Sunday, August 31, 2008

Projected sales

I've been getting some unusual e-mail ever since I listed our old Neon on Craigslist. We need to sell the Neon because (1) we don't want to keep insuring a car no one is driving; (2) no one will drive it because the brakes are shot; an (3) the cost for fixing everything that's wrong with the car actually approaches the amount we originally paid for the car five years ago. So it's got to go, and the local classified ads weren't much help so we tried Craigslist.

First I was inundated with scam offers from correspondents whose poor grasp of English does not prevent them from communicating the fact that they consider me a gullible fool. I deleted those. Next came the questions from potential buyers who want to know more about the car. I have been honest with these people because frankly, it would be immoral to sell someone a car that won't reliably stop without first informing the buyer of the danger.

A few of these correspondents have remained interested even after I've told them about the brakes and the strap holding up the front bumper and the peeling paint and the short in the speaker wires that makes the sound cut out until you pound on the inside of the passenger's side door. "Sounds like a good project car," said one of them, who plans to pay a visit this afternoon.

Another guy asked me about cams. I don't know anything about cams and, moreover, I don't want to know. One reason I manage to accomplish what I do is that I delegate to others the necessity of knowing about cams. So I confessed my lack of knowledge and he responded by attempting to educate me about cams, and then he confessed that he can't really buy a car right now anyway but he was just curious, so would I please find out what sort of cams the car has?

One woman called me three times in close succession, and it became clear that she was calling her boyfriend in between calls, because she would ask questions preceded by "My boyfriend wants to know..." I wanted to suggest that it would be more efficient if I just talked to him, but I didn't want to alienate a potential customer. She never came for a test-drive.

The one potential customer who did come for a test-drive never drove it. He looked at it, walked around it, listened as my husband told him all about it, and then when the time came for him to take the wheel, he declined. Apparently he's not interested in a project car.

The guy who's coming this afternoon has essentially the same car and would like to buy ours to cannibalize for parts, which sounds like the kind of customer we need. We don't expect to make a fortune on this car, despite what some of those scam offers promise. We just recognize that it's a project car and frankly, right now my life is not in need of any additional projects.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bulletin board bliss

On and off all week I've been noticing little groups of students standing near my bulletin board and reading, despite the fact that most of the items are posted a little crooked and the whole mosaic of words and images sort of lists to the left. It's without doubt the most popular bulletin board display I've ever done, even though it didn't take much work.

I sent an e-mail message to our English major distribution list asking them four simple questions (about the most interesting thing they read over the summer, which author they'd most like to talk to and why, what they're looking forward to this semester, and what's great about being an English major), and I asked them to respond and send along an electronic photo as well.

They responded--and not just the usual suspects, either. A few of the respondents are seniors, but there are several English majors up there whom I've never met, indicating that they're freshmen or sophomores. The photos they sent range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the responses range from the profound to the goofy. And I'm still getting responses, even though the board is full! I'll leave the current ones up there for a week or two and then start rotating them off so I can post new ones--and I'll even try to post them straight.

Now between classes I see students standing, reading, and commenting, and faculty members too. Ask English majors to produce some interesting reading and they do it, even if there's no grade attached, no extra credit available. This is why I love English majors!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An unmissable meeting

It's bad enough to have to teach classes on Labor Day, but now comes word that an important committee will have its first meeting of the year on Monday.

At 5 p.m.

On Labor Day.

Moreover, the administrator who usually runs this meeting will be out of town for a wedding. I suggested that she could stay here and let the rest of the committee go out of town Labor Day weekend, but she was not amused.

So I was griping to the assistant administrator who will be leading the meeting instead, but he pointed out that he's supposed to get Labor Day off, unlike the teaching faculty who make up the rest of the committee.

"I'm not even supposed to be at work that day," he said. "I'll have to come to campus just to lead the meeting."

"Perfect," I said. "Why don't you just stay home and we'll all meet at your house at 5 p.m.?"

He looked at me blankly.

