Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Shtick therapy

So this afternoon I was really annoyed to learn that a particular decision did not go my way, and I was so angry and bothered that I wanted to just go home and skip the rest of my responsibilities. But I had a class waiting so I went in there and put on this big fakey smile and started through my usual clownlike shtick and before you know it I got caught up in the performance and forgot to be annoyed. My students aren't perfect but they're engaging and they're why I'm here, and sometimes that's enough.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Stare therapy

Are you staring out the window? Stop that! Stop it right now! Okay, I agree, the view looks like a page ripped from a calendar called Winter Wonderland, but that doesn't justify your sitting there staring. There's work to be done. Paperwork! Classwork! Reading research writing work!

Okay, I grant that you've been working really hard lately. Yes, that quadrennial program review was a real pain to revise, but you submitted that last Friday and you should have gotten your fill of staring out the window over the weekend. That's what weekends are for, especially snowy weekends when the winter birds are paying frequent visits to the feeders. But in case you haven't noticed, the weekend is over. This is Monday! Nobody is allowed to stare out the window on Monday!

Yes, the snow looks nice and fresh and innocent, but as you were just telling your students during the discussion of "Daisy Miller" this morning, innocence is not always an entirely admirable trait. I know you put a lot of energy into preparing for and teaching that class, and I know you've put more into preparing tomorrow's classes, but that doesn't mean it's time to slack off. You've got some momentum; let's keep it rolling! Stop staring!

I know your eyeballs hurt and your brain needs a break; I know about the 472 e-mail messages and the tax forms and the FAFSA and all the little boxes that need to have the right numbers put into them and how difficult it can be to find those numbers and how frustrating it is when they don't add up. I know about the meeting with the Powers That Be and the mock-up of next year's course schedule that you threw together Friday afternoon after everyone else in the department had gone home, and I know how anxiety about the schedule and the meeting interfered with your sleep all weekend. Now that today's classes are done and tomorrow's are prepared, I know you'd like nothing better than to sit and stare the afternoon away, preferably in a quiet room with the lights off and the door shut. But you can't, okay? That's not the way we do things around here. As your pal Daisy Miller learned, it's dangerous to defy convention. Department chairs who goof off in their offices may not die of malaria, but they're certain to suffer somehow. The PTB's won't like to see you staring out your office window. So stop staring.

Or if you can't stop, maybe you'd better just shut the door.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cosmic confusion

Today I received a call for papers for a conference panel on Postcolonial Environments, a topic on which I have read, written, taught, and thought a great deal, and one of the suggested topics was "planetarity." If I were still among the untenured I would nod and smile and find a way to work the word into a sentence, preferably along with "hegemony" and "alterity" and my all-time least favorite piece of lit-theory jargon, "imaginary" used as a noun. But I have tenure so I'm not afraid to ask: what the heck is "planetarity"? From the context I suspect that it's a sort of anthropocentricsm on a planetary level, a tendency to view one's own planet as the center of the universe, the standard by which all other heavenly bodies might be measured (and, most likely, found wanting).

But I don't know. On the topic of planetarity I suffer from ignorance on a global scale. In fact, perhaps my use of the word "global" itself reeks of planetarity, suggesting an unthinking willingness to accept my own paltry planet as the measure that matters in the universe. But that's just quibbling: I'm perfectly willing to say my ignorance of the topic is universal if that will save me from accusations of planetarity--but first someone will have to tell me what it means.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hearing voices

This evening I've been hearing voices--and I don't want to make them shut up.

A year ago I tried a new method to get my students responding to literature in writing: over the course of the semester, they had to e-mail me 250-word comments on their reading 25 different times. Next month I'm giving a conference paper about the results of this experiment, so I've spent some time revisiting those students' reading comments in order to count and classify them. I wanted to find out what percentage of their reading comments could be classified as analytical (about half) and whether that percentage increased over time (yes).

The data will make for an interesting paper, but the best part of the experience was that in revisiting 472 e-mailed comments, I heard the voices of those students as clearly as if they were standing right next to me--and they were pretty good company. When I originally received those messages, I read them piecemeal and never looked back; today I skimmed all 472 messages and saw an amazing depth of insight and growth in understanding over time, along with a significant amount of confusion, creativity, and silliness. I wanted to thank the students who wrote all those messages, but even more, I wanted to keep the conversation going.

