Thursday, December 31, 2009

When the road hits back

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I've learned at MLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A little medicinal entree

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

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

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

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

And it was really, really good.

Paging Roy G. Biv!

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Aimless at MLA

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lostness lost

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe that's the point.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Put a fork in it

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

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

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

Better not forget to pack my paper.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unwrapping a wonderful surprise

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

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

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

The open house was cancelled.

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

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

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

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

A boy and his chainsaw

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The wanderers return

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

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

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

Say, is that a blizzard heading our way?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Normality is just around the corner

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

The agony and the ecstasy

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

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009


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

Let it snow

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

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

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

Death to dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Er, make that "discomfort."

Friday, December 18, 2009

From the uneasy chair

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

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

Now we just need some snow...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Smells like Christmas

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

End of a friendship

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

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

O come all ye futile...

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On fudge and fiction

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

Making fudge and writing fiction.

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: wish list

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

'Tis the season to read folly

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A real Dickensian Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

To arms, two arms!

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: final hurdles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Actual conversation in my freshman comp class this morning:

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

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

Student: "I'll bet you could."

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

Student: "That sucks."

Me: "Sure does."

Humoring the humor-haters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we keep laughing.