Saturday, September 30, 2006

Stop the Presses! Attitudes Persist!

"Attitudes Persist on Mental Health," screams the bold black headline on the top of today's front page. I suppose I should be grateful to live in a place where the most newsworthy event of the day is a persistent attitude, but still I have to ask: This is news? Maybe tomorrow's headline will be "Some Things Never Change" and Tuesday's will be "You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks." If attitudes on mental health persist in persisting, perhaps one of these days we'll see today's headline recycled for a second use, or a third or a fourth or a fifth, at which point I'll write a headline of my own: Attitudes Persist on Persistence of "Atittudes Persist."

If nothing else, it's bound to improve my mental health.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Top ten uses for a giant zucchini

1. Ballast.

2. Doorstop.

3. Artillery.

4. Toy, part one: hollow it out and carve the shell into a clever little dollhouse. Glue tiny button eyes onto walnuts to make "people."

5. Toy, part two: Carefully hollow out two giant zucchinis and duct-tape together to form a jet pack that can be strapped onto a child's back. Pour diet coke into the hollowed-out zucchinis and drop in an entire package of Mentos. Stand back and watch little Jimmy soar!

6. Hair-styling aide: wrap wet hair around zucchini; secure with toothpicks; leave zucchini in overnight; brush out hair to make soft, flowing curls.

7. Sports paraphernalia: send giant zucchinis to underprivileged inner-city youths, who will split them in half, hollow them out, and use them in place of cestas in their impromptu games of jai-alai.

8. Amusement-park equipment: who says the bumpers on bumper cars need to be made of rubber? Zucchini is cheap, non-polluting, and readily available during the summer months.

9. Edible prosthetic limbs: stuck at a neverending lunchtime meeting? You'll be the envy of salivating co-workers when you lean down and take a nibble from near the knee.

10. Personal spiritual enhancement: grate zucchini, measure into freezer bags, and store in freezer. Pray fervently for a power outage, and then shout Hallelujah when you have to throw out all that zucchini.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Drippy Swimsuit Mystery

Today's mystery: why is a wet green one-piece women's swimsuit hanging from a hook on the door of the supply cabinet in the English department office?

It can't be the secretary's swimsuit because (a) she's out of town at a conference and (b) when she shows up for work in a wet swimsuit, it will be a sure sign that the apocalypse is at hand.

I suppose it could belong to a faculty member, someone (a) whose idea of "professional attire" extends to swimwear and (b) who is willing to wear a wet swimsuit in a building where the temperature hovers right around the "meat locker" level. I hope all of my colleagues are smarter than that.

For that matter, I hope my students are smarter than that too, although I notice that the young men seem to believe that wearing shorts and flip-flops all winter long is a sign of virility. These students, though, are not the type to wear a woman's green maillot, no matter how far the temperature drops.

But I am forgetting one thing: whoever hung the wet swimsuit in our office has presumably changed into more appropriate clothes, so we're not looking for someone who is clueless about what to wear in a classroom building but someone who is confused about the proper location for hanging wet clothes. That could be anyone.

The final mystery is this: how did a wet swimsuit materialize on a campus that has no pool? Has someone been taking a dip in some big puddles, or did the provost finally approve the installation of a whirlpool in the Secret Faculty Spa? If that's the case, that green swimsuit is MINE.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Don't Panic Day

It's an unusual day on our campus, and not just because some of my colleagues are wearing jeans and plaid flannel instead of their normally natty attire. It's Pandemic Day, except we're not supposed to call it Pandemic Day but something less frightening like Emergency Test Day, but I announced to my classes that I'm calling it Don't Panic Day. I for one am definitely not panicking. For one thing, I don't have time to panic. How can I possibly be so busy on a day when I'm not actually meeting with my classes?

Except I am meeting with them--just not face-to-face. All professors are supposed to be conducting their classes via "alternative means" today, except for those that can't possibly afford to eschew face-to-face meetings for one day. My African-American Lit students read a classmate's paper and responded to it via e-mail, and very insightful those responses were. My film class watched part of Singin' in the Rain and had a sort of slow-motion e-mail discussion of particular techniques. Almost everyone participated and no one cared what anyone else was wearing.

Best of all, though, no one actually had to get sick. In my book, the best kind of Pandemic Day is the one on which I can mark the pandemic absent.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Pulling the plug on the grading machine

Yesterday afternoon I became a paper-grading machine, cranking out grades the way those faceless workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis crank out--well, whatever it is that big machine is intended to crank out. Misery would be my guess. At one point I read a sentence asserting that in Sunset Boulevard Norma Desmond is "self-diluted," and I had to look at the phrase for a while before I figured out what was wrong with it.

