Monday, April 30, 2007

Nobody's scared of the Pillsbury Doughboy

An article about my research appears in the new issue of the college magazine and ever since it came out colleagues have been congratulating me. "Great photo," they say. "It looks just like you." If this is true, then I must look an awful lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy wearing glasses. But then the only photo of myself I've ever liked is the one above, and it's a bit outdated. Most other photos of me look like Jabba the Hutt in drag.

Lately I've been obsessing a little more than usual about my appearance. In fact, every spring when the weather turns warm I wrestle daily with the same question: short sleeves or long? I often opt for a short-sleeved shirt topped with a jacket or sweater, but then when I get into a warm classroom, I face another question: jacket on or off? My students would prefer that I leave the jacket on. I know this because they say so on my teaching evaluations. "She should be required to wear long sleeves in the classroom," they say. "She has a big ugly hairy mole on her arm that distracts me from learning."

It's helpful to be reminded that I have a big ugly hairy mole on my arm because I've lived with it so long that I sometimes forget. Take yesterday, for instance: we went to see The Miracle Worker performed by a local theater troupe, and after the show we stopped to do some shopping and saw some of the performers in the store--two young boys still in their costumes. I was planning to congratulate them on their performance, but then they started pointing and whispering and giggling about the big ugly hairy mole on my arm. Oh yeah, that. I had forgotten. Thanks for pointing it out! Thanks so much!

The mole doesn't show in my new photo, but I doubt that's the reason colleagues are congratulating me. I asked a friend what's so good about this new photo and she said, "It reveals something about you that people like." Okay, I'll admit that I don't look scary in the new photo. I've been told that some folks find me a tad frightening, but nobody's scared of the Pillsbury Doughboy.

"No, that's not it," she said.

"Then what?"

"You look warm and witty and intelligent, like you're about to say something really smart," she said.

I couldn't think of anything smart to say in response except "thanks." A warm, witty, intelligent, non-scary Pillsbury Doughboy with no visible mole--that's a self-image I can live with.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spring growth

Fog on the meadow this morning, making the spider-webs shine like beacons. The grosbeaks are still hanging around, so maybe they're here to stay. No sign of orioles yet, although last year's nest is still visible at the top of one of the tall sycamores by the creek. The woods are full of trilliums and mayapples--I've never seen so many mayapples, many growing in places where we've never seen them before. This afternoon I'll hunt for trout lilies. Growing conditions are excellent.

Which is not entirely a good thing. The grass, for instance, is growing entirely too quickly, and all this wet weather is making mowing impossible. My front lawn looks like an experiment in neglect: How tall will the grass grow if we just leave it alone? How far will the dandelions and creeping charlie spread? How much muscle will it take to push a reel mower through all that growth? Give me some sunshine and we'll find out.

Friday, April 27, 2007


I arrived home today feeling grumpy and frumpy and angry and mean, only to find several rose-breasted grosbeaks visiting the feeders. It is impossible to remain angry in the presence of these lovely little birds. They make me smile. For now, that's enough.

Prophylactic thinking

I've done it to myself again: required all my students to turn in papers in the same week. Next week at this time I'll be inundated with student writing, and not just any student writing but the kind of writing that occurs at the time in the semester when many students are on the verge of becoming gibbering idiots--and inspiring their professors to do likewise.

To prepare for the onslaught, I intend to spend this weekend doing some prophylactic thinking: filling my mind so full of good stuff that drivel won't be able to find a foothold but will instead bounce off the surface of my jam-packed mind like a gymnast off a trampoline. All I need to do is find a whole lot of witty, intelligent, thought-provoking writing to pack in there and top it off with a generous measure of clever conversation, rollicking laughter, and appreciation of nature.

But if I'm going to fill my mind with good stuff, first I need to find the good stuff with which to fill it. What kind of reading will best serve to steel my mind against an impending onslaught of mediocrity? I welcome suggestions.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Visions and revisions

It's easy to gripe about the futility of writing comments on student drafts: we spend hours on end working through wretched papers and writing helpful suggestions for improvement, but students ignore our careful comments and just turn in the same old mediocre mess. What's the point of all that work if students are just going to toss the paper in the trash? It's time to transform this monologue into a conversation.

I took the first step this morning in my composition class when I returned their mostly horrible drafts accompanied by a handout headed "My Revision Plan." The handout listed the most common problems on these drafts organized from most serious (inadequate evidence, no clear thesis) to least serious (spelling, format errors). Each student had to read the comments on the draft, put a check mark next to all the relevant problems on the Revision Plan handout, and then write a brief but specific plan for addressing each of those problems.

