Thursday, December 31, 2009

When the road hits back

We decided to hit the road very early this morning in hopes of beating the snowstorm home, but instead we simply beat the snowplows onto the turnpike. The first two or three hours of travel were pretty treacherous and the rest of the trip was merely ugly and uncomfortable, but we are home now, just as the rain outside is beginning to change to snow and the roads are icing up. New Year's Eve or not, we're staying in.

One of the reasons the trip was uncomfortable is that earlier in the week I hit the road in a more literal sense: on Tuesday I tripped while crossing the street, wrecking my favorite pair of cords and smashing my knee pretty thoroughly. Yesterday I was still sore all over but felt good enough to join my hubby for a lovely walk up Franklin Parkway as the sun was setting. We didn't exactly run up the steps at the art museum, but we made it to the top and joined the crowd of people of all ages doing the Rocky pose. Down by the Rocky statue we overheard a little boy asking, "But why is he called Rocky?" Where to begin?

This morning I felt much better but all those hours sitting in the car stiffened up my knee pretty thoroughly. Every time I got out of the car, I had to limp around groaning for a while until it loosened up. I'm thinking a hot bath might feel really good, driving from my mind all memory of slush, ice, and snow-covered roads that insist on hitting back.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I've learned at MLA

1. There's such a thing as "Affect Studies." I don't know what it is or how I feel about it; in fact, I'm trying to maintain a profound lack of affect in reference to this emerging field.

2. There's such a thing as a "Fatsion blog," on which fat women post photos of themselves in their daily outfits and write comments on how their clothes make them feel. Moreover, it is possible to get a Ph.D. by studying Fatsion blogs.

3. I don't intend to post any photos of myself in today's outfit, but the purple scarf is certainly attracting attention. Hurrah for brilliant color!

4. No one will notice your brilliant ideas if you speak softly, lean away from the mike, and employ a sing-song rhythm that lulls listeners into snoozeland.

5. It is important to study foreign languages. Who knew?

6. "Virtual research communities" promise to prevent the proliferation of "unrelated silos of data." Are data silos more like grain silos or missile silos?

7. "Backlash" can now be used as a verb. How long has this been going on and why didn't anyone inform me?

8. It is possible to present a paper at MLA decrying "the soullessness of critical discourse" and the academy's "bias against human inwardness." Moreover, even if you give that paper at 8:30 a.m. on the final day of the conference and hide it in a panel titled "Poetry and Prayer," it will provoke interesting conversation among an ample number of attendees.

9. No matter how many times I give conference papers, I still get nervous. An hour from now I'll be doing my song and dance, and I just hope someone cares to come and listen. I promise not to sing anyone to sleep.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A little medicinal entree

I'm just being a good cancer patient, I swear.

My recent blood test suggested that I need to boost my protein intake, so for lunch I ingested some pure, unadulterated protein.

Well, mostly unadulterated, if you consider rice, soy sauce, and wasabi adulterations to raw fish.

Yes, I ate sushi for lunch. I had to, really. Doctor's orders. It's a very efficient way to absorb protein.

And it was really, really good.

Paging Roy G. Biv!

Decorators at the Philadelphia Loew's made an interesting choice: in the hall outside the Regency Ballroom, the walls and floor are covered with warm, welcoming earth tones, browns and taupes and greens that make the stark white artificial holiday wreaths dotted with cobalt blue and silver decorations stand out sharply.

Of course, at MLA, any color stands out. Of the more than 40 people attending one MLA session last night, only four were not wearing black. The presenter in the orange sweater looked like a tangerine tossed into a box of black socks. Given the whole visible spectrum available, why do so many academics dress monochromatically?

Of course, I have to admit that I'll be wearing a black skirt and sweater when I present my paper Wednesday...but I'll top it off with a brilliant purple sweater and scarf. Someone has to bring a rainbow into the room.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aimless at MLA

Today we drove across Pennsylvania the long way--and it is a very long way, but probably easier and certainly cheaper than trying to find a flight to Philadelphia from our little corner of nowhere. We drove a rented red Chrysler Sebring featuring a cushy-mushy ride, wretchedly uncomfortable seats, the pervasive scent of cigarette smoke, and a blind spot the size of Detroit. But at least it's cute. Cute has got to count for something.

I saw only one deer carcass along the highway, suggesting that either Pennsylvania's crack carcass-removal crew has been hard at work over the holidays or else the deer herd is a bit thin this year. Last time we drove to Philadelphia, we couldn't count the dead deer we saw along the way.

And now here we are at the downtown Marriott, where many MLA attendees have that deer-in-the-headlights so look common at academic conferences, particularly among those interviewing for vanishing jobs. We arrived in time for me to change out of my traveling clothes (which absorbed the cigarette-smoke smell from the rental car!) before dashing down to see the screening of the new Zora Neale Hurston documentary. But every chair was already full and the crowd was overflowing into the hall, all those bodies clad in black wool generating enough heat to send me into instant nap mode. So I decided to skip it.

I wandered around the book exhibit (and no, I don't need any more free tote bags) and came up to the room to zone out for a bit before attending the next session. I'm still up in the air about which panel I'll attend tonight: translation, digital Whitman, or Henry James? I'm a little aimless right now, but after spending most of the day aiming due east at 70 miles an hour, a little aimlessness feels just about right.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lostness lost

I like Rebecca Solnit, and I like the title of her new book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Lostness as a condition worth pursuing--that's an compelling idea. Unfortunately, the book itself seems to have lost its way, paying brief visits to one profound idea after another but failing to connect the dots coherently, and while Solnit produces glittering paragraphs, the syntax sometimes wanders.

A passage in the essay "Two Arrowheads" crystalizes Solnit's artistic vision:

What is the message that wild animals bring, the message that seems to say everything and nothing? What is this message that is wordless, that is nothing more or less than the animals themselves—that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination? I remember a day when he was out working and I was alone in his house writing. I heard a raven fly by in air so still that each slow stroke of its wings was distinctly audible. I wondered then and wonder now how I could give all this up for what cities and people have to offer, for it ought to be less terrible to be lonely than to have stepped out of this sense of a symbolic order that the world of animals and celestial light offers, but writing is lonely enough, a confession to which there will be no immediate or commensurate answer, an opening statement in a conversation that falls silent or takes place long afterward without the author. But the best writing appears like those animals, sudden, self-possessed, telling everything and nothing, words approaching wordlessness. Maybe writing is its own desert, its own wilderness.

This passage displays Solnit's prose style at its best and worst: the profound idea succinctly expressed ("words approaching wordlessness") rubbing shoulders with the irrelevant personal detail ("he was out working and I was alone in his house writing": why do we care whose house it is? Is his home-ownership important to the anecdote?), the delicious rhythm and sound repetition ("air so still that each slow stroke of its wings was distinctly audible") bumping into clunky phrases abounding with weak linking verbs ("I wondered then and wonder now how I could give all this up for what cities and people have to offer, for it ought to be less terrible to be lonely than to have stepped out of this sense of a symbolic order that the world of animals and celestial light offers"). How does one step out of a sense?

Maybe I'm just being picky. Solnit's writing does provoke a great deal of thought about the value of lostness, and she often constructs lovely sentences and even whole paragraphs worth a second look. But the book as a whole fails to hold together, circling so loosely around the idea of lostness that lostness itself gets lost.

But maybe that's the point.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Put a fork in it

I could go on fiddling with my MLA paper until the end of time, but when I can no longer see the words, it's time to stick a fork in it and call it done.
My paper is missing one bibliographic reference and a page number and I need to sharpen the focus throughout and beef up the conclusion, but right now the whole thing looks like mush to me, so I think I'll hit "print" and walk away.

Of course I'll need to revisit the manuscript again before I present it on Wednesday, primarily because it's about three pages too long. The paragraphs in which I genuflect to every scholar who has every said anything, interesting or otherwise, about these poems are ripe for chopping. I'd rather have too much material than too little, and there's nothing like an emergency paragraph-ectomy to reveal the deadwood in a paper.

Now that the paper is done (or as done as it's going to get this year), I can focus on the fun part: planning, packing, getting the show on the road. Philadeliphia, here I come!

Better not forget to pack my paper.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unwrapping a wonderful surprise

Twenty-three years ago today I was in the hospital giving birth to our first child.

I hadn't really planned to spend Christmas in the hospital. I had finished teaching and passed the oral exam for my Master's degree a week earlier, and the baby wasn't due until the end of January so I had big plans for Christmas break: furnish the nursery, clean the whole house, bake 14 dozen Christmas cookies, decorate the Christmas tree, host our entire congregation to a Christmas Eve open house at the parsonage, and more.

By Dec. 23, the cookies were baked and the tree was decorated and the house was clean except for a final vacuuming, and all I needed was a quick visit to the doctor's office for a routine checkup. Instead, I was admitted to the hospital immediately and had an emergency C-section on Christmas Eve.

The open house was cancelled.

The cookies came to the hospital to spread holiday cheer among the staff.

The seven-foot-tall Christmas tree stood there drying out for the next six weeks before anyone could find the time or energy to un-decorate it, by which time it had carpeted our living room with needles.

But we had a pretty terrific Christmas gift. On Christmas morning the nurses stuffed Laura into a Christmas stocking, with her tiny head sticking out the top. We still hang that stocking every Christmas to remind us that sometimes the best gifts arrive when least expected.