That's when it's time to stop grading. I pulled the plug on the paper-grading machine and set out to dilute myself. Hot tea works wonders on a deluded mind.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Random Winkworthy Esq.

I must have looked particularly winkworthy Friday because two people I do not know openly and obviously winked at me in public. Why? Did someone tape a sign to my back saying "Wink if you love adverbs"? I don't often receive winks from total strangers and the only strangers at whom I wink with any frequency are toddlers sitting in grocery carts--there's nothing like an unprovoked wink to make a toddler giggle.

But I am not a toddler so I greeted today's two winks not with giggles but with puzzlement. What specific elements make a person particularly winkworthy? It's a mystery to me. Whatever those people were winking about, I wish they'd let me in on the secret.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Been there, done that, bought the soundtrack

Today a student in my film class commented on how fantastic life would be if we all had our own soundtracks: everywhere we would go, music would follow, and not just any music but music to express the appropriate mood. Yes, I said, but unless we were all equipped with mute buttons, public gatherings would be cacophanous, with dissonant snippets of music constantly competing for attention.

But wait! This already happens every day--with cell phones! The ringtone is the equivalent of a personal soundtrack expressing information about our lives, our values, and how we feel about the people who call us. I'm waiting for the day when someone makes a movie in which the entire soundtrack consists of little unrelated snippets of music bursting out incongruously--but wait! It's already been done! It's called Moulin Rouge!

Rats. All the great ideas are already taken.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Can you save this sentence?

"In the publication Inventing Popular Culture, the author's purpose is to demonstrate that the current term 'Popular Culture' is the current derogatory term used by the elite in control of society to try to downgrade and keep underfoot the mass of society who support those who, by hook or by crook and other devious means, have usurped power."

I've been struggling to disentangle this sentence ever since I encountered it last night. First, let's get rid of the obvious redundancies. Let's assume that "the current term" does not need to be repeated, that "by hook or by crook" includes the idea of "other devious means," and that a "derogatory term" is, by defintion, a term used to "downgrade" others. Let's also tighten up the syntax in the opening phrase and replace "the elite in control of society" with something more concise. This gives us a sentence something like this:

"The author of Inventing Popular Culture proposes to demonstrate that 'Popular Culture' is the current term used by the powerful elite to denigrate and dominate the mass of society who support those who, by hook or by crook, have usurped power."

This makes the syntax a bit more straightforward, but it does not clarify the content. Who are the "elite in control of society" and how do they differ from "those who, by hook or by crook, have usurped power"? The sentence seems to be saying that powerful people use the term "popular culture" to denigrate those who have put them into power, which is an interesting insight except I'm not sure it's what the author intended. Clearly, this sentence is desperately in need of attention from an editor.

But wait--this sentence was subject to the attention of an editor! It appeared not in one of my students' papers but in an academic journal, and it was written by a respected senior scholar! Who am I to subject an academic demigod to this kind of critique! I should be ashamed!

Well, someone should be ashamed, but far be it from me to name names.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

P.S. Send money

I see in the papers that a businessman has donated over TEN MILLION DOLLARS to the writing center at Miami University, and I wonder: how can our writing center get hold of money like that? In this case the donor noticed that a large number of job applicants suffered from very poor writing skills, so he decided to improve the quality of his applicant pool by donating money to Miami U's writing center. This suggests that if we want someone to make a big donation--and it need not be $10 million; we'd settle for one-tenth of that--what we need to do is foist upon the public a plethora of graduates whose writing skills would make a human resource manager run screaming from the room. Eventually, someone is bound to notice and donate some big bucks.

Dr. Peeve

Lately I've been experiencing a very third-grade-teacher sort of feeling. I keep hearing this peevish voice issuing from my mouth saying things like "I'll close the door at 8:00 a.m. and anyone who is not here at that time will be counted absent and will receive a 0 on the assignment." I don't like myself when I say things like this, and neither do my students, who are convinced that they cannot be here at 8:00 because they have to print their assignments in the computer lab across the hall, which doesn't open until 8:00. This inspires me to achieve levels of sarcasm lost on students still wiping sleepy-dust out of their eyes.

I hate treating college students like mischievous third-graders, but on the other hand, it's difficult to run an orderly and productive classroom when one-third of the students regularly wander in late. If I keep channeling my third-grade teacher, one of these days I'll show up in class with glittery cat's-eye glasses on a chain around my neck, a white linen handkerchief stuffed up my sleeve, and masses of white hair piled up in a bun on top of my head. There must be a better way!

