Monday, July 30, 2007

Going up?

All I wanted to do was to find a quote, but I soon found myself stuck on an imaginary elevator going up and down through a world of ideas.

I was looking for the passage in The Geography of the Imagination in which Guy Davenport deconstructs Grant Wood's American Gothic, a remarkable tour de force of in-depth analysis. I hadn't looked at that book for a few years, but no sooner did I open it and dip into a few passages than I was hooked--I had to read the whole thing. Again. I don't know what it is about Davenport: I don't care for his fiction and I don't even like some of the authors he writes about (Louis Zukovsky, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson), but his analyses are so original and his prose so interesting that I just can't stop reading.

He's dead now, of course, but I spent some time in elevators with Guy Davenport when I was a Master's student at the University of Kentucky. The English department there and the teaching assistants' cubicles are way up around the 15th floor of an office tower, so we spent a lot of time stuck in elevators with our professors. Now there were two types of professors at UK back then: those who treated graduate students like human beings and those who refused to acknowledge their existence. Guy Davenport was the first kind. I learned so much during those brief moments in elevators that I should have been required to pay tuition.

I never managed to have a class with Guy Davenport and after I finished the M.A. I spent some time on the Earth Mother track (growing cabbages, having babies, reading a lot of things I should have read in grad school), and then seven years later when I began my Ph.D. program at a different university in a different state, the very first textbook on the syllabus was The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport. It felt like a homecoming--when I opened the book, the elevator doors opened and I stepped in.

Truth be told, it's a peculiar book: a collection of essays on topics as disparate as Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," table manners, and Tolkien. "You don't read Ulysses," writes Davenport. "You watch the words." It's always enlightening to watch the words in Guy Davenport's essays. Here, for instance, is a bit on Whitman:

And at the center of Whitman's poetry there is movement. His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth; an airplane ride offers no activity more strenuous than turning the pages of a magazine. Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened.

Davenport himself did not drive, but he managed to know every author worth knowing during his lifetime, from Tolkien to Pound to Jonathan Williams. In the essay "Seeing Shelley Plain," he recalls when he and a friend "assisted in extinguishing Jean-Paul Sartre when he was on fire" in a Paris restaurant:

Pete is a more forward person than I, and it was he who went over, begged the pardon of Sartre, and told him that his jacket pocket was on fire. Nothing happened. The conversation raged on, arms flailing, Existentialism as thick in the air as the smoke from Sartre's confection. Sartre did not deign to notice Pete, though Pete ventured a polite tug at his sleeve. Nor did Monsieur Camus or Monsieur Richard Wright give the least heed. Whereupon I offered Pete our carafe of water, and this he poured into the philosopher's pocket, which hissed.

Davenport's other encounters with literary greatness are perhaps more interesting to the serious scholar of literature. Several essays approach Ezra Pound and James Joyce from different directions, each strikingly original and thought-provoking. "Joyce's Forest of Symbols," for instance, makes a fascinating connection between the 18 chapters in Ulysses and the 18 letters of the Irish alphabet, each corresponding in antiquity to a particular tree with magical properties.

My favorite essay, though (aside from the title essay with its remarkable analysis of American Gothic) is more personal: "Finding" is an evocative memoir of Davenport's childhood excursions to search for Indian arrowheads: "I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons," he writes. "It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer."

This was precisely Guy Davenport's strength as an author: he surveyed a wide landscape of literature and culture, searched surfaces and depths for details and correspondences, and mapped them out in a delightful and sophisticated manner. I close the book, the elevator doors open, and I enter the world of ideas with new eyes.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Let me tell you how this thesis changed my life

I've picked up my research where I dropped it a week ago and now I'm suffering from the fear that some sort of revolution occurred in the conventions of literary analysis and no one bothered to tell me--or maybe it's just a coincidence that the first half-dozen articles I looked at all featured the same type of thesis statement, of which the following is the most egregious example: "In this paper, I will explain how the fortunate discovery of the source for a passage quoted in [work of literature] has helped me to formulate a deeper understanding of [author] as a [representative of a particular school of literary theory]."

