Oregon's and produce warmish temperatures and just enough rain to keep gardens happy in both locales.

If it rains again today, I'll be outside scribbling notes on all the raindrops: Return to Sender. If someone out in Oregon will do the same for all that excessive sunshine, maybe we'll get this mess straightened out.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Spammin' in Sticksville

I find it almost impossible to tell the story of my involvement in the radio Spam bake-off. For one thing, it all happened nearly 15 years ago and many of the finer details have faded into the dim and distant recesses of memory; for another, we were living in a wretched little town I'd rather not name because people there may still remember me, and while some of those people were pretty wonderful, others were not.

It was the kind of town--let's call it "Sticksville"--where nosy neighbors complained about "all those horrible weeds" growing beside our house, unaware that they were maligning a carefully tended bumper crop of horseradish and rhubarb; the town's most notable citizen (this is true) was the guy who invented the special blade used to transform potatoes into curly fries, and the highlight of my week might be taking the kids out to watch the highway department spread new asphalt.

The primary obstacle to proper storytelling, however, is the notable absence of all the elements that make a story interesting. Here it is in a nutshell: sometime in the early 1990's I appeared on a radio talk show in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as a panelist for a Spam bake-off, during which I uttered the memorable words, "Whatsa matta, Flash, cantcha cut it?" The story thus told is distinctly lacking in suspense, local color, and character development, but nevertheless the incident has earned a place of honor in our family's repertoire of oral narrative, along with the infamous teenaged Twinkie episode and the encounter with the pink toilet Buddha.

I suppose the best plan would be to begin at the beginning, but I'm not really sure exactly how I got involved in the radio Spam bake-off. I had called the radio station and made some sort of comment about a giant glowing lawn statue shaped like a can of Spam (don't ask me why) and it happened that the producers of the station's morning talk show were busily planning the Spam bake-off and needed participants. I was an unlikely choice because I cook with Spam about as often as I cook with styrofoam. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that Spam is food. Animal, vegetable, or mineral? No clue.

But I eagerly accepted the opportunity to appear at the station with a Spam dish hand, and I did it for one reason: payback. Specifically, I wanted to make a guy named Jeff laugh.

Let's admit right up front here that I never really knew much about Jeff besides the persona he projected on the radio, but one thing I knew was that Jeff could make me laugh any day of the week, and at the time I desperately needed to laugh. I was living, remember, in Sticksville, a small town Theodore Dreiser had lauded in his 1913 travel book A Hoosier Holiday. Dreiser liked the town's plentiful bars and convivial residents, but he didn't have to live there--and if he had lived there, he would have spent too much time in the bars to worry about putting rhubarb and horseradish in the ground.

I, on the other hand, was just a small-town housewife trying to make a name as a free-lance writer while caring for two small children and a parade of foster kids with various special needs, with no television reception or Internet connection and not a penny in my pocket. Most of the time I needed a laugh, and the radio was my lifeline to laughter, and Jeff was the radio host who threw me that lifeline.

Jeff picked me up out of the doldrums so many times that I was determined to repay him for his generosity: someday, I told myself, I will make Jeff laugh. But how? Enter the Spam show.

So I found a recipe involving Spam, chicken breasts, cream of mushroom soup, and sour cream, thus conveying the maximum of salt and fat with the minimum of nutrition in a no-fuss dish I would not make again even if someone promised me a lifetime supply of Spam, which really would not be all that much Spam anyway because one can is more than enough for my lifetime. Now a few days before I took my less-than-delicious dish down to the radio station, Jeff told a story on the air about an adolescent experience working at a grocery store where the nasal-voiced manager kept berating him with the words, "Whatsa matta, Flash, cantcha cut it?" I kept these words in the back of my mind as I made my way to the radio station, Spam dish in hand, and I waited patiently for the right moment. Five or six of us were gathered around a table in the recording studio nibbling on bits of Spam dishes and commenting on their salient qualities ("Tastes like insulation") when Jeff had a little difficulty finding the words to express his feelings for a particular dish. My moment had arrived: I leaned toward the microphone, assumed an obnoxious nasal voice, and said, "Whatsa matta, Flash, cantcha cut it?"

The only thing that could have made the results more gratifying would be if Jeff had actually managed to spew Spam from his nostrils. Payback: he made me laugh, I made him laugh. Account balanced.

If this were a better story there would be some moment of transcendence here, a bit of character development in which I discover a profound understanding of my responsibility toward the Spam workers of the world, but this story doesn't work that way. I went on the show, I made Jeff laugh, and I went home. I think I took the leftover Spam dish home but I don't remember whether anyone ate it. A few months later, Jeff was killed in a car crash and he never made me laugh again except in retrospect. Every once in a while I'll utter that magical phrase "Whatsa matta, Flash, cantcha cut it?" No one ever knows what I'm talking about, but deep inside I'm thinking of Jeff and the Spam show--and you'd better believe I'm laughing.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Neither here nor there

As the process of moving from one office to another has come to a sudden shrieking halt, I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, or perhaps a stink and a soft, sticky place. Here is the situation:

Last week the Powers That Be sent minions over to clear everything out of the Big Office in the Corner in preparation for painting and carpet replacement. I was told that I would be able to move into the Big Office this week just as soon as the carpet was done, so I dutifully started packing my things in cardboard boxes.

