Thursday, August 31, 2006

Will the whimsy police visit PMLA?

I finally got far enough in my summer reading pile to reach the May 2006 PMLA, which includes a higher-than-normal percentage of articles that I felt compelled to read. Gregory Jackson's article on homiletic novels is pretty interesting, as are Juniper Ellis's exploration of tattoos in Samoan literature and Paul Acker's "Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf."

Best of all, though, is the round-table discussion titled "What Can a Journal Essay Do?" It's punchy, clever, accessible, and full of information so helpful I read part of it to a class full of upper-level literature students making their first foray into literary theory. (There's actually a cheesy acronym! In PMLA!)

Here is the paragraph I appreciated most, from Marianne DeKoven:

I would add that people shouldn't think they have to write a PMLA essay with a kind of high seriousness. I mean I think there's a sense that a PMLA article means that you are speaking from on high, you're laying down the law, to the profession. It can be whimsical; it can be daring and imaginative. We want to read interesting articles. We enjoy reading imaginative, engaged, well-written articles that feel passionately about their subject and are not just dry and careful; in fact, dry and careful is not what we're looking for, as I see it.

Important if true--and if this issue's articles are any indication, it may just be true.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Someother word

One of my students wrote a sentence using the word someother, as in The guy hit someother's head. I ought to go ahead and bleed red ink all over it, but I keep thinking how useful it would be to add someother to the dictionary. Someother is far more sleek and elegant than the obvious alternative, somebody else. The guy hit somebody else's head: it's just clunky. I think I'll take someother out for a spin and see how it runs.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Make meetings memorable

1. Install karaoke machines in all meeting rooms and change the bylaws so that no one can amend a motion without first singing a selection from Dave Barry's list of all-time worst rock songs. Anyone attempting to amend an amendment would be required to sing "Stuck in the Middle with You" all the way through.

2. Stock up on duct tape. Used judiciously, it can prevent all manner of meaningless blather.

3. Hire a local actor to burst into the room and sobbingly accuse the chairperson of unspeakable acts involving shrimp forks, absinthe, and a clown named Doodles.

4. Write the agenda in code and toss a few decoder rings into a large vat of green Jello. Start the meeting with a game of Bobbing for Decoders. The loser is required to read the minutes of the previous meeting in pig-Latin.

5. Rig up a cellphone with an inappropriate and immature ringtone: the sound of bleating sheep, for instance, or a couple experiencing sexual ecstasy. Before the meeting starts, hide the phone in the chairperson's briefcase. The minute the chair utters the words "This isn't on the agenda, but--," dial the number.

6. When there is no question, call the question; when there's no motion on the table, move to table the motion. This ought to provide a good old-fashioned squabble among those attendees who know (or think they know) Robert's Rules of Order. Onlookers can amuse themselves by placing bets on the outcome.

7. Insist that untenured committee members address the Chair as "O Great and Exalted Fount of All Wisdom" while the Chair addresses each untenured attendee as "Wart."

8. Provide scissors and paste so that attendees can cut up multi-color handouts and glue them together to make colorful garlands of interlocking rings--or go all out with glitter, paint, and macaroni.

9. Install chairs equipped with electrodes that will administer small electrical shocks to attendees' keisters. Have attendees take turns running the controller.

10. Focus on a specific purpose; hear only from those people who can contribute relevant information in pursuit of that purpose; and when the purpose is achieved, go home.

Nah, it'll never work.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Brand X

The Powers That Be keep talking about branding, as in "What is our brand?" This makes me envision rounding up all our students in a huge muddy corral and plunging red-hot twisted iron into their flesh--but what does the brand look like? What mark can we leave on students that will make people say, "Yep, that's one of theirs"? I'm accepting suggestions.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Freds in webs

This morning I opened the door to leave for work and found the way blocked by an intricate spider web stretching across the entire opening--and sitting in the middle was the web's maker, Fred.

I doubt that Fred is his actual name--or hers, as the case may be. Its Latin name is Argiope Aurantia, aka Yellow Garden Spider, but our family calls all spiders of this species Fred in memory of a spider we once kept as a pet. Well, "kept" is perhaps not the right word; Fred had made a lovely web along the path beside the house, and we were all in the habit of visiting daily and dropping interesting things into his web. Or hers.