Here's the key: students were not allowed to leave class until they showed me their completed Revision Plans. Some students had few check-marks and came up with plans fairly quickly; they were allowed to leave early and get to work on revising their papers. Others had many check-marks and had to think of many ways to address the issues, and then they had to show me their plans so I could offer additional information or encouragement.

Whether they left class early or late, all my students had to pay attention to my comments on the draft, come up with specific methods to address those comments, and convince me that they knew what was needed to improve the paper. Will they act on their Revision Plans? Perhaps; the revised papers will tell the tale. But even if they don't take the next step, at least I've done my part to turn this monologue into a conversation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about poetry

My American Lit Survey class is ending the semester with two solid weeks of twentieth-century poetry, so students' written comments ask the same questions over and over:

1. Why is this a poem? It doesn't rhyme.

2. That poem is too long. I got bored just reading the title.

3. Why would anyone write a poem about _____? (Fill in the blank: garbage, food, sex, desire, murder, suicide, madness, ordinary life.)

4. That poem is so random!

5. I don't understand the poem. Please explain the hidden meaning.

Here is my response:

I am not an oracle.
The meaning is in the words.
The words are not random,
even when they don't rhyme.
It is what it is,
and if it bores you,
maybe you should write your own poem.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Time bandits

"As our American society develops, we are trying to better ourselves by making our children and predecessors achieve higher standards then us."

I recommend a time machine--one that moves both ways.

Traffic report

The good news is that the school bus driver is walking around with no apparent injuries except to his pride. The bad news is that the school bus ended up on its side, dangling precariously on the edge of a bluff next to the most dangerous curve on my road.

I didn't see the accident but I was the first person on the scene, and I have never felt so helpless. I pass that bus at about the same spot nearly every morning and I wave to the bus driver as he prepares to start his route. Today I rounded the curve and saw the bus sliding down the bluff on its side, with wheels spinning and some sort of fluid gushing from beneath. The sight was disconcerting, to say the least.

I stopped, of course, parking my van with the flashers on to alert oncoming traffic (unlikely at that time of day), and then I scurried around toward the front of the bus to see what I could do. The bus driver was standing up and calling for help on the radio, but I didn't see a way to get down there to help him out of the bus, nor did I see a way out. The driver stood there like a bug under glass, not 15 feet from where I was standing but totally inaccessible. "I'm okay," he mouthed, waving me off. What could I do? A klutz in a wimpy car--with no cell phone!--isn't much help at a time like that.

It wasn't long before help arrived; by the time my husband reached the scene, the driver had been removed from the bus, another bus had been despatched to cover the route, and the wreckers had arrived. Everything is fine, he told me. Nobody was injured. The road will be closed for a while until the bus gets removed, but other than that, life goes on as if nothing unusual had happened.

So why are my palms so sweaty, and why do I feel as if I've been kicked in the stomach?

A card for every purpose

I went to the campus bookstore to buy a greeting card--just an ordinary friendly mother-to-daughter card in which to insert a check--but I was disappointed to find that the bookstore has drastically reduced its selection of greeting cards (has electronic communication made greeting cards obsolete?) so that I found nothing even remotely appropriate for the occasion. I did, however, find a birthday card featuring the following charming message: "Happy Birthday. See you in Hell."

Who sends such a card? "Students love that card," said one of the store clerks. "We can't keep it in stock."

I realize that I am hopelessly out of touch, but I really don't understand this at all. Anyone care to explain?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Non-trivial persuasion

We've all played Trivial Pursuit, but what is Trivial Persuade? I picture a game in which players earn wedges by persuading others to perform utterly pointless or mundane actions: for a green wedge, persuade someone to seal an envelope; for a pink wedge, persuade another player to say "the" three times fast. Who would want to play such a game?

Someone must want to because the phrase "trivial persuade" was used in a search string that led to this site. If you looked only at the search strings leading here, you might conclude that I write primarily about food, rodents and other pests, and people dressed inappropriately for the office. Recent searchers wanted to find out about "cooking tomato sauce good or bad" or the "temperment of groundhogs" or "braless office," three topics on which I am about as good an authority as Mr. Ed.

There are occasional questions about literature, mostly from lazy readers seeking an easy way out of an assignment; some are looking for an "in depth analysis of the yellow wallpaper" or insight on "innocence in A White Heron", while others seek enlightenment about "lie lay laid dead" or "sentence with suave." Now even more seekers possessed by an urgent need to use "suave" in a sentence will be led to this site, which uses "suave" in a sentence not just once but several times without any clear indication of what "suave" might mean.