Now the painting is done and new ceiling tiles have been installed and the carpet is done...well, almost. Phase One (laying the carpet on the floor) is done; Phase Two, which involves attaching carpet strips partially up the walls in place of baseboards, will be done "soon." Maybe a week, maybe two. Anything we move back into the Big Office will have to be moved again when they come to finish the carpet, and of course I can't move any of the things from my office into the Big Office until it's all done.

So I have a choice: work in the Big Office, where there's basically nothing but a computer and the overwhelming odor of carpet glue, or work in the Old Office, where I'm surrounded by boxes which, thanks to the high moisture level throughout the building, smell like wet cardboard. The potted plant in the Old Office has sprouted a crop of mushrooms (!) but the glue smell in the Big Office makes the entire contents of my head come running out my nose.

I'm excited about moving into the Big Office, but it's not easy lingering in limbo. I'm working hard to prepare for my summer class and make the transition to my new position, but everything I need seems to be neither here nor there--which, for the immediate future, is where I can be reached.

Monday, June 26, 2006


This morning I discovered just how much respect my new position is worth on the open market when a student ended our brief phone conversation with the words "Bye, bitch."

It wasn't even a particularly angry conversation, just the usual blather about a departmental policy. I had even suggested two different legitimate ways for the student to bypass that policy, but that would have required a little bit of work on the student's part, so instead he opted for insult. Does he think I won't remember his name?

I work very hard to accomodate the needs of our students and in some respects I'm a bit of a pushover, but occasionally I have to draw a line in the sand and say "thus far and no further--unless you want to take the long way around and by the way, here's a handy map of the route." If this makes me a bitch, then I guess I just don't understand the meaning of the word.

The worst thing about it was that I couldn't think of anything to say in response--I was so stunned that I just sat there with my mouth open until the phone line went dead. In fact, I'm still stunned. Is this the price I have to pay for moving to the Big Office in the Corner? Or is this the new default mode for telephone conversation? Either way, I'm speechless.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Cliches to the rescue!

Since about 7:30 this morning the phrase "nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians" has been threatening to force its way out of my mouth, but so far I am resisting temptation. I am resolved to avoid using "nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians" to describe where I was this morning, no matter how appropriate the phrase may be. Nothing I encountered this morning will make me say it: not the winding country roads, not the gently rolling hills dotted with ramshackle farmhouses, not the sun shining pinkly on the mirror-like surface of the creek. Not even the road sign advertising "corn roast and computer repair" will induce me to utter the words "nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians," so if those words need to be said, someone else will have to say them.

I was driving through the aforementioned area at the crack of dawn in order to deliver the German kid to the bus that will take him home. Okay, the bus isn't taking him all the way to Germany; that would be a feat defying cliche. I took him to the bus that is taking him to the plane that is taking him home, and this required leaving the house at 5:30 a.m. (yes, another early Sunday wake-up call) and driving him two hours to a vocational school nestled in the you-know-what where we waited for the bus while contemplating the wisdom of a sign advertising "School of Cosmetology Restaurant." What do they do, style your hair while serving dessert? What if they mix up the hair mousse with the other kind? "Two eggs over easy and could you take just a little more off the back?"

Closer inspection revealed that the arrows following the words "School of Cosmetology" and "Restaurant" were pointing in two different directions, suggesting that they might not refer to the same establishment. This was disappointing as I was rather looking forward to seeing a wait staff handle hot rolls and hot rollers at the same time.

But it gave me something to think about besides the sorts of cliches that come to mind while saying goodbye to someone whose socks I've been washing for the past nine months. Everything I could say sounds as if it's been said a million times before: Thanks for the memories. We'll always have Paris. So long and thanks for all the fish. When words fail, I reach into the bag of cliches and pull out whatever comes to hand.

But then who listens to words when heartfelt hugs are on the agenda? In the end I was left standing in an empty parking lot with not so much as a sous chef to curl my mane. But that's what happens when you're nestled in the--Oh never mind.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Fighting against the current

I've just finished reading Anthony Doerr's novel About Grace, in which David Winkler performs an extreme about-face for fear he will harm his daughter and then years later performs another to find out about Grace. A hydrologist obsessed with the way the water cycle connects every part of the planet, Winkler excels in fighting against the current, taking the hardest route straight through obstacles and mostly uphill, but the final section is a thrilling joy-ride downhill all the way. It takes a bit of a slog to get to that section, however; a more focused middle would make the novel more compelling. Doerr's chief strengths are his lyrical prose style and his ability to infuse ordinary substances with extraordinary significance. In his short story "The Shell Collector," simple shells provide an opportunity for a reimagined incarnation; in About Grace, there's water,water, everywhere:

What were dreams? A ladle dipped, a bucket lowered. The deep, cool water beneath the bright surface; the shadow at the base of every tree.....

He would reach across the tablecloth; she might even let him take her hand. They'd talk about the malleability of time, about relativeity, about premonition. He'd tell her that he believed events could be foreseen, that a thousand choices were implicit in a single moment, that he had always loved her, even when he couldn't bear to, and that this, too, was prefigured and inevitable, burned into him, the way the six sides of a snow crystal were honecombed into its very atoms.

The luminous short stories collected in The Shell Collector hinted at Doerr's talent for seeing things slant, for making something brilliant and unexpected out of mundane material. About Grace has its memorably sparkling moments, but the intensity that suffused the story "The Shell Collector" is unsustained in this longer work. Still, About Grace invites readers to plunge into a weird watery world where floods threaten and snow falls and in the end the waves keep rolling in.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Take me home, country roads

People keep asking me how I can STAND that horrible commute, and I don't know how to answer. The only thing horrible about my commute is the opportunity it provides for people to nominalize the verb "commute."

