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!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

King of the Hill (of beans)

Every once in a while I start to worry about whether kids these days are developing the skills they'll need to succeed in adult life. Sure, they may have mastered World of Warcraft, but have they learned all the best ways to cheat at Monopoly? Can they catch a fish, sketch a bush, sew a trousseau for a Barbie doll? Do they know how to fling a soybean adroitly enough to hit another kid on the back of the neck?

I'll admit that I was generally better at dodging soybeans than at flinging them, and I wasn't particularly good at dodging them either. For a few years in my misspent youth, I waited every morning at a rural school bus stop on the edge of a soybean field that was annually transformed into a battle zone in the ongoing Soybean Wars. A properly flung soybean can sting and even raise a welt, so a kid equipped with a handful of soybeans and a lot of practice could become King of the Bus Stop.

How well do soybean-throwing skills transfer into other contexts? With their penchant for precision, practice, and ruthlessness, those kids could now be ruling worlds much bigger than our rural bus stop.

I've never been very good at catching fish, but I spent enough time fishing in my youth to now consider myself exempt from ever baiting a hook. Likewise Monopoly: you can't spend an entire summer playing the game without mastering all the winning moves, legal or otherwise. And the hours I spent designing and sewing clothes for my dolls were ideal training for clothing my children--until they moved beyond the "little doll" stage and demanded real clothes, like from a store.

These days I don't use my doll-clothes-designing or soybean-dodging skills much, and I worry about whether these skills are being passed on or whether they'll die out. Will future generations of children know how to improvise clothes or weapons from whatever materials come to hand (old curtains, worn pillowcases, sticks, stones, soybeans), or will their creativity be confined within the clickable world? If no child ever again flings a soybean, I worry that some essential experience will be eternally lost.

But then again, maybe that loss won't amount to a hill of beans.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wind me up!

If some toy company ever decides to market a Cancer Bev Action Figure, I hope they install a perpetual motion machine to keep it running, because those little wind-up motors poop out a little too quickly.

After a week of solitary sedentary clicking, I was really excited about returning to the classroom this morning. My first indication that this would be more challenging than I had expected came when I walked up the stairs to my first class. I just don't have the stamina for stairs these days, you know? But the elevator in that building is so slow that I have never once seen anyone using it.

I was on fire in my first class, strong and alert and full of vigor--until I wasn't. The spring wound down about 40 minutes into class, but I kept babbling for another five or six minutes until I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere.

But then I had another class--fortunately, one I can teach sitting down. I did what I could and then put my students to work, first individually and then in groups. I suppose they learned what they needed to learn, but I also learned an important lesson about my limitations: no matter how much I would prefer to be SuperProfessor, right I'm just a wind-up doll with a defective spring.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From positive thinking to critical thinking

On visiting a megachurch devoted to the Me-First mania of the Name-It-And-Claim-It prosperity gospel, Barbara Ehrenreich found the church's conception of God sadly diminished: "Gone is the mystery and awe; he has been reduced to a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts. Even in these minor tasks, the invocation of God seems more of a courtesy than a necessity. Once you have accepted the law of attraction--that the mind acts as a magnet attracting whatever it visualizes--you have granted humans omnipotence."

Ehrenreich's critique occurs in her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. With wit supported by solid evidence, Ehrenreich examines churches that employ positive thinking to promote greed rather than good, corporations that rely on motivational speakers to transform employees into mindless drones willing to turn a blind eye to injustice, and financial institutions so devoted to optimism that they ignore warning signs of disaster--leading, in part, to financial messes like the one we've been experiencing for the past year.

It's a large topic and Ehrenreich makes some large claims, including the sweeping assertion that much illness in the United States before the twentieth century can be blamed on the prevalence of Calvinism, a complex doctrine she describes with little nuance or sophistication. She is at her best, though, skewering the words and deeds of evangelists of positive thinking, from motivational speakers to prosperity preachers to corporate managers, whose doctrines place the blame for any misfortune firmly at the feet of the victim. For instance, Ehrenreich quotes motivational author and speaker Rhonda Byrne's responding to mass devastation by stating that "disasters like tsunamis can happen only to people who are 'on the same frequency as the event.'"

I'm sure Barbara Ehrenreich has never met a colleague of mine who insists that "if you think you have good luck, then you will." I have never considered myself particularly lucky, so the fact that I have cancer while my lucky colleague does not provides anecdotal evidence supporting his claim. If only I'd devoted more time to thinking that I have good luck, maybe that nasty carcinoma would have left me alone! My fault entirely.

