Monday, June 29, 2009

Filling my tank

First thing this morning I went out to the garden to fill my hands with weeds choking out the young okra plants and my mouth with plump fresh blueberries plucked fresh from the bushes. I filled my ears with the sounds of water running in the creek, kingfishers chattering in the trees, and cows complaining in the meadow across the road, and I filled my eyes with the feathery green of fennel, the variegated browns of good rich earth, and the brilliant orange of creekside tiger lilies.

I breathed in the scents of growth and morning, and more than anything else I wanted to hold that breath and carry it with me through the coming week so I'll have something wholesome to breathe in the hospital and then back home after my surgery. It may be some time before I can easily get down to the garden or up to the butterfly meadow, but meanwhile I've filled up my senses with fuel for the journey. I just hope I can get back on my feet before the tank runs out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The milkweed in our upper meadow is just starting to bloom, which means butterfly season is upon us.

Traffic jam

This morning on my walk I saw a box turtle, a pair of indigo buntings, a red-tailed hawk, and an array of spangled fritillaries, but I didn't see another human being or a car for the first five miles, and then suddenly I found myself in the middle of a traffic jam--or what passes for a traffic jam out here in the middle of nowhere.

I was walking across a barely-two-lanes-wide bridge accompanied by my dog and the neighbor's lab pup, whom we call "Goofy" because he walks with a distinctively Disneyesque lope, sort of like a teen boy who has just gone through a growth spurt and doesn't quite know what to do with those lanky arms and legs. We were halfway across the bridge when two cars approached, one from each direction, and I suddenly realized that the bridge was not big enough for the five of us. What could I do? I had nowhere to go unless I jumped off the bridge--a 10-foot drop to a creek carrying about six inches of water. Not an attractive option.

I controlled my dog, but Goofy doesn't recognize my authority so he was running around playfully while these two cars crept carefully past. Somehow we all got across and my dog got a treat for being good, and Goofy went on being goofy. He's just a kid. One of these days he'll figure out that cars are not puppy toys. I just hope he doesn't have to learn that lesson the hard way.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Gallant advice

In the current issue of Granta, Jhumpa Lahiri interviews Mavis Gallant about her life as a writer, including a brief stint as a writer-in-residence in Toronto:

JL: Did you enjoy the experience?

MG: I would never do it again. I think it's a dead loss. I'm opposed to it. You can't teach writing.

JL: Given that you were there, what did you teach them?

MG: They should know their language and read. Read, read, read.

Many would disagree with Gallant's claim that writing cannot be taught, but her advice is excellent: the first step toward being a good writer is knowing one's own language. This seems like a no-brainer--after all, plenty of people are competent enough to communicate effectively in English! But I can count on the fingers of one hand the students I've had who have cared enough to really know the English language, to know it so intimately that they can take it apart and play with the pieces and put it all back together again in original and creative ways.

Where does this intimate knowledge of language come from? I don't know, but I know the symptoms when I see them: students who take linguistics classes for fun, who read stylebooks and language-related blogs, who play word games, who delight in exploring the origins of words, who employ syntax with precision and mastery born of a love for language.

The difference between a person who can use the tools of language and one who intimately knows the language is like the difference between a real artist and one who excels at paint-by-numbers, or the difference between a computer user and a computer programmer. It's a passion I don't see often, but when I do, I know that the student who possesses that passion for language is well on the way to becoming an excellent writer.

And what better way to know and love one's own language than to read?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spuds find new digs

I still need to hang some pictures and empty some boxes, but I've officially moved to my wonderful new office. What makes it wonderful?

1. It's a virgin office, never used before, so I don't have to put up with anyone else's mistakes, which leaves me plenty of room to make my own mistakes.

2. Beautiful soothing sage-green walls.

3. Warm wood tones.

4. Great big desk.

5. Gigantic windows let in plenty of light.

6. A little round table with three comfy chairs.

7. Mr. Potato Head and friends have room to stretch.

So far I've encountered only one problem: no one knows where to find me. It's a little quiet up here, people--how about some visitors?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A dream come true

Last fall after my daughter got engaged I started having crazy dreams about her wedding: the pews faced the wrong way, or the bride and groom got pushed out of the church in a giant perambulator, or the bride wore a blue dirndl skirt and carried a bouquet made of orange pipe-cleaners.

