Friday, December 29, 2006

All work and all play

I was on campus for only about 10 minutes today to attend to an annoying administrative task (placing check-marks in seven little squares to approve December's departmental expenditures, which seems like a ridiculous reason to drive into town, but it had to be done by the end of the month so there I was), but in that short span of time I ran into four of my colleagues. This happens every time I go to campus during down times: Sunday afternoons, Friday nights, weekends, holidays, early in the morning--there's always somebody else there working. It occurs to me that we academic types just aren't very good at taking time off.

If you need more evidence, look at how tens of thousands of us spend our Christmas holidays: attending academic conferences. I'm not at MLA this year but I've been there before and there's nothing relaxing about it. Any event that requires me to prominently display my credentials on my chest is not a vacation, and any event that involves interviewing or being interviewed is the antithesis of a holiday.

I've thought about this problem and I think the reason academics are so bad at taking time off is that so much of our job simply doesn't look like work. Grading papers, teaching, and attending committee meetings all appear to be work, but everything else I do for work also looks a lot like what I do for play: reading, writing, thinking. I can do those things just about anywhere, and I do, which means work and play intermingle promiscuously. Since I'm always sort of working, why not do it at the office?

And if that kind of logic takes me to the office when no one has any business being there, I shouldn't be surprised to find others there doing the same thing.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Under the tree

I found a lot of great loot under the Christmas tree this year--books, hand lotion, lots of warm socks--but the best gift couldn't fit under the tree. After two years of work, the garage is nearly done. The photo was taken a few weeks ago; since then workers have finished the drywall, installed the furnace and water heater, hooked up the water and septic system, and who knows what else. This week they're stomping the ceiling and priming the walls and we'll be down to the small stuff: doorknobs and light fixtures and cabinets. By the time the cold weather hits, I expect to be able to park a car in there.
But it's more than just a garage, of course. Our driveway is nearly a quarter-mile long and climbs a gentle slope up the side of a hill; at the very end, it makes a sharp right turn and goes straight uphill to the house. The driveway is manageable most of the time, but when snow and ice hit, our cars just can't make that final turn up to the house. The garage is located one level down from the house, at the point where cars roll back to when they can't make it up the last hill. We'll be able to pull into the garage, walk up the interior steps, walk out onto the back deck (still in the planning stages), and walk about 100 feet to the fr0nt door of the house. The best part, though, is upstairs: our house has no spare bedrooms and very little storage, but the garage will fix both problems. There's a little apartment up there, complete with sleeping area, bathroom, kitchenette, built-in bookshelves, two gigantic storage closets, and big picture windows with views of woods, meadow, creek, and the colorful bluff across the road. The deck in the back will be nestled in the woods where the best wildflowers grow in spring: mayapples and trillium and fire pinks and twinleaf and stonecrop. It'll be a great guest room or retreat or perhaps someday a rental property.
Right now, though, it's a gift, even if it can't fit under the Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

To words!

Done! I've just closed the file containing the biggest writing project I've attempted since the dissertation. I wrote 2500 words yesterday and 5000 today, plus untold numbers last week and the week before and various weeks going back close to six years. I'll proofread, of course, and tomorrow I'll send the manuscript out to a few trusted readers, but unless they suggest major changes, the hard part is done and there's nothing left but the mopping-up.

How do I celebrate? A walk sounds about right, especially since my body feels like it's been chained to a computer desk for two days. Maybe I can find a Christmas cookie somewhere and a mug of hot cocoa. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Too hot for a fire. I'll settle for marzipan and a communal toast: to words! Long may they flow.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A tempting tradition

Tree decorated: check.
Gifts wrapped: check.
Stockings hung by chimney with care: check.
Traditional Christmas lasagne assembled: check.

Hold on there. Since when did lasagne become a traditional Christmas meal? Shouldn't that be a ham or a roast or a turkey? What kind of person cooks lasagne on Christmas?

