Friday, May 29, 2009

Showers of spatulas

The first thing I noticed about my daughter's wedding shower last night was how stress-free a party can be when someone else is hosting. I had time to sit and chat and take a bunch of photos while other people scurried around making sure everything was perfect--and it was. Even the weather was sufficiently showery.

My daughter received showers of home-related loot, much of which I'd like to have in my own house, which makes me wonder when we'll finally establish a tradition of Old Married People Showers. I could use some matching casserole dishes and fluffy new towels and a can opener--and spatulas, a veritable bouquet of pretty red spatulas.

We played some of the typical bridal-shower games, and as usual, I did pretty poorly. How am I supposed to find someone in the room whose favorite television show is the same as mine when we haven't had any television service for two years? There was no listing for "none of the above." And then there was the game in which women earned points for the stuff they carried in the purses: low points for a credit card or driver's license, high points for band-aids, jump drives, or underwear. No one in our group would admit to carrying underwear but one woman had not one but two pairs of tweezers in her voluminous tote. (She'd never make it through airport security.) I flunked the purse test. I don't carry a purse. Haven't carried one for years. I had my camera bag and billfold and a jump drive with me, but other than that, I was unencumbered.

But I did not go home unencumbered. This evening we've been working on stashing the wedding loot someplace else because it was threatening to take over the living room. Of course there's one simple way to solve that problem...think she'd notice if I snagged one of those spatulas?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yum yum

I saw a sign outside a restaurant advertising the following special:

Liver & Onions Lasagne

I sincerely hope that this represents two different menu items, because I'd really like to avoid any restaurant that thinks it's appropriate to put liver and onions in lasagne.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Impending panic

Recently I encountered a woman who is preparing for her daughter's impending wedding, and she was buzzing with energy like a hive of angry bees. "I have a list," she said. "I know everything I have to do every day between now and the wedding." I didn't want to sit too close to her because it appeared that the stress might make her spontaneously combust at any moment.

Before that encounter, I had been feeling pretty mellow about my daughter's wedding next month. Things are moving along nicely, and I am confident that everything that needs to get done will get done. But now I wonder whether I'm missing something important: is it my duty as Mother of the Bride to panic? Must I perpetually quiver with anguish over the tasks yet undone? If I start panicking a month before the wedding, I'll be a basket case by the big day.

I have a list too, but it's fairly manageable. I have made my dress, but now I need to buy shoes and other accessories--and at some point I ought to buy a wedding gift. In anticipation of the hordes of houseguests who will descend upon us, I need to do some cleaning and cooking, but that's well in hand. I washed curtains and windows yesterday, and I've already made three gallons of homemade ice cream and stashed them in the deep-freeze. The main thing I need to do for the wedding itself is hand over piles of money to a host of people, but as painful as that might be, it doesn't make me want to panic. In fact, none of this stuff makes me want to panic. Maybe all that will change as the bid day draws closer, but at the moment I'm mellow.

Maybe I need to panic over my lack of panic. I'll add that to my list.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Content counts; or, why you have to know stuff to write about it

Spring semester's crop of course evaluations produced a common complaint across several sections, one I would paraphrase this way: "This is a writing class! The grade is supposed to be based on the quality of my writing, not on the content! How dare you expect me to actually know stuff!"

I sympathize because I am aware of how easy it would be to grade student writing based on whether I agree with their claims rather than on how competently those claims are presented, but the problem is that it's difficult to separate writing from its content. Writing is made of words and words convey content in an interlocking web of signification--or confusion, as the case may be.

Which essay deserves a better grade: the well-written one that has nothing to say or the one that tackles complex ideas but bobbles the syntax? A researched essay that presents outdated or inaccurate information violates one of major tenets of good research, and a comparison essay that can't clearly distinguish between the ideas of two prominent thinkers has failed in its task even if every word is spelled correctly.

The desire to separate writing from content can only lead to content-free writing, and frankly, I've seen enough of that to last two lifetimes. Yes, you do have to "know stuff" in order to write about it. But isn't that why we're here? I wish I knew which students expressed these complaints so I could ask them all a question: if you don't want to learn anything new, why are you (or your loved ones) paying upwards of $30,000 a year in tuition?