Sometimes we dropped live insects and sometimes we dropped bits of leaf just to see Fred scurry across the web in hot pursuit of a juicy treat. Fred hung around for a while but then disappeared, but not before he (or she!) became a beloved member of the family.

Now we live in a place where Freds abound. The photo was taken in our upper meadow, which is crawling with Freds this time of year. We still enjoy seeing them, but as much fun as it might be to drop small wiggly things into the webs and watch the Freds scurry, I'm not volunteering to walk into the web myself. Which is why I shut the door and called for the resident web-destroyer. Freds outside are fine and dandy, but when they invade my space, it's time to render Fred homeless.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sounds of silence

I encountered a lot of silence in the classroom this morning. Some of it was desirable: the silence that descends on a classroom full of students writing for dear life. But before they wrote, I tried to get them talking, and that's when I encountered the other kind of silence.

Maybe they're not awake yet, I thought. After all, the class begins at 8 a.m., a time when I'm still absorbing my morning quota of caffeine. Maybe they just don't know each other well enough to feel comfortable sharing ideas. Then again, they didn't even laugh at my jokes! That's the kind of silence that makes me nervous.

Oh well, there's always next time. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the delicious silence that descended on the class while they were writing. Pens and pencils scratching and scribbling--there is no silence more soothing.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hope for the three-legged person

I was examining the small print on a shoe box in order to determine whether the shoes were made of real leather or faux when I encountered the following statement: "Average Contents: 2."

This was rather disturbing, suggesting that some boxes may contain more than two shoes and some may contain fewer. In order to make a wise decision about my purchase, I need to know the range of values and the standard deviation.

A shoebox containing negative number of shoes is difficult to envision, so let's set the lower end of the range at 0. What, then, is the highest number of shoes that could fit in the box?

The answer would depend, of course, upon the size of the shoes. The box in question could not accommodate more than four of my son's size 14 shoes, but what if you used toddler-size shoes? Barbie shoes? Shoes designed for unicellular organisms? The number could easily reach into the millions.

Now suppose you are the unlucky shopper who takes home a box with only one shoe in it. If $69.95 is an absurd amount of money to spend on two glorified sneakers, it's doubly absurd to spend that amount on only one, so naturally you will return to the store and complain. The store manager, in turn, will point to the small print on the shoebox and say, "What are you complaining about? It says right here that 2 is the average number of shoes in a box. Actual numbers may vary. Some settling of contents may occur. Void where prohibited. Have a nice day!"

But then suppose you take home the box containing 1,000,000 shoes visible only with a high-powered microscope. Lucky you! You've struck the jackpot! Your unicellular organisms will worship you! But what are you going to put on your own feet?

Since I'm interested in buying neither one nor 1,000,000 shoes, I'm not sure what to do with the phrase "Average Contents: 2." If I want to find really useful information on a shoebox, these shoes are made for walking--to another store.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Good news, bad new

Good news! My van is no longer making that annoying rattling noise suggestive of a loose connection in the exhaust system.
Bad news: It's now making a much more annoying noise suggestive of a total disconnection from the exhaust system.

Good news: we were just a few miles from home when the breach occurred.
Bad news: we had to drive through the Sunday-morning stillness of a small town in a car that sounded like a very loud riding mower badly in need of a tune-up.

Good news: the husband has promised to take my van to the garage today.
Bad news: that means I'm driving the husband's car, which I am constantly tempted to drive off a cliff or decorate with big signs saying "Steal me!"

Good news: his car gets 50 miles to the gallon and has a functioning exhaust system.
Bad news: it shakes the fillings out of my teeth and smells like dirty sweat socks, and getting in and out of that car requires the dexterity of a gymnast--I certainly wouldn't attempt it in a skirt.

Good news: I made it to work without succumbing to temptation and now I don't have to think about that car for a good eight hours.
Bad news: at the end of the day when I'm ready to collapse, that car won't be. It keeps going and going and going. That is, in fact, its only redeeming quality. So I guess that's good news after all.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Dinner music

My taste buds are still singing after a meal 0f Thai fish curry and coconut rice topped with chopped Thai peppers (fresh from the garden) and pistachios briefly fried in very hot oil suffused with garlic, ginger, and more hot peppers, a meal we won't soon forget, particularly since I once again neglected to wear gloves while chopping the hot peppers. But here's what I wonder: who decided that the appropriate music to accompany this meal was a recording of the mayor's bluegrass band playing and singing "My Mama Cooked Groundhog" and "Eat More Possum"?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Calling all cliches

It's Friday afternoon.