If I read this thesis in a student paper, I would scribble some polite variation on "so what?" in the margin. This thesis is the academic equivalent of walking up to a stranger at a party and saying, "Let me tell you how X changed my life" (where X equals Buddhism or running a marathon or liposuction or studying Kabbalah or reading Kant or whatever).

As a sentence, it lacks flair, subtlety, rhythm, and any sense of the wonders of the language, and while it puts forth what may well prove to be an interesting idea, it makes no attempt to engage a reluctant reader or suggest that the idea may have relevance beyond the writer's personal enlightenment. On all counts, it's just a lousy thesis.

So why am I seeing it over and over and over again? I understand that the "In this paper I will show" structure is common in the sciences (another good reason I'm not a scientist!), but people who write articles in academic journals about literature ought to be able to produce a thesis statement that sounds as if it belongs in the world of literature--and people who edit such journals ought to be able to discourage the "Let me tell you how X changed my life" sort of approach.

But maybe I'm just a dinosaur. Someone out there must really like this kind of thesis statement or I wouldn't be seeing so much of it. Did someone change the rules while I wasn't looking? If so, I'd like to file a protest. Whom shall I sue?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Take two Mayberrys and call me in the morning

Remember all those trembling maidens in novels of yore who were always succumbing to brain fever? Hounded into illness by some horrible wretch of a man, they either survive to lead pitiful broken lives or expire and leave behind a coil of glossy auburn hair in the bottom of a trunk.

Well I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on TV and, frankly, I don't even know what "brain fever" really is, but I think I have the antidote: those ladies need to spend some time in Mayberry.

I've been there this week while flattened by fevers that leave me feeling as if my brain has been replaced by a bowl of stewed prunes, but I've found soothing therapy in a pile of DVD's featuring episodes of old television shows. In my current condition, the frenetic action and rippling repartee on an episode of CSI or Law & Order would send me right over the edge into delirium, but watching Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner Frank discuss Joe's toothache, with frequent references to Frank's sister's wisdom teeth and the severity and persistence of the pain she experienced, is just about my speed. Crime can wait! Let's sit around the precinct and talk about our dental health.

I can't watch Flash Gordon while in my right mind because the urge to mock is overwhelming, but in my weakened condition, the implausibilities roll right over me. So the current galactic bad guy is wearing what looks like a George Foreman grill on his head? How handy that must be when Mr. Evil Despot arrives home at night and calls out his usual greeting to Mrs. Evil Despot:

"Honey! I'm home!"

"Oh hello darling, how was your day?"

"Oh you know, a little paperwork, a little torture, a little maniacal laughter--same old same old."

"That's nice, dear. Now pop up your lid and let me put some nice tofu burgers on the grill."

"Tofu burgers again!? How about some real food?"

"Now sweetheart, you know what the doctor said: if you don't watch your cholesterol, you could have a heart attack, and then who will torture Flash Gordon?"

"I guess you're right,dear. Tofu burgers it is!" (Laughs maniacally.)

I noticed that Flash Gordon was filmed in West Berlin, which means that from now on whenever I envision that scene at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, the rocket that comes screaming down out of the sky will be Flash Gordon's Skyflash, which is clearly made of cardboard covered with aluminum foil and therefore poses no threat to any living being. Once again, Flash Gordon saves the day!

Watching the Andy Griffith Show is like being spoon-fed chicken soup by a kindly aunt who mops your brow and says, "There there, there there." In Mayberry, niceness always prevails--and even the problems are mild enough to be soothing: Opie brings home a stray dog. Barney disapproves of Andy's date because all she knows how to cook is a TV dinner. Some guy's goat eats a case of dynamite. No problem: niceness conquers all.

(Q: Who would win the Annoying Character Smackdown between Gomer Pyle and Jar-Jar Binks? Or would they just nice each other to death?)

Niceness also rules on a show I'd never heard of before. Mr. and Mrs. North (from 1952) is probably somewhat more visually sophisticated than the radio show of the same name, but not by much. Jerry and Pam North are a charming career-oriented couple living in Greenwich Village, where they solve crimes in their spare time. They suffer, sadly, from what experts call the Jessica Fletcher Disease: everywhere they go, people die violent deaths. You'd think their circle of friends would figure this out after a while and give the perky crime-solvers a wide berth, but no: even the police fail to notice that Mr. and Mrs. North are the epicenter of murder in Greenwich Village. Their best friend, genial Officer Weigand, just laughs and says, "Thanks for the help, Jerry and Pam! We couldn't have solved this one without you!"

