Sunday, July 30, 2006

Reader challenge: postcards from the edge

The sound you are about to hear is among the loveliest in the universe, but if you're not paying attention you'll miss it:

There. Did you hear it? You'd better get used to it because it's all you'll hear from me for the next few days.

Yes, we are going away. Some of us, anyway. My summer class is done and I have a week to relax before I need to work on fall classes, so the he-man and I are easing on down the road and not taking the laptop with us. Or the children. Let us not forget to forget the children.

Any loyal fans suffering from withdrawal are invited to engage in a vacation-related reader challenge: imagine that your travel agent has accicentally sent you on the Vacation from Hell; your challenge is to write a postcard message designed to make your friends and family envy your amazing luck. Use no more than 50 words, please, and you get extra credit if the message is in verse.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Riveting questions

"Middle East fighting rivits attention locally" screams the headline on the front page of the local paper. After suffering a brief bout of confusion in which I envisioned a football team called the Middle East Fighting Rivits, I came up with just a few questions for the editor:

1. Is the copyeditor on vacation or does someone down there actually think there's a verb spelled "rivits"?

2. Disregarding the spelling error, did anyone over there attempt to mentally envision the action described in "fighting rivets attention"? Does anyone down there actually know what a rivet is?

3. Is this news? Yes, I know that the fighting in the Middle East is news, but when you ask a random group of non-expert local residents what they think of the news, what you get is at best meta-news and at worst drivel.

4. Why is this on the front page? The article eschews facts in favor of opinion and commentary; surely such a piece belongs on an opinion page rather than on page one.

Maybe I'm just being picky. I ought to focus on what the article does well and ignore the rest--but unfortunately, it's hard to do that when my attention is riveted to "rivits."

Friday, July 28, 2006

Magoo and me

So we were watching this very lame episode of Monk when my daughter asked, "Who's Mr. Magoo?" I fumbled and stumbled around for an answer, wandering up blind alleys and banging into hidden obstacles until I finally realized: I am Mr. Magoo. When it comes to trying to produce for my daughter an image of that iconic character, all I can do is take a wild shot in the dark and trust blindly that it will reach its mark.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The other side of clock-watching

There was a time and a lovely time it was when the rules were very clear: students sitting in class awaiting the arrival of a professor waited 15 minutes for a Ph.D. and 10 for someone with a Master's degree. Other types of credentials did not enter into the scheme.

Now I'm on the other end of the equation and I don't know what the rules are. How long am I supposed to wait for a student to show up for an important appointment? Should I distinguish between reliable students and the habitually tardy? Should I tolerate a longer wait on a dull day and a shorter waiting on a busy day? Does it matter how badly I'm itching to get out of the office? What about the weather?

If I establish a policy on waiting, will I just be enabling the irresponsible to remain that way? But if I don't establish a policy on waiting, how do I know when to quit?

I'm waiting for answers...but I don't know how long.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Next Big Thing

I've just been putting the finishing touches on a scholarly article and I realized that when this is done, I'll be at the end of all my current writing projects. For the first time since grad school, I don't have half a dozen undone essays and articles awaiting my attention. In the past 12 months I've published two articles and a pile of reviews, presented three conference papers, and written the article I'll send off at the end of the week. This burst of activity represents the culmination of years of research, reading, and writing, so it feels like the end of something big, but the question remains: what next? What is the Next Big Thing in my writing life? I have a few options:

1. These last two scholarly articles opened up an area of inquiry I find stimulating and challenging. I could pursue some of those ideas in greater depth in some other essays and eventually cobble them together into a book proposal.

2. What about a textbook? I've been sharing pedagogical ideas and materials with colleagues for years and it's possible that there's a market for more. I find the possibility of writing a textbook proposal rather intimidating, but others have done it so why can't I?

3. I've been fiddling with a fiction project for a few years and one of these days I'll have to finish it. So far, though, I've had no success in publishing the pieces that are complete, which suggests that this ought to be a secondary project rather than the Next Big Thing.