Classes start Monday.

I need a cliche.

Is this the calm before the storm or the storm before the calm?

Are we poised on the brink of a precipice, stepping over a new threshold, or setting out into unknown territory?

Are we filling a bucket, lighting a torch, or dowsing the torch in the bucket?

Will we stand on the shoulders of giants or boldly go where no man has gone before? (If the latter, I'm taking Chapstick.)

Will we seize the day, soar with the eagles, or sink like a rock?

The possibilities are endless. And so, apparently, are the cliches.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Things I learned at an all-day meeting

1. Our college is "bricky"--not that there's anything wrong with that!

2. No matter how I dress for a long meeting, at some point I'll be either too hot or too cold. Yesterday I was both.

3. The pandemic is coming! The pandemic is coming! Whatever you do, don't panic!

4. No matter how many times I see "health care" written as "healthcare," I can't get used to it. When did the phrase become one word?

5. And don't even get me started on "wellness."

6. The Law of Conservation of Curmudgeonliness* continues to work: the retirement of an old fart creates a vacuum into which a somewhat less old faculty member is inexorably sucked. There's nothing like an all-day meeting to reveal the identity of the new suckees.

7. Good things will happen this year! Or else!

*Clarification: this law works at a variety of speeds depending on the amount of suction; sometimes a new curmudgeon is sucked into the role immediately after a retirement, and sometimes the process takes months or years. Therefore, it is difficult for outside observers to detect the line from the retiring curmudgeon to the replacement.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

How many stooges?

By now we've all heard about the recent poll showing that more Americans can identify the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. I'm sure there will be much wringing of hands over this unfortunate statistic, but there must be a bright side. Let's face it: as long as most Americans can tell the difference between the Three Stooges and the three branches of government, all is not lost; when they start merging into one entity, then we're in big trouble.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Baloney with everything

"Baloney with everything," I said, following the lead of my three colleagues who had just uttered the identical phrase. I don't know how they managed to convince me that my life would not be complete without at least once trying the fried baloney sandwich at a popular local lunchspot, but when they ordered their baloney with everything, I repeated their mantra.

But "baloney with everything" is too good a phrase to waste on a sandwich, no matter how special. Think of the groups that could adopt it as their motto: freshman composition students, advertising copywriters, parents inclined to give lectures in the "In my day young people knew how to respect their elders" pattern. As I prepare my syllabi for my fall courses, though, I am tempted to turn the motto around: "Everything without baloney." Not a bad motto for a student--or for a sandwich either.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

All thumbs and not enough eyes

What I need when I take the camera into the upper meadow is an extra pair of eyes, or perhaps several. I can watch the path or the camera or the surroundings, but I can't watch them all at once, as I discovered today while trying to take a photo of the preying mantis that was posing photogenically in a milkweed patch beside the path. I kept my eyes pinned to the mantis while changing lenses and while stooping to get a better angle on the mantis's perky little triangular face, but then the camera bag went rolling down the hill and I looked away for half a second and when I looked back the mantis was gone. But then along came a consolation prize--a lovely big black swallowtail butterfly that shimmered in the sunlight. I started following it with the lens, shifting here and there to get the right angle, my eyes glued to the camera, which is how I finally found myself standing in the middle of a patch of poison ivy. And I didn't even get the shot.

What I need is an entrouage: one person to go ahead of me and clear out the poison ivy, another to stay by my side and carry the camera bag, another to scan the surroundings for photogenic flora and fauna, another to follow behind and pick up whatever I happen to drop. With eight extra eyes, I'd be certain to get some good shots. Of course my entourage would also bring eight extra thumbs that could wander unintentionally into great shots and eight extra feet for me to trip over, and how would I pay all their salaries? They wouldn't have to stop any bullets, but the kind of person who would take the poison ivy for me wouldn't come cheap.

