Saturday, June 30, 2007

All work and no play

Today we finished the "work" part of this workshop and tonight is all about having naturally I feel so rotten I didn't even try to walk over to dinner. All week I've felt great and had a terrific time, but today's lunch just didn't agree with me so here I sit in our spacious and elegant suite (sarcasm alert--we're staying in a dorm featuring carpets held together by duct tape and dirt) noodling around online instead of enjoying a Northwest barbecue while listening to the results of the Team Haiku project. I know my team's haiku rocks because, frankly, our team rocks, but I'd like to hear some others for the sake of comparison. I would be willing to bet that our haiku is the only one that includes a reference to D.B. Cooper.

Tomorrow morning we check out and tomorrow night I fly out on the redeye, but not before spending a day exploring Seattle. I intend to recover fully by then. It's just not fair to get sick at the very moment when things start to get interesting.

Creative vs. functional

Today I attended a terrific session on electronic portfolios, which helped me see what kinds of obstacles we'll need to overcome as we move toward a portfolio-based system of program assessment. The session included lots of hands-on exploration of many different examples of portfolio systems, so the content of the session was great, but (you knew there would be a "but") the environment was not conducive to learning and the portfolio samples highlighted the difficulty of balancing creativity and functionality.

The room was dark and hot, so that those inclined toward sleepiness had to work to keep the eyeballs focused on the screen and the ears focused on the facilitators, who could not be heard over the sound of several fans. The computer screens stood a little higher than I'm accustomed to, so the only way I could read the text on the screens was to lean my head back so my eyes hit the right spot on the bifocals. And then some of the pages were so busy with distracting backgrounds and decorative fonts that they were practically unreadable. It's heartening to see students take so much care in the design and presentation of their portfolios, but if the page is so full of bells and whistles that the text is unreadable, then what's the point?

Sometime this summer I'll put together a proposal for a new one-hour lab course for beginning English majors, a course on research methods and portfolio development, and I'll have to find a model for successful portfolios. Today's facilitators tell me it's important to let the students be creative, and I concur, but is it necessary to sacrifice functionality to creativity? I hope our experiment will result in something more satisfying than portfolios that cannot be read on screens that cannot be seen. If not, we'll go back to the drawing board.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What I'm learning in Olympia

1. It's important to leverage synergies through cross-fertilization.

2. No matter how much you dress it up in fancy jargon, a bad idea is still a bad idea.

3. It takes a team to get the big swing moving.

4. Teaching at an institution where most faculty members actually like and respect each other is a rare and precious privilege.

5. No matter how well I think I know my colleagues, they never cease to surprise me.

6. If the food is good, the view is good, and the college is footing the bill, there's no shame in eating at the same restaurant three times a week.

7. The difference between seafood in Olympia and seafood in the midwest is like the difference between the goldfish and the goldfish cracker, the cottage and the cheese, the Rhine and the rhinestone.

8. There is a limit to how long I can last without writing, but after I've reached it, my fingers start to itch and my brain explodes.

9. No matter how many smart people are in the dinner line, the line isn't going anywhere without adequate serving spoons.

10. When the question is "Why did you choose a career in higher education?" and your answer is "Because I wanted to hang out with smart people," everyone will look at you funny--even the smart people.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Name that nightmare!

So I was snoring through a Sunday afternoon nap when suddenly, without warning, my son woke me up to deal with a severe gratitude-related emergency: he had been writing thank-you notes for graduation gifts when suddenly, without warning, he ran out of note cards. Normally I would be annoyed at being awakened for such a paltry reason, but in this case I was pleased because nothing could have been more annoying than the dream from which my son's request rescued me.

The entire dream featured a sound track of Borat singing his version of the Kazakh national anthem, but he kept getting stuck on the line about "inferior potassium," which doesn't scan no matter how you sing it. Having that particular song stuck in one's head is nightmare enough, but that's not the worst of it: I was standing in front of a class of freshmen on the first day of class and I couldn't get the technology to work. There was this rolling cart with a projector and a laptop computer and a lot of cords, and the only way I could make the thing work was to attach all the cords to the right pieces of equipment in the right configuration. In the end I had cords wrapped around my wrist and stuck to my glasses and in my ear, and every time I moved just a little bit, the cart would shift and throw the whole thing out of whack again so I had to start over.