The experiment was such a resounding success that I'm trying it again this semester with another class. Soon I'll have a new set of voices vying for attention, sending last year's voices even deeper into the mists of memory. Today it was good to set those voices loose one more time before closing the file on them forever.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Rural rap

This morning my American Lit Survey class looked at Sara Orne Jewett's "A White Heron" and Hamlin Garland's "Under the Lion's Paw," and one of the students suggested that these stories are like two different types of country music: one peppy and perhaps a bit sappy and the other more of a working man's blues. (Which reminds me of the very silly riddle: what happens when you play country music backward? You get your dog back, you get your truck back, you get your wife back...)

My student may be right, but here's my question: why country music? Why don't we have rap music related to rural life? "Under the Lion's Paw" has all the ingredients for a great rap--oppressive landlords, marauding grasshoppers, hopeless homeless people, and the threat of random violence, albeit with a pitchfork--and a "White Heron" rap could go all Freudian about boys 'n' guns, complete with a metaphoric rape of innocence. That's a rap I'd listen to, but who will write it?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thinking about sharing about thinking about sharing

I've been thinking about sharing with others today but I'm not sure how to interpret the advice I received from a usually reliable source: a fortune cookie. Everyone else at the table tonight recieved fairly uplifting fortunes like "Your talents are appreciated" or "You will succeed in many endeavors," but mine was more ambiguous: "Think before sharing with others." Okay, I'm thinking, but does this mean I should think first and then share or just think and not share at all?

I think I'll think about sharing what one of my colleagues said yesterday in the faculty lounge when, in response to my offer to show him the picture of my garage that appeared on my blog, he said, "So you're one of those people who expose their entire lives on the web." Well, no, I hope I'm not one of those people, although I admit that I have exposed some of the webs that complicate my life (read about it here, here, or here). Down in the damp cellar I have a dusty foot-locker stuffed so full of miscellaneous fragments of my life that I have to sit on the lid to make it shut, but every once in a while an especially persistent piece forces its way out into the light of common day. (Who can identify the source of that lovely phrase? Don't fail me, JM!)

Since I try very hard to keep those unruly fragments of my life under wraps, it's a bit disconcerting to be reviled for exposing myself. Please, people: I'm biting holes in my tongue to avoid exposing my entire life on the web! You should see how much I'm not even thinking about sharing, or thinking about not sharing, or whatever! If anyone needs to think about not sharing, it's whoever wrote that fortune cookie!

That's what I'm thinking about sharing today, but after receiving such a pointed warning, I think I'll think about not sharing it after all.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

All right writing

I made my composition students write an essay in class this morning and heard for the first but certainly not the last time those dreaded words, "How long should it be?"

"Long enough," I said, and a student in the back said "All right!" as if I'd just given him permission to slack off.

"Long enough to achieve the purpose of the essay," I added, and again he said "All right!" as if I'd encouraged him to write an essay whose purpose is to say approximately nothing.

"Give me your best work," I said, and he looked delighted, as if I'd commanded him to demonstrate his mastery of drivel.

"Look," I said, "I don't count words. Life is too short. I'm looking for a well-developed essay using examples in support of a thesis, and some students may be able to do that in 300 words although most will use 500 or more--in fact, it takes more discipline and skill to write a good essay concisely than to ramble on. I don't even know your name yet and I certainly don't know what you can do with a pen and paper, so just give me your best work and make it long enough to achieve the purpose."

"All right!" he said, but I won't know whether it's really all right until I read his work.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Have you taught yet?

Wherever two or three professors are gathered together today there in the midst of them will be this question: "Have you taught yet?" And then the follow-up: "How'd it go?"

It's almost a ritual, this formulaic question summing up the values of the community. I may have attended meetings or responded to messages or read or written or researched, but if I haven't taught yet, I haven't entered the Promised Land.