So maybe an entourage is out of the question, but how about a factotum? I've always wanted a factotum, but the species is rare and difficult to spot in the wild. To find one, I'd need an extra pair of eyes--or maybe several.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A new twist in the news cycle

You know you live in the sticks when the big news on the front page is "[Our Town] makes national headlines." Let me get this straight: we're so plum tickled that Our Town ended up in other newspapers' headlines that we have to issue urgent headlines announcing the fact, so that now we're covering other news organizations' coverage of our event? This sort of gives a new twist to the phrase "News Cycle."

Headlines like these exist primarily because it's difficult for an entire town to jump up and down and shriek, "Look, Ma, I'm on TV!" This urge to have one's existence validated is familiar to anyone who has ever worked as a journalist. In my previous life as a small-town journalist, I frequently faced this desire for validation in its rawest form. Any photographer gets accustomed to having children call out "Take my picture," but I never minded that so much as the devoted mothers who believed that the newspaper could somehow validate their lives by providing full coverage of little Junior's every minor accomplishment--and if the newspaper failed to meet their high standards of coverage, who got the complaints? I did. Once a mother called and cursed me because I had failed to personally cover her son's Eagle Scout ceremony, and her anger abated only a bit when I told her I had been forced to pay an unexptected visit to the emergency room. Another mother unhappy with how her precious son had been portrayed in the news called me and threatened the lives of my children.

All they wanted me to do was to validate their existence, but what I wanted to tell these women (and the many ohers like them) was this: If you want something validated, go somewhere else; I can't even validate your parking ticket. It's just a newspaper. And if the only way you can feel good about yourself is to have your name or photo printed in a newspaper that will tomorrow be used to line a birdcage, you've got more problems than any newspaper can solve.

The same could be said of Our Town today. One of the reasons I love this place is that nothing terribly earth-shaking ever happens here, but that doesn't mean we have to act like total rubes when something does. Right now Our Town is in the news and some people think that makes us pretty special; personally, I think we're pretty special anyway and we certainly don't need CNN to tell us so.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Adjective animal

Why exactly is it considered appropriate for grocery stores to be named Big Bear or Giant Eagle but not, say, Immense Opossum, Enormous Ibis, or Tremendous Toad?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lacking gravitas

David Sedaris, in "Monie Changes Everything": "Walls were papered in satin stripes, and curtains fell from floor to ceiling, bordered by what were later identified as swags."

All right, Mr. Sedaris, hand over the swags and listen up. Tell me, Mr. Sedaris, when the curtains were falling from the floor to the ceiling, where, exactly, was the law of gravity? Bound and gagged in a dark closet? And if the law of gravity was disabled in reference to the curtains, what kept the narrator, the folding card table, and the potty-chair rooted so firmly to the floor? Superglue?

Shame shame, Mr. Sedaris. I'm afraid I'll have to write you up. Selectively disabling the law of gravity is a serious violation that may lead to revocation of your Poetic License.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Pass the fireflyswatter

"Burn with a gem-like flame," they said, so I'm burning already, but on the flame intensity meter I seem to be stuck at "firefly," which is a hassle because fireflies glow in code and no one gave me the key. Now what am I supposed to do with all these fireflies hovering about?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Dream on

I've just had to hand a sticky writing problem over to my subconscious and I am reminded of the two times just this summer when different colleagues have challenged the wisdom of just such a move. "You've got to be joking," they say, or "No one works that way." I do, and I know I'm not the only one.

Here's how it works: suppose I get stuck at a particular point in a writing project and no matter how I approach it, it just gets more muddled. Instead of continuing to beat my head against the wall, I walk away and leave the problem behind, focusing instead on something totally unrelated. Sleep is best, but a long walk in the woods or an encounter with a kitchen full of fresh vegetables will work just as well; the primary requirement is that whatever I'm doing must engage my full attention and have absolutely no relation to the writing project.

Then when I go back to the problem, what do I find? The answer. I can't count the number of times I've handed a problem over to my subconscious only to wake up the next morning knowing the perfect way to fix it. If I could bottle this ability and put it on the open market, I'd be on my way to an exotic island paradise (preferably not located in Lake Erie). If I can do this, why not everyone else?