I love my commute. As far as I'm concerned, it's just about perfect: short enough to avoid tedium and long enough to allow me to relax between work and home, to think up solutions to sticky problems, or to mentally compose blog entries. Before we moved into our little house in the not-so-big-woods, my commute was about 40 minutes each way, which felt onerous; now I drive 20 minutes when conditions are just right or maybe 30 if the traffic is thick (rarely) or the weather is bad. Even during the Big Flood, when half the roads between home and office were under water, the long way around took me about an hour, which I wouldn't want to do every day but it was better than sleeping in my office.

Traffic gets bad during fall color season, when my route is crawling with elderly drivers weaving all over the road while gazing fondly at the red and orange leaves. I drive through two school zones between home and work but I leave early enough to avoid the buses; the only other holdup occurs when there's an accident or road construction, and then I'm stuck. My route follows the river pretty closely, so the only way around obstacles is under water.

The river, of course, is the best part of my commute. Sometimes in the evening I'll be so preoccupied with the detritus of the day that I don't even notice the river, but there's a certain point a little over halfway home where the road swings around this long, sweeping turn to reveal an uninterrupted stretch of river surrounded by trees, meadows, and often a stunning sunset. (I've been told that the striking orange shade is a result of pollution from the power plant upstream, but I refuse to allow that fact to destroy my pleasure.) The river washes away my worries.

Unless, of course, the weather is really bad. I learned to drive in Florida and I still get nervous on snow and ice, and my van is virtually undriveable when the road is the least bit slick--the back end is always trying to swing up to the front to say Hello. So in winter I drive my husband's car, a 1991 Honda CRX that vibrates enough to shake the fillings out of my teeth and has a lousy radio to boot. That's the one time I'm not really fond of my commute, but in those conditions I wouldn't be fond of any commute. Snow and ice are reminders of mortality, and the right place to ponder mortality is at home in front of a roaring fire.

On a day like today, though, put me behind the wheel and let me drive.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Uneasy chair

As I plunge headlong into a new adventure--taking up the reins of power in my new position as department chair--I find myself asking questions I never dreamed of in my prior existence as a peon: "Where are all my pens? And who emptied this drawer? And hey, where is my faculty directory? I need to make some calls!"

Yes, I'm still in the process of moving, but the juggernaut of progress is stuck in neutral right now while myriad worker bees apply paint to the walls and carpet to the floors of the chair's office. Since I'm busy teaching, my daughter has been cleaning out my desk and packing up my books in preparation for the big move, which I appreciate very much except for the fact that now I don't know where my pens are, or my phone book, or any number of other things I haven't thought of yet, and even if I knew I couldn't get to them because my desk is surrounded by boxes. So far, being chair means not having a place to sit.

It also means answering a lot of questions, or actually the same questions over and over: "Why does my son have to take developmental English? He's a good writer! He just doesn't test well!" I have already developed a regular schtick for this one, a well-formed paragraph that pours fluidly out of my mouth as if I've been saying it all my life: "College writing is different from high school writing blah blah blah experience suggests that students with blah scores on the blah blah may required extra blah in order to succeed in blah...."

But the really annoying thing about being chair is that when I accomplish something really interesting, when I tackle a problem and bring it to its knees in submission, I can't talk about it. Yesterday and today, for instance, I worked diligently to find a creative solution to a pressing issue, but I can't write about it without violating people's privacy, so I have to keep it to myself. Can't even put it on my vita. You'll just have to take my word for it: today I rocked. I'd sign my name to that if I could find a pen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Life lessons

Things I have learned this week:

1. There is a limit to the number of habanero peppers I can chop without feeling as if I'm inhaling fire, and the number is well below the seven I chopped yesterday.

2. To persuade a wood tick to disengage its mouthparts from one's limb, nothing works better than Vicks Vapo-Rub.

3. One way to end up at the top of the list on Google is to use the word "Defunkify" in a blog posting. Debunkify debunkify debunkify.

4. It is possible to buy comfortable, attractive shoes in a ladies' size 10 wide, but not here. I recently drove 100 miles to buy such a pair of shoes because the local stores kept telling me, "We don't stock 10 wides. There's no demand for them." I kept saying, "If you want demand, I'm perfectly willing to be demanding." Apparently that's not the kind of demand they're looking for.

5. After all these years, I still don't know what to tell the haircutterperson. Yesterday I said, "Just a trim," and this new haircutterperson said, "Do you want anything off the length?" I was stymied: how does one trim hair without taking anything off the length? We had a brief and not very enlightening conversation and I ended up with a haircut that appears to be okay, although it's hard to tell just yet.

Monday, June 19, 2006


From A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes:

How do you turn catastrophe into art?

Nowadays the process is automatic. A nuclear plant explodes? We'll have a play on the London stage within a year. A President is assassinated? You can have the book or the film or the filmed book or the booked film. War? Send in the novelists. A series of gruesome murders? Listen for the tramp of the poets. We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen, this mad act of nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.

