Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back to the real world

The first thing I did when I got home from San Francisco was take a shower; the second was sleep. I feel as if I've been sleeping on and off all last night and all day, but airplane sleep doesn't count: a few winks, a few snores, and a sudden jerk when the plane hits turbulence. No wonder I'm exhausted.

But happy. I had a great time in San Francisco, both at the conference and away from it. On Tuesday morning an old friend picked me up from my hotel and whisked me away to Muir Woods for a hike amongst the rampant damp greenery, followed by lunch, shopping, and a visit with her family of tall young men who were cute little boys last time I saw them.

I spent the entire day away from computers and e-mail and I haven't read a whole newspaper since last Friday, so I feel as if I've emerged from a coma or I've spent four days in an alternative universe incommensurate with ordinary life. I paid $5 for a cup of tea, ate avocado every day, schmoozed with strangers wearing nametags, delivered a paper to a dozen people, shopped in a store where a sign proclaimed "50 percent off jewelry priced from $200 to $19,990," all experiences generally unavailable to those of us who live in caves in Appalachia.

But after a day of hiking and visiting and a night of traveling and occasionally sleeping, I'm happy to be back to my cave. If I had to live the MLA life all year long, I'd be a basket case by April, but for a few days it felt great to visit another world.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nametag Bingo

I had just been griping that I never see anyone I know at MLA when, for the second time in 24 hours, a total stranger sitting nearby looked me straight in the nametag and then held her nametag up to my eyes. The first time this happened, I finally met the chair of my panel; this time, it was JM, who blogs over at Battle of the Ants. The funny thing is that I had just been trying to call her on the phone and when she didn't answer, I grabbed the first available chair in the Hilton lobby--and sat down right next to her. Small world.

Given the large number of people here, I'm always surprised at how few look familiar. The passing crowd blurs into a sea of black and gray, my eye drawn to the occasional flashes of color; instead of faces, I see a brilliant orange bow-tie, a pair of sunshine-yellow pants, and slick pink spike heels. A woman in the lobby asked if a particular distinguished-looking fellow might be Stanley Fish, and when I said I couldn't tell, she said, "Lean over there and read his nametag." But the print is so small that I can't get close enough to read the names without feeling as if I'm preparing to plunge into a stranger's chest, an uncomfortable prospect for a reserved midwesterner.

Fortunately, others are less shy. I had a terrific chat with JM today--something that wouldn't have happened if she hadn't noticed my nametag.

Of laughter and dread

I took myself out to breakfast this morning to try to shake off the effects of a lousy night's sleep. Normally when I travel I take along a stash of granola bars so I can eat breakfast on the cheap in my room, but this morning I needed a little pick-me-up so I headed to the Cafe Mason for pumpkin crepes and a cup of Earl Grey. The tea was delicious, the crepes adequate, and the service slow. But after such a rough night, everything seems a bit slow.

The fact is that I'm a little nervous about giving my paper today. I'm not nervous about the paper itself--it's on teaching humor writing, a topic on which I could talk all day long. The problem is that I'm not sure I can talk about it all night long. My session starts at 9 p.m., which will feel like midnight to me. I'd rather speak at 6 a.m. than at midnight, except no one would show up for a 6 a.m. session.

Not that anyone will show up for a 9 p.m. session either. Last time I gave a paper that late at the MLA, the presenters outnumbered the audience--and one of the audience members was the spouse of a presenter. We like to pretend that size doesn't matter (I'll get a line on my vita regardless of whether anyone shows up to hear my paper!), but we're lying. I don't know anyone who enjoys speaking to an empty room. It's an interesting topic and I had a blast writing the paper, but what will I do if no one shows up to laugh at the funny bits?

I want everyone to attend. I want to see people sitting on the floor and spilling out into the hallway, and I want random passing people to be stopped in their tracks by the sound of laughter. I didn't travel all this way just to hear myself talk!

So come to my session, okay? Nob Hill A, Mariott, 9 p.m. If my lack of sleep leads me to self-destruct in a particularly memorable fashion, I'd like to know that someone will be there to see and write about it. The least I can do for the cause of humor writing is to sacrifice my dignity so that others may laugh.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Don't touch that doughnut!

In a session this morning, an English department chair spoke about positive results of certain departmental changes: after a few years, he said, "our majors had tripled in size...."

Do you suppose he meant "tripled in number"? When the majors start tripling in size, it's time to cut the doughnut budget.

Mastering the MLA labyrinth

After a full day of sitting and more sitting, I relish the opportunity to do some walking today in San Francisco, but it's not easy. I walked over to the Hilton this morning for a few sessions and I kept trying to take the stairs instead of those horrible MLA elevators, but the hotel is a labyrinth: stairs go to this floor but not that one, dumping me in odd corners far from comforting MLA signage.

Conference hotels, I am convinced, are designed to disorient the visitor, keep us trapped in a labyrinth that leads inexorably back toward the gift shop and the restaurants. I counted 27 people standing in line at the Starbuck's in the Hilton's lobby this morning, and the line kept growing while I walked past. Visible just across the street is a local coffee shop with no lines whatsoever, but to get there, you'd have to find your way out of the labyrinth.

I fought my way out this morning at 6 a.m. (because my body thinks it's still in Ohio) and walked down Market Street to the Embarcadero and back, accompanied only by the snap-crackle-pop of the streetcars, the snoring of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, and the occasional frantic flutter of a flock of pigeons. Walking on hard pavement is jarring to feet accustomed to gravel roads and mud, but on the other hand, I found plenty of interesting things to see. Store windows sparkle with dresses I can't imagine wearing, though it doesn't hurt to look; I've been lusting after a pair of boots on display in a store window a block from my hotel, and one of these days I'll go in and try 'em on, even though they look a little beyond an English professor's budget.

Down in the Financial District I walked past the Federal Reserve building, which looks the way a bank ought to look--as if it would be the last building standing after the rest of the city is reduced to rubble. Massive columns and acres of marble rise imposingly into the sky, and the street level is surrounded by large protective planters strong enough to repel the advances of a truck bomb but still capable of sustaining life in the form of azaleas, impatiens, and ornamental ficus.

This combination of power and vulnerability keeps cropping up in the sessions I've attended, most of them focusing on pedagogy. Everyone agrees that pedagogy in the humanities is in a vulnerable state, and everyone keeps trying to articulate reasons that the humanities are powerful and important and essential to human life as we know it, but it's a difficult proposition. Humanities pedagogy is powerful and must be protected--but if what we do is so powerful, why can't it protect itself?

And how can we protect something we don't know how to pronounce? In the three pedagogy sessions I attended this morning, there was no consensus on whether pedagogy ought to be pronounced with a long o or a short one. One scholar pronounced it two different ways in the same paper. There may be a way out of this labyrinth, but the signs are ambiguous, the stairways are hiding, and no one knows how to pronounce the words.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

For your in-flight reading pleasure...

I thought I was prepared for my flight to San Francisco today, but I badly underestimated my reading needs. I was fine on the first leg of the trip, the four-hour flight to Las Vegas that featured a lively floor show by the Two Screaming Toddlers ("Step right up and take a look! They can scream all day without stopping to take a breath! They're going for the Guinness World Record for Non-Stop Screaming!"), but I finished my only available book (Born Standing Up by Steve Martin) before boarding the second flight, which featured a floor show of a different kind, i.e., flooding toilet. How can any sentient being sit on the tarmac waiting for a toilet to be fixed for thirty minutes without any reading materials at hand? I stooped to dipping into the in-flight magazine, where I encountered an article about salt, a substance in short supply on the flight since the airlines charge $5 for a few crackers and some cheez-like substance. Hungry? Read about salt! But don't have anything to drink, because if you do, you might be forced to venture into the Flooding Bathroom of Doom!

Next time I fly, I'll stuff the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in my carry-on bag. That way I'll never run out of reading material and I'll have a way to fight back against the pestilential purse-swinging populace, those clueless ladies who sashay down the aisle with shoulder bags swinging right at the height of my head. When I get walloped in the noggin by a purse that appears to be stuffed with bowling balls, I'll accidentally drop a volume of Britannica on the purse-swinger's foot, and maybe I'll even allow a few volumes to tumble out of the overhead bins just as those Screaming Toddlers start winding up for an encore.

Friday, December 26, 2008

To sleep, perchance to drive

I once had a student who frequently missed class and wasn't always entirely alert when present, a habit that wreaked havoc on his grades even though he was a smart kid and a good writer. When I approached him about the problem, he admitted that he had trouble getting up for an 8 a.m. class. "If you want to know the truth," he said, "the only way I can be sure to get up in time for class is to never go to bed the night before."

I'm reminded of this student as I ponder over the best way to prepare for an early flight to San Francisco tomorrow: if I have to leave the house at 3 a.m. for a two-hour drive to the airport, why bother going to bed at all?

I would happily try to stay up all night if I didn't have to do the driving. This afternoon my adorable daughter left to spend some time with her future in-laws, and the husband has to take his wares to the Farmers' Market tomorrow morning, so the only one left to drive me to the airport at 3 a.m. is my son, who is delighted with the opportunity to spend some time gawking at airplanes. "How about if you drive first?" he said. "That way I can sleep on the way up there and then I'll be awake enough to drive myself back home."

I had been hoping to catch a few winks myself on the two-hour trip, but I suppose I can sleep on the plane. Besides, I've already experienced the peculiar joys of riding in a car driven by my son in the presence of airplanes: he's pointing out the features of whatever spiffy aircraft hovers into view while the rest of us are hollering, "Look at the road! Drive the car!"