In fact, Ehrenreich is at her most devastating in the chapter detailing her own struggle with breast cancer more than a decade ago. While researching her condition and treatment options, Ehrenreich felt increasingly isolated. "No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments," she explains; moreover, when she expressed her anger among groups of cancer patients, she was reviled for failing to focus on the positive.

"Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy," she adds. Assailed by pink ribbons, pink pajamas, pink teddy bears, and relentlessly cheery rhetoric, Ehrenreich rails against the tendency of the breast-cancer culture to infantilize women. She describes a tote bag full of items to help women fight cancer, including hand lotion, a pink satin pillowcase, and crayons. "Possibly the idea was that regression to a state of childlike dependency puts one in the best frame of mind for enduring the prolonged and toxic treatments," writes Ehrenreich, but "Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars."

If positive thinking is the problem, the solution, insists, Ehrenreich, is not negative thinking but critical thinking: the ability to look at the real world armed with a skeptical eye and the full use of the intellect, to be enriched by the wisdom of others without buying into mindless groupthink. Devotees of positive thinking spend too much time immersed within their own heads, she claims, and too little working to change those nasty negative aspects of life that result in injustice. She ends with a call to action: "The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the 'first responders'! We will not succeed in all these things, certainly not all at once, but--if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness--we can have a good time trying."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Literally literary

I'm a bit befuddled, metaphysically and scientifically and philosophically and poetically, by a statement I encountered while doing research for my MLA paper. In "Wright's Lyricism" (Southern Review 1991), Nathan A. Scott says this about James Wright's poem "A Blessing": "in this moment in which the frontier line between nature and the human order is wholly transcended the spirit of the visitor literally flowers."

He is referring to the final lines of the poem:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Now let's just ignore Scott's overlooking that small but important word "if," and let's not be distracted by the fact that a body from which the "I" has "stepped out" is what we call a corpse. What I can't get past is Scott's assertion that in this poem, "the spirit of the visitor literally flowers."

We've all heard of or perhaps experienced a metaphorical flowering of the spirit, but if a spirit flowered--literally--right in front of me, I do not know how I would recognize the phenomenon. What does a literally flowering spirit look like? What, for that matter, does a literal spirit look like? How is it possible to say that a literal flowering is occuring in an entity that we cannot see or touch or even clearly define?

Marianne Moore wants poets to create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," but Nathan Scott wants to plant a literal garden in which metaphysical entities flower. I'd like to get my hands on some of those seeds.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: plunging into the abyss

Just for fun, I've been trying to pinpoint the most boring moment in what may well have been the most boring week of my life. Since last Friday afternoon, I have left the house only to go on solitary walks or, once, to pay a brief visit to the cancer center. Except for my radiation guru, a nurse, and a few strangers in the waiting room, the only human being I've encountered face-to-face all week has been my husband, who is not boring but is often quite busy. I've worn virtually the same boring clothes every day, eaten the same boring leftovers, and puttered through the same boring afternoons, but without a doubt, the most boring moment of the week, the veritable abyss of boredom, occurred when I forgot to take any reading material along to the cancer center:

Reading the Room

Exam table, chairs, and a small rolling stool--
but no book.
Cabinets, drawers, a neat counter and sink--
but no book.
A colorful torso, plastic organs exposed--
but no book.
Time magazine dating from 2008--
but no book.
Time ticking on with sublime unconcern--
but no book.
Darkness, soft breaths, and somnolent snores--
but still no book.

Can anyone possibly write anything more boring than that? Give it a try: verse in any form describing your abyss of boredom.

Feeling the heat

The morning cup of tea is generally a soothing ritual, gently easing me out of lingering drowsiness and into the waking world. This morning, on the other hand, my tea jerked me to alertness: one sip and my lips started to tingle and burn.

It wasn't the tea--a harmless infusion of Moroccan Mint--and it wasn't the temperature. It was the mug.

Why would a mug make my lips burn? For the same reason our house smells piquant and my husband's hands are dangerous: yesterday we transformed a pile of hot peppers into a hot pepper sauce that suffused the entire house with a wonderfully hot tangy fruity smell that could make your eyes water if you got too close.

My husband prepped all the peppers (wearing gloves, which didn't prevent his hands from burning and spreading the burn everywhere they wandered) and washed up afterward, dumping some other dishes in with the peppery pots. Everything that came into contact with that dishwater still simmers with the heat of habaneros.

I supervised the process in between online teaching tasks, tasting the concoction and telling him when to add more salt, more vinegar, a dash of sugar. The result is an amazingly lethal but delicious hot sauce...and hot hands and a hot mug and who knows what else?