In any gathering of professors who have taught, the question produces an eruption of anecdote, complaint, and gossip, leaving those who have not taught (yet) with nothing to say--sort of like the sole childless person in a room full of new parents, or the sole celibate on a swingers' cruise. Any given professor might possess a fount of knowledge and experience, but he's innocent and ignorant if he has not taught yet.

Have I taught yet? Yes, and it felt great to stand in front of that sea of faces and talk about literature. Two cell phones rang noisily, giving me an opportunity to exercise the steely glare of disapproval that rarely gets used over break. There's a large waiting list for that class, so I tried to scare a few students away by making them write about poetry--on the first day of class! Now I can't wait to read their comments.

And I'd like to read yours too. Have you taught yet? How'd it go?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Sunday drive

My mistake, I think, resulted from choosing comfort over safety. Take the comfy car that doesn't handle well in snow or the one that handles well in snow but makes me want to drive it off a cliff? Clear roads, sparse snowflakes--"Let's take the comfortable car."

So we drove straight into a snowstorm in great comfort, fishtailing only a few times, and then we sat in church in comfort, watching a thick curtain of big fluffy snowflakes falling outside the windows, and we even drove home in comfort, although it took a little longer than usual. Forty-five minutes to drive ten miles, to be precise. Part of that time was devoted to helping a teenager get his pickup truck out of the way of traffic after he nearly slid off the road at precisely the same spot where our daughter wrecked a car four years ago. Five or six vehicles sat at various angles all over the road while strong men in Sunday suits put their shoulders to the kid's truck to keep it from falling down the cliff. A snowplow arrived, a little too late, but it couldn't get through until we got the truck out of danger and got the rest of the cars moving.

We finally arrived home in comfort and were greeted by a flock of jumpy juncos, and we've spent the afternoon in great comfort, eating home-made chocolate chip cookies in front of the fire. Nothing is more comfortable than a warm house on a snowy winter day--but next time I go out, I'm choosing safety.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Welcome to the funhouse

It's 1:05 a.m. Do you know where your blogger is?

Wide awake in front of the computer is where she is. She ought to be in bed; she came home exhausted from working all day and then worked some more at home, and her body would really like to be lying in bed sound asleep right now.

Her mind, however, has other plans, none of them terribly restful. It wants to take a spin in the Pre-Semester Anxiety Roller Coaster, followed by a quick gambol through the Taxes/FAFSA Funhouse. The unruly mind jumps up and down with enough force to flip the body back and forth until it gets tired of tossing and gets out of bed.

The insomniac mind won't focus on reading or thinking or writing, and it certainly isn't interested in shutting down for the night. It's just getting started! It wants to run through Monday's lesson plans while juggling ideas for an upcoming conference paper, and then it wants to count all the bills that need to be paid and the dress shirts that need to be ironed and the memos that need to be written, including this:

From: Body
To: Brain
Re: lax

But it won't listen. The unruly mind composes memos but does not read them. By the time the memo gets delivered, the mind has moved on to the next ten things that desperately need to be thought about, all of which deserve undivided attention, but does it have to be right now?

Tomorrow your blogger's body will feel drained and wasted, but the mind? It's a terrible thing to wake.

Friday, January 19, 2007

An end and a beginning

Dropcloths: gone.
Sawhorses: gone.
Power saw, paint, brushes, hammers, screwdrivers: all gone.
Sawdust: gone, gone, gone.

The apartment above the garage is done! Okay, the appliances have not been installed, but anyone can do that. Curtain rods are not up but curtains are on order. Medicine cabinet is nowhere to be seen. But at least the room is clean and the air is relatively clear of sawdust and paint fumes.

Now the fun begins!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Mouse-induced mayhem

Classes start Monday so naturally I've been occupied with essential last-minute matters, such as how to remove a potential mouse colony from a sofa. I don't know how many mice there are or how they got in there, but I know they've got to come out--and fast.

Some friends who were remodeling gave us the sofa more than a year ago, and it has been sitting in the garage ever since, awaiting the day when it could be taken upstairs to the emerging apartment. Then the first contractor disappeared, causing a long delay in the project, so the sofa sat there for more than a year wrapped carefully in tightly-sealed heavy yellow plastic, clean, dry, and protected from the elements--or so we thought.