So when the car pulls out of our driveway in the wee hours, I'll be the one behind the wheel. I'll pump in the caffeine and crank up some rowdy music and do everything I can to keep awake--which means I really ought to go and catch a few Z's right now.

Will someone wake me when we get to San Francisco?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Our venerable squiggles

Around midmorning on Christmas day I'm sitting in front of the fire wearing my silly snowman socks (meaning I and not the fire am wearing the socks, and if I can't wear silly snowman socks on Christmas morning, when can I wear them?) while my daughter reads aloud all the warnings printed in the manual for her new cell phone, including helpful hints about the inadvisability of putting the cellphone in the microwave or feeding it to the dog and one sentence stating, in essence, that "cell phones should not be used where cell phones should not be used," the sort of tautology that normally inspires me, at the very least, to emit a moist snort of despair over the future of the human race, but not today. I am undistractable today, unassailable behind a wall of brand-new Christmas books, including Toni Morrison's new novel and Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ismael Beah and Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up (and if that odd collection doesn't suggest a little something about the odd state of my brain cells, then nothing does), but the book that is currently making me entirely undistractable is the delicious Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr., worth reading for its subtitle alone: "The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics,and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory."

An unusual abecedarius is Alphabet Juice: a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of attitude. Blount's delight in the English language is clear in his entry on consonants:

Fiddling with letters is pleasant to me, but the pleasure is not as pure as my father's in his basement workshop, scratching around in his store of nuts, bolts, tacks, nails, brads, woodscrews, lockwashers, sockets, grommets, early-American fasteners inherited from his father or his father's father, and other doodads conceivably functional enough, or curious enough, to be held on to....He was a man of large, stressful business and civic affairs, but I like to think of him rattling small hardware bits in the bowels of our home, the way a less reliable man might jingle his pocket change as he sets out on the town.

Alphabet Juice reveals Blount going about his father's business, except the small hardware bits he rattles about are words, letters, roots, and sounds. His many lists and peculiar juxtapositions jingle like pocket change, but he'll also introduce each coin's family tree and show how to spend it effectively. He explains the book's title thus: "Alphabet juice. The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth."

"If you handle them right," begins the next sentence. For anyone seeking some tasty advice on correctly handling our venerable squiggles, I can do no better than to suggest a large serving of Alphabet Juice.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Butter up!

A headline in the New York Times proclaims, "Butter Holds the Secret to Cookies that Sing."

Well, duh.

The whole point of baking Christmas cookies is the opportunity to bake with butter, pounds and pounds of it. I used three pounds of butter last week without blinking, and before you ask "How can you eat all that butter?!", let me remind you of the other point of baking Christmas cookies: to give them as gifts to our friends and loved ones. The neighbor who gave us his windfall lumber to warm our house definitely needs more butter in his life, and so do the neighbors who watch out for our dog.

So butter is necessary--real butter, no substitutes--but as an expert the Times article also points out, "home bakers don't always follow instructions properly." Here is a common experience: I take a plate of chocolate-chip cookies to some event--a bake sale, a church dinner, a piano recital--and it sits on the table with a whole bunch of other plates of chocolate-chip cookies, all looking pretty much alike. But at some point during the event a bunch of people, mostly men, will sidle up to me and say, "These are the best chocolate-chip cookies I've ever taste. You have to give my wife the recipe."

"Tell you what," I say. "How about I give you the recipe and you can tell your wife?"

He has been transported to cookie nirvana, so what can he do but agree?

"Okay: you start with the recipe on the back of the Toll House Chocolate Chip package, but you make a few substitutions. You have to use butter--real butter, not Crisco or margarine or imitation butter-flavored fatty substance, got that?"

"Use butter. Got it."

"And then you have to use pecans instead of walnuts--and get some nice fresh ones, okay?"

"Pecans. Got it."

"And then you have to use vanilla--real vanilla extract, not artificial vanilla-flavored fluid--and be generous with the vanilla. Really dump it in there."

"Real vanilla. Check."

"And that's it. Anyone can make these cookies," I say, but I know it's a lie. Anyone can make these cookies, but most people won't. They'll use Crisco and walnuts and a few drops of imitation vanilla flavoring, and they'll end up with the same old ho-hum cookies they've always made. That's why I don't mind sharing my best recipes: people who understand cooking will make the recipe their own, while the vast majority of people will make some cheap imitation that will never live up to its potential.

Here, as my Christmas gift to anyone willing to work with real butter, is my very favorite Christmas cookie recipe, courtesy of the King Arthur Flour catalog--but you have to follow directions!

Nick-of-Time Cranberry-White Chocolate Drops

1 cup butter, very soft but not melted
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1/8 tsp orange oil (4 to 5 drops)
1 large egg
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups white chocolate chunks or chips
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecans

Cream the butter. Add the sugars, salt, vanilla, and orange oil, and stir well. Add the egg and stir until blended. Add baking soda and flour, mixing until blended. Stir in the chips, cranberries, and nuts. Scoop rounded tablespoons of dough onto baking sheets; flatten slightly. Bake at 375 for 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest on pans for 4 minutes before cooling on racks. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

It's that simple. Anyone can bake these cookies--that is, anyone who knows that butter holds the secret to making cookies sing!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Signs of the season

After the intense end-of-semester marathon of grading and paperwork, I have a little trouble winding down and acting as if I'm really on break. Today, though, I see signs that the semester is loosing its insistent grip on my person. To wit:

I wake up before 6 without an alarm, but instead of checking e-mails while eating breakfast, I enjoy a cup of hot chai and some short stories by Elizabeth McCracken before diving into the grand and glorious mess of baking Christmas cookies--and I don't even get properly dressed until the morning's half over.

When the Texas kid finally gets out of bed, I encourage him to lick the last remains of rich chocolate frosting out of the mixing bowl--for breakfast. I'm just happy he's here in one piece. He's been chortling about the patch of black ice he hit in Little Rock, Arkansas, which sent his car (my car!) into a skid and a slide and a 360-degree-spin in the middle of heavy traffic on a bridge, resulting in nothing worse than a paint smudge (0n a 14-year-old car that is more smudged than painted). Under the circumstances, chocolate frosting for breakfast seems appropriate.

Later we're shopping in a quaint little store in our historic downtown shopping district when the relentlessly cheerful "Jingle Bell Rock" comes on the sound system, and even though I find the song grating, I disobey the First Rule for Mothers Shopping with their Adolescent Sons and start to bob and sing along--in public. You'd never catch me doing that in class.

Later still, I'm back on campus but instead of clawing through stacks of papers I'm climbing steps to nowhere in the Rec Center to the incomparable accompaniment of Porky Pig singing "Blue Christmas," and that's just fine with me.

In fact, today just about everything is fine with me: leftover soup and salad for supper, a half-decorated Christmas tree, a sweater two sizes too big--it's all just fine. The Texas kid is home and the Kentucky kid arrives tomorrow, and as long as the next semester stays over on the other side of Christmas, I don't intend to think about classes for at least a week. Farewell, cruel campus! It's party time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


So I'm driving down my wet, muddy driveway in the darkness of early morning on the way to my mechanic's shop so I can get a new brake master cylinder and proportioning valves (because yes, I resolved yesterday's dilemma by making my careful way on icy roads to town in order to buy interfacing and take lunch to an ailing colleague and pick up a check to pay for the brake work, except that when I got to the cashier's office the cashier said, quote, what check?, and it quickly became apparent that the minor functionary who had promised that the check would be ready for me yesterday had failed to execute the paperwork properly to make that happen, and besides, everything was at sixes and sevens because many campus functionaries, both minor and major, had taken part of the day off to attend the funeral of the college trustee whose financial problems inspired him last week to blow his brains out, so the long and short of it is that the check was not available, but after I pointed out that it had been promised and by whom, then some wheels were turned and elbows twisted and the check finally, to make a long story short, appeared) when my progress is impeded by what looks like and indeed turns out to be a large Christmas package wrapped in plastic and standing smack in the middle of a particularly wet and muddy part of my driveway, positioned in such a way that I had to either drive right over it or get out in the mud to retrieve it, which I did.

It was a lovely package of fruit and other yummies from Harry and David, but that's beside the point. The point, in case you were wondering, is that the last place it would occur to me to look for a large Christmas gift is in the mud at the end of my driveway. I suppose it's a better location than the one our mail carrier chose earlier in the week--next to the tractor in the carport, where we weren't expecting to see a pile of Christmas boxes and therefore indeed did not see it until the bottom box was soaked through by snow-melt dripping across the floor.

Let me just admit right here that being my mail carrier can't be an easy job. She has to contend with the skinniest, twistiest, nastiest country roads in this part of the county, and if that's not bad enough, she has to deal with our mailbox out at the road, which sometimes freezes shut, and then when she has packages too big to fit in our mailbox, she has to contend with our driveway, which is difficult enough for those of us who drive it all the time and must look really daunting to those who are unfamiliar with its idiosyncrasies. When the weather drops snow or freezing ran on our driveway, it look impassable, and sometimes it is. So I don't blame our mail carrier for her reluctance to drive up to the house.