We made enough hot sauce to last for months, so even on the coldest, bleakest days of winter, long after the pepper taste has faded from my tea mug, we'll still be feeling the heat.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The electronic garden

I was out in the meadow admiring the play of wind through the leaves of the sycamore trees along the creek, but I was haunted by a feeling of deja vu. The subtly shifting shapes and colors, the random movements of leaves in the wind created a familiar picture: it looked like something I'd seen recently, something I'd encountered often, something quite close by.

It looked like a screen-saver.

When wind moving through sycamore leaves starts looking like a screen-saver, it's time to close the laptop.

I'll admit that my laptop computer has been spending way too much time on my lap this week. I've been following online discussions, posting electronic assignments, and commenting on students' work, which involves a lot of sitting and clicking, sitting and clicking, sitting and clicking in front of the screen. As much as I enjoy the insights my students bring to online activities, the whole click-wait-type-wait-repeat routine is just boring. It's much more fun to wander around engaging a room full of students in discussion of interesting literature--to watch the ideas waft through the room like a breeze--than to sit on the sofa going click-wait-type-wait repeat all morning long.

After lunch, laptop fatigue finally sent me outside the house, where I hoped the perfect fall weather would blow the cobwebs out of my brain. I walked by the creek, looked at the fall leaves, watched a red-tailed hawk wheeling above the meadow, and then noticed the sycamore leaves shimmering in the gentle wind, reminding me of a screen-saver and taking my thoughts back to my laptop computer.

If I can't escape the machine in the garden, perhaps I'll move the garden inside the machine. I'll catch that image and imprison it in prose so it can linger inside my laptop long after the last leaf has fallen.


Is it possible to write about boredom without being boring?

The careful writer knows that boredom is both friend and enemy. A reader bored with life seeks refuge in a book--but a reader finding boredom in a book tosses the book aside and returns to real life.

The writer sifts and sorts the material of everyday life to engage the mind of this easily distracted reader, gliding past the dull spots or transforming them into epic drama as Joyce did in Ulysses. If the mere act of walking down the street can evoke the terrors of Scylla and Charybdis, then boredom has been banned from the book.

Nevertheless boredom is a common experience, filling huge chunks of anyone's ordinary life but falling quickly out of memory. Over time, boredom becomes a blank, leaving no apparent mark on the mind.

How can I turn that blank into something memorable? How can I recreate for readers the experience of boredom without violating the essence of boredom? Let's face it: if I can succeed in making boredom interesting, then it's just not boring anymore.

So is it possible to write about boring without being interesting?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The early bird catches the call

The phone started ringing at 6 a.m. today and rang six times before 7--but that's better than yesterday, when the calls started at 5 and kept on into midmorning. With all kinds of germs invading the county schools, the resident substitute teacher is in high demand. If my husband could clone himself, he could teach in eight classrooms this morning--but he'll have his hands full filling just one.

Sometimes he gets no sub calls for days or weeks at a time, and then we have weeks like this, when the calls start in the evening and continue early the next morning. Fortunately, most of the schools in the county now use automated calls and there's no need to be polite to the robo-voice that interrupts your dreams at 5 a.m. But my husband is always polite, even when he's talking to a machine. It would never occur to him to drag a caller into whatever nightmare the call might have interrupted. That's what makes him a better person than I am...and that's why he's in charge of answering the phone when it rings at 5 a.m.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Taste of summer in the middle of fall

We went out to the garden yesterday afternoon to pick peppers and dig sweet potatoes in advance of last night's frosty weather, and we discovered a last lonely watermelon hiding amongst the sweet potato vines. It was small but sturdy and ripe and delicious, so we enjoyed a taste of summer in the midst of autumn chill.

This has been without a doubt the most productive garden we've ever grown. The remaining plants look pretty droopy right now, but the peppers are still flowering and would continue to produce if the weather would let them, and we still have plenty of beets and other root crops in the ground. They don't mind a little frost, but we'll need to pull them before the first hard freeze. The okra and tomato plants have withered and the zucchini onslaught is, thankfully, thoroughly done, but we still have some cabbages and brussels sprouts out there, although the sprouts seem a bit puny.

Today I'll roast some sweet potatoes alongside a pork loin and serve it with watermelon on the side. It's an unconventional menu, but the watermelon will allow us to carry a bit of summer's sunshine into the autumn chill.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Solitary confinement or protective custody?

Because my immune system is hobbling around on crutches just at the moment when all kinds of nasty germs are aggressively invading the area, I've been working on a plan to stay away from campus all week. I have three goals:

1. Stay healthy. (Or at least avoid getting more unhealthy.)
2. Provide meaningful learning experiences for students in all three classes.
3. Keep up with paperwork associated with grading and advising.