The most frustrating thing about these bizarre search strings, though, is that I never get a chance to follow up and find out what motivates people to seek the peculiar things they seek. What is "aromatherapy chipmunks birdseed" and why would anyone be looking for it? Who needs a "strawberry powerpoint presentation" and what does he or she have in common with the person seeking a "handkerchief stuffed sleeve"? Will the person suffering from "cinnamon buns with caramelization" please send some my way instead of just making my mouth water?

Finally, how can I persuade readers that my blog is not quite as trivial as these search strings makes it appear? And if I succeed, do I get a wedge?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

What I'm not griping about

Griping is inappropriate when the weather is this good, but if I were inclined to gripe this weekend, here is what I'd be griping about:

1. Ants in my telephone. I know that living in the woods requires a certain willingness to share one's living space with various wee beasties, but I need that phone more than the ants do. Don't ants use chemicals to communicate? Or do they tap-dance with antennae? Whatever: if they want to make a phone call, let 'em get their own darn phone.

2. Experimental fiction so fascinated by its own experimentation that it forgets the elements of good fiction. Case in point: Foe by J.M. Coetzee. I appreciate the attempt to explore the troubled relationship between the author and his creation, but if I wanted two-dimensional characters, I'd read a comic book.

3. Student papers that try to pass off as thesis statements sentences such as the following:

"The Open Boat," "The Road Not Taken," and The America Play all rely heavily on the use of the word "the" in their titles.

I need to get a rubber stamp that says "So what?" --except I"d wear it out by midterm.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Improving Updike?

The aristocratic social set into which she was born expected its women to be ornamental, well-sheltered, intellectually idle agents of their interwoven clans, whereas Edith was an awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer, teased by her two older brothers about her big hands and feet and out of sympathy with her intensely conventional mother, nee Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander--a mother-daughter disharmony that rankled in Edith's fiction to the end.

This remarkable sentence, from John Updike's review of a new biography of Edith Wharton in the April 16 New Yorker, reminds me of what my husband's grandma would say when he tried to carry a few too many feed sacks at once: "That's a lazy man's load." Updike's sentence, like a lazy man's load, packs in a little too much information and suffers from a bit of slippage around the edges.

The sentence works pretty well until we encounter the phrase "out of sympathy." Who is out of sympathy? The first time I read the sentence, I interpreted it this way:

[Edith was] teased by her two older brothers
1. about her big hands and feet, and
2. out of sympathy for her mother.

But this implies that the brothers are teasing her because they sympathize with her mother, which is not, I think, what Updike intends. But if "out of sympathy" does not follow from "teased," where does it belong? If it describes Edith, we have to look way back to the "whereas" clause, where Edith is already described as an "awkward, red-haired bookworm and dreamer." Both "teased by her brothers" and "out of sympathy," then, could modify "dreamer," which makes sense, but why did I have to work so hard to figure that out?

Perhaps I'm a poor reader, or perhaps the sentence is trying to say too much. Sometimes the only way to carry all the feed sacks without slippage is to put a few down and come back for them later--or break the unwieldy sentence into two. On the other hand, if we pack up the feed sacks neatly enough, maybe we can make it in one trip. So far, I haven't found a way to pack all this meaning into one sentence without confusion, but perhaps my faithful readers can meet the challenge. Anyone want to try to improve on Updike?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The end is near

While standing in front of my 8:00 composition class this morning, I had an evil thought: four more classes and we're through.

Only four more class periods in which to look at your faces and watch as you try to keep your eyelids from falling shut.

Only four more chances to watch in wonder as you stand up and walk out of the room in the middle of class and then wander back in 20 minutes later without explanation.

Only four more times to drag you kicking and screaming through exercises designed to make you better writers, and only four more chances to read the uneven results.

Only four more opportunities for you to ask questions that have been asked and answered in great detail over and over since the first day of class, and only four more opportunities for me to bite my tongue and control my sarcasm.

Only four more classes and we're through. I don't know about you, but I intend to celebrate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

On competence and fluency

Recently while reading freshman essays I had an epiphany about a certain cluster of problems I'm seeing often in student papers: mangled idioms, incorrect verb forms, sudden shifts in point of view or tense in the middle of paragraphs, sentences that wander off into bizarrely ungrammatical forms, and so on. I see these problems all the time in papers written by my Chinese students, but this semester I'm seeing the same kinds of issues in papers written by lower-performing American students. Suddenly I understand the problem: these students may be native speakers of English, but they lack fluency in their native tongue.

