Sunday, April 30, 2006

My cup runneth over and over and over

The season's first asparagus fresh from the garden, orioles singing as fire pinks bloom, grilled bratwurst with homemade pickle relish, oohs and aahs around the table when the poached pears and caramel sauce hit the tastebuds, extra dishes to wash and extra hands to help.

Young people singing in the shower at both ends of the house and then posing in tuxes and formals in front of the blooming redbud tree, the girls looking like spring blossoms and the boys like James Bond. Shiny shoes, sequined gowns, bow ties and corsages, and a freshly cleaned car to receive them all.

Wonderful colleagues willing to host our department chair's retirement party, who open their house to a colorful crowd, stuffed mushrooms, bruschetta, a chic sheep sheet cake, and a front porch ringing with interdisciplinary laughter.

A hint of Gregorian chant in the morning service, a houseguest who plays all the hymns with aplomb and, later, installs a new battery in the Nissan and even finds the short that has been draining the current. Big hugs all around as the travelers head back to college, big sighs as we sit and consider the silence--and finally, exhausted, an afternoon nap.

Friday, April 28, 2006

All that glitters

The young men are cleaning their bathroom, the middle-aged man is cleaning up his bread-making mess, and I'm desperately searching for my recipe for poached pears. Yes: we're expecting houseguests this weekend.

Not just any houseguests: our adorable daughter is bringing her adorable boyfriend home from college to visit the folks. And not just any weekend: at some point tomorrow, the young people will all climb into formal wear, pick up their dates, pin on corsages, and go to the high school prom, where the adorable daughter will pass the rhinestone tiara on to the new prom queen. We old folks will snap some photos, wave goodbye, and settle into some comfy chairs for a quiet evening at home. If the Ghost of Proms Past makes an appearance, we'll slam the door in his face. That powder-blue polyester tux with the wide lapels and ruffled shirt may have looked spiffy in 1980, but who can face up to it today?

Besides, today I'm busy cleaning the house, poaching the pears, and counting the hours until the wanderers return.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

W & W Inc.

Weeds are bad: on this we can agree.

Wildflowers, on the other hand, are good. Except when they're bad.

Therein lies the difficulty.

Wildflowers are providential; weeds, pestilential. Wildflowers are little bits of beauty popping up when we least expect them, with no effort on our part. Weeds disturb our careful attempts at order, introducing inappropriate colors and textures into the garden. But when I try to divide our local flora into these careful categories, I find myself failing.

Dutchman's Breeches: good because attractive.
Garlic mustard: bad because invasive.
Mayapples: no useful purpose I'm aware of but nevertheless irresistibly adorable, like elven umbrellas sprouting from the forest floor.
Dandelions: in the meadow, acceptable; in the front yard, deplorable.
Trillium: good good good.
Poison ivy: the name says it all.

It's hopeless. No matter how much I rationalize my subjective responses to these plants, my scheme falls apart. But still, I can't shake the heartfelt feeling that weeds represent a curse and wildflowers, grace.

A showman's arrival

Ladies and Gentlemen, direct your attention to the tippy-top of the tulip poplar and let's have a big round of applause for the first oriole of the season! (Cheers and applause.) Yes, he makes his presence known with a distinctive lilting song, inspiring viewers to crane their necks toward the tall trees on the west side of the property. Last year Mr. O played a limited engagement, but with some encouragement he might be persuaded to extend his stay. Give it up for the oriole! (The crowd goes wild.)

Defying the laws of thermodynamics

It's Entropy Day in my literature classes. The American Lit Survey discussed A.R. Ammons's poem "Garbage," which suggests that the universe is made of garbage and to garbage it will return, and this afternoon the Concepts of Nature class will discuss the section of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep that introduces the concept of "kipple," all the miscellaneous stuff that accumulates on the edges of our lives and that we are always fighting to keep under control. Ultimately, says Dick, everything in the universe decays into kipple, little scraps of stuff assuming greater and greater sameness as time goes on.

Somehow I don't find either of these visions of the universe particularly depressing. Ammons, in fact, seems delighted by the ubiquity of garbage, energized by the idea that all we have are scraps and fragments so we may as well make something of them, something playful and powerful like a poem. Dick's vision is more bleak and unforgiving, but its obviously fictional nature makes it easy to distance ourselves from his world: Yes, perhaps in his fictional universe everything turns to kipple, but in my world kipple is kept carefully confined to the edges where I can pretend it's invisible. Kipple may rule in the end, but just for today, it's under control.