Meanwhile, all these students, unamused by my incompetence, were getting restless in their seats. "We'll get started just as soon as I attach this cord," I would say, and then I would cough and dislodge all the cords again. And Borat just kept singing.

Which would you rather deal with: Borat and cords and restless students or a lack of note cards? I got up, found the note-cards, saved the day--but for some reason, that Borat fellow just won't shut up.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Stop me before I shoot again

I keep telling myself that I've taken enough photos of butterflies to last the rest of my life and I don't need to take any more, but then I walk up the hill and find all these photogenic fritillaries and swallowtails posing for the camera and I can't stop myself.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Call me inaccessible

Once again I have been challenged to defend my cellphone-free status, and I can't do it. It's easy to come up with lame excuses: cellphones are expensive, there's no tower out in the sticks where we live, I can't read the small print on that little screen, I like being inaccessible, and so on.

I'm not a Luddite: I have nothing against technology. Some of my best friends are technology! My problem with cell phones is much more elemental: I don't like carrying things. I will happily carry a briefcase or a camera bag if I really need to, but beyond that, I'd rather not. I can't even carry a purse. Trust me, I've tried: it makes me crazy. I can't carry a glasses case. I don't like carrying an umbrella. I'm not even comfortable wearing jewelry; in fact, I once went ten years without wearing a watch, until I started teaching on a campus with no clocks in the classrooms.

I realize that my dislike for having stuff attached to my person borders on the pathological, but I've learned to live with it and so have my friends, except when the topic is cellphones. "They're so small and convenient," they tell me, "and so helpful in emergencies."

And they're right. Occasionally when I'm traveling I'll carry my husband's cellphone for a day or two, but I don't enjoy it. Carrying a cellphone makes me feel as if I'm dragging behind me an unruly appendage that's constantly demanding attention: it wants to be answered, it wants to be charged, it wants to to tell me about missed calls. I don't want to know about missed calls. If it's important, they'll call back, and if it's not important, who cares?

Raising these objections out loud in public, however, is a losing proposition. For every objection, the cellphone aficionado provides enough excellent answers to persuade any rational person of the benefits of carrying a cellphone. So I think I'll stick with the irrational: "I can't carry a cellphone," I'll say, "but when they make a cellphone that can carry me, we'll talk."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Everybody to the Time-Out Box!

The current furor over Salman Rushdie's knighthood again places The Satanic Verses in the spotlight, which is annoying because it may not be Rushdie's best work but it consistently overshadows other novels worthy of discussion. Who talks about Shame or The Ground Beneath Her Feet or even Midnight's Children? Despite his other accomplishments, in the popular consciousness Rushdie remains a man of one book.

I've never taught The Satanic Verses for several reasons: it's too long and requires too much background information for an undergraduate survey course, and the political furor tends to overshadow the text itself. It's like teaching Sylvia Plath's poetry: students get so caught up in the poet's biography that they can't focus on the poetry as poetry. Further, it is difficult to hold a reasonable discussion The Satanic Verses when any critique of the novel runs the risk of being interpreted as favoring the fatwa.

The whole discussion would simmer down a bit if everyone took a time-out to read Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the next novel Rushdie published after The Satanic Verses and certainly his most joyful, though it begins in sadness:

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

The source of the sadness is simple: the Sea of Stories is being polluted, silencing the old stories and preventing the creation of new ones. The parallel between this silencing and the fatwa is clear throughout the book, but the possibility of a political interpretation does not overshadow the wildly inventive pleasure of the prose. On the simplest level, the book is a children's adventure story with heroes and villains and even a captive princess unlike any other captive princess you've ever encountered, but it is also a profound exploration of the costs of silencing stories. Haroun looks into the Sea of Stories:

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained differents sorts of stories, and as all the stories that have ever been and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

The Sea of Stories is inhabited by the aptly-named Plentimaw Fishes, whose many mouths constantly swallow streams of story:

...and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing . . . no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new.

