Friday, February 29, 2008

Recycled weather

One of our visiting job candidates asked whether we get much snow here. "We don't get a lot of snow," replied my colleague. "We just get the same two or three inches over and over."

We're getting that same snow again today and frankly, I am tired of it. Public schools all over the county keep having snow days and delays, so students and faculty have been scrambling to find appropriate care for their school-age children. No sooner does my driveway become driveable than we get another smattering of snow--just enough to make the roads slick and the sidewalks salty, but never enough to make us feel like bold adventurers triumphing over the elements.

Wouldn't it be better to get 18 inches of snow all at once instead of six three-inch snowfalls spread out over six weeks? In a real blizzard, no one would worry about trudging to campus, with or without children in tow; we could all stay home in front of the fireplace with cups of hot cocoa. A three-inch snowfall doesn't provide enough material for serious snow-fort building or snowball battles, but a real blizzard would inspire creative minds toward new heights of snow sculpture. And enduring a real blizzard would allow us to congratulate ourselves on our resourcefulness in facing nature's challenges.

Instead, we have another three inches on the way. Maybe this one will be the last. I certainly hope so, because the crocuses are coming up and I'm ready for spring.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Confessions of a unilateral gesturer

Forgive me, business office, for I have sinned.

I have sent flowers to a colleague--using departmental funds!--even though no one died.

The colleague in question stepped in to fill a difficult situation last semester, teaching four classes for very little pay while passing her comprehensive exams and preparing to have her first child. Then last month when she gave birth to a bouncing baby girl after 53 hours of labor (!) followed by a C-section (!!), my department decided that flowers would be appropriate.

I now know that it is not permissible for departments to "independently and unilaterally" send flowers, but I did not know that last month. I was not born Department Chair, nor did I ever receive any formal training in proper procedures re: sending flowers, and it never occurred to me to wonder whether sending flowers might be perceived as a subversive act. I just thought that someone who had worked as hard as our colleague and then labored so hard in the delivery room had earned a little congratulatory pat on the back.

Silly me.

Sending flowers, I have been told, is the privilege of the president's office, which sends flowers primarily when someone has died. In all other cases, sending flowers does not qualify as a business expense because it is a "personal gesture." (Not at all the type of personal gesture another colleague referred to yesterday when he offered to direct some personal gestures toward the business office.)

Now that we have all been informed of the folly of making independent and unilateral personal gestures, we have agreed to comply with the business office's request that we reimburse the college $36.38 forthwith.

I just hope the business office doesn't mind pennies.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Transcendent[ly bad] prose

After 45 years of stumbling toward transcendence, I have finally discovered my greatest talent: I have a gift for writing really good bad sentences. It is a difficult cross to bear, but with great power comes great responsibility, so I persevere in my calling.

Today, for instance, I needed an editing exercise that would give students practice in positioning the most important information in a sentence so that it carries the greatest impact, and I came up with this:

Despite his encounters with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and hungry piranha, the intrepid explorer on his first mission into the Amazon without a guide to help him overcome the inevitable obstacles discovered a living pterodactyl dwelling contentedly among the exotic flora and fauna near the confluence of two uncharted rivers.

Earlier, when the class was working on the dangers of overdependence on incompatible adjectives and adverbs, I gave them this:

On the other hand, if they use few adjectives but only, like, make them really incredibly wonderfully awesome, then they will have esoteric, poignant, and just plain neat prose that marvelously overshadows all that high-falutin' gussied-up bullcrap.

My ultimate achievement, however--the epitome of awfulness--occurred in a discussion of faulty parallelism:

Derrida's seminal analysis of Wenbley Weasel's "Unseemly Seeming" suggests that the free play of signification may prove disorienting to readers accustomed to works grounded in linear reasoning, anthropocentric culture, and who don't understand the French language; however, his analysis fails to consider Weasel's seemingly infinite ability to multiply meanings, his concern for non-human ways of knowing, and he translates all the French terms anyway.