But: if she's going to leave a package in a puddle in a place where we would never think to look for it (the carport), then she ought to at least let us know; and if she's going to leave a package in the mud at the end of the driveway, then what's to stop the local dogs from peeing on it or tearing it open? And what's to stop the local rednecks from grabbing it as they drive by in their pickup trucks? And what if I hadn't been venturing out at the crack of dawn this morning to obtain a new brake master cylinder and proportioning valves--would the package of fruit and other yummies from Harry and David have ended up feeding the neighbor's annoyingly bossy basset hound? (If so, I can console myself with the fact that the chocolate would have killed her.)

This incident is not doing anything for my Christmas spirit, but fortunately, the Christmas package season will be over soon, and then my mail carrier can go back to contending with the icy roads and the freezing mailbox and forget all about figuring out new ways to drop off packages. Until next year, that is. Maybe we should get her one of those cannons they use to shoot T-shirts into the crowd at ballgames: she could sit out at the road and propel the packages up the hill toward the house. They might land in places where we would never think to look for them, but at least the spectacle would provide some holiday entertainment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Snow day

The radio weather dude informs me that we're under a Level I Snow Advisory. "Roadways are snow-covered and icy," he says, "So drive carefully!"

This ought to be good news. I've already turned in my grades, so I ought to be able to start a fire in the fireplace, put on some hot cocoa and Christmas tunes, and decorate the tree. But (and you knew there would be a but) instead I'm trying to parse that statement from the radio weather dude: How much snow? How icy? How many roadways? And why do weather dudes always say "roadways" instead of "roads"?

The problem is that I want to stay home today but I need to go to town. I need a piece of interfacing so I can finish sewing a Christmas gift before a certain young person arrives home from college. I promised to take lunch to a colleague recovering from a painful medical procedure. I need to pick up a check from the cashier's office so I can get the brakes fixed on my car first thing tomorrow. No check = no brakes, and no brakes = no driving on any roadways, icy or not.

So I'm torn: stay home where it's warm and cozy and comfortable, or venture out into the elements? Right now there's not enough light to reveal whether my road has been plowed, so I suppose I'll stay in for now, but later--who knows? This may be a good time to finally figure out who keeps hoarding the faculty helicopter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time to feed the night mares

The good news is that I've finished my grading for this semester!

The bad news is that I've already starting having nightmares about next semester's classes.

Apparently my subconscious mind has washed its hands, so to speak, of this semester's anxieties and has moved on to the next set, attempting to work through some issues related to my Later American Novel class while I sleep. In my dream I'm struggling mightily to teach Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in a room equipped with a whiteboard but no markers, a chalkboard but no chalk. Even worse, I have to share the room with a horse auction. I'm trying to draw a diagram of the novel's narrative scheme (difficult enough in a normal classroom--you try it!) but I keep bumping into the mangiest, scrawniest, most spavined hunks of horseflesh that ever set foot in a college classroom, and I have to yell so my far-flung students can hear me over the persistent bark of the auctioneer.

The good news is that I'm not teaching Invisible Man next semester and that despite our current classroom space crunch, it's unlikely that I'll be asked to share a classroom with a horse auction even if such an event should ever occur on our campus. In fact, I've never actually encountered a horse on our campus, particularly in an upstairs classroom, so there's no real need to spend my sleepy-time trying to determine the best practices for horse-auction pedagogy. Nevertheless, that's how my mind occupies itself while I sleep.

The good news is that I finally woke up.

The bad news is that a bunch of mangy horses followed me and I don't know what to feed them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On onomastic gender confusion

On two different final exams this week, students repeatedly referred to the authors Wendell Berry and Etheridge Knight as "she." It's easy to determine an author's gender simply by reading the brief biographical notes in the anthologies (or by paying attention to class discussions), but even a student who happens to overlook that information ought to be able to discern gender from the names--unless Wendell and Etheridge have suddenly become common women's names.

Maybe the problem is that they're not particularly common names at all. I've never known a Wendell who wasn't male, but I've known only a handful of Wendells, all elderly people, and I've never encountered an Etheridge. Both names sound pretty male to me, but I am reminded that not so long ago it was not uncommon to encounter men named Beverly. So maybe my students are familiar with a whole host of female Wendells and Etheridges.

Still, there's no excuse for not knowing the gender of an author when the information is readily available right there in the anthology and it's an open-book exam. When in doubt, read the bio! It's got to be less complicated than performing a spontaneous sex-change operation in the middle of a final exam!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A welcome contagion

I've finally figured out what to give all my friends and family members for Christmas--a gift scientifically proven to increase their happiness. But first, some background: A recent article on "Social Networks and Happiness" (read it here) explores the phenomenon of contagious happiness. Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler report on their research into how social networks (both face-to-face and online) influence personal happiness. They conclude that "each additional happy friend increases a person's probability of being happy by about 9%."

An effective way to increase the happiness of others, then, is simply to be happy oneself. Since the goal of Christmas gift-giving is (or ought to be) making others happy, then it seems that the best gift I can give my friends and family is my own happiness. Therefore, I think I'll take all the time, effort, and money I would have spent on other people and just devote it to improving my own happiness. Shall I start with a massage and manicure or head straight to the Bahamas?

There's a flaw in this plan, of course: few things make me happier than making and giving gifts to my loved ones. If making others happy is essential to my own happiness and making myself happy improves the happiness of others, then we're all entangled in one big network of contagious happiness.

I hope no one ever discovers a cure for this disease!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gifts of music

Being serenaded by an off-key version of "Happy Birthday" while driving 70 miles an hour on a pitch-dark and virtually empty interstate highway may be a surreal experience, but that's how my birthday celebration started. After 10 hours on the road yesterday, we made it home just before 3 a.m. and crashed for a few hours before getting up and starting the whole birthday thing all over again. I am thankful for my nice new warm gloves, fuzzy socks, and sweater, but more than anything else right now I'm thankful for the gift that arrived the day before my birthday: my daughter's senior recital.

The first time my daughter sang a solo in public, I think, was in a church Christmas program. She was dressed as a cow--Holstein, if I'm not mistaken. Fortunately, her senior recital did not require any bovine costumes: She sparkled up there on the stage and her rich voice filled the room with wonders. She sang some impressive works by Handel and Bach and Henri Duparc and Jules Massenet, and then she closed with a soulful performance of "Some Children See Him" by Alfred Burt, which is pretty high on my list of favorite Christmas songs.

My husband and I married while still in school and grew accustomed to doing without a lot of luxuries, but we decided from the start that no matter what else we had to live without, we would always fill our house with music. Last night I saw the results of that decision up on the stage, and the knowledge that my daughter will devote her life to sharing the gift of music with her own students fills me with happiness. I couldn't ask for a better birthday gift.

Monday, December 08, 2008

An offering in righteousness

At a pivotal moment in Charlie Wilson's War, scenes of exploding warplanes are choreographed to music from Handel's Messiah, its prophetic text drawn from Malachi: "And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness." The irony is delicious: a handful of corrupt, godless politicians and arms traders aim to "purify" Afghanistan of Russian invaders by presenting to Afghan rebels an "offering in rightousness"--i.e., shoulder-mounted missile launchers. The result is that I am now incapable of hearing Handel's majestic melody without picturing plucky Afghan freedom fighters shooting down Russian aircraft and rejoicing at the results.

I really wanted one of those missile launchers last night during the annual community performance of Handel's Messiah. I would have aimed my first offering of righteousness at the person whose cell-phone blared out a jangly tune just as the choir was singing "And He Shall Purify," and the next one would have gone to the person very nearby whose cell phone buzzed repeatedly throughout the performance just loudly enough to be heard within about a six-foot radius. The flaw in this plan, of course, is that it the attendant explosions would be far more distracting than the noise that inspired it--not to mention that I might get blood-stains on my colorful holiday ensemble.

And so I opted for a different type of offering in righteousness. I don't know whether prayer is effective at purifying public places of cell-phone rings, but in the absence of missile launchers, prayer was the only weapon of mass destruction-of-distractions on offer. Handel would have been pleased.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A brilliant plan to rule the faculty

This week one of my committees came up with a brilliant idea that will make me rich--filthy rich, I tell you!--if only I can figure out how to make it work without inspiring multiple lawsuits. As with most committee-generated ideas, this one was constructed out of an odd conglomeration of apparently unrelated but nevertheless salient facts:

  • The committee is currently organizing the annual January pedagogy workshop.
  • In previous years, the committee has attempted to lure busy faculty members to workshops by presenting them with various promotional items, including tote bags, jump drives, and lanyards marked with the college's logo.
  • The Special Assistant to the President and Provost (SAPP) is obsessed with ferries, particularly those serving the Seattle area, and monitors the progress of his favorite ferries on his computer desktop, where each ferry appears as a slowly-moving dot on the monitor.
Mix all these facts together on the table and what do you get? A plan to lure busy faculty members to pedagogy workshops by presenting them with spiffy new jump drives and lanyards that actually contain hidden GPS devices, allowing the SAPP to use his computer to monitor the position of all faculty members.

"We could also equip the jump drives to administer electric shocks as necessary," suggested the SAPP, a mild-mannered man in whose hands it is impossible to visualize a cattle prod. Imagine the possibilities: a faculty member says he can't attend a meeting because he has jury duty, but the GPS tracker shows that the little dot representing Dr. Delinquent is actually camped out at a local bar; administer a quick zap and watch that dot jump!

It's brilliant, I tell you. Rarely does a committee conspire to create such a universally useful plan. The trick, of course, is keeping the controls in the hands of people who can be trusted to use the system responsibly. Imagine, for instance, that you are one of several finalists for a big teaching prize and you somehow gain control of the faculty monitoring system while the prize judges are visiting your rival's class...who could resist the temptation to administer a series of well-placed shocks?