Well, only one of those dreams came true. At the wedding the bride carried white roses, but at the rehearsal her bouquet was considerably more colorful.

I am pleased to report, however, that no perambulators were involved, and the pews faced forward just as pews ought to do.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Attention deficit

Back in my new office ready to tackle the big pile of work I've been putting off until after the wedding...but first, I'd better empty out the last few boxes and file things away. Except now that I look at them, I remember why I haven't put them away already: I need to sort through them and toss some outdated stuff, which requires thought and attention, both in short supply at the moment.

So I'll leave that pile for later and take a look at my inbox: request for payment of bill, request for additional section of composition, request for extension from summer student...I can't think about all that right now. Let's close the inbox and take a look at the piles on the desk.

On second though, let's not. Too many small details need careful attention. Maybe I could decide where to hang the pictures in my new office, but that would require getting the last few boxes out of the way, which would require sorting through that wretched pile of files that seems to be growing by the minute. On such a lovely summer day, who can think about plagiarism documentation and assessment reports?

Could someone please come do my thinking for me?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wedding accomplished!

Friday evening some tall handsome young men came to me and in very serious tones asked formal permission to set off some fireworks in our lower meadow. "All right," I said gravely, "but you have to remember one thing: all our neighbors own shotguns."

At any rate the fireworks went off with a bang with no mishaps or complaints. My son and my new son-in-law's two brothers put on a pretty spectacular show for about 20 young people gathered on the night before my daughter's wedding; meanwhile, the bridesmaids moved furniture and rolled up rugs in the garage apartment to make a pretty passable dance floor, where they gave the assembly swing-dance lessons. All I had to do was stay out of the way.

The wedding and the reception were entirely free of fireworks, although we had plenty of laughter and joy. At the wedding I had a whole row of my daughter's music-major friends sitting behind me, so when we all stood up to sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," it felt like heaven.

One small glitch arose Saturday morning, when my husband woke up feeling quite sick. He had spent a good part of the week baking many beautiful loaves of braided challah bread to serve at the reception, but then he was too sick to take the racks of bread to the reception hall. So I set off with a van full of bread and a bridesmaid, and I left my son behind with exactly one task: "Make sure your father gets to the church on time" (which was pretty important since he, along with the groom's uncle, was officiating at the service!). I delivered the bread to the hall and my son delivered the pastor to the church, and in the end everyone ended up in the right place.

But where are the bride and groom? The drove two hours last night to stay near the airport, and today they fly out to an undisclosed location, which will be revealed on the groom's Facebook page sometime today. If the past week's events are any indication of their future, I suspect they'll be sharing a great deal of laughter and joy for a long time to come.

And dancing, of course. And maybe even some fireworks.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Last night we had elderly neighbors bearing wedding gifts at the front door and young future in-laws bearing a fresh catch of crawdads from the creek at the back, and I felt a bit torn. I expect that this feeling will be quite common over the next few days as we attempt to entertain the wide variety of people assembling for our daughter's wedding.

All week my driveway has looked like a used-car lot and the garage apartment has been crawling with bridesmaids, lovely young women bubbling with energy, which is a good thing because a great deal of energy is needed and I'm running out. The groom's dad and brothers arrived last night and delivered my son, who had to get up at 4 a.m. yesterday to get to the airport in time for his flight home. The groom arrived a little later after taking an extra trip back home to pick up the wedding rings (oops). Today my parents and brothers and in-laws will be rolling into town--just in time for the rehearsal tonight.

And here's the really fun thing: tonight the mayor is blocking off a section of the main street in town for an outdoor concert, so when the wedding party travels from the rehearsal to the rehearsal dinner, they will find the street blocked off and no parking places available within miles. It will be interesting to sit down to a terrific dinner at the best restaurant in town while a block away the mayor's bluegrass band sings their usual songs about the joys of eating roadkill. Eat more possum. It's America's other other white meat.