"You could toss some meat on the grill, serve up some potato salad and sweet corn, and if you're lucky we won't even notice that we're working on Labor Day!"

"The committee will meet in the conference room," he said.

So I guess you know what I'll be doing at 5 p.m. on Labor Day.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A bad spell

I have on my desk a stack of essays my first-year students wrote on the first day of class, and two of them stand out:

One is written in beautifully lyrical language, with effective use of alliteration, parallel structure, and sentence variety--but every third word is spelled incorrectly.

Another is constructed from correctly-spelled words piled up like bricks in a workmanlike manner--but it says nothing.

Which student would you rather have in class, the one who can't spell or the one who won't think?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


My brand-new colleague came up with a brilliant plan to solve a problem we've both encountered: people don't always realize that we're being funny. Either my sense of humor is too subtle or some of my students lack functioning sarcasm detectors, but I frequently get comments on my course evaluations complaining that students can't tell when I'm being serious and when I'm not.

"Maybe I should carry around emoticons," I said, and that's when my colleague offered her suggestion: "You could put emoticons on the ends of arrows and keep them in a quiver on your back."

Brilliant! When the situation calls for a smiley face, frowny face, or grimace, just whip the appropriate arrow out of the quiver and hold it up for all to see. Call them Emoti-Arrows. Arrow-ticons? Emoti-Quiver?

I'm ordering one in every color so I'll have a different set for each outfit.

A three-hour tour

Yesterday my colleague saw a helicopter mother leading her son around the building to help him find his classes: "Here's your first classroom--oh, and here' s the men's room in case you need it between classes..."

If a kid can't be trusted to locate the men's room when he needs it, is he ready for college?

Just wondering.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Okay, maybe just a few nightmares

When I proclaimed No More Nightmares, I may have been premature. I arrived at my afternoon classroom to find that two classes had been scheduled to use the same room at the same time, which doesn't really work, and then five students added my afternoon class at the last minute so I didn't have enough syllabi to go around. (It's an upper-level literature class: they never fill up!). And then I got back to my office and found a message including the phrase, "The fire department is sending a truck, so don't worry!"

Somehow, the prospect of attending two late-afternoon meetings seems downright soothing.

No more nightmares!

I had a nightmare last night that an adjunct didn't show up to teach his three sections of developmental writing so I had to teach them instead, along with my own four classes. Fortunately, everyone showed up as scheduled this morning and classes started with no major disasters. The copier is working, the new secretary is working, my colleagues are working--now let's see if we can get the students working as well.

My car is working, except it's not really my car, and I'm sure some people are wondering why I'm driving a car that carries a hand-made temporary tag made of a section of a grocery bag with the numbers written on it in lipstick. When last we visited my son's car-buying adventure (read it here and here), he had escaped the cruel hand of Tropical Storm Fay and made it as far as southern Georgia, where the car broke down and he discovered that the storm had destroyed his temporary tag. He stopped for the night and got the car fixed, and then he got back on the road Friday morning, making it as far as Statesville, North Carolina, where the radiator boiled over. I don't know if you've ever tried to locate a mechanic at 9:00 on a Friday night, but it isn't easy.

Fortunately, we have friends just outside of Statesville, so we called Sue and she went and rescued my son, giving him a place to stay for the night and calling around until she found a mechanic who could fix the problem on Saturday. (It wasn't a particularly quick fix, but it also wasn't particularly expensive.) Sue also insisted that he construct some kind of temporary tag to replace the lost one, hence the grocery-bag-and-lipstick creation.

My son got home just before midnight Saturday. He had to leave for Texas Sunday morning. There was no opportunity to take the car to the DMV to get a license plate and do the paperwork associated with transferring the title, so we made a switch: he took my car and I held on to his, along with all the paperwork and the aforementioned homemade tag. This morning the title office told me they can't do anything until my son signs and sends me his power of attorney. Fine, whatever. Just don't make me sign it in lipstick.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Kyle cubed

I just met my freshman writing students for the first time and discovered that three of them are named Kyle.

