Thursday, March 29, 2007

Matt the mnemonic

At 8 a.m. on a beautiful spring day, it's difficult to get students excited about whether to underline a title or put it in quotation marks, so I ask for a volunteer, and eventually a student--let's call him Matt--comes to the front of the room.

"Look at Matt," I tell the class. "If he were a publication, he could be a newspaper or a magazine or an anthology or any number of other things, but let's call him a book."

Matt just stands there.

"Since he is a whole publication complete in itself, let's underline him."

I mime drawing a line on the floor under Matt's feet, and then I write Matt on the board and underline it.

"Now let's talk about Matt's arm. Matt, put your arm straight out to your side." Being a good sport, Matt complies. "If we cut off Matt's arm and toss it out in the hall, it won't get anywhere on its own. It is not independent but rather functions as a part of a larger whole. If Matt is a newspaper, his arm is an article; if Matt is a book, his arm is a chapter; if Matt is a poetry anthology, his arm is a single poem."

Matt's arm does not look particularly poetic, but we go on anyway.

"Since Matt's arm is a small part of a larger whole, let's put it in quotation marks."

Matt holds his arm up close to the whiteboard and I surround it with quotation marks.

"If you are trying to decide whether to put a title of a work in quotation marks or underline it," I say, "Let Matt be your guide: if the work is more like Matt, underline it; if it's more like Matt's arm, put it in quotation marks."

Matt seems delighted to be allowed to sit down. I don't know about Matt's arm.

We spend the next few minutes looking at titles of different types of sources: articles, books, poems, articles about books, books about poems, articles about articles. I ask the students how to format the titles, and they get most of them right. When I ask why, they say, "Because it's Matt" or "because it's Matt's arm."

Maybe they'll remember this little lesson and apply it in their writing assignments, or maybe not. I leave the students with one final suggestion: "If you're frantically trying to finish a paper at 4 a.m. and you can't remember whether to underline a title or put it in quotation marks, don't call me," I tell them. "Call Matt. I'm sure he'll be happy to help."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


A student came into my office seeking help on an assignment, but at first he had to satisfy his curiosity: "Are all these books yours," he asked, "or does the library let you borrow them?"

If he finds my office overwhelming, I'd hate to let him see my house.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Thanks but no thanks, sweetie

Today a student stopped by my office to get my signature on a form and as she was leaving, she said, "Thanks, sweetie!"

Let me point out that I had never seen this student before and I spent no more than 60 seconds with her today. I didn't do anything particularly sweet--just signed on the dotted line. But still she called me "sweetie."

Suddenly time slipped a few decades and I thought I was back in Florida waiting tables and trying to maintain some semblance of dignity while total strangers called me sweetie, honey, sugar, and darlin'. Just because some thirsty guy comes in with a dollar for a cup of coffee I'm supposed to be his sweetie? Please.

Now I sit in the big corner office with the words "Department Chair" on the door and the only person who calls me "Sweetie" is my spouse. I don't miss being everyone's sweetie and I'd rather not fill that role again anytime soon; in particular, I'm not interested in being "Sweetie" to my students. But at the time she said it, I found myself as speechless as an actor who stumbles onto the wrong stage: I'm all prepared to deliver Hamlet's soliloquy, but all of a sudden I'm in the spotlight but the show is Grease.

So I just sat there with my mouth open while she walked away. Next time I might have the presence of mind to say "You're welcome," but do I dare call a student "Darlin'"?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Rara avis

If you'd visited my back yard yesterday, you might have caught a glimpse of the rare Black-Footed, Red-Faced Wobble-Bucket flittering about the deck. In the beginning, the deck and environs sported green and black blotches of algae and other gunk that thrives in a moist climate, but the three of us went out there armed with buckets and rags and Pine-Sol and algicide and by the time we were done, the deck and lawn furniture and siding were sparkly clean but the blotches had migrated toward me. My feet were black, my face was red, and my skin felt sticky all over from all the times I sloshed that bucket full of slimy Pine-Sol all over my clothes. So I sat back in a clean deck chair and watched the birds, particularly a couple of phoebes chasing each other around the edge of the woods. Or maybe the phoebes were watching me. If so, I hope they were delighted at the opportunity to place a check-mark on their life lists next to the Black-Footed, Red-Faced Wobble Bucket. That's not something you see every day.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A walk on the wild side

I took advantage of a break in the rain to walk around the property and see what's up. The answers are many and varied.

Fog shrouded the lower meadow and buzzards were circling above. A large raptor was calling from the top of the tallest sycamore, but it flew off before I could identify it. Probably a hawk. Bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback all over the river valley and I keep hoping to see some here, but so far no luck. I also failed to find any indigo buntings; I've seen them only once this season and I don't know whether they're nesting here or not. It's still early. They could pop up at any time.

