Monday, May 31, 2010

Mystery plant

This flower popped up in my butterfly garden, with tall floral spikes rising from low bushy weedy-looking greenery. I like it, but I didn't plant it and I don't know what it is. It's crowding out an azalea bush, so this plant will eventually have to go. First, though, I'd like to know what it is--and whether it's worth saving. Help?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: modern farming

When a colleague asked what I've been doing since classes got out, I said, "I've been spending a lot of time with the hoe."

He looked puzzled.

"H-O-E," I said. "The garden implement used for ripping weeds from the ground."

He'd heard "ho," which doesn't really fit my lifestyle. Good thing I didn't try to tell him about the time I saw my neighbor in the garden with a hoe in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Modern farming!

I wish all my Farmville-obsessed friends would spend a few minutes in my garden wielding a real hoe. Farmville farmers are far removed from Edwin Markham's "Man with the Hoe," an empty brute "bowed by the weight of centuries" and so enslaved to toil that he has become "A thing that grieves not and that never hopes, / Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox."

Farmville farmers don't struggle and sweat and suffer from blisters and bug bites, but on the other hand, I challenge them to subsist on the vegetables they produce. Given the choice between a bushel of virtual tomatoes and one red ripe tomato fresh from my garden, which would you rather byte?

The Gal with the Hoe

Oh there once was a gal with a hoe
(with an "e" at the end, don't you know)
who longed for a bite
(with an "i") of delight,
so she urged some tomatoes to grow.

While she sweated and toiled without harm, full
of dreams of produce by the armful,
her friends plowed their fields
and increased their yields
in that popular Facebook app, Farmville.

Which tomatoes will draw more attention:
the virtual kind (an invention
of mouse clicks and bytes)
or the juicy delights
that grow with the hoe's intervention?

Now it's your turn: it's gardening season, so make some rhymes grow!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Up in the air

A correspondent wants to know what's up with my hair, and the answer is: everything. Six months after my final chemotherapy treatment, my hair has grown back thick and full and curly, but it likes to stick straight up in the air. But at least it's back! One of these days I may even have to get a trim.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sort of a little bit really annoying

Why is it that whenever I read anything I wrote more than a week ago, the glaring flaws and annoying tics glow like neon signs screaming "Solecism!" when those same passages looked perfectly fine to me when I first wrote them?

Today I've been noticing my annoying tendency to overuse qualifiers a bit, like that little phrase "a bit" that doesn't really (there's another one) seem (weasel word) to add much, if anything (redundant or just cliched?), to what you might call (so why not just say it?) the meaning of the sentence. Sort of. (See? I just can't stop myself. Perhaps.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Strictly prosaic

At 9:30 a.m. I'm sitting on the back deck with my laptop on my lap, a tall glass of iced tea by my side, and my dog curled up at my feet. She's a wet dog a the moment, having finished our morning walk with a plunge in the creek. Our neighbors have been mowing the meadow behind our house, and during our walk Hopeful went running after the birds picking through the hay, coming back empty-handed but with little flecks of meadow stuff stuck to her coat.

I'm happy to be working outside before the sun gets too high and the neighbors start mowing again. It's great to listen to the birds in the cool morning shade, but most of all I come out here to get away from the phone. I have power out here but no phone line, so clearly I'll have to post these comments later when I get connected again. Meanwhile, I'm free from the demands of e-mail and robocalls offering me great deals on windows or insurance or mortgage refinancing. With the phone out of reach, I can focus on work.

Which will be what, exactly? This morning I'm taking Joy's advice and fiddling with a little fiction, just a treat to get the creative juices flowing. With this huge backlog of prose needing revision, I'm challenging myself to submit something for publication once each week throughout the summer. Friday will be submission day, and this week ought to be easy because I have a few short things that just need a little tweaking before they can be sent off to appropriate publications. This Friday is also the day I ought to hear whether my proposal has been accepted for a really exciting conference in the fall, and that decision will influence my scholarly research and writing for the rest of the summer. This week, thought, I'll focus on short nonfiction pieces and a little fiction. May as well start the summer with something fun.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Work in progress

My summer break starts in earnest today. For the past two weeks I've had a host of meetings and houseguests, but today the summer stretches before me as a vast plain of time interrupted by just a few scattered hillocks of commitment. How shall I proceed?

