Friday, January 29, 2010

Broken links in the chain of faith

Last week the New York Times ran a series of articles (read it here) on problems arising from the growth of radiation treatments for cancer and the horrible health effects resulting from accidental overdoses. What strikes me on reading these articles is that for all its grounding in high-tech science, radiation therapy requires tremendous acts of faith from everyone involved.

Of course all medicine requires patients to exercise a certain amount of faith--in doctors, treatments, medicines--but if you go to the doctor with a migraine and he accidentally amputates your big toe, it will be immediately apparent to all involved that someone has made a terrible mistake.

Radiation, though, is invisible, and an accident won't necessarily produce visible or visceral effects right away. The patient has to trust the technicians to get her positioned in the right place and operate the equipment properly, and the technicians have to trust the radiation oncologist and medical physicist to properly plan the treatment and program the equipment, and the doctors have to trust the manufacturers and installers of radiation equipment to make the equipment operate as specified, and the general public has to trust the Powers That Be to enforce regulations promoting safety.

The Times articles explore some broken links in this chain of faith: medical personnel faked degrees, software glitches deleted essential settings, radiation technicians monitored the wrong computer screen, state and federal regulations had holes in them big enough to drive a linear accelerator through, or people trusted what the computers were telling them without using their eyes to verify that the machine was doing what it was supposed to be doing--and patients suffered horrible painful disfigurement or death.

I'm glad I didn't read these articles before undergoing radiation treatment because they would have scared the bejeebers out of me, but I'm glad they published the series because perhaps they will inspire changes in regulation and administration of radiation treatment. I have to remind myself, though, that the Times focused on a small number of horrific cases rather than on the huge number of patients who undergo radiation treatment successfully every year. Successful treatment doesn't make news--and I, for one, am delighted to be, at this point, utterly un-newsworthy.

Friday poetry challenge: literary tribute

I don't remember when I first encountered Holden Caulfield, but I suspect that he squeezed into my youthful reading somewhere between Alice and Jane Eyre. Holden may have used earthier terms than the girls but his task was similar: seeking a meaningful path through awkward or even incomprehensible circumstances.

They all had to deal with phonies and nonsense, and they all had trouble keeping their heads when all about were losing theirs. Holden could have gleaned some travel tips from Jane, and Alice could have shared some strategies for dealing with life's Tweedledees and Tweedledums. Imagine Alice, Holden, and Jane meeting in that Big Library in the Sky and continuing their journeys together--that would be a trip worth reading about.

Jane walked,
Alice ran,
and Holden took a bus.
Across a heath,
a wood, a park--
through nonsense, pain, and fuss.

With great aplomb
they wandered on
through trials I'll never face:
through reason's rhymes
and seasons' times--
they journeyed in my place.

Today's challenge: write a tribute to an author or character who carried you through difficult journeys.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Moving signs

After immersing myself in student drafts for the past three days, I finally emerged from the maelstrom, sent out my final suggestions, and fled up to the top floor of the library to clear my head. Sometimes I like to lie on my back in the middle of the floor up there and gaze up at the dome, where a big yellow light fixture hovers like the sun blazing in the midsummer sky. (I'm allowed to wax poetic--and you can too, provided you're willing to pay your fees and wait in those long lines at the Poetic License Bureau.)

But today I couldn't assume the proper contemplative posture because there's a table in the way, and I couldn't lie down on the table because a photograph was sitting on it alongside some explanatory signage. I'm generally willing to lie down on the job but not, as a rule, on explanatory signage. (Where would I get a license for that? The Explanatory Signage Bureau? I've never been able to find the place.)

So instead I wandered around and read some new explanatory signage, which has been popping up like mushrooms all over the building, including a sign informing me that on a particular date in a particular meeting "a motion was moved." It strikes me that it is in the nature of motions to be moved, and if the motion had done something other than being moved then that would surely be worthy of signage ("an irresistible motion met an immoveable force," for instance), but this particular instance of signage failed to inform me of what had happened to the motion that was moved, to wit: was it seconded, discussed, and voted upon? Or was it simply moved and left in limbo until the end of time?