This is actually a pretty good week to try this kind of experiment: no exams, no papers, no drafts due--just a handful of homework assignments. I had already arranged online activities for my Monday and Tuesday classes (to allow me time to recover from Friday's chemotherapy), so I just need to arrange meaningful activities for two classes on Wednesday, one on Thursday, and two on Friday. I've got plans in place now for all but three class sessions, so I'm well on the way.

To achieve goal 3, I'll need to retrieve a book and advising folders from my office as well as whatever mail might have piled up in my box. I'll be in town for a doctor's appointment Tuesday afternoon, and one of my colleagues has already agreed to collect the things I need from my office and meet me in the parking lot to hand them over.

As to staying healthy, the key will be simply staying home. Until my white blood cells get back on their feet, I'll be pursuing the pleasures of solitude--for my own protection, of course.

Interesting timing, since this week my postcolonial class will be considering the fine line between protection and imprisonment in Salman Rushdie's Shame. Hey, maybe that could be Friday's online discussion then I'll be ready to break out of this joint.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I hate the word "relatable"

Suppose I relate to my brother, to whom I am related by blood, a tale about one of our relations with whom we have had a sometimes rocky relationship. Would it be accurate to call that story "relatable"?

I don't know. In fact I'm not entirely certain what "relatable" is supposed to mean, despite the number of times I see it in student papers. Lately my freshman writers have been evaluating the credibility of essays they've read, and no matter how often I urge them to consider the author's credentials, the presence of bias, the essay's tone, and the reliability of evidence, a handful of students insist on basing their critiques entirely on whether they find the essay "relatable."

Now there are many types of relationships we can have with a piece of writing: we can find it amusing, engaging, annoying, intriguing; an essay might challenge us to stretch our thinking skills or send us digging in the dictionary. But that's not the kind of relationship my students are talking about. When I press them to explain what they mean by "relatable," they mean the essay deals with familiar ideas and uses accessible language. In other words, they apply their term of highest praise only to writing that feels comfy as an old sofa.

But if they value only writing that reinforces what they already know, why bother paying all that money to go to college? I wish I could find a way to convey to my students the passion for engaging with unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable ideas, the joy of encountering words and sentences that make them re-read and re-think and reach for the dictionary--and then find ways to adapt those new ideas and words within their own writing.

That's the kind of reading I could relate to. But please don't ask me to call it "relatable."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: seize the day

I've been reading Omar Khayyam this week (or Edward Fitzgerald channeling Omar Khayyam) and noticing how well his carpe diem attitude describes my daily life. I mean, just look at his most memorable lines:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Make a few minor substitutions and here's my day in a nutshell:

An iPod singing verses in my ear,
An IV drip, hospital food--and there
I sit absorbing chemotherapy.
O, cancer center! Let me out of here!

It's just uncanny how presciently Fitzgerald/Khayyam described my mundane activities! Perhaps yours too. Today's challenge: take a passage from a well-known poem and alter it to describe an ordinary day in your life. Are you regretting The Doughnut Not Taken? Stopping to Buy Buds on a Snowy Evening? Raking Whitman's Leaves off Grass? Tell all about it--in verse.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Publication and progress

This morning I accomplished something I haven't even attempted since July: I submitted an essay to a publication. It wasn't a long researched essay and it wasn't a peer-reviewed academic journal, but still: I sent some writing out there into the real world and now all I have to do is wait.

One of my great frustrations this semester has been my inability to make progress on some major writing and research projects. I've gathered all kinds of great material and I've put together extensive notes, some drafts of essays that just need to be revised and sent out, and even some finished conference papers that need to be expanded before they can be submitted to journals, but until this week, I haven't made one iota of progress on any of it since I sent a revised article to an academic journal in July. Information and ideas have continued to flow in, but with no output, the pipes get clogged.

I've got to get my writing and research back on track, but cancer treatment slows me down so much that I quail before the bigger projects. So this week I've tackled some small ones. The short essay I sent out today has been lingering in my "in progress" file for months awaiting just a final tweaking. If it gets accepted it won't count for much on my vita, but sending it out made me feel as if I'm still part of the publishing world.

And also this week I've been doing some research toward the paper I'll present at MLA in December, and I've been mulling over ideas even when I don't have the energy to write them down. I could easily back out of my panel if I wanted to, but giving a paper at MLA is a goal beckoning me forward to the time when I can go back to being just an academic instead of an academic battling cancer.

