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.