Merry Christmas to all--and may your holidays be filled with wonderful surprises.

A boy and his chainsaw

What more could a guy want on his 50th birthday?

I've never minded having a December birthday, but mine is early enough in the month that it doesn't get mixed up with Christmas. But then I got married on Dec. 18 to a man with a Dec. 22 birthday and gave birth to a daughter on Christmas Eve, so for years we've partied pretty much all month long.

When we were all younger I used to bake cakes for all those birthdays and then freeze what we couldn't eat. I would take the partial cakes out of the freezer around late February to brighten up the bleak midwinter when no holidays were in view.

This year we've done our share of party-hopping, but we had our final family birthday celebration of the year last night. I got a book and my daughter got some cool clothes and music, but no one was happier than the 50-year-old kid with his gas-powered chainsaw.

Now I'll have to keep an eye on him or he'll deforest our woods by New Year's Day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The wanderers return

My son is downstairs exercising his percussive skills on the drum set that sits quietly in the corner most of the year. He hasn't been home since his sister's wedding in June, and we wondered whether he'd make it this time thanks to the snowstorm that stranded so many travelers last weekend. But he left Texas late Friday (after passing his check flight to get his instrument flight certification, hurrah!) and arrived home exhausted Saturday afternoon.

Now we await the arrival of our daughter and son-in-law, who are expected this afternoon. They will find a house full of noise and wonderful aromas, the birthday lasagne ready to bake and the Christmas cookies and candy set out to tempt us all. We'll celebrate three birthdays tonight, get some music going and play a few games, and we'll do some Christmasing tomorrow before the wanderers go on their merry way.

In the gaps between arrivals, celebrations, and departures, I'm still fiddling with my MLA paper and working on preparations for our trip to Philadelphia next week, and let's not forget my brachytherapy treatment this afternoon. It's a remarkably busy time but I don't feel the slightest bit stressed, even with the drummer boy pounding away. Compared to other Christmases, this year has been a walk in the park. So far.

Say, is that a blizzard heading our way?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Normality is just around the corner

In the film version of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent find themselves transformed into highly improbable versions of themselves (as yarn dolls and sofas, among other things) while experiencing the Infinite Improbability Drive in the purloined spaceship called Heart of Gold. Finally, a digital voice heralds the return to the ordinary with the words, "We have achieved normality."

This is what I wanted to hear today at the cancer center, and the lab report came pretty close: just about every item measured came out well within the normal range, with a few small exceptions. My immune system is still a total wimp, but I'm no longer anemic (hurrah!) and most of the other numbers looked good. Okay, I need to boost my protein intake and cut down on salt, but it's hard to do that when (1) my tastebuds are still not functioning properly so I tend to over-season everything; and (2) I'm surrounded by wonderful holiday goodies not known for packing in the protein.

Over the past few months I've often felt as limp as a yarn doll and as intelligent as a lumpy sofa, but today's test results suggest that normality is just around the corner. It will take many tests over the course of the next five years to determine whether I'm cancer-free, but for now I feel as if I'm ensconced within the Heart of Gold and emerging from highly improbable conditions to find myself in plain old ordinary normality.

And I've got my towel ready in case the Vogons show up.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The agony and the ecstasy

On Nov. 17, 1964, poet and professor James Wright wrote to Robert Mezey: "The main trouble is that my students, marveling at what they can only interpret as the quick recovery of an essentially strong man, conclude that my most effective lectures are expressions of serenity and happiness; whereas, in almost inexpressible fact, I have lectured most clearly and even movingly at those very times when I felt I absolutely had to do something inventive in order to escape the unspeakable demons of agony and despair which I constantly (even at this moment, insane as it may seem) bear in the very pit of my breast like a snagged bit of old shrapnel too twisted to be removed and too close to my heart and lungs to be relieved by sedation in any noticeable way."

That's something to keep in mind as I prepare myself to read my course evaluations from this agonizingly difficult semester...hope there's no shrapnel waiting in there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I don't know what makes me happier: the birds or the new lens, which was a gift from a whole mess of wonderful English majors. The lens, that is. The birds are a gift as well, although not from English majors. Poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a bird go "twee." Or whatever.

Let it snow

The birdfeeder is hopping with birds right now, but how many birds bothered to visit while I was out in the snow with the camera? If you guessed zero, give yourself a gold star. I have right the equipment now to take excellent bird pix, but I need to work on my invisibility skills.

Fortunately, taking snowy terrain photos doesn't require invisibility. Unlike birds and other woodland creatures, the trees don't flee when they see me coming. Early this morning I bundled up and carried the camera, lenses, and tripod up the hill and down to the meadow and along the creek, discovering just how difficult it can be to take good available-light photos of snow. Hopeful is very interested in camera equipment and she always tries to be helpful, with mixed results.

The snow is still falling, frosting the landscape in a way that reminds me once again of why I love where I live. Now all I just hope one of those packages under the Christmas tree contains a Cloak of Invisibility....

Death to dignity

Yesterday I endured my second brachytherapy treatment, but I've been avoiding writing about brachytherapy because it's, um, uncomfortable. Not painful. There is no pain involved (so far!), although I've been told that I might experience some burning with the next few treatments. The discomfort is purely psychological. This treatment hits me right where it hurts: in the dignity.

Now one thing cancer treatment ought to have taught me is that when cancer comes in the door, dignity flies out the window. Since June, my naked body has been exposed to far too many people, starting with the doctors who were called in for consultation when the cancer first showed itself during my surgery. I later got bills from doctors I had encountered only while under anesthesia. I understand that these doctors deserve to be paid for lending their expertise to my case, but I resent handing over my hard-earned cash to a doctor I've never actually laid eyes on. If some total stranger insists on sticking his hand in my abdomen while I'm sedated, the least he can do is show me his face while I'm conscious.

But that was just the first of many indignities, most of which I'd rather forget. When I was doing daily radiation treatments, I grew accustomed to disrobing in front of the radiation girls and lying there half-exposed while Elekta the elegant linear accelerator did her thing, and I tried to forget about the video camera constantly monitoring my treatment so that the radiation girls in the next room could help me if I had any problems. I don't like having my picture taken when I'm fully clothed much less when I'm flat on my back half naked and unable to move. Let's hope those videos never show up on YouTube!

But brachytherapy is even worse, because not only am I constantly monitored via video camera, but a whole horde of medical people play a part in the treatment, including a guy who keeps running a geiger counter over me as if I'm some sort of dangerous ordnance that might explode at any moment. I'd like to maintain whatever meager shreds of dignity I may yet possess so I'm not going to describe the treatment in detail, but imagine the most humiliating medical procedure you've ever experienced, and then imagine that three different people representing both of the major genders are intimately involved, and then imagine that the whole thing is captured on video. Uncomfortable?

Yesterday's treatment was the worst yet: the cancer center was nearly empty when I arrived and it was clear that some sort of holiday merry-making was occurring behind the scenes. Don't we all hope our radiation will be administered by people who have made a few visits to the holiday punchbowl? This made me nervous, but the presence of a repair guy doing some sort of service on Elekta made me even more nervous. Elekta is not involved in brachytherapy, but the treatment takes place in Elekta's lair, a room with thick walls to protect everyone from errant radiation. Everyone except me, that is.

My treatment was delayed until the repair guy could leave the room, but then he went to mess with computers in the little room where the radiation girls monitor the video feed on which I am the main attraction. If the repair guy sends me a bill, I'm not paying it.

After brachytherapy I tend to shut down entirely: I drive home, grab a book, and absent myself from the world of geiger counters and linear accelerators and repair guys and video feeds and exposure and discomfort. I don't want to think about it and I don't want to talk about it and I don't want to write about it--and I'll bet you don't want to read about it. I comfort myself with the knowledge that after only two more treatments I'll be done, and then maybe I can start rebuilding what little dignity I've retained through five months of cancer treatment.

In Singin' in the Rain, the fictional star Don Lockwood's undignified early career contrasts sharply with his motto: "Dignity, always dignity." When I'm done with brachytherapy, I'll send my dignity into rehab so it can learn to belt out "Singin' through the Pain."

Er, make that "discomfort."

Friday, December 18, 2009

From the uneasy chair

I saw stripes on the state highway this morning, a sure sign that the highway department has been spraying brine on the road in preparation for the storm that's supposed to drop five inches of snow on us tonight. I should be home this afternoon before the storm begins and I don't have to go anywhere tomorrow, so I don't mind a little snow. It'll give me an excuse to go out with the camera tomorrow.

Tomorrow would also be a good day to address Christmas cards, except we've decided to forego the whole mess this year: can't print out holiday letters because of a printer problem, can't afford cards or postage, can't really find a whole lot to say other than "next year has got to be better!" and who wants to hear that? But even though I'm convinced that we really can't do the whole card thing this year, I keep finding myself apologizing for not participating in the annual holiday extravaganza. I'm clearly not at peace about this decision. I could send electronic greetings to those relatives and friends for whom I have e-mail addresses, but if we can't send them to everyone on the list, someone's bound to feel left out. The only solution, I'm afraid, is to crawl into a hole in the side of a snowbank and hide out, hoping no one notices our absence.