Maybe they've never tried. Maybe we need a series of periodic mandatory national drills in which workaholics will be confronted by armed enforcers hollering, "Put your hands in the air and walk away from the problem. Don't look back! Let it go! Now, take a few deep breaths and get into this scuba gear."

I know I'm dreaming. Not that that's a bad thing. Dreaming may be just what I need right about now, because when I wake up I expect to find an answer. How about you?

Monday, August 07, 2006


Today was a day of briefcases falling from the sky, not to mention trees. Okay, they didn't exactly fall from the sky, but it certainly felt that way. Years ago I got rid of a badly used and abused briefcase--I might have sold it at a moving sale or donated it to Goodwill--and today it came back to me, minus all the scuffs and scratches. It's not the perfect briefcase but it came to me out of the blue: my wonderful colleague picked it up at a yard sale. It's spacious and serviceable and, best of all, it saves me from having to make any difficult decisions about a new briefcase any time soon.

The trees, on the other hand, really were falling from the sky. Tree trimmers were on campus all day, blocking paths and lopping limbs with great abandon. I was tempted more than once to make off with a few cords of stacked wood, but sadly, they wouldn't fit in my new briefcase.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sic transit summertime

I've just finished reading The Octopus by Frank Norris, which may well be the perfect summer novel: like a beach on a hot day it's long but shallow, it's crowded with chatty people, and it proceeds at a leisurely pace. It can be put down for hours or days or weeks at a time and resumed again later without much loss of momentum. The perfect summer novel.

Which is not to say it's the perfect novel. Some of Norris's prose is clunky, and the whole Vanamee sub-plot seems to have wandered in from another book while Norris nodded. Every time I read it I am newly impressed by the charming intrusion of modern technology into stock Western scenery, as if Hoss Cartwright were to suddenly pull a cellphone from his gunbelt and say, "Hold your horses, Pa, I've got to take this call."

Norris's lyricism is justly lauded and the section juxtaposing a lavish dinner with the starvation death of Mrs. Hooven is stunning, but I still can't decide whether Norris intended the ending to be read ironically. Last time I read the novel, probably ten years ago, I was certain the ending must be read ironically, given Presley's tendency to view the world through lenses provided by art or literature; however, this time I'm not so sure. Is it possible for a novel in which the primary survivors are the mystic Vanamee and the poetic Presley to end on an entirely cynical note? I have a feeling Norris's wide-ranging vision encompassed a bit too much, leaving him at a loss to provide real resolution.

But the perfect summer novel doesn't need resolution. Like summer itself, the novel ends with everyone in transit to somewhere else, leaving little piles of unfinished business scattered in the most unexpected places. Reaching the end, of course, is the worst part of reading the perfect summer novel: closing the book for the last time means I'm that much closer to closing the book on summer itself.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Rise and fall

Yesterday afternoon the temperature fell more than 20 degrees in 10 minutes, and the price of a gallon of gas rose more than 20 cents. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The silence of the alvar

Just breezed in from a quick trip to an exotic island paradise. Okay, that's an exaggeration; it's not terribly exotic and it's by no means a paradise. It is, however, an island. Kelley's Island, to be specific, a smallish spot of land in Lake Erie, where we spent a lot of time sitting in the shade soaking in the breeze off the lake. Soaking in the sun was not an option as there was no escape from the eyeball-melting heat. But we had fun sitting and reading and looking at the lake.

And hiking. At one point we hiked through a swampy muddy mosquito-infested wood to gaze rapturously at an alvar. Hawaii may have cornered the market on lava, but Kelley's Island offers the finest alvar I've ever seen. An alvar, as I learned, is an endangered ecosystem characterized by "sparsely vegetated rock barrens." If I had to describe it succinctly, I would call it limestone with stuff growing on it. Small stuff, mostly. The brilliant orange lichens glowing underfoot were especially impressive.

And glacial grooves! Does Hawaii have glacial grooves? I think not! The glacial grooves on Kelley's Island are about the grooviest glacial grooves I've ever seen. If glacial grooves are your thing, Kelley's Island is the place to be.

Right now the place to be is back in my office, where urgent phone messages and e-mails are buzzing around my ears like mosquitoes. Now I need a vacation to recover from my vacation. Ah, for the silence of the alvar!