I started this morning by surveying the landscape, looking through files to find just what lies ahead. My research agenda has been pretty much on hold for the past year, but I was surprised to discover six scholarly articles that need to be revised and submitted. Six! In addition, I found four drafts of essays related to pedagogy, three cancer-related essays, and a fiction project I've been fiddling with for more than a decade.

I need to sit down and start writing, but where do I begin? With the article I've worked on most recently or the one I've worked on way too long? Start with the one closest to completion or the one that needs the most work? Focus on the articles most likely to boost my scholarly reputation or the ones that give me the greatest pleasure? I'll need to update my research on a few of these topics, but wouldn't it be better to submit something first?

I need a strategy! Everyone knows that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but right now I can't decide where that step ought to fall. I wish someone would just give me a shove in the right direction. After that, I can take care of the rest.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Who's in the doghouse?

To my father, all dogs are male. I don't know how many times last week he called Hopeful "him," but I know that after the second day, I gave up trying to correct him. Can't teach an old dog new pronouns.

My parents' visit revealed to me how much more I know about my neighbors' dogs than about my neighbors. We went for a drive around my usual walking route and my narration went something like this: "That's where Leo DiCaprio lives. That's not his real name, but he's this cute little runt of a dog that thinks he's the king of the world, always trying to order around those nosy basset hounds. Up here is where Grizzly lives--he looks scary but he's a real sweetheart--and across the way is Goofy, which is not his real name but we call him that because he lopes like a Disney dog. Up the hill here you may see Courage, a scraggly-looking but friendly mutt, and then around the corner is the perky beagle named Scout, who likes to tag along on walks. On your left you'll see the house where Duke used to live until he decided to curl up and die under our back shed. That's his son there, Duke Junior, but he's not quite as gregarious as his dad."

I could go on. Just don't ask me the names of all the human beings who live with these animals. I know a few of them to say Hello to but I know only one of them very well. I don't see most of my neighbors much, but I encounter their dogs often enough to know how to handle their personalities, and when I refer to them, I always choose the correct pronoun.

One of these days I'll learn the trick of knowing my neighbors. Until that happens, I'll cut my dad some slack for choosing the wrong pronoun.

Friday, May 21, 2010

But what does he carry in his little black bag?

The scene is a third-grade classroom that smells of floor wax and sweaty boys. I'm the new girl with the funny name that starts with Z and exiles me to the bleak back corner of the room. I rarely speak but I write all the time, mostly sing-song verse rhyming "kittens" and "mittens." My teacher, Mrs. Davis, a firm but motherly sort with jewels on her glasses, a handkerchief stuffed up her sleeve, and white hair piled up in a bun on her head, stands beside my desk and wants to know why I'm not doing math problems, but I've finished my work and I'm writing a poem. Soon she takes me to the front of the class and makes me stand there while she reads my poem out loud to the class. My first brush with literary fame!

If Mrs. Davis ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably said "a poet" or "a writer," but I'm certain I never told anyone, "I want to be a Creative Writing Practitioner."

That's the phrase I heard this morning on a BBC radio interview with some expert in the art of letter-writing. I was driving at the time so I didn't catch his name but he was introduced as a "Creative Writing Practitioner" and he didn't deny it so it must be true.

But what is a Creative Writing Practitioner? "Practitioner" carries a therapeutic ring with medical or mental-health overtones, so perhaps a Creative Writing Practitioner is someone who uses creative writing to cure what ails you.

But no. Google "Creative Writing Practitioner" and you will find websites advertising typical Creative Writing Masters degree programs, such as one at the University of Wales: "This degree balances the study of English literature with the skills necessary to become an effective creative writing practitioner" equipped to pursue careers "from Scriptwriting, through Writing Fiction, to Poetry and Journalism." Nary a hint of any therapeutic purpose.

So how does a Creative Writing Practitioner differ from, for instance, a writer? Perhaps "Practitioner" is intended to distinguish the writer from those who call themselves writers without ever putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and perhaps "Creative" distinguishes the writer from those who slam words into templates without ever engaging in creativity, but why would a genuine writer prefer to refer to himself as a "Creative Writing Practitioner" rather than a plain old writer?