Rehearsal today, wedding tomorrow, big family cookout Sunday, and then my household will return to its usual state of sedate dullness, when the choices become much simpler: weed the tomatoes or pick blueberries or mow the meadow? I'm enjoying all this hubbub but I know it won't last, and when it's over, the garden will still be silently waiting.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shiftless and shrieking

What does it mean when the entire electrical system in your car stops working at it starts to shriek every time you shift gears?

We may never know, because it acts that way only when I'm driving. When my mechanic tried it, the car worked normally--a little cranky, but plenty of electricity and no shrieking.

He's a magic man, my mechanic. He drove into town and met me at my car just to see whether it was safe to drive or ought to be towed...and then it rewarded him by depriving him of work. I drove it home without a problem, but I don't trust it. I suspect that my mechanic will see that car again soon.

If the car had been the only thing that didn't work right today, it would have been enough, but no: my brain wouldn't work right, and neither did my ability to communicate, thanks to the lack of a phone in my new office and some internet connectivity problems. My attempts to finance my son's fall tuition also ran into a brick wall (thank you, worldwide economic crisis!), and an unexpected storm interrupted the gardening and weed-eating. And now my arms are not working. For that I blame the weed-eating.

So now I come to the end of the day having accomplished little that I set out to do but exhausted all the same. I just need a break. Maybe that's what my car is trying to tell me: "I'm tired of the constant motion. How about a day off?"

This evening I'll do my best to emulate my car: I'll refuse to function--and I may even shriek.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Wedding fever

I'm not sure what compelled me to select Anna Karenina for my casual reading in the week before my daughter's wedding--after all, the novel doesn't exactly inspire trust in the institution of marriage. On the other hand, it's probably a wiser choice than one made by another mother-of-the-bride, who insisted on using her favorite song as the processional at her daughter's wedding. The song? "Send in the Clowns."

I don't need to watch Bridezillas to know that weddings can inspire unusual behavior; all I have to do is consider the uncharacteristic actions I've recently committed:

I have had my hair cut at a salon that actually requires appointments.

I have purchased underwear that can be worn with only one outfit--and paid more for it than I've paid for underwear in the past five years.

I have made an appointment to have my eyebrows waxed.

I have purchased a purse just big enough to hold car keys and a handkerchief.

I know what you're thinking: "Who are you and what have you done with Bev?" But I can't help it: I seem to have been attacked by some sort of virus that weakens my will and compels me to do things I've never considered doing before. I'm glad the wedding is less than a week away because if this doesn't stop soon, there's no telling what sort of wacky compulsions might come my way. Someone stop me before I paint my toenails!

If marriage causes the malady, maybe Tolstoy will provide the cure.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lacking gravitas...but not gravity

In the midst of dark times of economic distress, incomprehensible news, and unusual weather, I am pleased to report that at least one force remains undeniably reliable. I refer, of course, to gravity.

My experience suggests that gravity is working just fine out there, utterly unaffected by the worldwide economic crisis, the war in Iraq, or climate change. I base this conclusion on a series of unintentional experiments involving an office full of books, a rickety library book cart, and an uneven flagstone path.

The path leads from Point A (my current office, soon to be my former office) to Point B (my new office). These points are not particularly far apart as the crow flies; in fact, it is possible to look out the window of my new office and see the window of my soon-to-be-old office. However, I have not been able to interest any flying crows in moving my pile of books between these two points, and since the campus has not yet installed a teleporter, I'm moving them manually.

I thought the rolling library cart would make the process easier: I can simply take books off the shelf in one office, put them on the cart in the same order in which I want them to appear on the shelf in the new office, and roll them over there and unload them directly onto the new shelves. No boxes, no need to re-sort books, no dollies...piece of cake.

The problem is that the best path between Point A and Point B runs out the door, across uneven flagstone pavement, down a little slope and up a steeper slope, into the library, up an elevator, and around the corner to the new office.

Do you have any idea what happens to a neatly-arranged row of books on a rolling cart when the cart rolls over uneven flagstones? They vibrate, jump, and shift out of place. And then what happens when the cart needs to go up or downhill while moving over uneven flagstones? You guessed it: gravity takes over. The books shift toward the downhill side, the entire row bulging outward until one slippery book jumps off the cart and the rest quickly follow.