Now the garage project is nearly done right down to the kitchen sink, which was installed this afternoon. It's fun to go over there every day and see what has appeared while we were out: today, windowsills and ceiling fans and a lovely built-in bookcase; tomorrow, the stove and medicine cabinet and who knows what else? In a few days we'll be able to start taking furniture up there and I'll be making curtains, which is why I slit open the protective plastic so I could compare a swatch of fabric with the sofa's upholstery.

There on the arm of the sofa I found a little pile of mouse droppings. Those pesky varmints! How did they get in through that heavy plastic? How much damage have they done? And how do we get them out? This is the question gnawing on my innards at night and hovering over my mind all day like a fog that comes in on little mouse feet--and, yes, impairing my ability to make metaphors work properly, as I realize when I try to envision a question that gnaws, hovers, fogs, and comes in on mouse feet. See what those pesky creatures do to me? By Monday they'll have reduced me to a quivering mass of mouse-obsessed mucus.

But that doesn't mean class is cancelled. The syllabus waits for no man--nor mouse either.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Take this job...

Slogan painted on the side of a truck: "Our job sucks--we guarantee it!"

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to speculate about what sort of "job" this slogan was promoting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How I spent my winter vacation

One proposal for a conference panel, one draft of a conference paper, one report for the quadrennial review of the English department, one long-term budget projection report, one new syllabus and one revised syllabus, two assessment reports, two teaching evaluations, two book reviews, two sets of guidelines for new scholarships, three letters of recommendation for current or former students, three letters supporting colleagues' requests for funding or nominations for awards, 34 blog posts, and 18,000ish words on the Big Writing Project.

Whew. After all that, I need a vacation.

Monday, January 15, 2007

In the bleak midwinter

Friday afternoon the department secretary asked if I wanted her to copy my new syllabus, and I said, "No, better not. The last time I copied a syllabus this long before classes started was the year of the flood." Ah yes, we all remember the year floods delayed the start of the semester by a week....after I had already copied the syllabus for every class. Classes start a week from today and I have one syllabus ready to go, but I don't intend to copy it until the end of the week. Meanwhile, I'm watching the weather.

It's a little odd, this weather we're having. I haven't seen the sun since Thursday. It's raining when I get up in the morning and all day long, and it's so warm we've been leaving the bedroom windows open and I can hear it drip-drip-dripping all through the night. It's a soft rain, hardly more than a mist most of the time, but it's enough to cause flood watches all over the area. Our creek is up but not dangerously so, and the rivers look like spring.

But it's not spring. It's January. If it were a little colder, I'd be at home in front of a roaring fire; instead, we're battling bugs inside the house and mud outside. The mild winter means we haven't had many mice in the house, but it also means we have a bumper crop of flies, mosquitoes, and those annoying little orange Asian ladybeetles that hibernate when it's cold and get active as soon as the weather warms up a bit.

The temperature is supposed to drop this evening and I for one am looking forward to it. Give me some snow! Anything would be better than this constant gray wetness.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Ewwww" and tea were meant to be

I thought I was doing something clever until I heard a colleague say "Ewww!"

All I did was put a paper clip in my tea. Needed a little extra iron in my diet. Okay, that's not the real reason. The real reason is that my tea carafe has a narrow neck.

Maybe I'd better start at the beginning, but when it comes to tea, that's difficult to do without going clear back to the tea leaf.

They prefer to be free, tea leaves. They like to be tossed into the teapot utterly unfettered, free to unfold and infuse at will. Unfortunately, the academic office atmosphere is not entirely conducive to the unfettering of tea leaves. There's nowhere to put a tea strainer in an office, and anyone who has left behind a tea ball full of wet tea leaves over a long break knows that in the office ecosystem, bags are best.

But not all tea bags are created equal. Some tea bags come with no strings attached, while others have strings that greet the merest hint of water with a hearty cry of "Abandon ship!" It's easy enough to remove a tea bag from a teapot with a wide opening on top, but suppose you inhabit a cold office but you like your tea hot? The solution is a tall insulated carafe of the type used for serving coffee at banquets: stuff the teabags into the narrow opening, hold onto the end of the string, and pour in the hot water--and when the tea is steeped, a gentle tug will remove the bags.