I have two more small projects in my "in progress" file and I hope to tackle them next week, provided I don't get steamrollered by side effects of tomorrow's chemotherapy. My oncologist says that chemotherapy causes my body to try to flush all those chemicals out of my system, so now I'm doing some intensive writing therapy to flush some essays out of my files. Both treatments make immense demands on my body and mind, but both also lead to progress toward important goals. The progress may be small and slow and difficult, but it's important to feel as if I'm finally getting somewhere.

And when I get there, you'd better believe I'll put it in writing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bravo for BRAvo

A bra made of pop-top tabs looked like chain mail and one covered with pennies looked like armor. A bra called "Safety Ore Bust" was made of hard hats, while a bra made of glass was called "Fragile--Handle with Care."

The BRAvo art challenge (read about it here) inspired creative people to pursue a safety theme, encouraging women to protect their, um, assets. Another common theme was hope--for a cure for breast cancer or for survival for sufferers. Bras were decorated in memory of women who had died of the disease or in honor of others who survive. An animal-print bra embellished with dog bones was titled "Fetch a Cure," and a bra covered with pink Hershey's Kisses was called "Kisses for the Cure." An elaborate feathered bra surmounted by a delicate stuffed doll was called "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" and accompanied by the Emily Dickinson poem.

The decorated bras at the BRAvo opening were impressive, but I was even more impressed by the number of people who came out on a rainy Friday night to look at bras, listen to terrific music, eat good food (including a bra-shaped cake!), and raise money for breast cancer research. My cancer-kicking posse was out in force, including the physician's assistant whose insistence that I get further testing probably saved my life and my cheerful oncologist and his lovely wife, the creative mind behind "Mind Your Melons." Friends and colleagues and cancer survivors crowded the gallery, while presiding over the event was my former student, Joy Frank-Collins, whose inspiration brought all these people together to gawk at bras both bizarre and beautiful.

Cancer is an ugly disease, but when the desire for a cure brings together so many talented people devoted to hope and safety--well, it's a thing of beauty.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nearly normal

The weather has turned nippy and damp this morning, but yesterday was probably the last warm afternoon of the season, with clear blue skies and just a flutter of wind--a perfect day for an afternoon walk. I've made it all the way up the big horrible hill twice this week, so I thought it might be time to walk the loop, a feat I haven't attempted since my surgery in June. Could I manage six miles of hilly terrain? That's what we set out to see.

The last time I walked the loop was the week before my daughter's wedding, when she and two of her bridesmaids joined me and Hopeful on the trek. This time my husband walked with me, and I was glad for the company because several times I might have turned around if he hadn't been there to encourage me. The uphills are still difficult, but once past those parts I did fine--and once you get past a certain point, there's nothing to do but just keep walking. So that's what we did. All the way around. Woo-hoo!

I feel almost sort of nearly normal today, but my next chemotherapy treatment is scheduled for Friday, so I'll get a few more chances to walk before entering into awfulness and then it may be weeks before I'm strong enough to get up that hill again. Still, it's good to know that the hill can be conquered. It stands there like a beacon, a challenge, a promise that one day life will be normal again.

For now, thought, I'll accept almost sort of nearly normal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chicken run

Why did the chicken cross the road, race across the meadow, run into the bushes, and finally dash up the creek?

To get away from the Hopeful hound, of course. A more interesting question, though, is what the chicken was doing in the road to begin with.

It started with a box. Hopeful and I were out on a walk yesterday morning when we encountered a broken cardboard box in the middle of the road, just where a box with a few feathers in the bottom ought not to be. That's odd, I thought, but I shoved it over to the shoulder and walked on.

We crossed the county road bridge and started up the hill, a quiet quarter-mile stretch of road with no houses or other buildings in sight--but the quiet was shattered by the squawking of a chicken that came running out of the bushes, crossed the road, and dashed down into the meadow toward the creek, with Hopeful in close pursuit. I tried to make her stop, but nothing I can say to my dog is nearly as interesting as a chicken fleeing into the bushes.

The squawking stopped and Hopeful immediately returned to my side, a few white feathers sticking out of the side of her mouth. I saw no other sign of the chicken.

Well, that's over, I thought--until another chicken burst out of the bushes just ahead and went running down toward the same meadow. This time I managed to keep Hopeful by my side. She seemed a little annoyed by the feathers stuck in her mouth, but I wasn't about to help her extract them.

As we walked on up the hill, I wondered whether I ought to do something about the chickens. A few of our neighbors keep chickens, but these didn't look like lowly laying hens. They looked like show chickens, like some child's precious 4-H project--certainly not the sort of chicken you expect to see wandering along country roads. I wondered whether I ought to conduct a daring chicken rescue.

