Thursday, November 30, 2006
The resident turnip-monger tells me that there are 30 more turnips that size still in the garden and he has to pull them up before the first freeze. What can we do with 30 melon-sized turnips? We'll sell a few at the Farmers' Market, but the rest will have to make their way into our winter meals. When we have more tomatoes or hot peppers than we can handle, I take them to work and distribute them among my grateful colleagues, but I'm afraid turnips are a hard sell. A few years ago when weather conditions produced a glut of turnips in our valley, one of the you-pick produce places had a big sign by the highway advertising "You-Pick Turnips," but I didn't notice any long lines of pickers waiting to partake. A little turnip goes a long way, and a big turnip longer, and 30 big turnips--well, let's just say it's a good thing Christmas is coming.
Now the only challenge is to figure out how to wrap 'em.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
"I just love literature," he said.
"Really," I said. "Because when I consider what I've seen of your work over the past three years, I don't see any of the usual signs of a love for literature, such as actually attending your literature classes, reading the assigned literature, or writing papers demonstrating any interest in or skills for analyzing literature."
The student agreed that he had been remiss in those areas--and, as it happened, he had already decided to drop the English major and focus on his second major, so all is well. Still, I couldn't help feeling a bit guilty, the way a top chef might feel telling a young person to go ahead and eat another Big Mac, or the way a true believer might feel telling a pagan, "You know, heaven's overrated." Being an English major is a sort of nirvana I wish everyone could experience. Everyone, that is, who loves literature enough to suffer for it, something my student was unwilling to do.
So the world is now down one English major. Somehow, my heart will go on.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Last night he beat me at Scrabble again, but not by much. For a long time he was the only man to ever beat me at Scrabble, but then once a few years ago our son put a Q on a triple-word score and beat the socks off the rest of the family. Recently the kid came close to beating me at Boggle, but not quite close enough. One of these days he'll beat me and I'll be happy to hand over the Boggle Champion crown. One of the crowning achievements of my life will be raising a child who can beat me at Boggle.
But who will beat me at my new game? Today I happened upon the Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers' Edition on sale at 50 percent off, so naturally I snatched it up. Generally we play Trivial Pursuit in teams, with one parent and one child per team; the Dad team gets all the sports questions right while the Mom team excels at arts and entertainment, and this way everyone gets a chance to win occasionally.
But the Book Lovers' edition is another kettle of fish entirely. I'm afraid I'll never persuade any of my family members to play. I could take it to my office, but who has time to play at work? Here's an idea: my 45th birthday is coming up next month, and nothing would please me more than to gather some book-lovers 'round the game board and play the day away.
Now I just need to locate some book-lovers who also love games. Any takers? I promise not to marry the winner.
Friday, November 24, 2006
This is the worst part of being a parent: knowing that my child could be in danger but not being able to do anything about it. I try calling her dorm room; she's already left. I know she's traveling with a friend who has a cell phone, but I don't know that friend's number and even if I did, she could easily be out of range of a tower. The radio tells me traffic could be stopped for hours while the accident is under investigation. What can I do but chop vegetables?
There are thousands of people driving that road today, I tell myself. The chances that my daughter would be involved in that wreck must be infinitesimal. Still, I can't help recalling that last spring when she was driving home alone, she made a pit stop in a remote area and a male maintenance worker followed her into the ladies' room. What are the odds that she would be the only person stopped at a rest area at any given moment? She's not traveling alone this time and she's carrying pepper spray, but a lot of good that would do against an out-of-control tractor trailer.
I need to stop thinking about mangled automobiles and focus on the soup. Corn chowder: her favorite. Hope she makes it home to eat some. Hope I can make myself stop picturing nightmare scenarios long enough to finish cooking. Hope against hope that all is well.
When she finally arrives home unscathed and we gather round the chowder, that's my Thanksgiving. Everything that comes later is just gravy.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
You know what that means. Yes: I'm home alone.
No classes. No meetings. No need to leave the house.
Think of the possiblities: I could curl up with a good book, get caught up on my ironing, clean bathrooms, go for a walk, pay bills, visit the emerging garage, tackle that pile of student papers, put photos in albums, or even eat buttered popcorn while watching Law and Order reruns. We're going to the in-laws' house for Thanksgiving tomorrow, so the only thing I really need to do today is bake two pecan pies. Piece of cake. Or pie, as the case may be.
Of all the things I could be thankful for today, there's nothing I appreciate more than the freedom to do absolutely nothing.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
She has a point. Having just read a pile of papers with an extremely low scintillation rating, I'm well aware of students' willingness to offer me heaping masses of mediocrity. If they can have an off day (or an off week or off semester), why can't I?