The resident he-man, who has always had more confidence in my writing ability than I have, keeps asking me, "Why don't you just write a best-seller?" To which I always want to respond, "Okay, and why don't you just go out and save the world?" It's not easy to know what to write when there are so many possibilities, all of them both fascinating and daunting. After I send off the current article, I suppose I ought to just sit back and breathe deeply for a few days, but then it'll be time to take the plunge. If I end up floundering around, I just hope someone on shore will toss me a rope.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shopping Challenged

With the men of the house spending the week at band camp (lucky guys!), we women have been planning to do some girl stuff, but we're running into difficulties. We'd like to shop til we drop, for instance, but there are obstacles.

First, we need to shop for birthday gifts for the young man who will turn 17 next week, but he's not cooperating. For weeks now I've been asking him what he wants for his birthday, but he keeps saying, "I don't know." When I push and hint and try to finagle an answer out of him, all he'll say is "I'm content." How do you wrap that up and put a bow on it?

I've also been trying to shop for a new briefcase, but I'm not sure I'm ready for that kind of commitment. I'm moving fairly smoothly through the five stages of grief, from denial through anger, bargaining, and depression, but I'm not quite ready for acceptance yet. I thought shopping for a new briefcase would help me cope with the loss of the old one, but it just introduced new difficulties: I fell in love with a gorgeous leather briefcase that does everything I want a briefcase to do....except it costs $370. I am already thinking of it as "my" briefcase even though all I'm entitled to at the moment are periodic visitations at the leather store in town.

So for the moment we are Shopping Challenged, but I don't expect that situation to last long. Tomorrow we'll head for the mall and try to get inspired. There must be something there that can satisfy an overly contented adolescent, and maybe I'll prove fickle and fall in love with a more affordable briefcase.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The story and everything that sticks to it

It was back in February, I think, that I finished the first volume of Javier Marias's three-volume work Your Face Tomorrow and immediately went to Amazon to order the second volume. Since then I've had five months to wonder who was waiting at the narrator's door on that rainy night, and at one point my Marias withdrawal was so severe that I couldn't stop myself from reading the first volume again.

Now, finally, the second volume has arrived and I am once again suffering from Marias withdrawal. I had intended to read slowly and let the experience last a bit longer, but no: I devoured the whole thing over the weekend, and now I'm eagerly awaiting Volume Three, which isn't even listed on Amazon yet. If I can't read Marias right now, at least I can write about him.

So far the books evince a certain symmetry: Volume One opens with a warning against speaking and Volume Two with a warning against listening; Volume One ends with the narrator in his apartment looking out the window toward the person waiting in the street, while Volume Two ends with the narrator in the street looking up at the window of his apartment. I'm not certain what Marias is suggesting with these structural symmetries or where he will take them in Volume Three.

Marias's prose has been described as Proustian in that any mundane moment may open out into complex webs of interconnected ideas. "[E]verything immediately grows longer or becomes tangled or adhesive, as if every action carries within itself its own prolongation and every phrase leaves a thread of glue hanging in the air, a thread that can never be cut without something else becoming sticky too," he writes in the first part of Volume Two. This stickiness of storytelling extends even to the multiplication of synonyms, as Marias's narrator, a translator, constantly tries out a range of words for each action or idea, as if unwilling to settle on a single word or as if even the entire Thesaurus would be inadequate to express the nuances of meaning he struggles to convey:

Tupra did not tend to talk much about his private life, at least not directly or in narrative form (he very rarely told stories, or even anecdotes; on the other hand, he was more than ready to listen to them), he did so only through vague remarks and hints and occasional comments, which, apparently unintentionally, alluded to past experiences from which he liked to extract laws and deductions, or, rather, inductions and possible rules of behavior and character, or, rather, cast-iron, set-in-stone rules, according to his absorbent and appreciative eyes which could take in at a single glance a whole area or a place packed with people, a restaurant, a disco, a casino, a pool hall, an elegant reception room, the foyer of a grand hotel, a royal function, an opera, a pub, a boxing match, a racetrack and, were it not a flagrant exaggeration, I would even say a football stadium, Chelsea's Stamford Bridge.

If sometimes it feels as if Marias is trying to feed readers the dictionary, it at least it makes a delicious meal.