Yesterday I transported two loads of books in this manner, trying to keep the cart straight on the slopes so the books wouldn't bulge out so much, but I soon realized that this was a two-person job. This morning my daughter helped me take a few more loads over and it worked much more smoothly. We'll take one or two more loads over and then we'll be done, but not before confirming, for those who might have been worried, that in a world of uncertainty there is still one force on which we can all rely.

Gravity: it's everywhere you want to be.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My miracle swimsuit

I hesitate to brag about my miracle swimsuit because then everyone will want one, but it's so terrific that I can't keep it to myself. My new swimsuit fits! Comfortably! And it looks terrific! And it was free! Mostly! Except for postage!

Let me explain: before I flew out to ASLE, I did some shopping in the Big City with my daughter and bought a new swimsuit, something I have not done in probably five years. (This suit is five sizes smaller than my previous purchase, which tells you something about those five years.) It cost more than I generally spend on a swimsuit but it looked stunning, so I couldn't resist.

I didn't take the suit to ASLE because swimming wasn't really in the game plan, so I didn't look too closely at it until after I got home, when I noticed that the sales clerk had failed to remove the security tag. How annoying. I have no plans to drive two hours back to the Big City to get that stupid ink tag removed.

So I called the store and explained my dilemma very calmly. There was some conferring with higher-ups on the other end, and then the clerk told me to mail it back to the store and they will remove the security tag, send the suit back to me, and credit my account for the full purchase price.

So today I'm putting it in the mail in the full confidence that it will return to me tag-free. One of these days I may even get to wear it. That's my kind of miracle.

Reflections on Victoria

I took hundreds of photos at ASLE but now I notice that very few have people in them.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Lost in a good book

I'm in the Seattle airport trying to relax and finish Tess of the D'Urbervilles before my flight, but I'm distracted by voices from above. I can ignore the flight announcements and security announcements pretty easily, but from above my left shoulder a television brings news bites that keep creeping insistently into my consciousness. The voices want me to think about imprisoned journalists, nuclear tests, and sexual paraphilia, but Tess is trudging across the heath toward Stonehenge and I'd rather stick with her.

I haven't read a newspaper all week, although I've glanced occasionally at the New York Times online. Apparently, things have happened while I've been gone. I've read about that plane that crashed in the Atlantic but I don't know how the Cleveland Indians are doing this week and I don't know anything about those journalists in North Korea, nor am I likely to learn much more from the annoying voices yammering on the tube. Airplane terminals are bearable only if one can become as absent from them as possible--preferably by being lost in a good book. The yammering talking heads keep jerking me back into the present and trying to keep me there with constant promises of hot news after the break. The news for Tess may be bleak, but the book will eventually come to an end, unlike the teasing promises of the 24-hour news cycle. I refuse to get sucked into that black hole.

There will be time to get caught up on the real world after I get home. For now, I'd rather stick with the fictional world that awaits between the covers of a good book.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sights and sounds

In a UVic classroom building: a sign featuring a wheelchair icon accompanied by the words "Area of Refuge." Is a wheelchair refuge like a wildlife refuge? Are wheelchairs endangered species, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

In Victoria's busy city buses: everyone says a sprightly "Thank you!" to the bus driver on leaving the bus. Everyone. Even the surly-looking goth girl who looks like she'd rather strangle her grandmother than flash a smile. My experience of commuter buses is not particularly extensive, but I've never seen this level of gratitude anywhere else.

In a restaurant called ReBar: sweet potato (roasted) and avocado (raw) in a salad. Which, by the way, was the best salad I've ever eaten, but still--sweet potato and avocado!

On Beacon Hill: the sound of waves washing the beach, dogs barking, ravens making their metallic meowing sounds--and just over the way, a fellow practicing the bagpipes in the middle of a field.

At the Inner Harbour: a street performer's polished patter, including the incomparable line,
"Of all the audiences I've ever had, you are, without a doubt, the most recent." When two white-haired, stodgily attired ladies strolled through the performance space, the juggler pointed to them and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, here are Eunice and Ingrid, my dancing girls, who will move off to the left and change before joining me here on the stage!" The audience laughed, but Eunice and Ingrid barely broke a grin between them.