I sat down recently to work through a draft with a student, and when I carefully pointed out the subject/verb agreement problems and predication errors, he was able to make corrections, just as a student studying English as a Second Language is able to learn and apply abstract rules of grammar without necessarily internalizing those rules. I have several of these students this semester: their grasp of written English is limited and inconsistent, and their struggles to produce the simplest written statements result in prose that appears to have been written by a non-native speaker.

How does a young person grow up surrounded by English without ever developing fluency in his or her own language? It's possible that learning disabilities are involved, although none of these particular students have identified themselves as learning disabled or asked for accommodations. My knee-jerk reaction is to suspect that these students rely heavily on electronic communication and just don't expose themselves to enough competent writing to absorb its conventions. I wouldn't want to speculate any further than that, but I wonder how to deal with the challenge of teaching these students. How do I teach English as a second language to students for whom it is their first?

Seeing beyond Point B

We've been doing telephone interviews with candidates for a job in the English Department, and several of them have asked a question I don't know how to answer: "What is your vision for the future of the English department?"

I probably shouldn't admit this out loud, but I'm not sure I have a vision for the future of the English department. In fact, I'm not really a visionary kind of person. I'm pretty good at doing what it takes to get from Point A to Point B, provided that Point B is a clearly defined and reachable goal; however, seeing beyond Point B has always been a challenge.

If I try to envision the department's future, I picture happy faculty members passionately pursuing their research interests while mentoring a growing crop of intelligent and creative English majors. It's difficult to get more specific than that. I suppose I could say that I envision a group of majors disinclined to murder their classmates, but that's a goal every department shares, if not every rational human being. My vision statement could be summed up like this: Let's all just learn some stuff, okay?

If I were a real administrator, I would devote a lot of time to coming up with visions and missions and goals and objectives and plans to assess all these things, and I would have a clear and reasonable response when candidates asked for my vision for the future of the department. Instead, I'm focusing on getting from Point A to Point B, and if we can all just learn some stuff along the way, I'll be content.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Struggling for speech

After yesterday's tragedy it seems somehow callous to talk to students about commas, but that's what I'm doing today. I harbor no hope that correct use of commas will reduce the level of senseless violence in our world, nor do I believe that mastering the rules of comma usage will dissuade a deranged student from murdering his classmates. But what else can I tell them? "Thou shalt not kill" has already been said a few times, and those seriously considering mass murder tend to be unresponsive to the message.

If I could say one thing to all my students today it would be this: phone home. Call your mom, dad, sibs, friends, and love each other up. And ask for help when you need it; use words, not weapons.

It's not much, but at this point it's the best I can do.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What went wrong?

I spent my lunch hour at a local restaurant laughing and joking with colleagues and speculating about controversial issues on the agenda at this afternoon's faculty meeting, but then we came back to campus and saw the news from Virginia. No one is laughing now. Those faculty meeting agenda items that were so fascinating at lunch suddenly seem irrelevant.

Education ought to equip students to rely on reason rather than reaching for a gun. What went wrong?

Puffins at play

I had a little trouble getting up this morning because I was enjoying such a lovely dream about traveling to North Dakota in the dead of winter to watch puffins at play. My waking mind knows that there are no puffins in North Dakota, but the dreaming me says, "Shhhh! You'll scare them away!"

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Obvious Alarm fails to function

Today's prize for stating the obvious goes to our local newspaper, which features a headline declaring "Abuse an inappropriate behavior for caregivers." This headline raises some important questions that the article fails to answer:

1. If abuse is inappropriate for caregivers, for whom is it appropriate?

2. Why use the wimpy word "inappropriate" when clearer terms would be more, um, appropriate? If the babysitter invites her boyfriend over and makes out with him on the sofa and then eats up all the food in the fridge, that's inappropriate; if she wraps the little kiddies in duct tape and beats 'em with an electrical cord, that's worse than inappropriate--it's illegal.

3. Doesn't anyone on the newspaper staff have a brain equipped with a properly funcitoning Obvious Alarm? Next we'll see headlines proclaiming embezzlement an inappropriate behavior for school treasurers and murder an inappropriate behavior for 12-year-olds.

Unfortunately, we'll probably never see the headline this newspaper needs: "Stating the obvious an inappropriate behavior for headline writers."

Friday, April 13, 2007


The in-laws arrive today so I was swiffing the wood floor in the living room, reaching far back under the sofa to sweep out the dust mice, when suddenly I swept out something even less welcome than dust mice. At first I thought it was a cat toy, but no, it was not a toy. I swept a dead mouse out from under my sofa.