Except on my desk, which looks as if a strong Entropy front has been hovering for quite some time. If I can just keep my kipple confined to that one spot, maybe the entropy of my little universe will, just for a moment, tend toward a minimum.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Dead Grandmother Problem

I've been thinking about the Dead Grandmother Problem and I think I've come up with a solution I can live with. Every teacher knows how it works: when students anywhere have major assignments due, all over the country grandmothers start conveniently keeling over. Sometimes it's a grandfather and sometimes it's an aunt or uncle, but the uncanny timing of family members' deaths raises skeptical eyebrows amongst teachers.

Professors of my acquaintance have developed various methods of dealing with the Dead Grandmother Problem. One of my colleagues sent flowers to a student's parents to console them for their loss, but the parents responded, "What loss?" Some send sympathy cards and others require students to produce copies of obituaries.

I suppose these methods all manage to expose lying students, but when a student stands before me and mournfully announces that his beloved grandmother has died, I can't bring myself to say, "Prove it." Maybe this is a weakness in my personality, or maybe I keep wondering what would happen if the student responded to my challenge with proof. Then I would bear the burden of having falsely accused a student of lying about the death of a loved one, and that's a burden I don't need to bear. Besides, I already have my hands full being the Plagiarism Police; do I have to be the Dead Grandmother Police as well? There must be a better way.

One of my former colleagues talked about the karmic debt students accrue when they lie about the deaths of loved ones. This is an attitude I find more congenial. I don't believe in karma, but on the other hand, a student who will falsely murder his beloved grandmother just to get an extension on a research paper exhibits the kind of moral sleaziness that is bound to result, eventually, in retribution. So these days when a student offers the Dead Grandmother excuse, I just nod and smile and trust that someday, somewhere, somehow, his sins will find him out.

Just don't ask me to be the one to find them.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

An errant umbrella

There's nothing unusual about losing an umbrella; in fact, umbrellas wander so freely in and out of my life that I consider myself merely a way station on the umbrella's quest for its true destination. When a seven-foot patio umbrella disappears, however, people stand up and take notice.

And then they start wandering around the yard looking for it: in the shed, the back yard, the side yard, the creek, but if it's stuck on the slope that leads down to the creek it's lost for good because nobody's interested in climbing down that way. Then one of the young men turned and looked up and there it was sitting on the roof as if placed there by the hand of a benevolent weather deity.

How did the umbrella get up on the roof? Wind is the chief suspect, but it's not talking. How did the umbrella get down from the roof? Two men and a rake. What account was the umbrella able to give of its adventures? None at all; it just meekly went back to keeping the sun off our picnic without a word of explanation. I'm not sure what it would say anyway aside from "Thanks for the lift."

Call me inaccessible

Times like these I'm reminded of the joys of country living. We're just past the manure-spreading season, so we can breathe freely again. Last spring we spent a beautiful weekend afternoon eating grilled food out on the deck with friends; birds were singing and a breeze was blowing and a manure spreader was making aromatic circles on the field just below our hillside. Ah, that fresh country air! Smells like money, says the farmer.

But that's not the issue today. Today's issue is rain. Rain is good; rain makes the mayapples pop up and the grass grow (although I wouldn't mind if it did a little less of that at the moment), but rain also makes our neolithic telephone lines so full of static that it's impossible to make phone calls, and our dial-up internet connection becomes virtually useless.

It has now been raining on and off for four days, with a generous hiatus yesterday afternoon, during which we all sat outside and absorbed all the sunshine we could capture. One or two days of light rain don't do much, but when it rains steadily like this for days on end, our phone lines become unreliable. Cell phones are always unreliable out here, thanks to our excellent location nestled between hills with no cell tower in sight. Cable? Forget it; that's for the civilized world. We live in Bedrock, where neighbors communicate by tying together tin cans with string. Not only is there no cable, but there's no broadcast television reception either, thanks to the aforementioned excellent location, which was made for sattelite TV.