Now we just need some snow...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Smells like Christmas

The aroma of hot peppers fills the house this morning thanks to some holiday preparations. My husband has been using the last of the habanero peppers from the garden to make hot-pepper jelly to give as Christmas gifts along with the fudge and caramels I've been making. Hot, sweet, homemade gifts ought to offer something to please everyone on our gift list, and we got them done just in time to take with us this morning as we drive north to visit my in-laws, who are hosting a birthday party celebrating my husband and his twin brother's 100th birthday. (50 years each, of course.) We've been up since 5 putting the finishing touches on the pepper jelly, and now it's just a matter of packing everything in the car and getting on the road. I'll be happy to visit some family members I haven't seen since June, but I'll be sorry to leave behind the wonderful aroma of habaneros. Good thing we made enough to keep some back for us...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

End of a friendship

Hopeful's best dogfriend, Duke, hasn't been hanging around much lately, but this morning he came hobbling up the drive looking a bit wobbly. He didn't want to come along when we took Hopeful out for a walk up the big horrible hill, and when we got home, we found Duke curled up under our garden shed--dead.

He was a sweet, gentlemanly old dog who has had a limp as long as we've known him but nevertheless used to walk nearly a mile to our house just about every day. He and Hopeful liked nothing better than to go bounding off into the woods chasing squirrels or rabbits, Hopeful in the lead and Duke hobbling along behind. I have always been cheered by their easy companionship. He was our neighbor's dog but we have long thought of him as part of the family, and now we will miss him, Hopeful most of all.

O come all ye futile...

Can we just rewind the tape and start yesterday all over again? Because I need a re-do.

I left early to drive to town and mail packages but did not realize that I did not have the packages with me until I got to the post office. If my brain had been functioning correctly, I would have noticed the lack of packages much sooner, when I transferred my billfold, my jump-drive, and a bag of dry-cleaning from my Volvo to my mechanic's Ford Aerostar, a van with which I have become much too familiar over the years. I keep hoping I'll be the one driving that van when it turns over to 300,000 miles, but it wasn't going to happen yesterday unless I happened to drive 500 miles out of my way, which I suppose I could have done if I'd put my mind to it, but having left home without my mind, it wasn't happening.

Anyway: If I'd noticed the lack of packages at my mechanic's shop, I still would have been close enough to home to turn back and get them. But no: I just drove merrily on to the post office without them, and then the question arose, drive all the way home to get the packages and then all the way back to town in a van with a gluttonous appetite for gasoline, or wait until tomorrow and try again in a less voracious vehicle? Better wait until tomorrow, which is now today, of course.

But so as not to make the trip to town a total waste, I tried to accomplish a few other things, mostly without success. I tried to work out at the rec center...but couldn't manage more than 15 minutes on the elliptical machine at the easiest setting. I tried to get our Christmas letters printed out at Office Depot (since our color printer at home is out of commission)...but couldn't quite swallow the $1.18 per copy they wanted to charge. I tried to get my Volvo fixed...but the mechanic had trouble finding parts, so I picked it up at the end of the day with nothing fixed and a promise that he'd take another stab at it when the parts arrive, maybe Friday, maybe next week, which leaves driving a car with no driver's side seatbelt or headlights for the rest of the week, which would be perfectly fine if I didn't have to go anywhere, but I do need to mail those packages today and the weather is just gray enough to require headlights.

One good thing about delaying the mailing one day: I managed to make some almond caramels and stuff a few into each package, adding a little sweetness to my meager holiday offerings. So the day was not a total loss. And today is bound to be better, because this morning when I leave the house, I plan to take my brain with me.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On fudge and fiction

I have assessment reports and an MLA paper to write plus cards to send and a trip to Philadelphia to plan, so how did I spend my weekend?

Making fudge and writing fiction.

Okay, I made more than fudge. We're going light on the Christmas shopping this year so I decided to send home-made goodies to family members: dark chocolate mint fudge, white chocolate peppermint bark, almond caramels, and some other sweet stuff. There's nothing more soothing than sitting in a tall chair stirring fudge and watching the sugary mess bubble and swirl while Christmas music plays in the background, unless the phone rings and you forget that it's a mistake to leave fudge unattended on the stove and you end up with burning sugar spitting at you from stovetop and smoke suffusing the atmosphere. But still, fudge-making is among my favorite holiday activities.

Fiction-writing is less soothing. I've been toying with a particular plotline for weeks but haven't had the time to put it down on paper, and frankly, writing it down wasn't a whole lot of fun. It's just a short piece but I spent most of the day fiddling around with it just to beat a rough draft into shape, and now it'll take eons and lots more fiddling before I'm happy enough with it to send it out somewhere. Don't ask me where. I don't know yet. Let's get the thing finished first.

But who knows when that will be? For the rest of the week I need to focus on more serious pursuits like assessment and MLA, so I'll put the fudge in the mail and the fiction on the back burner while I think about other things. Fortunately, fiction on the burner is unlikely to fill the house with smoke the way fudge does. I do, however, hope it tastes just as sweet going down.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: wish list

Finally, I have finished my birthday gift: fourteen final essays submitted by my freshman composition students. Some were pretty good, but none were as good as my other birthday gifts: dinner with my husband at a terrific Mediterranean restaurant and a beautiful purple cashmere sweater from my parents. On Tuesday I did some online shopping to find a sweater to wear with a black wool skirt at MLA, and in the Macy's clearance section I found the perfect thing: a purple cashmere sweater. On Wednesday I opened the package from my parents and found another one. Is it possible to have too many purple cashmere sweaters?

Now that I can cross that off my wish list (twice!), it's time to think about a Christmas. All I want for Christmas more chemotherapy, no more radiation, no more Bob Dylan holiday music assaulting my eardrums. But what kind of wish list contains only absences? Let's request some more tangible items:

One cancer survival,
One son's safe arrival,
One gleaming new gas cap,
Some chocolates and socks.
A hug from my daughter,
Some pork fresh from slaughter,
For breakfast, some flapjacks--
And my Christmas rocks!

Now it's your turn: put your wish list into verse of any kind.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

'Tis the season to read folly

'Tis the season that brings together people who rarely see each other--and not just for all those holiday parties. All week I've been encountering colleagues I rarely see as they line up to use the Scantron machine.

I've never used Scantron myself because it has no patience for student writing, but the machine is located about 30 feet from my office and it's in great demand this time of year. All day long I hear the whirr, click, and buzz of answer sheets running through the machine, and all day long I envy my colleagues whose grading can be completed by a mindless chunk of metal and plastic.

To distract from the envy and drown out the noise, I've been playing Christmas music in my office. (Not the Bob Dylan holiday songs I heard at Border's the other day, about which all I can say is this: sometimes it's a really good thing that I don't carry a gun while shopping.) The music makes the papers more palatable, but that doesn't mean I'm going all Santa Claus on the grades. Some papers wrap up interesting ideas in sparkly syntax and vivid vocabulary, while others deserve lumps of coal. My primary duty right now is figuring out the difference. And that's something a machine simply can't do.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A real Dickensian Christmas

When I look at the search terms that lead random readers to this site, I am never surprised to see "sentence with the word suave" or "how to cheat on excelsior college exams," but the other day I saw a string I've never encountered before: "connotations of serving gruel." I do not recall ever having written about the connotations of serving gruel, but the person who googled gruelishly was led to a post called Gruel R Us, in which I engage in some smackdown re: potato soup. I suspect that the reader found this post unsatisfying. To do justice to the difficult question of the connotations of serving gruel, though, I would need a few answers of my own:

In what context are you concerned about the connotations of serving gruel?

Did you encounter "gruel" in a text and find it so utterly unfamiliar that you had to look it up? Civilization as we know it may be going to hell in a handbasket, but at least we can be grateful for living at a time in which personal familiarity with gruel is optional.

Are you trying to answer a question on an exam? If so, what are you studying? Something Dickensian, no doubt, or else Austen's Emma, in which Mr. Woodhouse enjoys his evening bowl of thin gruel prepared just so. Does the next question ask you to define "valetudinarian"? If so, it's Emma for sure.

Are you interested in serving gruel at an upcoming family holiday feast? If so, why? Are you trying to recreate for your loved ones the pinched existence of Ebeneezer Scrooge? I'm talking about the pre-visitation Scrooge, of course, not the more expansive Scrooge we encounter after the ghosts have had their say. Here's a suggestion for a new holiday tradition: on Christmas Eve, read aloud passages from A Christmas Carol while your friends and loved ones gather round a meager fire trying to find sustenance in bowls of thin gruel.

If some wee child holds up the empty bowl and asks in a shaky voice, "Please, sir, may I have some more?", that's your cue to knock the bowl out of his hands and say, "You're in the wrong book, kid. Get back where you belong!"

I wouldn't want to speculate about the connotations of such an action in your particular context, but it would certainly be a Christmas to remember.

Monday, December 07, 2009

To arms, two arms!

I've been trying to think of some appropriate way to say "Thanks" to my husband for all the ways he's helped me get through the past five months, but frankly, I never even considered something so simple as tying his shoes. And buttoning his cuffs. And spreading butter on his toast. And doing anything else that requires the use of two arms, which he doesn't happen to have right now.

Well, okay, he technically has two arms, but the left arm has gone on strike and the other one has its hands full trying to keep the damaged one from swinging idly in the wind. A week ago, I was nearly incapacitated and he was healthy; now we seem to have switched places. How did this happen?