This would make more sense if that final line said "that's what art is for," but I'm not sure exactly why. I'd rather try to answer the question "What is art for?" than "What is catastrophe for?" And even then it would depend on whether we're talking about man-made catastrophes (murders, terrorist acts) or natural catastrophes. "What is an earthquake for" raises questions about the existence of God and the problem of pain, but "What is mass murder for?" seems a ridiculous question, suggesting that terrorism fulfills some natural purpose on the planet; how could both questions possibly have identical answers? I'm scratching my head over this one.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Wake-up calls

Today's infestations: ants, cows. The ants were winged, and I found them swarming all over the patio at 5:15 a.m. when I returned from dropping one of the young men off for a youth group bus trip to Myrtle Beach. The patio looked alive with untold numbers of ants scrambling over everything in their path, including my hiking boots, which I often leave out on the patio to dry off after a hike. The boots looked as if they'd suddenly sprouted glossy black wriggling tresses, not something I particularly feel like putting on my feet. The only way to get back into the house was to walk directly through the swarm, and a few of the ants followed me inside, where the resident dad was awakened very early to an urgent request for his pest eradication skills.

The cow infestation waited until after breakfast, when I was washing up the Father's Day breakfast dishes and noticed a cow standing where no cow had any right to stand. Then there was another cow and another--six or eight total; they were too busy gambolling about to submit to an accurate count. The resident dad put through a wake-up call to the neighbors, who averred that these couldn't be THEIR their cows but that they would go take a look and see whose cows they might be. We left for church to the sound of a four-wheeler zipping up the road to deal with the bovine infestation.

I suspect that few dads want to wake up on Father's Day to face an infestation of pests, but for a tough job, a little Dad'll do ya.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Deconfusify me, please!

We were driving out in the middle of nowhere when we saw a big orange billboard plastered with giant letters spelling out "Debunkify." That's all it said. I have no idea what this means, and now I'm wondering whether it's a reference to some new pop-cultural trend that I've somehow entirely overlooked. Did some world leader utter this word on a day when I was too busy to read the paper, or is it a reference to a film that will never show out here in the sticks? Maybe "Debunkify" is the next Macarena!

We expect to see peculiar things while driving across our little corner of the world: a sign in front of a grocery store proclaiming "We've Gone Fruity!" and another advertising a fish hatchery and llama farm. (Do they feed the dead fish to the llamas or vice versa?) We saw signs marking No-Name Road and Vista View Drive, and at a campground we saw a set of gigantic hippie dumpsters painted with immense psychedelic flowers on a hot pink background, as if a garbage truck had mated with the Partridge Family's bus and produced offspring.

All those things I can understand, but I'm befuddled by "Debunkify." I think it's time to phone a friend, but after spending most of the last two days in the car, I'm exhausted. My debunkification skills went wandering down No-Name Road and I'm still waiting for them to catch up. Meanwhile, I'll believe any fool thing anyone tells me. Try me and see.

Friday, June 16, 2006

One for the reject pile

I was trying to read a resume featuring more funky fonts than a circus poster and I felt kind of sorry for the guy. Someone ought to tell him that his typographic experimentation makes him look silly. If I'm trying to whittle 70 applications down to three promising finalists, I'm looking for reasons to reject applications, and while those reasons are usually fairly substantive, I'm unlikely to struggle through a resume that's almost impossible to read. Somewhere out there is a guy who's not getting jobs and he doesn't have a clue why, and someone ought to tell him: forget the funky fonts. You're a professional, not a circus act.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Guilty as charged

"With a few words she can incite an epiphany."

This sentence appeared among the comments on my student evaluations for the spring semester. I'd like to hang it up where I can read it every day as a sort of antidote to the despair that follows more common comments like "Too much reading in this class" (It's a literature class! Reading is what we do!) or "She didn't give me an outline for my paper" (That's because it's your paper and not mine!).

I like to think of myself as an inciter of epiphanies. If someone ever hauls me in front of a judge to plead to the charge of Inciting Epiphanies, I will happily proclaim, "Guilty, guilty, guilty!"--yes, even if the punishment requires teaching literature to students who would not recognize an epiphany if it jumped up and bit them, which, when you think about it, is pretty much what epiphanies do. I would be happy to have the phrase "Inciter of Epiphanies" engraved on my tombstone, although not right away if that's okay--I need to spend a few more years inciting epiphanies before facing that Final Epiphany. From now on, when a student complains that it's just not FAIR to be penalized for missing 12 classes or that her life is so busy there's no WAY she can ignore her cell phone long enough to pay attention to my class, I'll just sigh deeply and flex my epiphany-inciting muscles. When epiphanies start busting out all over, I'll know my work here is done.

Princess of the pelmets

I see in the papers that the late Princess Margaret's valuables are being auctioned off in London, including her "diamond-studded wedding tiara" and "the neo-classical pelmets from her bedroom." I don't know what a pelmet is or how to distinguish a neo-classical pelmet from a spotted or herbaceous pelmet, but I do wonder at the decision to sell the diamond tiara. A report on NPR stated that the late Princess's heirs do not need tiaras, but clearly these people are not thinking clearly. Every woman needs a tiara, if not diamond-studded then certainly rhinestone-bejemmed or sequin-bedazzled. The tiara may spend most of its life stashed in a dark closet, but the knowledge that it's available is what matters most. A tiara is like a tire jack or a shrimp deveiner: most of the time you're not even aware it exists--but when you need it, nothing else will do.

My tiara is fairly flimsy, a sparkly sequinned confection designed for someone with a much smaller head. I occasionally wear it with a Barbie-pink feather boa and matching magic wand in my role as the Semicolon Fairy. I don't wear them for long because the tiara hurts and the boa sheds little pink feathers everywhere, but nothing else in my wardrobe creates the same impression. Last Halloween I wore the ensemble in an early morning class, inspiring one my students to shake his head and say, "That's just frightening."