This break from tradition is not entirely my fault. I tried to come up with another plan; in fact, I spent several weeks periodically asking family members what they wanted for Christmas dinner, and the most useful response I received was "something good." "Okay then," I said, "I'll just have to adjust that liver-and-onions with brussels sprouts menu and cancel that big order of Salmiak. What'll I do with this case of Spam, though? I know--let's exercise some holiday spirit and give it to the poor! I'm sure the poor like Spam!"

After going through this ridiculous exercise a few times, I realized that an important part of my constituency had gone unpolled. I immediately repaired the oversight: "Self," I said, "What would you like to eat on Christmas?" Hence, a big pan of lasagne is now nestled snug in the fridge, waiting to be popped in the oven tomorrow. That's right: all the hard work is done, so tomorrow I can just relax and enjoy. I think I like this tradition.

I'm not quite so crazy about the traditional Christmas Eve turnips, but I had to make room in the fridge for the lasagne so those turnips had to be cooked and consumed. I'm more sanguine about the pre-Christmas-Eve tacos and flan, which is also not traditional holiday fare but is quite appropriate for a house full of young people celebrating a birthday. The college chick turned 20 today, which means that 20 years ago today I was enjoying the traditional I.V. drip following an emergency C-section. That was the year I baked 14 dozen traditional Christmas cookies to serve at our Christmas Eve open house, but the trip to the hospital sort of relocated the party. I hope the maternity ward nurses enjoyed all those cookies. They earned them: on Christmas morning they brought me a Christmas stocking stuffed with a beautiful baby girl. We still hang that stocking by the chimney every year to remind us that tradition isn't everything, that sometimes the best gifts are unexpected. Twenty years ago, a baby girl; tomorrow, lasagne; a year from now--who knows?

For tonight, everything's checked off the list, except I ought to leave a little something out for Santa. Hope he likes turnips.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Home for Christmas

'Twas the week before Chrismtas and all over the blosophere, not a creature was writing or reading or visiting--or at least precious few creatures. Apparently my favorite bloggers have other things to do, things I'm not doing this year: visiting relatives, writing conference papers, interviewing (or being interviewed) at MLA. This year, for the first time in years, I'm staying home.

For the past two years I've gone to MLA to give papers and interview people for job openings, and while it's much more fun to be the interviewer than the interviewee, the task is not without its horrors: the big room lined with intelligent people oozing desperation, the lineup of dark suits, the strangers crying in the ladies' room, those awkward pauses when it becomes clear that the interviewee simply won't do but the interview must nevertheless grind on to its sorry conclusion. This year, thank heaven, my department has no openings to fill, so I'll just sit back and enjoy the status quo.

And we're not going to Florida to visit relatives this Christmas either, much as we'd enjoy a dose of sunshine right now. (Note to whoever is in charge of the weather: the song says "white Christmas," not "wet Christmas.") These days, most of our traveling involves visiting the college kid at her campus or taking the high school senior to visit colleges, so the travel funds have been hopelessly depleted. A year from now I'll have two kids in college, and any family travel will have to work around their various course schedules. I keep telling myself that this is just a stage, that one of these days both kids will be done with school and we'll have no schedules to consult but our own, but meanwhile, we'll just have to be patient. And this Christmas, that means staying home.

But that's okay. We have what we need for a cosy family Christmas: cookies, eggnog, board games, books, plenty of firewood. Now all we need are visitors to share the fun. Come by any time--we're ready for you.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ai-ai-ai eyes!

Pet peeve: white text on a dark background. I just can't read it. Thirty seconds, max, and I'm going cross-eyed and blindly reaching for the "back" button. Why do people do this? Do they enjoy causing me pain? Why don't they just come over to my house and stick a hot poker in my eyeballs instead of luring me on with promises of thrilling repartee and then stabbing my eyeballs with white text on black background? I would rather rub sand in my eyes than try to read it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

With the procession

I was driving home from the dentist's office this morning when I fell in line behind a funeral procession. I hadn't really intended to follow a hearse halfway home, but there are only so many ways to get from point A to point B and if a funeral procession is in the way, there's nothing to do but follow. This meant driving about half the speed limit, but I wasn't in a tremendous hurry--and besides, if death is the price we have to pay for being alive, then I don't mind showing some respect for the dead by taking my life a little more slowly.

