Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Controlling the comma virus

This morning I read a student draft that mentioned a virus "which induces fever, paralysis, numbness, comma, and death," and I keep wondering where I can get my hands on some of that virus because some of my students could use a healthy dose of commas. Of course, you wouldn't want to overdo, because, as we all know, there's nothing more annoying, than a sudden, acute, unexpected onset, of random and, unnecessary, commas.

And if a virus can control commas, what about more insidious forms of punctuation? If the exclamation-point virus gets loose on a college campus, look out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And--not to put to fine a point on it--we wouldn't want to see--for instance--if it should happen to occur--which I sincerely hope it never does--an uncontrolled outbreak of--say--dashes. & what about ampersands?

In order to avoid complete chaos, a comma-inducing virus would have to be placed in the hands of people who can be trusted to enforce strict controls on availability and dosage. Yes, commas could become controlled substances! Imagine the black market in the comma virus, the dank, unruly dens of iniquity where addicts would seek a fix! There's got to be more profit in dealing illegal commas than in teaching English.

Unless, of course, the general public just decides to give up on punctuation entirely. Yeah, right. Like that'll ever happen. LOL.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Learning to talk all over again

You know how sometimes in dreams you have an urgent need to get a message across to someone but you can't find the words or your voice stops working or no one understands your language or your teeth keep falling out but you have to keep talking while hoping against hope that no one in the audience notices that teeth are dribbling all down the front of your shirt? That feeling came back to me this morning when I gave a 50-minute presentation on the meaning of a Liberal Arts education to 15 presidents and vice presidents of colleges and universities.

In China.

No wait, I wasn't in China and neither were they, but the colleges and universities they lead are in China. They're traveling around the U.S. to learn about American institutions of higher education and my purpose was to give them a brief introduction to the idea of the Liberal Arts foundation. I started with a poem ("To the Stone-Cutters" by Robinson Jeffers) and examined some of the questions the poem raises about how we leave a mark on the world, and then I went on from there to talk about how a Liberal Arts education equips us to do so.

It sounds pretty easy, but I've never spoken with an interpreter before and it was a bizarre experience. I had to slow down my normal speaking rate and pause after every sentence or two so the translator could convey my message. I like to make eye contact with an audience, so I would look at the Chinese visitors while I was speaking and then look at the translator as he was speaking and then look at the visitors to see if my ideas had made any discernible impact, but at about that time I had to move on to the next point.

It's hard to get any momentum going when you have to stop after every major thought, and then sometimes it seemed the translator would go on and on until I wondered, "Did I really say all that?" He was very helpful, especially during the question-and-answer time: he explained the background for some of the questions and provided added insight when translating my answers. At least I think that's what he was doing. Maybe he was just sharing the latest gossip about Jon & Kate.

How did it go? I don't know. I think I got some ideas across and I think the Chinese scholars appreciated them. On the other hand, I could be dreaming--but If this is a dream, why aren't my teeth falling out?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Determined to be dull

My dog and I both brought home treats from our walk this afternoon. When we were nearly home, Hopeful pounced on either a muskrat or a groundhog--I didn't really want to look too closely at the kill. She was one happy critter. The dog, not the groundhog. Or muskrat, as the case may be.

I came home with something less tangible: a little sunburn on my face. It's not much of a burn and I could have avoided it if I had kept my baseball cap on my head, but after a long, cold, gray winter, the sun felt so good that I couldn't resist charging up my solar cells.

Yesterday my students reminded me that summer is coming quickly: only four more weeks of classes (plus finals, senior week, commencement, and a teaching workshop) before we're free! This year I'm aiming for a perfectly boring summer.

I won't be attending any conferences or planning a wedding this summer, and I certainly don't intend to have any major surgery or chemotherapy (although you never know). I don't plan to travel, unless I drive a few hours north to help my daughter and son-in-law fix up the house they're trying to buy. I plan to spend my days walking, gardening, and writing, and if I can get at least six students to sign up for my summer Nature Writing class, I'll do a little teaching too.

It sounds pretty dull, but last summer pretty much exhausted my quota of life-changing events, so I think I'm due for some dullness, some time to sit back and recharge my batteries, starting with some solar energy. Here comes the sun!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Well, at least I'm not 8929th!

Of the thousands of readers who submitted NCAA tournament picks on the New York Times online site, I am currently ranked 8928th. This is a tremendous improvement over yesterday, when I was ranked around 15,000th.