It couldn't have been under there long because it wasn't gooey or swollen or smelly, but still--if there's one thing worse than dust mice under the sofa, it's dead mice. I wanted to use it as an object lesson for the cat: "See, Whiskers? This is the enemy. When you see one of these, kill!" But she just turned up her nose and waddled away.

The carcass was whisked away before the in-laws arrived, but it was a close call. If there's one thing worse than dead mice under a sofa, it's dead mice under a sofa on which a mother-in-law is sitting. Not even the cat could save such a situation.

Notes from summer camp

As I was judging our college's senior speech competition yesterday, I was reminded of a comment one of my colleagues made about the redesign of the college website: "It makes us look like summer camp." He has a point: the website's text talks about academic rigor and intellectual growth and opportunities for in-depth study, but the photos emphasize sports, silliness, and fun in the sun, while the life of the mind is represented by a few photos of professors teaching and exterior shots of academic buildings.

Yesterday's senior speeches presented a similarly skewed picture. I listened to seven speeches given by the best and the brightest of our graduating seniors competing to give an address at commencement, all of them competent and some sparkling, but a listener unfamiliar with our campus might conclude that college life consists of four years of Spring Break occasionally punctuated by floods and service projects. One student spoke movingly about lessons learned outside the classroom and another spoke passionately about specific classes that had left a mark on him, but the rest made only the vaguest references to academics.

I enjoyed the speeches and I love our new website, and apparently students do too because enrollment keeps rising. But I just wish someone would figure out a way to put academics in the spotlight. I realize that it's difficult to catch learning on film, but we ought to at least make an effort.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tromping for trilliums

It's a good year for Dutchman's Breeches and for trilliums too. I've never seen so many growing in one place. I had to tromp up a muddy slope to get these photos and it was difficult to avoid stepping on the flowers, but it was worth it.

The Vonnegut Effect

My composition classes are focusing on semicolons today, an appropriate way to honor the memory of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut famously and frequently denigrated the semicolon as a worthless and pretentious punctuation mark, useful only to suggest that one has been to college. Vonnegut found this sufficient reason to avoid semicolons entirely, but I see the issue differently: if semicolon use is a sign of one's college experience, and if going to college is a key to success, then students who graduate from college without knowing how to use semicolons will be forever hampered in their race toward achievement. How will anyone know my students have been to college if they can't use semicolons? I consider it my solemn duty to make sure my students have a firm grasp of the correct use of semicolons; in fact, if it were up to me, at graduation we would hand every graduating student not a diploma but a lifetime supply of semicolons. "Semicolons are your friends," I tell them. "Use them wisely and they will reward you richly."

I realize that my argument contains a serious flaw, which can be summed up in the deathless words spoken by Billy Boy at the end of the Eudora Welty story "Petrified Man": "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" I have made a lifelong habit of using semicolons correctly, but how have they rewarded me? This question is relevant right now in another area of my life in which Kurt Vonnegut also figures prominently: my garage.

Bear with me while I work through this: the garage is done, and now the drainage system is done and the deck and walkway on the back are nearly done, but a slight landslip on the slope led to the need for a retaining wall, and walls don't come cheaply--you can't just pile up a bunch of semicolons and hope they hold--so this stage of the project has resulted in certain cost overruns. Actually, every stage of the project resulted in certain cost overruns, resulting in a serious cash-flow problem, resulting in our being just a tad short of making the final payment the project, which is being completed even as we speak, or whatever it is we're doing here.

I cannot go to the contractor and say, "I am rich in semicolons! Here, take a handful!" For one thing, the exchange rate for semicolons is way down right now because of the glut on the market caused by what linguists have labelled "The Vonnegut Effect." So I'm looking for other ways to pay the bill short of selling excess organs on e-Bay, and this morning I came up with a dandy idea involving Kurt Vonnegut (who else?) and a lemon meringue pie.

I don't make pies often because, frankly, I stink at pie crust, but I can make a lemon meringue pie to die for, and I did so for Easter dinner. (Meaning I made the pie, not that I died for it. As far as I know, no lives were lost in the baking of that pie.) Meringue can be tricky, but this one was perfect: light and fluffy with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and a lovely pattern of caramelization on top. It looked almost like a face, and that's where Kurt Vonnegut comes in: it would be easy to manipulate the meringue to make it look even more like a face, and if people are willing to travel thousands of miles to gaze at cinnamon buns that look like the Virgin Mary or spend thousands of dollars to purchase a grilled-cheese sandwich bearing her image, wouldn't they do the same if a lemon meringue pie came out bearing the image of Kurt Vonnegut? Visitors would come from as far away as Indiana to gaze rapturously at the pie; I could charge for parking and sell souvenirs, little plastic pies and keyrings shaped like semicolons and postcards and bumper stickers and Tralfamadorian gewgaws. Eventually I would bow to public pressure and sell the pie on e-Bay, and I'd hand over a big chunk of the proceeds to my wonderful contractor, with thanks for a job well done.