What all this multiplication of stories within stories covers up is a silence, an absence, something untold but essential hiding behind all the words. In a novel about the dangers of speaking and listening, Marias requires many words even to describe silence:

But the blank page is the best of all, the most eternally believable and the most revealing, precisely because it is never finished, on it there is eternally room for everything, even for denials; and, therefore, what the page might or might not say (because in a world of infinite talk--simultaneous, superimposed, contradictory, constant, exhausting, and inexhaustible--even when a page says nothing, it is saying something) could be believed at any time, not just during its one time to be believed, which, sometimes, lasts no time at all, a day or only a few fatal hours, and at others for a very long time indeed, a century, even several, and then it is not fatal at all because there is no one to check if the belief is true or false, and, besides, no one cares when everything is balanced out.

This passage, in fact, may hold the key to Volume Three. Given Marias's demonstrated desire to put on the page both the story and everything that sticks to it, and given his statement here that only the blank page has room for everything, perhaps Volume Three will consist entirely of blank pages.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Another alternative

I've just thought of another scenario that could explain the disappearance of my briefcase: perhaps it suffers, like its owner, from Impostor Syndrome. The evidence is obvious: as long as I was a lowly adjunct and then a mere untenured assistant professor, it never attempted to leave me, but no sooner do I get tenure and a new title and the Big Office in the Corner and business cards (!) with the word "Chair" on them than the briefcase slinks off in shame, fearing that it can never belong in such an exalted milieu. That's what I would do if I were my briefcase. I suppose it's a good thing I'm not.

The distressed look

Just the other day I was griping that my briefcase looks out of place in my shiny new office, and apparently someone agreed because now it's gone. The briefcase, not the office.

I hesitate to use the word "stolen" because it's entirely possible that it was taken accidentally. After all, it did look rather distressed, and I did leave it sitting not far from my trash can; someone could easily have mistaken it for a piece of trash. But it isn't. That briefcase was a graduation gift from me to myself: I bought it to celebrate finally completing the Ph.D. It didn't look new even when it was new, but that was fine with me--I like the distressed look. You might even say I embody the distressed look.

But now I'm even more distressed because it's gone. I notified campus police and a friendly officer paid a prompt visit to my office and asked a lot of questions, including questions about my height and weight (!) and eye color, which made me want to point out that I am the victim here. How will knowing my weight help them finger the perp? I told my daughter about this and she informed me that she had to answer the same questions recently when she reported that her car had been clobbered in a college parking lot, but they also asked for her father's hair color. Apparently "father's hair color" is considered important data in a hit-and-run but not in a missing briefcase incident.

I suppose I should be grateful there was nothing of any value in the briefcase: a legal pad, some makeup, maybe a few pens, nothing I can't live without. I do, however, need a briefcase. Should I go ahead and shop for a new one or wait and see whether that vital information about my weight leads inexorably to the apprehension of the guilty party? For now, I'll just practice being distressed.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Dr. Larynx

Donald Hall on reading Henry James aloud:

The voice that reads late James aloud may not be monotone. To read parenthesis within parenthesis, the reader must drop pitches and build them up again, and a sentence by Henry James becomes an exercise for voice-athletes to train by, pitches and pauses in particular. Representing James by your mouth, lips, tongue, contracted throat, and vocal cords, you accomplish literary analysis by means of your vocal equipment. Your larynx could write a doctoral thesis on the Jamesian parenthesis.

...from the essay "On Moving One's Lips, While Reading," in Principal Products of Portugal.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


The chief drawback to being a compulsive communicator is that I feel compelled to read just about anything that ends up in front of my face--cereal boxes, cell phone instructions, incomprehensible e-mail messages written by spelling-impaired whiners--but even I have to draw the line somewhere. Here are a few things I wouldn't read unless my life depended on them:

1. Anything titled "random thoughts" (or, even worse, "random thots"). They're not really random, and they rarely involve thought.

2. The contract bridge column in the local paper. I'd rather eat the entire classified ad section with a side order of stock listings than read about contract bridge.