One thing I found a bit disconcerting: as the hearse and the long wagging tail of cars made it slow way down the highway, cars traveling in the other direction pulled off the road in respect. Some of the drivers got out of the cars and stood with their heads bowed while the procession moved past. This is a charming gesture although I confess I don't quite understand it: surely everyone who stops can't possibly know the dead guy, so for whom are they showing respect? For death itself? For the mourners? For me? I was, after all, attached, through no fault of my own, to the tail end of this funeral procession. As I saw these strangers bowing silently in my direction, I wanted to open my window and yell out, "I'm not with them!" But that would be rude. And so I drove on, silently accepting the solemn gestures despite my unworthiness to receive them.

Then we reached a fork in the road where the funeral procession took the road less traveled by while I stayed on the main highway. I'll take the other fork another day, but for now, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Do the math

Yesterday we celebrated 24 years of marriage. Twenty four years! Seems like a long time to do anything. I've been trying to make the numbers add up but this is the best I can do:

Two children, one exchange student, 12 foster children, if I'm remembering correctly. How many birthday parties? Difficult to say. One dog, one cat, one rabbit, and long ago an aquarium full of fish. How many fleas?

Two B.A.'s, one M.Div., one M.A., one Ph.D., and a kid almost halfway through a degree in Music Education. How much have we paid for tuition? Too scary to count.

One shoebox-size apartment, two rickety mobile homes in the same trailer park, one 18-foot travel trailer that we lived in the two summers we worked in campgrounds (and if you really want to get to know someone, spend two summers in a space that small), five parsonages (and only the first and last were truly awful), and one home of our own with an emerging garage. Ten dwellings in 24 years!

One 1970 puke-green Dodge Dart (sold to a kid who wanted to use it "to race cops"), one Mazda GLC (sold, dying), two Honda Civics (both wrecked, not my fault), two Honda CRX's (one sold, dying, and the 1991 model still sputtering along with 170,000 miles on it), two Toyota minivans (one sold, one still running with 190,000 miles on it), one Dodge Neon (needs a paint job that would cost more than we paid for the car), one Nissan Sentra (currently in the possession of the college kid). Ten cars in 24 years! Four of them still running! How many miles have we driven? Impossible to say.

Five thousand miles in two weeks on the Grand Canyon trip, camping all the way. Five hundred miles each week during the three Kentucky/Ohio commmuting years. Forty miles a day for my round trip to work. Road trips to Michigan, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida Florida Florida. That long drive to Albuquerque when I was pregnant and slept the whole way back. Trips to Iowa, to Kentucky, to Indiana to look at colleges. To D.C. for MLA, and to Philadelphia for same. To West Virginia to ski. Does it count if it was a rental car? But then we've got to add airline miles--to California, Vancouver, Madrid, Auckland, Florida Florida Florida. How many of those flights did we pay for? How many did the college cover because I was giving papers?

How much money have we earned? Spent? Borrowed? Difficult to say. We've worked for three campgrounds, five newspapers, 13 churches, two institutions of higher education, one Farmers' Market, and a whole host of schools that employ the bearded wonder as a substitute teacher. Supported the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H, marching band, pep band, basketball, softball, Spanish Club, and the National Honor Society. How many fund-raising drives? I'd rather forget.

How many pairs of shoes? Tubes of toothpaste? Bottles of aspirin? How much for electricity, water, garbage pickup, television, movies, trips to see The Nutcracker? How many cloth diapers washed and folded? How many disasters avoided by the skin of our teeth? (By fire, one; by water, two; by car, too many to count.)

How many arguments? How many laughs? How many times have we wondered how we'd make it through another day? Somehow it all has to add up to 24 years, but I can't seem to do the math.