But it's not all bad. Inaccessibility has its advantages. No phone solicitors, for instance, no blogging, and no whiny e-mails from students demanding deadline extensions, which leaves plenty of time for sitting out on the deck and watching the manure dry.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Mowing through the morning

"Are you blogging again?" asks my colleague as she steps into my office. Yes, of course I'm blogging. "You're addicted," she says. I'm willing to entertain the proposition, especially after spending four days at a conference where I willingly paid $5 once or twice every day just to spend 20 minutes on a computer. I would sign on and then frantically scroll through my e-mail and post a blog entry; when the "60 seconds remaining" warning popped up, I would hit "publish" without even proof-reading. Is that addiction?

I can stop any time I want. Today, for instance, I could just skip posting and go do something more interesting, like watch the grass grow, which is pretty exciting these days since the grass is growing at the speed of Indy 500 race cars. I could go cut the grass, except the power mower is in the shop (fourth new transmission in two years) and the manufacturer has agreed to refund the full purchase price and we can't buy a new mower until the refund check arrives in the mail. I could use the reel mower, but it works best when the grass is under twelve feet tall--and besides, it hasn't been used since last summer, so it probably needs sharpening. So instead I think I'll blog.

I could mow through the papers piled on my desk, I suppose, but the grading pile has shrunk to infinitesimal proportions, and when the pile is under a half-inch tall, the task just loses all sense of challenge. I could write up minutes from Monday's faculty council meeting or revise a proposal or file some folders. Or I could blog. Blogging feels like exercise: my fingers fly across the keys, incinerating calories and strengthening those all-important finger muscles. It's a virtuous act. It's writing. At least that's what I tell myself. And if that makes me addicted, at least it's a harmless addiction. No persons or animals were injured in the writing of this blog, which is more than I can say for my mowing skills.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Last week the "check engine" light in my van, which has been illuminated for more than a year for no reason my mechanic has been able to discover, suddenly went dark, and at around the same time the "check engine" light in the Neon came on. This confirms that the Law of Conservation of Engine Light Illumination in the Universe remains in force.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Where's mine?

Last night a bitter laugh swept through the faculty section every time David Horowitz repeated the accusation that college professors work only six hours a week, get four months' paid vacation a year, fly first-class to academic conferences, and earn $150,000 a year. Afterward several faculty members accosted the provost to ask, "Where's my $150K?" If I'm going to be publicly criticized for making that kind of money, I ought to have something to show for it.

I'll bet David Horowitz makes $37,500 a year and always flies coach.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

From inane to entertaining

I have a proposal which will, if implemented, do more to improve the aesthetics and entertainment of American culture than any other innovation since Edison invented the phonograph. My plan is based on three basic assumptions and a question:

1. People are going to talk on their cellphones loudly in public places, and no amount of whining, cajoling, pleading, or violence is going to make them stop.
2. The conversations people will have on their cellphones in public places are, for the most part, inane, asinine, and downright dull.
3. People not talking on cellphones in public places are and will continue to be annoyed by being forced to overhear inane, asinine, and downright dull conversations.

Hence, my question: would people not talking on cellphones be less annoyed if the conversations they were forced to overhear were a bit more entertaining? Let's face it: eavesdropping can be fun! Every day millions of people tune in to talk radio and television talk shows (and blogs!) in order to eavesdrop on interesting conversations; no one would ever tune in if talk radio consisted primarily of one-sided conversations that sound like this:

Hi it's me.
Nothing much. I'm at the airport.
Yeah. My flight got delayed.
Dunno. Something mechanical. They're fixing it now.
Pretty hot in Phoenix but it's okay here. Might rain later.

Since we have this immense resource (people willing to run off at the mouth in public places), we have an opportunity--nay, a responsibility--to use it. If people insist on talking loudly into their cellphones in public spaces, the least they can do is be entertaining. I say we make it a federal crime to have boring cellphone conversations in public and empower a new corps of highly-trained law officers to enforce this law. A person caught red-handed in a restaurant yelling into the cellphone "I said I'll pick up toilet paper on the way home" would be issued an Inanity Citation and would have to pay a fine; repeat offenders would be forced to sit in an airport terminal full of angry travellers all day without a newspaper, magazine, book, cellphone, laptop computer, or any other boredom-reducing device.

Before you know it public places would be cleared of inane cellphone conversations and those of us without cellphones could have a little silence in which to eavesdrop on the criminal conspiracies, romantic assignations, and passionate arguments filling public space. Now that's entertainment.

Monday, April 17, 2006

We have a positive I.D.