Daffodils are up and blooming. No trilliums yet, but conditions are ripe so we'll surely see some soon. I don't know why I get so excited about seeing the first trillium--it's not as if someone is planning to give me a prize. Nevertheless I look forward to their return with undue excitement.

After two days of steady rain, the creek is way, way up and really loud. It's amazing the racket that tiny little creek can make--sounds like Niagara out there. The mud level on the hill is high, and the abundant deer tracks suggest that the deer are up and about but not hanging around in plain sight.

Finally, I'm up. This is the first time I've walked up the hill in at least a month, and I've missed it. It makes me feel good to get up early and go for a hike, and it should keep my spirits up all day long.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Racist stereotype or progressive protest?

My favorite poster had been hanging in my office for a week or so when one of my students looked closely at it and said, "That's offensive." She may be right, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

Here's the story: the poster, created by the Ohio Preservation Council (view it here), encourages viewers to "Preserve Ohio's Book Heritage"; it features full-color photos of first editions of books by such early Ohio authors as Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Dean Howells, Lafcadio Hearn, and even Harriett Beecher Stowe (not a native Ohioan, but she did a lot of writing here). Many of the covers are richly decorated: William Dean Howells's Tuscan Cities (1886) is festooned with architectural elements, while Paul Laurence Dunbar's Candle-Lightin' Time (1901) features a moon shining over a mass of lovely white flowers.

The cover that provoked my student's comment comes from Charles Chesnutt's first collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899). The brown cover is mostly bare with a trio of figures at the top: two long-eared white rabbits and a grinning African-American man. (View a close-up of the cover here.) Displayed out of context, this image would certainly suggest a grinning Sambo figure, an unfortunate racist stereotype that I would not want hanging on my wall.

But a closer look reveals that the two rabbits are winking knowingly, as if aware that there's more to the story. And there is: the man on the cover represents not Joel Chandler Harris's appeasing Uncle Remus but Chesnutt's more subtle character, Uncle Julius, who is not nearly as simple as he seems. An ex-slave, Uncle Julius has no real resources except his tongue, which he employs to tell tall tales that seem frivolous at first but nevertheless manage to passionately portray the evils of racial discrimination while challenging white readers' assumptions about race.

The problem is that not everyone looking at the poster is aware of Chesnutt's groundbreaking work. If I leave the poster up, I risk offending people--but I also have the opportunity to spread the word about Charles Chesnutt. If I take it down, I lose my favorite poster.

The obvious solution is to require everyone who comes in my office to read The Conjure Woman, but that's unlikely to happen. So for now, the poster stays up until someone gives me a compelling reason to remove it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Musical minivan

It's not every day that choirs of angels accompany me on my commute, but I certainly enjoy it when it happens. My daughter's college choir performed locally as part of their spring break concert tour, and we hosted some of the choir members at our house last night. This morning I squeezed six girls and their luggage into my minivan and drove them back to town, a 20-minute trip enlivened by their singing. Even at 7:30 a.m., they sang like angels. Wish I could carry them with me everywhere I go.

Last night's concert was also wonderful, and afterward a little old lady I've never seen before came up and thanked me. Me? What'd I do? "Thanks for sharing your daughter with us." That's about the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me.

Now I have something to say to those other moms whose daughters sang me to school this morning: Thanks for sharing your daughter with me. They can sing in my car anytime.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I'm getting too old for this

A student paper today informs me that "Technology has come a long way since the twentieth century." For instance, "In the twentieth century the radio and paper were the main ways to find out about the news going on in the world and also were used to catch your favorite team's ballgame. People kept in touch by using letters and also a phone call here and there. The twentieth century time period was very different to live in than in our society."

Ah yes, how I remember those thrilling days of yesteryear! Why, when I was in college, we pricked our fingers with sharp sticks and used the blood for ink! We wrote on rocks, of course, and when we ran out of rocks, we used fragments of satellites that had fallen out of the sky! We didn't know what they were, but we were grateful to those invisible sky deities for dropping these big chunks of writing material down on our heads!

Then, in the year 2001, everything changed. Suddenly, cellphones and computers were everywhere! Some of us have had a little trouble adjusting to these rapid changes; you still see a few slow ones occasionally pricking their fingers to write with blood on their flat-screen monitors. What Neanderthals. As usual, the young people are leading the way into the new millennium. In fact, I don't know how any of us ever managed to survive those primitive conditions. Thank heaven for the younger generation! They sure know what's what.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A challenge for Dewey

Today's Columbus Dispatch features an article by Mike Harden (read it here) about unusual items librarians find in returned books (money, condoms, strips of bacon) and in book drops (cats, flowers, mud). I was most surprised, though, by this statement: "Dirty diapers are commonly dumped in book drops."