Except when there are no strings attached. How do you remove a water-swollen tea bag from a tall carafe with a very narrow opening? You could search the department office for some plastic cutlery, which is useless for eating real food but works really well at piercing tea bags and releasing their little leaves all over the office. Or you could do what I do: use a paper clip.

This gets complicated, so pay attention: Grasp the longer loop of a large paper clip with your right hand and the smaller loop with your left hand. Pull gently until the two loops separate and the whole thing looks like two ends of a line bending over to greet each other with a Howdy. Pierce tea bags with the end with the smaller loop, twisting to firmly secure tea bags on end of paper clip. Open out larger loop of paper clip slightly. Insert tea-bag end of paper clip into carafe and loop larger end over lip of opening. Hold tightly while pouring in hot water. Steep tea. Remove teabags with a gentle tug, discarding used tea bags and paper clip. Wait for the "Ewwww!"

It's bound to come--if not the first or second time you brew tea this way, then perhaps the seventeenth. Eventually someone will take offense to the fact that you are using a paper clip as a tea-bag holder. Their objections will sound like this: Paper clips are dirty. You don't know where it's been! It could have anything on it from ink to earwax. You're putting that in your tea?

What naysayers fail to appreciate is the efficacy of boiling water. Even if the paper clip you select is not in pristine condition, immersion in boiling water will certainly destroy any disease-causing agents adhering to the paper clip. If nothing else, it'll melt the earwax.

Is there an echo in here, or did someone just say Ewww?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Where's Waldo?

Three years ago when we bought this house, we never dreamed we'd be haunted by a former owner--let's call him Waldo. He's not the guy we bought the house from but the one who owned it before that, so he hasn't even lived here for the past six years; nevertheless, he is a daily part of our lives. Why? Because for some time after he moved out, he continued to use this address.

For three years we've been getting his medical bills--from hospitals, radiology labs, ambulance services. I feel sort of sorry for the guy, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to pay his bills, so we mark them "return to sender." Now the debt collectors are calling two or three times a day, and they are not, generally speaking, nice. I always tell them there's no one here by that name, and they say, "Right. That's what they all say"--or they laugh as if I've said something funny.

My new tactic is similar to the one my brother likes to use with telemarketers: talk their ear off. Someone calls to sell you vinyl siding? Give him the Amway pitch or try to convert him to your cult. Or let the telemarketer talk, leading him on with agreeable listening noises, and then at the end say something like "I don't think I'm allowed to have vinyl siding in my prison cell." The idea is to waste the caller's valuable time in hopes that he or she will get frustrated and not call back. (Sadly, it doesn't work with recordings.)

So lately when someone calls for Waldo, I give a detailed rundown of the full names of everyone who now lives in the house, how long we've lived here, how long our German exchange student lived here, his full name and the names of his siblings, what we've done with the house since we bought it, and then if the person hasn't hung up yet I start on the weather. At some point they'll either leave us alone or escalate their efforts. What then? When a former owner haunts the house, who ya gonna call?

And don't say "Ghostbusters" because they don't deal with debt collectors.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Solitude is for the birds

For a moment this morning as I stood at the top of our hill, I realized that living in the middle of nowhere has both advantages and disadvantages. I was joyfully surveying the panorama of woods, bluffs, and meadows, with no human dwelling in sight and no sounds other than the twitter of birds and the pitter-patter of big fluffy snowflakes falling on trees. It was a moment of pure solitude, one I had worked hard to attain: the ubiquitous rain finally turned to snow last night but it wasn't quite cold enough for the saturated ground to freeze, and walking uphill on snow-covered mud can be a challenge. But I pressed on and made it to the top, where the chickadees were squawking and the view was spectacular. This is what why we live here, I told myself. I could stay here forever.