That's too much information to expect from such a small smidgen of signage, so I abandoned the upper floor and returned to my office, a space still relatively free of signage. I have a meeting in an hour and some work to do, but I think I'll lie down on the floor and gaze up at the ceiling tiles and wait for the maelstrom of student prose to wash down the drain.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The open yellow wallpaper boat

My literature students are writing papers about Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Stephen Crane, and somehow the authors have commingled in my mind to create a story about malignant fungoid wallpaper trapped in a small boat surrounded by malign forces. The wallpaper wonders whether it has come this far to nibble at the sacred cheese of life only to have its glue washed off in the pounding surf.

Okay, I'm losing my mind, but you would be too if you'd so mangled your syllabi that you had to read 17 freshman comp drafts on Sunday, 24 American Lit drafts on Monday, and 10 creative nonfiction drafts on Tuesday just to stay afloat. I'm stuck in a boat swamped with prose about how communication has been important to the entire human race since the beginning of time, or maybe I'm locked in an attic wallpapered with essays in which every sentence begins with "I feel," "I think," or "I believe."

But I must write coherent comments on each of these drafts, comments clearly communicating the importance (since the beginning of time) of focusing on a clear thesis statement and supporting that thesis with specific evidence conveyed in clear and understandable prose, and my comments must be direct without driving my students to the wish they could wash up lifeless in the surf (like Crane's unlucky oiler) or creep around the room babbling mindlessly (like Gilman's wallpaper woman).

After this week, I'll need a rest cure. Preferably not in a boat.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hair apparent

Another episode in the thrilling saga of Bev's hair.

It's barely there.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: no excuses

Last night I watched my former student perform a remarkable musical feat even though she had a perfectly good reason to back out. With so many people (and not just students!) eager to grasp any excuse to back out of commitments or do shoddy work, it's encouraging to see someone press on through difficulty and wow a demanding crowd. This week I celebrate my student's "no excuses" attitude:

My throat is sore, my roommate snores,
My uncle bought the farm.
My cat has fleas, my stomach's queasy--
Is that the smoke alarm?

My checkbook needs some money (please!).
The weather won't stop raining.
My hard drive crashed, my leg is gashed,
My brain cells are complaining.

I need a break! I just can't shake
The feeling that I'm cursed.
But I'll press on, learn my lesson:
It can't get any worse!

Now it's your turn: verse in any form celebrating a noteworthy accomplishment.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From leaner to leanee

So I'm at the rec center ready to mount the elliptical machine and when I pop in the earbuds and turn on the iPod shuffle, the first song that comes on is "Lean on Me," which makes me very happy.

I'm happy because I'm in the rec center, which I had to avoid all last semester. I'm happy because I can work out on the elliptical machine and even do some rowing on the erg without feeling as if I'm about to expire. But mostly I'm happy because the song reminds me of a time when I really needed somebody to lean on and my wonderful brother came through for me (read it here), and that reminds me of all the people I had to lean on last semester, all the members of my Cancer-Kicking Posse who picked up the slack and got me where I needed to go so that today I can walk steps to nowhere in the rec center.

But the lyrics also made me happy for another reason:

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Last semester I lived out the first part of that chorus, leaning on all kinds of people for all kinds of annoying tasks. Today I'm thinking about the other side of the story: now that my strength is restored, maybe I can provide the shoulder for someone else to lean on. I don't have to be the needy one anymore! So go ahead, lean on me! I can take it!

I can't tell you how happy this makes me.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Committees vs. cancer

Colleagues have been commiserating with me over the number of committee meetings I attend, but really, I would rather spend the afternoon at a committee meeting than in some of the places I spent my afternoons last semester--radiation, chemotherapy, various rest rooms....

Given a choice between committee meetings and cancer treatment, I'll take meetings every time. Here's why:

At committee meetings I don't have to take off my clothes. I may feel vulnerable in other ways, but at least I can keep my clothes on.

I may feel bored half to death, but a committee meeting is unlikely to produce any actual life-threatening complications

The side effects of committee meetings may be annoying (boredom, annoyance, more committee meetings) but they are generally not incapacitating.

I've mastered the lingo of committee meetings, but the language of cancer treatment still sometimes stymies me. I can't always tell my neutrophils from my neutropenia, nor do I really want to.