Yesterday just before the final rehearsal for the annual college-and-community performance of Handel's Messiah, the hubby found and slipped on the only spot of ice in town, smashing his shoulder pretty badly. The show must go on, of course, so he strapped on some ice packs during rehearsal. Later, one of the soloists fetched her mother, a physical therapist, who put the arm through its paces, an exercise that evoked some sharp gasps and groans from a fellow who generally scoffs at pain. He certainly didn't look as if he was in pain during the performance, but afterward he couldn't get his shirt off without help.

He got through the night thanks to ice packs and Vicodin (left over from some kid's wisdom teeth removal, I think), and this morning we set out to find some relief. Our family doctor had an appointment available sometime after Easter, so I took the hubby out to the Doctor-in-a-Box, where we sat amongst sneezing and coughing people and waited while a new employee gained on-the-job-training in Medical Computer Clickery: "Okay, you put his name in here and click on 'established patient,' then you check his address and phone number, then you click on his insurance carrier--oops, wrong box! Let's click on 'cancel' and start over...."

In less time than it would take to memorize the Physician's Desk Reference, Garry was examined and x-rayed and finally released with a list of exercises and a prescription for more Vicodin. He won't be rolling out bread dough this week and he can't drive so he won't be doing any substitute-teaching, so there goes our Christmas budget. But at least he has solved one of my gift-giving problems: every time I kneel down to tie his shoes, I'll be saying "Thanks!"

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: final hurdles

Today is the last day of classes so a colleague asked me, "How does it feel to have survived the Semester from Hell?"

I'm not sure how to answer that. For one thing, I wouldn't call this the Semester from Hell. The Semester from Hell happened nine years ago when I was the inside candidate for a tenure-track position that attracted more than 100 applications, or maybe a few years later when I got stuck in the middle of a controversial campus issue and got beaten up by both sides. In both cases, I had to endure excruciating challenges in utter isolation.

Now I'll admit that this semester has been challenging. (Challenging? Ha! Teaching while undergoing cancer treatment is the most difficult thing I've ever done.) But on the other hand, I've had a lot of help: smaller-than-usual teaching load, terrific students, helpful colleagues, no committee work or administrative distractions, and lots of encouragement from wonderful people. Sartre may have said "Hell is other people," but he clearly didn't know the "other people" who have made my life so much less hellish this semester.

I'll go so far as to call this the Semester from Heck, okay? But I can't really say I've survived it--not yet. Not while I have a vast seething mass of student writing on my desk and more papers and exams coming in today and all next week, not to mention The Leaning Pile of Filing and the Eternal Necessity of Assessment. Maybe at this time next week we can talk about survival, but right now, I'm still working on jumping those final hurdles looming before my eyes:

Four more freshman comp drafts to read,
Then twenty-four literature papers.
Twelve essays today
On humor--hurray!
But let's not forget other capers:

Twenty-four final exams next week
In one class and twelve in another.
Then fourteen essays
From freshmen--hurray!
But that's not the end of all bother:

Assessment reports on two classes (sigh)
And then I can get really pumped,
Finally reaching the day
To turn grades in--hurray!
That high final hurdle's been jumped!

(Did I mention that my freshman comp students are turning in their final research papers on my birthday? I've never had a birthday gift quite like that before.)

Now it's your turn: verse in any form enumerating the hurdles staring you in the face.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Actual conversation in my freshman comp class this morning:

Student: "I couldn't find any print sources on [topic that has been much in the news]."

Me: "That's unfortunate. If I spent 30 seconds on Lexis-Nexis, I'll bet I could find 100 print sources on your topic."

Student: "I'll bet you could."

Me: "But I'm not going to do your work for you."

Student: "That sucks."

Me: "Sure does."

Humoring the humor-haters

All semester my honors humor theory class has been tackling the question "What is humor for?" from various angles. Yesterday, though, I pointed out that the question itself implies that humor serves some purpose in human societies, presumably a good one. But what if we're dead wrong?

After all, the world has never lacked for people who believe that humor is frivolous or childish or even downright evil (see Jorge of Burgos in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). People have rioted and killed over attempts at humor gone awry (see the infamous Mohammed cartoon incident). Young people bullied by classmates' pointed jokes have fought back with real weapons.

Is humor dangerous? Yesterday my students broke up into three groups, each attempting to persuade their classmates to adopt one of the following views:

1. Humor is essential for the survival of the human species.
2. Humor is important but not essential for survival.
3. Humor is dangerous or detrimental to the survival of the species.

I had to admire the way these students threw themselves into the debate, each group presenting a wealth of convincing arguments and evidence to support their assigned positions. In the end we voted, and the class split pretty evenly between positions 1 and 2, with no one voting for position 3. I suppose a student who believes that humor is dangerous is unlikely to register for a class devoted to studying humor theory, but still, it's interesting that they were so easily able to muster arguments for the evils of humor while remaining convinced that we just can't live without it.

At one point in the discussion a student turned to me and asked, "What about you? Has humor helped you get through cancer treatments?"

"Of course," I said. "In fact, this class has played a big part in keeping me sane this semester." Here's an example: yesterday morning I was feeling a little glum over a new side effect (ever heard of "peripheral neuropathy"? You could look it up), but I spent an hour in my colleague's class listening to my honors students do speeches honoring great comedians of the twentieth century (like Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, Jonathan Winters, and Red Skelton, among others) and then an hour in my class listening to those same students presenting brilliant and sometimes funny arguments about the importance of humor, and those two classes provided ample amounts of humor therapy. Humor isn't going to heal my side effects or cancel my cancer, but it sure helps me get through the day, providing necessary distraction from more serious concerns.

Of course, anyone who supports position 3 above would say such distraction is frivolous or childish or downright evil, but fortunately, I'm not one of those people--and neither are my honors students. We laugh in the face of Jorge of Burgos.

And then we keep laughing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A fine whine

Years ago when I was a journalist I realized that my writing skills had developed as much as they could at that particular publication and it was getting too easy to make the same sorts of moves over and over again. I had reached a turning-point: the only way to improve my writing would be to work for a more demanding editor, someone who could challenge me to stretch beyond my comfort zone.

Such stretching isn't always painless, as I was reminded this morning while listening to a bunch of students complaining about the comments various professors had offered on their writing: "She's so picky; he's so demanding; no matter how hard I work on this, I just can't make her happy!"

I know as well as anyone that it's difficult to accept feedback suggesting that my writing still needs work, but I've spent enough time in the real world to know that a careful reading by a competent reader is a gift, and if that reader offers specific suggestions for improvement, it's like Christmas morning. I'd like to grab these students by the shoulders and tell them: Go ahead and feel hurt that your reader didn't recognize your true genius, but then get over it and get writing again. That's the only way to become a better writer.

Unless you're not interested in becoming a better writer. In that case, you may as well whine.

That's the kicker

I felt really rotten when I left the house this morning and the weather didn't help--between deep darkness and rain, I had trouble seeing the road ahead. But then I found myself sitting at my desk in my office in a building humming with possibility, and I suddenly felt the power of all that possibility. My post-treatment life starts today, and I'm excited to see what it will look like.

The final round of chemotherapy was tough, leaving me weak and wasted for the rest of the week. But yesterday I found the energy to go for a walk, and I also came to a decision: if I want to restore some measure of normalcy to my life, I need to stop thinking of myself as a sick person. This won't be easy. After all, every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded of the way cancer treatment has ravaged my body. This morning I called my husband over to admire a long hair, although "long" is a relative term--it was maybe an inch long, curly, and perfectly gray, but it was a sign that my body can grow something aside from cancer cells.

But if I don't want to think of myself as a sick person, I'm also not ready to think of myself as "healthy." I certainly don't feel healthy right now, thanks to persistent shortness of breath and lack of energy and some mental confusion. I could adopt the prevalent cancer cliche and call myself "a survivor," but that feels too passive. "Recovering" is certainly more active, but it sounds as if I'm in a 12-step program overcoming an addiction to chemotherapy, which is ridiculous.

I thought long and hard over the right word to describe my current condition, and it finally occurred to me that the word has been with me for months, ever since my cancer-kicking posse provided me with two theme songs called "Kicking Cancer's Butt" (read it here and here). I'm alive and kicking, kicking my way down the long dark rainy road, a road that might look dim right now but that leads to possibility.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: giving thanks

Some years ago at a family Thanksgiving feast, a small relative taught the rest of us this little ditty, sung to the tune of "Frere Jacques":

Cornbread muffins,
chestnut stuffing,
pudding pie
ten feet high,
all of us were thinner
'til we came to dinner,
me oh my
me oh my

In church we sing Thanksgiving hymns about a mighty God who "chastens and hastens his will to make known," but ask a child what he's thankful for and he'll come up with a more concrete list: muffins, stuffing, pie pie pie. That's putting the hay down where the goats can get it.

For the past two days I've shared lists of the things I'm thankful for, both now and 15 years ago. Now it's your turn: share your Thanksgiving litany, in verse or prose of any kind.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A litany of thanks

Yesterday I promised to update a Thanksgiving newspaper column published 15 years ago. How much has changed since 1994? How much has stayed the same? Here is my attempt to tackle that question.

What am I thankful for this year?