But how? I'm just strong enough right now to walk up the big horrible hill, but running cross-country after swiftly-moving chickens isn't my area of expertise. Do I have what it takes to chase chickens through the bracken?

And suppose I caught them--then what? How would I carry two big angry chickens a half mile back to the house with Hopeful's help?

And then where would I put them to keep them safe while seeking their owner? Suppose I managed to stash two panicky chickens in the garage: when my husband came back from the Farmers' Market and stopped to unload his gear into the garage, the chickens would come bursting out at him, making their escape to freedom much like those chickens following Mel Gibson in the movie Chicken Run.

I would have to put a sign on the garage door: "Beware of Chickens." It would almost be worth the effort just to see my husband's face.

But first I would have to catch the chickens, and that would mean making sure Hopeful didn't catch them first. The dog stayed near my side until I turned around and started coming back down the hill, and then she dashed off ahead toward the place where we had last seen the second chicken. I called and whistled and brandished a doggy treat, but nothing I could do would deter her from pursuing that second chicken.

By the time I caught up with her, the chicken was up to its knees (do chickens have knees?) in the creek, dashing frantically upstream with Hopeful in close pursuit. I called and whistled to no avail. Dog and chicken squawked, barked, and splashed right out of my sight.

I turned for home. Hopeful followed about 20 minutes later. I interrogated her about the chickens, but her lips were sealed, with not a feather in evidence. Do I really want to know what happened to the chickens, or would I prefer ignorance?

Am I my chicken's keeper?

Or when it comes to running after panicky poultry, am I just a little too chicken?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Keeping the story straight

Last night at the BRAvo show, my oncologist commented on how hard he works to keep his patients' stories straight. My ears perked up at this, because much of my scholarly research and writing has focused on the power of narrative to bring a measure of healing to communities torn asunder. I look at Holocaust literature, postcolonial literature, African-American literature--literature produced by peoples violently disconnected from family, place, or heritage--and I examine the stories these communities construct to restore connection to a shattered past.

Now I wonder: how much does cancer treatment consist of helping patients pick up the pieces of their shattered life stories and reassemble them in a meaningful manner? The cancer story is a genre unto itself, thriving online and in popular books and magazines, and I know that writing about my experience with cancer helps me make sense of a senseless situation. I don't have much control over what's going on in my body these days, but at least I can contain my cancer within a box of words.

So I know that turning cancer into a coherent narrative is an important element in my healing, but now I wonder what role doctors play in helping patients understand and assemble their new stories. A cancer diagnosis introduces a new plot twist, violently cutting narrative threads and bringing the ending into question, but one thing I really appreciate about the cancer center is that they don't view patients as bundles of symptoms to be processed through the system as quickly as possible but rather as whole people whose diseases present not just intellectual challenges but visceral and emotional and spiritual tests as well. Doctors who see their patients as complex stories rather than disconnected symptoms and who work hard to keep those stories straight could provide the impetus the patient needs to assemble a new and meaningful story in the midst of incomprehensible disease and discomfort.

Besides, I've always been a sucker for a good story...doctors who care about my story make me want to hang around to see how the story ends.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: just testing

I'd rather take a test myself than watch a room full of students struggle with a test I've written:

Susurration of
pencils on paper. Eyeballs
roaming. Answers--where?

On the other hand, some tests I force myself to take even though the process is painful:

Needles stick, blood flows.
I await results. Brief pain
brings lasting relief.

Now it's your turn: verse of any kind about testing situations.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

They're playing our song!

Some students make me laugh and some make me cry and some make me very, very proud to have played any part in their education. This week a former student made me do all three at once.

Two weeks ago I challenged readers to write a theme song for my cancer-kicking posse (read it here), and Joy Frank-Collins wrote some terrific lyrics. Now those lyrics have been set to music. You can hear a demo track by visiting Joy's MySpace page and clicking on "Kicking Cancer's Butt."

Tomorrow night Joy will preside over opening night of the BRAvo project, for which more than 60 artsy-craftsy folk have submitted decorated bras that will be displayed at a local art gallery and then auctioned off to raise money for breast cancer research (read about it here). I've seen a few of the submissions, including a watermelon-themed bra titled "Mind Your Melons" and bras decorated with buttons, feather, pennies, and other materials both exotic and ordinary.

Some people fight cancer with drugs and some with money, some with hot-glue guns and feathers and some by writing songs. I'm just proud to know someone who can do it all at once.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Hats off!