Statistics that get bandied about at committee meetings are often quite important (retention rates, endowment figures, faculty salaries as a percentage of budget), but they can be handled in the abstract. When my oncologist tosses a statistic at me, on the other hand, we're talking about my mortality.

At committee meetings it is possible to get stuff done: results are visible and measurable and sometimes quite satisfying, and the lack of results can stimulate us to approach the problem another way. With cancer treatment, results are often invisible and ambiguous, and even positive results may be only temporary. It's impossible to know whether the work is done; eliminate the problem in one place and it might just crop up in another.

Which, when you come to think of it, is not at all unlike committee work. But hey, at least I get to keep my clothes on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When life and literature collide

I didn't do it on purpose, I swear. I made the syllabus ages ago. How could I have known that my students would have to read a vivid description of food poisoning in the same week many students have been stricken by a similar malady?

The only way I could have planned this unpleasant collision of reading and life would be if I had somehow caused the campus epidemic of gastrointestinal distress. What professor has that kind of power? And if I could make my students experience food poisoning while reading about food poisoning, maybe I could provoke an epidemic of malaria among my American Lit students, who are reading "Daisy Miller" for tomorrow's class, and later when we read Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" I could cause an epidemic of blindness, and then when my students are reading Toni Morrison's "Recitatif," I could make them all orphans. But then what do I do when we're discussing "The Undertaking" by Thomas Lynch? If I kill off my students, whom shall I teach?

Frankly, I would rather read about these maladies than experience them. I'm just sorry my students had to do both at once.

Monday, January 18, 2010

An epidemic of epidemics

We seem to be suffering from an epidemic of epidemics on campus. Many students are suffering from an epidemic of what some are calling "Dine Flu," which has resulted in the closing of every food-service venue except the main cafeteria, and even there all the self-serve options have been closed down. Five students were missing from my 9:00 class this morning and one at 10:00, all because of the horrible gastrointestinal symptoms of whatever this bug might be.

Meanwhile, faculty members are suffering from an epidemic of meetings. I'm on committees that meet once a week and others that meet less often, but regardless of how frequently they meet, every committee I'm on is having its first meeting of the semester this week. I also have meetings scheduled with individuals, and all told it adds up to nine hours of meetings this week. Nine hours! Last semester I would have skipped most of those so I could go to radiation or chemotherapy or go home to sleep or read or cry or whatever, but this semester I have no excuse.

Given a choice between two epidemics, I'd rather have nine hours of meetings than nine hours of Dine Flu--and having both together would be a nightmare. Fortunately, both epidemics are self-limiting, characterized by an initial onset that works its way out of the system fairly quickly. By next week we'll all be out of the woods...unless the Powers That Be decide to appoint an ad-hoc committee to study epidemics, which could make one epidemic better while making the other much, much worse.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The divine bovine

Trust me on this: you need to drop whatever you're doing right now and go read Woody Allen's story "Udder Madness" in the current New Yorker.

I don't want to ruin the ending for you, but the sentence that pushed me over the edge includes the words "lampshade" and "pustule." If you can read it without laughing, dial 911.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

An ice place

A week ago I watched my dog trying to scamper across a creek covered with ice. She loves plunging into the creek in any weather, but last week's sub-freezing temperatures presented a challenge: after her paws slipped out from under her a few times, she turned back to solid ground.

Today the water flows freely, but a week ago our creek presented a nearly solid surface of snow-covered ice only occasionally interrupted by open water. Animal tracks criss-crossed the snow, showing signs of deer, dogs, and smaller beasts. The snow that a week ago blanketed our hills and fields is now muddy and melting, its loveliness preserved only in pictures.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: on hands and poems

Dead air is anathema to radio broadcasters, but sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Yesterday an NPR reporter trying to describe the horrors of the Haitian earthquake choked up mid-sentence, resulting in a silence more expressive than any attempt to capture the disaster in nouns and verbs.

In the face of such suffering, what can poetry do? Martin Espada tackles the question in "Not Words but Hands," a poem addressed to a fellow poet grieving over the tragic loss of his partner and child. "We have no words for you," admits Espada, and this silence before suffering makes poets "prophets with tongues missing / like the clappers of empty bells." When words fail, though, "We only have our hands, to soap your shirts / or ladle soup for you, grip your shoulder / or dim the lamp."