"Were they having a clearance sale on the name the year you were born?" I asked, but they were not amused.

The advantage, of course, is that with three-fifths of the men in the class sharing the same name, I'll have a pretty good chance of getting it right--or at least getting the first name right. But how will I learn which Kyle is which?

Maybe I can talk to of them into volunteering to switch. I don't have any Harolds in the class, and we can always use a Maurice.


My son is still struggling to release himself from the grasp of Tropical Storm Fay (read about it here), but he's making progress. Late last night he called from southern Georgia to let us know he had finally managed to drive the car to another county to get a temporary tag, but then Fay kept dropping rain all over the road so it took him six hours (!) just to get out of Florida, thanks to flooded roads and poor visibility. By the time he got to Georgia, the temporary tag had blown off or dissolved in the rain, which is hardly surprising. The DMV people had insisted that he attach the tag to the license plate area on the outside of the car, despite the fact that heavy rain tends to have a deleterious effect on cardstock. But he has the title and all the temporary tag paperwork with him, so if (when?) he gets pulled over, he'll be able to explain the problem.

The good news is that as he drives north, he will eventually drive out of the storm. He and Fay have had quite a stormy relationship, so we'll all be glad when he finally tells her goodbye.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Make a dog dance in three easy steps!

1. Fill the big food cup with dry dog food.

2. Step out the back door onto the deck.

3. Shake the cup.

The dog will appear out of nowhere and to do her happy dance: twirl to the left, twirl to the right, take a flying leap off the deck, and keep twirling until the food gets dumped into the dish. The dog doesn't bark much or growl or whine or fuss, but I'll tell you one thing: the dog can dance.

A stormy relationship

For two days my son has been stranded in Florida with a woman named Fay. He says she's a wimp, but she's strong enough to prevent him from coming home, which he needs to do pretty soon so he can pack up his things and drive to his college in Texas before next Tuesday.

He and Fay have had a stormy relationship. It all started when my son flew to Florida on Monday to buy a car. Why not buy a car at home? Because here on the edge of Appalachia, the variety of used cars available is rather limited--unless you're interested in a pickup truck. Besides, his uncle in Florida is a mechanic who loves to fix up cars, so we've worked out a pretty smooth working relationship with him over the years: we tell him what we're looking for, he finds the car and fixes it up, and he doesn't charge us for his labor. We've bought our past four cars that way and so far it's worked out well.

So the boy emptied out his savings and trotted off to Florida on Monday, and by Monday night he had found the car and was prepared to write a check to the owner. The owner wanted cash, but the banks were already closed, so that delayed the purchase until Tuesday. Then he had the car but needed a temporary tag, but along came Fay.

As tropical storms go, Fay has lacked the destructive power of some of her kin. All she does is sit right over the edge of the state and drop rain by the bucketload, but this is enough to cause all government offices to close down, including the DMV. How can my son acquire a temporary tag when the DMV is closed? He can't. He can't even go to the beach in this weather. All he can do is sit inside, watch the rain fall, and hope for a break in the weather.

He did some research and discovered that he can legally drive the car without a temporary tag for 30 days as long as he has the title with him, but a 19-year-old driving a red car without a license plate on the interstate for two days is likely to be pulled over pretty frequently, so he'd rather not. Meanwhile, he lingers and watches Fay, who is doing her best to keep him in Florida. At least he ought to get a good story out of it. When he finally gets back to college, he can boast to his buddies about spending a wild weekend at the beach with a stormy woman who wouldn't let him go.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Constructive visualization

From outside, the dome on top of the emerging library looks like a massive expanse of yellow insulation; from inside, it's a honeycomb of beams, ductwork, fixtures, and wires far above a floor coated with construction dust and grime, but all I could think of as I stood beneath it was, "This is neat!"