Who dumps dirty diapers in book drops? And what do they expect librarians to do with them? File them in the stacks at 628 (Sanitary and Municipal Engineering)? Is this an etiquette problem (395, Etiquette and Manners), an ethical problem (177, Ethics of Social Relations), or a mental deficiency (153, Mental Processes and Intelligence)? Or does a problem like this simply defy the powers of the Dewey Decimal System? Would the Library of Congress classification system work any better?

For the benefit of anyone who might be confused about this issue, here are some simple guidelines:

1. Dump the diapers in the trash.
2. Dump the books in the book drop.
3. Take the kid to the library.

See how easy? If this three-step plan does not end the scourge of book-drop diaper-dumping, then file the human race under 574.5: Endangered Species.

Taking the garage out for a spin

Momentous occasion: last night we took the garage out for a test-drive. Yes: after three years of on-again, off-again construction, after losing a contractor who absconded with a pile of money without finishing the job and then watching helplessly as the unfinished structure was colonized by woodland creatures, after borrowing another wad of money to hire another contractor to finish the job, we now have a garage and guest room that are fully functional and ready for use.

It's not easy to get used to having a garage. For three years I've been zipping past the spot and parking farther up the hill and it's hard to get out of that habit, but for the past week or so I've remembered to park in the garage about half the time. It's everything I've ever wanted in a garage plus a lot more, and it got done in the nick of time because we have houseguests coming Wednesday night and we need that guest room to be up and running.

So last night we decided to take it for a trial spin, kicking all the tires first to make sure they were up to snuff. We sat in all the chairs, slept in the bed, showered in the bathroom, and tested all the light fixtures. After we turned off the lights, we noticed a bright green glow emanating from the kitchenette. Space aliens? No, the coffee maker has an illuminated dial so bright that if I held it aloft while rotating you'd swear I was a lighthouse. We had to turn the coffee-maker toward the wall and cover it up before we could sleep.

But sleep we did, and this morning we felt as if we'd finally awakened from a three-year nightmare. This garage is a real cream-puff. You ought to take it out for a spin!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Talking turkey

This morning I was zipping along the state highway at 55 miles per hour when I noticed a flock of wild turkeys in a field next to the road, at least 30 of them, three displaying their plumage. We often see wild turkeys in our neck of the woods, although not that many and never right out in the open next to the highway. I hit the brakes so I could get a better look, and that's what I was doing when a car came looming at breakneck pace into my rear-view mirror. So I didn't stay to watch the show. I did, however, avoid becoming the show, which is good because it would just be too ludicrous to get flattened on the highway while watching wild turkeys. "Turkey-Gawker Causes Rush-Hour Wreck" is not the headline I want to see on my obituary.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Travels in Quinnehtukqut

As the sun rose the morning of the day when the walls and floors
The blacktop has buckled. The car jolts. Roots from these tall trees

and roof of her house were to be sawed into pieces, broken apart
have stretched beneath the road; water has seeped through the bed of

by crowbars, raised on jacks, liften onto flatbed trucks and driven
gravel and sand, and frozen during the winters; spring thaws have

six and a half miles southwest....
weakened the road's edges....

So begins the last section of Joshua Harmon's Quinnehtukqut, a book I've been alternately breezing and struggling through for two weeks now. This last section consists of two separate stories, one in normal type and one in italic, presented in alternating lines for more than 30 pages. It took me a while to figure out how to read these pages; I finally settled on reading the plain type all the way through and then starting over on the italics. I suppose it would be possible to simply read straight down the page as if these were lines of poetry, but this reading method obscures the narrative. Of course, that may be the point.

I can see several reasons Harmon might have elected to structure the narrative this way. The two stories share some thematic concerns, each featuring a woman who leaves home while carrying home with her. The two women move through the same territory in opposite directions, their trajectories overlapping without ever intersecting, like lines on a page. One woman sees the territory as "less a home than a delay in some unknown course," which could just as well describe the novel itself, for it constantly delays the delivery of the story even beyond the final line: "She has just begun the story, and there is still so much to tell."

There are many things I appreciate about this book. The prose is lovely even when the stream-of-consciousness style is difficult to follow, and Harmon's ability to build the narrative out of a variety of materials from myth to maps to local gossip creates a rich fictional world that seems to exist simultaneously in the realms of fairy tale and journalism.

And yet: I miss the story. Harmon writes for the kind of reader who considers straightforward narrative and character development passe; he eschews or obscures plot to the point that the story gets lost beneath its own impressive machinery. At one point the main character (about whom we know little more than we know about any other character) recalls an earlier conversation: "Every man tells the tale of his life, he had said, and she answered And every woman must listen. But who will tell mine?"

I've been listening carefully for two weeks and 225 page, and I'm still looking for that story.

