Friday, August 31, 2007

Finally Somebody

"Somebody needs to clean that catbox," I said, but Somebody has gone away to college and I doubt that he'll drive 1000 miles every weekend just to tend to the cat's needs.

"And what about the okra?" I said. "Somebody needs to pick it." But Somebody has gone back to Kentucky where she's busy picking out songs for her junior recital.

"And while we're at it," I added, "Somebody needs to fill the birdfeeders," but Somebody has gone away to earn his own wings.

"Will Somebody please pick the blossoms off this basil?" I asked, but Somebody is at college learning how to make her own talents blossom.

I've always wanted to be Somebody. Looks like I've found my chance!

A learning experience

The first week of classes is over and what have I learned?

1. How fun a class full of senior English majors can be. I haven't taught the capstone for a few years and I had forgotten the joy of tossing an idea out on the table and watching the majors toss it around. Any class in which I'm not the only one teaching is a good class.

2. How different and smart and new every class of freshman writers can be but how nevertheless the same old questions keep coming up: Yes, the class starts promptly at 8 a.m. whether your alarm rings or not. Yes, the computer lab across the hall is a great place to print out assignments, but if the door's locked or the paper runs out, you're out of luck. No, I won't accept your homework assignment late. Yes, I do expect you to do the assignment even though you don't have a textbook because you ordered it online and it hasn't arrived yet. No, you may not borrow my textbook.

3. How old I'm getting, part 1: my Postcolonial Literature Survey is a big class in a big room and if the students in the back row don't speak up, I can't hear them.

4. How old I'm getting, part 2: the new faculty members don't appear to be a whole lot older than the students in my freshman comp class, and I seem to have more in common with the graybeards labeled "Senior Faculty" than with the fresh-faced young scholars.

But at least I'm still learning. If learning has occurred, then some good has been done here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The curious incident of the book in the airline

Last week I discovered the perfect airline travel book: Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. An airline travel book must be engaging enough to distract me from the rigors of airline travel but not too taxing on the little grey cells, and it should not include disasters involving flight or travel or anything else too emotionally demanding. Let's face it: modern airline travel is demanding enough. The book should provide an escape from misery, not an immersion in it.

Anything by P.G. Wodehouse or Douglas Adams makes a good airline travel book, and I once read Julian Barnes's England, England while flying to England, which worked really well. A Spot of Bother is Haddon's second novel; I think I also read the first while traveling (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). A Spot of Bother has a plot similar to that of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, but Haddon's book is a better traveling companion because (1) it's shorter; (2) it's funnier; and (3) it features characters you'd actually like to spend time with.

Haddon got me through my long day of flying and waiting to fly home from Texas last week, but the great thing about reading a book in terminals and airplanes is that the travel experience tends to erase everything I read from my brain within nanoseconds after I've read it. That means I'll be able to enjoy Haddon's book again--this time while sitting still.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Walking downstream

Walking upstream or uphill or downhill from my house can be accomplished alone, but walking downstream requires company. I've walked that route alone just once and every car that came along stopped to see if I needed a ride--it just doesn't look like the kind of walk anyone would take voluntarily. I also need someone to keep me walking through the steep spots when I'm wondering why I shouldn't just turn around and mosey back down the hill. Strange but true: following the creek downstream requires walking up the steepest, twistiest, orneriest stretch of road within a mile of my house.

It's also the most populated route. It's possible to take a two-mile round-trip hike upstream without ever passing a human dwelling, but the downstream walk leads past six or eight houses, some hidden in the hollows of the hills and others right up next to the road. It starts with a left turn at the end of my driveway, where I am generally greeted by the dogs that live at the little house across the road. One particularly friendly basset hound will follow any fool who wanders past, but at least he's pleasant company. The first curve in the road leads past another house where an elderly doddering border collie guards the road, challenging every creature that walks or drives by. That dog sits all day with its nose just touching the edge of the road on a sharp blind curve where there's really no room for two vehicles to pass--it's a wonder it has lived to get so old.