Instead, I'll do the marriage. Maybe I'll try the math again after another 24 years.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Progress report

Totally didn't feel like writing this morning but I made myself do it and behold, it was good. Okay, maybe it isn't all that good just yet, but it's heading in that direction. This project has been stalled for so long that it's good to see it heading in any direction. Ditto with the garage addition: the water was hooked up today so all that remains is a little paint, a little flooring, some doorknobs and light fixtures and other indoor finishing. Ditto the Christmas shopping: I've been postponing making a final decision on a few important items, but today after I wrote my quota of words I headed for the mall and didn't come back until I was done. Done for now. I know I'm neglecting some other important things while pursuing progress on these projects--the laundry comes to mind, for instance, and the pile of photos begging to be put into albums--but those things can wait. Tomorrow I'll get up and I won't feel like writing but I'll write anyway, and it may not be perfect but it's progress, and that's good.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Making the grade

I posted final grades a week ago and so far I've had no angry or pleading e-mail messages from students. Granted, for those students able to use a calculator or visit webct, there were few surprises; however, usually there are a few who think they can wheedle their way to a better grade even after the final grades are in. So far, nothing.

I did, however, receive a message before finals from a student who knew she had bombed the class and wanted to know when it would be offered again so she can re-take it in hopes of improving her grade. She asked for my suggestions on how she can improve her performance, "aside from attending class." Well, I would say that attending class is a good start, and once she gets that little detail figured out we can talk about some other helpful habits, like doing the reading assignments and remembering to turn in papers. But I have no other suggestions at this time "aside from attending class."

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Here is what sometimes happens in a house full of eclectic talents: the young man is playing Latin riffs on the conga while his sister, just home from college, plays some Andrew Lloyd Webber selections on the piano--and meanwhile upstairs the college girl's boyfriend practices Christmas carols on the accordion for tomorrow's service, occasionally accompanied by the old guy on the harmonica.

And what am I doing while all this music swirls around me? Tap-tap-tapping on the computer keyboard, of course. In a house full of eclectic talents, this just happens to be mine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

High stakes

From David Mitchell's Black Swan Green:

If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened
stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, "When you're ready."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Climbing the mountain, one word at a time

Folded laundry. Washed shower curtains. Made fudge. Bought groceries. Chatted with the garage contractor. Lunched with colleagues. Read the paper. Stared out the window at birds. And oh yes, wrote roughly 2500 words on a major project. They may not have been the best words or even the right words, but they're 2500 more words than I had written yesterday, and that's something to celebrate.

I've been working up the courage to call this writing project a book, but it's difficult. Back in grad school everyone always referred to the dissertation as the "little writing project," as in "I understand you're working on a little writing project." If "dissertation" sounds frightening, then "a little writing project" ought to sound comforting, but somehow it didn't then and it doesn't now. Minimizing the size of the mountain only makes me wonder why I find the climbing so difficult.

For a while now I've been immersed in a different kind of little writing project but I'm not yet ready to call it a book. Just a little something I'm fiddling with in my spare time, you know, nothing serious, just an insignificant bunch of words--and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I even know exactly how many.

The more important question is: How many more?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ammo a la mode

A big stack of Christmas music CDs sit next to the CD player upstairs, but they are not merely music. They are ammunition.

Suppose the young man is having trouble motivating himself to get out of bed in the morning, a not uncommon occurrence. Crank up Christmas with the Chipmunks to full blast and before you know it, the young man is stomping into the kitchen to turn it off. It's more fun, though, to annoy the resident bread-baker when he's up to his elbows in bread dough: just put that new Aaron Neville CD on and wait for the falsetto spots. The breadman cringes every time, but he can't adjust those little buttons with bread dough all over his hands.

When it comes to Christmas music, we all love it--most of it--but we also know how to take advantage of each other's dislikes. Right now, for instance, the men are playing a CD that offers them ample opportunities to poke fun at me. Why? Because no matter how many times I'm reminded of the name of the group, I can't remember it, and I always end up calling them something totally inappropriate like "Subterranean Railway." (It's Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but I can say that with assurance only because I just hollered up the stairs to pry that piece of information out of my son, who is seeking revenge for all those times he's been awakened by The Chipmunks.) If you ask me again in an hour, I'll wrinkle my brow and say something like "Not Mannheim Steamroller."

I have the same problem remembering the French phrase used to describe a road that ends in a circular turnaround; I have to run through a whole litany of phrases and then half the time I still can't come up with the right one: coup d'etat, tete a tete, rue morgue, vache du plage, higgledy-piggledy, Perth's useless. I'll remember it an hour from now when I no longer care.