3. The small print on the back of a video or DVD case, although it's more inability than unwillingness that prevents me from reading. I have occasionally resorted to asking passing students to read small print on videos, but only if I'm desperate.

4. Mattress tags. I know what it says already, so why waste the time?

5. The instructions that come with my federal income tax form. My tax man earns his keep partly by rescuing me from having to read federally approved tax prose.

6. Matchboxes. In fact I rarely ever hold a matchbox, but even if I did, what could it tell me that I don't already know? "Strike here"?

I'm sure there are many other things; for instance, I've never read the little words printed on lightbulbs or the laundry instructions on a new set of towels. (People who don't know how to wash towels should not be allowed in the laundry room.) Now that I look back at what I've written today, I have a new item to add to my list of things I'd rather not read:

7. Lists of things I'd rather not read.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Much ado about fussing

The whole time I was driving home last night I was fussing over verbs and adverbs--specifically, whether I used the correct forms in two sentences in yesterday's blog entry. Which is just silly, because the whole point of yesterday's blog entry was to write something in a very limited amount of time so that I wouldn't be able to fuss over it, and there I was fussing over it during what should have been a relaxing drive. Here are the sentences that bothered and continue to bother me:

What can I say in 10 minutes--or slightly less?
Isn't 185,000 enough?

The common problem is the use of numbers. Am I talking about 10 individual minutes or a 10-minute span? Do I refer to 185,000 individual miles or a unit of mileage? It makes a difference. If I'm talking about individual, countable minutes, then I ought to write "fewer" instead of less, but clearly my mind at the time was thinking of 10 minutes as one unit of time and not ten of them.

That sentence doesn't bother me, though, as much as the second, which went through uncounted permutations in my mind during the drive home:

Isn't 185,000 a large enough pile of miles?
Aren't 185,000 miles enough?
185,000 miles is far enough, isn't it?
185,000 miles are enough, aren't they?

It's useless: no matter how many times I try, I can't make it sound right. This is where a really insightful editor would be helpful. Someone asked me recently how I can justify criticizing writing in, for instance, the New Yorker when my own prose is far from perfect. "Simple," I said. "Their prose has a horde of fact-checkers and editors fussing over it; mine doesn't." But, as yesterday's experience demosntrates, that doesn't mean my prose doesn't get fussed over.

Now I've got another entry to worry about. How much should I fuss over my overuse of the verb "fuss"?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I'm writing this during the 10-minute break in the middle of my evening class, my first opportunity to sit still and breathe all day long. What can I say in 10 minutes--or slightly less?

I can say that it's too hot to think straight, that every child over the age of four ought to know better than to play the drums in a house full of sleeping people at midnight, and that quinoa makes a terrific cold salad, particularly if you have some cilantro and lemon juice to add to the crunchy bits.

I can say that I'm enjoying my class tonight but that I'm really looking forward to next week, when we begin Invisible Man.

I can say that while it may be reassuring to be told that my van can be expected to run for another hundred thousand miles, it's not necessarily what I wanted to hear. Isn't 185,000 enough? I'll never get to buy a new car if the old one won't wear out!

I can say that if I don't hit "publish" and run down the steps, the class will think I've gotten lost somewhere--which is more or less the truth.

That's about all I can say.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Exhibitionists--totally nude!

Small milestone: my blog recently received its 3000th visit. Three thousand seems like a lot, but roughly one-sixth of those visits resulted from Google's mistaken impression that my blog could provide meaningful information about the word "debunkify." Many people wander onto my blog while looking for something else; for instance, in the short time since I wrote about a student's concern about porn on the reading list, I've already had readers stray onto my site looking for actual porn. So as not to disappoint them, I've copied here a photo of butterflies copulating--in public, no less! They're such exhibitionists. If the third butterfly in the photo, the voyeur, couldn't get his fix au naturel, would he be compelled to go to Google? If so, my site can expect an onslaught of winged visitors.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Nature's mysteries

This evening the kingfishers were swooping up and down the creek and chattering their fool heads off. When they perch they look as if someone at the bird factory made a big mistake: those big spiky heads are patently wrong for those sleek bodies. But there is no flight more elegant than theirs, the way they fling themselves effortlessly through the air toward some target known only to themselves.