The border collie and the basset go through their usual challenge-and-response ritual, the elderly collie always ending up as top dog. Sometimes the basset turns back and sometimes he keeps going. Either way, the road goes on, dividing the neighbor's hay meadow on the left from the steep cow pasture on the right. Usually the cows are out of sight up on top of the hill, but sometimes a few cows pause in their chewing to watch me pass. All summer we've been seeing indigo buntings right through here, so we assume they're nesting nearby. Goldfinches and butterflies flitter through the tall weeds in the hay meadow, and in the spring, red-winged blackbirds perch on the fenceposts around the cow meadow.

The road stays level at first, curving gently through the hollow, but then the creek disappears behind a hill while the road goes straight up--except it's not straight at all. First it curves to the left and then to the right and then sharply to the right again around the blind curve that forces us to drive by faith all year round. The road squeezes between a steep bluff falling down toward the creek on the left and a wooded slope rising on the right. There's no shoulder and nowhere to run should a car suddenly appear around the curve, but fortunately, traffic on this road is pretty thin. My road doesn't really go anywhere except home for the few people who live out here.

They're farmers mostly, although no one really makes a living as a farmer out here so they all have other jobs. The biggest spread is visible from the walk up the hill, an old white farmhouse surrounded by outbuildings of every kind: corncribs and cattle barns and pig barns and tractor sheds, the sort of neat and tidy farm you'd see in a documentary about America's noble farmers. This is the old home place for the family that owns most of the property along our road; one son's family lives up on the hill where the cattle run and the other son's family lives across the road with the friendly basset hound. When he's not farming, the basset's owner is a riverboat pilot, which lends a sort of pioneer spirit to the area, although it's not as romantic an occupation as one might think. He spends weeks at a time playing cards in cold, cramped cabins of boats pushing barges full of coal.

Back up the hill the road continues, up and up without a break while my pace slows and my heart-rate quickens. Reaching the top is a triumph, but the walk's not over yet: the road leads downhill gently through deep green woods that fall away toward the creek on the left and rise up the hill on the right. Just past the curve I can still see the spot where the school bus slid off the road, but the woods are quickly healing that wound. No houses are visible here, which makes it a perfect spot for people to stop their cars and dump loads of trash over the side of the hill; if you look down at just the right angle, you can see an old recliner among the underbrush. I'll never understand why people mistake the countryside for a landfill.

This is also where we most frequently see deer and where I hit one once. They come down from the safety of the woods and cross the road to get to the creek below. This summer we kept seeing a small speckled fawn wavering by the edge of the road and we wondered where its mother was, and another summer we saw big awkward families of wild turkeys scrambling hysterically through the underbrush.

The road moves down gently toward the state highway, where the road ends and the creek meets the river. The last gentle bends of the creek are deep and wide and harbor herons and sometimes ducks, and there's an amazing sycamore near the bank that's shrouded in a garland of bright-red ivy leaves long before fall color arrives anywhere else.

Reaching the highway feels like victory: the end of the road! I made it! But the only way back is to turn around and face that hill again. The slope is gentler from this side, but who has any energy left to climb it? On my own, it feels impossible--but with company, it's just another walk.

When perfection isn't the goal

I have a dilemma.

Students write a lot in my classes, and sometimes their writing provides excellent examples of concepts I'm trying to teach, so I frequently type up sentences or paragraphs from students' writing to share with the rest of the class (anonymously, of course, although some students speak up and identify their work). I choose work not because it is the best or the worst but because it illustrates a particular concept or technique, even if it's not perfect.

And here is where the problems arise: suppose a certain paragraph from a student's paper includes a really interesting example that I'd like to share with the rest of the class, but it also includes some small errors in grammar or spelling. If I'm trying to get students to pay attention to the way one of their classmates incorporates quotations, then I don't want them to be distracted by the fact that a comma is missing or an author's name is spelled wrong.

Is it better to silently correct the small errors or to leave them alone and display the sample warts and all? Which is more important: clarity or accuracy?

My practice is to silently correct small errors unless they provide opportunities for learning, but I've never felt good about this. On the other hand, I hate to put a piece of student work up there and point out everything it does wrong; I'd rather focus on what it does right.

Which is better? Any suggestions? Maybe I ought to ask the students.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reading and writing and grinning

One of my colleagues came into the department office after teaching his first class, a huge smile on his face. "Good class?" I asked. "Great so far," he said, "but I haven't read any of their writing yet."