"This is awful," said a student.

"Thanks," I said. "It's a gift."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Walk away from the baloney

"The viewer already has a sense of grandeur from the silhouette on the baloney."

This wonderful line from a student paper inspires me to imagine what a wonderful world this would be if every balcony were replaced by baloney. Many ordinary experiences would be altered, from photographing the Pope to buying cheap theater seats to selecting hotel rooms. Would the Marriott charge extra for baloney suites? Think of the lives that would be saved if hordes of students on spring break decided to climb drunkenly from baloney to baloney!

Picture the baloney scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet pines for a lover who has a first name spelled O-S-C-A-R. And Henry James's The Ambassadors would be an entirely different kind of novel if Lambert Strether took to observing the enigmatic Chad from a perch high atop a baloney!

It could happen. Likewise, an English professor exhausted from reading too many student papers might fall into a fit of despair and develop a sudden urge to fling herself from a great height...but in the absence of baloney, the danger would dissipate.

Just for the sake of safety, someone ought to post a sign declaring every English department a No-Baloney Zone. The life you save may be your own.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Doing the candidate quick-step

Neither snow nor sleet nor dark of night can keep the candidates from coming to campus and running from breakfast to interview to campus tour to interview to lunch with students to interview interview interview to presentation to dinner with the search committee, and if this trial by fire is exhausting for the candidates, it's not much easier on the search committee.

We take our candidates to dinner at the best restaurant in town (where we can rarely afford to eat unless the provost picks up the bill), but soon we find ourselves sated with the town's best cuisine. "I'm tired of that same old ahi," said my colleague last week, so we changed things up and went to the Italian place instead. We enjoy meeting new people and spending time with our departmental colleagues, but eventually we get tired of asking the same questions and telling the same stories--and as soon as we finish up with one candidate, another looms one the horizon.

The good news is that we're almost done. When the moment of decision arrives, we'll say goodbye to all the ahi, the Bob Evans breakfasts, the presentations, interviews, campus tours, and candidates, and say hello to some new colleagues.

Whoever they are, I hope they stay awhile. No one wants to go through all this again!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lacking lunar energy

Rumor has it that the lunar eclipse was pretty impressive last night. I wouldn't know: anything that happens outdoors when the temperature is 3 degrees Farenheit is a mystery to me. Telescopes were set up on the college mall so students and others could stand out in the cold and look at the moon and stars; meanwhile, I huddled at home in layers of longjohns and sweaters, wool socks and slippers, trying to stay warm enough to concentrate on my reading.

The resident Clevelandman poked his head in the door. "You've got to see this!" he said. "It's amazing!"

"It's three degrees," I said. "Nothing is that amazing."

Which proves, I suppose, that cold-weather wimps miss out on some remarkable experiences. Frostbite, for instance. I've seen lunar eclipses before and they're not very effective at warming my feet, so this time I decided to keep my feet where they could be comfortable: beneath a nice, warm, cozy blanket.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Firing Ice

I've just given up on trying to read the novel Ice by Russian author Vladimir Sorokin, primarily because the first hundred pages have not managed to make me care about the characters, but also because I'm getting tired of a particular syntactic tic:

A dark blue Lincoln Navigator drove into the building. Stopped....Gorbovets leaned on the gates. Pulled. The steel sections aligned. Clanged. He slid the bolt shut. Spat. Walked to the car.

That's just a sample from the first page of the book, and while those solitary-verb fragments emphasize the staccato nature of the actions here, the pattern is repeated over and over in the book, all those solitary verbs pelting my eyeballs like sleet pellets in an ice storm. Sorokin's style is edgy and hip, often self-consciously so; like a small child who has just learned to ride a tricycle, the sentences clatter past while yelling "Look at me! Look at me!" After a while, it just gets tiresome.