What the well-dressed corpse is wearing

I've just finished reading the New Yorker Style issue, and the one thing I've learned from the Style issue is that I don't know anything about style. Not sure I want to know either. Let's look, for instance, at an ad on page 75: the model wears a loose yellow something, maybe a lab coat that got dumped in the wrong load of laundry, and she clutches a silver bag that looks like a half-deflated mylar balloon. Her hands and face are dead white, and her eye-shadow--well, imagine if a small child decided to make up her face with a yellow highlighter pen. Overall, the model appears prepared to play the role of the corpse in an episode of CSI. She'd be a stylish corpse, but who wants to be a corpse?

Awful bags are everywhere. Here on page 45 is a Bally ad featuring a sleek dark-haired model tenderly caressing a bag resembling Grandma's sensible pocketbook on steroids. This is the bag for the stylish, sophisticated Woman About Town who simply cannot set foot out the door without the Oxford English Dictionary, a chainsaw, and a side of beef. Three similarly awful bags appear on page 35, where the model is stylishly posed like an accident victim awaiting triage, her belongings scattered on the pavement around her. What is the message of this ad? "Carry our bags so you'll look stylish when you get hit by a crosstown bus!"

Let us turn the page: here we see a single Cole Haan shoe, strappy and sexy with heels up to here, a "state of the art high heel created in collaboration with Nike Lab." The perfect shoe for the athlete who doesn't intend to use her feet much longer. And here on page 31 is a Jil Sander ad featuring a model wearing a shapeless green shower curtain that perfectly matches her green high heels. She's all set for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, but I don't know where else one would wear such an ensemble.

A Max Mara ad on page 41 presents us with a woman ready to argue her case before the Supreme Court in her dark pin-striped suit, except her eyebrows look like they're about to take flight and her hair sticks straight up in the air and then flares out like the plumage on a creature designed by Dr. Seuss. Thankfully, she's not carrying a ridiculous bag. Instead, her chief accessory is a pair of hands attached to another woman who appears to be wrapped in mylar.

My favorite ensemble, though, is featured in a Fendi ad on page 29. The bag looks like a computer component and the shoes look like skyscrapers, but it took me a long time to figure out what the dress resembles. Where have I seen that shape before? It's white and folded like an envelope, and the model is certainly thin enough to slide into an envelope, but there's something else, some other common item suggested by that unusual combination of crisp folds and angles--and suddenly I'm remembering all those years I spent folding and changing and laundering cloth diapers. Yes: Fendi is showing a model swathed in a high-end embroidered diaper! With a bag to match!

It's not big enough to be a diaper bag, but she could always borrow the immense Gucci sack on the previous page.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Quoth the buzzard?

Yesterday we were walking down the driveway when we saw buzzards circling just over our heads, at least a dozen big black ones with gray-white wingtips; they circled and circled and then went away. We see buzzards often, but never that many at once. What would Poe make of such a portentous visitation?

The bearded wonder saw an indigo bunting near the woods earlier this week, and every time I go out I hear new birdcalls sounding like a soundtrack in a Tarzan movie. Something is happening, I tell you. It could be spring! Maybe that's what the buzzards were looking for.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Atonement, authorial and otherwise

Early yesterday I read a line on page 5 of a 350-page book, and by midnight I had finished the book. Here is the line that caught my attention: "Whereas her big sister's room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony's was a shrine to her controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way--toward their owner--as if about to break into song, and even the farmyard hens were neatly corralled."

That little girl's carefully maintained shrine to herself soon comes crumbling down in exquisite slow motion stretching over the first third of the book. The book is Atonement by Ian McEwen, published in 2001, which makes me wonder how I've missed out on McEwen's work for so long. I have lots of friends whose opinions I respect, but not one of them ever grasped me by the lapel while insistently whispering McEwen's name in my ear or, better yet, sent me a McEwen novel for Christmas. Where are my friends when I need them? Someone must pay for those six lost years! Someone must provide atonement!

That someone will not be the author of the book within the book, who, late in life, attempts to assess her authorial responsibility: "how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagation she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists."

Earlier, the same character agonized over a rejection letter that painfully opened her eyes to the chief fault in her writing: "Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream--three streams!--of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella--and was necessary to it."

This passage perfectly describes a less satisfying reading experience I had recently--in fact, two of them! But that rant will have to wait for another day. For now, I'm atoning for my past neglect by finding some more books by Ian McEwen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Low-speed chase

Big news on the front page of the local paper: "Council to pursue house."