Considering that I've never filled out a bracket before, 8928th is not too shabby. It's hard to believe, but apparently there are thousands of people out there even worse at picking college basketball tournament winners than I am. In making my picks, I employed the English Alma Mater Method: if one of my English department colleagues graduated from a contending institution, I picked that team to win. Marquette, Louisville, Temple, and Ohio University let me down really early, but my Purdue colleague is still in the game--and let's not forget that I earned my M.A. from the University of Kentucky.

Of course I was a UK student for two and a half years without ever attending a basketball game, nor have I actually watched any of this year's games, although we do listen to the Ohio State games on the radio, which, for me, is similar to not listening at all. Basketball on the radio sounds like what you'd get if you locked an infinite number of monkeys in a room with an infinite number of basketballs, microphones, and buzzers.

No, I don't care about basketball games as games; I care about whether the final score will lift me above 8928th place. The Times has promised an iPad to whoever comes out on top. They don't say what sort of prize they've reserved for 8928th.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not quite incorruptible

Our Information Technology guys informed me yesterday that my identity has been corrupted, which sounds like a problem for a priest rather than a techno-geek. My college-issued laptop computer no longer recognizes my authority to open documents or programs or anything else, which means I can't get into anything: lesson plans, assignment sheets, writing and research projects, pretty much my whole entire life. So I'm working in the computer lab near my office and trying not to get too far behind on all the stuff I can't work on right now.

This morning's freshman comp class was particularly challenging because not only was I unable to access the materials I needed for my original lesson plan, but also the projector in my classroom stopped working so I couldn't go to the old reliable stand-by assignment on evaluating internet sources. I had to move way beyond Plan B to Plans C, D, and F- before I figured out a meaningful way to spend 50 minutes, and even that required some scrambling for resources.

But we can rebuild! We have the technology! I don't know whether IT can make me bigger, stronger, or faster, but at some point later today I expect them to resurrect my identity without any shadow of corruption.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A never-to-be-repeated performance

Last night a colleague and I were sitting at a table at a local restaurant entertaining a candidate for a campus job when another colleague came in the door to have dinner with her son. She walked over for a chat and when we introduced the candidate, our colleague said, "I was just saying that this would be a horrible night to have a job candidate in town." She had no idea just how right she was.

Let me say first that the candidate was charming and did not utter a single complaint about the miserable dining experience. If I were a restaurant critic, I would give the candidate four stars and the restaurant none--unless it's possible to give negative stars.

We normally take job candidates to the best restaurant in town, but it's closed on Mondays, so we had reservations at another really fine restaurant, but a disastrous fire earlier in the day had closed down that entire downtown block, so our options were limited. We finally went with Plan C, and I don't want to embarrass a valued local business so I'll just refer to the restaurant as The Obese Insect.

Now I should point out that our miserable dining experience wasn't entirely the restaurant's fault. For instance, they couldn't control the weather (a torrential downpour that made it impossible to get into the restaurant without getting wet), but they could have controlled the thermostat a little better. It's hard to enjoy a meal when you're damp and shivering, especially when you try to warm up with some hot tea but the waiter replies, "I think we have some tea bags but I don't know where they are and I don't know if I can find them" and then offers instead Sierra Mist. (Because a cold soft drink is such a great substitute for hot tea.)

The service was slow (and not because of great demand, either--only two other tables were occupied) and the food was flavorless and overcooked. Note to chef: boiling vegetables until they're mushy does not improve their flavor, and then serving them on pasta and pouring some cream on top sullies the luscious label "Pasta Primavera." And why, please, were we forced to listen to "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" over dinner during a torrential rainstorm in March?

Then the time came to pay the bill. Most local restaurants know the college drill--itemized check, no tax--but not our surly waiter, who must be a frustrated actor because he put on quite a performance: calling the manager on his cell phone right there in front of us, complaining about how unreasonable we were, and finally whining, "I'll just pay the tax out of my own pocket." It was an impressive performance but unlikely to make a job candidate want to live here.

But I doubt that he'll have a chance to repeat this performance for other campus groups. I've notified the people responsible for scheduling candidate visits and explained the whole sorry situation, so they're unlikely to send any more campus business toward that restaurant--and I won't be heartbroken if our miserable meal helps to bring down the curtain on that particular performance.

Monday, March 22, 2010


At 7:47 this morning I'm sitting in the car waiting for the bank to open so I can deposit some checks so the bills I paid yesterday don't bounce. A curtain of rain blurs the view out my car window, softening the edges of trees, cars, buildings. The forecast calls for more rain, more grim gray skies for the next few days. I'd really like to go home and pull the covers over my head, but I have a full slate today--teaching classes, advising students, squiring a job candidate around town, attending a meeting.