(Horatio Caine would whip off his sunglasses, glare at the doorknob, and say, "You've contaminated the crime scene and tampered with evidence and assaulted a key witness with a butterfly net. Jerry and Pam, you're coming with me.")

What I admire about Mrs. North is her ability to chase villains down dark alleys, wheedle confessions out of hardened criminals (while analyzing their faulty syntax!), and hold dying gunshot victims in her arms without ever get a spot of blood on her lovely gown. I can't eat lunch without dripping mustard on my blouse (and the finer the fabric, the bigger the drip), but she can catch hold of a woman who has just been stabbed in the back and lower the carcass to the floor without so much as smudging her lipstick.

And she's always nice. Niceness rules for Mr. and Mrs. North just as it does for Andy and Barney and Opie and even for Flash Gordon, who gives Mr. Evil Despot his comeuppance without ever giving in to the urge to make snide comments about his ridiculous headgear. In the end, these shows bring just what a fevered mind needs: peace, quiet, niceness, and order, order, order!

I'll take a tofu burger on whole wheat, hold the mustard.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Z-Pack Saves the Day!

Back in the land of the living, thanks to the wonders of Z-Pack. I don't know what Z-Pack is, but at the moment it's keeping me off my back and that's what matters. Now if only I could get it to do some laundry and clean all the parts of the house that have failed to clean themselves while I've been flat on my back, I'd be happy.

I came out of the doctor's office with my arms liberally decorated with band-aids. It never fails: some chipper young person comes whistling into the room ready to take my blood and move on, but half an hour later she's utterly demoralized and I've got band-aids all over my arms. I don't know how many times blood-drawing persons have told me, "Don't worry, I always get it the first time." Ha! To make it worse, today the experienced blood-drawing person thought she would use me as a guinea pig to train a less experienced person. They finally managed to get some blood, but not without a struggle.

Sometime soon I'll need to take a look at my writing projects and the garden and the new computer that got delivered to my office last week and the pile of stuff on my desk, but not right now. Z-Pack can only do so much.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Fever dreams

Spent most of the weekend fighting a high fever that resulted in intensely vivid hallucinations involving malevolent zucchinis, thousands and thusands of 'em. (When I was a child, a fever would inevitably be accompanied by dreams in which I was menaced by various geometric shapes, but now I've moved on to zucchinis. I can't explain it.) Finding a doctor on a weekend around here is a herculean task that I was not quite up to with a temperature of 102, so I've been looking forward to Monday: finally I'll get to see a doctor and find out what's eating me.

Except now I feel fine. No fever at all, just a little back pain and a lingering headache. The zucchini dreams have gone as well. Whatever it was, I hope it's over.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Walking uphill

My second-favorite walk (second because it's too steep to be accessible in all seasons) goes not to the right or left but straight up the hill beside the house. The house sits halfway up the hill and walking downhill would take me to the lower meadow, the gardens, the creek, the road, and, eventually, civilization, but walking straight up takes me to another world.

First there's a steep patch of lawn and a few ornamental bushes, then the pine trees close in to define the threshhold to the upper meadow. Walk through the opening under the pines and I come out in the butterfly meadow, a steep rounded space fringed by pine groves. Paths to the right and left lead to the thickest stands of pines, butI prefer to start with the wide path straight up the middle.

It's a steep walk through sunny meadow studded with Queen Anne's Lace, milkweed, butterfly weed, thistle, wild raspberries, and scraggly hawthorns. Today the meadow is flitting with swallowtail butterflies, deep velvety black with iridescent blue on the lower wings. The shy indigo buntings call from an ancient blasted apple tree, and another tree farther up the hill is abuzz with chattering chickadees.

At the top of the hill where the pines close in there's a bench where I sit and look down over green stillness. Stepping into the shade of the pines brings me into a cool grove smelling of pine needles and sweet honeysuckle. In the fall we sit here to watch nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers in our neighbor's woods across the fence, but today all is quiet.