With my luck, the highest bidder would be one of my students, who would pay me entirely in semicolons.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Acknowledge this!

I generally find it interesting to skim through the acknowledgments in a new book and see to whom the author feels indebted, but even I have my limits. Five pages of small type thanking no fewer than 91 people including scholars, librarians, and the author's mother-in-law--well, there's such a thing as too much gratitude. If this were an Academy Award speech, the author would be hauled off the stage halfway through the second page, leaving untold numbers of helpful people tragically unthanked.

With a crowd that big standing between me and the meat of the book, I am reluctant to go on, and if the author requires that much help to write the book, maybe he ought to choose a less challenging career, like writing greeting cards. Or, better yet, he could send a bunch of greeting cards--91, to be exact. What better way to thank a horde of people whose vital contributions made possible a book about greeting cards in American culture?

Like the idea? Don't mention it. Really. No, please, don't thank me. You've already done enough.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Carom + rumba = carumba

The title at the top of the student's draft was "I Carumba," and for a moment I wondered who this Carumba person might be--or is carumba a verb for a new dance step? "I Carumba" could conceivably refer to a production of "I, Claudius" produced by a spelling-challenge drama troupe in Corumba, Brazil, or "I Carumba" could be an appropriate title for a paper on the hazards of cross-cultural communication or the need for attention to detail in transcribing foreign words and phrases into English. This title, though, appeared on a paper about the problem of obesity, which, as far as I know, has no relationship to spelling, Spanish or otherwise.

I'm reminded of the elderly relative who started using closed-captioning after suffering hearing loss and suddenly discovered the proper spelling of words he had been using all his life; he'd been saying "wallah" for more than 70 years before he finally saw the word scrolling across the television screen, and then he could not contain his excitement: "Did you know voila starts with a v?"

I hope my student has a voila moment this week while revising his paper; otherwise, I'll be the one shouting, "Ay, caramba!"

Trillium triumph

At long last, trilliums! They're blooming in abundance on the slope across the road, along with dozens of dutchman's breeches and a healthy (or unhealthy, I suppose) crop of beer bottles and MacDonald's bags. I've never understood the thought process that leads drivers to equate remote country roads with landfills, but the results are plain to see along our roadside. Next time I walk I'll carry a bag and pick things up, although I don't believe I'll be able to reach far enough out in the creek to get the huge bottle that once held Bloody Mary mix. If I knew who was responsible for dumping all that junk, I'd know where to deposit it, and soon we'd have a trash war raging all across the county. Lacking that essential piece of information, I think I'll just pick up the trash and enjoy the trilliums.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Ranting with the classics

Yesterday's bad-book rant made me wish I could savage a book the way Mark Twain did in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (read it here). Twain goes after Cooper with every weapon in the arsenal, from the subtle stiletto to the Sherman tank. Sometimes he damns with faint praise:

Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go.

And sometimes his comments are more blunt: "There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now." Twain proceeds to bury any remaining Cooper fans under a mound of infelicitous passages from The Deerslayer.

Best of all, Twain includes his own 18 rules for the writing of fiction, including my favorite, #14: "Eschew surplusage." If the author of the book I complained about yesterday had seriously considered the immense number of mediocre books already in print, perhaps she would have refrained from adding to the surplus and saved us all a lot of trouble.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A reviewer's nightmare: the not-quite-bad-enough book

If I could write a one-sentence review of the book I've just finished reading, it would say, "This book is just too bad to review." Instead I'm supposed to produce 800 words of polished prose presenting a balanced evaluation of a book that does not merit 800 words or the time and effort I will have to put into writing 800 words or the time I've already spent reading the book. I'd be happier if the book were bad enough to be amusing, if it were studded with bizarrely inept prose and hilariously mixed metaphors. But no: it's written competently enough to resist jeering. It's not even bad enough to be interesting; it's just bad.

The characters are sketchy; we're told more or less what the main character looks like, but everyone else is just a name on a page. The children talk like adults and the adults act like children, none of them the least bit believably; they converse in stilted speeches, never interrupt, never stumble or stutter. The pages are studded with names of places and streets and buildings, but the places exist merely as points on a map, without weather or color or light or air. The metaphors are overworked; one poor unfortunate dead kitten earns enough Frequent Metaphor Miles to travel first-class through the collected works of Dickens and half of Thackeray.