So I give up. Unless someone can provide a compelling reason for me to keep reading, Ice is going directly into the giveaway pile. But who would want it? Here's an offer: make a case for the book in the comments to this post and I'll mail the novel, free of charge, to whoever is most convincing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Musical madness

We've entered the part of the semester when the eye-rolling gets intense among certain students in my film classes. It's the men, mostly, who object to the subject matter I'm forcing them to consider, and it's not all the men either but just a certain baseball-capped contingent of them. They know what they like and they know what they don't like, and they don't mind letting me know that they don't like musicals.

Yesterday I subjected my film classes to torture by talking about the history of musicals and making them watch short clips from The Jazz Singer, 42nd Street, Top Hat, and West Side Story, and in a week they'll be writing about Singin' in the Rain. They grimace and groan and want to know why: "Why can't we watch something we like?"

"Because Saw isn't a musical," I want to say, "and because we can't watch Fight Club or Superbad every day of the week." (Well, maybe they can, but I can't.) We could spend the hour identifying and repairing comma splices and run-on sentences, or we could take a nice little quiz on vocabulary terms from the textbook, but instead we're sitting in a dark room watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing and singing and falling in love while the rain pours down around the gazebo. What's not to like?

Yesterday's West Side Story clip portrayed the characters' attempt to use music to bring order to a chaotic situation, but in my classroom, musicals do just the opposite, inspiring an epidemic of squirming and grumbling and shuffling of papers. When music leaves my students cold, I want to snap my fingers and say "Play it cool, boys--real cool."

And I would--if I could just carry a tune.

So what IS a thesis?

"She called me at 1 in the morning to ask me, 'What's a thesis?'"

The speaker is one of my students, and "she" is another. The first major paper is due in five minutes. The students had read a chapter on writing a thesis statement and I had talked about thesis statements in class, demonstrated how to formulate thesis statements for this type of paper, and offered specific suggestions for improving their thesis statements in my comments on their drafts. Also, last Friday I reminded the class that I would be happy to look at revised thesis statements over the weekend if they would e-mail them to me. Two students did--but not the girl who had to call her classmate at 1 a.m. to ask "What's a thesis?"

Sometimes I wonder why I even open my mouth.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sing a song of daughters

When my daughter walked out in front of the audience last week at the beginning of her vocal recital, she looked as if she owned the stage. When she opened her mouth, she owned the music. By the time the hour was over, she owned the audience.

How did she do it? Where did all that talent and confidence come from? I'd gladly take the credit, but I can't sing a note, nor can I stand on stage in front of a group of staring people without wanting to hide in the closet. She looked radiant, as if she'd found her rightful place in the universe. Once upon a time she was a five-year-old singing her first duet with her dad in church, and then she became a 10-year-old orphan belting out tunes while tumbling all over the stage in "Annie." Now she's this radiant woman singing art songs and arias in languages I don't understand--but music is universal and her performance makes the meaning clear.

I used to be able to track down my daughter wherever she was just by following the sound of her singing; now she's so far away that I never get to hear her except when she comes home for a visit. But last Thursday, she filled my ears with beautiful music that will ring in my memory for years to come.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The wrong way to walk the loop

I didn't set out to walk the six-mile loop this morning, but after I'd passed the point of no return and conquered the ice-covered slope, there was nothing to do but keep going.

I've kept that loop in front of me all winter as I've walked around the countryside and worked out at the rec center. One fine spring day, I told myself, I'll gather together a few congenial friends and we'll walk up the hill and along the ridge and down the other side of the hill and along the creek and back home again. I'll choose a day when the sky is clear and the road is dry, and we'll equip ourselves with water bottles, high-protein snacks, sunscreen, pepper spray, perhaps a notebook and pen for recording brilliant Thoreauvian insights. We'll look at birds and wildflowers and we'll encourage each other through the steep stretches, and at the end of the loop we'll come home to a celebratory lunch of homemade soup and sandwiches.

That's the right way to walk the loop. Today I did it the wrong way. For this I blame the anger.