Today was the first time faculty members have allowed inside the library construction project. We've watched from the other side of the fence as the foundation was poured, walls were erected, bricks were laid and windows installed, but now we walked in small, guided groups through the disorienting honeycomb of unfinished rooms that will someday be the academic hub of our campus. We saw workmen in hardhats performing some mysterious task on top of the elevator shaft, which we would not have been able to identify as an elevator shaft if our guide hadn't told us, and we saw lots of primer, sawdust, and dimly lit corridors.

And space. A lot of the space was crowded with construction tools and materials, but a little creative visualization allowed us to see comfortable seating areas, study rooms, computer terminals, a cafe, a lounge with a virtual fireplace, office space, and classrooms--and, of course, books. It will be a high-tech library, but books still form the heart and soul of the collection.

The new library is slated to open in January, just in time for spring semester, but right now it's clearly a work in progress. Still, as I stood beneath that dome and visualized the stacks of books that will someday reside there, I felt a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. That's my library, and it's really neat.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sustainable research

This afternoon I'm taking a break from syllabus-writing, paperwork-shuffling, and poison-ivy-scratching to lead a discussion at the New Faculty Retreat on the thrilling topic of "Developing a Sustainable Research Program," which I am looking forward to even though I'll have a very small group. The new faculty will be divided: science and math people in one group, everyone else in the other group. I get the other group, which will include maybe three or four faculty members, depending on whether the Psych and Comm faculty see themselves as humanists or social scientists.

All the new faculty members have read an article (or at any rate they've been given an article and asked to read it, along with a three-inch binder stuffed full of information deemed essential for new faculty members to digest) dealing almost entirely with research in the sciences, which is not entirely relevant to what we non-scientists do. I never have to worry about equipping a lab, for instance. However, the article does introduce the Big Question: how do we maintain a viable research program while teaching a 4/4 load, advising students, serving on committees, and being periodically asked to digest a three-inch-binder stuffed full of essential documents?

It's a tough question. I'll have a few suggestions and I hope the new faculty will share some ideas as well, but at this point my main goal is to encourage participation in a supportive community of scholars. A faculty member coming straight out of grad school is moving from an environment full of scholars pursuing similar types of research into one in which he or she may be the only person within 100 miles who knows anything about a particular research topic. How do we encourage participation in a supportive community of scholars when we may feel isolated within our own specialties? That's the biggest challenge. It's possible that the answer may be buried in that three-inch binder, but if not, we'll just have to figure it out for ourselves.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tomato time

I was a little late getting to the office this morning because the tomatoes were screaming for attention, tossing their little red hands in the air and calling, "Pick me! Pick me!" So I picked them. Many of them. Four hundred nine, to be exact.

Probably two-thirds of them were the tiny tomatoes known as Sweet 100s, which are very sweet and grow by the hundreds on a half dozen plants. We leave a bowl sitting on the counter all the time and pop 'em in our mouths like candy. I also picked a good many plum tomatoes (excellent for sauce) and some huge red slicing tomatoes that glow like little red suns and taste like summer.

The okra is doing poorly thanks to too many cool nights, and the peppers are abundant but slow to ripen. Last week at our family reunion we picked all the long, skinny Japanese eggplants and cooked them on the grill with salmon, but we still have short bulbous eggplants growing fatter by the minute alongside some really impressive cabbages. The corn patch had been pretty sparse until it was visited last week by nocturnal marauders--probably raccoons--so we didn't get to harvest a single ear, but the root crops are still looking really good, particularly the carrots and beets.

But let's face it: when it comes to gardening, it's all about the tomatoes. All those other plants exist just to give us an excuse to spend time near the tomato patch while the plants are growing and flowering and, finally, producing fruit. I don't have time to pick 409 tomatoes every morning, but I'm not complaining. They won't last long but while they're here there's simply nothing better than fresh tomatoes.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Coneheads in our midst

I drove home this morning with a conehead in the car, and neither one of us was particularly happy about the situation.

I had to pick up the dog from the vet, where Hopeful got some shots and had a little operation, which means she's definitely my dog now. (She has known for weeks that she was a permanent part of the family, but the rest of us were a little slower to catch on.) She came home wearing one of those plastic cones around her head to keep her from chewing her stitches, and she does not care for it one bit. I had a terrible time getting her to hop up into the back of the van, and then the whole way home my rear-view mirror was filled with the reflection of Hopeful's head looking out of that silly cone with an expression of sheer mortification.