We saw a red-tailed hawk and heard at least one other hawk shrieking from a tree near the neighbor's hay field. Lots of black cohosh growing on the hillside and a handful of pawpaws dangling from branches like fuzzy green lightbulbs. Last year the raccoons and deer devastated our pawpaw patch, leaving only three of the sweet, sticky fruits for us. Maybe this year we'll rescue a few more.

The mystery of the week is the big brown woody fungus growing in the yard. Last year we had a bear's head fungus that looked charmingly like a person's face poking out of a tree, but this year's mega-fungus looks, how shall we say this, just icky. If the rain stops long enough for the sun to dry things out a bit maybe it'll just go away. Meanwhile, we'll guard our pawpaws and listen to the kingfishers.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Visions of Blindness

I was surprised when a former student complained about being forced to read porn. Porn? In my class? Porn is not my field. I have no memory of assigning porn in any class ever. What could she be thinking?

"That Saramago book, Blindness" she explained. "That one part."

Ah yes, that one part. It's graphic all right, but is it porn?

First, some background: Blindness by Jose Saramago takes place in a large European city suffering from a sudden plague of contagious blindness. The first people so stricken are quarantined in a vacant hospital, their needs tended by those who still have sight--until everyone in the city is struck blind except one woman who sees and remembers what happens, first inside the hospital and then out in the city. The blind people in the hospital quickly develop ways of coping with problems both mundane and unusual: How will they eat? How will they know whether scant resources are distributed fairly? Where will they sleep? Where will they defecate? What will they do with the inevitable dead bodies?

It's a novel both gentle and gruesome, lyrical and brutal. The most intense section explores the inevitable power struggle between those who are willing to mistreat fellow human beings and those who are not. The ruthless ones control the food supply, and they will kill, maim, and rape to maintain their power. The weak must choose: submit or starve. They do a little bit of both before finding another way out.

"That one part" occurs during the submission phase, when the men in power raise the price of food until the cost of a Happy Meal is brutal rape. Women's bodies become legal tender in a nightmarish scene of violence and degradation.

But is it porn? In its gruesomeness the scene is the opposite of sensuous, the antithesis of desire. It could arouse carnal lust only among those who lust after degradation, decay, and death. Are those people out there? In my class?

"That one part" of Blindness may be the most sexually graphic scene I have ever taught, but if I had to label it I'd call it anti-porn. Porn portrays people as bodies without minds, fragmenting human beings into pieces and parts designed for the titillation of others; Blindness, on the other hand, cries out for human beings to see beyond the body and treat each other as whole people. The pandemic failure of vision prompts the characters to become either more human or less human, but it is always clear which option Saramago prefers.

I don't see porn when I read Saramago, but my student sees something different. Is one of us blind, or are both visions valid? Whose vision of Blindness should prevail?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Plague of pink

Since we moved out here I've grown familiar with the local flora and fauna, so I was a bit befuddled by the pecular blossoms I saw along the roadside today: kind of pink, kind of fluffy, kind of like what insulation might look like if it grew like a weed. Which is exactly what it was: little wads of pink insulation stuck on roadside weeds like a crop of building supplies. That remote stretch of road tends to sprout strange crops: McDonald's bags, beer bottles, and once a plague of plastic knives. Who throws this stuff there? Why? And what can we do to make them stop?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Literary lions of Lorain

In the middle of a class discussion of Toni Morrison's Sula this evening I was reminded of a family visit to an aunt of a certain age, a native of Lorain, Ohio. At one point during our visit she squared her shoulders with pride and asked me, "Do you know what great author was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio?"

"Toni Morrison," I said.

"Who's he?"