When Mrs. Davis read my poem to the class, she gave me permission to think of myself as a potential writer, an aspiring writer, a writer in training, but it took years before I could refer to myself as a writer plain and simple. Again, a teacher led the way: I was talking to one of my college professors about wanting to be a writer and she said, "Wait a minute--you are a writer."

She was right but it took a tremendous act of faith for me to say it out loud.

I don't know what it takes to say "I am a Creative Writing Practitioner"--and at this rate, I'm unlikely to ever find out.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nothing doing

I suppose you're wondering where I've been all week. No? Not at all? Is anyone out there? Hello!!

I could write some pretty amusing stuff about what I've been doing all week, but that would be wrong. Instead, I'll tell you what I haven't been doing all week:


Weeding the garden. (Which is too wet to weed anyway, but still: I haven't set foot in the garden except to pick a little rhubarb in the pouring rain Monday morning.)

Mowing, trimming, weed-whacking.




Keeping up with office work.

Walking. (Except once, briefly.)

Thinking (much).

Now that I'm done not doing all those things, though, I need to get caught up. I'll be swamped from here to next Tuesday just getting everything back to normal. See why so many people envy my exciting life?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Insert clever headline here

How is the Internet affecting the fine art of headline-writing? David Carr considers this question in "Taylor Momsen Did Not Write This Headline" in the New York Times (read it here). "Headlines in newspapers and magazines were once written with readers in mind, to be clever or catchy or evocative," he claims, but "Now headlines are just there to get the search engines to notice."

He gives some interesting examples of how using hot terms can bring a headline to the top of the heap in online searches, but hot terms and catchy phrases have always had the ability to capture eyeballs, whether in print or online. But the Taylor Momsen fan looking for more juicy celebrity gossip will be disappointed by Carr's article, just as Googlers looking for "Exhibitionists--totally nude!" will be disappointed by this blog post from 2006.

I always try to convince my students that a catchy title might attract reluctant readers but an inaccurate title will make readers feel cheated, which is why they can't call every essay "Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll." If Carr is right, expect more and more readers to feel cheated by headlines that lure them in with juicy search terms but then fail to deliver anything juicy.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

They're back!

I've been wondering whether the orioles might have forsaken us this spring, but they've finally arrived. They perch at the tops of the tall sycamores and oaks along the creek singing their distinctive mating call and moving away whenever I try to get closer, so it's hard to get a good photo. Still, it makes me happy just to know they're here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I hear almacantars singing

I'm willing to admit that the problem is entirely mine. I am, after all, still suffering from the after-effects of grading all those piles of final exams and student papers, so my brain cells might not be quite ready to decipher heavy-duty academic writing. And besides, who wants to think deeply on the first day of summer break?

Nevertheless I plunge eagerly into the first chapter of The Long Space: Transnationalism and Postcolonial Form by Peter Hitchcock, and while I detect the presence of important ideas, I can't quite wrap my brain around them.

My problem starts on page 2: "I locate the long space in the extended novel of postcoloniality beside itself. A relatively narrow approach--and one that often relies on theoretically inspired close reading--it will, however, substantiate some broad materialist claims." So far so good. I could quibble about the ambiguity of that phrase "theoretically inspired," which could suggest "inspired by theory" or "inspired, at least theoretically," but otherwise I'm okay with this.

My okayness gets a little shaky with the next sentence: "If they are not a horizon of the literary and the social, or culture and society, these claims yet form an almacantar by which their current constellation may be judged."

I never would have suspected that broad materialist claims could be a horizon of anything, but I appreciate interesting metaphors so I'm willing to go along for the ride. Claims are not horizons. Fine. But what the heck is an almacantar? My first response is to feel stupid, and my second response is to assume that "cantar" has something to do with singing, and my third response is to go to, which informs me that an almacantar is an astronomical term referring to "any circle of the celestial sphere parallel to the horizon; when two objects are on the same almucantar, they have the same altitude."

No, I don't know why it's spelled "almacantar" in the heading and "almucantar" in the definition, but never mind that: what does it mean to say that these broad materialist claims are not a horizon but nevertheless share the same altitude on a circle parallel to the horizon? And not just any almacantar but an almacantar "by which their current constellation may be judged"?

Excuse me, but: what?