But then I realized that I would eventually have to walk back down that hill, and if snow-covered mud is treacherous on the way up, it is even moreso on the way down. I imagined slipping and sliding down the hill with so much momentum that I would break through the fence and go flailing down the cliff. If I break a leg up here, I won't be able to complain to anyone except the chickadees, which are not known for their helpfulness in emergencies. I knew the garage guys were at work, but the garage is a good distance from the top of the hill and they were inside pounding and sawing and listening to music. This is the problem with living so far from people: when you need someone, there's no one there.

I came down the hill very carefully, testing every step before committing myself. A boot came untied about halfway down, but the lace was so coated with icy mud that I didn't try to tie it. Besides, where would I sit? I suppose a nimble person could manage to stand on one foot while tying a bootlace even on a steep slope covered with mud and snow, but I am not that person, so I kept walking. Then the snow turned to rain.

I washed up on our doorstep wet and muddy but in one piece, grateful that I had not been forced to rely on the birds to rescue me. Next time I want to be alone, I'll be sure to take someone with me.

Write stuff

At the bookstore yesterday I picked up The Best American Essays 2006, which seems to have a lot of essays on illness, death, and lost or dying pets. For me, the bright spots were the nuggets of wisdom about writing, including the following:

From Lauren Slater's Introduction: "But as an essayist, my interest was not in establishing the facts of a life but in mining the meaning, for me, of the questions that life had spawned. An essayist celebrates questions, loves the liminal, and feels that life is best lived between the may and the be of maybe."

From Poe Ballantine's "501 Minutes to Christ": "I don't recommend the writing life--at least not the one in which you move around a lot, live alone, and work odd jobs. Swing a gig where you hit the big time quick. Be a prodigy, if your agent can arrange it, and then get yourself banned in Boston. I arrived at the discipline late, at the age of twenty-nine, in part because I needed material, but mostly because I boarded a train called the Romantic Debauchery in the mistaken assumption that it would somehow get me to my destination quicker than the ones marked Hard Work and Paying Attention. Hundreds of wrong trains and many lost years later, I have learned that, despite the jovial public legends, inebriation and lucid expression are at odds with each other. If I am to write with spiritual integrity, I cannnot be a drunken butterfly."

From Alan Shapiro's "Why Write?": "It's hard to find the proper balance between the arrogance we need to keep on writing--the arrogance that assumes we have something worth saying, and we're smart enough to learn what someone's smart enough to teach us--and the humility we also need in order to grow and develop, the humility that knows we cannot nurture and refine our gifts without the help of others, that other people, including editors, can sometimes tell us things we need to hear. Too much arrogance and not enough humility and we close ourselves off from the world; nothing new comes in, and we eventually become imitators of ourselves, turning what at one time were discoveries into mannerisms. Too much humility and not enough arrogance and we lose our center of gravity, finding ourselves at the mercy of everyone else's opinion."

And later in the same essay: "People have a right not to be written about. Yet I violate that right in nearly everything I've written. I've done it in the writing of this essay. My theory's always been that if I only try to tell the truth, if I have no ax to grind and write about others in a spirit of forgiveness, curiosity, and understanding, then no one should be upset by anything I say. Well, so much for theory."

Monday, January 08, 2007

If you build it, they will come

I drove to the new bookstore down the river today. This is the third time I've been there since it opened in November, but the earlier visits were for Christmas gifts, while this one was all about me. It's nice to have a real bookstore within a 30-minute drive; in the past I've had to content myself with brief visits to the local used bookstores (brief because used bookstores make me sneeze) or, a few times a year, making the two-hour drive to the state capital, where there are bookstores galore. Now there's a real bookstore reasonably close by and I love it even though (1) they somehow lost my order for David Citino's posthumous poetry collection; (2) the person who "helped" me had never even heard of Citino and couldn't manage to spell either his name or mine correctly; and (3) the coffee shop was out of chai latte.

Every time I go in there, I am amazed to see the number of people sitting around reading. I realize that this is a common sight at bookstores all over the country, but I've never seen it here and I wonder: where were all these reading people before the new bookstore opened? Did they plop down on the floor in the book section at Wal-Mart or hover over stacks of discount books at Sam's Club? Where did they come from? If the new bookstore fails, where will they go?