Sedentary they may be, but even our city council members ought to be able to overtake a house in a close pursuit. First, of course, they will have to debate the virtues of various methods of house pursuit: squad cars with lights and sirens or unmarked vehicles? The equine unit will want to get into the act, and the drug-sniffing dogs will bow out only after the mayor gets serious and tosses a few frisbees. Money will have to be appropriated from the proper budget line, and the minute the cost estimate hits the papers, citizens will begin forming protest groups: Citizens Opposed to the Unrestrained Pursuit of Houses (COUGH) will demand that the city council cough up proof of a conspiracy to deplete the municipal budget, while the PAID brigade (Pursue All Intransigent Domiciles) will demand that the council quadruple the funds devoted to the speedy pursuit of houses. Unwilling to face such a fight in an election year, the mayor will wisely decide to appoint a special commission to study issues related to house pursuit, which will report its findings long after the November election.

Meanwhile, the house in question will continue to inch its way out of the city council's peripheral vision. By the time the council straps on its running shoes to begin the pursuit, the house will be working as a fry cook in a run-down section of St. Louis.

When good essays go bad

A midterm essay informs me that "Religious morels and values greatly change a person's life." When fungi find faith, there's hope for us all. Well, most of us, anyway.

I've just finished reading midterm essay exams, and overall, I'm pleased. Every student wrote an actual essay, which is a big improvement over past years, when some students saw the words "essay exam" as an excuse to toss a mess of unconnected insights onto the page. Some of the essays are quite good, and most are competent. However, I'm a little concerned about a small group of students who wrote pretty good essays that simply failed to meet the requirements for the assignment.

This happened in a freshman composition class that has been focusing intensely on properly incorporating material from sources into their own writing. The midterm exam asked students to write an essay in response to a particular question, drawing evidence from two of the essays they've read for class in the past three weeks. I had told them in advance that they should bring their textbooks because I expected them to use and document quotations from the readings, and the midterm exam assignment sheet specifically stated that they were required to use quotations and paraphrases from the two essays in question and to document them properly.

Most students demonstrated at least some acquaintance with the two essays and incorporated information from them with varying degrees of competence. One student, however, wrote a very interesting and creative essay that had nothing to do with the two readings and included a bogus Works Cited entry for the student's own encyclopedic knowledge of the topic. Three other students wrote fairly competent essays in which they vaguely referred to the two readings but included no solid information, no quotations, and no documentation. Did they ignore the instructions, or did they forget to buy the textbook?

What kind of thought process leads a student to spend an hour writing an essay that demonstrates little or no relationship to the assignment? Do they think that I just won't notice that they haven't fulfilled the requirements? Or do they hope to charm me with their sparkling prose? It's true that I am reluctant to write an F on a well-written essay, but what else can I do? Using and documenting quotations was a major component of this assignment, and these students simply failed to do that. And if they paid so little attention to the assignment sheet, how much attention will they pay to the helpful comments I write on their essays?

What these students need is a life-changing experience. Where are those religious morels when you need them?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Here comes the sun

I write today not to celebrate the first robin of spring or the first sighting of a red-winged blackbird; instead, I look in the mirror and celebrate sunburn. Where there is sunburn, there is sunshine, which suggests that winter is finally on the way out. The juncos are still hanging around as if they're awaiting that last arctic blast of the season and thick icicles still cling stubbornly to the north-facing bluff across the road, but the temperature reached 75 degrees Farenheit today on my deck, with a warm, gentle breeze blowing away the debris of winter.

I wiped off the deck chairs and served lunch to friends outside, with a result plainly visible on my face. It's not a bad burn--no pain, no itching--but it's a helpful reminder that more warmth is on the way. Others may crow about the return of the robins, but me? I celebrate sunburn as a sign of spring.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cold feet

About shoes I'm sure I have written. Zucchini likewise, and perhaps even zucchini in the freezer. However, one topic on which I am certain I have never written is "stretching shoes with zucchini in the freezer"; nevertheless, that search string brought some poor misguided soul to this site. I don't know how (or why) to stretch shoes with zucchini in the freezer, but I"m sure someone out there does. That is the wonder of the Internet: the committed zucchini-shoe-stretcher need never fear being alone in the world, for if there is one person out there devoted to stretching shoes with zucchini in the freezer, Google is certain to lead him or her here.

The latest crop of search queries leading to this site is bulging with pleas for help with mice in oven insulation, also a topic I've never discussed, although I've certainly dealt with mice elsewhere. Others are seeking a recipe for kohlrabi soup or solutions for "turnips, glut of," and my only suggestion is this: don't give them to my husband.

Many many people arrived here while searching for cheat sheets for Excelsior College exams, while others want a short-cut to literary analysis for "Griffy the Cooper" or "Under the Lion's Paw." I would like to go after these people with the "pink chipmunk rifle" that brought another searcher here. Far be it from me to wish on such searchers a case of "Sticky eyeball melted the sun," which brought another seeker here.