Monday, September 18, 2006

My 54 cents' worth

Just after midnight last night, with no balloons or confetti or fanfare, this site received its 4000th visit. I didn't stay up to celebrate the auspicious event but now I'm wondering where I go to pick up my valuable prizes. There ought to be valuable prizes. A popular blog-rating service estimates that my blog is worth exactly $564.54, but I don't know how to collect on that promise. If nothing else, I could use the 54 cents.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Webbed wonders

A perfect morning for photographing spider webs: a blanket of fog held the dew on the upper meadow long after the sun came up, illuminating elaborate webs that are virtually invisible in broad daylight. It was quiet as death outside until I crossed the line of pine trees at the edge of the meadow, at which point a mob of raucous crows loudly issued a Clumsy Biped Warning.

I saw a lovely pair of red-bellied woodpeckers but no other living creature larger than a spider, not even the scrawny stray cat that has been hanging around outside our house for the past week trying to sneak in for a visit with our indoor cat. The stray sits on the back deck looking longingly through the window while we enjoy our supper on the other side; its offerings of dead chipmunks have so far failed to persuade us to open the door. This morning the cat was not visible.

But the spiderwebs were, all glimmery and sparkly with dew. I shot a roll of film and came back with wet shoes and pants drenched to the knee and, as an added bonus, a spider in my hair. Not bad for an early-morning ramble.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A passion for apostrophes

"Our sport is your sports punishment," proclaimed the T-shirt worn by one of my students this morning, and I got the point but nevertheless I was overwhelmed by a mad desire to insert an apostrophe: "Our sport is your sport's punishment." If I'd had a permanent marker handy, I might have done it.

It's a curse, I tell you. If I could stop caring about the correct placement of apostrophes, my life would be much less stressful; I could glance right past that T-shirt without a pang instead of investing emotional energy in the absent apostrophe. I could read student papers that leave apostrophes out of you're, we're, and it's all day long without banging my head against the wall. Why can't I just stop caring?

The other solution, of course, would be for the rest of the world to just learn how to use apostrophes correctly. It's not that difficult, people! You can do this! But you'd better do it quickly because I have a permanent marker and I'm not afraid to use it!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

On the road to obsolescence

I was not surprised this morning when my freshman students asked, "Who's Tonto?" They had read the Sherman Alexie essay "I Hated Tonto (Still Do)," which I have taught before so I knew that I would have to spend the first few minutes of the discussion describing the Lone Ranger and Tonto and explaining that before the era of washboard abs it was not unusual for a television hero to look like Clayton Moore. It made me feel old to know that my students do not possess any mental image of Tonto, but then I took a look at their writing assignments and realized that they do possess mental images of many pop-culture figures who are largely mythical to me.

Jessica Alba, for instance. I've heard the name and I'm sure I've seen the face, but when I try to retrieve a mental image, I come up blank. Likewise Doreamon, who is apparently some sort of cartoon character. Ask me about Foghorn Leghorn or Hong Kong Phooey! I can tell you all about Grizzly Adams, Colonel Klink, or Max Smart, but who is this Meredith Gray and why should I care? A student who wrote about the omnipresence of Oprah asked whether I enjoy her show; I confessed that I have seen Oprah's talk show only once, when I was in the hospital giving birth to a kid who is now 17 years old, so I'm probably not the best person to ask.

It's tempting to think of students as pits of ignorance ready to be filled with the founts of knowledge possessed by professors, but apparently ignorance is a two-way street (and a mixed metaphor too, but let's move on). Today my students learned a little something about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, but I also learned something: that I'm not the only one in the room who knows a thing or two and that someday they will be the experts and I'll be obsolete.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

News to me

I passed a group of students marveling over the Wall Street Journal as if they'd never seen a real newspaper before. "These people are crazy," said one student. "How can they find this much news in one day?"

The journalist in me wants to tell these students about all the stuff that gets left out of the newspaper in one day, while the teacher in me wants to educate them about the process that turns raw material into articles aimed at a particular audience. Meanwhile, the old fogey in me wants to know how these young people managed to reach adulthood without daily exposure to huge volumes of newsprint, and the newspaper junkie in me wants to grab that Wall Street Journal right out of their hands and start reading.

These people are crazy. How can they not find this much news in one day?

Poison pest letter

When I arrived home yesterday I encountered a recumbent tree blocking the driveway with the resident woodsman standing nearby holding a chainsaw. I wanted to run over and give him a big hug, but instead I said, "Don't touch anything until you've had a shower!" The tree, you see, was infested with poison ivy.