So the system would have to be kept strictly secret and the password entrusted only to a select few reliable people. Me, for instance, and possibly you--but just keep this between you and me, okay? The rest of 'em don't need to know--until they feel that first big shock.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Another holiday tradition bites the dust

Some advice for those benighted souls unfamiliar with traditional holiday customs:
  • A Christmas tree is not a weapon. While it's true that the process of erecting and decorating a tree may lead to some familial stress, it is never appropriate to assault your father with a Christmas tree--even if you're a 37-year-old still living at home. (Read it here.)
  • Likewise, a sweet potato pie is not a weapon, especially when it's fresh out of the oven. There is some debate about the purpose of sweet potato pie (some folks actually eat it!), but it is never appropriate to slam a hot sweet potato pie into your sweetheart's face, even if you are a 46-year-old man disappointed with your girlfriend's culinary skills. (Read it here.)
  • A Christmas decoration is not an invitation to vandalism, even if it's hideous. Every day I drive past a gigantic inflatable Santa with the globe-shaped transparent belly full of gifts and reindeer and I wonder when Santa started ingesting the goodies, but while the temptation to puncture or purloin the mutant beast is sometimes overwhelming, so far I've managed to restrain myself--unlike the 51-year-old woman recently arrested for stealing a 4-foot-tall Santa and other decorations from neighbors' yards. (Read it here.)
The common element in these three recent news reports (aside from the woeful misunderstanding of holiday customs) is the age of the miscreants. For centuries young people have been offering their elders ample opportunities to tut-tut that "kids these days just have no respect for tradition," but that common complaint is irrelevant when the miscreants are middle-aged. There's another holiday tradition down the tubes...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The gift of glee

Last night before the faculty meeting, the library director came up to me chortling with unconcealed glee: he had caught the English department in a spelling error. Several, in fact. Someone who shall remain nameless had sent out a message to the entire campus announcing that senior English majors will present the results of their research into manuscripts located in the library's "archrival" collections, including a presentation on the editing of a certain early settler's "dairy."

"If we have any archrivals, I'm not aware of it," said the library director. I'm delighted that my department has offered the rest of the campus an opportunity for laughter; it's the least we can do in this season of joy and goodwill. It's a gift, really. And considering all the times we have poked fun at the solecisms of our colleagues in other departments, it's only fair that this time around the gift of laughter should come from us.

But they'd better enjoy it while they can, because we don't intend to repeat this gift any time soon.

Monday, December 01, 2008

My wish list

Peace on earth, of course, and some fun free time with my family, but what I really want for Christmas is a qualified adjunct to teach one section of freshman comp starting in January. In fact, I'd like to get that gift lined up well before Christmas because every day that passes with no one to cover that course makes me really nervous.

A brake job would be nice too (although it's hard to squeeze that sort of thing into a stocking) and I'd like my son's student loans for next semester to be approved posthaste. I really want to get my resized wedding rings back from the jeweler, and how about warm fuzzy socks? The warm fuzzy sock season is upon us and I find myself all unprepared!

The new college library is already under the tree (metaphorically speaking) but I'm always in the market for more books. There's noplace like prose for the holidays, as long as it's not the sort of prose that asserts that "less wealthy people would be who is to be thought of to live in cities," whatever that means.

To prevent the proliferation of prose like that, what I really need is a competent adjunct....but even as I wrote that last line, the phone rang with a query from an adjunct desperately seeking work. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he favors coherent prose! If Peace on Earth is out of the question, I'll be happy with an adjunct.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A holiday footnote

Firmly ensconced behind a thick wall of student drafts needing immediate attention, I've made a point this morning of blocking out most news from the outside world. Thus, I am aware that something horrible is happening in India, but I refuse to think about it until after I've reduced the wall of drafts to a mere speed bump on the highway of my life's journey, just to mix a few incompatible metaphors.

But somehow a little whiff of news came wafting over the walls and I can't quite bring myself to ignore it: a Wal-Mart clerk trampled to death by a horde of impatient Christmas shoppers. What am I supposed to do with this bit of anomalous info?

Images come in all unbeckoned: pilgrims to Mecca and other holy sites trampled to death by passionate worshipers eager to achieve spiritual enlightenment. On the day afterThanksgiving, there is no holier site in America than the big blue box, which makes this clerk's death a sacrifice to our national religion.

But what sort of spiritual experience were the frantic shoppers seeking? Were they so enrapt by the visions of discounts dancing in their heads that they failed to notice the suffering body under their feet? Or is the sacrifice of the clerk a necessary part of the ritual?

And where in the Christmas story do we find the foundation for the traditional dash to the discount store on the day after Thanksgiving? Maybe I've overlooked a footnote exempting Wal-Mart shoppers from the whole "good will toward men" thing. Peace on Earth could be right around the corner, but we'll never notice unless it carries a tag promising "50 percent off!"

I don't have time for this: I need to exercise a little good will toward student drafts instead of obsessing over the enigmas presented by our national obsession with greed, but this news has disturbed my peace. Would someone hit the "rewind" button, please? Let's go back and start this day over, this time without the bombings and tramplings and worshipings of greed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Five reasons to be thankful

It's snowing! Once I get home this afternoon, I have no urgent need to leave the house until Sunday--so let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

My daughter is coming home (and bringing my wonderful future son-in-law)! So, okay, maybe the snow can stay light until she arrives this evening, but after that, let the sky fall!

My MLA paper is done! Well, the draft is's 10 pages long with a weak conclusion, so I'll need to revisit it after I get some distance. But still: next month I'll get to attend MLA to give a paper about a topic I love, and I won't have to spend any time in the big ugly interview room entertaining candidates desperate to work here. That's right--for the first time in four years, we have no search in our department, so I get to do MLA the right way: attend sessions, give a paper, be a scholar, and goof off, all on the college's nickel.

I'm done reading freshman drafts! I do have a pile of upper-level literature paper drafts to read this weekend, but from this point until the final exam, I won't need to read or comment on another freshman draft.

And did I mention that it's snowing?! That ought to be enough to make anyone thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

All-Star Non-Slackers

I'm sitting in my afternoon classroom enjoying the sound of students busily following instructions. They're good at this, these students. It's an upper-level literature class full of juniors and seniors, so I shouldn't be surprised, but still, I have to confess that I brought an extra activity to class today just in case some of the students didn't follow directions. I should have been more confident. These, after all, are my star students! They've been doing things right all semester long! Why should I expect any less today?

The cloak of visibility

These days my primary goal as I prepare for a walk is to look as un-deerlike as possible. Of course I want to stay warm and dry and I need enough pockets to stash my essentials (pepper spray, lip balm, tissues, keys), but what I really need is outerwear that screams one simple message: "I'm not a deer!"

That rules out my new winter coat: it's warm and waterproof and a bit skimpy on the pocketage, but its chief flaw is its color, a shade of taupe that could accurately be described as Bambi-esque.

Likewise I rule out the big green leather coat: it's warm and waterproof and amply provided with pockets, but its color suggests leaves--not a terrific choice for walking by woods during deer season. It's also about four sizes too big and bulkier than a leather sofa, and who wants to carry a leather sofa on a walk?

The red wool coat that kept me comfortable one windy July in Auckland is as close as I'll ever get to Hunter Orange, and it's plenty warm, with pockets you could smuggle a sheep in. However, it's not even close to waterproof, and all that heavy wool gets pretty uncomfortable when wet, like trying to lug a drenched sheep on your back. Moreover, that coat is sized to fit the much larger me who visited Auckland six years ago (in fact, you could probably fit me in one of those pockets), so I reject it outright.

That leaves the last coat in the closet: it's warm and waterproof and well equipped with nifty zippered pockets and all kinds of velcro straps, and best of all, it's bright red. One problem: it's not my coat. It belongs to my son. The fact that my son is a good seven inches taller than I am suggests that this coat can't possibly fit me, and it's true that I can pull my hands right up inside the cozy warm sleeves, but aside from that, it fits me perfectly--and it definitely says "Not a deer! Not even close! So don't shoot!"

So that's why I've adopted my son's red coat, and I intend to keep wearing it as long as he's not around to object.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wastelands R Us

A small group of students and professors hiked through a remote section of woods nestled in a slight depression in the mountaintop, quiet winter woods surrounding us as far as the eye could see. Through the trees we could see the tops of mountains in the distance, some of them looking flatter than one might expect, but this small area of natural beauty felt safe, protected, remote from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Then we walked up a steep rise to a point where the surrounding mountains became visible. No longer protected from the bitterly cold wind, we found our senses assaulted by the weather and our souls assaulted by the devastation surrounding us. Behind us was a safe and serene haven of natural beauty; before us was a vast unnatural site drained of color and life.

This is what mountaintop removal mining looks like, and it's a sight not available to many people. Located a mere 45-minute drive from Charleston, West Viriginia, Kayford Mountain might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Mountaintop removal mining is practiced far from the prying eyes of a public so addicted to coal power that we don't care that this method of mining recovers only a tiny percentage of the coal from the area--while transforming wilderness areas and inhabited hollows into land on which nothing can grow or live.

On a snowy day in November we visited Larry Gibson on 50 acres of land his family has owned for more than 200 years, property now surrounded by 7500 acres of mountaintop removal mining sites. The mountaintops are sheered off and the rubble dumped in hollows, polluting creeks and other water sources with arsenic and mercury while removing wildlife habitat and acres upon acres of trees, mushrooms, wildflowers, and other living things, all sacrificed to feed our national addiction to cheap energy.