Restoring the health of the Sea of Stories is Haroun's work and Rushdie's as well. His novels thrive on the kind of creative recombination that takes place in the Sea of Stories, drawing from all manner of texts (myths, fairy tales, sacred texts, literary works, news stories) to produce plots, characters, and images that are startlingly new. This, of course, is what caused all the trouble with The Satanic Verses: while no one objects to Rushdie's taking liberties with Omar Khayyam or the Sleeping Beauty myth in Shame, plenty of people do object to similar treatment of the Koran in The Satanic Verses. Hence all the fuss and bother, and let us not forget the violence. Rushdie may still be among the living, but others associated with The Satanic Verses have suffered or died: the Italian translator and the Norwegian publisher were wounded in attacks, the Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and the Turkish translator of The Satanic Verses narrowly escaped an arson attack that killed 37 people.

It's time for all this violence to stop. Everybody to the Time-Out Box: let's all take a long look into the Sea of Stories until the anger dies down. Maybe then we can have a reasonable discussion about Salman Rushdie.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pining for Evergreen

I just unpacked two days ago but I'm already thinking about packing for my next academic conference. I rarely go to more than one conference per year and I wasn't originally scheduled to attend next week's conference, but a member of my college's team couldn't go and I was the first alternate. So next Monday morning at the crack of dawn, off I go to the airport to take one of those Stop-Everywhere flights to Seattle, followed by a van ride to Olympia, Washington, followed by a week at Evergreen State College, where we will learn about learning communities.

I have taught in a learning community and I like the concept, but the conference schedule is a bit daunting: sessions starting at 8:15 every morning, team presentations and activities all day long, even a Team Haiku session at the end of the week. I'm okay with Team Haiku, but if they ask us to join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah, I'm hiding under the table.

So I'm looking forward to the conference but here's the thing: I've never been to Olympia, never even been to Seattle except to change planes once, and I don't know what to do with myself in my little bits of free time at the conference, not to mention the long bits of free time I'll have in airports and airplanes. I like the colleagues who make up my team, but I'm aware that an uninterrupted week of my company is enough to drive anyone insane, so I need to give them a break by getting away once in a while. So what's to do in or near Olympia? I welcome suggestions.

Falling for Falling Man

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Don DeLillo's Falling Man is a bit of a downer. It is, after all, a novel about the effects of the 9/11 attacks, and DeLillo's fiction has never been known for optimism or hearty good cheer. He is known for bitter satire, however, which this new book lacks almost entirely, and he has been known to create believable children (especially in White Noise), but the children in Falling Man are ciphers.

What this novel does well is evoke the horrors of that day and its effects on a family in luminous and lyrical prose. The opening and closing sections plunge readers into the experience of a man who escapes the towers alive but certainly not unscathed. Mute and zombie-like, he puts one foot in front of another until he finds his way to a home, however unhomelike. DeLillo is less successful at connecting the 9/11 attacks with a universal sense of fallenness and loss, a sense of compassion for all of suffering humanity. People are falling all over the novel, but the book's suggestion that all suffering is essentially the same falls a bit flat.

But it's difficult to avoid falling for DeLillo's lovely sentences, such as this one:

But what made her think of this, ethnic shampoo, in the middle of Third Avenue, which was a question probably not answerable in a book on ancient alphabets, meticulous decipherments, inscriptions on baked clay, tree bark, stone, bone, sedge.

Watch how the sentence starts so awkwardly, as if to mimic the action of a startling and incongruous idea that interrupts a train of thought and stumbles around all akimbo before being smoothly incorporated into the stream of meaning. Read the final phrase out loud: the words scan, the sounds tumble past like pebbles on a talus slope.

DeLillo's novel offers precious little hope for a human race trapped in the embrace of brute, indifferent chance. It does, however, offer hope for the future of prose, for it is heartening to see sentences so lovely made out of mourning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Suddenly, hollyhocks

The mystery plant that has been growing in the flower garden out front has finally been identified. I've been tempted to pull that thing up more than once because it looked pretty weedy and no one could tell me what it was, but the resident gardener insisted that it wasn't a weed and in fact had been planted last year by our daughter.

I can now report that the little nondescript bushy thing is not a weed. In fact, it's not little or nondescript anymore but big, bold, and abounding with purply-pink blossoms that attract abundant hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.

Yes, we have hollyhocks. The tallest blossoming stems are seven feet tall and there are plenty of 'em. Recent dry conditions have left our other flowers looking puny and limp, but the hollyhocks are thriving and so, apparently, are the hummingbirds. Now I just need to find out how to take care of them so they keep thriving.