Well I have read some of their writing and I'm still smiling. Yes, at 9:00 on the very first day of classes, I made my students write about a poem they'd never seen before. The results are not bad. There are a few marginal responses, but several of the essays made me want to pump my fists and say "Yes!"

Writing about poetry on the first day of class is part of the assessment plan for my literature survey classes. I need to measure students' ability to conduct a close reading of an unfamiliar text, so I give them a poem and a question on the first day and a similar task on the final exam and evaluate both of them with a common rubric. The result is a meaningful number: most semesters, more than three-quarters of my survey students improve their close-reading ability, many of them significantly.

There is an ulterior motive for this exercise, though: to scare students away. The literature survey courses carry general education credit, so they're always overenrolled and waitlisted. What's the best way to scare away the students looking for an easy A? Toss 'em a poem on the first day and make 'em analyze it.

Finally, the exercise requires students to think (and write) about the purpose of literature. In American Lit Survey, I'll often use "To the Stone-Builders" by Robinson Jeffers, and in this morning's Postcolonial Lit Survey, I used "On a Theme by Hone Taiapa" by Hone Tuwhare. Both poems compare the creation of poetry to working with the hands (building a wall or carving a totem), and both raise interesting questions about what literature is for. I get excited about that kind of question and I want my students to do so too.

So if anyone asks me why I'm grinning today, I'll say, "Great class--and I've read their writing."

Ready or not, here they come!

Syllabi are copied and rosters are printed out (after a brief moment of frustration when my computer insisted on printing out the class rosters roughly two inches tall--I'd need an electron microscope to read those names!). There's a nice spread of muffins and fruit in the department office to welcome back my wonderful colleagues. The bulletin board is finished, books are in stock, and this morning's lesson plan is all prepared.

There's just one thing lacking: the students. They're the final element that will make this day complete.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

While you were out....

Go away for a few days and what happens?

Well, um, nothing much. I stopped by my office today to see if there were any frantic messages on my phone or in my box, but no. Everything seems to have run smoothly while I was gone. Great. There's nothing like feeling needed!

Well, okay, a few things happened while I was out. One of my colleagues had a beautiful baby girl. Another one sent me a proposal for a grant from a committee of which I am no longer chair. The garden produced many many hot peppers of various types. The heat element in the oven shorted out, producing a lovely sparkly show before dying completely. A big pile of mulch appeared. Progress was made on the library. Committees were appointed. Life goes on.

I ought to have just enough time to deal with some of those hot peppers before classes start on Monday. It's the calm before the let's spice it up a little. Salsa, anyone?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sweat happens

The good news is that the first 700 miles of our car trip were accomplished in air-conditioned comfort. Those last 300 miles, though, were pretty miserable: triple-digit temperatures, no air conditioning, open windows rattling every time a truck zipped past. But at least we were still moving! One of these days that car's going to collapse in a heap and refuse to go on, and then it won't matter whether the air conditioning works or not.

We've been in Texas under 24 hours and the kid is all moved into to his dorm. He really didn't need much help from me, so I'm enjoying the cool air and internet access in the library.
Tonight we have an indoor picnic and the opening convocation, and early tomorrow I fly back home. I'll let the kid deal with the ailing car. After a few days in this weather, he ought to be highly motivated to find a mechanic.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

We are driven

You know you've been on the road too long when a sign advertising "Used Cows For Sale" looks tempting. My first question would be "Used for what?" Because let's face it: there's a huge difference between the cow Aunt Mabel drives to church every Sunday and the cow that spends every Friday night drag-racing on country roads.

Nine hours on the road today, half of them in a Noachic deluge accompanied by radio news reports about severe drought. If I had a dollar for every tractor-trailer that passed us on I-40, I'd be in the Bahamas instead of sitting in a La Quinta Inn in Jackson, Tennessee (home, in case you hadn't heard, of the Casey Jones Homeplace and Museum). Apparently, that whole 70-miles-per-hour thing is just a suggestion.

We didn't stop to check out the used cows (because, frankly, the Neon is so full of the kid's college stuff that I don't know where we'd stash a cow), nor did we stop at Dinosaur World or the Equine Podiatry Clinic. Didn't stop much at all, in fact. Just kept driving. And we'll do the same tomorrow. College is calling: cows can wait.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bundles of sunshine

Tomatoes: little bundles of sunshine.