According to a 2007 New York Times article, "From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste," and "If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018." There's no hope of recovering a stream buried under millions of tons of polluting rubble; mountaintop removal chews up and spits out the land, leaving it uninhabitable and incapable of reclamation.

We visited on a Sunday when Massey Energy's mining operations were suspended, but Gibson described the relentless noise of constant explosions that make his small cabin shake, explosions that sometimes send debris and rocks as big as cars tumbling onto his property. He described the coal trucks that barrel along his gravel road taking thousands of dollars' worth of coal from the area every day. "Look at the houses you pass by on your way out of here," he said. "Does it look like any of that money is staying here?"

The answer is no: it looks as if mountaintop removal mining is removing everything of value from the region and leaving a vast wasteland in its wake. If wastelands are what we want, then mountaintop removal ought to be encouraged; otherwise, it has to stop. But how?

We couldn't look at the view from Kayford Mountain for long: the wind was too cold and the sight too appalling--we couldn't quite wrap our minds around the enormity of the devastation. But one thing I'm sure of: it doesn't take an expert to look at Kayford Mountain and conclude that what's happening here is just plain wrong.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Preview of coming attractions

Beauty and devastation coexist within a few feet of each other--but where? Coming soon: a full report on my recent field trip to an undisclosed location.


This week workers have been taking down the ugly blue barriers, removing heavy equipment, and putting the finishing touches on the exterior, and in just two weeks they should be moving books.

It's been a long time coming, but we're getting a new library for Christmas!

Popping wheelies

An article in today's Orlando Sentinel (read it here) explains that "Brevard County deputies on Friday arrested a man in a wheelchair they say robbed a credit union on Merritt Island and hid the money in his prosthetic leg."

Okay: the wheelchair robbed the credit union and hid the money in a prosthetic leg? That's a mighty powerful wheelchair.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Just one stupid thing after another

Juncos arrived Saturday so naturally snow arrived this morning, creating a slushy, slippery mess all over the sidewalks and roads, making this a really bad day to be wearing high heels--but considering the progression of stupid moves I've made over the past few days, the Imbecile Footwear Fiasco was just par for the course. In a mere 24 hours, I have:

  • Driven home without my purse on a day when I needed to pick up groceries along the way.
  • Driven home without my books on a day when I needed to spend the entire evening prepping for the next day's classes.
  • Tottered out to the car in the snow on high heels in the pitch blackness of the early morning so as to get to campus by 6:30 a.m. to prep the classes I couldn't prep the night before due to lack of books.
  • Walked to the bank to deposit a check at 8 a.m. even though the bank doesn't open its doors until 8:30 so that the only way to deposit the money that would prevent my account from being overdrawn was to walk up to the drive-up window on foot--in the snow--in high heels.
  • Opened the driver's side window of my car in order to pick up the mail (which my husband had already picked up), remembering too late that while that window may open without much trouble, it really does not care to close (and a new motor costs $276 so don't even suggest it).
That's about enough stupidity for one day, don't you think? Tomorrow everything will be better--or if not, at least I'll face tomorrow's slings and arrows in appropriate footwear.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Syllabus serendipity

Sometimes a set of syllabi can create remarkable serendipity so that separate classes consider similar ideas at the same time. I didn't intentionally plan it this way, but my morning Concepts of Nature class is currently discussing Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood while my afternoon African-American Lit class is discussing Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, and the two novels keep conversing with each other in my head.

In both classes I find myself talking about strange relationships between human beings and their tools and the consequences of treating people as mere cogs in a machine. This morning I found myself quoting a chilling line about an Atwood character who uses language as "a tool, a wedge, a key to open women," while this afternoon we looked at Whitehead's portrayal of a capital-T Tool that subsumes human beings into a meaning-making machine and eventually makes people obsolete.

Both books deal with the creation and function of myth in human societies, and both consider the consequences of treating life as a contest to the death. The two novels address the same question in different ways: What's the point of winning if the prize is a wasteland? What's the point of beating the machine if the prize is death?

A half dozen students are taking both classes, so they may be noticing this serendipitous overlapping of ideas. I'd like to have a separate class meeting with those students alone and see what they make of the parallels--parallels I never expected to find in two works so very different from each other.

For now, though, I'm enjoying listening in on the conversation between the two books. Serendipity is an unexpected bonus, an accidental gift that cannot be earned or expected--an experience of grace in a place where it's least expected. The only thing to do is accept the gift because there's no telling when it might happen again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The cruelest day

If April is the cruelest month, Thursday is the cruelest day. The weekend is so close I can smell it, but I have to climb a mountain of student papers, meetings, and class preparations first. As of this morning two of my 20 or so advisees still hadn't managed to put together a spring course schedule, which gets more difficult as time goes on because courses are filling rapidly. I just spent 30 minutes juggling classes and times and searching for general education requirements with an advisee before finally producing a workable spring schedule, but then he told me he's planning to transfer at the end of this semester so he probably won't be needing those classes after all. Cruel, I tell you. Very cruel.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prone to wander

I woke to the sound of a knock on the door and jumped up out of my chair. "Who's there?" I said, which was a better choice than all those vague, unformed questions that generally pop into mind in the moment of confusion that follows a sudden awakening.

Usually I confront those questions in the privacy of my own home; today, though, I was in my office. Yes: a student came by for his advising appointment and found me sound asleep with my head on the desk.

I guess I'm glad it was a student and not the provost, say, or a certain member of the Board of Trustees who likes to drop in for a two-hour chat every time she's in town. Students understand what it means to be overwhelmed by work and weather and sinus congestion, so they shouldn't be shocked to discover that those forces affect professors too. At least that's what I'm telling myself. Surely the student won't make some snide remark on my course evaluations, will he? "Sleeping during office hours--tsk, tsk!"

Some of my colleagues throw things at students who sleep in class--erasers or chalk or whatever comes to hand--but I've never had the guts to do that, which is just as well, because I wouldn't want to be suddenly awakened by a well-tossed cellphone or backpack. It's bad enough waking up to a sudden knock at the door, a knock that calls my self back from wherever it went wandering while my body was asleep.

Note to self: stay awake! No more wandering in the office.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Scarlet A (for Atypical)

The recent alarming onslaught of unexpected health care has finally resulted in a definitive result delivered today by my doctor: "The lab found nothing atypical."

"So typical is good?"

"Typical is good," he confirmed. "Typical is just what we want to see."

I was so giddy with relief that I briefly considered having the phrase "nothing atypical" tattooed on my forehead, but that in itself would be an atypical act and thus a self-contradicting gesture.

Maybe I'll embroider a bid gaudy patch--a scarlet A (for Atypical!) with a black slash through it--and wear it wherever I go. "Nothing atypical about me!" I'll say. "I've got it in writing!"

Answers to life's persistent questions

How many PhDs does it take to send a text message?

If yesterday's experience is any indication, my guess would be nine.

Why were nine women with PhDs trying to figure out how to send a text message on a Sunday afternoon?

To get the answer to a compelling question, a question so vital it could not wait for an Googleable moment: Was Lawrence Welk a Norwegian-American?

Did we ever find the answer?

That's a question I simply cannot answer.

Friday, November 07, 2008

My new mantra

Way back in January at a campus teaching workshop, a specialist in something-or-other told a bunch of faculty members that our students won't be aware of the importance of critical thinking unless we keep reminding them--and that, in fact, we should print the phrase on every syllabus and mention it frequently in every class. I suggest a series of classroom posters: "Have you hugged your critical thinking skills today?" "This is your brain. This is your brain on critical thinking skills." "When life gives you lemons, make critical thinking skills."

Okay, maybe I'm being a little facetious, and maybe critical thinking is so serious a topic that joking is not permitted. That, at least, is what one of my colleagues suggested today. We were in a committee meeting discussing a topic that touches only tangentially on critical thinking, and when someone suggested that we should revise a particular document so that it wouldn't use the word "critical" three times in the first three sentences, I piped up: "But if we say 'critical thinking skills' in class every day, our students will be geniuses!"

Everyone laughed...except one colleague, who found my levity misplaced and offensive. "That's not funny," he said, setting off on an impassioned plea for serious attention to critical thinking. "Critical thinking is nothing to laugh about!" he said--and he meant it.

Well, yes, but it's Friday and it was my second meeting (out of three for the day) and I've got to laugh at something so I won't just lay my head down on the table and weep, and if there's nothing funny about the claim that merely reciting the mantra "critical thinking skills" will improve our students' critical thinking skills, then I need to find another line of work.

Love means never having to say you're sorry for joking about critical thinking skills.

See? I said it. Don't you feel smarter already?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Advice for job candidates

If you've been meeting with the search committee for 45 minutes and they've asked only three questions, someone is talking too much.

(Here's a hint: it's probably you.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Much more what?

"This is a factor that makes the book much more relatable to."

The evolution of this appalling phrase is evident (I can relate to the book, so the book is relatable to), so just for fun, let's apply that same process to some other verbs:

I can conceive of the concept, so the concept is conceivable of.

I can put up with the problem, so the problem is put-uppable with.

I can submit to the requirement, so the requirement is submittable to.

I'd rather not go on with this exercise, so this exercise is not go-onable with.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free advice for all!