In an early-morning chapel service: the Passing of the Peace followed by the Anointing with the Hand Sanitizer. At the appointed moment in the service, the congregants moved around greeting one another with handshakes and a hearty "Peace be with you!" and then moved off to several corners where bottles of hand sanitizer were stationed. If only peace, too, came in jars with handy dispensers....

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Breaking fast

ASLE attendees are a friendly bunch, but you'd never know it at breakfast, where solitary ASLE-ites sit at the end of long cafeteria tables, one person per table, except for those attending with friends. On previous mornings I've made a practice of sitting opposite one of these lone diners and I've had some interesting conversations that way, but today I decided to sit first and let someone else do the seeking.

I sat facing the door so I could see each person come in and look hopefully around for a place to sit. I flashed my best smile and made eye contact as often as possible, and a few people smiled back--but they all moved on to sit elsewhere. How long would it take before some brave soul decided to break the ice and sit opposite me?

Twenty minutes is the answer. I was nearly done with breakfast but still drinking my tea when a fellow sat down, a professor at Sterling College, which has as many students as my college has faculty members. We had an interesting discussion about the challenges of interdisciplinarity on the small college campus before going our separate ways. Score one for friendliness.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Ministry of Silly Quests

I'm sitting on a bench on the wharf in Victoria surrounded by unusual performances. To my right a portly fellow plays traditional tunes on the hammer dulcimer, including that old-timey favorite "Hey Jude," while to my left a scrawny fellow juggles lit torches while riding a tall unicycle, and behind me a mime is taking a smoke break. 

But I'm immune to the excitement because I'm immersed in the opening chapters of Tony Hawks's classic tome Round Ireland with a Fridge, which I purchased today for $5.99 (Canadian) at Munro Books in downtown Victoria. The book was available in paperback for $16.99 or in slightly battered paperback for $5.99, and I wonder what sort of person pays more than twice as much for the same amount of silliness.

The silliness begins in the first chapter when Hawks succumbs to GTDSBS syndrome: Going To Do Something a Bit Silly. Hawks muses about the motivations of people who pursue outrageous acts of derring-do simply because it is there--"But so are your slippers and the TV remote," notes Hawks:

Why subject yourself to untold pain and deprivation when popping to the shops and back followed by a bit of a sit down is an option? Why explore when you can tidy? Why sail singlehandedly when you can read singlehandedly, trek when you can taxi, abseil when you can take the stairs, stand when you can sit, or listen to Neil Sedaka's Greatest Hits when you can take your own life?

Hawks's laissez-faire approach to life is a timely antidote to what I'm hearing at the ASLE conference. Last night's plenary speaker, Karsten Heuer, got a standing ovation (!) for a really marvelous presentation about his experiences following a herd of migrating caribou in the Arctic, hiking from Yellowstone to the Yukon, and canoeing across Canada, presumably without a fridge. Then this morning I heard a paper on the rhetoric of mountaineering, which made me rejoice that I'll never have the $65,000 guide fee necessary to climb Everest (where a fridge would really be redundant). 

I am delighted that many talented and dedicated people are willing to undergo hardship and danger in order to visit and write about some of the world's least habitable places, but Hawks reminds us that epic quests are available closer to home to anyone susceptible to GTDSBS syndrome. I'm no more likely to climb Everest than I am to trundle a fridge on a trolley around the perimeter of Ireland, but if others are willing to pursue these quests, I'm happy to read about the results.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The view from the top

At 10 a.m. I find myself sitting on the summit of Mount Douglas and looking out over the glassy water toward the islets and mountains in the distance. There's no one here but me and the birds and four other people: a jogger who passed me as I trudged sweatily up the steep hill, a fiftyish couple speaking French, and a lean and wiry woman walking a friendly white terrier. A gentle breeze sweeps away the sweat I worked up walking up this hill, and when the French-speakers pause, the silence is intense. 