I've been tempted to wear the tiara and boa at graduation--it can't possibly be any more uncomfortable than full regalia--but so far I lack the courage. If I had Princess Margaret's diamond-studded tiara, though, I might be more willing--and if I could add some neo-classical pelmets to the ensemble, now that would be a graduation to remember.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Summertime and the teaching is easy

"You always seem so relaxed after your evening class," my daughter said, and she has a point: I come home from that class so mellow I could ooze under the door. Why?

Last time I taught an evening class, one of my students wrote on the evaluation form that the class made him seriously consider suicide, and I could not agree with him more. I suppose my students learned a few things in that class, but I learned only that I should never teach evening classes. Of course there were a few differences: that was a three-hour class that met at the end of a day on which I started teaching at 9 a.m. and finished at 10 p.m., so by the time that class started, I was already pooped. This summer class, on the other hand, meets for two and a half hours two evenings a week on days I have spent lounging on the deck with a good book, watching birds, or fiddling around in my office. When I start the class relaxed, it's not so difficult to remain that way.

And then there's the size of the class. My previous evening class was so big it was easy for students to hide in the back, and I never managed to learn all their names. This class has nine students enrolled but three of them rarely show up, so the rest of us sit around a table in a dim, cavelike seminar room and talk about great literature. What's not to love?

The subject matter makes a big difference too. My previous evening class focused on film, which is not my primary area of specialization.Film is fun, but when I teach literature, I draw from a much deeper well of knowledge and insight. Besides, I taught the film class in a room equipped with a high-tech projection system designed by someone with Play-Doh for brains: in order to show a video (this is true), I had to get on my hands and knees and crawl under the desk, and once I got down there I couldn't read the labels on the little VCR buttons. Any class that regularly forces me into such an undignified position in front of my students is going to be the antithesis of relaxing.

At the end of that semester, I vowed never to teach an evening class again--and yet here I am, spending two evenings a week grappling with great literature and loving it. I think my students are enjoying it too. Are they learning anything? We'll find out next week when the first papers are due; meanwhile, I'll just relax.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Three-alarm lunch

Big mistake: onion rings for lunch today. They were yummy, but I went straight from lunch to assisting incoming freshman with registration, and then straight from there to getting ready to teach my evening class. My mouth now tastes like I've been chewing on dirty sweatsocks. This is a job for Altoids! Hope I don't make my class faint dead away just by opening my mouth. Maybe I'll just sit up front smiling and nodding while the students do the talking. If nothing else, it'll be a quick class.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Highway harmonics

My son and I have been making beautiful music together this afternoon, which is unusual since neither one of of can carry a tune. We can, however, carry an extension ladder, and that's how we discovered our new musical talent. We bought the ladder as a top-secret Father's Day surprise (so don't whisper a word to anyone!) and brought it home strapped tightly to the top of the van. The music didn't start until we hit about 45 mph, but as we went faster, the sound got more intense. By "intense" I mean unbearable. Acting like a giant harmonica, the ladder made a piercing whine in several incompatible pitches that at one point drove me to put both hands over my ears. Fortunately, I was not driving at the time.

I suppose the obvious solution would be to drive slowly, but it's difficult to drive under 45 on the interstate so we decided to make the best of it. I wanted to apologize to the people in the cars zipping past, but then again I've never received any kind of apology from people who drive cars with no mufflers or with subwoofers turned loud enough to peel the asphalt off the road.

What if everyone drove around with shrieking ladders on top of their cars? It might make residential areas uninhabitable, but perhaps large parks or preserves could be set aside where the multitudes could practice their automotive harmonics. Take a few dozen cars with ladders of various sizes strapped on top and let them loose in the middle of the desert--and then let the beautiful music to begin.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


I knew I'd been spammed when I received a series of simultaneous comments at around 3 a.m. all saying something like "Great site! Lots of usefull information!" Useful information? What kind of demented, spelling-challenged person is trolling my blog at 3 a.m. in hopes of finding useful information? What kind of useful information do they think they're finding? I can't even tell them how to get a skunk out from under the sanctuary.

Then I noticed that the comments came with links to online gambling sites. My first comment spam! I suppose I should be pleased that my blog has finally attracted enough readers to be worthy of spam, but I don't want gambling links on my blog any more than I want a casino in my back yard. So off it goes and on goes Word Verification. No more comment spam! Which leaves more room to talk about the other kind. Someday the world will be ready for the story of the infamous Radio Spam Bake-Off and "What's the matter, Flash, can'tcha cut it?" That sort of useless information is my bread and butter; those who prefer useful information will just have to find it elsewhere.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Day tripper

I've been trying to recreate the unusual series of events that led to my spending nearly two hours traveling roughly 15 miles (parts of it more than once) before 10:30 this morning. As far as I can recall, my thought processes ran something like this:

I'm traveling down a busy state highway in my van when suddenly there's a sound like the end of the world and steering gets difficult. Flat tire? Better pull over, but where? The shoulder is narrow and beyond the shoulder is the river. I limp around a curve and see just ahead beside the highway a chiropractor's office. I've never stopped to think why a chiropractor might have located his office roughly midway between two blink-or-you'll-miss-'em little towns, but right now I'm grateful for his parking lot. Sure enough, the left front tire is defunct, but fortunately I'm only about 8 miles from home. Now all I need is a phone.