And what can I say about the plot? There's a mystery at the center of it, a mystery that is supposed to serve as a metaphor for What's Wrong With America Today and provide closure and healing to the open wounds of our post-911 world. Except it doesn't. I figured out the deep dark secret within the first two chapters, but I kept thinking I must be wrong. "It can't be this obvious," I thought. "Surely these clues are just typical red herrings cleverly placed to distract me from the real story." But no: any reasonably sentient reader could figure out the purported mystery so quickly that there would be no reason to keep reading beyond page 20 except to confirm what is already so abundantly clear: that the only healing the book will provide is a nice colorful band-aid and a hearty "Cheer up!"

The only thing in the whole book that made me want to cheer up was finally closing it, but now I have to open it up again and write a review. The whole situation makes me want to kick something. I think I'll drop-kick that dead kitten clear back to Beowulf.

Partly sunny with chance of salami

All week we've been enjoying some yummy treats left behind by our German houseguests, who showered us with chocolates, marzipan, salami, and tiny dense loaves of rye and pumpernickel. We've been nibbling on the sweets all week, so today we decided to work the savory items into our Easter dinner. I topped some rounds of pumpernickel bread with mustard, havarti cheese, and hard salami to make darling little canapes. We are not normally canape people, so it was a delicious treat.

Here's my issue, though: working with the salami left my hands slick with fat, and heating the canapes resulted in little pools of fat all over the plate. It was the best salami I've ever eaten, but I could feel my arteries clogging up with every bite. If we ate like this every day, we'd never fit out the front door. I suppose it's a good thing we don't get showered with salami every week.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Call of the wild

Snow again this morning and the goldfinches are out in force. Twelve or 14 of them were flitting around the feeders this morning, about half of them bright yellow males. I guess it's a good year for goldfinches. I saw the first kingfisher of the season yesterday but we've been hearing them for a week or so. The towhees are back and very vocal, but I'm still waiting for the orioles. This year there wasn't much of a gap between the departure of the juncoes and the arrival of the towhees, assuring a sort of color balance in the yard: one group of little black birds leaves and another arrives to take its place. The towhees are singing "Drink your tea!" Who could resist such a charming command?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Avoiding crucifixion, for now

It ought to be illegal to schedule meetings on Friday afternoons in spring, and to schedule three meetings in a row is just inhumane. The lunch meeting was not bad, but then I went to a two-hour faculty council meeting where it's a good thing it was my turn to take minutes because otherwise I would have had to put my head down on the table and start snoring.

Last came the Planning Committee meeting, where a colleague and I represented the English department for our quadrennial program review. Yes, every four years each department has to go before a committee to present a lengthy report justifying its continued existence, and this time it was our turn. I've been obsessing over this meeting since I turned in the report in January; I've even spent some time responding to potential questions in my sleep, just as I used to do while preparing for my dissertation defense. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but on a scale from 1 (a hearty pat on the back) to 10 (crucifixion), I would say we came out at about a 2. But we won't really know until the commitee releases its official report. Meanwhile, I intend to avoid all meetings for a good long while--at least until Monday. Then it starts all over again.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Non-ominously speaking

I told my visitor that I've been making students angry all week, but she pooh-poohed the possibility: "You are the most benign person I know," she said. Somehow, I did not find this comforting.

Benign is the word we want to hear if we're talking about tumors, but even a benign tumor is still a tumor, and who wants to be a tumor?

I don't often see the word benign applied to people, and the examples in my dictionary are not helpful: "a benign smile" belongs on a clueless bumbler like Mr. Magoo, while "a benign king" doles out largess to his doting subjects, which I would be happy to do if I had any largess left to dole out--or any doting subjects, for that matter.

Benign describes weather that promotes health or omens that are favorable, so perhaps my visitor considers me the opposite of ominous. My dictionary wants me to apply benign to any kind, compassionate, or gracious person, but to my mind benign suggests a harmlessness that borders on the ineffectual, like a tumor that doesn't hurt but doesn't help either: it just sits there harmlessly taking up space.

But at least it's a happy tumor, grinning like an idiot in a non-ominous manner. Don't be alarmed, I'll tell my angry students. I'm totally benign.