Content counts, and so does quality of writing--and in the best writing, the two cling together so closely that separating them would be a sacrilege.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Traumatic tourism

I've just been reading Nicola Watson's The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain, which is a very interesting, engaging, and (mostly) well written book--but I have to confess that a sentence describing a certain site associated with Robert Burns gave me a bit of a start: "Encrusted with shells on the outside, and mirror on the inside, favoured visitors of a certain class were asked in to admire the rafters in their startling new setting."

What would you call the favored class of tourists willing, for the love of Burns, to be encrusted with shells on the outside and mirrors on the inside? Whatever you call 'em, count me out.

Cardinal obsession

That cardinal I photographed yesterday keeps coming back. All day long she seeks communion with her own reflection--in the car mirror, in a shiny garbage-can lid, in various windows. Right now she's perched on a potted plant just outside a big picture window, where she can peer at her own reflection, burst forth in flight, bang against the window, drop to the ground, and then start the whole process all over again.

We've had birds bang into that big window before, but those that survive the impact get the message and move on, while this cardinal keeps coming back for more. Surely she ought to be out doing whatever it is that cardinals do instead of peering into the glass all day long. Is she obsessed, possessed, distressed, or just confused from banging her head against the window so many times?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cardinal virtues

This female cardinal, fascinated with her own reflection, kept repeating the same series of actions for more than an hour this morning: first, look closely at the reflection; second, attack with a flurry of wings; third, perch on top of the mirror and look confused.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

In praise of puttering

So far this summer I'm working hard in every way--keeping my muscles moving, my brain cells firing, my creativity sparking--but somehow all this summer work feels less onerous than the work I accomplish during the academic year. The difference, I believe, can be attributed partly to one simple truth: summer offers me the freedom to putter.

During the academic year I focus like a laser on the task at hand, whether it be teaching, reading, writing, or whatever. My days are structured and time on task is clearly defined, so I point my nose toward the goal and never waver before I reach it.

When classes are over, however, the days stretch out in loosely structured waves and my life takes on a different kind of rhythm. I like to walk or work in the garden early in the morning and write for a few hours before noon, but then in the afternoon I might do a little of this, a little of that, and a little of something else, trusting that if I don't get it all done in one day, there's always tomorrow. I putter over to the bedroom to sew some seams in the silk I'm wearing to my daughter's wedding, and then I putter out to the mailbox to pick up today's bills, and then I might pay a few bills or I might sit down and read the paper first, and if I read it outside I might notice that the herb garden needs watering and I really ought to do some weed-eating along the driveway, and how about planting some tomatoes?

At some point in there I'll make some supper. If the resident bread-baker is at work in the kitchen, I'll start a fire in the grill and toss some meat on the coals, and I'll sit out on the deck and read the next chapter of something while it's cooking. The other evening I persuaded my husband to take a break from his baking long enough to teach me how to drive the tractor, which allowed me to spend the evening putt-putt-puttering around the meadow mowing down the tall grass. Mowing is an utterly mindless task--but I had worked my mind pretty hard in the morning, so it was ready for a break.

And that's really what puttering is: after the intensely focused tasks that drive my life during the academic year, the freedom to putter is all the break I need.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The hopeful wolf

The other day I heard a report about one important difference between dogs and wolves--and I heard it on NPR, so it has to be true. This noted dog researcher (meaning a person who does research on dogs, not a dog who does research...although I'd like to hear that report!) claimed that when a human being points a finger toward something in the distance, a dog will look off in the distance while a wolf will look at the finger.

Unfortunately, my dog didn't hear that report. This morning we were walking past the neighbor's hay field when I spotted a good-sized deer about 100 feet away. I immediately pointed my finger toward the deer and said, "Hopeful! Look!"

Hopeful looked--at my finger.

"No, look over there in the field! A deer! Look look look!"

She kept looking at my finger in hopes that it might at some point produce a doggy treat, as it has been known to do in the past. She never even glanced toward the deer before it bounded off into the woods.