But how can I concentrate on such a minor matter when lovely Christmas music is playing and my taste buds are being treated to warm apple crisp served with vanilla ice cream? I know the word for that: a la mode. Why worry about ammo when we can enjoy apple crisp a la mode?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Holy jokes! That's REALLY not funny!

So we were discussing that annoying Christopher Hitchens article--the one that links the ability to bear children with a significant decline in funniness--when someone raised the question, "Was Jesus funny?" Far be it from me to try to resolve the thorny theological issue that caused so much bloodshed in The Name of the Rose, in which merely speculating about whether Jesus had a sense of humor could result in the gruesome death of the speculator and the immersion of his body in a vat of blood drained from freshly slaughtered pigs. There's something about torture that just takes all the fun out of humor, you know? So rather than risk such treatment, I'll just paraphrase the words of Umberto Eco himself: if Jesus wasn't funny, why did he get invited to so many dinners?

A laughing Jesus I can envision, but a laughing Mary? She's not laughing in all those byzantine icons, but then neither is anyone else. In fact, if religious art is any indication, the laugh was a heresy introduced after the Second Vatican Council. I'm trying to recall an image of Mary that suggests laughter, but nothing is coming to mind; the most we ever see is a sort of Mona Lisa smile--quiet, subtle, mysterious. If Hitchens is right, then Mary was less likely to crack a joke than to purse her lips and say, "That's not funny." And the minute those lips were pursed, you can bet some byzantine artist would come along and start slathering on the gold leaf. Did you ever try to crack a smile through half an inch of gold leaf? That's gotta hurt. If Mary followed the Hitchens model of humor-free females, where, then, did Jesus get his excellent sense of humor?

Our furry green friend points out that Hitchens's argument relating humor to powerlessness is a bit circular: men use humor as a smoke screen to hide their own powerlessness, while women use humorlessness to hide their power. If this theory is correct, then surely ultimate power should be linked with ultimate humorlessness, which gives us a stern Jesus straight out of The Name of the Rose. Meanwhile, Mary, the submissive, servantlike handmaiden of the Lord, ought to have a lucrative career in stand-up comedy.

But this is all, of course, mere speculation--as is Hitchens's article, for that matter. I'm sure it would never enter into anyone's head to immerse either of us in a vat of pigs' blood simply for the sin of getting serious about humor. But if someone has to suffer for the cause, let it be Christopher Hitchens. He's the one who links humor with powerlessness, and the way I see it, he can use all the powerlessness he can get.

Monday, December 11, 2006

That's not funny

In the January Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens attempts to answer the age-old question, "Why are men funnier than women?" (Read about it here.) He covers the topic in some depth, including results from an unfunny study on the topic and concluding that "the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates. This is the unspoken compromise."

I've been mulling over possible responses, most of them remarkably unfunny, which would just provide further support for his underlying assumption that (most) women aren't particularly funny, or that women don't feel the pressure to be funny that men do. I know some very funny women, but they're not professionally funny--their humor is not a career in itself but a byproduct that bubbles out while they're otherwise occupied. This suggests that Hitchens is right, sort of, but this annoys me because I want him to be wrong, but proving him wrong would require a whole lot of serious, articulate prose, preferably with a coherent argument involving bullet points and scientific studies quantifying differences in humor levels. And you know what? That's just not funny.

So let Christopher Hitchens be funny today. I'll go back to being morose.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A one-sided conversation

Every January I indulge in the same little conversation with myself. "Self," I say, "Wouldn't it be a good idea to keep track of all the books I read in a year's time?"

"Why?" I respond.

"Why not?"

"Because one of us would have to remember to write down the title of all those books and I for one am not in the mood."

"Piffle," I reply. "Don't you think it would be interesting to know how many books I've read in a year?"

"Interesting to whom?"

"Well, to me, of course, and possibly you."

"Or possibly not." I pause. "What's the payoff?"


"You know, is there a prize at bottom of the box? Some sort of reward to make all that record-keeping worthwhile?"