Right now Haiti needs hands (to drive bulldozers, set broken bones, bury bodies) and those of us whose hands can't help ought to send money to empower other hands. But after describing the importance of hands, Espada concludes his poem by asserting that "this, this poem, / this is my hand."

After the bulldozers power down and the dust settles, what words will flow in to fill the silence? If a poem can place a hand on a survivor's shoulder, what poem extends your hand?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The dog ate my paper

Eons ago when I was a lowly graduate student, I buffed up a seminar paper and submitted it to an academic journal. Two years later, the editor replied with a request that I revise and resubmit, but by that time I had moved on to other projects--and besides, why would I want to do business with a journal that takes two years to reply to a submission?

Fast-forward a few years and I'm a professor interviewing candidates for a position in our department. One of the candidates notes my research interests and asks why I haven't been published in the aforementioned journal, which he serves as an editorial assistant. I tell him about my experience. He admits that there had been some problems but that the submission process has been streamlined, and he encourages me to submit again.

So I submit a new article, which is accepted immediately--but does not appear in print for two years.

Anyone involved in academic publishing can tell stories like these and others even more frustrating. Too often, submitting an article to an academic journal feels like dropping one's precious creations into a black hole. I had hoped that the proliferation of online submission procedures would alleviate this problem: I don't have to make multiple copies and then worry about whether they've been lost in transit, and it's reassuring to be able to check the status of a submission online. But when it doesn't work, an online submission system is just a more sophisticated black hole.

Case in point: about a year ago I submitted an article to a reputable academic journal through their online submission system. Within three months, I received a reply: revise and resubmit. I revised. I resubmitted before the deadline. I received an e-mail confirming that my submission had been received. I checked the status of my submission a few times over the next couple of months, but then I didn't think about it for a while. (I was distracted. You know, chemotherapy and all that.)

Eventually it occurred to me that five months is a long time to wait for a decision on a resubmitted article, so I went online to check the status. The online submission system slammed the door on my fingers: wouldn't recognize my user name or password; wouldn't send me an e-mail reminding me of my user name or password; wouldn't respond to any requests for help. After exhausting all the electronic options available, I e-mailed the managing editor. "Your dog of a computer ate my paper" is what I wanted to say, but instead I was suitably polite and deferential and non-demanding. All I wanted was some reassurance that someone was aware of the problem and seeking a solution.

What kind of reply do you think I received?


Zip. Nil. Nada. Not a word for a solid month.

I realize that everyone is busy this time of year, but please: aren't academic journals in the business of communicating? Why are so many of them so bad at this simple skill?

And how am I supposed to communicate with a black hole that won't stay still?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More than I can chew

This morning I kept expecting steam to rise from my mouth, I was talking so fast. Apparently, I tried to squeeze too much material into both of my classes this morning and then had to rush to get it all in. But these are both classes I teach every year and I thought I was using the same amount of material I've always I don't know why, but I'm already racing to keep up with my syllabus.

Yesterday I was racing to keep up with my Creative Nonfiction students. Everyone writes on the first day of all my classes, and this group had to write a coherent essay explaining their understanding of the phrase "Creative Nonfiction." My students used metaphors from art and math and cooking (!) to explore the paradox of creative nonfiction, while I fiddled around with a metaphor that made me happy but then kept spawning new ideas:

Clay sits in the earth dull as dirt, not yet the raw materials for art but simply raw. What transforms clay into art? First the mind of the sculptor, then the hands of the sculptor, and then the response of the audience. But after going through all these transformations, can the clay still be recognized as clay? Or has it changed so much that we must find a new label?

This is the question we face when we approach creative nonfiction. Facts sit out there in the world like clay in the earth, inert and disconnected from other facts with which they might reasonably rub shoulders in a story. The story comes into being through the agency of the writer, whose mind first seizes on a fact as a potter seizes a clump of clay, selecting this bit rather than that bit, testing each clump's suitability, tossing aside those that are flawed or don't suit the purpose. The selection process alone changes the fact because it is no longer inert and disconnected but is now part of a larger scheme, even if that scheme exists only in the mind of the writer. The act of setting a fact aside for further use takes it outside its natural realm and begins the process of transformation.