She seemed happy to get home, but she's spent most of the day hiding under the back deck, perhaps embarrassed to be seen in such gauche garb. The vet wants us to keep the plastic cone on her head for 10 days, but I don't know if we'll be able to stand it that long. She's not growling or barking or whining or complaining; she just looks at me with a pleading expression and then turns around and crawls back under the deck.

I can't say that I blame her. If someone made me walk around with a plastic cone over my head, I would want to hide. Hey, maybe she wouldn't feel so awkward if we all wore plastic cones on our heads!

You first.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Meeting Mayhem!

Hello folks and welcome back to Meeting Mayhem, in which ordinary academics compete to attend the most meetings in one day, with bonus points for carrying the correct reading material to each meeting, making relevant and coherent contributions to the discussion, and making the cross-campus dash without compromising professional appearance or composure.

Before the break we saw Prof Jolly earn 20 bonus style points for walking into the budget meeting with his extensively annotated departmental budget tucked neatly under his arm--look at him take those stairs three at a time without breaking a sweat! You know he's been in training. But then Prof Knowall punctured Jolly's poise with a pointed question and Prof Jolly bobbled the budget codes, so they go into the final heat neck-and-neck.

They've survived the budget meeting, the chairs' meeting, the advising meeting, and the freshman seminar meeting; their final challenge will take them to a search committee meeting on the other side of campus. There's the starting bell--and they're off!

Prof Jolly wavers a bit before choosing the construction-rich route--watch him scramble around blocked-off walkways and hurdle yellow caution tape and---ooh, looks like he caught his heel on that one! And he's in the mud pit!

Knowall chose the construction-free route, a little longer but crowded with large tour groups of prospective students and parents. Can he elbow his way through the crowd without stepping on any toes? Oh no, his briefcase just belted that large lady right in the keister! Points off for rudeness--but he'll show up at the meeting without mud on his pants!

Jolly gets to the meeting just a nose ahead of Knowall--but they're both late! The job applicant has started his presentation and the two contestants will have to find seats! Knowall picks up a bonus there for spotting the least conspicuous seat, but Jolly has to walk in front of the applicant, his mud stains fully on display! Ooh, big deduction for style there.

Knowall has a slight lead but the darkened room seems to be taking its toll. He's drooping--his chin is falling--and his eyes are closing--but he's jerked his head up just in time!

Meanwhile, Jolly jabs a lightning-quick pun at the applicant and everyone laughs! Bonus points for staying in the spotlight, but now it's time for serious questions; can he keep the levity under control? Knowall shoots his hand up for the first question, and it's a doozy: bonus points for using "assessment" and "measurable outcomes" in the same question but a slight style deduction for "outside the box." The applicant is stymied! Jolly steps in to help him out with a joke, and the room roars!

Looks like Jolly's got this race in the bag, but what's this? Knowall pulls out the big guns with a question incorporating both "long-term visioning" and "strategic retrenchment"! Oh, that's gotta hurt! Can Jolly recover? He's dazed, folks! He's on the ropes! And it looks like Prof Jolly is down for the count! Let's hear it for our champion, Prof Knowall!

Prof Knowall? Do you have anything to say to our viewers? Prof Knowall? Hello? Are you in there?

I'm sorry, folks, but it looks like Prof Knowall's triumph has turned to tragedy: his many-meeting marathon has transformed him into a blithering idiot. But tune in next week for another episode of--Meeting Mayhem!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Stare-down with the pustulant prof

So I'm sitting in my favorite Indian restaurant in the Big City when I notice that the man at the next table seems to be staring. At me. Persistently.

I take a discreet look behind me to see if there's something fascinating happening just over my right shoulder, but no: his eyes seem to be glued to me. Is he trying to see down my shirt, or is he wondering about the red blotches all over my neck and chest? Maybe he's a dermatologist trying to diagnose me from a distance. Or maybe he's afraid I'm contagious.