She was referring, of course, to Lorain's other literary lion, Helen Steiner Rice, prolific author of inspirational rhyming verse. I would wager that upwards of 90 percent of Ohio's elderly aunts carry in their handbags yellowed newspaper clippings featuring poems of Helen Steiner Rice. Some years ago (this is true), I was asked to give a talk to a church women's group in which every meeting included at some point the reading of a sentimental poem by Helen Steiner Rice. I was determined to break the mold: I would present a program that would challenge these women toward deeper insight into contemporary issues. On the evening in question I made it all the way through my talk without any mention of Helen Steiner Rice, but no sooner had I mentally congratulated myself on my accomplishment than one of the indomitable old aunts snapped open her immense handbag, whipped out a yellowed newspaper clipping, and announced, "I have a poem I want to share."

It would be difficult to find two authors more unlike than Toni Morrison and Helen Steiner Rice. Their works share common references to the bonds of friendship and motherhood, but none of Helen Steiner Rice's poems deal with the dilemma faced by the mother who, to rescue her adult son from a life of heroin addiction, burns him alive. If Helen had considered such a scenario, the result might have looked something like this:

A Mother's love is something
that no one can explain,
It is made of deep devotion
and of kerosene and flame.
It is endless and unselfish
and enduring come what may
And if the kid gets constipated
A little lard'll save the day.

No, Helen never wrote that poem, nor did she write about the kind of friendship shared by Sula and Nel:

Life is like a garden
with a river runnin' by
where we whirl and twirl a little boy
to see if he can fly.
Where we plant our dreams so carefully
and weed and wait and water--
until the day you take away
my man. Then you're non grata.

It has a certain ring to it, but I doubt the elderly aunts would carry these poems in their purses. They're jingly enough to fit in a Hallmark card--but Helen Toni Steiner Morrison Rice would never win the Nobel Prize.

Monday, July 10, 2006

TV or not TV

We're thinking seriously about getting rid of the TV--or not the TV exactly but the dinky satellite dish that serves it. The husband would be happy to get rid of the dish since it no longer offers Cleveland Indians games, and the college kid would also be happy to get rid of it since she rarely watches TV--but she also rarely lives at home, so her vote doesn't count. The young man is addicted to ESPN and vociferously votes for keeping the dish. I am on the fence.

Reasons to keep the dish:
1. Iron Chef.
2. The Closer.
3. Monk.
4. There's no TV reception here and cable can't come out this far without a major infusion of cash.
5. The ESPN addict works pretty hard and deserves a break.
6. The cost comes out to just over $10 a week, which is about what I waste on Diet Coke with Lime.
7. We lived without TV for eight years back in the 80s and I got truly tired of the bizarre responses I encountered whenever I happened to mention that we didn't have TV. You'd have thought we were unAmerican child-abusing anti-education ignorami instead of just very busy grad students who couldn't afford cable. Do I really want to go through that again?

Reasons to delete the dish:
1. $45 a month and rising for basic service.
2. No more Cleveland Indians games.
3. No local news.
4. Divide the $45 cost between the two of us who actually watch TV and that comes out to $22.50 for ESPN and $22.50 for the three shows I watch regularly. I love The Closer, but I catch maybe six episodes each season. Wouldn't it be cheaper just to buy the whole season on DVD?
5. That would be $45 a month I could spend on my Amazon wish list or lunches with colleagues or a single size 14 men's shoe for the ESPN addict.

So far we're still in the talking stage but I feel myself being pulled toward the darken-the-TV side. I'd really like to buy some books...and the ESPN addict's feet are still growing. But I know better than to make a decision like this on the spur of the moment, so instead I'm thinking and seeking advice. Have I overlooked any important pros or cons? What will happen after the screen goes dark? Will I be able to admit that we don't have TV or will I have to take up a life of deceit? Stay tuned for the stirring conclusion on the next episode of "TV or Not TV."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That not all Independent Studies are created equal.

The problem with teaching Independent Studies is that too few students are able or willing to work independently. What, though, is the solution?

I am doing Independent Studies with two students this summer, and they represent the extremes of the species. They have one thing in common: both students need to pass this course in order to graduate, so they ought to be equally motivated. They're not.

Student A does the reading assignments on time, does the writing assignments on time, and shows up at my office on time for every session. I may preface our discussions with some background material, but then I ask her to talk about the book and she leads us on a delightful tour of discovery through some pretty wonderful literature. By the end of the session, she has independently raised just about every point I had intended to cover, so I just tie her ideas together with with the theme of the course and talk about the next stage in our journey and we're on our merry way.