Okra plants (below) make a fairy forest of tiny trees straight out of a Grant Wood painting. My husband's grandmother used to say that if you go out in the light of the full moon, stretch your arm as high as it can go, and drop the seeds from on high, then the okra plants will grow as high as your hand. I'm sure that's an old wives' tale, but our okra plants are all over three feet tall and getting taller.

Keep your eyes on the pumpkin

I don't know what compelled me to volunteer to harvest the Swiss chard Saturday morning. I got up early and saw the resident bread-baker frantically trying to get all his bread baked, packaged, and labeled in time for the 8:00 start of the Farmers' Market, and I knew he hadn't had more than three hours of sleep two nights in a row, and I also knew that last week a customer had requested two big grocery bags full of Swiss chard. So I gathered up my sleepy daughter and down we went to the garden while it was still dark out.

Now Swiss chard, for those who are not familiar with it, is the Energizer Bunny of greens: it keeps growing and growing and growing. Cut it down today and tomorrow you'll have a whole new crop of tender young leaves. We serve it like spinach but the taste is stronger, and the stalks get as thick as celery when it grows too long.

Harvesting is a fairly simple process: bend, chop, dump the bundle in a pile to be washed. We had a bucket of water and a bunch of large plastic garbage bags and we took turns chopping and washing until we had the two bags ready for the special order, and then we kept on chopping and washing because it needed to be harvested.

"Who's smoking a pipe?" asked my daughter while washing the leaves. It's true: working with chard produces a strong scent very much like pipe tobacco. I don't know if chard is related to tobacco, but the labor involved in processing it is just about as back-breaking as cutting tobacco.

Two hours it took us to harvest all that Swiss chard, and we ended up with not two bags but twelve. Sold half of 'em at the Farmers' Market and I've been busily processing the rest for the freezer. One big grocery bag full of Swiss chard cooks down enough to fill two quart-size freezer bags. It's labor intensive, but we'll appreciate it come winter when the garden is a barren brown waste.

While stooping over a long, dense row of chard that needs to be harvested, though, it's difficult to find motivation to go on. That little quart-size bag of frozen chard just doesn't seem worth the work, and the crop doesn't bring in much at the Farmers' Market either. I suppose it makes people happy--some people, anyway. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like strong greens and those who don't, and a big bag of Swiss chard is never going to make the second kind happy.

I like chard well enough, but not enough to make me want to stoop over stalks of it at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. I did it because I said I would do it, no other reason, and when I wanted to stop, I just looked to the end of the row, where a big orange pumpkin sat like a beacon drawing me onward. "The pumpkin is the goal," I told myself. "Keep your eyes on the pumpkin."

This morning that part of the garden looks as if Sherman's Army swept through, but the devastation won't last. The chard shall return and someone will have to harvest it. Good thing I'm leaving for Texas tomorrow. Maybe the chard will harvest itself before I get back!

If not, I'll remember: the pumpkin is the goal. Keep your eyes on the pumpkin.

Friday, August 17, 2007

How bare?

Yesterday everyone in my building received an e-mail message from the head of building services informing us that the air conditioning will be off for a few days so the system can be upgraded. Meanwhile, he said, "We ask you to bare with us."

Um, if you insist. You first!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Looking for loopholes

I have worked through the mound of picky, piddly, petty little tasks piled on my desk and now there's no reason I can't start working on my third and final syllabus for the fall semester, except that I don't want to. I spent most of yesterday restoring the syllabus that had been eaten by my computer, and now I'm just tired of the whole process. Deadlines? Blech. Plagiarism policy? Yuck. Page numbers for reading assignments? Phooey.

The thing that annoys me most about writing syllabi is the need to anticipate every possible problem. I have to include statements about cell phones and plagiarism and rampant absenteeism and respect for differing opinions, when what I'd really like to say is something like this: "You are an adult. Please act like one: come to class, do your own work, respect your classmates, take responsibility for your actions." But no: that kind of statement has too many loopholes, and if there's one thing at which our students excel, it is locating loopholes and climbing through them--dragging their entire fraternity and the baseball team behind them.