Most of the mystery plants that pop up in our gardens are invasive pests, so it's a nice switch when a mystery turns into a pleasant surprise. And to think: I almost pulled it up!

Monday, June 18, 2007

How does your garden grow?

It occurred to me as I was weeding the tomato patch this morning that stooping in the dirt is much more satisfying when the result is a quart of strawberries than when it's a pile of weeds. We haven't had much rain lately so the weeds are not out of control, but I spent a good 45 minutes this morning just clearing the tomato patch of unwanted vegetation.

And how did the garden respond to a week of neglect? Blueberries and raspberries are ripening nicely and the asparagus is still producing pretty well. I saw some finger-sized zucchini and summer squash, lettuce that desperately needs a drink, tiny green peppers, and some small, hard, green tomatoes, which will grow up to be plump red juicy tomatoes provided we get a little rain pretty soon.

That's what kept me going this morning: the promise of plump red juicy tomatoes. When my calves ached and my feet hurt and my hands got so muddy the weeds were slipping through my fingers, I just held on to that vision. They say gardening builds faith and when it comes to fresh tomatoes, I'm a believer.

Now everybody pray for rain.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

But what if they grade on a curve?

We've returned home after a week away and we have all passed the test: the kid passed the Home Alone test and the parents passed the Staying Sane while the Kid is Home Alone test.

I didn't mention to many people that we were leaving our 17-year-old son home alone for a week because it's not something the entire universe needed to know. I suspect that any attempts at true secrecy would be futile, because adolescents just seem to know when one of their number has been left the keys to the castle: they suddenly sense a strong disturbance in the parental force and the next thing you know, it's party time!

Another reason I didn't mention it much was that I didn't need to hear any more stories like the one my very helpful colleague told me about the parents who were enjoying their trip to Europe when the responsible teenagers they'd left home alone called to say, "Mom? Dad? Don't worry, we're fine! But oops, we burned down the house."

I'm delighted to report that my son did not have a wild party or burn down the house while we were gone. He did the laundry, washed the dishes, took out the trash, cleaned the catbox, remembered his dental appointment, got to work every day, and basically had a very boring week. He did neglect to check the mousetrap in the kitchen, but the mouse didn't get too terribly ripe before we got home. I give him an A-.

The parents didn't do quite as well. We kept telling ourselves we weren't going to call home, but we called, for no really good reason, on six of the eight days we were gone, and we said stupid parent things like "Don't forget to set your alarm!" and "Don't burn down the house!" But we didn't waste much time worrying and we sometimes went minutes at a time without wondering what the kid might be up to. I give us a B, maybe even a B+.

The real test comes in August when we'll send the kid away to college in Texas while we stay home alone. How will we fare on that test? Good thing we've got two months to study because I'm aiming for an A+.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On humility

Yesterday one of the sessions I attended dealt with misappropriation of sacred texts: not scripture, but literary texts that get adopted by individuals and groups to achieve their own ends. One very thought-provoking paper criticized a certain interest group for misinterpreting a literary text and appropriating it for the group's own purposes.

The indignation in the room was palpable, but here is my question: don't we all appropriate texts to our own purposes? And if it is easy for others to misinterpret texts, what makes us think we've got it right? It seems to me that this paper should spark not an attitude of superiority over the misguided souls who have mishandled texts but an deep sense of humility in our own handling of texts. Someday some more enlightened scholar will point to us with pity over how badly we've mishandled our own sacred texts. What poor misguided souls we are and how prone to error.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Summing up

One more item to add to my list of helpful hints for presenters of conference papers: remember that summary is rarely as interesting as analysis--and in fact, if the audience has some familiarity with the text under discussion, summary may not be necessary at all.

Would that all writers about literature could remember this important point.

Of humming and hair

This morning while listening to a paper on a topic totally unrelated to my research, I suddenly understood how to organize the next stage in my big research project. That's the advantage of academic conferences: get the brain cells humming and they suddenly start making beautiful music. Now I'm eager to get home and get to work on the project.

First, though, a few more sessions, some of which I'm really eager to experience. I hope I don't have to hear the word "imaginary" used as a noun too many more times, because it makes me crazy. What's wrong with plain old "imagination"? And I hope I don't have to sit behind any more hair-obsessed scholars. This morning the tall woman right in front of me spent most of the session alternately smoothing and fluffing her long blonde hair, drawing attention away from the speakers and toward her tresses. If her hair requires that much public attention, I'd be glad to supply some scissors.