A walk straight down the path to the left takes me to the most remote part of our property, a flat opening where the meadow meets the pine grove on the steep bluff above the creek. By the time I get down there, the birds have gone silent; I hear nothing but the wind in the trees and the buzzing of locusts--but suddenly from right above my head comes the unearthly shriek of a red-tailed hawk. It circles, shrieking, right above me and won't let up until I walk well out of range. Is the hawk on the hunt or protecting a nest in the tall trees along the creek?

I follow the path back to the beginning and then walk up the middle again and veer to the right to pay a visit to the young pear trees we planted in the spring. One looks healthy but the other has lost a lot of leaves. I'll report that to the resident tree expert.

I follow the path farther down to the other pine grove on the bluff above the driveway. I hope our recent rains have brought out some Indian pipes or other interesting fungi, but no such luck. The ferns and wild ginger provide patches of green on the carpet of brown pine needles.

Iwalk under the cool canopy of trees and back to the beginning, passing the tall, strong stems of ironweed and joe pye weed, not yet blooming but well on the way. Then I'm through the threshold again and back down to the house. I could walk farther down to the lower meadow where bee balm waves in the breeze, but that's a walk for another day.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Learning to land

I've just finished reading a wonderful little book but I'm a little reluctant to write about it because the title sounds like it belongs on a sexy potboiler with a picture of Fabio on the cover. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi is a fascinating and beautifully written memoir of the author's childhood in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s. The prose is stately and elegant, the stories fragmentary and meandering but always circling around a cluster of images related to security, captivity, and escape.

Mernissi recalls her childhood attempts to understand the limits on women's freedom and locate the door that crosses the threshold between the realm of women and the realm of men. "[L]ooking for the frontier has become my life's occupation," she explains. "Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organizing my powerlessness." She describes the various methods the women of her household used to trespass those boundaries, including a dangerous route over the rooftops:

The terrace exit route was seldom watched, for the simple reason that getting from it to the street was a difficult undertaking. You needed to be quite good at three skills: climbing, jumping, and agile landing. Most of the women could climb up and jump fairly well, but not many could land gracefully. So, from time to time, someone would come in with a bandaged ankle, and everyone would know what she'd been up to. The first time I came down from the terrace with bleeding knees, Mother explained to me that a women's chief problem in life was figuring out how to land. 'Whenever you are about to embark on and adventure,' she said, 'you have to think about the landing. Not about the takeoff. So whenever you feel like flying, think about how and where you'll end up.'

Later, several of the more rebellious women try to take flight by embroidering elaborate birds on their robes, a departure from traditional embroidery patterns. However, since they are not permitted to shop for their own silks and threads, they have to describe their needs to a male cousin whose idea of "blue" or "red" does not always agree with theirs: "So each woman described her dream-embroidery--the kind of flowers she wanted and their colors, the hues of the buds, and sometimes whole trees and delicate branches. Others described entire islands surrounded with boats. Paralyzed by the frontier, women gave birth to whole landscapes and worlds. "

In Dreams of Trespass, Fatima Mernissi gives birth to whole landscapes and worlds that seem exotic but also familiar. Frontiers come in all shapes and sizes; this book is required reading for anyone who has ever tried to cross the invisible kind.

Queen o' salads

We had a house full of people last night and I made my very favorite salad, which gave me yet another opportunity to go through a familiar song and dance: "What is this stuff?" (Quinoa.) "Where do you get it?" (Grocery store, rice section, top shelf, red box.) "How do you cook it?" (Like rice.) "May I have the recipe?" (Um, no recipe really...just wing it and see how it turns out.)

This final answer always fails to satisfy, so for the benefit of my favorite salad's adoring fans, here I offer my method for making Quinoa Salad:

Put two cups of quinoa and four cups of water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Cover and simmer for around 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly. (I'm always in a hurry, so I set the pan in a big bowl of ice and stir occasionally to get it to cool.)

Chop a big bunch of fresh cilantro, about half a large red onion, some celery, one or two large bell peppers or pimento peppers (I like to use one red and one yellow pepper to make it colorful), and a large cucumber (peeled and seeded). Toss in a big salad bowl. Add a handful of raisins or currants, some small cherry tomatoes, and whatever other fresh veggies you like. Stir in the cooled quinoa. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper, the juice of two lemons, sugar (a tablespoon or two depending on how sweet you like your salads), and olive oil (start with a few tablespoons and add more to taste). Stir it all together and chill thoroughly, then taste and adjust the seasonings.