Why would a chiropractor's office be closed on Fridays? Does back pain get a three-day weekend? No answer at the door nor at any of the houses in easy walking distance. Is everyone at work or are they just afraid to open their doors to a stranger who looks frighteningly like an English professor? Are they afraid I'll correct their grammar? I could wait here for hours before anyone wonders where I've gone, so I'd better start hoofing it--but which way?

If I go downriver, I know there's a gas station within maybe two miles--but a big chunk of the trip is straight up a steep hill. If I go back upriver, the nearest little hamlet is a good five miles, but it's all level ground--and maybe I'll find someone at home at one of the few houses along the highway. Upriver it is, then.

You know, it was just two days ago, as I was driving some young people to the Big City for serious shopping, that I commented on how common flat tires were in my childhood and how rarely I encounter them today.Now here I am hiking along a busy state highway in the summer heat because I would rather not change my own flat. I suspect that even WonderWoman could not loosen a lug nut that has been tightened by the resident lug-nut-tightener, and besides, the spare tire is located in some mysterious rust-intensive area under the car and I'm not dressed for lying supine on dirty asphalt. Kind of a bad time to be wearing white pants.

Plenty of traffic on the road. Walking along the edge of a busy highway is not nearly so restful as strolling along our meandering country road. I hear a woodpecker nearby but I can't take my eyes off the road long enough to ask it if it has a cell phone. No luck at any of the houses. Where is everyone? Probably safely ensconced in cars whizzing past at 55 mph. Three Chrysler minivans driving in tight formation: is that an omen? Of what? A few drivers wave in a friendly manner, but if they're so friendly, why am I still walking?

I reckon I've walked about a mile and a half (and later I confirm this estimation) when finally I see a sign of life: a man with a hoe working in the healthiest looking garden I've seen this season. Surely someone capable of producing cabbages that big this early in the year would be acquainted with modern technology. I'm just about to cross the highway to accost him when a woman in biker shorts goes zipping past on a touring bike. "Want a lift?" she calls out, jokingly. Immediately I lift my hand to my ear in the universal gesture signifying "telephone." She stops and pulls out a cell phone. Rescued at last!

My knight in shining armor is just stepping out of the shower when I call, so it takes him a little while to get to the van, time I spend walking aerobically back downstream. The next phase in my whole-body workout involves cranking up the jack (quarter turn, quarter turn, switch, quarter turn, quarter turn, switch, repeat) and loosening and then tightening lugnuts. Tools are inexplicably missing and the bracket that holds the spare tire is a bit cranky, but eventually I'm on the road again, ready to start the day just a few hours later than expected--and with the dirtiest hands I've ever seen. Where is the nearest rest room? Time to head downriver again, but this time I'm not making the trip on foot.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bulletin board break-up

Today I took the first tiny step toward moving out of my office: I cleared my bulletin board and put away all the cartoons, weird news items, and bits of poetry. The board itself, rarely noticed beneath the welter of stuff stuck to it, looks like a giant Shredded Wheat biscuit nailed to the wall. "Cover me!" it cries out, but I won't do it. It's time to ignore its pleas and move on.

My new office (aka The Big Office) won't have a bulletin board right outside the door, and this worries me. My current office (soon to be my old office) is small and cosy and welcoming, and students and colleagues seem to enjoy stopping by to chat. The Big Office is like a cave complete with a guard stationed just outside the door: the English department secretary. She's not a particularly scary secretary, but still, no one will get to my door without walking past her desk. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing.

And then there is the bulletin board issue. My bulletin board is like an external blog, except I post new things up there only once a week on Friday mornings. It has developed a loyal following; if it's 10 a.m. Friday and I haven't taken down the old stuff and replaced it with new, students start hovering outside my door like starving hounds waiting to be tossed chunks of raw meat. The bolder ones ask whether I need some help changing the board, and sometimes I do.

I'm trying not to envision what will happen next fall when a newly hired prof will take over my office. He's a wonderful guy and we're happy to have him but I don't know his policy re: bulletin boards. Will he be hounded every Friday by a horde of salivating students? Or will they hunt me down instead? How disappointed will they be when they see that my office is set back into a corner, protected by a secretary, and suffering from a lack of bulletin boards? There is a great big bulletin board out in the hall, but it's for official departmental notices and not for frivolous New Yorker cartoons or news stories about stupid criminals or poems about professors who fall on their faces. What will happen to my adoring fans?

Meanwhile, my naked bulletin board seems to be looking at me reproachfully. "Take me with you," it pleads, and I'd like to comply but it's just not possible. When a relationship is over, it's best to just turn and walk away; long break-ups just prolong the pain. Someday I'll walk by and see my bulletin board covered with someone else's scraps of paper and then I'll know that the healing has begun. Until then, I avert my eyes and cover my ears and move on.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

These shoes are made for running

Today I watched a young mom try to coax two little girls into the middle of a fountain, the kind with water jets that spray playfully up from the ground in changing patterns. The tiny girls in pink swimsuits hovered on the edge chattering with delight but wouldn't set foot in the fountain despite Mom's pleas: "Run! Go on! You can do it! I'll be waiting right here!" Finally, Mom took them by the hand and ran through the water with them. That was all it took: soon they were running wild, splashing and stomping and squealing with glee, but always running back to Mom.