I am forced to conclude that either the dog researcher got it wrong or I've skipped an important step in the human/dog communication process. Or maybe we're actually harboring a wolf. A Hopeful wolf--or a wolf wannabe?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Second thoughts

After weeks of gathering information and months of mentally planning my ASLE paper, today I sat down to actually start writing the thing--but first, I took a look at the abstract I submitted with the paper proposal to see what I said I was planning to say, and my first response was, "What was I thinking?!"

Of course it's quite obvious what I was thinking because the abstract explains very clearly what I was thinking. The problem is that in the months since I wrote the abstract, my thinking has veered off toward a slightly different conclusion, one that would require focusing on a very different aspect of the works from what I promised in my abstract.

What do I do now?

I always hate showing up to hear a conference paper on what sounds like a fascinating topic only to hear the presenter state, "I had planned to discuss [the topic you're all eager to hear about], but instead I've decided to focus on [some other topic only vaguely related to the original fascinating idea, and probably a self-indulgent topic at that]." I don't want to do that.

So instead I've spent the morning twisting together my current strand of thinking with the strand I stated in my abstract, and I think I've come up with a workable solution that will make the finished project even stronger. It certainly provides more room for expansion when I turn the short conference paper into a journal article, and it dovetails nicely with my larger research project, of which this paper will eventually form an important chapter.

Now I just need to start writing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ironic quest

I've been trying to buy a new ironing board--a simple enough task, you might think, but so far I can't find them at any local stores. One store carries only the type of ironing board that folds up into a cabinet on the wall, while another carries only mini-ironing boards that fit over the back of a door. I need a no-nonsense, full-size ironing board in which to iron my husband's dress shirts and my blouses and skirts and (most importantly) the dress I'm making for my daughter's wedding, but I can't find one anywhere.

I can imagine two reasons for this local dearth of ironing boards:

1. Nobody's ironing anymore. The people who used to iron are now wearing no-iron fabrics or taking all their shirts to the laundry or walking around looking like they've been sleeping in their clothes.

2. Everybody's ironing more. There's been a run on ironing boards and the local stores are all sold out.

Either way, I'm left with an ironing-board-shaped void in my life and I don't know how to fill it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ready to read

I knew I had forgotten some important preparation for summer break. I've ordered all the library materials I'll need for my research project, assembled the ingredients for my herb garden, ordered hand-painted Thai silk for the dress I'll wear for my daughter's wedding, arranged travel to the ASLE conference...and now at the end of the day I find myself with nothing to read.

Of course there's the newspaper and the latest Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Yorker, but I need a summer book--or, better yet, a whole pile of summer books. I'm not talking about heavy-duty theory or books related to my research project; I'm talking about the kind of book I want to read at the end of the day when my muscles are tired from weed-eating or gardening, something that will let my eyes just glide across the page without making too great a demand on my brain cells.

I've ordered the new Colson Whitehead novel but it's not here yet. Ditto Apologize, Apologize and the third volume of Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow, which isn't even available in English yet. But that's not nearly enough! I need an emergency infusion of light summer reading and I need it NOW. Suggestions, anyone?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Strictly peripatetic

WHEREAS sitting for long hours in meetings creates a dull throbbing in the back, distracting participants from the important matters under discussion; and

WHEREAS all that sitting makes the blood settle in the butt, diverting it from the brain, which succumbs to an overwhelming dullness; and

WHEREAS the air inside meeting rooms tends toward staleness, promoting physical and mental torpor; and

WHEREAS nothing gets the blood flowing and the senses sparkling and the ideas germinating better than a good brisk walk straight up the side of a steep hill;

THEREFORE, by the authority vested in me as Faculty Chair, I hereby proclaim that all campus meetings will henceforth be conducted in the open air by peripatetic participants engaging in brisk hikes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Aerobic gardening

I haven't worked out at the rec center all week, but today I indulged in some aerobic gardening, digging up a chunk of ground for a new raised-bed herb garden and then helping my daughter plant a butterfly-and-hummingbird garden in front of the house. The muscles I've developed on the rowing machine all semester helped me dig up the rough, rocky soil where we'll relocate the herb garden, and I did enough bending and stooping in the flower garden to give the abs a decent workout, but tomorrow I'll be sore all over...which will give me an excellent excuse to sit out in the sun and admire the flowers. Come on, sunshine! I'm ready to rest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Weed miss you!