Yesterday while walking in the woods far from prying eyes, I took off my hat and let the wind whip through my hair--er, stubble. It felt great.

For six weeks now I've been covering my bald head with a hat or scarf pretty much all the time--on cold nights I even wear a soft cap to bed. Today I'm wearing a lovely scarf an old friend brought back from Turkey years ago; yesterday I wore a silk scarf a colleague recently brought back from China, and last week I wore a fall-color scarf another old friend brought back from Japan two decades ago. The world comes together to cover my head.

The campus seems comfortable with my colorful scarves, but I still get a few funny looks when I'm out in the community. On Monday I made the mistake of walking into Wal-Mart while crowned with a brilliant purple scarf. You know you're in trouble when Wal-Mart shoppers treat you like a sideshow freak.

At the cancer center last week I saw a beautiful bald woman, tall and lean as a runway model and elegant too, and I admired her ability to boldly walk around without a hair on her head, but I'm just not comfortable exposing my baldness to the world. It feels naked and it looks--well, with my short stubble next to my husband's tight curls, we could easily be mistaken for Velcro.

But yesterday I sweated pretty hard walking halfway up the big horrible hill and then I wanted to cool down a bit, so I doffed my cap. No one was there to see except Hopeful, and she didn't flinch. The sun and warm wind felt refreshing, and my head felt free.

But that doesn't mean I'll be exposing my stubble to the world anytime soon. It's one thing to feel free and naked while walking in the woods and another thing entirely in Wal-Mart. I wouldn't want to risk getting arrested for indecent exposure!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Mid-class epiphanies

Some disconcerting epiphanies struck while my students were working on their midterm exam this morning:

I've asked them to answer a question to which I don't have a good answer myself.

The total number of points available on the midterm is 101 and not 100 as I'd intended.

I really don't have a good remedy for wandering eyes.

Midterm today, midterm Thursday, midterm Friday, plus the big pile of essays from last Friday's class...what have I done to myself?

These pants looked black this morning! Why are they suddenly navy blue?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The only show in town

A commenter on this morning's post wants to know how I learned to know my birds, which is a good question without an easy answer. The short answer is this: when birds are your primary source of entertainment, you learn birds. But how?

Five years ago when we moved out to the woods, I was pretty ignorant about birds. I knew robins, of course, and the more common colorful birds like bluejays and cardinals, but not much else. Our housewarming party was visited by a brilliant little yellow bird and a blue one that certainly wasn't a bluejay, but they didn't have an invitation and no one knew their names.

One day soon after that I was in the bedroom ironing, my least favorite household chore, and I suddenly realized that if I put a birdfeeder outside the bedroom window, I'd have something to look at while ironing. I recalled that there was an old feeder out in the shed somewhere, so I found it, filled it, and hung it just outside the window. In the time it took me to walk back inside and look out the window, half a dozen goldfinches were perched on it.

I was hooked.

We started shopping for more feeders and set up a feeding station within easy view of our big front window. Our house is located in an ideal situation for birdwatching, providing a welcoming environment to a variety of different types of birds: halfway up a hillside, with woods, open fields, and a creek nearby. Despite this, we really hadn't seen many species before we put up feeders. The feeders flushed the birds out of hiding and brought them into plain view.

Identifying them became the next challenge. We keep bird books near the front window, and at first we would set small challenges for ourselves: okay, here are three smallish birds with gray on their backs, but how are they different? The tufted one is a titmouse, the gray-blue one a nuthatch, the tiny one with black flashes a chickadee. Next, what about all those little brown birds? It took a while, but soon we easily recognized the more common visitors.

But we also had help--and a little luck. The first time my colleague from the biology department came out for a visit, we were walking in the upper meadow when we happened upon a pair of shy indigo buntings making a nest, a sight we'd certainly never seen before and may never see again. Then on the way back down the hill her ears perked up and a huge smile broke out. "Orioles!" she said, scanning the tops of the tall sycamores along the creek to find the flash of orange and black. She recalled as a child spending hours on end trying to track down the source of the oriole's rare and lovely call, but she hadn't heard one in decades. We felt blessed.

Five years later, we're still learning. I only recently figured out how to spot the phoebes, which suggests that either they haven't visited the feeders in the past or else I just confused them with titmice. (There's a titmouse perched on a houseplant on the porch not two feet from my face right now, looking in the window as if trying to identify what it sees. Are they as curious about us as we are about them?) I still can't reliably distinguish the sparrows of various species, especially the females, which all look like pretty much the same little brown bird. And sometimes a migrating bird will stop by, challenging us to reach for the bird book again.