I was pleased to see that someone came here while searching for "Me, Little Geisha Girl," an annoying song that has been running through my head since my last dance recital nearly 40 years ago. Now if Google could just tell me how to remove annoying songs from my head, we'd be getting somewhere.

Not here, though. Some questions I simply cannot answer.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mutants R Us

In the March 12 New Yorker, Anthony Lane's article "Down by the River" starts like this:

How come we get so many films about serial killers, teen-age libidos, and the Second World War, but nothing about giant mutant tadpoles? The imbalance has always struck me as unjust, and some of us have considered forming a pressure group to lobby for the inclusion of giant mutant tadpoles in mainstream cinema. Now the pressure is off, thanks to "The Host."

What would you call that pressure group? People for the Cinematic Treatment of Mutant Tadpoles?

It's a wonderful article. Whether it's a wonderful movie remains to be seen.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Invasion of the pizza snatchers

We were eating supper at a cheap pizza restaurant--one of those places where the kitchen workers yell incomprehensible comments every time a new type of pizza is placed on the counter--when I saw before me something truly reprehensible. I have nothing against inventive pizza toppings. I have eaten potato pizza and shrimp pizza, and I have no fear of olives, anchovies, or feta cheese. This pizza, however, takes the cake, for piled high on that crusty pie was a steaming mound of macaroni and cheese.

"Two-year-olds have taken over the kitchen! Run for your lives!" is what I wanted to say, but instead I sat there silently and watched a dozen greedy, grasping hands polish off that pizza. We all have our limits, and I guess I've found mine. This is where I nail my theses to the kitchen door: we must stop the sales of such indulgences! By allowing toddlers' tastes to rule our kitchens, we sell our birthright for a mess of pottage-a-roni! I stand before that steaming mass of gooey macaroni and loudly proclaim, 'Thus far and no further!"

But alas, no one can hear me over the sound of their chewing.

Obliviously obvious

Hot news! Be prepared for an insight that will knock your socks off: I have just read (and I can hardly believe my good fortune!) that "poetry means different things to different people and it is up to the individual reader to interpret."

Yes! In fact, this insight is so amazing that it appears, in slightly different forms, in roughly half of the poetry papers on my desk this morning! Some papers claim that it's up to the individual reader to "interrupt," but let's not get picky! The astounding thing is that on several occasions in class I have actually used this remarkable insight as an example of a sentence I do not EVER want to see in a student paper!!!!

I'd better settle down and take a deep breath before I use up my quota of exclamation points. Let's just all agree, once and for all, that poetry means different things to different people and it is up to the individual reader to interpret (or interrupt, as the case may be). There: it's down in black and white for everyone to see. No one ever needs to say it again, especially not in an analytical essay, and most especially not in my class.

Likewise, no one ever needs to write that "people should follow their own dreams" or "some feel one way about the issue and some feel another way and it's up to the individual to decide." And while we're at it, my wonderful colleague Janet doesn't want to see any more freshman essays starting with "In today's society" or that thrilling alternative, "In society today." Neither do we want to see a three-page essay that begins with "Since the beginning of time" or "Throughout history." A three-page essay that promises to survey the course of an idea since the beginning ot time is making a promise it cannot possibly keep.

Since the beginning of time, teachers have been complaining about annoyingly obvious statements that pop up repeatedly in student papers, but in today's society, I feel strongly that we should do more than complain. Some feel one way about the issue and some feel another way, and it is up to the reader to decide whether to ignore this rant or send in an example of his or her own most annoying statement from student papers. We could create some found poetry from the collection, which would mean different things to different people, and then we could burn the collection in a ritual bonfire. But everyone should follow their own dreams!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Powerless: The Aftermath

In addition to a power outage, for the past two days some of my students have been suffering from a time outage, or so they say. I don't know how many times today I've heard some variation on the following plea: "I didn't have time to study because of the power outage so I assume the midterm exam will be postponed."

Okay, let's review: for the past two days students have had no classes to worry about, but somehow that added up to less time to study for the midterm. In my math, less time in class = more time for studying. Maybe my students are using a different kind of math--or maybe when that transformer blew out it caused some serious damage to the space-time continuum.

Yes, midterm exams will be given as scheduled. I e-mailed all my students Tuesday and Wednesday to provide some information about their exams and suggest some strategies for preparation, but of course some of them had trouble accessing their e-mail with the power absent from some parts of campus. Most of my students used their noggins to overcome this disadvantage, discovering that there are many ways to access college e-mail even during a power outage. Others did not. Perhaps they suffered from an ingenuity outage.