Last night I went to bed angry and woke up angry (never mind why), and I tried all morning to work through the anger: I washed dishes, cleaned the kitchen, did laundry, emptied the catbox, filled the birdfeeders, listened to Car Talk, read some Henry James. Still angry. There was no one to complain to except the cat and I couldn't go out anywhere without coming to terms with the car that hates me, so I went for a walk.

I took a water bottle and some kleenexes but no snacks, which was a mistake since all I'd had for breakfast was a little toast and juice. No sunscreen, no pepper spray, no notebook and pen (which was fine since it's difficult to have insights when you're angry), no congenial companions, and no celebratory lunch at the end of the road. The temperature was in the 40s but up on the ridge the wind was sharp, and the road was icy in the shady spots and muddy in the sun.

At first I intended to keep walking until the anger dissipated and then turn around, but somewhere along the way I lost track of time and place. I was halfway up the dangling deer-spine hill when I realized that I'd been walking without seeing anything, all my attention focused on the internal chaos. I forced myself to look around, but it took a great deal of effort.

I made it to the top of the ridge still angry, walked past the impressive views still angry, avoided the annoying dogs still angry. I plodded through the mud and ice not caring where I ended up, and as I walked down the hill on the other side, I was surprised to find that I'd passed the half-way mark on the six-mile loop. Might as well just keep walking--still angry.

Then I came around a curve and saw in front of me a stretch of road that squeezed between a rocky bluff and a steep wooded slope falling down to the creek. For about a quarter mile the road sloped up, first gently and then steeply, and the entire surface was covered with ice.

One thing I know: walking uphill on ice right next to a cliff is not easy, and anger doesn't help. There was no way around and I wasn't going back, so I swallowed my anger and picked my way along the narrow snow-covered shoulder, certain that if I fell and broke my neck, no one would even know where to look for me.

But I didn't fall. I made it home in one piece, hungry and thirsty and sweaty and tired but no longer angry. I'm a little annoyed with myself for walking the loop without any hoopla, but I suppose the hoopla can wait for the next time. Next time I'll walk the loop the right way. Next time I'll leave the anger at home.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The ghost of closets past

At the Goodwill store I am haunted by the ghost of closets past: between a slinky psychedelic mini-dress and a dress-for-success suit with shoulder pads the size of dinner plates hangs a drab, boxy drop-waist jumper everyone was wearing in the 80s. I owned that dress! I wore that dress!

I loathe that dress.

The Goodwill store makes no distinctions among sizes, styles, or even decades. Clothes are sorted in the most rudimentary fashion: a long row labeled "Tops" over here, and beyond it another labeled "Bottoms." Pastel silk blouses with bows as the neckline rub shoulders with tattered T-shirts advertising the wearer's devotion to the Grateful Dead. (Good color for me, but can I wear it in the classroom?)

I'm at the Goodwill store because my wardrobe budget can't keep up with my weight loss. In the past year I have lost the equivalent of a person--a small person, but a person all the same--and I have nothing to wear. My colleagues are not inclined to sympathize with this problem. "Not a bad problem to have!" is the way they put it, but I get up every morning and look in my closet and wonder what I can wear today that looks professional enough to carry me through a meeting with college Trustees: pants so baggy in the back I look like I have diaper-butt, or purple corduroys a little too casual for the classroom, or a skirt that fits topped by a blouse that doesn't? That's too much stress first thing in the morning.

A few weeks ago I tried to address the problem by buying a chunk of wool and making a skirt, just to see whether my sewing skills might still be useful. They might. Then again, it was a straight skirt with no frills, a pattern so easy a trained monkey could have made it, and it took only about three hours of focused work. But I can't do that every weekend, especially with papers to grade, so I've been trying to patch together a professional wardrobe wherever I can find one, which is how I ended up at the Goodwill store.

I head toward "Bottoms" to look for a skirt. No problem finding skirts: here's a plaid wool mini-skirt wider than it is long, and right next to it a swirly confection in floral chiffon, then a pencil skirt with kick-pleats, size 6 petite (dream on!). I find home-made skirts with uneven hems next to skirts with designer labels, spotless skirts next to torn and ragged skirts, long wool wrap skirts next to the merest of minis, but everything in my size looks faded and matronly.