But it really comes back to my first answer: we live in the woods without television and with very bad radio reception; for entertainment, we have birds, butterflies, wildflowers, trees, and sometimes small woodland creatures. When birds are the only show in town, you learn birds.

Just don't ask me to identify the stars of any of the new fall television shows. I'm not familiar with their plumage.

Saturday morning census

At first light I saw four chickadees at the big feeder and two female goldfinches on the thistle sock. Then a pair of titmice and some nuthatches. More finches. Two chickadees. A pair of plump phoebes. Another nuthatch. Two chickadees, then three, then two finches on the thistle sock and one at the feeder.

A female cardinal arrives--the first bigger bird. Four female goldfinches. (I guess the males are sleeping in while the females catch the worm, or the thistle seed as the case may be.) Mr. Cardinal arrives along with another nuthatch, a few more finches, a titmouse.

Ooh, a big beautiful red-bellied woodpecker perches, barred back looking elegant next to the muted plumage of the titmice. Now two female cardinals and a mourning dove, a pair of chickadees, half a dozen goldfinches. Looks like the males have finally dragged themselves out of bed--er, nest.

Two nuthatches, three chickadees, a titmouse and a mourning dove compose a study in gray and white at the big feeder while the brighter goldfinches attack the thistle sock. Here's Mrs. Cardinal again looking prim and matronly but for the orange lipstick. Six finches now crowd the thistle sock, one more at the big feeder.

Everyone clears out for a moment and then a male cardinal arrives, then a phoebe, a nuthatch, three or four chickadees moving too quickly to count. A mourning dove pecks at the ground beneath the feeders. Another male cardinal arrives but the first one chases him away. The air is perfectly still and quiet as the sun climbs higher above the ridge.

A pair of titmice and some goldfinches show up, plus a big fat mourning dove. A solitary goldfinch sits at the end of the bar looking very pleased with himself. A titmouse grabs a sunflower seed from the feeder and then perches on the bar to pound the seed open. Then they're all gone again, leaving the feeder abandoned.

It won't stay that way long. They'll be back--along with bluejays, downy and hairy woodpeckers, various sparrows, purple finches, the occasional flicker or bunting. Soon we'll start seeing juncos again. (Which makes me wonder: when did the towhees leave?) The hummingbirds are gone for the winter, but as long as the birdseed lasts, there's never a dull moment at the feeders.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: warning signs

Word just in that the University of Florida's emergency preparedness web site includes procedures for surviving a zombie attack (read it here). This calls for poetry:

If his eyeballs are staring, some bloodstains he's wearing,
And he looks like he's one hurting hombre,
Call the health center, please, and report this disease,
For your roommate just might be a zombie.

Now it's your turn: verse in any form providing procedures for surviving unusual plagues or pestilences.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bulldog tough?

On my bulletin board hangs a pink card featuring a drawing of a feisty-looking bulldog and the following message: "Tina was so tough, her poodle skirt had a bulldog on it."

If I had a poodle skirt I'd put a bulldog on it, but that doesn't mean I'm succeeding at being that tough. My toughness has definitely been tested this week and pushed to the breaking point a few times, but somehow I'm still standing.

Make that sitting. As much as I prefer to wander about and wave my arms while teaching, I've been doing a lot of sitting down in class lately. I try to reserve all my energy for mental alertness, but even there I wonder whether I'm slipping. I occasionally lose track of what I'm saying in the middle of a sentence, but that's nothing new--I've been experiencing occasional mental slippage for years. I just don't have any way to gauge whether the slippage is turning into a landslide.

This week I've employed several new techniques for reserving energy: taking the world's slowest elevators even to go up one floor, resting my eyes while my students do group work, parking in the handicapped spot near my office. I felt a little guilty about using my temporary handicapped permit to fill a space that someone else might really need, but if the inability to walk across the room without pausing to catch my breath is not a disability, what is?

And this week at my darkest moments I've wondered whether I'm crazy to keep teaching through treatment. Wouldn't I be doing everyone a big favor if I spent the next few months sitting at home looking at birds and going slowly but inexorably insane?

Last night--or early this morning, if you want to get technical about it--I was sitting in the dark eating instant mashed potatoes (because that's what I can eat right now, even though it belongs in the same food group as wallpaper paste) and wondering whether I can finish the task I've tackled. I know I'm tough, but am I tough enough?

The mashed potatoes must have helped, though, because I woke up this morning sore and stiff but energetic, ready to take on the new day. This would be the perfect day to wear that bulldog skirt, as long as the bulldog doesn't mind a little nap in the middle of the afternoon.