But I'm willing to ignore all that in gratitude for the great idea that popped into my head this morning. I wrote it down so I won't forget it. Now I just need to get home and get to work.

Fragments of fragments

Yesterday I bought a book, my first book purchase at this conference and it's a hardback: The Wet Collection by Joni Tevis. I heard Tevis read from the book the other day and I had to have it. The title offers no hint of the joys within: it's a collection of brief, almost fragmentary essays written in lyrical prose; in fact, Tevis said that some of these essays started off as syllabic poetry. Here are a few fragments of her fragments:

From "A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory":
Bring silence, and an ear tuned to slight differences. Bring palms embedded with grit; bring water. Comb the world for clues. The banded agate damp with lake water, crusted with sand: get close, peering, picking through. Find the pottery shard hid in dirt; find the dirt. Exile is a condition of the redeemed life. Remember: you find what you look for; when presented with a fragment, fit a builded life to it. Line the pieces up and study them, catalogue and compare. Remember to keep careful notes. In India ink, which resists fade and run.

From "Postcards from Costa Rica":
Marks on a page, tracks and punctures and glyphs in the sand: these, my closest notes, I still can't translate, only squint and puzzle while the wind scours them clean. Years have passed and here's what I remember: a beloved child; the careful, constant work of insect, crustacean, reptile. I'll honor the glory of these days' passing, tell the things my eyes have seen.

I've owned the book under 24 hours and I'm more than halfway through. It's luminous, sometimes humorous, always evocative, and it demands re-reading. That's my kind of book.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Unusual academics

There's one big difference between this conference and others I have attended: conference participants here look less like English professors than like whitewater rafting guides. There's none of that pale, pasty, haunted look that comes from too many hours of communing with the computer, none of that Anguished Artist Angst so common to creative writing conferences.

No, these people look wholesome and fit, as if they're accustomed to teaching classes at the top of mountains accessible only to experienced rock-climbers. They hike, they bike, they commune with the earth--and some are even camping in tents on the campus where the conference is being held. You'd never see that kind of behavior at the MLA.

I may be the least fit person here, but today I'll try to guide a few of them on a tour of some rivers of nostalgia in midwestern poetry. Hope my paper's not all wet.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

From memorable to maddening

Of the seven or eight papers I've heard so far today, one was memorable, three were quite good, and the rest...well, you judge:

There was the guy who admitted that he had spent most of the previous evening trying to cut down his 24-page paper to make it fit within the 15-minute time span allotted. He finally gave up the effort and decided to just wing it, which resulted in 15 minutes of unfocused rambling.

Then there was the guy who spent so much time talking about the topics he didn't have time to cover that he didn't have time to cover the topics he did have time to cover.

And who can forget the young woman who held a spiral notebook up to her face and squinted at the dense, hand-written text of her paper?

Someone needs to teach these people some basic rules of conference papers:

1. Type it up.

2. Cut it down.

3. Deliver it clearly.

4. Don't apologize.

That's what makes the good papers good. The memorable papers add a dash of humor, a vivid image, or some interesting language. Hoping for one of the memorable ones--well, that's what makes the bad papers bearable.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Taking a stand for the bland

I walk into the hotel ballroom for the first plenary session at the conference I'm attending and I sit down in one of those generic hotel conference chairs, except this time my back goes back farther than I'd expected. Is the chair supposed to recline or is it getting ready to collapse beneath me? Awkward moment.

A casual glance reveals a few others suffering that same moment of surprise, but the experience is far from universal. A few trick chairs thrown into the mix to liven things up, or an epidemic of broken chairs? Do I dare put my full weight on the chair back or will it collapse and drop me on the carpet? That would be unfortunate, because that carpet violently disagrees with my red blouse.

It's one of those hotel ballroom carpets, covered with patterns that verge on garish without ever leaving the land of hotel ballroom bland. "Have you ever seen a hotel more bland?" asked a total stranger in the elevator, and the answer is, "No, I've never seen a hotel more bland, but I've also never seen one less bland. This hotal defines the mean of hotel blandness."

The carpet could use a spot of creativity, a dash of the unexpected--like a professor sprawled out over the splintered remains of a broken chair. All I have to do to deliver this ballroom from being the epitome of blandness is to lean back firmly in my seat!