So I'm giving myself a free pass today. I'll admit that it wasn't my best performance, but so what? I'll scintillate tomorrow.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Or not, as the case may be. Far be it from me to suggest that students are devoting time and energy to inventing imaginary disasters when they could be devoting those resources to the papers they're supposed to be writing. But then how much time and energy do I want to put into investigating these implausible stories? The correct answer would be none.
Still, there are excuses that earn such low scores on the Plausibility Meter that I'm tempted to follow up. For instance, a student who has failed to turn in about half the assignments for the class e-mailed me to tell me he can't e-mail me his draft because he currently has no access to e-mail.
He's at a conference, he says, an academic conference in a major city, and we all know how difficult it is to get access to the internet at academic conferences in major modern cities, so I'd just better go ahead and accept his draft on Wednesday because he has no access to e-mail today. And he said all this in an e-mail message that I received when? Just after class today, naturally, just at the moment when it dawned on him that whoops, he's missed class again and this time it really matters, unlike all the other times when he missed class without any excuse whatsoever.
Which is worse, a ridiculously implausible excuse or no excuse at all?
Sunday, November 19, 2006
I know it's marked in my first copy of Miller's book Writing at the End of the World, but that copy of the book is missing. It may have been stolen from my office, but with an office full of books, why would someone steal that one? More likely I loaned it to someone and then forgot. I do this all the time. I still don't know who has my first copy of the Whale Rider DVD, nor do I know what ever happened to my first hardback copy of The Thurber Carnival. I say "first copy" because I finally gave up on trying to get the loaned copies back and purchased new ones, which happens more often than I'd care to admit. If I charged late fees on borrowed books, I'd be on my way to the Bahamas by now. I need to just give up on lending out any book I ever want to see again.
Instead, I learn to live without them or buy a second copy. I recently repurchased Writing at the End of the World for the express purpose of locating the "technology to think with" statement, and I have just finished re-reading it, which I didn't mind doing because it's a wonderful book, but even though I was on the lookout for that statement, I never found it. Found all kinds of other good stuff, but not the particular sentence I need to find. Not even anything close.
Now I'm starting to doubt my memory. Did Richard E. Miller really write that or did I see it somewhere else and falsely attribute it to him? Should I go back and re-read everything I might have been reading at the time I first read Writing at the End of the World? Where do I start?
Back to square one--or page one, as the case may be.
Friday, November 17, 2006
With their flash cards looking like prescriptions for the catarrh
And their mnemnmonics, blast 'em. They go too farrh.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
In a large stock pot with a heavy bottom, melt a little olive oil and a little butter. (No cheating; use the real thing.) Toss in some chopped onion and celery and one chopped sweet red bell pepper or fresh pimento. If you like garlic, throw some in there. Saute for a few minutes and then throw in a pile of peeled, chopped potatoes. Add some salt and pepper and just enough water or chicken broth to cover the vegetables, and then put a lid on it and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so. If the potatoes aren't soft, cook it longer. If you like it smooth, puree the whole thing; if not, use a potato masher to smoosh some of the potatoes and leave it lumpy. Stir in just enough half-and-half to make it creamy. Heat just until warmed through. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve with hearty bread.
This is an easy dish: ten minutes to chop stuff, 30 minutes or so to cook it, and all the ingredients are readily available. When it's this easy, there's simply no excuse for serving gruel.
In the past, I have assigned four short papers and one long paper in that class, with set dates for each of the short papers. This semester, though, I gave the students a list of 13 short-paper topics with 13 deadlines; students were free to choose any four of those papers and turn them in on the appropriate deadline. The only caveat was that they had to turn in at least two of the papers before midterm.
At the beginning of the semester, I encouraged students to select topics they cared about and were equipped to write about, and some did. On many class days, I could be certain that at least a few of the students had written short papers about the material under discussion and had therefore thought about the literature before class. Also, since deadlines were spread out, papers trickled in on various dates and I was never overwhelmed by grading in that class.
I had expected that some students would procrastinate and write the last possible papers, and that proved to be the case. Of my 14 students, one completed all four papers before midterm and then had plenty of time to work on other projects. Two more completed three papers before midterm. Two students missed so many deadlines that they completed only three short papers. The remaining nine students completed two papers before midterm and two after, with most of them settling for the last possible papers.
Overall, I'm fairly pleased with the system. Students who were motivated to get projects out of the way early were able to do so, and I received papers on a wider variety of topics than I normally would. But here's the question: given some flexibility in deadlines and topics, why do most students select the latest possible moment to do the work regardless of whether they found the topic appealing? And why did two out of 14 students allow themselves to get so far behind that they ran out of deadlines entirely and turned in only three papers? I know everyone procrastinates, but this seems a bit excessive. Now the students who just turned in the final short paper have to scramble to work on the long paper, due next week.