It's a little different every time I make it, but one thing never changes: the whole song-and-dance that starts with "What is this stuff" and ends with "May I have some more?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

TMZ Season

I have seen the future and it looks like salad.

Early this morning I went to the garden and picked a big firm head of crispy lettuce, a handful of cherry tomatoes, some cute little cucumbers and lovely little yellow summer squash, a few heads of broccoli, and enough zucchini to feed all the starving people in the world. It won't do any good to take the zucchini to the Farmers' Market because everyone has too much zucchini right now. You might call this Too Much Zucchini Season.

The tomatoes are still a little slow thanks to the dry weather, but there are plenty of green ones out there and if they all ripen at once, we'll have bushels. There' s no such thing as Too Many Tomatoes--as long as there's room in the deep freeze. I notice that we still have some sweet corn in there from last year's bumper crop, which is good because this year's corn crop is pretty puny. First the ground was too cold and then it was too dry, so the little bit of corn that came up looks stunted, with ears hanging low to the ground like a buffet set out for the raccoons and other small woodland creatures. We'll be lucky to get a dozen ears.

In the herb garden, the sage and thyme are doing great and the lemon basil is growing so quickly that I have to pinch off dozens of buds every day (which makes my hands smell luscious), but the other basil plants and the rosemary seem utterly uninterested in growing. Maybe they're sulking.

The hollyhocks out front got flattened by a sudden storm and have not responded well to being staked up. They're still standing, but they look like refugees huddling together after some devastating natural disaster. It doesn't help that the Japanese beetles have turned their leaves all lacy. I need to learn a little something about hollyhocks before next summer.

Meanwhile, I think I hear a salad calling.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Stories from the bargain bin

Feeling unreasonably glum over the weekend, I stayed in and read a book I'd picked up in the clearance aisle at Border's for $3.99--not bad for close to 800 page. Transgressions is a collection of ten previously unpublished novellas by Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Ed McBain (who also edited the volume), and six other authors. The only common denominator is that all the stories deal somehow with crime.

Overall, the book is uneven but enjoyable. The most memorable work is Joyce Carol Oates's creepy but compelling thriller "The Corn Maiden," which gives away many of the secrets right at the start but remains suspenseful throughout. Oates knows how to make syntax sing. Sharyn McCrumb's "Resurrection Man" is a really lovely treatment of an ugly historical fact: the need to procure fresh corpses for medical students at a time when dissecting human corpses was illegal. Her carefully researched novella explores the intersections of medical ethics and racial discrimination in the American south before the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

Several of the authors deal with racial or ethnic hatred (McCrumb, Mosley, McBain, Anne Perry), and several explore the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks (McBain, King, Lawrence Block). Stephen King's "The Things They Left Behind" provides a thoughtful metaphor for survivor guilt but is also disarmingly funny.

And then there's "Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large: Walking the Line" by Walter Mosley, an utterly improbable mystery full of unbelievable characters which I nevertheless found delightful. Lawless is a volatile character, looking like "a rattlesnake in a Sunday bonnet, a stick of dynamite with chocolate coating up to the fuse." Mosley's confident prose goes rollicking off in all directions and there's nothing to do but hold on and enjoy the ride.

A few of the works are less than stellar. "Hostages" by Anne Perry introduces an unlikely but likeable hero, but the other characters tend toward caricature. "The Ransome Women" by John Farris features a suspenseful and original plot, but I couldn't shake the feeling thatI was reading a movie treatment for a blockbuster summer thriller starring Julian McMahon as the psychopathic artist, Scarlett Johansson as the dewy-eyed ingenue, and Demi Moore as the murderous Lady in Black.