Student B showed up once and turned in one writing assignment; since then he has not appeared or responded to e-mails. His writing is good and he has interesting ideas about the literature, but as long as his ideas remain wrapped up within his head, they're not doing anyone any good. If experience is any indication, I expect him to come rushing in just before summer grades are due and beg for an Incomplete, promising to make up all the work before the fall semester starts. Maybe he will. Either way, I'm not motivated to put much effort into this situation.

Student B and others like him make me want to give up on teaching Independent Studies entirely, but if I had more like Student A, I'd teach them every semester. Certain idiosyncrasies in our scheduling system make it difficult to avoid Independent Studies entirely, but perhaps there's a way to cut down on demand for Independent Studies while also encouraging those who must take them to truly work independently. I'm thinking of adopting something like the British tutorial system: for each weekly session, the student will have to write a paper and present it for discussion. When word gets around that my Independent Studies actually require students to work independently, perhaps students will find other ways to meet their requirements.

I'll try this system out the next time a student comes to my office begging for an Independent Study. Meanwhile, I'll spend my summer eagerly looking forward to each meeting with Student A while awaiting the onslaught of pleading e-mails from Student B, who has apparently declared independence from the study of literature.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Red, white, and blue

Today's obits list a woman with the middle name Independence. Died July 5, 2006, born 85 years ago on July 4. Good thing she wasn't born on Feb. 2 or Dec. 7--although, come to think of it, Pearl Harbor Day didn't exist 85 years ago. On Sept. 11, 2001, one of my colleagues had planned a birthday party for his small child, and then of course he had to hold the party anyway because otherwise the terrorists would have won, but he pulled the blinds shut so the neighbors would not be appalled by the clear signs of childlike revelry. If hosting a child's birthday party on Sept. 11 seems shocking, imagine having something like "World Trade Center Attack" or "War on Terror" worked into your name.

Aside from my birth, nothing of any importance happened on my birthday, and that's not a bad thing. While a name like Independence might make an interesting conversation starter, it would have to get tiresome explaining it to people. Then again, while the name Independence might get old, the concept never wears out. So three cheers for Independence!

Do you suppose they'll have fireworks at the funeral?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Shelves full of voices

Henry James, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie: what do they have in common?

They are the names that appear most frequently on spines of books in my office.

I discovered this today while sorting books into shelves in my new office. James alone covers half a shelf, with Morrison and Rushdie covering slightly less shelvage. It would be difficult to trace the complex combination of circumstances that drew these three authors together on my shelves, but I know I'd love to put the three of them into a room for a few hours while I just sit in the corner and listen.

But then other authors might demand equal time. Derek Walcott and James Joyce, whose books cover similar amounts of real estate, might want to rub shoulders with the relatively equal Raymond Carver and Kate Chopin. There would have to be a room just for the authors represented by only one book: Olaudah Equiano and Hart Crane, William Gass and Henry Adams and Amos Tutuola and Gertrude Stein.

If authors were ranked based on the linear inches of library shelves they covered, then Thackeray would be a minor deity whose sandals John Kennedy Toole would not be worthy to untie. Today I placed a complete set if Thackeray's works in the giveaway pile simply because mold had set in. I'm allergic to mold or I'm allergic to Thackeray or possibly both.

I have closed the door on Thackeray but the other authors that fill my shelves keep demanding attention. I ought to be able to finish the sorting tomorrow if I can concentrate over the din of all those interesting voices.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Saying "Ack" for Salmiak

The German kid has been gone for a week but he left us a few things to remember him by: some T-shirts and sweats and a pair of worn-out running shoes, a thick Stephen King novel dog-eared halfway through, and a package of peculiar licorice candies containing Salmiak. I don't know what Salmiak is and I'm struggling for the proper word to describe its flavor: Salty? Fishlike? Medicinal? The first bite made me wonder whether I'd accidentally chomped down on that old running shoe.