Next, the writer bends and molds the facts, kneading and shaping as the sculptor kneads and shapes the clay to conform to the contours of the imagined piece. The sculptor knows the characteristics of the clay, and if he tries to stretch it beyond its natural capabilities, to support more force than it can bear, the sculpture will be flawed or perhaps collapse. The writer, too, must know how much shaping the facts can sustain; facts stretched beyond endurance may cause the finished product to collapse, despite the writer's attempts to prop it up artificially:
"But that's how I remember it!" or "No one expects creative nonfiction to be entirely true!"

And that's as far as I got. In 30 minutes! Clearly, I bit off more than I could chew. Next time, I'll choose a more manageable metaphor or break it up into bite-sized pieces. Student complaining about too much work? Let 'em eat clay.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ladder love

So I came back to my office after class and had to squeeze past a ladder blocking my door. It's a big ladder and vividly blue, not at all appropriate with the muted earth tones in my office, so I don't intend to keep it in my office, so my colleague next door and I were discussing what to do with it: drape it with fabric and call it a sculpture? Hang plants from the rungs? Pretend it isn't there (which would be difficult considering how effectively it blocks the door)?

"Why don't we hide it?" she said. "Then when the worker comes back, we can act dumb and say, 'What ladder? I didn't see a ladder.'"

We considered it briefly, but where would we hide a ladder, and then who would replace the damaged ceiling tile?

So for the moment, I'm living with a big blue ladder. One of these days I'll teach it to do tricks.

Letting the cats out of the bag

She had a sense, when she thought about it, which she tried not to do, that everything unseen in her household had shifted its invisible place. Things had always been behind thick, felted, invisible curtains, or closed into heavy, locked, invisible boxes. She herself had hung the curtains, held the keys to the boxes, made sure that the knowable was kept from the unknown, in the minds of her children, most of all. And now she knew that grey, invisible cats had crept from their bags and were dancing and spitting on stair-corners, that curtains had been shaken, lifted, peeped behind by curious eyes, and her rooms were full of visible and invisible inhabitants dust and strange smells. She was rather pleased with all these metaphors and began to plan a story in which the gentle and innocent inhabitants of a house became aware that a dark, invisible, dangerous house stood on exactly the same plot of land, and was interwoven, interleaved with their own.

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. The "she" in the above passage is Olive Wellwood, whose expertise at stashing away the unknown keeps her burgeoning family together--and when the cats get loose and the secrets come rushing out, she responds by turning her family's chaos into metaphors and stories.

Byatt displays a remarkable ability to create a convincing world that masterfully mingles fact and fiction. The novel relies heavily on historical information about, for instance, reform movements in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is never weighed down by that information. Further, Byatt avoids the chief flaw of historical fiction: creating characters who live in a previous era while thinking as if they live in the present. Byatt's characters belong in their era and bring to vivid life thought processes and ideas very different from those of today but still recognizable.

Creating such an immense cast of characters, however, occasionally leads to problems as some characters are less developed than others and some are lost to view for long stretches of time. However, Byatt succeeds in making these characters believable and making me care about what happens to them.

And what happens to them is pretty interesting. They get caught up in events small and large, from private theatricals to the theater of war, without always being aware of the significance of these events. Readers, though, read about a small boy's wish to become a fox living in a foxhole and know that World War I is in the offing, so the child's innocent comment mingles in the reader's mind with the horrors of trench warfare, creating a rich and complex reading experience.

Most of all, though, the book is just fun. Byatt plays with literary forms and ideas, evoking echoes of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, J.M. Barrie, and other literary figures while also reflecting images from folk and fairy tales. Life and art intermingle in ways sometimes amusing and sometimes tragic but always interesting. The novel moves from innocence to experience, from above board to underground, through the looking-glass and back again, a long journey (675 pages!) that I would happily make again. It's a rare spectacle but well worth seeing when Byatt lets the cats out of the bag.

Monday, January 11, 2010

No worries

While my literature students studiously write brief analyses of a poem they've never seen before, I realize I'm holding in my hand a pen advertising the University of Virginia and offering me help quitting smoking. I never started smoking so I don't need help quitting, but I wish someone would help me quit worrying about teaching on the first day of class.