"Forever" by Jeffrey Deaver is crawling with crime-fiction cliches, but it features an interesting detective, Tal Simms, who approaches all of life with the mind of a mathematician: "Yes, he'd had many interesting evenings with his 2 2/3 dates every month. He'd discussed with them Cartesian hyperbolic doubt. ... They'd draft mathematical formulae in crayon on the paper table coverings at the Crab House. They'd discuss Fermat's Last Theorem until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. (These were not wholly academic encounters, of course; Tal Simms happened to have a full-size chalkboard in his bedroom.)" Sadly, these brief moments of humor are the sole bright spots in an otherwise unmemorable work.

So all told the collection of 10 novellas contains four I would gladly read again (Oates, King, McCrumb, Mosely) and several others I enjoyed reading even though I'll forget them by tomorrow, Wednesday latest. Not bad for $3.99.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dimock on "deep time"

In Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Wai Chee Dimock encourages a reading of American Literature that is simultaneously close and distant, deep and wide, a reading that extends beyond national borders and relatively recent chronology to explore what she calls "deep time": "I have in mind a form of indebtedness: what we call 'American' literature is quite often a shorthand, a simplified name for a much more complex tangle of relations. Rather than being a discrete entity, it is better seen as a criscrossing set of pathways, open-ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other languages and cultures."

Dimock provides a thorough theoretical underpinning for "deep time" and then, through a series of illuminating readings, demonstrates how the concept might inform literary analysis. The book is an important and thought-provoking contribution to the current debate on the status of comparative literature and world literature, and it provides a forecast of what's next in literary theory.

My favorite part, though, looks to the past. In "Transnational Beauty," a chapter on Ezra Pound, Dimock reminds readers of a time when close reading was considered downright un-American. After Pound received the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1949, Robert Hillyer led a chorus of voices condemning Pound and the poets and authors promoting the New Criticism, now considered a very old-fashioned form of criticism indeed. Dimock explains:

The idea that poetry might be written (or read) with an evaluative criterion other than its American-ness was treasonable in itself....Hillyer found it ominous that these 'new esthetes' had gone so far as to compile a taxonomy of their own, with this title, 'A Glossary of the New Criticism.' Not finding words such as 'traitor' and 'treason' in that glossary, Hillyer hurled at these delinquent judges a charge they were to receive again and again: 'To a world eager for the clearest vision of poets they offer only the analysis of disillusioned irony, word by word. Close reading was downright unpatriotic. What made it even worse was that the practice seemed to be quite common; college professors and even high-school teachers were addicted to it...'

Everything new is old again--or vice versa. Dimock's "deep time" considers "America" a fluid, permeable concept deeply rooted in the past but imagined anew by each generation, an idea as revolutionary as the New Criticism was in its day and therefore just as likely to be alternately applauded and condemned, adopted and rejected, lauded and forgotten, someday to return as a footnote in a future text reminding us of a time when those old fuddy-duddy ideas splashed upon the scene with all the freshness of spring rain.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Midsummer madness

The summer is half over, so it's time for an update on my summer academic goals (read 'em here):

I have hired two full-time people for fall (Goal 1) and written an orientation booklet to help them make the transition to our department. I have written and delivered a paper at the ASLE conference (Goal 2) and attended the learning communities conference in Olympia (Goal 9). I have written the capstone syllabus (Goal 6) and written big chunks of the syllabi for composition and postcolonial lit (Goal 7, half done). I have finished all but the final polish on the Atlanta essay (Goal 3, almost done). I have made some progress on the research for the major article (Goal 4), but there's still quite a lot to do.

That leaves small chunks of two goals (3, 7) and a huge chunk of Goal 4, and I haven't even touched Goals 5, 8, and 10. As usual, I have completed the smaller and easier tasks first, leaving the more challenging ones for the end. Now the pressure's on: will I finish the major article before the assessment report deadline arrives? Will I locate a copy of Horton Hears a Who in time to double-check a fact for the Atlanta essay before the semester begins? Will I find a way to chop down the reading list for postcolonial lit to make it fit the confines of a 15-week semester?

One thing's for certain: I'll never get any of it done if I sit here babbling.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Technical difficulties

This time I can't blame my computer, not that it would help if I did. Heaping abuse on inanimate objects rarely improves the situation. But if I were inclined to holler at a piece of technology right now, it would not be my computer but my telephone line, which sounds like it is hosting a static convention. Data can't squeeze through all that noise, so I'm having trouble getting online and staying connected.