Frankly, I'd rather stand.

Driving in survival mode

What do you do when you're driving down a truck-packed interstate at upwards of 70 miles an hour in a construction zone with the shoulders blocked off by cement barriers and suddenly, in a drought-ridden part of Florida, the sky opens and dumps water in such volume that you can't even see the lines on the road?

Survive...and pray that it never happens again.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Summertime, finally

Time for an update on my summer academic goals (read it here):

Goal 1: done.

Goal 2: done.

Goal 6: done.

The remaining seven can wait until I get back to town on June 17. Until then, I'll be visiting family, giving a paper at a conference, and just generally goofing off. This is when the summer really begins.

Dude, you're getting an El

I think I may have just been offered a bribe. I was talking on the phone to the father of a student who wants to be excused from fulfilling a certain general education requirement, and I was blandly uttering the usual blah-blah-blah about the importance of a well-rounded education and what we need to see in a transfer course to allow it to substitute for the requirement, and it was all very calm and pleasant and low-key, and then the dad said something like, "You know, the college wants me to make a substantial donation, but before I help the college, I'd like to see how the college is willing to help me."

Now what am I supposed to do with that? If it's intended as a bribe, then he ought to offer something I'll find more immediately useful, like a new starter for my husband's car. (His final words as I left the house today: "Be sure to park on a slope so it'll be easier to push-start." And you know what? I did.)

But really, what does this dad expect me to do? "Okay, sir, how much is this little favor worth to you, on a range from Endowed Chair to packet of Post-It Notes? Install an elevator in my building and I'll make the requirement disappear!"

I suppose administrators hear this kind of bribe (threat?) often enough to have developed a coherent response, but I've never had a parent try to bribe me before so I was a bit flabbergasted. I elected to ignore the comment, merely returning to the usual blah-blah-blah. Next time, though, I'll have my wits about me. Next time I'm asking for an elevator.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Caution: falling library

Arrived on campus this morning to find a huge crane systematically knocking over the old library building in the middle of campus. To keep the dust down, this guy is holding a firehose and training a stream of water on the remaining bits of building all the time. It's a very hot day and he's standing pretty close to the clang and thump of falling library parts, but all he has to protect him from the elements is a hardhat. Right now, that's either the worst job on campus or the best.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Six Degrees of Sherwood Anderson

This week as I've been writing the paper I'll deliver at the ASLE conference in South Carolina next week (goal #2 in my summer academic task list), I've been repeatedly distracted by a network of relationships linking the authors whose works I'm analyzing. Someone ought to invent a version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, only instead of movie stars, it would link literary figures--call it Six Degrees of Sherwood Anderson because the author's four marriages link him to other American authors whose numerous liaisons make for plenty of connections.

Here's an example: Sherwood Anderson's second wife was Tennessee Mitchell, the former mistress of Edgar Lee Masters (yes: that makes her Masters's mistress), whose first wife was distantly related to the Revolutionary War hero for whom the street outside my office was named. Masters's Spoon River Anthology features an epitaph for Ann Rutledge, a sweetheart of the young Abraham Lincoln, whose campaign biography was written by William Dean Howells, who was born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, where the poet James Wright was later born, who studied under Theodore Roethke, who wrote "The Waking," my favorite villanelle about a guy with a hangover. Further, Edgar Lee Masters had a very brief and unsatisfying fling with Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also had an affair with Edmund Wilson, who was a good friend (or possibly a lover) of Dawn Powell, whose novel Dance Night is set in roughly the same part of Ohio as Winesburg, Ohio, written by Sherwood Anderson--and so we come full circle.

This could go on all night--but don't let me have all the fun. You try some.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Backing up is hard to do

You know that obnoxious beeping sound a big truck makes when it's backing up? I need that. Granted, I'm not exactly moving about in a way that might endanger innocent bystanders, but I am doing a lot of backing up, and if nothing else, the beeps would let bystanders know that I'm working really hard even though it looks as if I'm just sitting here staring at my computer screen.

Backing up is hard to do, even with an IT person pitching in. I need to back up all the important files on my office computer because (drum roll, please) I'm getting a brand-new computer! A laptop!! Supplied by the college!!!! Fully loaded with spiffy new programs and lots of space! This is good news.