Snow business

It's snowing this morning and it may be my fault: I took my winter coat to by dry-cleaned. Sorry. I should have known that taking my coat to the cleaner's was just asking for more cold weather. Next time I'll wait until July.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Where to park your apostrophe

A long time ago in a school district far, far away, a bunch of high school students flunked a particular section of the high school competency test--the test they needed to pass in order to receive a high school diploma rather than a Certificate of Attendance. In fact, so many students flunked this particular section of the test that the entire student body (more than 2000 students) endured periodic remediation sessions on the subject--in every class. At a certain time every week, every class would stop what it was doing and every teacher would present a short and simple lesson on the correct way to form possessives of plural nouns. A visitor to the building might have been surprised to see the same lesson being presented in French classes, driver's ed classes, art classes, and shop classes: "To form the possessive of a plural noun, first write down the plural form of the noun; if it ends in s, add an apostrophe, and if it does not end in s, and 's."

It seems so simple! And yet today I have on my desk a pile of papers dealing with the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and so far I have seen the following spellings: Parks, Park's, Parks', Parks's, Parkses, and Parkses'. Some of those are correct in certain contexts, but they are being used in these papers almost interchangeably. So I did a little remediation at the beginning of class today, drawing on the valuable lesson I learned in every high school class I ever took: to make a noun plural, add s or es (no apostrophe). To make it possessive, add 's. To make a plural noun possessive, see the paragraph above. So if we are studying a play by Suzan-Lori Parks, it is Parks's play, but she might be related to a bunch of other Parkses who all live in the Parkses' house. See? Easy as pie.

So I guess I should be grateful to my driver's education teacher: I may have flunked parallel parking, but at least I know where to park an apostrophe.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wild America

Over the weekend we were out for a drive with the visiting Germans when suddenly a roly-poly critter scurried across the road. The German dad slammed on the brakes and said, "What's that?"

"That's a groundhog," I said. There followed a rapid flurry of German as the dad described this wondrous creature to his enthralled family members. I didn't understand a word of it, but he spoke with the kind of excitement I might use to describe a close encounter with a unicorn. Finally he turned to me and said, "What do they do?"

I had to think about this for a moment. "They get into the garden and eat up your vegetables," I said. "People shoot them."

"For meat?"

"No," I said, "for vengeance."

I was rescued from further explanation by the sudden appearance in the road of another roly-poly critter that excited similar excitement: a VW bug. That I can explain. Groundhogs, on the other hand, defy explanation.

I thought about suggesting that our visitors take some groundhogs back to Germany with them, but they'd never make it through security.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Only you can stop prevention! (Slowly)

The prevention of this change is slowly becoming harder to stop.

I had to look at that sentence several times to figure out what's wrong with it: is it difficult to prevent change or to stop the prevention of change (slowly)?

Don't know. Don't care. Don't want to think about it.

Is it too early to go home?

That's my story and I'm sticking with it

May I please be excused from writing today? We had these weekend houseguests, see, our former exchange student and his family from Germany, five people with various levels of English language skills, so I spent a good part of last week preparing the house--cooking and cleaning and shifting some furniture--which went pretty well until I decided to get caught up on the ironing and twisted my back (Is that a sign from God or what?), and if it's difficult to tell people "I wrenched my back ironing" it is doubly difficult to sleep with an intensely throbbing back so I ended up catching a few Z's on the floor between vigorous bouts of cooking food for the 30 teens who came over Saturday for a cookout followed by the 15 older folks who came over for lunch after church Sunday in the pouring rain and so had to be accommodated inside the house, and although it is acceptable to ask 17-year-olds to sit on the floor, I hesitate to do the same with an 88-year-old woman who walks with a cane, so we had to set up a table in the living room and surround it with a mismatched assemblage of chairs including an antique piano stool, two rolling desk chairs in clashing colors, and a blue recliner, which worked fairly well until it was time for everyone to get up and go and then we realized there was no way out.

But we survived all that. The Germans left this morning just as I was leaving for work, so my leave-taking was punctuated by a hearty round of handshakes and hugs and a great deal of fumbling about with various pieces of luggage and cameras and maps and sunglasses, so I was halfway to campus before I realized that I didn't have my briefcase or anything in it, including the pile of freshman papers I need to finish grading today as well as everything I needed for this morning's 11:00 a.m. American Lit class. The right thing to do would have been to turn around and go back for the briefcase, but turning around always feels like defeat to me so I kept going and then spent the entire morning coming up with Plan B, which involved finding a copy of the film version of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which was available only at a video store that is going out of business and is therefore renting nothing and selling everything, so the only way I could show clips from the film in this morning's class was to drive out there and buy the DVD, which is fine because I'll surely use it again in the future because my students love the play, love love love it, much more than they love The America Play, which we will discuss on Wednesday, by which time I ought to have recovered from the thrilling events of the past week.

That's my excuse for not writing today. Thanks for understanding.