My goal is to write an entirely loophole-free syllabus for my freshman composition class, and I keep telling myself that I can't go home until it's done...but I'd rather do it tomorrow. Can somebody find me a loophole?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Explosions of various types

This morning on the radio I heard a report about a "kudzu-like explosion" of books by political figures, which gave me a wonderful image of invasive green vines bursting into flame, followed by a steady rain of leaves of books.

Then I arrived and experienced another kind of explosion: the postcolonial syllabus I completed yesterday (and saved over and over again) came up pretty much blank. The introductory material is still there, but all the assignments and all the page numbers for the readings had vanished. Fortunately, no one was in the office to hear the explosions that then occurred.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Back in the swing

Today everything seems to be happening in twos: I've attended two meetings, shown two new faculty members around campus, been called "Deb" twice (by the same person), and completed two syllabi (and put one of them online). Tomorrow I'll try to put all that doubleness behind me and focus on finishing one big thing: the departmental assessment report. Yes, it looks like we're back in the swing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pursuing the Perseids

We started pursuing the Perseids about 15 years ago when we lived among the cornfields in the flat part of the state. The first year we put up a tent in our big front yard and invited some friends to come and watch the shooting stars. About a dozen of us lay on blankets on the ground, the smaller kids squirming and tossing popcorn while the conversation gradually subsided into a steady chorus of "There's one! Didja see it?"

"Look," I said, "that one looks close enough to tough," and I reached out and touched--a firefly.

After we relocated to the hills, we woke up in the wee hours on the appointed morning to find our entire valley socked in with fog, so we bundled the pajama-clad kids into the van and hauled 'em up to the second-highest point in the county, where our little country church sits on top of a hill surrounded by farm fields. We spread out the blankets in the cemetery and watched the meteors, hundreds of 'em, crying out "There's one!" so frequently that we woke up the dogs in the farmhouse across the road. I half expected a visit from the county sheriff.

Two years ago the best night for viewing the Perseids fell while we were taking our daughter to move into her college dorm for the first time. Our German exchange student had just arrived and was struggling mightily with the language and with jet lag, but none of us knew the German for "meteor shower" so we tried to explain it with helpful gestures. We set an alarm clock for 1 a.m. and then lay on our backs on the grounds of historic Shakertown and watched shooting stars while thousands of cicadas kept up their chainsaw buzz in the trees. "What's that noise?" asked the German, but none of us knew the word for "cicadas."

This morning at 1:00 we found ourselves in the cemetery again on a clear, dark night, with bats flitting and frogs croaking nearby. At first there was the usual discussion of the best part of the sky to watch for shooting stars, but soon all we could say was "There's one! Didja see it?" They came in bursts, sometimes three at a time, with long sleepy lulls in between. The ground was cool and the air damp but we had blankets and pillows and nowhere to go.

"Where do you think we'll be next year at this time?" I asked, but nobody knew. The kids leave for college next week and who knows what they'll be doing next summer? They're shooting across the firmament, shining for a moment, leaving a vapor trail behind them.

There's one. Didja see it?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tai chi with zucchini

A correspondent offers a simple and elegant suggestion for dealing with the various immense influxes entering my life right now. On the one hand, we have another huge group of freshpersons arriving in a week, and on the other, we have the continuing overwhelming flood of fresh zucchini from the garden. My correspondent suggests bringing those two streams together: "everyone entering college should indeed be issued with a protective zucchini and several hours' instruction in how to use it. I imagine in some open space, possibly near the college's emerging library, a Tai-Chi-like gathering of people, all slowly moving their zucchinis as the sun rises, learning discipline, self defense and the importance of green vegetables all at the same time."

Sounds great to me. Think we could get a grant?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A cow by any other name

I see in the papers that the Hawaiian Islands are currently being threatened by a hurricane named "Flossie. "

Okay, that's just wrong. "Flossie" is an appropriate name for (1) elderly aunts and (2) cows, two species not generally known for their tendencies to menace Pacific archipelagoes. Hurled at a tropical island, Aunt Flossie would totter up the beach offering her cardigan to bikini-clad sunbathers. "You'd better cover up a bit, dearie," she'd say, "or you'll catch your death of cold!"