Yes, that meeting--the meeting that has been disturbing my sleep for days, making me grind my teeth and wake up with a sore jaw, stiff neck, pounding headache. I keep telling myself that it's just another meeting and it will soon be over, but the meeting hangs like a curtain of grim gray gauze over my eyes, warping and coloring all I see.

Will somebody please open the curtains?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Time machine

Katie Nash is a 13-year-old girl trying to forgive herself for cruelly betraying her best friend, and the penance she adopts is cleaning her entire house--including the dreaded Venetian blinds. "Venetian blinds are what hang in hell," she tells herself, "and every day Satan says, 'My, my, I see we have some dust again.'"

Little moments of truth like this appear periodically in Elizabeth Berg's True to Form, a 10-year-old novel acting as a time machine to transport me back to early adolescence. Katie is the girl I wanted to be and perhaps thought I was when I was 13, from her writing to her tortured relationship with the Girl Scouts to her part-time job caring for an elderly woman. The novel is set in the early 1960s and it's difficult now to imagine than anyone could ever have been as young and naive and hopeful as Katie 'n' me, but throughout the book I recognized her feelings, resonated with her sense of burgeoning opportunity. Will it ever again be possible for anyone to be so young?

The ending is abrupt and the plot leans dangerously close to sappiness, but Berg creates a charming character and places her in a context that rings true in every particular. I wavered between wanting to warn Katie against the dangers of growing up and resting confident in her ability to weather the coming storms. The child in me joins her in saying "To hell with Venetian blinds" while the adult wants to remind her that if the worst thing that happens to you all summer is the need to dust the blinds, then the best thing to do is be happy and dust.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A fine whine

It's bad enough to be stuck inside feeling rotten and reading student papers when it's a stunningly gorgeous day outside, but to be stuck inside feeling rotten on a stunningly gorgeous day and then to discover that one of those papers was plagiarized straight from an internet site is just gratuitous--the academic equivalent of a plague of boils.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Home sweet home

My daughter and son-in-law are house-hunting, and I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around the idea that a child of mine is able to contemplate buying a house. After all, it was just six years ago this week that my husband and I finally bought our first house.

Unless you count the house we bought 25 years ago, which was not, in the strictest sense of the word, a house. It was a home--a mobile home to be precise, although both halves of that phrase are problematic.

It was a home--for the two of us and a host of other small woodland creatures. At various junctures we had chipmunks in the pantry and a rat in the bedroom, and once we came back from a vacation to find a recently deceased mouse under the sofa and a discarded snakeskin coiled around the top of the water heater in the pantry. I tried to assure myself that the snake might discourage the vermin population, but I didn't find this terribly comforting.

This "home" had started its life in 1948 as an 8x30 foot trailer, but it had long since ceased to be mobile. Decades before we bought it, someone had parked it in the back corner of a trailer park, with nothing separating the trailer from the train track but a shallow dip where people sometimes illegally dumped their trash. (Hence the rats.) Every train that passed by threatened to shake that trailer into the junkheap it was always trying to become. At some point in the past, someone had doubled the width of the trailer by adding a flimsy living room and bedroom, making our home "mobile" in name only.

"Indians came in here and did that," explained the ancient owner of the mobile home park, but I don't know what he meant by that and I'm not sure he did either. We did, however, learn some other important things about our little castle, including the fact that our trailer was at the end of the sewer line connecting a whole line of trailers, so if the line backed up anywhere along the way, it would eventually spill under our trailer.

But we had bought the place for a paltry $2500 (partly furnished) so what did we expect? We got our money's worth: we lived there for two years and when we moved out, we took with us all the furniture, including the deep-freeze we're still using today.

We sold our trailer (for $2000!) when I got pregnant because it was too small for the three of us and I didn't really want my infant child to share a bedroom with snakes, chipmunks, rats, and mice. We moved a few doors down to a bigger, newer, non-vermin-infested mobile home and sold our old one to another grad-school couple with two small children and a third one on the way.

After those early experiments in ownership, we waited two decades before finally finding ourselves in the position to buy a house, and now the child who got her start in our first mobile home is looking around for a home of her own. It know it won't be mobile and I hope it won't be infested with vermin, susceptible to sewage spills, or constantly threatening to dissolve into a junkheap--but even if it is, they'll figure out how to deal with those problems or any others that might come up.