"There would be a number."

"Like I need another number in my life. Who cares how many books I read in a year's time?"

"But it's not just a number. It's a list. You know how fun it is to dissect a person's personality based on the books stacked on the nightstand. A list of books I've read in a year might reveal interesting personality traits."

"Reveal to whom? Is there anyone out there who needs to know how many times I've read A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--or failed to finish The Magic Mountain?"

"You've got a point there," I admit. "How about this: I'll start the list, and if it gets annoying, I'll quit."

"Fine," I reply. "I predict that before March roars in, you'll forget the whole thing."

And of course I was right: I started a list somewhere, but then I got distracted, and I didn't think about it again until right now. But that doesn't have to be the end of it. January is coming, and with it a whole new year. "Self," I say, "I've got a great idea."

But all I can do is roll my eyes and sigh, "Here we go again."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Happy birthday to me

Sure sign that I'm becoming a POP (Pathetic Older Person): I'm celebrating my birthday by staying home in a quiet house, reading.

Okay, there's a little more to it than that. Last night I persuaded the family to play the Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers' Edition for the first time, and never have I been so grateful for having once read Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. We stopped after nearly two hours of play, when I had four wedges, my son had three, and the bearded wonder--well, he kept responding with variations on The Catcher in the Rye, so what do you expect? "The Cupcake in the Rye," he would say, or 'The Admiral in the Rye." I kept getting questions about books written by baseball managers and professional wrestlers, not exactly the kind of reading you'll find on my bedside table.

This morning the bearded wonder redeemed himself by making a wonderful birthday breakfast, which had to take place fairly early because our son was off to take the ACT, followed by a haircut and Christmas shopping and playing drums in the pep band at the high school basketball game, so 6:45 a.m. was the only time we would be together all day. I got some great birthday loot, including two books from my wish list: Jose Saramago's Seeing and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. And I spent most of the afternoon just sitting around reading.

Now we're thinking about getting out of the house and going to that basketball game. I don't really care about the game, but it would be a good chance to see the unlittle drummer boy in action again. ("The Drummer in the Rye"?) So off we go into the cold dark night to yell hurrah at young people with seemingly unending reservoirs of energy. They'll never be POPs--and just for tonight, neither will I.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Squinting toward bedlam

I have just finished grading the last set of final exams--the final finals--and I am about ready to tear my eyeballs right out of my head. I do not complain about bad handwriting because my own handwriting is no more legible than the footprints of plovers on wet sand. I do, however, have a few words to say about small handwriting. If I have to squint to read it, it's too small. This morning I actually borrowed a magnifying glass from the secretary to help me read these exams. Where do they learn to write such teeny letters? Are students involved in a vast conspiracy to destroy professors' vision, or are they hoping to annoy me into allowing them to take exams online?

Either way, my eyes hurt. I intend to take them home and give them a rest, preferably in front of a roaring fire. They've earned a break. After reading all that microscopic print, my eyes deserve an A+.

Good thing I don't give grades for penmanship.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Traumatic teeth

"Have you been chewing on rocks again?"

This is just the beginning of a long litany of questions my dentist asks when contemplating my molars.

"Were you ever in a bad car wreck? Beaten frequently as a child? Ever fall head-first out of a fourth-floor window?"

No, no, and no.

"These teeth show signs of severe trauma," he says.

"I used to chew on ice a lot," I tell him, and he just leans back and rubs his forehead. I'm doing my best, really; can I help it that I'm brutal on teeth?

Since 1998, those two upper molars have been through Dental Hell: root canals, temporary crowns, fractures, permanant crowns, surgery, more fractures, another crown made with an experimental material, and today a fractured crown. These teeth are both traumatized and traumatizing.

I like my dentist, but that doesn't mean I want to see him every other week. But that's what happens when you carry around the teeth of a person who has fallen head-first out of a fourth-floor window. Wish I knew who that person was so I could give her back her teeth.