In fact, the only thing I find in the whole store that might fit me is that hideous boxy drop-waist jumper. I wore that dress when I flew to Florida with my two-year-old daughter, who was wearing a matching dress I had made from the leftover fabric. I'm sure we looked just darling, but that was 20 years ago and I'm not going back there.

I leave the store empty-handed. I'd rather muddle through with what I have than haunt campus dressed as the ghost of closets past.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Calming the savage blast

Today I'm taking a hiatus from the hectic life, opting out of the ordinary, fleeing the controversies that leave me flabbergasted, including:

1. The current controversy over whether every course that "uses" literature ought to be labeled a literature course for the purposes of General Education. My question: what does the course use literature for? Fuel? Insulation? Target practice?

2. Students who want to quibble over whether their borrowing from SparkNotes constitutes plagiarism if they just borrowed ideas but switched the words around. My question: why are you relying on SparkNotes for a paper that is not supposed to use sources outside the primary text?

3. Bill collectors who call at all hours to demand money from a person whose name is similar but not identical to my husband's, a man who apparently owes a lot of money to some very persistent people. My question: how about letting me have your full name and phone number so I can pass it on to the State Attorney General's office? I promise to get your name exactly right!

As absorbing as all these issues are, I'm waving bye-bye this afternoon and zipping down the interstate to Kentucky to see my daughter and hear her sing. They say music calms the savage beast, so it ought to calm the savage blast of demanding calls and messages from all the other voices in my life.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Small and sleek meets big and bulky

A brief window of decent weather inspired me to walk farther than usual this morning, which allowed me to witness an unusual encounter. I walked past the place where my road shifts from tar-and-chip to gravel and then on past the place where the two-lane gravel road narrows down to one lane to twist its way up a steep hill, and that's where I saw a sleek little FedEx delivery van come face-to-face with a big ugly township dumptruck lumbering up the hill with a full load of gravel. There's no room to pass, so one of the vehicles had to back up. In a showdown between the sleek and the substantial, who wins?

The dump truck backed down the hill and around the curve until it found a place to pull off, and the FedEx van went zipping on its merry way. In this case, small and sleek triumphed over big and bulky.

I thought of that encounter later in the day as I stood with a handful of lug-nuts next to my husband's small sleek Honda. I've tried for years to convince that car that I'm the boss, the driver, the powerful member of our partnership, but in a face-to-face contest between my will and the will of the car, the car wins every time. I say "Drive!" and the Honda says "I don't think so." First it was the starter, then the alternator, then the transmission, and today a nearly-new tire blew, leaving me pretty well stranded.

I may as well just back off and admit that I'm the powerless one here. All right, car, you win! I give up! You go on and do what you want to do and I'll just stand off to the side and yield the right of way!

If a dumptruck can do it, why can't I?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Yes, we're all getting older

Funny thing at last night's candidate dinner: as soon as my colleague arrives at the restaurant, she hands me the departmental credit card and I stick it in my purse. The restaurant is noisy and crowded and I'm on the opposite side of the table from that colleague, so when she gets up and dashes out of the restaurant to go look for something she's misplaced, I'm pretty much in the dark. She comes back a bit agitated because she hasn't been able to locate the missing item, and when I ask for enlightenment, I hear her say, "I can't find my car."

"You can't find your car?" I ask. "How could you lose your car?"

She looks at me as if I am a raving lunatic. "Car-DUH," she says. "I can't find the department credit card."

"That because you gave it to me as soon as you came in the door," I remind her.

Yes, we're all getting older...some of us more rapidly than others.

This is the week that was

At one point during yesterday's chaos I heard myself asserting that things couldn't possibly get any worse. Those words came back to haunt me at 2 a.m. as I lay in bed trying to block out the sound of my husband in the next room tossing his cookies--loudly. He had violated the First Law of Healthy Travel: Never fill your gas tank and your stomach at the same establishment.