Buying a mobile home was our way to survive as starving grad students, but it also provided a real-world education that has served us well over the years. Buying a house will be different kind of experience for my daughter, but one thing is certain: it's bound to provide an education.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It takes a village to raise a sledge-hammer

Just before the faculty meeting last night, one of my colleagues brought me a sledge-hammer. "You might want to use this if that little gavel doesn't work," he said, but I wondered: use it for what? Pounding on the table or pounding sense into people?

I thought I might need it first thing when I had to announce that the usual hot drinks would not be available during the meeting due to a tragic coffeemaker malfunction, but the faculty did not rise en masse and charge the chair to demand that Faculty Council immediately assuage their caffeine deficiencies. They just sat there and attended to business. That's my kind of meeting.

In the end I had to give the sledge-hammer back, which was more difficult than you might imagine. The person who provided the sledge-hammer disappeared before I had a chance to return it, and I wasn't about to carry it to his office because it would take two of me just to lift the thing--or better yet, it might require an entire committee, the Ad-Hoc Committee to Study the Status of Sledge-Hammer Retention. If I appoint the committee today, we might get a report offering an Action Plan by next fall, and then I'll have to appoint another committee to put the Action Plan into action.

Meanwhile, the sledge-hammer just sits there silently, awaiting further developments. Not a bad strategy if you ask me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Try Troll-Be-Gone today!

I drove into town this morning carrying a load of glumness that sat like a lumpy and malignant troll clutching my shoulders. I've been carrying that troll around since I got back from my brief spring-break trip and started tackling the pile of detritus burying my life. I tried to wear out the troll with housework--taking down curtains, washing windows, cleaning carpets--but it just squeezed its sharp claws into my shoulders and held on.

I went for walks. I ate chocolate. I tried to write. The troll hung on.

It was still hanging on when I got to the office, unpacked my bag full of unfinished projects, booted up my computer, and started scrolling through my inbox. More work, more demands, more bleh...the troll settled in and started to grumble and groan.

Then I happened upon a batch of reading comments from my literature students, brief e-mailed responses to Grace Paley's "A Conversation with my Father" and Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon." I sighed, shifted the troll to a less dismal position, and started reading.

And smiling.

And laughing.

That's when the troll got uncomfortable. If there's one thing trolls simply can't stand, it's a good belly laugh.

Barthelme alone can make me laugh while Paley is more likely to make me cry, but my students' thoughtful responses made me eager to get back in the classroom. They apologized for not entirely understanding the stories (who does?), but then they asked terrific questions (Why store the balloon in West Virginia? Why can't Paley's narrator and the father talk about what's really bothering them?) and made some leaps toward analysis (Are these authors really writing about writing stories?).

As I read, the troll slunk down, loosened its grip, starting slipping down my back. Then a problem walked in the door, distracting me enough to allow the troll to dig its dirty claws right into my spine.

Then I went to class and started teaching--balloons and oxygen tanks, signs and stories--and as I walked around the room waving my arms, asking questions, easing students toward engagement with complex ideas, the troll slunk away so quietly that I didn't even notice until he was gone.

And he's still gone. I hope he stays gone for a while, but if the troll comes back lugging his sack of glumness, I know where to find the antidote.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A new crop

So I'm looking in the mirror and asking myself the eternal question: what shall I do with my hair? After all, not everyone gets a chance to start a whole new crop of hair from scratch. A colleague suggested that I try some Princess Leia honeybuns, but I'm wondering whether I ought to slather on the gel and spike my hair up into a faux-hawk.

First, though, it has to grow. Yesterday at lunch a friend noticed that my hair is returning and I said, "I just wish it would grow a little faster," and he said, "At least yours is coming back." He had a point. For some, baldness is forever.

Some are urging me to keep my hair short, but the problem is that my current 'do makes me think of chemotherapy, an experience I'd rather forget. So instead, I'm watching it grow and waiting until I can actually do something interesting with it.

Dreadlocks, anyone?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That deflated feeling

The first thing I noticed after I drove up the driveway yesterday afternoon was a distinctive hissing sound as of air rapidly leaving a tire, which indeed it turned out to be. I had spent four relaxing days gallivanting around the state without one squeak of complaint from my rusty Volvo, but then I hit a bit of exposed tree branch on my way up the driveway and destroyed a tire. Welcome home!

I felt similarly deflated later when I spent some time scrolling through the 72 e-mails that had piled up in my absence. The sun is shining, the snow is melting, the daffodils are emerging from their winter sleep--must I deal with this big annoying mess?