The bad news is that my old computer just isn't in the mood for backing up files, so it has to be encouraged, gently nudged along toward completion. Anyone passing by would think I'm just sitting and staring, but really I'm doing some essential hand-holding for a tired, cranky computer allergic to backing up. If all this backing up were accompanied by warning beeps, then instead of a slacker I'd look like a woman at work--and the effect would be even more dramatic if I were wearing a yellow hardhat. Wouldn't the hallowed halls of academe be a different kind of place if professors walked around wearing hard hats and beeping?

Then again, maybe it's just as well that we don't.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A bluriole in a pear tree

Early this morning the old guy and I went out to do the Adam-and-Eve-in-the-garden thing, except we kept our clothes on. It would be foolish to work naked in a place as poison-ivy intensive as our upper meadow. For decades that meadow was a cow pasture, but in the years since the cows went away, the neglected meadow has been aggressively colonized by scrub hawthorn, milkweed, teasels, ironweed, and poison ivy. Our Poison Ivy Eradication Plan (PIRP) has made some progress, but we have to proceed with caution because we don't want to wipe out the wildflowers that attract so many butterflies and bees. So each year we kill a little poison ivy and learn to live with the rest.

There wasn't much ivy in the area where we planted the two pear trees this morning. Each year the resident gardener has planted a few more trees in that meadow--apples, cherries, peaches, almonds, I don't know what else. We won't see any fruit for years, but it's encouraging to see an incipient orchard emerging from the scrub. This morning while digging, I discovered yet another career that is cut off to me: in case the academic thing doesn't work out, I'll never survive as a ditch-digger, or any other kind of digger for that matter. It's hard to hop up on a shovel and dig when you have no sense of balance, particularly when you're digging on the side of a hill.

But we got the pear trees planted and also spent some time naming some passing creatures, except I didn't have my glasses on so most of them looked like blurs. I'm fairly certain I saw an indigo blur, a pileated blur, and a bluriole. That's enough gardening for one morning. There's nothing like a little manual labor to make the life of the mind look even more appealing.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Rogue hedgehog alert!

"The unsettling case of the nude English doctors suggests to me that something akin to the South Uist rogue hedgehog scenario is happening with English stag parties in Ireland."

This line occurs on page 230 of Pete McCarthy's book McCarthy's Bar, and the remarkable thing is that in context, it makes perfect sense. If you want to know what the South Uist rogue hedgehog scenario is and how it might be akin to the scourge of nude English doctors, you'll have to read the book yourself. Therein you will encounter not just rogue hedgehogs but a menacing cow, a mouse that roars, a 21st-century Tweedledum, and a woman with "a voice that could bone herring at twenty fathoms." Very funny guy, Pete McCarthy. Very funny book.

Friday, June 01, 2007

My Official Interruptor

When I finally get around to hiring my entourage (Q: does one hire an entourage or do they just sort of appear, like groupies with skills?), I'll need to include one person whose sole duty is to drag me away from irksome duties.

Say I'm on the phone and I urgently need to get off the phone for a reason I don't really wish to share with the other party (use your imagination) and I can't think of a legitimate reason to cut off the conversation, or perhaps the other party is someone I can't afford to offend (the provost, for instance, or a mother-in-law). I'll simply press a button and my Official Interruptor will come on the line and insist that I take a call from the Nobel Prize committee, which is seeking my advice on the next recipient of the Literature prize. This would require having more than one phone line, but I'd have my entourage take care of that.

Or suppose I'm in a meeting with a committee that thrives on hashing out the same old tired issues without ever doing anything about them. I could press a button on my cell phone (which would require having a cell phone....I'd have my entourage take care of that too) and my Official Interruptor would burst into the room and say, "Can't keep Mr. Spielberg waiting. The helicopter's just outside."

Or suppose I'm teaching a class in students refuse to read or write or talk about reading or writing or do exercises designed to improve their reading or writing and I just can't bear to drag them through another lesson on the comma splice; at just a glance from me, my Official Interruptor would burst into the room and inform the students that the Health Department is investigating an outbreak of a mysterious virus that attacks only those under the age of 30, so everyone over 30 will be permitted to leave the room while the rest will have to remain under quarantine until further notice.

How long would that stay in there before someone tells them they can leave? That's a job for somebody else's entourage.