This is not an unusual occurrence: whenever the weather is especially hot or wet, our phone line becomes useless. It's one of the drawbacks of living so far out in the middle of nowhere that the phone line has to undergo ridiculous contortions just to reach the house. I generally compensate by doing my e-mailing and blogging at the office, but I'm trying to avoid the office this week and focus on some big writing projects, so I'm essentially incommunicado.

Except once in a while I can get through, like right now, and all I have time to do before I get cut off again is to apologize for my silence. I'll be back and I ought to have plenty to write about, but meanwhile, I'm accepting suggestions.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Greetings from Hooligan Central

We watched some very old episodes of Dragnet last night, all in black and white with stationery cameras and very earnest people standing awkwardly and uttering long speeches without affect or interruption, and of course all that dramatic music--quite a bizarre viewing experience. The resident 17-year-old retired to his room to read his way through a pile of Patrick O'Brian novels, so he missed out on the episode that explains why 17-year-olds are such hooligans.

It went like this: Joe Friday and his loyal partner Frank are working in the juvenile division. No one knows why; in the previous episode, they answered the phone by saying "Accident Division," but this week they're saying "Juvenile Division." It's the same phone and the same office, so apparently it's a moveable division.

They get word of a fracas at a movie theater, where unruly teenagers have disrupted the movie, started a fight, knocked an usher into a plate-glass display case, and dropped a box containing (duh-duh-duh-duuuuh!) marijuana. Friday and Frank spend the rest of the episode investigating a narcotics ring that has infiltrated a very nice neighborhood full of stable two-parent households and nice furniture. Frank comments on the nice furniture, as if he's shocked that youngsters could get involved in drugs when they're surrounded by such classic lines.

Anyway: the "narcotics ring" turns out to be six teen boys, each with an upstanding father dumbfounded to discover that sweet little Johnny hasn't been spending his evenings at the library. But Sergeant Friday isn't satisfied: he must find the supplier, another 17-year-old whose father abandoned him at a young age. The mother does the old "I tried my best but a boy needs a father" routine, and Friday and Frank move on to trace the miscreant through his girlfriend. They have to find him because he has beaten up his supplier and stolen a large quantity of high-grade heroin, much stronger than the stuff he normally peddles, and Friday is afraid that if the inexperienced and naive teenaged customers get hold of this stuff, they'll all (duh-duh-duh-duuuuuuh!) overdose.

Sure enough, Joe Friday proves a prophet, but this time it's not the customers who overdose but the 17-year-old pusher. As he stands on a dark path over the body of the dead teen, Friday tries his best to comfort the pusher's distraught girlfriend, although Friday isn't exactly a fount of compassion. Frank wonders why it happened: why would a young person from a good neighborhood stoop to selling drugs? And Friday delivers the sermon: "He didn't need a reason. He's 17."

So there you have it: 17-year-olds are just natural hooligans. If Sergeant Friday says it, it's got to be true.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A foul phrase

The resident baseball fan wandered into the room and pulled the earphones away from his ears just long enough to utter the following remarkable sentence: "The Indians are being no-hit."

What he means, of course, is that the Cleveland Indians are on the losing end of a no-hitter, but when you take the noun "no-hitter" and transform it into the verb "no-hit," suddenly the syntax gets very interesting. The Indians are not hitting the ball, but I can't imagine anyone saying they are "no-hitting the ball," because no-hitters are perpetrated by pitchers, not hitters (and not not-hitters either).

Put it in the passive voice--"The Indians are being no-hit"--and the hitters (or not-hitters) become the victims of the pitcher's action (throwing a no-hitter). The hitters are acted upon rather than acting, but I doubt that they are standing at home plate with their hands in their pockets as the ball whizzes past. Where is the verb to describe what they are doing?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Walking upstream

My favorite walk starts with a right turn at the end of my driveway. The left-hand walk is also good, but it's better with company; when I'm walking alone (and often when I'm not) I turn right and follow the road upstream.

At first my road squeezes between the creek and a wooded slope that turns into a steep rocky bluff holding in moisture, shade, and cool air. On the creek side are kingfishers, tiger-lilies, and sycamores, on the steep side ferns and jewelweed (and in the spring, trilliums). The brilliant white blossoming stalks of the black cohosh shine like a beacon in the woods while the blue vervain sends up stalks of deep purple.