Further investigation reveals the presence of twinleaf blossoms, which normally last only a day or two before wilting. The hillside has exploded with brilliant white trilliums, and over by the creek I found Dutchman's Breeches blooming and a few trout lilies just about ready to open. Last Thursday when I left here, the woods were brown and wintry. What a difference a few days can make.

April showers bring mayapples

Arrived home too late last night to see what was up in the woods, so this morning I stopped to have a look. The creek is up and some tree limbs are down after some serious weekend storms, but I was most excited to see trillium and redbud blooming profusely. Mayapples are popping up and I saw some small bright white blossoms of unknown provenance near the twinleaf patch. I'd like to hike up there and take a look, but I'm not tromping up there in dress shoes. It can wait. Meanwhile, I need to attend to my desk, which is blossoming with papers needing immediate attention. Tromping into that thicket won't be much fun, but at least I don't have to change my shoes.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Turning down the volume

How many academics does it take to turn down the volume on a TV set?

Five. At least that's how many I saw yesterday huddled around a remote control trying to figure out how to stop a video from blasting our eardrums out.

That was at one of the few sessions I attended that even used technology. Everyone here carries a laptop and cellphone, but we tend to deliver papers the old-fashioned way: by standing behind a podium and reading from the pages. When we try to use technology, we're not very good at it. I saw a scholar get all befuddled when his PowerPoint presentation insisted on running backward, and another struggling to get his laptop hooked up to the television and then, upon learning that he had only 15 minutes in which to deliver his paper, closing the laptop so he could prop his paper on the lid and just speaking extemporaneously for just over 14 minutes.

Me? I just read my paper and prayed that no one would ask me to change a lightbulb. How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb? Nobody knows; the project never got past the subcommittee stage.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Trapped in the echo chamber

An amazing thing happened at a conference session this morning: a disagreement broke out. Most academic conferences I've attended sound like echo chambers, each paper serving to remind the meager audience that we are all enlightened, intelligent people here. Papers pat each other on the back and presenters politely reinforce each others' points, but rarely does real dialogue break out, the sort of dialogue that can occur only when big ideas bump awkwardly against each other in public. Those are the sessions that stand out in memory; the rest just blur together in to a big mushy mess.

Of all the conference sessions I've attended, the only one that burned a permanent mark in my memory occurred at a conference in New Zealand some years ago when a Maori scholar arose before a plenary session and angrily accused us all of being intellectual tourists guilty of cultural imperialism. Whatever else she may have accomplished, she made people think--and talk--about important issues.

At this conference I missed the roundtable discussion on What's Wrong with Academic Conferences, but here's my answer: too many papers on tiny, esoteric topics; too few big ideas; and too little ground for disagreement. Big ideas are messy and awkward and sometimes cause voices to raise and tempers to flare, but that would have to be better than all this polite agreement about issues that really don't much matter. There's no dialogue in an echo chamber.

On the other hand, twice this weekend I've heard scholars suggest that we should subvert the dominant paradigm simply by moving our chairs into a circle. Call me cantankerous, but if all it takes to assert one's status as a revolutionary is to move furniture, then I've got a few classrooms full of subversives. Dangerous? Not unless you get in the way while they're moving their chairs.

Mud on my shoes

Judging from the wardrobes on the academic women at this conference, I have to admit that I don't accessorize well. They look sleek, professional, polished, with belts that match their shoes and coordinating earrings, necklaces, and clinking bracelets. I arrived with no earrings (because when I travel with earrings, I lose them) and mud on my loafers that I certainly didn't pick up in an airport. That mud may have been there for weeks. You can't be a sleek sophisticate with mud on your loafers.

My academic wardrobe is the opposite of sleekly sophisticated, but it's not the "antipodes," a word I would never use in the way I heard it used yesterday. A scholar kept referring to something as "an antipodes," rhyming it with "modes," as if "an antipodes" meant "the opposite." Also, I'll never fit into sleekly sophisticated clothes if I insist on going to papers extolling the virtues of the Hershey Bar. "For most Americans, the Hershey Bar can do more than Milton can to justify the ways of God to man," said the Hershey Bar scholar. He said this on Good Friday, which Ms. Mentor (Emily Toth) calls a holiday for all academics because it's about "good people treated badly," a topic on which we are experts. Ms. Mentor encouraged her listeners to remind others often of our goodness: "As an academic, it's good to talk about your greatness because people will believe it." Unless you have mud on your shoes.