Today I'm worried about learning 24 names in my survey class and 18 in composition, a task complicated by the fact that two composition students share not only identical first names but nearly identical last names. I suggested that one of them should switch to a neglected name like Frieda or Helga, but they declined. Poor Frieda never gets a break.

On the first day of class, students are shy about being the first to finish the writing assignment. Finally a young man zips up his backpack and stands up to hand in his work and for the first time I notice that he's wearing shorts. Shorts! It's 14 degrees outside! At least he's not wearing flip-flops in this weather. I wanted to wear my new wool skirt for the first day of class, but cold weather and snowy sidewalks are not an appropriate environment for heels.

Now my composition students are doing their first-day-of-class writing and I notice that none of them are wearing shorts. Smart students! I asked them to respond to roll call by sharing the most interesting thing they read over break, and I was impressed by how many admitted to having read actual books. Several said they read the sports page, which is a start. The first unit in this class asks students to read, think, and write about the importance of reading in a wired world, so it's encouraging to see that reading has not dropped entirely out of their lives.

Or mine either: after class, I'll have a pile of brand-new student writing on my desk. I'm not at all worried about starting reading, but I do worry about what happens after I quit. Time to start teaching! Where do I begin?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: weather report

After a brief but restful holiday hiatus, the Friday Poetry Challenge returns with a weather report:

Flakes falling,
cars spinning,
wind blowing--
I'm grinning.

No driving,
Slow walking,
No working--
I'm socked in!

Now it's your turn: what's the weather doing in your neck of the woods?

Decaffeinated prose

Perhaps I hadn't had enough caffeine, but this morning I was befuddled by the following sentence in a brief book review in the New Yorker:

"Slater, in this enormously detailed biography, gives a vivid sense of Dickens's quotidian existence, and when he isn't noting dates or fees sets about identifying the people and events that Dickens's 'clutching eye' transmuted into fiction."

I maneuvered the first half of the sentence readily, but then trouble hit after the third comma, when I kept wondering what to do with "sets." First I saw it as a noun, and then I tried to read "fees sets" as some sort of noun phrase, which doesn't work at all, and then when I finally realized that "sets" is the verb, I had to go back once again and figure out who was setting what where. Another set of commas would have clarified the sentence, but a sentence already burdened by three commas might be overwhelmed by more. It might be easier just to add more caffeine.

In my coffee mug, of course. Not in the sentence.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cootie alert!

This morning I walked into a room filled with chairs set up for more than 40 people and I was delighted to see many of my colleagues clustering together to chat over coffee. What a contrast to the meeting rooms I entered last week at MLA, where the rows of chairs fill up in a distinct pattern:

The first person to enter chooses a seat at the end of a row of chairs, and so do the next few people. When each row has exactly one person sitting in it, the next people who trickle in will sit at the extreme opposite end of an already occupied row, ensuring that anyone else who wants to sit will have to climb over someone else first.

Next, the interior seats start filling in, with at least one seat left empty between any two attendees. At really popular sessions, eventually someone will have to break down and sit right next to another attendee. That's when it gets uncomfortable.

A more efficient method is for attendees to fill rows starting from the center so that those who arrive later don't have to awkwardly climb over everyone else's feet, but that would never work at MLA because we all want to sit on the end of the row so we have an escape route in case the session stinks. So I can understand the desire to colonize the end of the row, but I have never understood why so many scholars attending MLA prefer to sit next to an empty seat rather than a human being. Would it kill you to sit down next to another scholar? I mean, it's not as if we all had cooties.

The problem is that at MLA, we're all strangers--and we act as if we want to stay that way. This morning at our campus meeting, on the other hand, there wasn't a stranger in the room. Even new faculty who may have come in knowing nobody certainly did stay strangers for long. The room didn't fill up entirely, but I didn't see anyone surrounding themselves with empty chairs.

Maybe that's because at our campus, we don't have cooties.

Big Two-Hearted Wal-Mart

This is for Joy:

"Humor makes the door bigger. If you write in a comic vein, anyone can get into your story--any person, any place--whereas drop Hemingway in Wal-Mart, and what is he going to do with that material?....Gogol, on the other hand, you could put in Wal-Mart and he would do fine. Also Shakespeare, although he'd probably catch grief for the pointy shoes."
--George Saunders

I would look for Hemingway over in Sporting Goods.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Our B Side

"Wouldn't it be great to make up a syllabus featuring all the authors we never have time to teach?"