You know, weeds, I have to admire your effort. While I've been off enjoying a brief vacation, you've been diligently growing and spreading and multiplying all over my lawn and my flower garden, and I've got to say that the results are impressive--but do you think you could give it a rest? Surely you need a little vacation after that exhausting growth spurt. Wouldn't you like to just take a brief respite from growing like weeds? There's nothing more relaxing than a nice road trip--in fact, I'd be happy to pack your bags for you if you'd just make up your mind to go!

And if you simply can't get motivated to come back, that's okay too. I'll miss you, really I will, but somehow my heart shall go on.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What the well-dressed graduate is wearing

When Salman Rushdie gave the 1996 Commencement Address at Bard College, he explained that he was nearly prevented from graduating from Cambridge in 1968 because of inappropriate footwear:

I went to the ceremony wearing brown shoes, and was promptly plucked out of the parade of my gowned and properly black-shod contemporaries, and ordered back to my quarters to change....I gave in, sprinted off to change my shoes, got back to the parade in the nick of time; and at length, after these vicissitudes, when my turn came, I was required to hold a university officer by his little finger, and to follow him slowly up to where the vice-chancellor sat upon a mighty throne. As instructed, I knelt at his feet, held up my hands, palms together, in a gesture of supplication, and begged in Latin for the degree....

My daughter's commencement ceremony required no Latin supplications, nor did anyone get plucked out of line for wearing inappropriate shoes, and when the ceremony was over, she had the sense to take off her fancy high heels and slip on some flip-flops. She gets an A+ for footwear management. Now let's see how she manages the rest of her life!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The race is on!

A baccalaureate service in Kentucky a week after the Kentucky Derby naturally featured horse-racing allusions. At commencement, said the speaker, the trumpet sounds and the gates open and the graduates burst out of the gates into the race...and at that point, there's no getting them back in the barn.

My daughter was out of the barn last night at baccalaureate singing her heart out and then directing the entire crowd in singing "How Great Thou Art." She had tremendous presence on the stage, keeping the crowd moving vigorously through the verses by the sheer force of her voice and arms and personality. Today she'll walk across the stage and pick up the diploma for which she's worked so hard and then we'll have a mad dash of packing up and moving on out to the next turn in the horserace.

I have no clear memory of my own college baccalaureate service in that same auditorium 25 years ago, perhaps because more recent turns in the horserace are dominating my mind, but I do recall that sense of possibility that I see displayed so prominently in the faces of my daughter and her classmates. From this point on, anything can happen--and there's no getting them back into the barn.

Which is fine, because who wants to live in a barn?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

This entry is about "This entry is about..."

Now that classes are over, I'm diving into research for my ASLE paper and other projects, and even at this early date I am already tired of seeing scholarship that starts off with a lame "This book is about [something interesting]" or "This article will consider [something else]."

Listen up, scholars! The opening line is the first opportunity to make an impression on a reader, to grab the reader by the eyeballs and make him or her pay attention. "This book is about" just doesn't do it. I suppose this sort of opening line would be helpful to the sort of reader who picks up a book entirely at random without any prior awareness of the topic of the book and without any ability to discern what the topic might be based on the title or cover blurb, but really: how many readers get to the opening line of a scholarly tome without first developing some inkling of its general topic? And why would anyone want to cater to such lazy readers?

And yet this opening move seems to be multiplying like kudzu across the academic writing environment. Will somebody please make it stop?!

So much beauty so close to home

This morning I discovered that the wildflower I identified yesterday as wild oat is actually, on closer inspection, perfoliate bellwort (and what a clownish name for such a delicate yellow blossom!). The two plants have similar flowers, but the leaves of perfoliate bellwort look as if they're being pierced or perforated by the stem.

I also found both Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal blooming in close proximity. The two species have similar foliage, but on Solomon's Seal, the tiny white-green blossoms hang like little lanterns along the underside of the arched stalk, while False Solomon's Seal features a cluster of blossoms bursting from the end of the stalk.