But, as Ms. Mentor also pointed out, "guilt is a useless emotion," so I'll put the mud out of my mind and move on. Perhaps it's time to transmute my inferior wardrobe into something more sleekly sophisticated, but another scholar yesterday asserted that "Transmutation is harder than transcendence." So let us all transcend!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Questing for the Quotidian

Choice is good, but there's such a thing as too much. This morning, for instance, if I had a burning desire to find the answer to the question "Is Tom Cruise a Modern Fridolin?," I could listen to a scholarly paper by that title, but if I did, I'd have to skip the one called "No Sex, Please, We're Arthurian," which is in the same session as " 'Don't worry, I won't let them rape you': Repellant Homoeroticism in King Arthur 2004." Some paper titles promise to satisfy different kinds of hunger: "The Chop Suey Craze in Early Twentieth-Century Popular Culture" is in the same session as "Hess's Strawbery Pie and Community Memory" and "Apple Nation: Semiotics of the Native Americanin Washington's Apple Culture." If I want to pursue mortification of the flesh, on the other hand, I could attend a paper called "Broken Bodies and Wrinkled Faces: Humor and Disability in Contemporary Birthday Cards" or another called "Too Fat, Too Hairy, Too (In)visible: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Normative Femininity." Or what about "Women Collecting Doll Parts: Beauty, the Uncanny, and Voodoo as a Source of Bodily Subversion"?

More appealing titles include "Dames, Babes, Battleaxes, and Tomatoes: Women and the Three Stooges" or "Act I: Handsome Man Rescues Prostitute," but I have to look pretty hard to find a title without a colon: "Hip Hop Video Vixens." The Buzzword Bingo grand prize winner would have to be "Dynamic Indigenous Transnational Exhanged Reinscribing Frozen Reification: The Windigo Spirit in Post/Colonial Cinema," but if I go to that paper then I won't be able to hear "Here There Be Ronsters: Gender Trouble in the Scooby-Doo Movies" or "NBA 'Sign Language': A Case Study of Detroit Pistons' Fans and Their Acts of Sign Making."

The paper title that appeals to me most, though, provides little clue to the paper's content: "The Quest for the Quotidian." Story of my life, but do I really want to hear a paper on that? The quotidian is so mundane, so ordinary, so everyday...but when I try to choose from among all these fascinating papers, today's quotidian quest looks almost heroic.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Trains, planes, and automobiles

I left the house at 6 a.m., when the fog still blanketed the roads along the river, and arrived at my hotel in Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. I could have driven to Atlanta and arrived sooner, but instead I spent the day in and out of a variety of trains, planes, and automobiles, and I graded an entire set of freshman comp essays during a three-hour layover in the Reagan National Airport. My only source of exercise all day was the long hike from concourse D to the baggage claim at the Atlanta airport, and then on the train from the airport to the hotel I got off at the wrong station and ended up seeing more of MARTA than was strictly necessary, but on the other hand, it only cost me $1.75.

I have a room (courtesy of the college) at a hotel of such interior loveliness that I have to keep resisting the desire to stand in the middle of the lobbying looking up and gawking like a tourist, which I suppose I am. And after all that time traveling and hiking and waiting and sweating, I enjoyed a sandwich of smoked ham and sliced apples on raisin bread, for which I paid the ridiculous sum of $7.25. But I have to say, it was worth every penny.

Tomorrow the fun starts: attending conference sessions, presenting a paper, looking over publishers' displays. This is an entirely stress-free conference for me: the paper has long been written and it has already been accepted for publication, I'm not interviewing anyone or being interviewed, and there's no one here I need to impress. I may sweat a bit before I give my paper tomorrow, but aside from that, it's all gravy.

Tonight, though, I rest. After spending a very long day being intermittently in transit, I'm ready to just settle down and be still.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Inedible art

A cup of cappuccino when my husband makes it is a work of art: a grandissimo clear plastic cup rippling with undulating layers of luscious colors ranging from pure frothy cloud to murky mud. The aroma is arousing; I am tempted to taste. But that would be a mistake. When it comes to coffee, I'm strictly a voyeur; drinking the stuff makes me sick.

It hasn't always been this way. In my teens when I worked as a waitress and then as a journalist, coffee was my lifeblood. I liked it sweet and creamy but I would drink it poured over ice or lukewarm and stale. I lived on coffee the way I lived on oxygen; I didn't really care if it was any good.