The answer is yes. Today I'm back in the office working my way through the pile one message at a time and punctuating my progress with steady sips from two barium sulfate smoothies. Yes: it's CAT-scan day! I'm happy to have a pile of messages to distract me from the taste and texture of these wretched smoothies, which are certain to deflate my sense of spring euphoria. I have a new (used) tire on my car and I'm reducing the inbox backlog, so after the CAT-scan I may take a walk in the woods if the rain holds off. Perhaps spring will pump the air back in my deflated spirits.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Let the sun shine

While my students and colleagues spend spring break in sunnier climes, I joined my daughter yesterday for a tromp through some wintry woods. The sun has been shining for three days straight, quite a treat considering our recent weather, and even though it's cold, I can feel the sunshine thawing winter out of my bones.

Today we met up with some old friends for lunch and tomorrow I'll head to Cleveland to visit a friend from grad school who now works as a grant-writer at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Yet another unexpected answer to the eternal question, What can you do with an English major?) I'm heading home on Tuesday so I can get a CAT-scan and get caught up on some work before classes start again next week. Meanwhile, I'm just soaking in the sun.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Bird on a wire

I'm up in the rec center rowing the erg to the rhythm of "Bird on a Wire" when I notice a couple of college students, a guy and a girl, down on the basketball court playing Horse. He's easily eight or ten inches taller but she's got a lot of spunk and an accurate layup, and it's clear that they've played this game before. They barely need to speak as they follow the rules we all understand. She takes a shot from behind the backboard: swish. He tries the same shot, but it rolls around the rim and bounces out. She shoots from the foul line: swish. He dribbles and shoots: air ball.

They shoot around a few times. I keep rowing. Jennifer Warnes sings:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He called out to me, "Don't ask for so much."
And I saw a young woman leaning on her darkened door
She called out to me, "Why not ask for more?"

I wonder this week whether I've been asking for too much or too little. I'm asking for a chance to play the game in the broad daylight, to follow the rules as we all understand them, to take my turn and try my shots and do my best and then defer to my opponent in an orderly and reasonable manner.

The game goes on. She shoots. He shoots. She shoots. He misses. Game over. They laugh and walk away arm in arm.

After our game is over, can my colleagues and I walk away arm in arm? That's all I'm asking for. But am I asking too much--or too little?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Musing over an amusing moose

At an important meeting my colleague declared, "I think we all know there's an intangible dead moose in the room," and if it hadn't been totally inappropriate I would have laughed out loud, grateful that if we had to share a small conference room with a dead moose at least it was the intangible kind, because who wants to conduct faculty governance in a room suffused with the aroma of a tangible dead moose and how would you get a dead moose up to the third floor (elevator? stairwells?) or, for that matter, to southern Ohio (by boat? helicopter? pickup truck?) and would it be better to kill the moose first or ship it live and then shoot it just before the meeting? Tragically, our Faculty Manual offers no insight on these issues.

I'm afraid the dead moose issue distracted me from some important point of faculty governance, but one of my duties as Faculty Chair is to muse over any dead mooses that get dropped into my lap--and I much prefer the intangible kind because I never know how much to tip the helicopter pilot.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Doggerel day afternoon

Today I made my Creative Nonfiction students do it doggerel-style, but first I had to define for them the word "doggerel." None of them knew what it was. Kind of tragic, that. Apparently they didn't spend their lives so far scribbling limericks and other light verse characterized by loose or irregular measure--or if they did, they didn't know what to call it.

We've been looking at lyrical prose that employs some of the tools of poetry (rhythm, sound repetition, compression) while remaining prosaic (in the best sense of the word). How difficult would it be to translate "Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village, though" into prose? The problem with familiar verse is that even if we move whole phrases and revise words, we'll still here that rhythm pattern in our minds and look for it in the prose.

So I made them write their own poetry--or doggerel. It didn't have to be any good as long as it was done within ten minutes. Then students traded papers and each student had to translate a classmate's light verse into prose, maintaining a sense of poetry without resorting to formal scansion or rhyme.

It wasn't easy. Once the rhythm pattern of a limerick infects your mind, it's hard to make that doggerel play dead. But in the end they came up with some really interesting bits of writing as well as a new respect for the possibilities of poetic tools within prose.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Hearts and minds

It's only Monday and I've already fulfilled my weekly quota of people crying in my office. One of them was me. We were all crying about different things that I can't really discuss openly, but the thing that impresses me as I work with faculty members from all across campus is how much we really do care about our students' learning, how much we tend to take it personally when students screw up, how much is at stake when someone drops the ball. Some may see what we do as a cerebral exercise engaging only the intellect, but we're committed to engaging students' hearts and minds, and when they reject that engagement, it hits us where it hurts.