For doctors: You know that moment when the patient describes a really alarming symptom and you try to make your face a complete blank so the patient won't worry? It's not working. It's also not helpful when you say "It's probably nothing serious but let's run a few very expensive tests just to be certain," because I stop listening after "probably nothing serious"--and I'm certainly not interested in spending a pile of money on such a negligible problem. I'd prefer that you put a name on the monster and tell me how to tame it.

For my Platonic mechanic: In an ideal world, I would allow you to fix everything you ever find vaguely wrong with my car so as to transform it from a good-enough car to the Platonic essence of automotive excellence, but in an ideal world I would also have an unlimited amount of money to spend on car maintenance. In the real world, I can afford to fix exactly two items on your eight-item list--and let's assume that I already feel awful enough about that so you can stop with the guilt trip already, okay?

For women: When the cocky state trooper young enough to be your son swaggers up to your car and wants to know where you were going in such a hurry ma'am, do NOT say "I was really desperate for some Midol," because (a) you're not getting any sympathy from him and (b) you've now given him another reason to hate women drivers. Just accept the ticket and move on (and if you need to cry, wait until after the helpful woman at the courthouse informs you that the fine plus court costs will put you back $150).

For the stupendously unhelpful non-humans responsible for Sallie Mae's non-information telephone line: Answer the phone. And if you can't answer the phone, provide an alternate method for me to obtain the information I need. Do not (repeat NOT) send me a letter stating that the loan for my daughter's final semester at college won't be approved unless I send certain additional information unless you are willing to reveal to me what specific information you need me to send. I can't read your mind! (Assuming that you have one).

For schedulers of important meetings: If you schedule meetings from 10:30 to 11:30, 11 to noon, 11:30 to 12:30, and 1 to 2 all on the same day and insist that I attend all of them, you're going to be disappointed, so let's try not to overlap, okay? I hate to run out of one meeting early so I can get to another meeting late.

In fact, if you must make my day that difficult, I may just stay home and take the phone off the hook so doctors, mechanics, traffic cops, student loan robotic voices, and schedulers of important meetings can't find me. Advice to everyone: if you need me this Thursday and you can't find me, take a chill pill. That's certainly what I intend to do.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Your Guide to the ORRF of the SPV

Yesterday we learned that Sarah Palin will be speaking at a rally on campus Sunday afternoon. Normally this kind of thing would have no impact on me because (a) I don't like crowds; (b) I don't like politics; and (c) I don't go near campus on Sundays. However, Sunday is also the day when a horde of prospective students and their parents will visit campus, and I'm scheduled to meet with those interested in the English major at approximately the same time that the candidate will be speaking to the gathered multitudes (who will have already taken up every parking space within five miles of campus by the time I get there...)

Moreover, my building has been designated the Official Rest Room Facility for the Sarah Palin Visit. My building is playing host to a speech tournament today, and since the custodians don't work on Saturdays, every trash can in the building will be overflowing by the time the building switches roles to become the Official RRF for the SPV.

(I wonder whether I ought to mention that fact to the prospective students and parents who manage to beat their way through the crowd to find my session? "Welcome to the Official Rest Room Facility of the Sarah Palin Visit! Souvenir toilet paper squares will be available at the gift shop, and if you're lucky, maybe you can get them autographed!")

The rally will be held in the Rec Center, so late yesterday afternoon we were told that the Secret Service will be cutting off all locks in the locker rooms during their security sweep, so if we want to keep our locks, we'd better get them off our lockers. I do not intend to drive all the way to campus today just to take my lock off my locker, so I went down there before I left campus Friday and took it off. I brought home my shoes but left everything else in there unprotected; anyone desperate enough to steal my shampoo, deoderant, or feminine hygiene products is welcome to them. ("Welcome to the Official Unprotected Locker Room of the Sarah Palin Visit! Help yourself to any personal items you see in these unlocked lockers, and don't forget to pick up a souvenir toilet paper square on your way out!")

I suppose I ought to be delighted that our little town is being visited by both VP candidates so close to the election (Joe Biden was here two weeks ago), but frankly, I'm tired of the entire election season and I'd just like to get some work done. Instead, I'll be serving as Your Guide to the ORRF of the SPV, and I don't even know what I'm supposed to wear.

Hey, maybe this would be a good time to break out that tiara....

Friday, October 31, 2008


For Halloween, one of my students dressed like Cher and another like Amy Winehouse (complete with elaborate hand-drawn tattoos), but my favorite costume was a set of students dressed as characters from Jaws: Matt Hooper and the Great White, together once again!

Meanwhile, I dressed like the scariest creature I know..... English professor.

If you can't read this, read on!

A brand-new billboard popped up along the busiest part of my morning commute, its big bold letters proclaiming, "If you can't read this...."

I can think of several ways to complete the sentence:

If you can't read this, press 2 for Espanol.

If you can't read this, call a literacy tutor.

If you can't read this, time to get your eyes checked!

The third option turns out to be correct: below the bold sentence fragment is the name of a local group of opthalmologists followed by their phone number in much smaller type. (If you can't read the big bold type, how are you going read the phone number?) A billboard aimed directly at people unable to read billboards seems an exercise in futility, but it makes me want to ask yet another question:

If your vision is so bad that you can't read this, what are you doing driving a car? Get off the road before you kill someone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Good enough, considering

Lately I'm working on being a good-enough teacher. Not great, not perfect, not wonderful, sometimes not even terribly good, but just good enough, considering.

Considering what?

Considering that we've reached the point in the semester when everyone wants something from me (grades, money, help registering for spring courses).

Considering that I can't seem to find time to eat lunch or take my car to the shop or iron a pair of pants, which will be a real problem in the next day or two unless I want to start wearing sweats to class.

Considering that there's no such thing as the Perfect Teacher and if there were, she would not be me. Be I. See? Sometimes I'm not even a particularly good grammarian, but I'm usually good enough. Considering.

Considering the demands of administrative tasks and committee foolishness, it's a wonder I have time to be any sort of teacher at all. Nobody becomes a college professor out of an earnest desire to attend mindless, pointless, contentious committee meetings week after week, but that's an important part of the job. Last week I sat on a committee that actually made progress on a particularly knotty problem, but this week the same group will have to "revisit the issue" because of some objections from the Powers That Be. Progress is slow, but maybe it's the best we can hope for, considering.

Considering the hours I spent yesterday and today beating my head against a particularly stubborn technological problem, I don't know when I'm supposed to prep tomorrow's classes or read the big pile of drafts that's slowly drifting across my desk, and I don't know how detailed my comments will be considering the size of those draft-drifts. I'm not trying to write the world's greatest student-draft comment, which would sum up all accumulated wisdom on the topic of writing in one easily digested phrase; instead, I'll write comments that are good enough, considering that the papers themselves, with a few bright exceptions, rarely rise above that level.

Considering the cold, the weather, the long drive to work in the dark, and considering the existential angst associated with the human condition, I've come to believe that good enough ought to be good enough. I'm not aiming for perfection, people! If good enough is good enough for me, then it ought to be good enough for anyone. Considering.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I resemble that remark!

Someone using an internet server located in Yazd, Iran, ended up at this site after googling the phrase "picture of baloney." Um, whatever turns you on!

Monday, October 27, 2008

The unwelcome guest

I've just finished reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, a beautifully written memoir of the year between the stillbirth of her first child and the live birth of her second. Amazingly honest without being maudlin, the book examines the complicated experiences of a woman preparing to give birth while still mourning a great loss, and even though it begins with "Once upon a time," the book actively avoids entering fairy-tale terrain:

Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)

McCracken's prose crackles and sparks and assumes a lyrical cadence, and it is always thoughtful and polished and full of vivid images:

Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find that it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up the bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches.

I've never lost a child but I've known the kind of sadness that tags along like a guest who won't go home. McCracken considers the impact of grief on her creative process, an emphasis that invites comparison to Anthony Doerr's Four Seasons in Rome, which similarly deals with the author's difficulties in trying to write in an alien place where he doesn't speak the language. The chief difference, however, is that Doerr's twin infants act as little ambassadors between the writer and the local community, while the death of McCracken's baby opens a gulf few are able to cross. This book shows us the dimensions of that gulf and marks the places where crossing is possible, providing a useful map for anyone encountering great loss.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Old dog, new tricks

Duke lives a good mile away by road, but he generally takes the short cut across farm fields, walking slowly and with a limp. Nevertheless he often ends up at our house before I leave in the morning, just in time for the food to hit the dish.

Duke is a dog, an old dog unlikely to learn new tricks. He's not our dog, but he's quite fond of our dog--fond enough to spend about half of his time at our house and to encourage Hopeful to spend about half of her time at his. When they dine at our house, Hopeful stands back and lets Duke eat first; when they dine at Duke's house, Duke defers to Hopeful.

I've never observed such a close and enduring friendship between two dogs. Near neighbors have beagles, border collies, and one particularly bossy basset, but Hopeful avoids them all, preferring to trot all the way over to Duke's place or bring Duke back to hers.

The friendship between our dogs has deepened our friendship with Duke's owners, who, fortunately, do not object to Hopeful's frequent presence. I suppose we could break up the relationship by tying both dogs up to keep them separate, but Duke seems to take great comfort from Hopeful's presence and vice versa. Why would we want to break up such a beautiful relationship? Duke feels like part of our family, and I'd hate to lose his steadfast presence. Instead, we celebrate the fact that our family has grown in an unexpected but wonderful way.

This weekend we'll experience a different kind of family growth. We have enjoyed getting to know our daughter's fiance and his amazing family, people we never would have encountered if our kids hadn't hit it off. We barely know these people but we love them dearly and look forward to seeing our family grow and stretch in unexpected ways, but this week it stretched into that "undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveller returns."