So far, the new bookstore appears to be doing quite well. Who says nobody reads in Appalachia?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Now you see it...

So I'm standing in the dining room surrounded by Christmas tree parts, strings of lights, and ornament boxes when I reach up to wipe the sweat off my forehead and notice that I'm not wearing my glasses. Without my glasses I can do many things: trip and fall, for instance, or squint at the vague blurs surrounding me. I cannot, however, do most of the things that make my life meaningful: read, write, drive, or have a headache-free day.

Without my glasses, I don't see well enough to find my glasses, so I generally leave them in one of two specific places. They weren't there. I retraced my steps and checked in all the non-traditional places, but if they were there, I couldn't see them. I enlisted the eagle-eyed young man to help, but he couldn't find them either. We went so far as to root through the seven plastic bins I'd already packed full of Christmas stuff, but they weren't in any of 'em.

Panic ensued. Panic never helps. I retraced my steps and found myself standing in the very crowded hall closet, where earlier I had been shifting around boxes to find the right ones, and suddenly I was overcome by a faint sensory memory: while shoving a pile of boxes into the corner, a large doll fell on me and as I grabbed for it, I heard a faint rattle from the corner, as if some small, inconsequential item had fallen down behind the boxes. I didn't look to see what it was because, frankly, nothing in that closet is worth the effort required to pull those boxes out again.

Except my glasses. Further exploration revealed that they were, indeed, behind the stack of boxes, and the long-armed young man managed to scoop them up for me so I didn't even have to move those boxes again. I was without my glasses for only about two hours, but it felt like weeks.

Here's what I don't understand: the glasses must have fallen right off my face when the doll fell on me. Why didn't I notice?

Turnip boggle, anyone?

Some poor misguided soul ended up at my blog after typing into a search engine the phrase "turnip boggle." What would a turnip boggle be? A game, a device for protecting turnips from the depredations of wild creatures, or an elaborate series of gates installed outside the front door to prevent kindly neighbors from delivering bags of turnips?

Other blogs get queries involving literature and writing; I get someone looking for "poison ivy africa swimsuits," which sounds like an odd sexual fetish. Searchers find my site after asking Google how to wash towels, how to distinguish between a suit and a tuxedo, how many tubes of toothpaste a family of four uses in a year, and "what is the english equivalent of fat free half and half?" Surely there must be a better place to find the answers!

Someone wants "rhyming verse for instructions for contract bridge" and someone else is looking for the World's Best Beef Brisket. Turkey vultures and Javier Marias make regular appearances in searches, along with the Declaration of Idependence and intestinal viruses. However, in the twelve months since this blog began, the three most common search terms leading here are variations on "dead mouse smell," "the banner with the strange device," and "how to cheat on Excelsior exams." A year ago I was not aware that Excelsior College existed or that so many people would be looking for ways to cheat on its exams, but now even more of them will end up here. I am not sorry to disappoint them.

Still, I wish someone would ask a question I can actually answer. I don't have the solution for intestinal viruses or the dead mouse smell, but ask me about semicolons or Stephen Crane, subjunctive verbs or Salman Rushdie, whifflers or William Dean Howells. Nobody ever asks about William Dean Howells. They want to know how to boggle turnips.

Even if I knew, I'd never tell.

Friday, January 05, 2007

January or July?

We had a bit of a whiteout here today, but no snow was involved, alas. It rained all night--and if the temperature had been more appropriate to January, we would have been snowed in! But no: the rain continued, the sky stayed gray, the temperature remained just cool enough to be uncomfortable, and by midafternoon the fog off the river was so thick that there was no clear demarcation between earth and sky. If only all that white stuff had been snow! We could have stayed home next to a roaring fire instead of slogging through rain and fog and cool gray dampness. Tomorrow it's supposed to be even warmer. No fair! I want some winter!

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Interesting article about academics who blog over at Inside Higher Ed (read it here), with some enlightening (and sometimes contentious) comments at the end. While I found the article enjoyable and thought-provoking, I was left with a chilling realization of the dangers involved in making one's thoughts public. People have been fired for doing what I'm doing. Is it worth it?