I had been complaining to my colleague about the difficulty of cutting great readings off a literature survey syllabus, and he suggested that we gather up all those neglected authors and put them on their own syllabus, a sort of B Side to the usual smash hits.

The B Side syllabus for my American Lit Survey would include the William Dean Howells story "Editha" and all the parts of Winesburg, Ohio that didn't make it into the Norton Anthology, plus a good selection of Robinson Jeffers poems and The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I would add the wonderful Philip Roth short story "Defender of the Faith" and liberal dashes of Vonnegut, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Proulx. If I wanted to go really crazy, I would assign one of Dawn Powell's novels (maybe The Locusts Have No King) and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West. Wouldn't that be an interesting course?

Now what about you? What authors and works would be on your B-Side syllabus?

Syllabus madness!

On Monday I finished the syllabus for my Creative Nonfiction class...but then I looked more closely and noticed that I had accidentally added an extra week to the semester. "Just leave it in there--the students won't mind," urged one colleague, but something tells me that's not a viable option. Back to the drawing board.

Then yesterday I was struggling to add some extra time to focus on writing in my American Lit Survey course, a Writing Proficiency course, but I had to cut two readings to make room. What I love about the American Lit Survey is the opportunity to introduce students to a wide variety of really wonderful writers and works. What I hate is all the really wonderful writers and works I have to leave out. Which old friend will no longer be invited to the party?

I left yesterday without making a decision but this morning I had it figured out: cut out Zitkala Sa (sorry!) and one of the Charles Chesnutt stories, and then move Kate Chopin's "The Storm" to the same date as Chesnutt's "Goophered Grapevine." The Chopin and Chesnutt stories both create parallels between human emotion and forces of nature, which ought to allow for interesting discussion. Also, students often struggle with Chesnutt's dialect tales, so assigning "The Goophered Grapevine" along with Chopin's very short, highly accessible story might give students more time to focus on understanding the dialect. I hope. "The Goophered Grapevine" contains my favorite Chesnutt line, "There's plenty of room for us all," a poignant statement coming from an author whose talented tales encouraged late-nineteenth-century editors to make room in their publications for the voices of black authors.

But I wish my syllabus had room for Zitkala Sa. I love "Impressions of an Indian Girlhood" and my students usually enjoy it too, so I know she'll come back another year. My students experience the survey only once (well, most of them), but for me it's a continuing adventure, with authors and works moving in and out of the syllabus fluidly over time. One of these years I'll make someone else move over to make room for Zitkala Sa, because in the long view, there's plenty of room for us all.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


"I thought for a while that people ought to have licenses, you know, to have to be issued licenses to write memoirs. And one of the preconditions for getting a license would be to have done something in your life besides having written this stupid memoir."
--Tracy Kidder

Well seasoned

Last night while chopping hot peppers, I felt the heat in my fingertips; this morning while scraping ice off the windows, I felt the cold. This is really good news: a month ago I was still suffering from numbness in my fingers, a common side effect of chemotherapy, but now my nerves seem to be back in action.

And that's not the only improvement. Yesterday a colleague asked me to help with a problem, and I felt my creativity coming online quickly to tackle the task. I feel energetic and ready to jump back into the fray; my only concern is that I might take on too much too quickly and wear myself out.

The hot peppers and cold fingers reminded me that recovery may be accompanied by pain, but on the other hand, I prefer a life well seasoned with both fire and ice.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Energetic resolutions

The college rec center was hopping today with faculty and staff members pursuing their New Year's resolutions--walking the track, working out with weights, huffing and puffing on bikes and step machines. I watched one staff member walking the track for 30 minutes with her cell phone pressed to her ear the whole time, but what's the point of leaving the office if you have to take the office with you?

I managed some weights and 25 minutes on the elliptical machine (at the lowest setting...moving very slowly) and I feel great, ready to tackle this afternoon's challenges. This morning I finished revising the syllabus for my creative nonfiction class, and this afternoon I need to work on American Lit. Academic buildings are quiet and there were only two sandwiches on display in the library cafe at lunchtime, but classes start next Monday so I expect to see some energy buzzing through the buildings soon.