After a week of complications caused by less-than-rational individuals (student with guns and 1000 rounds of ammo on campus, other students expressing desire to cause severe bodily pain to said gun-toting student), weather (flooding, trees falling, wind whipping the door open while I tried to fill the wood-burner, daughter waiting out tornadoes in the basement of her dorm in Kentucky), quirky job searches (first candidate cancelled, second candidate got stranded at O'Hare, second candidate finally arrived 12 hours late and had to have all appointments rescheduled), classes (graded 28 essays in just 24 hours so they'll be out of the way when the next 48 papers come in today, and let me just say that at this point I don't ever need to see a work of literature described as "relatable" or, even worse, "really relatable"), and sheer bad luck (choosing the shower stall with no hot water after a hard workout on a very cold day, knocking all the pens on the floor not once but twice while reporting the shower malfunction at the main desk of the rec center, dropping all my dirty sweaty workout clothes on the floor while picking up the pens)--after all that, I was really looking forward to the husband's return from his travels and a good long restful sleep.

Ha! And again I say, Ha! I was still awake at 3 a.m., and the alarm rang at 6:30 as usual. Today's forecast calls for no guns, no floods, no candidates, and no vomiting--which will make those 48 student drafts so much more bearable. All I have to do is stay awake and go through the motions and before you know it I'll be able to close the book on this bizarre week--and not a moment too soon!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Diligent but unlucky?

For the past year or two I've been periodically hearing an odd sort of excuse from students who have done poorly on papers: "Oops, I sent you the wrong version of my paper!" While I can sympathize with a student who revises a draft and then sends the earlier unrevised version, I hear this excuse most often from students suspected of plagiarism or whose papers clearly do not fulfill the requirements of the assignment. What they're really saying is, "I wrote two versions of my paper, one plagiarized and one original, but oops, I sent you the wrong one!" Or "You know, I wrote a whole different version of this paper that actually did follow the guidelines for the assignment, but silly me, I sent you the one that didn't!"

Are students these days really writing multiple versions of all their papers? What diligent students! I've revised hundreds of drafts, but once the final version is done, the draft goes into the trash. And suppose a student wrote a paper full of plagiarized passages and then revised it to "fix" the plagiarism; wouldn't he want to delete the plagiarized version just to destroy the incriminating evidence? But no: these students carefully store the plagiarized versions and then send them to me purely by accident. What unfortunate students! To think that a minor and completely understandable error in clicking on a file name should result in a Very Bad Grade!

Such diligent but unlucky students deserve my compassion, don't they? I ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. "All right," I'll say, "since you've worked so hard to write two different versions of your paper and since the 'right' version is sitting right there in your document file, go ahead and send it to me. You've got sixty seconds...starting now."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Timing is everything

"Rain, flood warnings, guns on campus...great time to be bringing in job candidates!"

So said my colleague first thing this morning, and he's right. The gun incident is all over the papers, the sky is gray and dripping, flooding is in the forecast...and our first candidate arrives tonight!

Dodging a bullet...or many of them

My colleagues and students have been up in arms about an incident on campus, but I'm opting out of the campus hysteria. It's true that campus police discovered a cache of guns (some semi-automatic, some loaded) stashed in plain sight in a student's car on campus, but it's also true that the student was quickly removed from campus and will not be returning. There was some miscommunication at first, some tendency to treat the incident as just a minor infraction, but that mistake was quickly repaired. In the meantime, the hysteria level has gone off the charts, with some students eagerly expressing a desire to see this student drawn and quartered along with several administrators whose responses to the incident were perceived as too slow. It's a little frightening when the first response to fear of violence is to threaten more violence.