I'm thankful that the boy who held my hand to cross the street 15 years ago now has hands much bigger than mine, hands that can carry heavy loads and reach over my head to retrieve things from the highest shelves. I'm thankful for his dry wit, for the way he loves to play with words, for his assistance at his sister's wedding, where his calm competence helped me keep my cool. He doesn't fall off his bike these days but he has faced some challenges in his progress toward becoming a pilot, and I'm thankful that he keeps getting back on the bike--er, plane.

I'm thankful for a daughter who's still singing all the time and who loves teaching others to develop their musical gifts. I'm thankful that she can bake an excellent custard pie, a skill I've never quite mastered. I'm thankful for the color and energy she brings into my life, and I'm thankful for how beautifully she and her husband are establishing their own home.

I'm thankful for a wonderful son-in-law who knows how to listen and how to encourage. I'm thankful that he understands so many mysteries, like electricity and car repair and how to fix a string of Christmas lights, and that he has great patience with those of us who don't. I'm thankful for the joy he spreads through music and laughter, and I'm thankful for how perfect a match he is for my daughter. And his hair. Let's not overlook that marvelous curly hair.

I'm thankful for a husband whose broad shoulders still carry so many burdens, even though those burdens have changed over the years. This year I'm especially thankful for those 21 lovely loaves of challah bread he baked for our daughter's wedding reception and the lovely words he shared during the service, and I'm thankful for the way he has carried me through five months of cancer treatments. I'm thankful that he fills the birdfeeders, chops wood to heat the house, grows the world's greatest tomatoes, fixes instant mashed potatoes when that's all my stomach can handle. I'm thankful for his calm assurance that we'll get through this trial, that there are happier times coming soon.

I'm thankful for my Hopeful hound, who is willing to accompany me anytime I'm ready to walk, regardless of the weather. I'm thankful for the gleeful way she bounds across the meadow after rabbits or squirrels or even deer, and I'm thankful that she doesn't often drag home the carcasses.

I'm thankful (still) for family and friends, who have stepped up to the plate in amazing ways this year to help us celebrate our daughter's wedding and help me struggle through my battle with cancer. I'm thankful for distant friends who send encouraging words and put up with my griping when I'm feeling low, and I'm thankful for local friends who bring noodles and key lime pie, who drive me to appointments, who cover my classes when I can't get to campus. I'm thankful for a terrific team of doctors and nurses doing everything in their power to help me heal, and I'm thankful for a great mechanic who assures me that my Volvo will run for a million miles or more and makes me want to keep driving long into the future.

I'm thankful for the strength to keep on teaching through treatment, for the ability to read and write and speak coherently most of the time, for the freedom to rest when I'm weak and to walk up the big horrible hill when my strength returns.

I'm still thankful for water and apples and hot soup on a cold day, but I gave up on fast food ages ago and I'm thankful that I haven't needed blood-pressure pills for almost two years now. I'm still thankful for umbrellas and streetlights, although I treasure the darkness and quiet of our rural road, where the dark sky glimmers with sparkly stars while great horned owls hoot in the woods.

These days we rarely find dolls in the bathtub or Legos on the floor, but I'm thankful for a future that might include grandchildren who will bring the best kind of noise and disorder into my home. I'm thankful for a whole mess of nephews and nieces, all growing into fine young men and women who offer hope for an exciting future.

I'm thankful that yesterday when I wanted to locate a newspaper column I wrote 15 years ago, I knew exactly which closet to look in and exactly which box to open. Chemotherapy may have sapped my energy and addled my mind, but it hasn't made me forget what's really important.

And for that I am thankful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving blast from the past

Fifteen years ago when I was a journalist, I cranked out a quick and simple Thanksgiving column that garnered a lot of comments. Many readers told me that they served that column at Thanksgiving dinner along with the turkey and stuffing. It's a little sappy and undoubtedly outdated, but I'm reprinting it here today to give us all something to think about before we get too busy basting turkeys. Tomorrow I'll try to provide an update: 15 years later, how many of these things am I still thankful for? What am I thankful for today that wouldn't have even entered my mind back then? Meanwhile, you can work on your own list.

It's called "Small Blessings, Big Thanks," and it was published on Nov. 17, 1994.

What am I thankful for this year?

I'm thankful for a son who can tie his shoes all by himself, fold his shirts and put away his socks, fall off his bike and get right back on. I'm thankful for the pictures he colors of smiling people and their cheerful pets.

I'm thankful that he's big enough to go to school but small enough to hold my hand to cross the street.

I'm thankful for a daughter who can keep a secret, read to her brother, paint the world in bright, sparkling colors. I'm thankful for all the questions she asks that I don't know how to answer; I'm thankful that she never seems to stop singing.

I'm thankful for a husband who knows how to iron, who puts up with all my crazy projects, whose broad shoulders carry burdens for so many people, even me. I'm thankful for his strong hands that can tickle a child or tickle the ivories with equal abandon.

I'm thankful for music, for laughter, for silly stories and whispers in the dark; and I'm thankful for tears and regrets, for second chances and learning experiences.

I'm thankful for grandmas and grampas, aunts and uncles, and cousins; I'm thankful for a new nephew after a long wait. I'm thankful for strong marriages and faithful friends.

I'm thankful for colleagues who laugh and neighbors who don't complain. I'm thankful for every encouraging word and for strength to stand under criticism.

I'm thankful for water, for apples, for hot soup on a cold day. I'm thankful for church suppers, picnics in the park, two Big Macs for two bucks.

I'm thankful for two eyes that keep on seeing, two hands that keep on typing, two feet that keep on walking even after I drop large heavy objects on them. I'm thankful for a mind that keeps on thinking, most of the time.

I'm thankful for streetlights and sidewalks, umbrellas, snow boots, and sleds; for tents and campfires and marshmallows, for crickets chirping in the night.

I'm thankful for dolls in the bathtub and Legos on the floor. I'm thankful for letters from family, for photogaphs and videos. I'm thankful for memories.

What am I thankful for this year? A little bit of everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Celebratory, sort of

I had thought today's chemotherapy session would be a little different since it was my final session, the turning point toward whatever comes after the New Normal. The only difference, though, was that the cancer center was overbooked with cancer patients eager to get their treatments done before the holidays, so everything took longer than usual. As much as I appreciate the fine people who work at the cancer center, I was not thrilled about being there from 8:40 in the morning until 5:30 in the afternoon. At one point I was so annoyed with the persistent mindless yammering from the television in the waiting room that I told the woman at the desk that I would continue my waiting downstairs next to the soothing sound of the fountain. When the nurse needed me, she could just come down and find me. It was either that or tear the television off the wall and toss it out the window.

I asked my oncologist what comes next after chemotherapy, and he said, "We watch you." He's not talking about installing video cameras all over my house, either: I'll need periodic blood tests and CAT scans to make sure the cancer isn't coming back or spreading, and next week I'll start a few sessions of brachytherapy, which involves the insertion of high-intensity radioactive pellets near the place where the cancer was found--and if you think I'm going into all the gory details, you've got another think coming.

This morning I'm trying to work up the energy to celebrate the end of chemotherapy, but I'm still too doped up on drugs to manage much besides an occasional weak smile. Tomorrow my daughter and son-in-law will arrive and start putting together our Thanksgiving feast, and that will be something to celebrate--if I can stay awake. But even if I follow the usual pattern of dozing off at random the first few days after chemo, at least I can comfort my self with the knowledge that this is the last time I'll suffer that side effect.

Assuming that the cancer stays away.

Maybe that's why I'm having trouble celebrating: it feels like tremendous hubris to hoist the "Mission Accomplished" banner when I don't know whether the war is really over. I can celebrate the end of this particular prolonged battle, but the war itself--who knows when it will end?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

With a click, with a pop--phone'll jingle, door'll knock...

You know you're a basket case when you burst into tears on hearing a song you don't even like--and you can't quite figure out why. That was me today as I turned the home stretch on my route around the loop.

It was a gorgeous day for a walk but all morning long I kept making excuses to stay inside. First it was cold and then I had to catch up on all that ironing and then I had to clean up my chutney-making mess and then I couldn't walk out in the middle of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," but finally I couldn't put it off any more. I knew my friend Joy was out in San Diego walking 20 miles a day for three days to raise money for breast cancer research (read about it here), and I told myself, "If Joy can walk 60 miles, surely I can walk a mere six."

So I set out off down along the creek and up the big horrible hill, and I made it halfway up before I heard the first gunshots. Great: this weekend begins youth deer-hunting season, when the woods around my house are crawling with juveniles carrying guns. Most of the six-mile route wends its way through those woods, and the first shots came from pretty close by. A good excuse to turn around, especially when I was having trouble making it up the hill anyway...but I thought of Joy and kept going.

After each round of chemotherapy, it takes me about ten days to two weeks before I can even make it up that hill, and by the time I manage to walk the whole loop, I'm ready for another round of drugs. For months the story of my life has been three steps forward, two steps back, which makes it hard to feel as if I'm getting anywhere. Sure, I can walk the loop today, but Tuesday I'll have chemo again and then it'll be days before I can get all the way down my driveway. That doesn't feel much like progress.

But I kept moving forward nevertheless, and before long I came down the hill at the far end of the ridge to the sound of more gunshots, this time farther away. Then I walked the flats along the creek and soon reached a wide curve where the road goes slightly uphill while bending around a bluff. As I lumbered slowly toward the curve, Hopeful stopped in the middle of the road and looked back at me as if to say, "Come on, let's see what's around this corner!" I responded to her curious look with a bit of the song "Something's Coming" from West Side Story:

Around the corner
or whistling down the river--
come on, deliver
to me....