We went to the Big City to shop yesterday and all day long I kept wanting to apologize: "I may look like the carrier of a nasty skin disease that will slowly and painfully eat you alive, but I couldn't give it to you even if I wanted to, so please let me try on some clothes!" My husband assured me that my poison ivy wasn't particularly noticeable, but I certainly noticed it, especially when I tried on that very scratchy sweater that intensified the itching until I wanted to tear into my skin with an ice pick.

Today I'm wearing a blouse with long sleeves and a high collar so I won't frighten horses in the streets (if there were any horses) or send my colleagues backing slowly out of the department office in search of a decontamination suit. Maybe I should get our PR guy to issue a statement referring vaguely to a "skin-rash-related incident" and encouraging people not to panic. It would certainly liven things up around here.

Fortunately, the blotches are beginning to fade and the itching is growing less intense. By the time classes start, I ought to look less like an oozing mass of pustulance and more like an English professor. I suspect that some students consider those terms synonymous, but for those students I have good news: I'm not contagious--so go stare at someone else.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A recipe for panic

What happens when the official spokesman for an organization issues a terse statement to the effect that "An incident occurred that we can't talk about, but rest assured that appropriate action has been taken, so whatever you do, don't panic!"

I predict immediate panic, followed closely by rampant rumor and innuendo.

That's the situation today on my campus. Something happened, but what? Those of us who were here when it happened know a few things but not everything, and we also know enough about privacy laws to know we'd better keep our mouths shut for the moment. But then what do I say when people ask?

"Don't worry," I say. "It's under control."

But what?

"Nothing serious."

Then why the official notification?

"Um, to calm everyone down."

But if it's nothing serious, why are people panicking?

"Because the spokesman told them not to."

But why?

That's where I run out of answers.

Ivy league schooling

Last spring a student in my Creative Nonfiction class wrote an excruciatingly vivid account of his close encounter with poison ivy. By the time we had spent 30 minutes discussing his essay, the entire class was suffering sympathetic symptoms, scratching and squirming like the puppy that ran off to join the flea circus.

I know it was stupid, but at the time I found myself admitting--possibly even boasting--that I'm immune to poison ivy. After all, I've lived on poison-ivy-infested property for four years, during which time I have frequently walked through, fallen on, and brushed against poison ivy without any ill effects.

Until now.

It happened last week when I went up the hill with the weed-eater to clear some hiking paths in preparation for the big family weekend. As I whacked my way through tall weeds on steep, rough terrain, the weed-eater kept flinging bits of debris my way, but I was prepared: long pants, long socks, hiking boots, eye and ear protection. My only error was wearing a V-neck T-shirt.

Now my neck has red, itchy blotches in the shape of a V neckline, and there are a few spots where plant matter apparently slid down my shirt. It didn't start itching until yesterday, but now it's making up for lost time. I'm thinking back to my student's essay and all the helpful information he shared about folk remedies for poison ivy: paint thinner, bleach, sandpaper, and more that I wish I could blot out of my memory.

If simply reading about poison ivy could make a room full of students itch, then I suppose anyone reading this might be feeling a tad uncomfortable right now. Don't blame me: I'm just trying to share the joy. And if you feel the need to boast of your immunity, just do me a favor and bite your tongue until the feeling passes, okay?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Family matters

At the breakfast table yesterday, my 13-year-old nephew asked my father, "Read any good books lately, Grampa?"

I don't know what tickled me more--the fact that my 13-year-old nephew loves to read or the fact that my 13-year-old nephew thinks it would be neat to talk to his grampa about books. The same table was the scene of an earlier conversation in which my daughter's boyfriend grilled my brother about his new solar panels, eliciting information about, for instance, wattage.