Yesterday morning several colleagues came in and asked me what I intended to do about the situation, and I was befuddled. I'm an English professor: what can I do? Tell my students not to bring guns on campus? They've already heard that message. Later I learned the student's name (it's a small campus...everyone knew the kid's name by the end of the day) and recalled my rather unpleasant encounters with him a few years ago, not to mention his more recent run-ins with several of my colleagues. If he intended a massacre, I'm sure my department would have been high on his hit list.

This brings the threat closer to home, but I don't intend to lose any sleep over it. It is the responsibility of campus police to keep us safe, and in this case they did just that without any assistance from me. I may be too trusting, but I'm happy to let them do their job while I focus on mine. So instead of getting hysterical, I'll be thankful that in this case, at least, we've dodged a bullet...or many of them.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Making an entrance

"I brought the offending alarm clock with me," said my student as he dashed into class, plunked the clock down on the desk in front of me, and stood there panting (from running across campus) and dripping (without an umbrella).

We'd started class 25 minutes earlier, but his alarm clock still claimed he had another hour free. "I knew no one would believe me if I said my alarm clock was wrong," he explained, "so I said, 'You're coming with me!'"

It's a small class and fairly informal so his entry wasn't terribly disruptive. At least he came to class, I told myself. In the same situation, I think I would have skipped class entirely, unwilling to draw attention to myself by walking in half an hour late.

My student, on the other hand, saw the situation as an opportunity for theater. When an otherwise reliable student takes center stage in his own entertaining spectacle--well, the only proper response is applause.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Why I need a cat-nap

My husband has been out of town less than 24 hours and I'm already plotting to "lose" his cat. Okay, she's not exactly his cat; she's our cat, and we carefully divide the cat-care duties: the husband feeds, pets, brushes, plays with, and thoroughly spoils the cat. I clean the catbox.

She's not a terribly demanding cat most of the time, but when the guy who fills her food dish leaves she gets a little alarmed. This morning she began expressing this alarm at about 4:00 and she didn't stop until I got up and fed her.

I tried to ignore her at first. She doesn't have claws, but she sort of bats her paws against the bedroom door to make it rattle and meows in a loud and insistent manner, as if to say, "Who's in charge here? Where's my food? Doesn't anyone care about my NEEDS?!!" I do care--I care deeply--but I'd rather care a little later in the day. At first I resisted feeding her, assuming that if I give in and feed her at 4:30 a.m. today, tomorrow she'll want to be fed at 3:30. But I couldn't sleep through the caterwauling and I was getting less relaxed as time went on, so I finally got up and dumped some kibble in her dish.

"Satisfied?" I asked, but to a cat with food in front of her face, I am invisible.

I spent the next two hours trying unsuccessfully to get back to sleep, and when I finally got up, the cat was snoring comfortably on the sofa. Tomorrow I intend to wake her up at 3 and demand my breakfast, and while I'm eating, we'll have a little chat about her neglect of her mouse-catching duties. It's time that cat learned to sing for her supper--as long as she doesn't do it at 4 a.m.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Strictly complimentary

You know you're in for an interesting lunch in the faculty lounge when a colleague (male) starts off like this: "What I'm about to say is not intended as sexual harrassment" (and a quicker-witted listener would interrupt with, "You mean unlike everything else you've ever said?"--except that in this case such a statement would be inaccurate) "but you look great!"

This led inevitably to a discussion about whether and when it is appropriate to compliment colleagues on their looks. When is "Nice tie!" just a comment and when is it a come-on? Does it matter if the giver of the comment is in power over the recipient? On a small campus, we all have opportunities to exercise some sort of power sometimes--by serving on a committee that grants money for faculty travel or makes recommendations about tenure, for instance, or by taking a turn as chair of the department. We're all occasionally in a position to help (or hurt) each other, but is complimenting a colleague's appearance helping or hurting?

We didn't solve the problem over lunch, but if you locked an infinite number of monkeys in the faculty lounge with an infinite number of attractive ties, perhaps eventually they would come up with some coherent guidelines on how to compliment colleagues without incurring a lawsuit. Until those monkeys arrive on campus, though, I'm accepting all compliments--and giving some in return.