Then everything changed. It happened very suddenly when we were camping in the woods and making coffee in a battered tin coffeepot over a wood fire . There's nothing better than waking up in a cool, damp tent, tossing a sweatshirt over your jammies, and sitting in front of an open fire with a blisteringly hot cup of very strong coffee, but that coffee tastes an awful lot better going down than coming up. I'm not sure what caused it (probably not the coffee), but I spent a whole day at the campground either throwing up or trying not to--and the last thing I had injested before I got sick was a big cup of hot coffee.

That was ten years ago and I still can't drink coffee. For years I could get nauseated just by walking past a Starbucks and I couldn't kiss my husband if he had coffee breath. Our household became strictly segregated: one coffeemaker for coffee, another for tea, and a third complicated contraption for cappuccino. One travel mug for coffee, another for tea; one cabinet for coffee, another for tea--and never the twain shall meet.

Over time I've grown less intolerant of coffee and I've even developed an appreciation for that wonderful coffee aroma, but I still can't drink it. The last time I drank coffee was at the 2005 MLA convention in Washington, D.C., wehre I spent two days interviewing job candidates in a very pleasant little nook in a hotel lobby with the coldest floor this side of the Arctic. Halfway through the first day of interviews, my feet were so cold I couldn't think straight, so I wandered around looking for something hot to drink. The hospitality booth in the lobby offered coffee but no tea. I've grown accustomed to the fact that the universe discriminates against tea drinkers, but this time I was desperate so I poured a cup of strong hot coffee, dropped in some sugar, and started drinking.

It took me half an hour to drink half the cup and then I gave up. I felt moderately warmer and more alert, but I also felt as if I might unexpectedly vomit all over the next interviewee, which would ruin his nice Dress for Success suit, not to mention the interview.

Clearly, coffee and I suffer irreconcileable differences. These days, I prefer to watch as the resident cappuccino drinker pours in the foamy milk and then drizzles the rich aromatic coffee over the top, and then the layers of luscious colors swirl and coalesce. It's a work of art, but I have to remind myself that most art is not edible. I drink it with my eyes but when I'm thirsty, I reach for the teapot.

Slouching toward Prom

Last night I learned, to my chagrin, that none of the tuxedo rental establishments in this area are open in the evening. This is not a total disaster; after all, my young men have no school on Thursday, so they can go tux-shopping then. However, I'll be in Atlanta for a conference Thursday through Sunday, so they'll have to shop without me. This is also not a disaster, although it certainly has potential to go that way, especially when you consider that last night I had to explain to the young men the answers to the following essential questions:

1. What, exactly, is the difference between a suit and a tuxedo and why does anyone care?
2. What is a cummerbund and why do I need one?
3. Who cares what kind of tux I rent? It's just a dance.

Somehow these questions never came up when I was dressing a daughter for prom; my role was simply to make sure there was plenty of film in the camera. This morning it occurred to me that I haven't discussed with the young men the important topic of corsages: does your date prefer a pinned corsage or a wrist corsage? What color? Any floral allergies? I can see their eyes rolling already.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Moby Goldfish

Today in the Concepts of Nature class we finally finished Moby Dick, so we decided to celebrate with snacks. Whale steaks and blubber were out of the question, so instead we had goldfish crackers and gummy worms. I would have taken salt-water taffy but I couldn't find any on short notice.

Goldfish are a far cry from whales, but on the other hand, who wants to bite into Blubber McNuggets? We prefer our whales alive. It's pleasant to think that Moby Dick might be out there even now, his hide all pincushioned with harpoons and the last lingering remains of Fedallah riding his back into the briny deep. Let him swim. May his tribe increase. We'll content ourselves with goldfish.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Horsemen of the Esophagus

The May Atlantic contains an article on competitive eating by Jason Fagone, who penned the following remarkable statement:

Competitive eating is a symbolic hair ball coughed up by the American id. It is meaningful like a tumor is meaningful. It seems to have a purpose, a message, and its message is this: Look upon our gurgitators, ye Mighty, and despair. Behold these new super-gluttons, these ambassadors of the American appetite, these Horsemen of the Esophagus.