It took quite an effort to get up here: an hour and a quarter walking from the campus to Mount Doug, all of it downhill--which means I'll walk the same route uphill on the way back, mostly through busy commercial areas. In the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood stands Mount Douglas, a dark crag that looks like a piece of the Jurassic jutting into our era. The lower slopes are covered with thick pine forest, ferns, and rhododendrons, but the terrain becomes less familiar as I move uphill. Near the summit are oak trees with shiny, curly leaves, and the rocks near the summit are studded with brilliant yellow stonecrop blossoms.  Someday I'll figure out what all this stuff is but at the moment my primary goal is to rest up for the trip back to campus and let the breeze blow the cobwebs out of my head. I'll attend a session this evening and more over the next two days, but today I decided to get away and get the view from the top.

Paradise lost

At MLA I got lost in the labyrinthine conference hotel; here, I got lost in a garden. It's not even a particularly big garden, just a small but vibrant haven of greenery on the UVic campus, a quiet place where I escaped the noon sun to sit on a bench and gather my thoughts. 

The flowers there are astounding: rhododendrons in many colors and an amazing davidia that dropped huge white petals like feathers falling from the sky. I saw some Solomon's Seal taller than I've ever seen and still blooming in June, and I heard birds that sounded entirely unfamiliar but turned out on closer inspection to be towhees. 

Then I got up to go back to the conference--no easy task, as I soon learned. The paths in Finnerty Gardens curve and twist, confusing my sense of direction, already numbed because of jet-lag. If I keep walking, I thought, eventually I'll find the way out. I could hear traffic on the far side of a hedge but I couldn't find a way through or even a signpost to point the way, and I felt a little silly about asking directions out of a place no one in her right mind would want to leave. I could stay here forever, I thought, wandering the paths and snacking on the feral bunnies that occasionally find their way through the fences. No one would ever find me and if they did, we'd never find our way back out again.

But eventually I turned a corner and saw that big davidia tree at the entrance and stepped back out of the garden into the workaday world of conference sessions, plenary speakers, and papers. Tomorrow I'll deliver a paper on the rhetoric of isolationism in paradise, so I suppose it's appropriate that yesterday I found myself isolated in paradise with not a hint of rhetoric to help me find my way.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Island time

After hours winging across country in an airplane cold enough to chill an Eskimo, I emerge into the bright Seattle sunshine and start soaking in the warmth. I have two hours to kill before the ferry takes me to Victoria, so I set out for a brisk walk along the waterfront to wake up the muscles that have atrophied during a long day of sedentary travel.  After around 20 minutes I look at my wrist to check the time and notice that my watch is missing--lost somewhere along the busy path where walkers, joggers, and bicyclers zip past in a steady stream. 

So I turn around and start briskly retracing my steps, my eyes glued to the ground just in case all these healthy hordes have overlooked my errant watch. Surely someone has picked it up by now--but no, there it is, glittering in the sunlight.

I take this as a sign that I need to slow down and little, stop and smell the roses (and poppies and lilacs and whatever these unfamiliar flowers are all around me). I am, after all, on vacation. It's a working vacation, true, but it's the only vacation I'm getting this year and after I get back I have to dive into the fray of preparing for my daughter's wedding, moving to my new office, and preparing for my surgery. So if I'm going to relax at all, it's now or never.

So I walk with my watch in my pocket for a while, drifting where the tide may take me. I pause to consider the ampersand. Cincinnati has flying pigs on pedestals along its waterfront; Seattle has a large red ampersand spinning atop a pole in Olympic Sculpture Park. And why not? 

Eventually the tide takes me back to the ferry that takes me to Victoria. I'm on island time now, and who needs a watch for that?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Awaiting ASLE

I've packed my bags, printed out my paper, and painted my nails, so I'm ready to go to the ASLE conference. Unfortunately, my plane doesn't take off until 6:30 tomorrow morning.

ASLE is, I think, my favorite academic conference. There are no job interviews so the stress level is low and you don't see so many self-important scholars dressed in black as you do at MLA. Some of my favorite people will be there this week, at a lovely location (Victoria, British Columbia) where the forecast calls for warm temperatures and sunshine all week long. Last time I presented at ASLE, my session had a large and attentive audience who raised interesting questions at the end. All in all, a positive experience.

I'll arrive in Victoria Tuesday evening and stay until next Monday...but first, I've got to get off the ground. Only 14 hours...