Our daughter's future mother-in-law died this week after a long and painful battle with cancer. She was just a terrific person, full of wisdom and joy, and I have so looked forward to working on this wedding with her, but instead, we'll be attending a memorial service that will celebrate her life. Our kids brought us together, a gift for which I am grateful. Next summer the wedding will go on, but not without her, not really--she'll be there in spirit and in the wisdom and joy she has passed on to her children. She'll be there in our hearts, now grown larger because of her life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A dash of perspective

I arrived on campus when it was still dark this morning, but I was cheered on my way when I saw the emerging library's windows all lit up from within and workmen inside taking care of business. It's nice to know I'm not the only one working at the crack of dawn.

I had been feeling a little sorry for myself for being so swamped with work that I had to get to the office in the wee hours, but along the way I stopped at the grocery store and griped a bit to the cashier, who informed me that she had to scrape the frost off her car windows at 4 a.m. so she could get to work on time--and she's 68 years old! "I love my job," she said, "but I never really expected to be scraping car windows that early in the morning at my age!"

She didn't look 68, and she didn't act at all bothered about her plight. I don't expect to be scraping windows in the wee hours at age 68 just so I can stand on my feet and scan groceries all day, but if I ever end up in that position, I hope I have the grace and patience to love my job.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pipe (cleaner) dreams

Lately I've been having a series of very vivid dreams about my daughter's wedding, dream ceremonies full of bizarre rituals involving, for instance, the throwing of hats and the reciting of very bad poetry. In one dream she wore a brilliant yellow and blue dirndl skirt and carried a bouquet made of orange pipe-cleaners, and in another the bride and groom were wheeled out of the church in what looked like an overgrown perambulator.

My dream self finds nothing odd about these ceremonies, instead finding them marvelously meaningful and moving; my waking self, on the other hand, says, "Pipe-cleaners?! What were we thinking?"

The wedding will happen next June, which means I have eight more months to dream. If I keep being visited by these bizarre rituals, by next June I'll be able to accept blithely anything that happens without a trace of concern: "Orange pipe-cleaners? Lovely. You want to toss some hats? Divine. Where can we find a giant perambulator? Let's start with the Yellow Pages. Whatever you want will be just wonderful!"

Monday, October 20, 2008

From workout to burnout

It is an indisputable fact that working out at the campus rec center is an smart move: it keeps me in shape, gets the endorphins flowing, and gives me an opportunity to take out my frustrations on mindless equipment.

Despite this, I'm convinced that working out makes me stupid--that every second I spend up there in that big booming building drains my brain cells, paralyzes my critical thinking skills, and hampers my ability to communicate clearly. I'm up there pounding away on the elliptical machine while my ears are assaulted by piped-in pop music set just a tad too loud and my eyes can wander between televisions set to stations that seem to originate in entirely different planets, none of them my own. Angry guys argue about their fantasy football teams on one scream while on the other Dr. Phil yells at a family about how unhelpful it is when they yell at each other. Sometimes the TV's are showing soap operas, and sometimes there are cooking shows focusing, in one instance, on the entire process of the making of haggis.

I am convinced that a regular diet of daytime television absorbed while my brain cells are being jiggled violently up and down will pummel my brain into a mass of mush. As evidence, I present today's African-American Lit class, which I taught after making the fatal error of exercising during my lunch hour. I normally exercise after all my teaching is done for the day so as to minimize the chance of humiliating myself, but I have meetings all afternoon so I worked out just before class.

This was a mistake, as I realized in the middle of class when I lost track of what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. I had trouble retrieving important information, fumbled on simple words, and even referred authoritatively to the Legend of the Frying African, which is not at all what I meant. And then about ten minutes before class was due to be over, I ran out of steam. The words just stop working, the ideas stopped arriving, and the energy pooped out. I guess I left it in the rec center.

I need to find a way to fit exercise into my life even on days when I have a million meetings. How's this for brilliant: next time I have a schedule like today's, I'll take the whole class to the rec center with me and teach from my perch atop the elliptical machine. I may not be any smarter over there, but in that context, the students will never notice.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Friday, but Sunday's a-coming

Friday afternoon is difficult: I have an hour free between my afternoon class and my late-afternoon meeting, and I ought to use that hour to do some class preps so I don't have to take so much work home with me over the weekend, but I just can't make myself do it. It's been a long day--a long week--a long month, and I'm so close to a small weekend reprieve that I can taste it, if I can just press on through these next two hours....

But I can't. Between 3 and 4 on Friday afternoons, I'll do almost anything but think about classes. I look at the honking big books on my desk and tell myself that if I'll read Monday's sections, I won't have to carry 'em home with me--but it's not happening. Instead, I fiddle. I catch up on my e-mail correspondence. I look at Facebook. I wander the halls practicing Management by Walking Around (aka doing nothing, really, but doing it in the presence of other people). I may even wander into the Writing Center, sit on one of the reclining chairs, and close my eyes for a few moments. Anything but work on classes! Anything but think! I'll think tomorrow! Tomorrow, as Scarlett reminds us, is another day. It's Saturday, in fact, when I won't feel like thinking about class preps at all. Sunday?

Better open those books now or I'll be facing a pretty bleak Sunday afternoon.

Indisposed to dispute

When a dispute with a student devolves to the point that the student pouts and insists that "you just don't like me," I don't like being a professor. Is it too late to take up something less contentious like, say, forklift repair?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A vile comment

Today I returned midterm essays in my morning class and afterward a student asked why I had written "vile" all over his essay.

"I didn't write 'vile' all over your essay," I said. "Do I strike you as the type of person who would write 'vile' all over a student's essay?"

He showed me the scribbles in question.

"That's 'nice,'" I said. "As in 'nice title' or 'nice thesis.'"

"Oh," he said, "now I get it!"

I really need to work on my handwriting!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


From a distance, a field of drying corn looks monochromatic, but it's a different story up close.

Strictly circular

Still life with grindstone and hay bales.

Prospectus perspective

The prospectus is in the mail, with sample chapter attached!

I ought to feel relieved, but instead I'm distracted: I want to snatch the manuscript out of the envelope and fiddle with it more, or expand the cover letter to explain all the reasons that the manuscript doesn't quite live up to my high expectations, or visualize the responses of editors who read it, which makes me hyperventilate.

Time to calm down: breathe in, breathe out... breathe in, breathe out. Relax, it's only a pile of words. What's the worst that could happen? Breathe in, breathe out...

Someone stop me before I run to the mailroom!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dogged by a document

Fall break is nearly over and what do I have to show for it? Sticky shoes, a wounded knee, blurred vision, and pages--publishable, I hope.

One of my goals for fall break was to do a lot of walking through the rapidly changing countryside, where leaves are changing color almost before my eyes. I've walked something like 18 miles in the past four days, marvelling over just how much racket a measly little chipmunk can make when it runs across a forest floor covered with dry leaves. To get to the good parts I had to walk across fresh patches of tar and chip, leaving my shoes marred with globs of sticky goo. On Saturday morning, at the most remote point on a six-mile walk, I slipped on some loose gravel and slammed into the ground knee-first, twisting my back and causing my entire body to cry out in pain. Nobody was listening except the cornfield and it didn't care, so I hobbled home.

Today my knee still looks ugly but the pain is gone, so I ventured out again, hoping to rest my blurry eyes by looking at something more interesting and varied than a Word document. At first I couldn't see much except that same document that seemed to be dogging my steps, banging on my brain cells, and demanding attention, but finally I put it behind me, and behold, there was autumn--an amazing show and all of it free.

And now I'm back home with my sticky shoes, wounded knee, and blurry eyes, and I'm ready to print out that pile of pages and send them off to an academic publisher first thing tomorrow. Best of all, putting some concentrated time into this project has jump-started my thinking on the next stage, so once I get this bit into the mail, I'll know where to put my energy to best effect in the coming months. It feels good to reach this goal...but it feels even better to have another goal calling me forward.

Now if I can just get my shoes unstuck from the tar, I'll really be getting somewhere.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A turkey treat

I arrived home last night to find a whole flock of wild turkeys in my meadow. They scattered when I drove up, of course, but for a long time afterward we could hear them chattering their insane gobbledygook from the woods above the house.

The dog, off gallivanting with her best dogfriend, Duke, missed all the excitement. This morning I walked about a mile up the road to retrieve Hopeful (which, come to think of it, makes me a Labrador Retriever retriever), and I gave her a stern lecture about the virtues of staying close to home. "You could have been chasing turkeys!" I told her, but she just sat there looking hopefully up at me with that familiar expression that says, "Did you bring me a treat?!"

So now Hopeful is home and the turkeys have dispersed and I'm grateful that I stayed up late last night grading the big pile of midterm essay exams, with only a few turkeys in the bunch. I worked students pretty hard on these exams but they stepped up and met the challenge with insight and perseverance and only a modicum of gobbledygook. I'm out of the woods and ready to enjoy my fall break--and, like my dog, I'm looking forward to the treat, despite the occasional turkey.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Circling the drain

Some of my colleagues were talking about the sorry state of our pension funds, and I tried to reassure them by pointing out that we're all in the same boat.

The problem, of course, is that the boat we're all in is the one the Tidy-Bowl man uses to circle the drain in the toilet.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Melville for dummies!