The nerdiness level was running a little high at that point, but at the same time the artistry was running high in the living room, where my 21-year-old daughter and my 9-year-old nephew were lying on the floor drawing their favorite comic-book villains. Later, my son the pilot quizzed my older brother on his work on the Airbus engine, and my 13-year-old nephew, who is slated to give a special message at his church one Sunday this fall, got some pointers from his two uncles who are preachers.

We spent most of yesterday outside in the sunshine, where my 10-year-old niece (who is apparently part mermaid) spent hours chasing minnows in the creek and catching a pink pail full of crawdads, which she promptly released again. Her brother and cousins very politely took turns riding the four-wheeler in careful circles around the meadow, sharing the only helmet one at a time. We all looked at a lot of photographs, and at some point we determined that last month my older brother's family encountered my daughter's college roommate at the national park lodge where she is working out west this summer. We never know how our lives intersect until we put our heads together, and then we never know where the conversation will take us--but we certainly enjoy the journey.

It has been 10 years since my parents have had all three children and six grandchildren gathered in one place, and this time they had an extra bonus: my daughter's boyfriend, who fit into the family as if he'd known them all his life. We celebrated my parents' 50th anniversary with a weekend of casual fun, featuring a lot of goofing off, some memorable walks, and some really good food. Our house was a bit more active than usual with 15 people staying here, but no one seemed to mind the occasional chaos, even the kids who slept outside in tents through last night's thunderstorm. This morning at the breakfast table we determined that at one point most of the parents were lying in our warm beds thinking the same thoughts: Should we go out and rescue the kids from the storm or let them tough it out in the tents?

They stayed out in the rain. Only one tent leaked; the other two stayed dry and comfortable, and my youngest nephew slept right through the storm. No one complained. It was neat.

Moments like that make me realize how important it is to have the family together in one place once in a while. We don't all think alike, but it's nice to have the chance to bring all our differences into conversation and see what happens. I only hope we don't have to wait another 10 years to make it happen again.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What's growing on?

This volunteer sunflower came up in our front garden, producing more than a dozen large blooms. Lovely

Meanwhile, the eggplant in the garden is just about too pretty to eat--but we'll eat it anyway.

And in the tomato patch, a nest holds several tiny Carolina Wrens. When we work in the garden, the mom perches nearby and complains until we go away.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One to make you laugh and one to make you think

I've just finished two books that are about as similar as Michaelangelo's David is to Bugs Bunny. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson could be subtitled "Boys Behaving Badly," but I grew up with brothers so a lot of the trouble these boys get into sounds fairly familiar. I don't know whether little boys in the digital age still torture each other and blow things up the way Bryson recalls doing in his Iowa childhood--maybe they do it all online these days--but if you're nostalgic for the days when grubby boys dangled wads of saliva over each others' faces, this book is for you.

"I can't imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s," writes Bryson early on, and much of the book sets out to explore that time from the dual perspective of the child and the man. He writes joyfully of his memories of baseball, downtown Des Moines, and his family (which he describes as "radiantly unsophisticated"), mercilessly poking fun at the foibles of life in the midwest while demonstrating an undimmed appreciation for that life. His parents, he writes, had a marriage made in heaven, "for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad." His family feared food that wasn't bland, avoiding "any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in."

"All our meals consisted of leftovers," he writes. "Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years....I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge."

It's a funny book, but not as funny as his others, or perhaps the humor is not sustained as consistently. Or maybe I found parts of it trying because I spent my childhood amongst boys behaving badly and I don't really need a repeat engagement. Still, it has its moments.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 also has its moments, many of them. Unlike Bryson's childhood kitchen, this collection has a distinctly international flavor, with stories memorably set in Paris, Odessa, Thailand, and China, and one set close to home in a college classroom ("A Little History of Modern Music" by William H. Gass, which is oddly wonderful, but I suspect that my daughter the music theory expert picked up on the nuances better than I did.)

There was only one dud in the whole collection, only one story I couldn't force myself to finish; the rest were full of luminous moments and memorable prose. "Touch" by Alexi Zentner presents a chilling metaphor for the horrors of human alienation, while "Prison" by Yiyun Li examines the fragility of the ties that bind and the stresses that transform family members into strangers and strangers into family.