Instantly I saw an image of my daughter running down the center line of our road, her long hair swinging back and forth as she disappeared around the next long curve. We had gone for a long walk and since my pace was a little slow on the uphills, we agreed that she would run on ahead and double back to me. It seemed a sensible enough plan, but as she disappeared around the corner, I was suddenly struck with a sense of our aloneness. That section of road runs through thickly wooded hillsides suffused with the scent of honeysuckle and with no houses in sight; evening was falling and the birds were making jungly sounds in the trees. I started to think of the stray dogs that wander our road and the stray rednecks who roar by in rusted pickup trucks. Don't go, I wanted to call out to her. Come back!

But I didn't. She's a smart chick, I reminded myself, and a tough one too--and besides, she's carrying two five-pound weights with which, if necessary, she could fight off strays of the canine or human variety. She's really quite safe, I told myself. Really. But I picked up the pace until I rounded the curve and saw her triumphant, hands held high, dancing for joy in the middle of the road. She had reached her goal and was on her way back to me, for a while anyway.

Next time the goal might be farther away, the risks greater, but I'll still watch her run, hair swinging behind her, as she makes her way around the next long curve. Run, I want to say. Go on! You can do it!

I'll be waiting right here.

Monday, June 05, 2006

News nixes worry with flurry of factoids

You know you live in the sticks when not worrying about the date qualifies as front-page news.

"Many not worried over hexing date 6-6-6," screams the bold black headline on the front page of today's local paper. Good to know that something I have spent much of my life doing--namely, not worrying about the date--is important enough to merit front-page coverage. After reading the article, though, I wonder whether I'm working hard enough at not worrying about the date. Apparently, there's an awful lot to not worry about.

For instance, this: "The 06-06-06 date that has Hollywood and all those who pay attention to it buzzing around, has stirred questions over whether the world will experience some apocalyptic event or if the religious significance of the date will come clear this week." This sentence offers plenty of things to worry about; for instance, what is the "it" that "all those" are paying attention to? Hollywood? The date? Who or what is "buzzing around"? Hollywood? The date? "It"? I worry about these things.

The article goes on to inform me that "Web sites are taking bets with 10 to 1 odds that something will happen." This fact, if true, is deeply worrying. I've never bought a lottery ticket in my life but even I would be willing to lay down my savings on the chance that "something" will happen tomorrow. For instance, I have it on good authority that the sun'll come up tomorrow--bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun. That's "something."

Next, the article lists several (precisely two) ominous factoids suggesting that whatever that "something" is, we'd better be worried: 1) the impending release of the remake of the movie The Omen, which makes me worry once again about Hollywood's alarming willingness to recycle mediocrity; and 2) the statement that "Books about God and society are hitting shelves." Now that's worrying. You just know that when books about "God and society" start multiplying, all heck is about to break loose.

Surely the clergy should be up in arms about this alarming trend, but no. According to the article, local clergy are "smirking at what many of them say is the next Y2K silliness." The clergypersons in my circle aim for that avuncular look combining compassion, concern, and gentle optimism; they must get the smirks beaten out of them in seminary, which raises the question: where did the news reporter find all those smirking clergypersons? Perhaps they're not real clergypersons at all but impostors infiltrating the local churches as part of some vast worldwide conspiracy--yes, and smirking is the secret sign marking membership in their nefarious brotherhood! If this is true, we'll never know unless Dan Brown writes a book about it; until then, there's no point in worrying about it.

The article reports that one local priest "said he hadn't even heard anything about the lurking date," which makes me worry about how, exactly, a date might be said to "lurk." It's not as if it can put on a trenchcoat, pull a hat low over its eyes, and loiter in darkened alleyways awaiting the chance to jump out at unsuspecting passersby. I mean, tomorrow's date is right there on the calendar in broad daylight, making no attempt to sneak up on anyone. When that sort of behavior constitutes "lurking," I'll start to worry.

Another local pastor, says the article, "pays little mind to things that he interprets as mere symbolism and philosophy," which covers an immense range of stuff not to worry about, but I'm so grateful that the pastor didn't adopt Dan Brown's "religious symbology" that I refuse to worry about the extent of this pastor's trouble-free philosophy.

Later, though, this same pastor's views are paraphrased thus: "his advice to people who fear the end is near should focus more on their life." I'm worried about the absence of any noun suitable to serve as the subject for "should focus" in this sentence. His advice should focus? People should focus? My advice to people who write front-page newspaper articles is that they should focus more on avoiding faulty predication and less on writing incoherent articles full of idle speculation. Let Hollywood and "all those who pay attention to it" worry about the date; I'll worry about the prevalence of bad journalism. It's a tough job but someone's got to do it--and clearly it won't be the local newspaper. It's too busy not worrying about the date.

Open wide and say Aaaaaaaahh

This morning as I walked to my car I saw, not ten feet in front of my face, an adult downy woodpecker feeding its young. The young bird, fat and fluffy and entirely trusting, sat on the bar of the birdfeeder with its mouth hanging open for more while my mouth was hanging open for awe, if awe can properly describe what one feels while watching a wild creature regurgitate into another wild creature's gullet.