What would Flossie the cow do? Moo and look bored is my guess. It is difficult to imagine an animal less hurricanesque than a cow, an animal that would fail to menace even among the amazing menagerie of overgrown animals inhabiting the Godzilla film genre. Picture a scientific experiment gone amuck producing an an immense bovine capable of stomping Honolulu: would actors beset with poor lip-sync abilities run screaming through the streets while the President debated whether to call out the National Guard?

I doubt it. For one thing, it's difficult to persuade a cow to go on a violent rampage. The day Flossie stomps Honolulu, I expect to hear that Borden has fired Elsie the cow after a three-day Vegas bender involving drugs, gambling, and a brutal attack on a doorman unwilling to allow a cow in an exclusive dance club.

And what if Flossie did attempt to menace the island? A sunbather might do double-take--"Look, Fred, a cow on the beach!"--before turning over to toast the other side. No one runs screaming from Flossie. She's just a cow, for heaven's sake. The kind of people who are afraid of cows are also afraid of flying and rip tides and catching their death of cold, so they're unlikely to end up on a beach in Hawaii when Flossie comes stomping in from the sea.

The people in charge of naming hurricanes have clearly made a serious blunder. Who will take seriously the warning, "Run for your life--Flossie's on the way!"? If they really want people in the path of the storm to take heed, they should add some meat to the warning: "Mad cow! Mad cow! Run for your lives!"

That'll send 'em packing--until they realize who the cow is. "Never mind," they'll say, "It's only Flossie."

Friday, August 10, 2007

Walking downhill

Walking downhill to the lower meadow is much more mundane than walking uphill or upstream, because a walk to the lower meadow generally means work. All downhill paths lead eventually to the gardens, which constantly call out to be watered, weeded, harvested.

It's astounding but true: each one of the three garden plots is bigger than the lot on which our previous house sat. One garden features permanent plantings (asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, garlic, horseradish) and rows of peppers as pretty as Christmas ornaments. The two other gardens right now are a riot of overgrown everything: tomatoes, zucchini, okra, melons, cucumbers, broccoli, summer squash, and more (except for the corn, which is scrawny and sad). Neglect the zucchini patch for a few days and suddenly we have zucchini the size of baseball bats, but sometimes the best thing to do is look away and walk on.

As big and unruly as they are, the gardens cover only a fraction of the lower meadow. Vaguely kidney-shaped (with the creek defining the longer curve of the kidney), the meadow is surrounded by a fringe of woods, mostly sycamore, buckeye, oak, and chestnut. Pawpaw trees grow in the steep woods next to the driveway, producing velvety red-brown blossoms in the spring, long donkey-ear leaves all summer, and fuzzy green lightbulbs of fruit in the fall. The fruit tastes tropical, like a tart banana with a hint of mango--not the sort of thing you expect to find growing in Ohio. The pawpaw trees are short and droopy, so the deer and raccoons tend to finish off the fruit as soon as it's ripe. In four years here, we've eaten, at most, four pawpaws.

At the end of the meadow farthest from the gardens, a huge spreading maple tree overhangs the lowest spot, providing shade for anyone interested in watching the bluebirds or kingfishers that play around the creek. Sycamores stand tall all along the creek, their white limbs and mottled bark lovely to look at all year long. Orioles nest here and sometimes red-tailed hawks, and sometimes visiting waterbirds visit the meadow: ducks, geese, and great blue herons.

In the spring the edges of the woods are studded with delicate wildflowers, including Dutchman's breeches and the elusive trout lily, but this time of year the understory is overgrown with bee balm, Joe Pye weed, and tiger lilies. In the fall the leaves provide a burst of primary colors, and in the winter the red and blue stalks of wild berry bushes make abstract patterns against the snow.

About halfway around the long curve of the meadow, the woods open up to provide a clear path down to the creek. Today the water is so low that it's possible to stand right in the middle of the creek bed on dry ground and look up 15 feet overhead to a tree limb that still holds debris from the big flood three years ago. With the water reduced to a mere trickle, it's difficult to imagine the volume of water that rages through this channel after storms: at it highest point, the water sounds like a train rushing through a tunnel.