I heard Anthony Doerr read sections of "Village 113" last year and I liked it then, but I like it even better in print, where his lyrical voice conveys an elegiac quality glowing with suppressed anger. Doerr is master of the telling detail, such as when the seed-keeper in a village soon to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam considers the past:

Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. Here the sons of her neighbors flew kites. Here the toothless knife sharpener used to set up his coughing, smoking wheel. Here, forty years ago, a legless girl roasted nuts in a copper wok and her mother once let her drink a glass of beer on Old Festivals Day. Here the river took a clean shirt right out of her hands; here was once a field, furred with green shoots; here a fisherman put his hot, dry mouth on hers. The body odor of porters, the white faces of tombs, the sweet, bulging calves of Li Qing's father--the village drowns in memory.

Few of these stories made me laugh (except, ironically, "Other People's Deaths," in which Lore Segal portrays those awkward moments that arise when death enters a circle of friends), but just about all of them made me ponder the human condition and appreciate the artistry of well-wrought prose.

Monday, August 04, 2008

My kingdom for a henchman!

After making my way to a movie theater for the first time all summer and viewing The Dark Knight, I was left with a few unanswered questions: Why do all movie previews sound like they're using the same music? Why doesn't saliva drool copiously out of the singed side of Two-Face's face? And where do all those henchmen come from?

You never see any classified ads with openings for henchmen, but if you did, what would they say? "Henchman needed. The ideal candidate will be physically aggressive but blindly obedient. Intelligence is no obstacle. Skill with weapons a plus. Salary commensurate with experience. Interviews will be held in an undisclosed location. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

Despite the lack of advertising, movie villains never seem to have any trouble locating henchmen, and they have to locate a lot of them because the working life of the typical henchman seems a bit brief. The villain may get hauled off to Arkham Asylum in the end and locked in a padded cell, but if you're a henchman, you're toast. The henchmen have to take orders from a lunatic, do all the heavy lifting, and end up six feet under, but people are apparently lining up out the door begging for the job. The benefits must be something special. I wonder if henchmen have a 401K?

A little research informs me that the word henchman descends from the Old English hengest (horse) plus man (duh), and the original henchman was a page to a noble person. Somehow, the word transferred from the man who serves the needs of a mounted prince to the man who serves the needs of a prince of crime--but that doesn't explain why anyone would want the job.

I lost count of the number of henchmen killed in the line of duty in The Dark Knight, but I was pleased with the failure of the Joker's massive henchman-recruiting effort toward the end. Apparently being a henchman is not for everyone, which is a good thing because if we were all henchmen, the planet would be utterly depopulated before the final credits.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Making connections

I've finished the separate sections of my big writing project (hurrah!), so this weekend my task is to suture the sections together. I've always been comfortable writing short pieces--as a journalist, I did my best work in the 800-1000 word range--so the only way I can write a longer project is to break it up into smaller chunks and then connect them, a process that always produces new insight. I haven't even looked at the earlier sections in weeks, so it'll be interesting to see how ideas have developed over time and to discover new links among them.

But as much as I'll enjoy assembling the various sections into one big wad of wonderful (I hope) writing, what I really look forward to is finishing. I've had a long, hard slog of reading and writing all summer long, and I'm ready to hit the "save" button and close the file. Years ago I received a simple but excellent piece of advice from a senior faculty member successful in publishing: "Finish things." There's no better feeling than to slide that finished work into an envelope and send it into someone else's lap for a while, and even if it gets rejected, at least for a time it's not my problem any more.

The second-best piece of advice came from the same source: "Turn off the television." It works! But I confess that once I hit the "save" button for the last time, I'm planning to treat myself to a DVD marathon and watch all the things I've missed since May, one after the other, until I'm giddy from overdosing on popular culture.

Until then, the only sound you will hear will be my fingers flying across the keyboard, boldly connecting where no connections have gone before, or something like that.