Today everything seems to be back to normal: the lights are on, the heat is up, and computers are humming in the background. Time-out is over, people! Let's take those brain cells out for a spin!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Powerless, Part 2

Before 7:00 this morning three different people called to tell me to stay home because the power is still out on campus and classes are cancelled. Apparently the rented generator that provided heat for some of the dorms last night malfunctioned and the power company is still working on replacing the transformer that blew out Tuesday. I've been frantically e-mailing my students to prepare them for the midterm exams they'll be taking Thursday and Friday, but some students still don't have access to e-mail so I don't know how effective my messages will be. I was just thinking about driving to campus to pick up whatever papers students might have managed to turn in yesterday, but suddenly it's snowing, big fluffy flakes pouring from the sky like an urgent message from God.

I can take a hint. I'm staying home.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I was in my office preparing for my 8:00 class this morning when a student called to ask if we would be having class today. "Why wouldn't we be having class today?" I asked. That's when I found out that the power was out.

Well, not entirely. My office had power enough to provide light but not enough to run my computer or boil water for tea, and it was only after I spoke to my student that I noticed how cold it was. Apparently a transformer blew out yesterday and most of the campus has been lacking light, heat, and power all night.

All classes were cancelled, naturally, but my students knew this before I did. I spent some time calling my colleagues, waking them up only to tell them to go back to bed. They were delighted. I was not. I had things to do in today's classes! Important things! How will we ever get caught up?!!!

But I got over it. I thought about staying on campus and doing some work in my office, but my policy is "No heat, no tea, no service." Instead, I did some shopping and then came home and put a pot roast in the crock pot. I can get online at home, which is more than I could do in my office. This afternoon I'll enjoy the comforts of home: heat, light, hot tea, and pot roast. Tomorrow we'll all be back to business as usual.

Monday, March 05, 2007


"The personal essay is an excuse for bad fiction-writers to publish." So said Eric Miles Williamson, editor of Pleiades, at one of the conference sessions I attended last week. I'm not sure what use to make of that statement, but I must have felt it was important because I wrote it down in my notebook, along with this from the same source: "If you want to get a bad story published, call it an essay."

After three days in Atlanta, my notebook is full of such little nuggets of--well, I don't know whether "wisdom" is the right word. I know it's not terribly wise to write down all these notes and haul them home if I'm not going to make anything of them, so today I think I'll make a Miscellany of Ideas that Seemed Fairly Important at the Time (MISFIT):

I'm already tired of the word "poignant." (Source: me, after only half a day of conferencing!)

Eighty percent of what we need to know about writing fiction comes from poetry. (Source: Walter Mosley, who dressed dramatically all in black--black suit, black dress shirt, black hat, black high-top sneakers--and also said that history is a lie but writing a novel is our best chance to get to the truth.)

Picture a thousand poets trying to shove into the same elevator while mumbling the mantra "my publisher, my publisher" and you will have a good sense of the scene in the Hilton lobby Friday night. (Source: me, with a little help from my friends.)

"Etiquette is the death of religion." (Source: someone on a panel about writing faith for the faithless, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd roughly evenly divided between those who looked like Mormon missionaries and those who looked like they'd just dropped in after a long morning of threshing wheat at the Holistic Living Commune, except it's the wrong time of year to be threshing wheat.)

That's about it. Everything else is either illegible or incoherent. I suppose I could put all these insights together and call it a personal essay, but what would Eric Miles Williamson think?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Like a rolling stone

Today I had intended to make like a rolling stone, but instead I seem to be gathering moss. It started this morning at the Starbucks in my hotel, where I went through my daily chai-ordering ritual: I pronounce my name and the cashier mispronounces it; I say it again and she finds another way to mangle it; I either say it again or give up and accept the cashier's christening. Then the cashier conveys my order to the chai-maker: "Grande chai for Miss Bev" (or Beth or, this morning, Mauve), and the chai-maker writes on the cup a name that may or may not correspond with the moniker selected by the cashier. Then there's a moment of suspense as I wait to see what name the chai-maker will bestow upon me. Yesterday, through some bizarre conjunction of celestial objects, the cup said Bev, but Thursday it insisted on Beth, certainly the most common and forgiveable mangling of my name.

This morning my cup called me Moss. Nothing against Moss--I like moss, really; some of my best plants are moss--but how can I roll through the bookfair resisting booksellers' attempts to stick stuff on me if I resemble Moss?

I sat for a while at Starbuck's contemplating this dilemma before I finally tossed the cup in the can. Goodbye, Moss. This Bev is rolling.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Safe at home?

We heard first thing this morning that a busload of baseball players from a small college in Ohio had crashed here in Atlanta, and we were a little alarmed. I thought of my 8:00 freshman composition class half full of baseball players and tried to remember where they were traveling this weekend, but then we heard that the crashed bus was from Bluffton College and we were relieved that the pain this time would not belong to us but to strangers, a selfish feeling to be sure.