If I had been given this kind of option as a student, what would I have done? I don't know, but I like this system well enough to use it again--and hope my students can motivate themselves to choose appropriate deadlines.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Monday, November 13, 2006
Next time I'm in despair because ignorance is a renewable resource and nothing I do seems to make a dent in the supply, I'll comfort myself with the knowledge that I have raised a child (a) whose idea of a terrific date is a visit to an academic library and (b) who can get really excited about shelves that move.
There, in a nutshell, you have every rapist's justification for his action. Where did a 14-year-old learn that a woman's "No" is just a flirty invitation? Let's hope the boy's parents saw his name in the paper and decided to give him a more complete education. If not, let's hope the girls at that school will soon learn how to deliver a well-placed kick.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Among those who have not read it, a variety of theories about the book are bruited about: is it about a "lecherous haberdasher who's really the head of Conde Nast" or "a history of the twentieth century as seen through a bunion"? And what of its author? Godfrey Frank "quoted French theorists who liked to inflate helpless nouns with rhetorical gases until they burst into italics" and wrote hip scholarly articles about a pop band called Fire Drill and the Orderly Fashions: "He situated them in a lineage of the Dionysian going back centuries, he located their Thanatotic flourishes as a necessary guise in the final days of a self-conscious century." In the end he becomes one with the band, performing a song about the death of Roland Barthes.
What does this have to do with John Henry? Everything. But you'll have to read the book to find out why.
Friday, November 10, 2006
There is siding on my garage.
That's right: siding! On my garage!
First windows and now siding! What's next: doors?
I don't want to go overboard here, but I have a feeling that one of these days I might actually be able to--wait for it--park a CAR!!! In my GARAGE!!!!
Siding on my garage!
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Imagine how smoothly my life would proceed if I were accompanied by a whole host of whifflers. A bevy of whifflers would make a visit to the mall much more productive, particularly in the Christmas season, and I could really use some whifflers when I'm trying to use the drive-through at the bank at 5:30 Friday afternoon. My whiffler contingent would be trained to respond to whistled commands issued by my official Whiffler Whistler, who would supervise the guy in charge of keeping the other whifflers in line--the Whiffler Wrangler. Woe to the whiffler who oversteps his authority! The Whiffler Whistler would whistle for the Whiffler Wrangler, who would wrestle the scofflaw whiffler into awareness of his authority. And then the Whiffler Whistler, the Whiffler Wrangler, and the entire entourage of whifflers would play a refreshing round of whiffle-ball and eat a stack of fluffy waffles.
There's only one problem with this plan: in today's world, where do I find a mess of whifflers? Wal-Mart?
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Alphonse Miggs sits in the Social Room of the Millhouse Inn, he sits on his hands at a table of eight, with seven folks he doesn't know. At the start of the evening his knuckles brushed against a lump in his jacket pocket. He withdrew a mothball and, supremely embarrassed, thrust it back where it came. He wasn't sure if anyone noticed his mark of shame. For the rest of the night he felt cursed with invisible pockets and all at the dinner can see his shame, the great pearl of napthalene clinging to his person, smell the fumes of social incompetence emanating from it.
Invisible pockets! Fumes of social incompetence! Apparently Alphonse Miggs has been raiding the closets of my nightmares. Miggs appears in Colson Whitehead's second novel, John Henry Days, which I am just now getting around to reading although it was published five years ago. I loved The Intuitionist and I've put Apex Hides the Hurt on my Christmas wish list, hoping that Whitehead can live up to the promise of his first book.
His second book, John Henry Days, is delightful, certainly more coherent than reviews led me to expect. Its quirky cast of journalists on a junket includes one J. Sutter, described as an "inveigler of invites and slayer of crudites, this drink ticket fondler and slim tipper, open bar opportunist, master of vouchers, queue-jumping wrangler of receipts." Sutter ventures into West Virginia for the unveiling of a new postage stamp commemorating John Henry, and there he encounters the aforementioned Alphonse Miggs, who at the moment seems to be on the verge of going postal, but I'm only 80 pages in so what do I know?
Well, I do know one thing: wherever Alphonse Miggs gets his clothes, I'm not shopping there.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
One thing I'm looking forward to is a decline in the number of annoying political phone calls. This will leave us more energy to deal with the endless annoying phone calls from colleges trying to recruit the resident high school senior. He definitely gets my vote for Most Popular Resident of Our House Right Now, which is quite an achievement for a kid who's not even old enough to vote. Exit polls on the college recruiting phone calls suggest that the race is still too close to call, but a rapid influx of cash could make a big difference in the outcome.
Monday, November 06, 2006
Moderately annoyed? Annoyed enough to put a question on the final exam that will be comprehensible only to those who attended to day's class? Or not annoyed at all?
"Threes are being planted all over campus," wrote one of my students, and another student who was rather tickled at this image quickly created the illustration. My question is: if threes, why not fours or fives or even seventeens? Do I detect the specter of a 42 lurking just beyond the horizon?