Finally, I noticed tiny feathery ferns unfurling in the underbrush. A few years ago in New Zealand I marveled over ferns unfurling in soft spirals, but I had never looked closely enough to notice so much beauty so close to home.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fight and flight

On an early-morning walk we saw a pair of male orioles fighting over a female, twisting and twirling around one another in the air before dropping into the creek and then flinging themselves off into the blue again. I wish I'd had the camera with me, but it all happened so quickly that I probably would have missed it anyway.

I also didn't get a photo of Solomon's seal in bloom or the burgeoning beds of twinleaf or the really lovely wild oat flowers. This cold, wet spring seems to be bringing forth more of my favorite flowers and some new ones I haven't encountered before. It also seems to be discouraging the invasive garlic mustard, which is much less prevalent than in previous years. Of course, the weather has made it impossible to plant anything in the garden, so for now we'll just have to content ourselves with fresh asparagus. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If my garden produces nothing but asparagus this year, it will have done enough.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Count me out of the Hosseini fan club

I've finally figured out why I'm not joining the "I Love Khaled Hosseini" fan club. I was significantly underwhelmed by The Kite Runner, and I finally read A Thousand Splendid Suns over the weekend and was similarly unimpressed. I realize that millions of people all over the world think these books are just wonderful, so who am I to gripe?

And yet: I just don't like his writing, and now I can tell you why. I figured out the problem after I noticed that at several points throughout A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini echoes certain phrases or ideas associated with Salman Rushdie. For instance, one of Hosseini's main characters is born on the date of an important historical event (as in Midnight's Children), and at some point the ground beneath her feet shakes--which evokes Rushdie's brilliant novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It doesn't really matter whether these echoes are intentional or otherwise; I'm certainly not going to complain about an author's facility with allusion.

What these allusions accomplished for me, though, was to juxtapose Hosseini's novels and Rushdie's in my mind, and Hosseini suffers in the comparison. Both authors create strong, memorable characters whose personal sufferings reflect violent public events, but there the resemblance ends. Hosseini competently wields two essential tools of fiction writing--character and plot--while Rushdie's toolbox is brimful of figurative language, inventive syntax, and images that give new life to tired ideas.

Hosseini's sentences sit on the page flatly conveying information, while Rushdie's sentences sing and dance across the page like caged birds suddenly released into the sunlight. Hosseini afflicts his characters with suffering that wrings readers' hearts for a while, but Rushdie transforms his characters' experiences into vivid images that prowl around in readers' minds, connect with other fragments of the collective unconscious, and spawn new offspring that will infest literature for a long time to come.

One example will demonstrate the difference: in A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini plays with the fine line between safety and imprisonment, creating a household in which the women are "protected" by being brutally controlled. The house where this happens is...just a house. Ordinary, mundane, unmemorable.

Rushdie juxtaposes the same safety/imprisonment dichotomy in the first section of Shame, but this is no ordinary house: Rushdie's house expands and contracts like a womb, first expelling its offspring in an act of bloody violence and eventually entombing him. This womb/tomb image returns subtly throughout the book, serving as a powerful image representing the violent birth pangs of Pakistan.

Hosseini's novel, while competent enough, never comes close to producing such a powerful image. His writing is prosaic, his language unmemorable, his imagery negligible. Which makes me wonder: why do so many millions of readers love his books?

Friday, May 01, 2009

The friendly exclamation point!!!!!

Do exclamation points make prose friendlier? This is one of many questions Stuart Jeffries explores in "The Joy of Exclamation Marks!" in The Guardian (read it here). Surveying changing attitudes toward this most excitable piece of punctuation, Jeffries quotes a Terry Pratchett character who considers excessive use of exclamation points "A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head."

"There are lots of people these days with figurative underpants on their heads," asserts Jeffries, blaming the trend on online communication styles. Jeffries notes a study that determined that women tend to use exclamation points more than men because the exclamation point conveys friendliness. "When, though," asks Jeffries, "did friendliness become the arbiter of orthographic etiquette? There is surely a point after which exclamation marks no longer express friendliness."

My favorite comment on exclamation points comes from the late Lewis Thomas, who wrote, in "On Punctuation,"

Exclamation points are the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else's small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn't need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!

Couldn't have said it better myself!