Today, though, it's still and silent, the surface unruffled except by a few water striders. Walk back up into the meadow and there's the garden again, begging for attention. Zucchinis can wait. I'd rather walk on.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Someone has to send the Tupperware

I've just finished reading Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's fascinating account of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the author of Autobiography of a Face who committed suicide in 2002. It's an amazingly honest book about a problematic and possibly dysfunctional friendship. Patchett keeps referring to herself as the ant who works hard to achieve her own goals and also keep Grealy's life running relatively smoothly, while Grealy is the grasshopper dancing the night away and allowing Patchett to pick up the pieces (or clean up the vomit or pay the bills).

For instance, toward the end of Lucy's life when everything is pretty much falling apart (failed surgeries, eviction, drug addiction), Patchett tries to fix things: "I ordered Tupperware. It was my own special brand of insanity that made me think the trials of Lucy's life could somehow be eased by the order of Tupperware."

On a scale from "ant" to "grasshopper," I'm with Patchett, firmly clinging to the ant end of the continuum and ordering the Tupperware. I'm not sure how long I would put up with a friend who expected me to clean her closets; I suppose it would depend on the quality of the friendship. I confess that I lost patience with the brilliant Lucy Grealy more than once, but I also lost patience with Patchett for accepting her role. It was like a horror movie: I kept wanting to call out, "Don't go in the closet! It'll eat you alive!"

In a book full of pain, probably the most painful part for me was Patchett's willingness to allow this friendship to eat her alive. It makes a great story, but what a life! It makes me want to send Patchett a huge order of Tupperware.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Syntax silences the little red horn

Yesterday I was reading a new and very interesting work of literary scholarship when I noticed a really annoying sentence--and after I saw it once, I kept seeing it again and again on page after page. It's a small thing but it suggests a certain lack of precision.

Imagine that Smith and Jones are both authors of literary works; the sentence I kept seeing looked like this:

Like Smith's work, Jones writes about stuff.


Like Jones, Smith's novel explores other stuff.

Let's look at what is being compared in these sentences:

Jones is like Smith's work.
Smith's novel is like Jones.

This is just clumsy. Smith may be like Jones and Smith's work may be like Jones's work, but I am at a loss to understand how an actual human being can be compared to a work of literature. Other readers apparently have no problem with this sentence pattern, because it appears with some regularity in a book published by a reputable academic press. Nevertheless, I find it annoying, and so does Mrs. Miller, the high-school English teacher who lives inside my head. These sentences would make her shake her head and give a little lecture on faulty comparisons; if I failed to listen, she might get the little red bicycle horn out of her desk drawer, stand up on her chair, and toot until she had my full attention.

How would I fix the sentences? Like this:

Like Smith's work, Jones's fiction is full of stuff.


Like Jones, Smith explores other stuff in her novel.

It's a small change, but these sentences would silence the little red bicycle horn and make Mrs. Miller happy, and sometimes that's all that matters.

Man shall not live by words alone

Yesterday I got so caught up in writing that I forgot to eat. This is good news because it means the synapses are snapping, the words are flowing, the ideas are coming together, but it's also bad news because by the time I noticed how hungry I was, I felt faint. A tuna sandwich satisfied my body and the pile of finished pages satisfied my spirit.

It used to be that I didn't like the actual process of writing. I looked forward to the finished product, but putting words on the page was just an obstacle I had to get over to reach the desired goal. These days, though, I get a buzz out of writing. Of course it's a tremendous luxury to be able to write all morning long without worrying about class preps or grading or committee meetings, but it all ends next week when my campus responsibilities start revving up again. But I'm teaching only three classes this semester and I'm no longer on Faculty Council: will I be able to keep some momentum going on my writing projects?

I hope so, because I think I'm addicted.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Aging rapidly

Last night when the Bearded Wonder and I went out to dinner, the waitress asked if we were eligible for the senior discount. That's never happened before.

The thing is, given the high cost of dining out, we should have accepted the offer instead of laughing bitterly. Note to self: next time someone asks whether you're over 55, don't laugh.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Trying not to be tedious

Rate Your Students posted an interesting comment on academic blogs from a reader who insists that "most academic blogs are tedious" because they're written by "the people you purposely avoid in the hallway." (I don't know if I can comment on "most academic blogs" because I haven't read that many of 'em, but the ones I read regularly feature writers I'd be happy to see in the office up the hall. I will note, however, that I hate to see "purposely" used when "intentionally" sounds so much better.) Then the commenter tears into the content of academic blogs:

"I know, let's burn five minutes catching up on how you sipped boxed wine and tweaked your PowerPoint presentation over the weekend or how the proles in duplicating reversed pages three and four on your course syllabus. 'Oh, lookie here! I found my favorite pen, maybe I can get back to work on that darn dissertation ... maybe I'll just post another picture of my 18-year-old cat, Mr. Scabies.' "

I don't sip boxed wine or use PowerPoint or rely on proles to do my duplicating and I'm not planning to do another dissertation anytime soon, so I guess the only way I can fulfill my function as an academic blogger is to obtain an 18-year-old cat named Mr. Scabies. Where do I begin?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Things that go pounce in the night

Early this morning I heard the cat scurrying and pouncing around the kitchen and I thought she had finally decided to take some interest in the mouse problem. I found her sitting proudly in the kitchen like a lioness guarding a fresh kill and I was just getting ready to shower her with praise until I saw what she was guarding.

It was a plant.

To be specific, she had stalked and destroyed a few leaves of Wandering Jew. Now we have Wandering Jew growing in pots in every room in the house except the kitchen, but that whole "wandering" thing is a myth. I have never known the plant to be independently ambulatory.

So now we have a cat who turns up her nose at pesky little mice but is quite happy to bat a piece of a plant all over the house. She earns no praise from me!

(And let me just mention that it's difficult to write about this topic without unintentionally evoking offensive ethnic stereotypes. Surely the plant must have another name! After all, there's a plant we call "Mother-in-Law's Tongue," but whenever I use that name outside the family, no one knows what I'm talking about.)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Maudlin alert!

The first thing the obstetrician said when my son was born was, "We have a scrawny boy!" Today the no-longer-scrawny boy turned 18 and I promised myself I wouldn't get all maudlin about it or wail that "all my babies have grown up!" So I won't mention it. Instead, I'll share a little anecdote that has taken on special importance in our household:

Last winter one of my son's classmates turned 18 and about a week later her mother noticed that she was getting significantly darker. When pressed for an explanation, the daughter admitted that she'd been visiting the local tanning booth.

"How many times have you gone?"

"Every day," said the daughter.

"But you know you're not allowed to go to the tanning booth!"

"I can do whatever I want now," said the daughter with a big grin. "I'm 18!"

I don't know where the conversation went from there, but I imagine that it started with "Listen here, missy, as long as you live in this house" and touched on "if all your friends jumped off a cliff" and "do you have any idea what I went through to bring you into this world?"

This morning at breakfast I asked my newly-minted 18-year-old whether he plans to hit the tanning booth today but he just grunted and said, "I've got to go to work." Later he and his sister will go out to dinner with some friends and then go to the new Bourne movie. There will be no party and no birthday cake and no little hats or balloons. That's what happens when all your babies grow up.

Hey, since I don't have to bake a birthday cake, maybe I'll go to the tanning booth! After all, now that both of my kids are adults, I can do whatever I want!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Good news

My very favorite part of being department chair is that sometimes I get to deliver really good news to one of my colleagues. Today was one of those days. I think I'll just sit back and bask in the moment before moving on to that annoying assessment report.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Time flies when you're having whatever

And in other news:

1. July is OVER! Classes start this month! How did that happen?

2. The wandering college chick comes home today after spending much of the summer as a counselor at a music camp in North Carolina. Can't wait to see her!

3. Her teeny-tiny baby brother turns 18 this Friday! When did we all get so old?

4. I lost so much time recovering from my recent bout with nasty infections (two for the price of one!) that I'm now pretty much resigned to the fact that I won't be able to complete the writing on the big research project before classes start. I've done the introductory section, but I still have a pile of research to finish before I can move on. But I have my working thesis and my controlling metaphor (and a wonderful metaphor it is if I do say so myself), so I'm well on the way.

5. Funny numbers came up on some recent blood tests and in combination with a previous round of funny numbers, the verdict is that I need to get my blood-sugar count down significantly in the next three months or start taking oral insulin. "Cut down on bread," suggested my doctor, "although that may be difficult in your house." She is a faithful customer of my husband's bread booth at the Farmers' Market.

6. I still haven't finished those other two syllabi or written the English department assessment report. I guess that's what I'll be doing for the next few weeks.

7. July is OVER! Where does the time go?