Sunday, November 05, 2006
For one thing, it's too long by at least half an hour; I kept hoping another airplane would crash and burn and put the entire film out of its misery. But that's not the only reason. Too many of the characters are thoroughly one-dimensional, including Alan Alda's sleazy politician and Alec Baldwin's reprise of his role from Glengarry Glen Ross. Cate Blanchett's cartoonish caricature of Katherine Hepburn was laughable, one of the few amusing spots in an otherwise humorless film. She tromped and sputtered like Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but in that film Hepburn's energy was more than matched by Cary Grant's. Poor Cate Blanchett has only Leo DiCaprio, who is just, let's face it, small--and I'm not talking about physical stature. I kept having this feeling I was watching an elaborate dream sequence in one of the Our Gang comedies, with DiCaprio as Alfalfa.
But there's one other thing that really annoyed me about this film, and it's taken me all day to put my finger on it: It's clear that Martin Scorsese wants us to view Howard Hughes as a sort of David righteously defying the twin Goliaths of the film and airline industries, and while it's true that Hughes was a victim of his own peculiar neuroses, he was, after all, Howard Hughes. Since when does the richest man in the world get to play the role of spunky little David? Especially when the penultimate scene features one of Hughes's minions reassuring him by saying, "Howard, everyone works for you."
Despite all the lovely airplanes, The Aviator doesn't work for me. My only consolation is that I didn't have to spend $8 on a ticket.
Friday, November 03, 2006
Chipmunks are related, both etymologically and genetically, to Chia Pets. The two species have been known to reproduce, but their offspring are infertile and require frequent mowing.
Fossil evidence suggests that an early cousin of the chipmunk grew twelve feet tall and trolled for mini-marshmallows in the lakes of lime Jello that once covered most of Wisconsin. Their extinction was hastened by the introduction of Jello Lite.
Chipmunk behavior results largely from a strong instinctual drive to watch hours and hours of Chip 'n' Dale cartoons, which provide young chipmunks with models for their own antics. In chipmunk cosmology, Chip 'n' Dale are the primary deities.
Chipmunks' cheeks can stretch wide enough to allow them to swallow themselves, primarily because their factoids are larger than their deltoids.
Chipmunks may not be smart enough to be president, but they know a thing or two. For instance, you would never find a chipmunk searching for information about the behaviors and factoids of the chipmunk on an academic blog. Chipmunks know better. They use Wikipedia. In fact, you know all those editors who obsessively sort and store information on Wikipedia? Chipmunks, every one of 'em.
That's all I know about chipmunks.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Everyone is also writing or reading or grading papers or listening to excuses about why papers are not done, and everyone else is preparing or viewing or evaluating presentations. Everyone is getting ready for the two academic conferences meeting campus next week, and everyone else is making plans to get away for the weekend or hunker down in the library.
Everyone's attending committee meetings and football games and open mike nights and information sessions about the January cruise, except for those who are taking advantage of the beautiful weather to play hooky from all their responsibilities.
With everyone carrying on at such a hectic rate, it's no wonder everyone is on edge. The challenge, of course, is to avoid falling over the edge, because no one knows what's on the other side. Maybe everyone just needs to take a deep breath and relax. Let's all put our feet up and stare out the window for awhile, and if we feel ourselves drifting away from the edge, that's okay: it'll still be there when we get back.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Is it possible that this student has never been exposed to the vulgar use of "bugger"?
If so, how do I inform the student of this connotation without coming across as the Guardian of the Dirty Words?
What I stink at is giving advice. I can give pretty good advice to students looking for the right courses to help them achieve their goals, but I never know what to say to students with no clear goals or with incompatible goals. What do I tell the kid whose mom wants him to major in engineering but whose coach doesn't want him to take any lab courses this semester? Should I tell him not to listen to his mother or not to listen to his coach?
And what do I tell the sophomore who has nearly completed his general education requirements but still has no idea what major he wants to pursue and insists on taking courses that will "count" for something? I'm tempted to suggest that he first figure out what his life is going to count for and then we'll fill in the details, but there's no little box on the degree audit sheet for that.
What do I tell the student who wants to pursue a demanding major despite failing every class she takes in that department? I can't say, "You know, there's no shame in being a welder. The world needs welders."
What do I say to the student who is clearly here to party and does not care what classes he takes as long as he doesn't have to get up before 11 a.m.? I want to remind him that someone somewhere is paying a big wad of money for his perpetual party, but I'm sure he's already heard that argument from his mom--and if he's not listening to her, why would he listen to me?
Advisors ought to advise: it's part of the job. Students, in turn, ought to study: that's why they're here. I am always happy to advise students willing to devote themselves to studying; it's the other type that makes me crazy. Where can the advisor seek advice?