Now anyone who knows me well is wondering, "Singing? Out loud? In public? Who are you and what have you done with Bev?"

I don't sing in public, even if no one is listening except my dog.

I especially don't sing what may well be the most unsingable song ever written, with its odd syncopation and impossible range and silly lyrics.

But there I was, singing this unsingable song out loud in the middle of hunter-infested woods while my dog peered at me...and then I couldn't sing anymore because I was crying.

What happened to the Bev who could control her emotions, who didn't feel the need to burst into tears at the first hint of some sappy song? Drugged into paralysis, I suspect, while this emotional basket-case goes wandering around the countryside singing to her dog and bursting into tears just because a song expresses some hope for a surprising but wonderful future. Let's just not think about the gunshots that destroy that hope in West Side Story, okay? Let's just focus on the joy of endless opportunity the song celebrates.

The air is hummin' and something great is comin', but if I don't pull myself together, I'll never be able to see it with my eyes all misty.

Sick of cranberry from a can?

As I chopped apples and grated ginger this morning for my annual batch of cranberry chutney, I thought once again of the time a few years ago when we went to a relative's house for Thanksgiving and s/he warned us in advance, "Don't bring that cranberry stuff. Nobody likes it."

It's undeniably true that people accustomed to eating cranberry sauce straight from the can find my cranberry chutney shocking, but some acquired tastes are well worth acquiring. I've made this chutney every year for at least two decades now and if some Thanksgiving visitors don't like it, that just leaves more for the rest of us--and you too, provided you're willing to put it all together:

Bev's Cranberry Chutney

Peel and chop four tart apples (preferably Granny Smith). Slice one medium yellow onion quite thin. Put apples and onion in large saucepan with one cup cider vinegar and one cup dark brown sugar. Simmer gently 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, zest two oranges and squeeze out the juice. Add orange juice and zest to saucepan along with 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon salt, one cup raisins or dried currants, and one pound fresh cranberries (not frozen). Cover and cook until cranberries burst, about 10 minutes. Cool and chill at least 24 hours.

Now my whole house smells like all those delicious ingredients simmering...I could just about live on the aroma alone.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: put it in park

So I'm sitting in my Volvo in a busy grocery-store parking lot on a damp, cold, gray afternoon, and my car won't start. I turn the key: nothing. Not so much as a click. Oops, looks like I left the lights on...and the radio...and the seat-warmers. Okay, I've grown accustomed to being pretty stupid in the afternoon, but this is ridiculous. Now I'm sitting in the dark in a car with no lights or heat or power and I don't even have the energy to call AAA. Tell you what: I'll just sit back and let the car make the call.

Yes: for a few hours yesterday afternoon, both my car and I were suffering from dead batteries. But this is not the first time I have resembled my car; in fact, people are always commenting about how well my car suits me. "It looks like an English professor's car," they say. It's not at all flashy, just stodgy and dependable, kind of battered and showing some signs of age, but it just keeps running (except when some idiot overtaxes the system and pulls the plug). More than any other car I've ever owned, this car seems like an extension of myself:

My car 'n' me
we both agree
it's time to take a nap;
we're sitting still
without the will
to make those spark-plugs zap.

My jumper cables
are not able
to set the gears in motion,
so we'll just park
without a spark,
avoiding all commotion.

Thanks to the efforts of a spouse who knows how to replace a battery, my car and I are both functioning properly today--a little slow, a little sluggish, but still puttering along.

And poetrying along too. Your challenge today is to write verse of any sort about a time when you've been stuck in park--with or without a car.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Multimedia musings

I'm teaching creative nonfiction next semester (hurrah!) and some time ago I decided to bring that class into the 21st century by requiring students to produce a multimedia essay. Now I have to figure out what that means and how it will work, and I need help.

Nonfiction writing abounds beyond paper publication--on blogs, in radio essays, in live performance--so I want my students to create essays employing some medium beyond print, but I don't want to put too many restrictions on their creations or teach them all some specific technology that will soon be obsolete. Let them go with what they know: pair their wonderful words with photographs and hyperlinks on a web page, for instance, or produce a radio essay accompanied by appropriate sounds.

The multimedia essay will be due fairly late in the semester, and I wonder whether I ought to allow them to re-purpose an essay written earlier or insist that they write something new. (That will depend partly on how the schedule looks, and I'm not ready to make that call yet.) I also want them to present their multimedia essays to their peers, perhaps in an evening event open to the public. Food will be involved, of course.

I realize, though, that I'll need to show students some examples demonstrating how outstanding writing can be combined effectively with other media; I have a few examples in mind, but I'd like more variety, so I welcome suggestions. I also welcome suggestions from anyone who has tried this kind of assignment before. What sorts of problems might arise? What gripes might I hear? How in the world will I grade the finished product?

Writing in this medium is a two-way street. I've done my part: now it's up to you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Malicious menu

Evidence that chemotherapy has disabled my taste buds:
1. I over-season the sweet and sour cabbage because I can't taste the vinegar.
2. Sausage pizza has no detectable flavor.
3. Texture is the only real difference between butter and peanut butter.

Foods that still taste good anyway:
1. Chocolate.
2. Ginger ale. (Or ginger anything.)
3. Key lime yogurt.
4. Pineapple.

Foods I normally love that now make me want to spit them out:
1. Cheese.
2. Swiss chard.
3. Mandarin oranges.
4. Chicken soup.

Foods I don't ever want to see again after I'm done with chemotherapy:
1. Plain mashed potatoes. (Especially in the middle of the night.)
2. Scrambled eggs.
3. Dry toast.

Foods I'd like to gorge on after my digestive system figures out how to function again:
1. Salad.
2. Sushi.
3. Jalapeno poppers.
4. Cheesecake.

Evidence that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.
1. I'm still eating.
2. Did I mention chocolate?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sweet (gum) dreams

On the way home from church this morning I turned to my husband totally out of the blue and blurted out, "I want a sweet gum tree."

At that point any normal husband would have pointed out that we already have more than enough trees and that even if we could afford to buy a new tree, we have no real need for a tree that will drop annoying pods all over the place. But who ever said my husband was normal?

"Why do you want a sweet gum tree?" he asked.

"I like the shape of the leaves," I said, "and they turn a really pretty red in the fall."

Neither of those are particularly good reasons to invest the kind of time and money required to plant a new tree, but nevertheless he nodded and admitted that he has always appreciated the stately shape of the sweet gum--but where would we put it?

At that point he steered the Volvo right off the driveway and took a wide, meandering loop around the meadow so we could visualize the effect of a mature sweet gum tree near the bluff or in front of the apartment or on the slope above the garden. "It won't matter if pods fall here," he pointed out, "because they'll just blend in with all the other falling stuff."

It was for moments like this, I think, that I married the guy--so that one day when I shared a sweet-gum dream, he would find a way to make it grow.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Survival skills

Red-bellied woodpeckers keep visiting the feeder out front this morning, one plump and another a little skinnier. Before swooping down to peck at seeds, they perch first in a nearby maple tree that still holds on to a few bright yellow leaves. Up the hill oak saplings hold tight to brown-orange leaves, but all the other trees stand naked, ready for winter.

I'll let the sun come up a little higher before I venture out on a walk this morning. It's cold out there! I know 30 degrees is mild compared to what we might see in a few weeks, but if I wait an hour or two, I won't have to bundle up quite so much. I haven't walked much this week, thanks to persistent shortness of breath plus too many afternoon meetings, but this morning I feel good and strong and ready to put my feet through their paces--a little later.

I did take an unusual walk last night: one lap around the track at the college's Relay for Life, the Survivor's Lap they call it. I walked alongside a gentleman who was diagnosed with stage III malignant melanoma nine years ago and a two-year-old girl who has been battling cancer most of her life. I was the featured speaker for the event, which made me more nervous than any other talk I've ever delivered. There's nothing particularly intimidating about an audience of students, faculty, and staff, but instead of babbling about my area of academic expertise, I talked about an experience that defies my expertise and requires me to admit limitations. "Tell us about your journey" was the only guidance the organizers gave me, so I told them about my journey, and then I set out on a short journey around the track. I survived.

This morning my woodpeckers show how to survive the chill by filling themselves with black oil sunflower seed, while maple trees demonstrate a different approach to survival: drop everything and go dormant. I think I'll survive the winter by walking--alongside anyone else I can persuade to join me on my journey.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: found poetry

Two events this week have made me think about the future of written communication. First, the college e-mail server was out of commission for nearly 36 hours, leading to widespread panic among people incapable of imagining other methods of communicating; and second, I read A Wild Perfection: Selected Letters of James Wright, which offers a reminder of the depth and breadth of information that ordinary people once regularly conveyed by means of letters. I love the way the poet's voice comes through in even the most mundane passages, transforming ordinary events into luminous lyrical moments.

Collections of letters provide a quirky but compelling glimpse into the lives of long-dead authors, but what will happen in the future when the written letter disappears and scholars are left with scattered e-mail messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook status lines--some corrupted, some deleted, some lost in internet limbo? Ye shall know me by my bytes.

Which is not to say that electronic communication is worthless. Indeed, tweets and e-mails may acquire a poetic compression of expression, as in this brief excerpt from an e-mail message:

Cold enough here
for a cold-weather coat,
which is what I didn't take
when I walked the dog past hail
in those small vales and gullies
in the park beside the library.