I don't know what kind of tree it was because I never noticed leaves on it other than the poison ivy that spread through the canopy. Snaking up the trunk was a poison ivy vine as thick as my arm, and the vine spread far enough to produce luxuriant green growth in the summer; it was only when you looked closely that you noticed what kind of leaves they were.

Our first year here, my woodsman severed the poison ivy vine and sprayed it with poison ivy killer, but it took a while before it all died off--and only then could we see just how dead the tree really was. It was close to the house so it had to come down, but who wants to mess with a poison ivy tree?

For such a time as this I keep a skilled woodsman around the house. He cut down the tree and started chopping it up, although we don't plan to burn any of it in the fireplace this winter for fear of inhaling poison ivy fumes. That's one more pest out of my life--and one terrific woodsman worthy of a hug.

But only after a shower.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Something's coming

Anyone who spends any time attending high school marching band competitions quickly becomes aware of the West Side Story Rule: at every competition at least one band will feature music from West Side Story. I've been a loyal band parent for seven years now and I have seen many bands take a stab at the music, with results ranging from outrageous to charming to spectacular. Now I love West Side Story; before I was 12 years old I knew all the words to all the songs and I can still sing most of them, albeit off-key--but that doesn't necessarily mean I want to hear a marching band play the music every Saturday from now until November.

It started yesterday at the first competition of the season when a band opened its show with "Something's Coming," long a fixture in the Unsingable Song Hall of Fame--and if its odd intervals and unsettling rhythms make it virtually unsingable, I don't know why anyone would try to march to it. Nevertheless those band members in bulky polyester uniforms with bits of braid and plumed hats obediently charged about the field playing tubas and clarinets and bass drums to "Something's Coming," and then they went on from there. Instead of focusing on songs of conflict, this band selected the more tender love songs from West Side Story; they get points for originality, but I'm not sure how a band is supposed to march to the delicate "I Feel Pretty" without looking like a troupe of dancing hippos.

This band performs in many of the same competitions as my son's band, so I expect to see their show several more times before November--and at some larger competitions, there may be even more bands playing music from West Side Story. After November, I don't care how many bands decide to play music from West Side Story because this season marks the end of my career as a Band Parent. The air is hummin' and something great is comin'--but meanwhile, I've got one more season of West Side Story.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Steamed about wrinkles

I was certain that my daughter was the only person in the universe who actually enjoyed ironing until I mentioned this strange characteristic to my mom. "I've always liked to iron," she said. "It's soothing," she added, which is exactly how my daughter had described ironing. Is there some genetic component behind the enjoyment of ironing, and if so, why did it skip me? Surely I'm not the only one who considers ironing a preview of purgatory.

I remember as a child watching my mother's elaborate ironing procedure, which required starch, spray bottles, and the willingness to roll up damp dress shirts and stash them in the refrigerator. (Why? It's a mystery.) She took such great care with collars, cuffs, and sleeves that her white nursing uniforms and my father's dress shirts always looked worthy of hanging in the Ironing Hall of Fame.

Nothing I iron ever looks that good, despite the benefits of wrinkle-resistant fabrics and a high-tech iron, which is why I've always been happy to let my daughter do the ironing. Of course I pay her, but I have a feeling she'd iron for pleasure even if I weren't making it worth her while. As I look at the huge pile of wrinkled shirts and khaki pants begging for attention, I wonder whether there's a way to mail my ironing pile to my daughter and get it back looking pristine. It would give her pleasure to do my ironing--and she would certainly be the only student on campus getting her mom's laundry in the mail!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Well groomed

I saw a sign posted on the side of a building today, "$5 off First Groom," and I wondered: does he come with a tux or is formalwear extra? What about warranties? Technical support? Trade-ins? How much can I get for a slightly used model with a few dents that still runs reasonably well?

But then I went around to the front and saw that the building is not a matchmaking den but a dog grooming establishment. Ah well, I'm not really interested in trading in my old model anyway, five bucks or no five bucks.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Today I encountered a remarkable human drama in the "Dear Prudence" column in Slate:

The question, in a nutshell, is this: Should I tell my new girlfriend that I accidentally caused the death of her father 20 years ago? The details are evocative: a dark night, a 12-year-old hiding in a cornfield, an ear of corn hitting its mark, tires squealing, metal meeting tree--and the rest is silence. Twenty years later, romance blooms and the dark night of the corn threatens to disrupt the course of true love.