Meanwhile, I'll go chew on some gravel.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Loose ends

It occurs to me that I need to do a little housekeeping here, tying up loose ends left hanging in previous posts. Thus:

1. Some time ago, I asked for creative uses for the acronym BUH (read about it here), and I received several clever responses. Oh for a world in which one needed an acronym to describe Burly Urchin Huggers! But no: BUH is actually used on our campus to refer to Budget Unit Heads, a horrible enough title in itself but perfectly wretched when abbreviated as BUH. All I can say is "Blech."

2. I never revealed my personal contribution to our collective faculty wish list (here). I would gladly second many of my colleagues' suggestions, but the items I contributed to the list were "a day without excuses" and "Diet Coke with Lime in the faculty lounge." I suppose I shouldn't make professors at other institutions envious by mentioning that our faculty lounge is stocked with free soft drinks and sometimes snacks, which I appreciate very much; the problem is that we are a Pepsi campus, so anyone who prefers Diet Coke (with or without lime) has to smuggle it in from outside. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?

3. No, I didn't really give my friends giant turnips for Christmas, as I threatened to do here, and I know at least one of my colleagues was deeply disappointed. (Sorry, J!) Instead, they'll have to content themselves with the transcendent dark chocolate mint fudge described here.

That's all for now, unless someone can think of any other pressing reason to delay grading all those final exams.

What I couldn't tell a student 30 seconds before the final exam

Dear Student,
Questions are good. I welcome them. I wish more students would ask questions about concepts they don't understand. However, 30 seconds before a final exam is the wrong time to ask a professor to explain a concept she has spent the previous 15 weeks trying to convey to you through lectures, class discussions, readings, and writing assignments. If you haven't made the effort to master the concept all semester, what makes you think you can learn it in 30 seconds?

I understand that we don't all share the same vocabulary, and I know you must be befuddled to see an unfamiliar phrase in the first essay question, but no, I'm not going to explain what I mean by "conventions of narrative." It must have been frustrating all semester not to know what the word "conventions" means on the frequent occasions when it has come up in class, but if you didn't understand the word, why didn't you ask about it in class? Or if you're not comfortable asking questions in class, why not write the word down so you can look it up later? But that would require actually (a) bringing writing materials to class; (b) paying attention to lectures and discussions; and (c) caring. I suppose it's easier just to let an unfamiliar term waft past unmolested.

As for "narrative," you will recall that the class actaully read a chapter of the textbook dealing with that very topic in some depth, and that we discussed the concept in class and looked at specific examples of various methods of narration--including, as a matter of fact, the very example the final exam question asks you to discuss. If you didn't understand the term "narrative," how did you make it through that lengthy chapter? I suppose it would be rude to ask to what use you put your textbook, assuming that you purchased it.

If not, then I understand your confusion, but that doesn't mean I'll answer your question. For one thing, the concept is not conducive to being boiled down into a 30-second sound bite, and for another, just-in-time delivery works well for Santa, but what you are engaged in is not wish fulfillment but education and education requires long-term effort. Exams are learning experiences and if the primary lesson you learn from this exam is that you need to start putting some effort into your education at some point earlier than the final exam period, then all I can say is Merry Christmas.

Any other questions?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Old news

This morning while driving to work I heard an NPR report about a new 24-hour French news network, and one of the interviewees contrasted the new French outlet with "Anglo-Saxon and Arabic" news networks, as if those two categories pretty much covered the possibilities. This made me grin for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I savor the mental image of an Anglo-Saxon news anchor reporting on the latest depredations over at Heorot:

Scop Smith: A foreigner arriving for a face-off with a fen-dwelling demon, but does Beowulf stand a chance? Hrothgar remaining cautiously optimistic for a swift end to the violence, but his pal Hunferth hedging his bets. He's with our roving reporter Hrolf Hraether at Heorot. Hrolf?"

Hrolf: I'm standing here with Hunferth, one of Hrothgar's loyal thanes. Tell me, Mr. Hunferth, what makes you think Beowulf will fail?

Hunferth: Who is this Beowulf anyway? Sure, his win-loss record is impressive, but he bombed that swimming-match with Breca, and this time he's fighting a real monster--with no home-field advantage!

Hrolf: Is there any concern about the fact that he's a foreigner?