I love licorice, but this stuff is odd. Really odd. If you were sitting in a darkened theater watching a movie while dipping into a bag of mixed licorice candies and you unsuspectingly popped one of these things into your mouth, your first thought would not be, "My, what an unusual flavor in a piece of candy!" No, your first thought would be, "How did this cockroach get into my candy?"--that is, provided you had any time to think while spitting and gagging and attempting to claw every vestige of flavor off your tongue.

I've studied this flavor closely and I can understand, sort of, how people might consider it interesting. After all, there are people out there somewhere who consider liver and onions a special treat, who regularly put anchovies on a perfectly good pizza, who would be delighted to receive a can of sardines in their Christmas stockings (you know who you are!). But I've given this candy several opportunities to woo me and it has failed utterly. In fact, I am prepared to declare my mouth a Salmiak-free zone. So all you little Salmiaks out there, whatever and wherever you might be, take note: stay away from my tastebuds! I've had it with you and your ilk. (What ilk might a Salmiak possess? That's just frightening.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fun with fungi!

I knew it was time for the hike to be over when I finally identified an unusual red and yellow fungus at the side of the trail. We had seen odd fungi all day, tiny yellow ones and great big scarlet ones and middle-sized greenish ones and a few that were spotted, but this was really unusual: a long, narrow, stemlike object looking like a cigar rolled from colorful spongy stuff. Only when I stooped for a better look did I realize it wasn't a fungus at all. It was a Fruit Roll-Up.

I'm sure I wouldn't have made that mistake if I'd been wearing my glasses, but they kept fogging up, first from sweat and then from humidity and then from rain, so I gave up and put them in my pocket. Still, I saw a lot--spider webs and waterfalls and Indian pipes and mud, lots of mud, and tall trees standing, falling, and rotting, and caves and rocks and more rocks and slippery rocks and mud-covered rocks and rocks worn into smooth shapes by moving water. I saw people wearing flip-flops on muddy trails and others all decked out in hiking gear and rain ponchos and some Amish-looking people wearing hats and long skirts. I walked through woods and caves and over bridges and up steps, lots of steps, lots of wet, muddy, slippery steps. My knees won't let me forget those steps.

After four hours of hiking and slogging and slipping and climbing, we had a picnic lunch while soaking wet and tried to determine which of us smelled the worst. The problem was finding a judge; we briefly considered accosting passing strangers to ask, "Would you smell me?" But that approach just begs for some sort of lawsuit, so instead we headed home for hot showers. We left behind the fungi, the Fruit Roll-Up, and the cell phone (oops), but we brought back a pile of memories, a sense of satisfaction, some really smelly shoes.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Wrapped in words

In the short story "Radioman," an inarticulate little girl whose mother makes dressmaking patterns out of newspapers finds a way to wrap herself in words:

I would carefully pin the two sides of the paper dress together until I had a whole newspaper dress. Carefully, watching for pins, I would slip it over my head while Mother began pinning together the real dress. I loved to put on the newspaper dress and go stare at myself in the mirror in Mother and Father's dressing room. I would be covered in words--the war news on my left arm, the baseball game on my right. The Red Cross volunteer appeal would go down my front while a story about Christmas shoppers would run around my neck. All down my back was a story about a lost dog that came home three years later. I would read to myself all the words I could see, backwards in the mirror.

Such vividly realized moments make "Radioman" charming and memorable. The story appears in the collection A Fish Full of River by the very creative Janet Bland, from whose pen I expect to see many more reasons to wrap myself in words.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Frittilarying around

The milkweed is abundantly blooming in the upper meadow so it's no surprise that the spangled frittilaries have returned. Frittilaries are not my favorite butterflies--I prefer the understated elegance of the zebra swallowtail--but I just love to say the name. "Spangled frittilaries" sounds like sequins falling from the sky, and they look that way too. They flutter above the milkweed blossoms and get so drunk on the nectar that I could walk right up to them and snap their picture if I needed any more frittilary pictures. When the butterfly weed is blooming, I've seen as many as six frittilaries attacking one cluster of flowers at the same time. Milkweed is a weed--it's right there in the name--but as long as it earns its keep by attracting butterflies, you won't see me pulling it up.