I am inspired to work the word "gurgitators" into my everyday speech. It sounds like either a vile insult or an essential part of a washing machine, second cousin to a widget. Either way I'll find a way to cough it up in conversation sometime soon in the full confidence that no one will know what I'm talking about. I guess I'm just a glutton for words.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Explaining the unexplainable

Yesterday's thoughts about questions we can't ask job candidates reminded me of the horrible questions I've been asked on job interviews. Three stand out, from least to most horrible:

1. "You are planning to wear something that looks professional for the interview, aren't you?" This question came from one of my helpful colleagues about a week before the biggest interview of my life. My answer was something like, "Um, I've been dressing professionally every day. At least I think I have."

2. "What are the disadvantages of taking seven years off between the Masters and the Ph.D.?" Well, um, let's see: here I am at the age of 39 applying for my first tenure-track job...but on the other hand, my life has been rich in real-world experience that will enrich my teaching blah blah blah. What I really wanted to say was, "What are the disadvantages of going straight through school from kindergarten to the Ph.D. without taking a single break for breathing or living or having a family?" But that would be rude.

3. "Do you believe in Satan?" This came from a member of a search committee, who, fortunately, did not allow me to answer; instead, she named a member of the department I would be joining and said, "That man is the spawn of Satan." And she meant it.

It's just as well that she didn't give me a chance to answer because what could I say? My candidacy was already doomed because of my unprofessional garb and my unconventional career path; how much damage could I have done by disagreeing? "Spawn of Satan? I don't think so. Maybe second cousin once removed on Satan's distaff side, but I don't know about Spawn of Satan."

Nevertheless here I am. I got the job. I still suffer from the delusion that my wardrobe is fine, and I make no apologies for taking a few detours before finishing the Ph.D. The Spawn of Satan doesn't work here anymore but I understand he's doing quite well in his new endeavor. "Some careers just can't be explained," says one of my wonderful colleagues, and she's right. So instead of explaining, I think I'll just enjoy.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Questions out the wazoo

"The candidate has teaching experience out the wazoo," I said, upon which my colleague from the biology department said, "Where, exactly, is the wazoo located?"

As a trained grammarian, I am accustomed to being accosted by desperate people needing immediate answers for life's difficult questions: is it i before e or vice versa? And what does vice versa mean anyway? Is it related to veni, vidi, vici? What is an ide and why should I beware of it? Exactly how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable are all the uses of this world, to the nearest whole number? If you read every seventeenth word of Tristram Shandy starting from the end, does he ever grow up? And is it true that if you deconstruct Derrida, your brain will explode?

These questions I can handle, but I'd rather not get mired in the controversy raging over the exact location of the wazoo. Besides, I may have committed a minor indiscretion: I believe the condition of a candidate's wazoo is probably one of those "don't ask, don't tell" questions, the questions search committees wish candidates would just go ahead and answer without being asked, like do you enjoy sexually harrassing students? How often? How many open cases? Any substance abuse problems? How likely are you to try to run over a colleague with your car? Did you write your cover letter yourself or did you get help? How much help? From whom? Any plagiarism in your Master's thesis? Inflated degrees on the resume? And do you really have teaching experience out the wazoo or is that something else entirely?

But we can't ask those questions and even if we could, what kind of confidence would we have in the answers? So I stick to i before e except after c and leave the whole wazoo question in the capable hands of the biologists.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Waiting for No-Show

Can someone please explain to me why I'm wasting a perfectly beautiful spring day sitting in my office awaiting the arrival of a student who in the entire time he has been my advisee has never once shown up for a scheduled meeting?

Am I just a slow learner?

Do I dare leave?

If I leave, will he show up and leave an angry note on my door?

How much do I care?

Still life with weasels

It was Annie Dillard day in the nature class today and Raymond Carver day in American Lit. Dillard enjoys a transcendent moment of connection with a weasel and Carver's alienated narrator experiences a transcendent moment of lack of connection to anything, two moments that take my breath away every time I encounter them:

Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.

In these unexpected silences, when consciousness seems suspended and the self takes a hike, where does it go? And where can I find a map so I can follow?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Give me libraries or give me death

I've just come from a presentation about the new library that will soon be built on campus, and I love it. Then again, I love all libraries. There's something about a library that I find irresistible.

As a child I loved sitting on the floor in the children's department with a great big colorful book on my lap, and in my teens I looked forward to Saturday mornings when I could ride my big clunky yellow bike to the library and come back with a basket rattling with books. I remember my first shy forays into the adult section of the library and, later, my discovery of Special Collections. When I visit a campus I need to spend time in the library even if I never even open a book.