Hunferth: Darn tootin'! Hrothgar has an impressive team of talented retainers right here, so why draft an outsider to do a Dane's work? And what does Beowulf want anyway? Another ring? How many rings can an armed man wear?

Hrolf: That's Hunferth on the scene at Heorot. Back to you, Scop.

Scop: Thanks, Hrolf. By the way, what's the weather look like out there?

Hrolf: The forecast says partly murky with chance of mist, and we're seeing a little of that mist rising from the fen in the distance right now.

Scop: There you have it, fair and balanced as always. Next up: The View welcomes Wealhtheow for a segment on choosing the right goblet for the well-appointed meadhall. Reporting from the Anglo-Saxon News Network, I'm Scop Smith.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Left-leaning letters on the loose!

I'm grading a pile of papers and I keep finding myself writing the same annoying sentence on Works Cited pages: "Do not mix italics and underlining in the same document; pick one and use it consistently." As often as I'm called upon to make the comment, it would be helpful to have it on a rubber stamp. The problem crops up in all my classes, from freshman composition to upper-level literature courses, and I see it on papers written by intelligent students just as often as the mediocre. I suppose mixing italics and underlining is a fairly minor problem compared to, say, failing to formulate a thesis and support it with evidence presented in clear, coherent prose, but still, when I see a Works Cited in which some of the titles are underlined and others are italicized, it's like fingernails on a blackboard--it makes my brain cells scream.

I have tried to educate students about the origin and development of italics, how in the old days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and people had to write out important documents longhand or on a typewriter, italic print simply was not available to the average person, so underlining was used instead. Today anyone can italicize, and they do so wantonly and promiscuously--italicizing here, underlining there, and sometimes (gasp!) doing both at the same time.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of the whole topic. An easy solution would be to outlaw italics--round up all those little left-leaning letters and haul 'em off in handcuffs until they learn to behave. But then I would loose upon the unsuspecting public a generation of students who believe the only way to get italics right is to leave 'em out. Wouldn't it be better to teach students to apply critical thinking to their typographic choices?

That's the approach I've taken so far, and it's clearly not working. I've been writing it all semester and it looks like I'll be writing it for a while longer: do not mix italics and underlining in the same document.

Where's that rubber stamp when I need it?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A stirring experence

Recipe for the sweetest spot in a busy season:

Put sugar, cream, and butter in a heavy saucepan. Pull up a tall chair, turn your back on the world, and stir.

Laundry needs folding? Sorry--keep stirring. Cat throwing up? Someone else will have to clean it up. Bills beg to be paid? It's not worth ruining the recipe.

Focus full attention on the pan. Watch the bubbles bursting open with a bloop. Give a stir. Glance at the candy thermometer. Stir some more. Drag the spoon through the bubbling sugar to make serpentine lines in bubbling chaos. Look at the thermometer. Look at the bubbles. Stir, stir, stir.

Wait with sweet anticipation for that moment of tension toward the end, when it appears as if the mercury might be ready to rise past that little line. Wait for it! Getting closer! Not quite yet, but maybe--yes, there it goes! Grab the pan off the heat and get ready to burst into action.

The moment of transcendence is over--but while it lasted, ahhhhh, how sweet.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Drop until you shop until you drop

This morning before I shopped I dropped things everywhere I went--socks in the laundry room, glasses in the hallway, photos in the kitchen--and then I went out and shopped until I dropped again, this time on the sofa at 6:30 in the evening, where I slept soundly despite the fact that the young man was beating his drum set into submission for a solid hour in the basement and the middle-aged man was beating cake batter no more than 15 feet from where I snoozed.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Faculty wish list

Yesterday the student newspaper printed a Faculty Holiday Wish List consisting of suggestions submitted by my colleagues. Here are a few selections; I'll let you guess which two were mine:

An elevator in [a busy classroom building]
A day without excuses
A jet pack to get me to work
More the right places
World peace and an end to hunger
Diet Coke with Lime in the faculty lounge
For the Detroit Lions to win the Superbowl
A pony
Borders gift cards
A pool
A sixth platonic solid
Proper climate control in my office
Water from the fountain of youth