Still, it feels awfully close to home. For four years I worked in Bluffton, not at the college itself but for a business where everyone was either an alumnus of Bluffton College or a parent of a student. This morning when we heard about the wreck, I ran through a mental roll call of former colleagues and tried to remember the ages of their children, praying for safety. It was too long ago and I am too far removed from that life, but I know that town and I feel their pain and I wish I could do something to help them. It's good to know my people are safe at home, but not so good to know that the ones who are not safe are my people too.

Something to yell about

Our panel presented today, so naturally I had nightmares all night--the usual horrors about standing in front of a group of people I need to impress when suddenly my teeth start falling out, and I have to frantically try to catch the falling teeth while continuing with my presentation. This time the nightmare was enlivened by a visit from my dentist, who first yelled at me for letting my teeth fall out and then dragged my orthodontist into the room and started yelling at him. Then I started yelling back, except my yelling was not confined to dreamland. The longsuffering colleague in the next bed had to gently remind me that all that yelling was not really necessary at 2 a.m.

Nothing could go wrong during our panel that could possibly be worse than that nightmare, which, I suppose, is the point of the nightmare: if I've already survived the worst that could happen, the presentation itself will be smooth sailing. And indeed it was. There were some technical difficulties beforehand and we had to contend with a room cold enough to hang meat in, but all in all, it was an exhilarating experience. Last year in Atlanta I read a paper to an audience that can be described by the equation a = p +1, where a = the number of people in the audience and p = number of people on the panel. Today's audience was more robust, despite the fact that they had to sit on their hands to avoid frostbite.

Best of all, there was no yelling involved--and I still have all my teeth.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Lost in the bookfair

I've just escaped from the conference bookfair for the second time. I venture bravely into the labyrinth of book-covered tables guarded by rabid booksellers and I wander around trying to impersonate an International Woman of Mystery in hopes that the booksellers will just let me look, but no. Next time I'll wear a necklace of garlic bulbs and lead a hyena on a leash. It's not enough that they try to lure me in with brightly-colored book covers featuring enigmatic titles; no, they offer treats too, T-shirts and chocolates and free sample issues of literary journals with names that sound like engine parts or children's games or self-consciously ironic cultural critique. When I start my literary magazine, I'll call it Drivel.

I keep my eyes and feet moving, hoping to glide smoothly through the aisles without attracting attention, but they pop up in front of me, these booksellers, to baffle my intentions. They all ask the same two questions:

1. Are you a writer?
2. What do you write?

Others seem to have ready answers for these questions, but I struggle: "Um, well, I write incisive comments on student papers and blog entries and annual assessment reports and book reviews and handouts and essays and limericks and things like that." Once when an eager bookseller asked me "Poetry or fiction?" I smiled brightly and said, "Yes!"

Finally I had to retreat, but not before buying a book--just one--despite the fact that a blurb on the back describes it as a "magical postmodern epic." Why did I buy it?

1. I like the cover photo.
2. I like the title.
3. I like the price ($8).
4. The author was standing right there ready to sign it.

It's called Quinnehtukqut, by the way, a novel by a guy I've never heard of called Joshua Harmon. He tells me the title is pronounced just like my home state--Connecticut--although the book is set in New Hampshire. The cover photo shows Harmon's great-grandfather in a flannel shirt and grimy dungarees, standing on a streetcorner and smoking a cigarette. Here is a sentence selected at random from the top of page 41: "A midwinter barn dance and that Hennessy girl as sour as old milk."

Magical? We'll see. Walking out of a room full of high-pressure booksellers with only one book is a remarkable feat in itself, but if that book can magically transport me away from this seething mass of intensely creative people, it will be eight dollars well spent.

The Write Place

I'm in Atlanta now and my conference-going started this morning with a good sign: when I went to pick up my nametag at the registration area, the only desk that didn't have a long line in front of it was the one serving my portion of the alphabet. At that moment, I was the only G through L needing attention, and boy, did I get it.

My hotel is populated by attendees at two different conventions: a group of writers and writing teachers and a group of sales associates. It's easy to tell the two groups apart. For one thing, the sales associates sport fewer ponytails, and the writers are more likely to be dressed in costumes suggesting creativity, authenticity, and drama. The first session I attended (on syntax in poetry) was populated mostly by women, most of them middle-aged or older and looking very sincere. The session didn't start on time, but what did I expect from a gaggle of poets? "We don't know who we are, frankly," said the first speaker, and I sympathize. With many dozens of concurrent sessions running for three days, I don't see a single session for doggerelists. There is a session featuring a panelist talking about blogging--but wait, that would be me. Hope I'm not the only one interested in the topic.

And what about Bloggers Without Borders? There's a small Starbucks tucked into the lobby of the Marriott Marquis; I'll be there at 8:00 sharp Saturday, ready to encounter anyone out there who might want to visit. I'll be the girl with the orchid behind her ear. Or not.