Among large metropolitan libraries, Chicago is my favorite, and not just because of the majestic bronze bust of Gwendolyn Brooks looking like a no-nonsense poetry goddess; I love the top floor with its plants and benches and quiet reading spaces. In Columbus I love the Ohioana Library, with its huge, climate-controlled stacks full of wonderfully rare books by Ohio authors or about Ohio, but I also love the horrible crowded dusty stacks at OSU. Once I visited the Indiana State Library to read a rare typescript related to Gene Stratton Porter, and I loved the overblown classical architecture in the lobby, its immense marble walls inscribed with the names of the world's great writers and thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle right down to James Whitcomb Riley.

I even love imaginary libraries: the labyrinthine library in The Name of the Rose, or the library presided over by the Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire in the Jasper Fforde novels. I love the thought of the defunct Coonskin Library, a few pioneering wheelbarrows full of books purchased by money raised by the sale of raccoon pelts in eighteen-ought-six or thereabouts. However limited it might be, it's still a library, and what more could I want?

Which is why I don't understand all this talk about finding ways to lure students into the library, as if all we have to do is find the right bait and students will come streaming through the doors. What kind of bait do they need? We have books; we have magazines; we have Special Collections; we even have big comfy chairs and lots of light. If that won't work, how much good will a cybercafe really do?

But I love the new library nevertheless. I can't wait for it to be built so I can visit it. In fact, why wait? I'll pay a little imaginary visit right now.

Monday, April 03, 2006

From flat to flighty

I'm convinced that the primary purpose of the time change is to allow teachers of early-morning classes to see more of their students' eyelids. At least I know that's what I saw this morning at 9 a.m. The class was, frankly, a bit dull, despite the presence of Faulkner in our midst; the afternoon class was more alert, but by then we all had something to be alert about: high winds, the-sky-is-falling clouds, and a genuine tornado warning. "Can we cancel class since there might be a tornado?" asked one eager student. "Sure," I said, "and tomorrow we'll cancel class since there might be an invasion of Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts." We stayed put and talked about Melville.

Who is doing quite well, thank you very much. I had one of those moments of pure transcendence during the class, when I was suddenly standing to the side watching the professor lecture and it was pretty darn scintillating, and not only that, but that professor was me. I. Whatever.

Then I came home and baked a cake that did not rise correctly, or at least I'm assuming that's what happened. It is supposed to be a light, delicate white cake that I will slice into three layers into which I will spoon homemade lemon curd. The lemon curd is perfect but the cake--well, if I'm supposed to cut that puny little thing into three layers, I'll have to get a knife that cuts on the molecular level.

I blame the weather, or the time change, or the impending invasion of Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts (who like their cakes flat). Or maybe sometimes cakes just fall flat, and sometimes eyelids just don't have the energy to stay open, and sometimes a lecture just takes wing.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Navel-gazing nudibranches

Earlier today I was wondering whether I'm a bad blogger, whether I should feel guilty for skipping posting a few days while pursuing the S &V weight loss plan (for the uninitiatied, that's Sweat & Vomit), and that raised the question of what distinguishes a "good" blogger from a "bad" blogger--frequency? quality? length?--which in turn suggested that there are so many different types of blogs that my best bet would be to assess how well I am meeting my own goals re: blogging, perhaps by means of a handy rubric, but this would require once again raising the tiresome issue of what in the world I think I'm doing here, and that's one rabbit hole into which I do not intend to be lured. So let's talk about something completely different.

Birds, for instance. The woodpeckers are abundant this year: downy, hairy, red-bellied, and the signs suggest pileated as well. The other day we wandered into a remote part of the woods and found a tall dead pine tree with I would guess 98 percent of its bark scattered on the ground around it as if it had just exploded off the tree, but the trademark holes spelled out woodpeckers. Since the last time we saw that tree (which could not have been all that long ago), it had been completed denuded, which is a pretty cool word. Denuded. Very satisfying. Like nudibranch, a word I encountered today in a sentence approximately like this one: "After they went into town to tell the story to everyone, a biologist told them that they were nudibranches."

I suppose the lesson in there is that it doesn't matter how many times you've been to town and told the story; when the biologist tells you you're a nudibranch, it's over. Unless you want to start thinking about whether you're a good nudibranch, setting goals and objectives and assessing them on rubrics. When the nudibranches start blogging--well, there goes the neighborhood.