This situation, it seems to me, is fraught with potential for the kind of drama that ought to be played out on a stage larger than an online advice column. So I'm issuing a challenge to my students and I'll issue it here too: What Would Shakespeare Do? I'm accepting plot outlines, character descriptions, or other creative suggestions about how Shakespeare would handle this thrilling drama of romance, anguish, and flying vegetables.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On the road to eccentricity

Yesterday one of my senior colleagues was decrying the dearth of notably eccentric professors on campus. "Gone are the days when the campus eccentric could be counted on daily to stash his pipe in his pocket while it was still burning," he said. "Where have all the eccentric characters gone?"

He suggested that the provost seek out eccentricity in new hires, but it's hard to include that kind of requirement in an advertisement--and besides, why look outside the campus when we have plenty of potential characters already here? This campus could be crawling with potential eccentrics; we just need to find a way to encourage the formation of eccentricity.

To increase the campus Eccentricity Quotient (EQ), I propose that the provost promote a multi-phase Eccentricity Encouragement Program (EEP) involving Personal Eccentricity Reinforcement Grants (PERP), an annual Professorial Eccentricity Prize (PEP), workshops on Boosting Your Eccentricity (BYE), and visits to other campuses to observe professorial eccentricity in the wild (You want another acronym? Write it yourself!).

Once that's all in place, we'll just need a few professors to step up and respond to the Eccentricity Challenge--and I can think of no better test case than the senior colleague who sparked the idea. He'd look pretty good smoking a pipe, and besides, on the road to eccentricity, he's already got a pretty good head start on the rest of us. So go for it, buddy! We'll be right behind you!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Throw out the life-line

I had a baffling encounter with a foreign student this morning: I speak quickly and he speaks quietly, and together we managed to totally confuse one another. I stand in the front of the class and babble at a breakneck pace about news events and pop-culture icons of whom he is only vaguely aware; he sits in the back of the class and looks around as if hoping to pick clues out of the air, and then he approaches me after class and asks questions in a voice so soft I have to lean forward and ask for repetitions. I use a lot of humor, sometimes so subtle no one knows how to respond, but even the broadest laugh lines leave him baffled. Two weeks into the semester he's utterly at sea and I don't know what kind of rope I ought to toss, but I've got to do something. I can't just let the kid drown.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Traveling companion

The only thing worse than having a spider in the car is having a spider in the car and not knowing where it is, which is why I tried very hard to keep an eye on the spider on the dashboard while I drove to work this morning. It was a foggy morning and visibility was pretty low, so I really needed to keep both eyes on the road, but instead I alternated: look at the spider, look at the road; look at the spider, look at the road; wonder what kind of spider it is--small and brown like a recluse, but does it have that mark on its back? Impossible to tell.

Look at the spider, look at the road. Wonder if this is the same spider that jumped on my neck while I was driving home in the pitch dark and the rain the other night, the one I brushed off quickly but probably didn't manage to kill and couldn't see enough to tell where it went. Look at the spider.

Look at the road. Look at the spider, look at the road. Look at the--where's the spider? Last I saw it was crawling across the dash from right to left, way out of arm's reach; now it's gone.

Look at the road.

Don't think about the spider.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I love a parade

There are advantages to living in a town small enough to have a Labor Day parade. For one thing, every labor union in the county sends its members marching through town in matching T-shirts, so on that one day of the year it's possible to know exactly where to find a plumber.

The parade also keeps the local politicians out of trouble for an hour or so as they walk the parade route with their supporters distributing campaign leaflets and armloads of candy. I'm a little confused about the message some of these politicians choose to send, though. For instance, one float was crawling with very small children wearing matching T-shirts urging me to vote for a particular candidate. They were awfully cute, but what rational person seeks political insight from a trailer full of three-year-olds?

I'm always tempted to select candidates based on the cars they send through the parade. Big blue Caddies don't inspire my trust and bunting-motivated SUV's are just so last Wednesday, but I was impressed by an adorable Model T stumping for a candidate. Today's parade featured four Mustangs touting various candidates, and while I found the two late-model red convertibles a bit flashy, I wouldn't mind voting for the candidate whose posters festooned the 1966 model.

There's plenty of royalty in the parade--pork princesses and rabbit queens and a Little Prince candidate who couldn't stop chomping on an immense wad of pink gum--and plenty of opportunities for people to wear funny hats, from rhinestone tiaras to red Shriner fezes to marching band hats with quivering plumes.

And then there's all that candy. Marching bands and floats and Shriners in funny hats aren't enough; today's parade-viewing public really wants to take home an Wal-Mart bag full of Tootsie Rolls, Smarties, and Jolly Ranchers. Who cares about 76 trombones when you've got people throwing candy to the masses? And if some of that candy is being tossed from a big tank truck advertising a septic tank cleaning service, nobody minds. One day out of the year, even the septic tank truck can be the center of attention.