Follow the road around a sweeping right-hand curve and then a sharp jog to the left, however, and the terrain suddenly flattens into wide meadows bathed in sunshine. The creek meanders in the distance now beyond the neighbor's hayfield, and instead of jewelweed beside the road I see brown-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace and a persistent stand of stonecrop. As soon as I turn the corner I hear a familiar sound and look up: there's that mockingbird perched atop the telephone pole chattering away as usual. Is it the same mockingbird every time or do they take turns?

Soon the road dips down toward the creek again and crosses a bridge and then makes a sharp left to continue upstream, plunging suddenly into thick forest. Red-tailed hawks nest along the creek here, and in the woods I often see pileated woodpeckers or their smaller red-bellied cousins. Walk along a straight stretch to the mile marker and suddenly I'm surrounded by farmland--and it's time to turn around before the farmer's dogs notice me.

Then I turn back and walk through the same changing zones: forest, meadow, creek and bluff, all within a mile of my front door. I take that walk in any season and never get tired of what I see because it's always changing but somehow the same, and I take it with or without company--but I like company, so feel free to come along sometime.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

You make my heart sing

So I was in a local business this morning--I'd rather not mention which one, but the women who work there tend to be large, lumpish, and lumbering, so that any transaction requires of the customer a kind of coma-inducing patience. Why doesn't such slow service scare away the customers? Because it's the only business of its kind in town and we all need it, so we stand there trying to maintain consciousness while our request makes its glacial way through the system.

This morning I was there early on the day after a holiday, so I was not surprised to detect more than the usual level of sluggishness on the part of the woman who waited on me; however, I was surprised to see what she was wearing. This woman, who appears to be pushing 60 pretty hard and whose shape is not unlike that of a forklift, was wearing a pink V-neck T-shirt with sequins on her voluminous bosom spelling out the words "Wild Thing."

I'm pleased to report that I managed to hold in my laughter until I got out the door, but then I didn't stop laughing for a long, long time.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Free free free

Today we observe Independence Day by enjoying some of the fundamental freedoms that make America what it is:

Freedom of assembly in front of the change machine at the car wash, where those seeking cleansing discuss the best way to feed a dollar bill into the slot so that the machine will recognize George and spit out some quarters.

Freedom to mock the headlines in the local press, including today's gem, "Ethical breach leveled at official," which, if I'm reading it correctly, suggests that a person or persons unknown has forcefully directed a hole, gap, or absence at an unnamed official. You know that's gotta hurt.

Freedom to bear armloads of sweet corn out to the kettle and grill salmon and stir risotto without fear that the Culinary Police will object to the promiscuous mixing of cuisines, and then freedom to bear armloads of food inside the house when the rain starts pouring down.

Freedom to speak out against going to see fireworks in the rain and in favor of staying home to play Monopoly while enjoying root-beer floats made with homemade vanilla-bean ice cream, even if it means landing on Boardwalk with a hotel. I tend to lose at Monopoly, but I'd rather be bankrupt on Boardwalk than dripping wet out in the rain.

And if things get really rough, there's always that Get Out of Jail Free card.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


My colleagues asked me, "Have you finished traveling?"

"No," I said, "traveling has finished me."

If you notice any brain cells wandering around looking lost, please send them my way.

Tattoo or not tattoo?

By the time I stumbled off the plane back home, I had been wearing the same clothes for more than 24 hours while trying to sleep or trying to stay awake, neither very successfully, in various airplanes and terminals, and I felt as if I'd just oozed out from under a pile of slime, so naturally the first person I saw when I got off the airplane was our college president looking cool and professional and rested.

She asked about the conference and I said, "It was great! We worked really well as a team except that we had a little trouble agreeing on the team tattoos, and one of us had to convince airport security that he wasn't a terrorist or a hijacker despite the fact that he was carrying a knife and a camp stove and a tent, and the team leader drove on the sidewalk once, and we ate a lot of seafood and rocked at Team Haiku."

She raised her eyebrows and said, "Tattoos?"

Okay, so we didn't get team tattoos--but all the rest of it is true.