I've been writing this blog for nearly a year, and I enjoy it immensely. Far from keeping me away from my more important writing projects, this little exercise helps me write more--and more fluidly. Even if I'm not writing every day, I am at least thinking about writing every day, so that when I'm ready to write, the brain cells are primed and ready to go--whether it's a scholarly article or a bit of comic silliness. In this sense, blogging seems beneficial.

I have also been very careful to avoid portraying my institution in a negative light, and I believe I've been successful. But who knows? People (and institutions) have been known to take offense at the oddest things. Surely my blog is perfectly harmless...so why am I suddenly so spooked?

I want to keep writing. I need to keep writing. I'm afraid to keep writing. What shall I do?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Talking drums

My son's hands when they play the drums look fluid and relaxed, as if they're only accidentally involved in the percussive process. The sticks hit the drums crisply, intensely, with incredible precision, but his hands could be waving away a pesky fly.

If you want to see intensity, you have to look at his face: he grimaces, glares, twists and untwists his facial muscles as if they were physically attached to the dancing drumsticks. Most of the time it's an impassive face--unless he's laughing. He laughs often, but his face rarely reveals any other emotion. We all recall the time four years ago when we were driving to the airport for a long-awaited trip and the boy turned to me and said, in a totally deadpan tone, "Mom, it may not be easy to tell, but I'm really excited about this trip." He was right on both counts: he was really excited, but he hadn't taken the trouble to inform his face.

How can a face that is motionless most of the time become so mobile when he plays the drums? The hands look like innocent bystanders, but the face is intensely present, intimately connected to the sounds being beaten from the drums.

And what do those sounds say? His face won't tell--and his hands don't know.

Take two gigabytes and call me in the morning

While I've been on break, the computer at my office has been very busy sending out e-mails with nasty viruses attached. Every day I get a few bounced messages that look as if they came from our departmental listserv, except they're spam messages containing viral attachments. I certainly never sent them out and my home computer is pretty well protected, but when I ran the regular virus check on my office computer the other day, it came up with a message saying it was infected with a virus that could not be removed or quarantined. I have alerted the IT people to this problem, but apparently they're on break too. They'll get to it eventually, but meanwhile, I just want to issue a public apology: if my computer sent you anything nasty, please accept my condolences. And if you feel the need to take a few whacks at my computer with a sledgehammer, you'll have to stand in line.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Terrific trousers

Black stretch corduroy, perfect fit, and not one but TWO functioning pockets. Women's clothes with usable pockets?! How can this be? Someone must have made a mistake at the factory.

Generally I'm the one who makes the mistake: I'm always buying clothes without pockets. I hate carrying a purse, see, so I generally stuff a billfold in my briefcase, but then I need a place to stash my keys and maybe a Kleenex or some chapstick. My sartorial needs are few, but working pockets make the list, and they're not easy to locate on women's clothes. Last summer I stepped way out of character and bought two complete outfits in one day, including five separate items of clothing, and not until I brought it all home did I notice that I had failed to purchase a single pocket. Not one!

And I also have in my closet at least four pairs of dress trousers that have pockets so small I can't even fit my keys in there. What is that pocket for? I can just about fit two fingers into it, so if I ever need to keep those two fingers warm, I'm all set.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Spaces and faces

To celebrate the new year last night, we watched paint dry. Well, I suppose watching paint dry was just an incidental part of the process: we painted the apartment above the garage! Most of it, anyway! I mostly worked on cutting in around the windows, which was great because I got to look out the windows. This may be the first time we've ever painted walls that weren't already covered with multiple coats of other people's bad ideas. That means the only mistakes we'll have to live with will be strictly our own.

We'll go out and finish painting today, but first, the bearded wonder has promised to make my fondest dreams come true. That's right: he's trimming his beard! I've been wondering whether there's still a face hiding under all that fluff.

There's a tradition that whatever we're doing when the new year begins will set the stage for how we'll spend the entire year. If that's true, 2007 will be a year of painting and shaving--or if you prefer, decorating spaces and finding faces. Not a bad way to spend a year.