The energy level at the rec center was pretty high...let's hope we can all keep pursuing our fitness resolutions even after classes begin.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

On the comeback trail

I have hair!

Sort of!

At least it's coming back!

Holiday book round-up

It heartens me to see books piled on my nightstand just waiting to be read and I always get a little antsy when the pile dwindles, but thanks to the recent round of birthdays and Christmas and discounts at the MLA book exhibit, the pile is comfortably tall. I've already read some of them but as long as there are a few more in waiting, I'm happy:

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin: A terrific collection of short stories all linked by their connection to a particular family in Pakistan. I recall being impressed by the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician," when it appeared in The New Yorker, and the remaining stories do not disappoint. My favorite image: "The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it."

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand: A thought-provoking and thorough account of the problems facing colleges and universities, especially those struggling to sustain a liberal arts emphasis. My favorite image: "if doctoral education in English were a cartoon character, then about thirty years ago, it zoomed straight off a cliff, went into a terrifying fall, grabbed a branch on the way down, and has been clinging to that branch ever since."

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago: The Portugese author's novels offer interesting thought experiments, but they are most successful when character development trumps the artificialities imposed by the experiment (as in Blindness and All the Names), and least successful when character development seems like an afterthought (as in Seeing). Death with Interruptions is a hybrid: the first half of the book features no fully developed characters, while the second half focuses on two (death with a small 'd' and an unnamed musician), ending just when you want to get to know them better--and ending with a sentence identical to the opening line. My favorite sentence is typical Saramago prose (and let's give a shout-out to his marvelous translator, Margaret Jull Costa):

That is her man, a musician, nothing more, like the almost one hundred other men and women seated in a semicircle around their personal shaman, the conductor, and all of whom will, one day, in some future week or month or year, receive a violet-colored letter and leave their place empty, until some other violinist, flautist or trumpeter comes to sit in the same chair, perhaps with another shaman waving a baton to conjure forth sounds, life is an orchestra which is always playing, in tune or out, a titanic that is always sinking and always rising to the surface, and it is then that it occurs to death that she would be left with nothing to do if the sunken ship never managed to rise again, singing the evocative song sung by the waters as they cascade from her decks, like the water song, dripping like a murmuring sigh over her undulating body, sung by the goddess Ampritrite at her birth, when she became she who circles the seas, for that is the meaning of the name she was given.

I have to stop and get my breath after that one.

Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen: This eye-opening tale of a village boy coming of age during China's Cultural Revolution is positively Dickensian in the amount of oppression heaped on an impressionable child, but it lacks the Dickensian depth of detail and color. But I'm only halfway through so perhaps it will improve. The writing is workmanlike except in his tender reminiscences of his grandfather: "Grandpa lived the life of a mountain cat. He rose with the moon and dozed off in his small, wooden bed when the sun came out."

Truth in Nonfiction edited by David Lazar: A collection of beautifully written essays exploring the troubled relationship between fact and fiction in creative nonfiction. I'm halfway through and already I've found many ideas worth chewing on. For instance, Vivian Gornick explains that some readers of her memoir were disappointed when they met the author or her mother outside the book. The problem, explains Gornick, is that "In our actual persons, neither Mama nor I could give satisfaction. We ourselves were just a rough draft of the written characters."

And now to the ones I haven't started yet:

Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon: I don't recognize many of the authors' names, which is as good a reason as any to read this.

The World Within: Writers Talk: This collection of interviews gleaned from the pages of Tin House focuses on authors as diverse as Sherman Alexie, Marilynne Robinson, Ken Kesey, and Lydia Davis.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt: A big fat hardback book promising the kind of Byatt complexity we saw in Possession.

Frommer's Washington State: A birthday gift from my daughter and son-in-law, who believe it's high time we took a real vacation. Books can take you places, sometimes literally.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

A whole new world

I taught for more than a year through persistent pain and anemia, and then I taught for a whole semester through the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and more anemia.

I'm starting this semester with no pain, no anemia, and no significant side effects. There's no telling what I might accomplish with all that awfulness off my back. Look out, world! Bev is back!

Well, mostly. Where's my hair?