I felt a bit like regurgitating myself, as I always do when a medical professional promises "You won't feel a thing. Just a little discomfort. Maybe just a slight pinch and some burning afterward. Trust me." This morning I trusted my dentist to remove an annoying redundant flap of flesh from my upper lip. I've lived with this thing all my life without ever once being told it should be removed, but my dentist finally persuaded me to get rid of it. "It's probably harmless," he said, "But every time you smile it looks like a nipple hanging from your upper lip." I couldn't get this image out of my mind and so away it went, the fibroid thing with the impressive Latin name I can't seem to recall right now, whisked away with the aid of a laser that felt like hundreds of tiny birds pecking hungrily at my lip. I'd like to take my new smile for a test drive but it's a bit tender at the moment. Just a little discomfort. A slight pinch with some burning afterward. Nothing to worry about. Trust me.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The scent of holiness

There's a frequent visitor to our church and everyone agrees that he stinks. Or she, as the case may be--so far no one has managed to get close enough to determine the visitor's gender. It's kind of difficult to properly welcome a visitor who adds a certain distinct tang to the service but insists on hiding under the sanctuary during daylight hours .

A skunk is what we have, or perhaps skunks. Apparently the crawl-space under the sanctuary is an ideal nesting place for a mother skunk nurturing young 'uns; this morning the chair of the church board kindly invited me to crawl in there and find out for myself, but since my experience with skunks has been limited to road kill, I deferred that pleasure to someone more, um, qualified.

Unlike many other problems facing today's churches, a skunk under the sanctuary cannot be ignored, nor would it do any good to appoint a committee to study the matter and come up with five bullet points and a new creed. I'm not aware of any clear Biblical guidelines regarding skunks--there's no "suffer the little vermin to come under the sanctuary and forbid them not," so it's difficult to answer the question What Would Jesus Do? The Wesleyan quadrilateral is no more helpful, and the Methodist Social Principles wisely steer clear of the controversial topic of poison vs. traps. Suppose we kill the skunk; then we're left with a dead skunk under the sanctuary, and I doubt that a dead skunk would smell any less pungent than a live one. But then suppose we trap it: we will then have a trap full of angry skunk, not something you'd want to deal with while dressed in your church clothes.

I suppose the Christian thing to do is to turn the other cheek, to live and let live, to peacefully coexist with all God's creatures. If you sincerely believe that, send me your address--I'd be glad to send you a skunk by parcel post. Be careful opening the package, though; by the time he gets there he'll be very, very angry.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Up with the yeast

I was trying to explain why our alarm clock typically rings before 5:00 on Saturday mornings and I found myself saying, "My husband gets up with the cows to get ready for the Farmers' Market." This is not, however, strictly true. For one thing, we don't have cows. Our neighbors have cows and our creek sometimes smells vaguely cow-intensive, but cows are not our thing. Clearly, I need a new metaphor to describe exactly what the resident farmer is doing at 5 a.m. on a Saturday--and sometimes earlier.

This morning, for instance, he was up at 3 a.m. to murder yeast organisms. Millions of squeaky little yeast voices could be heard begging for their lives: "No! Not the oven! Anything but the oven!" But a man with the strength of character to get up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday to bake a dozen loaves of bread is unlikely to be swayed by the heartfelt pleas of a host of microscopic organisms.

Later in the season it might be corn, squash, or okra that gets him up so early in the morning, but right now while the garden is still snoozing it's just bread. Next time someone asks about our bizarre schedule I'll say, "You have to get up with the cows to murder the yeast." They'll smile brightly and move away briskly, nodding all the while.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

I can see clearly now

"He put in a window today."

The words appeared in the middle of a muddle of mundane accomplishments--mulching the berry patch, mowing the meadow, and by the way, he put in a window today--but to me they sounded like magic.

"He" is our new contractor, who replaces our old contractor, who became our old contractor due to circumstances which will form the centerpiece of impending legal action involving, among other things, the lengthy non-appearance of windows. Since last July windows have frequently been promised "soon" or "next week" or "first thing in the morning," but until today no windows ever appeared, and indeed for the past six months our old contractor has neither appeared nor responded to our phone calls to explain the lack of windows, which lack has allowed a variety of woodland creatures to inhabit a structure not intended for their use.

It was a relief, really, to dump the old contractor and hire a new one, but even the new contractor led us to believe that he wouldn't have much time to devote to the project for another month or two. Instead, he put in a window today. Just one out of several, but he expects to put in the second set tomorrow, a lovely big picture window with a sash window on each side. The windows look out on nothing but woods and sky and meadow but they offer the promise that one day the room will be finished, a year later than expected and way over budget. At last we can see an end to the project and the beginning of a new stage of life that will include windows, storage space, a guest room, and, finally, a garage.

He put in a window today, and through it I can see the future.

Boundless blah-ugh

Yesterday a Renowned Writing Expert told me he would be more interested in blogs if they had a different name. "Blog" sounds like a collision between "blah" and "ugh," words that accurately describe some blogs (not this one, I hope, but I'm not the best judge of that):

"blah" = endless pompous blathering intended to reveal to readers how Terribly Clever I am
"ugh" = endless intimate details intended to reveal to readers what a Fun Party Person I am

"blah" + "ugh" = all the blogs I hate to read

What are the alternatives? "Online journal" would inevitably be abbreviated as "onjo," which sounds jaunty and foreign and banjo-intensive and not at all like a forum for profound thought. Then there's "electronic diary," which would become "e-di," which is clearly the name of a deadly bacillus used in chemical warfare. "Computer-Assisted Space for Compulsive Communicators" leads to CASCC, which suggests a fruitless search for Amontillado followed by eternal imprisonment in a cobwebby sub-basement where cries for help only bounce off the walls.

I hate to tell my Renowned Writing Expert friend, but no matter how it sounds, we're stuck with "blog" so we'd better get over it. On the other hand, perhaps the best way to inspire a more euphonious name is to produce a blog that moves beyond blah-ugh.