Or this brief but colorful Facebook status line:

Sun streaming
through yellow leaves
and the scent
of autumn.

--Both borrowed from private or public messages and simply formatted to look like poetry.

Today's challenge: manipulate a passage from an electronic message to make visible the poetry hiding within the bytes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Best. (Unwanted.) Excuse. Ever.

After all my griping about stupid excuses yesterday, I found myself this morning whining about my inability to form coherent sentences after 2 in the afternoon. "I have the same problem," said a colleague, "but at least you have a good excuse."

I can't count the number of times I've heard this in the past few months. Friends, colleagues, and even students have been eager to let me off the hook for any number of things--can't stay awake for evening meetings, can't remember to send a birthday card (to my brother! on his 50th birthday!), can't get papers graded as quickly as I used to--because cancer treatment has taken over my life.

I appreciate the fact that lots of people are cutting me some slack, but really: I'm tired of having the world's best excuse. I don't like being the person from whom not much can be expected, and I fear that I'll have trouble shaking off that label. Please, may I have my real life back?

Maybe eBay is the answer: "For sale: one all-purpose excuse, slightly used. One size fits all. Comes with bonus sack of sympathy and get-out-of-jail-free card."

I'll have to list the side effects in very small print, though, or no one will ever take that excuse off my hands.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Worst. Excuse. Ever.

First thing this morning a student walked in my office (proof positive that he knows how to find me!) and demanded an extension on a paper due today. Why? Because the college's e-mail server was down all day yesterday so he couldn't revise his paper.

Now I had e-mailed extensive comments on all these drafts last Friday so students could work on them over the weekend, but when I asked him why he hadn't looked at my comments before yesterday, he said, "Because I didn't know the e-mail would go down."

When I pointed out that, despite the lack of e-mail, we still had access to the internet, the library research databases, and that old-fashioned tried-and-true telephone, he said, "I didn't know how to reach you."

And when I pointed out that three of his classmates facing the same dilemma had actually walked to my office to ask me to print out copies of their drafts with my comments inserted, which I was happy to do, he gave me an excuse that ranks right up there with the worst ever: "I'm a lot busier than other people in the class."

And then when he pugnaciously demanded to know what I plan to do about the situation, I said, "If you don't turn in your paper, I plan to give you a 0. What do you plan to do about it?"

I probably should have told him that I'm a lot busier than other people in the class...way too busy to respond to such ridiculous demands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Instant Tranquility Kit

Yesterday's mail brought me an Instant Tranquility Kit, including a tea bag, an origami crane, a picture of a Japanese tea house, and a piece of sashimi.

Of course it's not real sashimi. Only a fool would send real sashimi parcel post. Besides, sashimi is strictly off limits for anyone with a weakened immune system.

This is a piece of plastic wind-up sashimi on wheels, perhaps the finest piece of plastic wind-up sashimi on wheels I have ever encountered. Wind it up and it goes whirling around the way real sashimi never does. In fact, if a piece of real sashimi moved so much as a muscle, you'd hear me screaming in Schenectady.

So this morning while the entire campus is in a tizzy over the temporary intransigence of our malfunctioning e-mail server, I am sitting in my office, drinking tea, gazing at a Japanese tea house in the company of an origami crane, and watching a piece of plastic wind-up sashimi skitter around on the desk top, and I am content.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Playing possum

I would be significantly more alert today if my dog were a better communicator--or if I had a handy phrase book to help translate her urgent messages.

All dogs, of course, occasionally feel the need to convey urgent messages in the middle of the night. Since Hopeful lives outdoors, her communiques generally involve interlopers: deer chomping on the sweet potatoes, raccoons ravaging the corn. She'll bark for a little while until the threat dissipates, and then she'll stop. It's easy to ignore that kind of message.

Last night, though, she didn't stop--and she had help, too. Her best dogfriend, Duke, was over for a visit, and even though he's a gimpy old gentleman incapable of pursuing whatever is causing the disturbance, he does like to get his barks in. Late last night (or early this morning) Hopeful and Duke set up a message relay team: we could hear Hopeful's high-pitched yaps in the distance and Duke's deep growly rowlfs right outside our bedroom window.

And they just wouldn't quit.

It's probably nothing, we agreed. Probably just some dumb critter causing all this ruckus. Unlikely to be a human intruder way down by the creek, right? Probably nothing.

But they just kept barking.

Finally, the hubby threw on some clothes, grabbed a flashlight, and wandered out to see why the dogs were dialling 911. Down by the creek he found Hopeful barking her fool head off at what at first appeared to be an inert lump of road kill.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a possum...playing possum.

Garry grabbed a stick and flicked the possum into the creek, where it emerged from its stupor just long enough to hustle back onto dry land--and then it curled up again and played dead. He tried to convince Hopeful that the possum posed no real threat to anyone, but it's difficult to deter a dog on a mission, no matter how foolhardy that mission might be.

Hopeful kept barking. Duke kept relaying Hopeful's message right into our bedroom window. And the possum kept playing possum.

I envied the possum's ability to disregard the dogs' messages, and I really wanted to emulate the possum's ability to assume a slumber so deep it resembled death. But instead of playing possum, I just had to lie there and listen while the dogs told me all about it.

And now I'm telling you. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Raising an eyebrow

After my penultimate round of chemotherapy, I am pleased to report that I still have eyebrows. They're faint and vestigial, a mere shadow of the bushy Cindy Crawford brows I brought into the world, but if the need should arise to raise an eyebrow today, I am equipped to do so.

I still have a little hair on my arms too but not on my legs. I wonder why? Eyebrows and arms: aside from that, I'm as bald as a newborn baby's butt. My fingernails haven't fallen off but they've developed ridges and they look bruised, as if they've been attacked by a mad hammerer.

My final round of chemotherapy is scheduled for Nov. 24, so I'll feel rotten on Thanksgiving but I'll be overflowing with thankfulness for finally being done with treatment. Today I feel okay. Everything tastes like metal and I have to stop to catch my breath when I walk across the room, but that's pretty normal. Normal for now, anyway.

My doctor tells me that cancer patients generally take six to nine months to get back to normal after chemotherapy, or back to whatever counts as normal by then. So now I'm looking forward to a whole new type of normal, the New New Normal. It'll be a whole new life and I'm ready for it, even if it requires me to raise an eyebrow.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: advice for writers

Today Bardiac offers up A Poem for Grading (read it here), quite appropriate considering that my primary task today and tomorrow is to respond to eight more freshman drafts, a dozen honors humor theory papers, and 24 postcolonial essays. I'm thinking about making it more interesting by writing all my comments on papers in verse.

A quatrain on comma splices:

To join complete sentences
requires strong glue.
Semicolons work wonders,
but commas won't do.

A little moody blues:

When you write about conditions contrary to fact
Oh, when you write about conditions contrary to fact
Yes, when you write about conditions contrary to fact
If I were you, dude,
I'd choose the subjunctive mood.

A transitional haiku:

Wide chasms between
paragraphs? Build a bridge to
keep me from falling.

Now it's your turn: verse of any kind providing advice to writers of any kind.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Stephen King Out-Thurbers Thurber

Stephen King in the New Yorker? The Nov. 2 issue features his story "Premium Harmony," which is simply a hoot from beginning to end. The story contains significant echoes of "A Couple of Hamburgers," the James Thurber story in which an unhappy couple rehashes one old tired argument after another during a road trip through Connecticut. King's story includes more serious disaster but still remains more lighthearted and even gleeful than Thurber's bitter tale. And King's metaphors are fresh and telling:

"He sometimes thinks marriage is like a football game and he's quarterbacking the underdog team. He has to pick his spots. Make short passes."

"Now they argue quite a lot. It's really all the same argument. It has circularity. It is, Ray thinks, like a dog track. When they argue, they're like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. You go past the same scenery time after time, but you don't see it. You see the rabbit."

The scenery in King's story is provided by a small Maine town suffering from economic decline, but, like Thurber's story, the entire plot takes place first within a car and then within a small, struggling business. Thurber breaks his story up by taking his couple inside a diner in search of a couple of hamburgers, but the change in location only pushes the eternal argument underground, where it festers for a while before breaking out again back in the car.

King similarly breaks up the road trip with a visit to a small business, and, as in Thurber's story, the husband's appetite is assuaged while the wife's most definitely is not. Thurber ends the story with the wife's self-satisfied knowledge that she will soon win a small victory that will cause pain for both of them, while King's story ends with a scene evoking pain and suffering but also suffused with radiant joy.

James Thurber's writing once defined what was meant by a typical New Yorker story, ranging from the madcap adventure to the gently nostalgic memoir to the sour anatomy of the failing relationship that we see in "A Couple of Hamburgers." Stephen King's thrillers seem as far from typical New Yorker fiction as any prose could possibly be; nevertheless, with "Premium Harmony," King evokes the madcap end of Thurber's range, joyously transforming one of Thurber's bitter relationship tales into raucous good fun. Thurber must be rolling over in his grave--rolling on the floor laughing, that is.

Snow birds but no snow (yet)

Juncoes have arrived!