The text begins with the familiar words "Call me Ishmael," but that's the last sentence in which Melville's distinctive voice rings out; it quickly moves on to more generic prose: "Call me Ishmael. I am a schoolmaster, and whenever life got me down, I would leave my job and head for one special place." Just in case we didn't get the point, the facing page features a line drawing of a man looking out to sea above the caption, "The Sea Restores Ishmael's Spirits."

This book, brought to me by a wonderful English major, made me want to leave my job and head for one special place where such bowdlerization would be considered complete balderdash. The book is the Baronet Great Illustrated Classics version of Moby Dick, in which one Shirley Bogart adapts Melville's text for readers who wish Melville's style had been strongly influenced by the Dick and Jane readers. The text is nearly 250 pages long, but the print is large and friendly and the drawings present a world which Melville would have relegated to the chapter on The Monstrous Pictures of Whales.

Bogart's chapter titles succinctly sum up the action: A Strange Roommate; The Mad Prophet of Doom; Queequeg Does It Again! The final chapter is titled "I Alone Survived" and it begins, "The story's done, and I alone survived the wreck," thereby assuring that even inattentive readers will grasp the essential point.

Bogart's text is characterized by an amazing economy of line, but it lacks Melville's memorable rhythm, his complex rolling sentences as vast and profound as the sea itself. It also lacks Melville's love for suspense; several important mysteries are demystified right at the start within the dramatis personae, which informs readers that Moby Dick is "the Great White Whale with almost human-like intelligence" while Ahab is "the fanatic one-legged commander of the Pequod who swears vengeance on a gigantic white whale who crippled him." Good to get that cleared up right up front so we don't have to waste time sussing out the subtleties of Melville's characterizations.

Similarly, the book leaves out any passages that distract from the action, like Father Mapple's sermon and all those passages about cetology and pictures of squashes masquerading as whales and the functions of all those tools and ropes and bits of whaling paraphernalia. There's also no room for metaphysical musings or even Melville's playful sense of humor. A writer--excuse me, "adapter"--would have to work pretty hard to drain Melville's prose of its richly mordant humor, but somehow, Shirley Bogart does the trick.

I know why books like this exist--perhaps some small child will read it and become enamored of Melville's world and later move on to encounter the real thing, like the child whose addiction to candy cigarettes leads him to emulate the Marlboro Man. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Melville's story without Melville's prose and Melville's metaphysical speculation and Melville's subtle characterization just isn't Moby Dick at all, whatever the cover of the book might say. Call me whatever you want, but don't call Shirley Bogart's book Moby Dick.

Plowing through papers

So far, my no-so-secret plan for getting some extended time to writing during fall break is working well: I gave my freshman writing class a midterm this morning and I've already graded two-thirds of them while my freshman seminar students were writing their midterm essays. The seminar meets in a strange classroom with fixed theater seats and tiny pull-up writing desks, so the students spread themselves out in some odd ways, some of them preferring to sit on the floor and one commandeering the huge table that stretches across the back of the room. With only 16 students in a large tiered room that seats more than 100, there's plenty of room for everyone.

Not plenty of power outlets, however. This room was clearly built at a time when no one envisioned students' needs for electricity in class. Those using laptops clustered near the three available outlets, while those writing by hand drifted toward the powerless places.

I'm pretty well plugged in myself, but by the time I read all these essays, I'll be feeling drained of power and ready for a break--and I intend to get one! Just let me plow through all these papers first.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Open house

The weather today is cold, gray, and wet, but I'm not complaining because we desperately need the rain. On the other hand, I am delighted that the rain held off until this morning, because yesterday afternoon was absolutely gorgeous--the perfect day for students from my Concepts of Nature class to come out to my house to enjoy a cookout and commune with nature.

Trees turn colors along our hollow earlier than they do in town, and the clear blue sky put those orange and yellow leaves into the spotlight. We sat on the deck eating apple crisp and drinking hot cider and then we took a little walk up into the woods, relatively ho-hum activities but a nice break from midterm exams.

It made me recall with pleasure the few times my college professors opened their homes to students. I was first introduced to A Prairie Home Companion at the home of one English professor, and another gave us frequent opportunities to enjoy home-cooked meals--a nice change from cafeteria food. Things were different in grad school: a grad student well lubricated with the fruits of the professor's wine cellar might say some things that would be held against him later. During grad school, I never allowed myself to relax at a professor's home, but as an undergrad I always enjoyed the chance to get away from campus and spend some time surrounded by good books and good food and good conversation.

Now I'm happy to provide the same for my students, but we live so far from campus that many students are reluctant to make the trip. I invite about one class each semester to my house, and generally about one-third of the students show up. But that's okay. More leftovers for the rest of us! I'll thank the no-shows this afternoon when I decompress from the cold, gray, damp day by enjoying a nice warm mug of mulled cider.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The write way

I miss writing.

I realize that I'm writing right now, but this isn't the kind of writing I miss. I miss the sort of deep, sustained, thoughtful writing I was able to do over the summer, the kind of writing that keeps me at the keyboard through lunch and supper and creates enough momentum to keep the thoughts rolling for days on end.

I keep telling myself that I'll get back to that sort of writing soon--as soon as I finish this next committee report, grade these papers, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, take the dog for a walk...and meanwhile, what little writing time I have comes in little chunks with a lot of distractions pressing in on all sides, so it's fragmentary, brief, ephemeral--like this.

And this.

I guess what I need is some time off with no distractions. Four-day break comes up this weekend and it looks as if I'll have about 80 exams to grade in between attending a wedding and doing some yard work. So the goal will be to get all of Thursday's exams graded on Friday and all of Friday's exams graded before the wedding on Saturday so I'll have Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday relatively free.

Can I do it? I need to try--because I need to write.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Cold comfort

I'm sitting in my office trying to work with a blanket draped over my back, but my fingers are so cold I can't type straight and icicles are forming on the end of my nose. Everyone who wanders into my office comments on how cold it is and offers a helpful suggestion: "Why don't you turn on your space heater?"

And I could turn on the space heater, but then the first time someone uses the microwave in the next office, the circuit breaker will pop and we'll have to call the helpful guys from the physical plant to come and restore power and as soon as they walk in and see me huddling under a blanket for warmth they'll yell at me for operating a space heater in violation of a campus policy designed, I believe, to keep professors focusing on the cold so we won't have any energy to spare for looking for work in a warmer place.

Not that I am bitter.

Bitterness, in fact, might provide some heat. Trying not to think about how cold I am does not produce any measurable warmth. Maybe I should get really, really angry, angry enough to make my blood boil--but not boil over, because as soon as the anger is released, I'll start cooling off again.

I need to work on maintaining a constant slow simmer, a mumbling, grumbling, griping undertone of discontent, just enough to keep me bubbling but not enough to make me boil over. And where shall I find inspiration for this simmering anger? Why, the people who keep my office so cold I can't function, of course! As long as they insist on making me work in a subzero environment, I'll continue to harbor enough anger to keep me warm.

And if the Powers That Be decide they want to douse the fire, there's one simple solution: turn on the heat.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Engaging conversation

Reading my African-American Lit students' online theory discussions is like walking into a room where a bunch of really smart people are having a fascinating conversation and being allowed to listen in. They engage with interesting ideas, articulate coherent arguments, consider implications, explore contexts, educate and inform and even entertain each other in an enlightening and civilized manner. I wish the conversation could keep going on and on....and for some, maybe it will. That, at any rate, is the goal.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Is there a 12-step group for punctuality addiction?

For some people, punctuality is a virtue; for me, it's a disease. Missing a deadline makes me physically ill--even if it's not my fault.

In all the years I worked as a journalist, I missed a deadline only once, when a job-related injury sent me to the emergency room for X-rays.

I dropped a book on my foot.

It was a big book, a bound volume containing an entire year's run of a weekly newspaper, and I dropped it from a pretty good height, which caused my foot to turn ugly colors and swell to elephantine proportions. A year later I still had problems tying my left shoe, and pain was a constant companion for months.

Fortunately, a trained Emergency Medical Technician was present when I dropped the book, and he provided immediate assistance. "You ought to get someone to look at that," he said.

Because of my unexpected visit to the emergency room, I missed the event I was supposed to be covering: a local boy's Eagle Scout ceremony. In small-town journalism, this counts as hot news. The next day, the Eagle Scout's usually perky mother called me at the office to curse me loudly and at great length. You can't tell a screaming mother "I dropped a book on my foot," so I apologized.

Okay: I'm hobbling around on a foot that looks like it belongs to the Elephant Man while this churchgoing mother curses me in terms that would make a longshoreman blush, and I'm the one apologizing? What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is my compulsive need to be punctual, a neurosis that has been keeping me awake all this week, ever since the deadline passed for the submission of a particular document.

Let the record show that I did my part. I turned in my share of the work on August 17, so the person responsible for doing the rest of the work and turning the document in by Sept. 30 has had five full weeks to do so. The stakes are pretty low, but that doesn't matter: the deadline was Tuesday and the document is not done, so I've been hobbling around under a heavy weight of guilt and catching maybe three hours of sleep each night, tossing and turning on the mattress and thinking dark thoughts in the wee hours.

My dilatory colleague looks cheerful and well rested. Every time I see him, he says something like, "Yeah, I guess I'd better get to work on that, ha ha!" Next time I find myself lying awake at 3 a.m., I'll call my colleague at home and share some of my dark thoughts--except he would probably just curse me loudly in terms that would make a longshoreman blush, and then I would end up apologizing.

Times like these I envy the irresponsible.