Yes, my eagle-eyed daughter spotted the first of the snow-loving birds yesterday. They generally arrive closer to Thanksgiving, so I suppose this means we can expect an early winter and a harsh one. And sure enough, my daughter lives just over two miles north of here and she drove through snow to get here yesterday. None here so far, but when juncoes arrive, snow is not far behind.

I suppose this puts a little extra urgency into my Winter Preparation To-Do List.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Home office help

Here I am responding to student drafts in my elegant home office. My adorable daughter stopped by to making a warm winter hat.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Make "make it work" work

Not long ago I observed a speech class in which a problem with a video camera delayed the start of speeches, but instead of running around trying to fix the problem, the professor sat on the sidelines smiling while the students figured it out. "They know they're responsible for getting the camera set up," she explained, "So they just have to make it work."

What a brilliant idea. I borrowed this approach during my freshman composition class's midterm essay exam. I allowed students to bring laptops to class if they wanted to write their essays that way, but I warned them that I had to have their essays in my possession before I left the class. They could hand me a hard copy or e-mail an electronic copy, but either way, a late paper would be an instant F.

As time was running out, a few students found that they were unable to connect to the wireless network to send me their essays. In the past I might have offered to run around trying to figure out their technological difficulties for them, but not this time. Instead, I followed my colleague's example: I stayed in my seat smiling and said, "Make it work." They did.

Now two of my classes are preparing to give oral presentations in the next couple of weeks, and again, I adopt my colleague's approach: I'm happy to show you how to use the classroom technology and let you in the room to practice your presentation, but when it comes down to the wire, it's up to you to make it work--or have a Plan B in reserve just in case.

It's remarkable how freeing this attitude is...but why did it take me so long to figure out how to make "make it work" work?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Thoughts while scraping frost off windows

Daylight! When was the last time I drove to work in the light? Gotta love that time change. Except soon I'll be driving home in the dark.

Better get a new tiny flashlight for my keyring. Tough to walk up the driveway from the garage in the dark.

Better practice parking the Volvo in the garage. I'll need to work on making that tight turn.

Better make sure the hubby's stuff isn't scattered all over my side of the garage. That's what I get for not parking in there all summer long.

Gloves. Must find gloves. And my winter coat--where is it? Did I have it cleaned after last winter? Probably smells like a wet dog. Better check.

Cold car, cold seat, cold fingers--but thank heaven for seat-warmers!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nothin' for nobody

When our daughter was an infant, we lived in a trailer park tucked behind the seminary where my husband was studying. In that block of decaying trailers constantly threatening to collapse into piles of scrap metal, a group of seminary students and their spouses formed a supportive community--sharing meals, offering rides, gathering on Saturday morning to clear out a clogged septic line. We all helped each other because we all knew how desperately we needed help.

One morning I was in the kitchen eating breakfast when I heard the garbage truck lumbering up the street. My husband had already left for class, so I grabbed our one big bag of trash and prepared to sprint to the curb barefoot and in my PJ's. But when I opened the door, I saw a neighbor walking past, a tall, rangy fellow with an air of the apocalyptic. I called out and asked him to carry my trash to the curb, and he turned to me with fire in his eyes, pointed a long, bony finger in my face, and said, "You never do nothin' for nobody--but I'll do this for you."

It felt like a slap in the face--and two decades later, it still stings. I never do nothin' for nobody? It wasn't true then and I know it's not true now. There are certainly thing I won't do for anybody. Don't ask me to buy a raffle ticket, for instance, no matter how good the cause: I'd rather make a donation and avoid the suspense. And don't ask me to bake a pie for your bake sale. I'll bake cookies or fudge or banana nut bread, but I don't do pies--not for you, not for nobody.

Other than that, I've always tried to be helpful, and I've always hated asking for help. Asking for help means admitting that I need help, and that's a bit daunting--even now, when I really can't get by without a little help from my friends. Worse, though, than asking for help is asking and being refused, which makes those words ring in my ears: "You never do nothin' for nobody!"

It's still not true. I've always tried to help my colleagues whenever I can, from covering their classes when they're absent to covering their butts when they screw up (one of the unwritten duties of a department chair). Even so, this semester as I've struggled to keep teaching through treatment, I've been reluctant to ask for too much help, and I've tried to spread the joy around so I'm not relying too heavily on any one person.

I've gotten rides from a variety of friends, former students, and college staff members, and so far I've asked three different colleagues to cover classes for me. All except one were happy to do so, but naturally I obsess over the one who said no (for a very good reason!). And this week I've been flummoxed in my attempt to find a ride home from chemotherapy next Wednesday. Everyone is really, really busy, which I understand, but each refusal makes it that much harder to ask someone else.

Maybe I'll just walk home. It's only 17 miles. I've walked that far before. Once or twice. Okay, twice--long before chemotherapy became a normal part of my life. How hard could it be?

It could be really, really hard, especially now that the weather has turned cold and wet. I guess I'd better keep asking for help and keep hoping I won't hear that apocalyptic voice crying in the wilderness: "You never do nothin' for nobody--but I'll do this for you."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A radical sleep-ectomy

Lately I'm spending way too much time either trying to stay awake or trying to sleep. I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and can't get back to sleep, and I try not to get up but I'm bursting with energy that can't be contained under the covers so eventually I get up and get to work, and I keep working steadily until the middle of the afternoon, when it feels as if someone has pulled the plug.

All I want to do then is take a nap, but sleeping during the day means I won't sleep at night...but not sleeping during the day means I spend the evening fighting to keep my eyes open and eventually losing the battle way too early. If I could stay awake past 9., maybe I'd be able to sleep past 4.

And the time change tonight will only make it worse. I've been awake since 3 this morning and up since around 4:30 (on Saturday! for no good reason!) , and now I'm ready to collapse, but if I give in and drift off too early I'll be awake at 2. This afternoon I downed a few cups of strong black tea just to help me resist a nap, but now it's not even 9:00 and I'm inventing meaningless tasks just to maintain alertness. If I try to read, I'll fall asleep. If I try to write, my syntax stumbles and my brain cells respond with resonant snores. I can fold laundry, but that takes me pretty close to the bed, which looks pretty inviting right now. So I wander around aimlessly taking up mindless tasks and trying to keep my eyes open when all I really want to do is sleep.

Funny, but when I signed all those consent forms at the hospital, I don't recall agreeing to a radical sleep-ectomy. Whom shall I sue?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: Fright Night

When we lived in the middle of town, I used to distribute pencils on Halloween. I know that makes me sound like a total crank, but the kids loved 'em! I would hold out a mug full of brand-new pencils decorated with various sports or movie logos, and they would agonize over which to choose: Browns or Bengals, Ariel or Belle? I never heard one complaint.

No one comes to our door since we moved to the woods, and I don't blame them. It's hard to trick-or-treat on a dark country road where you have to walk a quarter mile between houses, and our driveway is treacherous enough in broad daylight--I'd hate to stumble through the potholes in the dark while wearing a flimsy plastic mask and a cape, especially with coyotes yipping in the distance.

So there will be no trick-or-treat at our house tonight, but I do plan to dress up today as the scariest monster I know:

When strangers, impressed by my glamour,
Request my profession, I stammer,
"I'm an English profess-
Or." They blanch and confess,
"I guess I'd better watch my grammar!"

That's right, folks, I'm armed with a semicolon and I know how to use it!

Ooh, scary.

Now it's your turn: if you're planning to frighten anyone today or to be frightened, put it into verse and share it with the rest of us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Morbid math

Yesterday I encountered a disconcerting factoid and I sincerely hope someone can convince me that it's a load of hooey. "The change in body composition that is brought on by chemotherapy is normally seen as part of the normal aging process," says this article, but "Unfortunately, in terms of body composition, a woman going through chemotherapy ages 10 years in the course of a year."

Let's do the math: my odds of being alive in five years are slightly better than 50/50, so I'm undergoing chemotherapy in hopes of beating the odds, but if I'm still alive and kicking five years from now, chemotherapy will make my body feel 10 years older than that, which means my body will be ready for retirement while I'm still working to pay off my medical bills. And if chemo adds five more years of life but then subtracts 10, what do I do with the resulting negative number?

Something is wrong here...but it's hard to see the flaws in the math when you're stuck inside the equation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Leaf me alone!

First thing this morning as I walked across campus, a burst of wind blew a billow of yellow leaves down from the trees and sent them scurrying along the flagstones. My colleague remarked on the beauty of the scene but I said, "Mark my words: the leaf-blowers will be out in force this morning." And now there they are all over the mall making their infernal racket, a noise so annoying that the employees operating the leaf-blowers wear ear-plugs.

But what about the passers-by? Who will protect my ears from all those mechanical decibels?

The noise, though, is not the only thing I find annoying about leaf-blowers. I could harp on how much healthier we would all be if we raked or swept leaves the old-fashioned way, or I could point out the leaf-blowers' reliance on fossil fuels, or I could gripe about the leaf-blowers' assault on the aesthetic experience associated with autumn leaves.

But what really burns my biscuits is the way leaf-blowers blow leaf mold into the air we all have to breathe. Leaf mold belongs on the ground, not in my airways, but all it takes to spark a nasty allergy attack is a little dampness, a pile of leaves, and a brigade of diligent leaf-blowers.

They always make me want to cover my ears and grumble, those mechanical menaces, but maybe a better plan would be to simply refuse to breathe in close proximity to leaf-blowers. That's right: if you don't shut that thing off, I'll hold my breath until I turn blue!