How, exactly, does one employ an almacantar in judging a constellation?

I give up and move on:

"The polemic is occasioned primarily by the event of reading inspiring fiction"--not by reading inspiring fiction, you'll note, but by "the event of reading inspiring fiction," and if you can figure out the difference between the two, please let me know. And who is doing the reading here? Or who is experiencing "the event of reading" that occasions the polemic?

"The polemic is occasioned primarily by the event of reading inspiring fiction, but also by the manner in which they speak to several key issues of cultural debate:"--and we'll get to those issues in a minute, but first: who or what are "they"? To find a plural antecedent, I have to backtrack to the previous sentence and latch onto those claims that are not horizons but form an almacantar by which constellations can be judged, and now those same claims are being asked to speak to key issues. I hope those claims are getting a little something extra in their pay packet after all that work.

But they're not done yet--not by a long shot. Take a deep breath:

"The polemic is occasioned primarily by the event of reading inspiring fiction, but also by the manner in which they speak to several key issues of cultural debate: world literature and how it may be determined; the links and breaks between the terms postcolonialism, transnationalism, and globalism; the noncoincidence between literary institutions and the literary; the meaning of form for postcolonialism; the at-once vexed relationship of the novel to nation formation in postcolonial states; postcolonialism as other than the luxury of Western or Westernized cultural elites; critical transnationalism as an interruption of the logic of information retrieval in global circuits of knowledge and power; and the event of colonialism as not historically settled."

Vexed? Unsettled? Interrupted? Sounds like my reading process here. "This is not just a list but an itinerary," continues Hitchcock. He said a mouthful.

But wait, there's more:

"This is not just a list but an itinerary, and one that cannot rest easy with the mantra that culture is the preeminent form of politics in our time and that when we feel global we participate ineluctably in wresting freedom from the crushing realm of necessity."

Wait, so when we feel global we're not actually wresting freedom? I'll make that my new uneasy mantra.

"One cannot negotiate these challenges as if yet another Western critic, by checking off a list, is freed from the privileges of power that produce that subject position. The measure of the itinerary is the polemic it fosters that will deploy the long space as the organizing trope for disputation among them."

"Them" who? "Challenges"? How do challenges dispute?

So the list is an itinerary measured by the polemic it fosters that deploys space as a trope for disputation?

Frankly, I'm simply not equipped to judge this current constellation.

Loopy but luscious

Take two things you love and put them together--chocolate and chipotle peppers, for instance.


Add salt.


Add Pop Rocks.

Okay, now you're getting a little weird. Pop Rocks? That's kid stuff, like putting chocolate syrup on your Froot Loops. We moved beyond that years ago! Adults don't pop Pop Rocks! In fact, no connoisseur of serious chocolate would be caught dead in the presence of a package of Pop Rocks!

But hide some Pop Rocks in this amazing dark-chocolate-chipotle-and-salt concoction and that's another story. Chuau Chocolatier (find it here) creates unusual combinations of chocolate with, for instance, hot peppers, honey, or anise and coffee. The hubby found some half-price Firecracker bars and couldn't resist bringing one home, and what a bizarre experience: first, smooth dark chocolate goodness; next, a little kick from the peppers and salt; finally, popping firecrackers right in your mouth. Weird but wonderful.

And if you keep your mouth shut, no one has to know about the Pop Rocks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Walk softly and carry a big stick (but don't do anything with it)

For three years now I've been carrying a big stick at Commencement but it's not at all clear what I'm supposed to do with it. When I asked the Chief Faculty Marshal under what circumstances I'm permitted to hit someone with the stick, she just smiled her beauty-queen smile and said, "Carry it on the left and don't let the ribbons drag on the floor."

The other three Faculty Marshals carry sticks bigger than mine and the Chief Marshal carries the biggest stick of all (because she is the Chief, if course, and indicating her status with a feathered headdress or rhinestone tiara would be unseemly). I am the newest member of the college's crack Faculty Marshal squad, so my stick is the smallest. Still, it could deliver a pretty good bonk on the noggin if required to do so. But nooooooo--hitting is strictly prohibited.

So what am I supposed to do with my stick? The answer came to me as I was trying to get the students and faculty seated neatly in their rows. We processed in as planned to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance," and then two student marshals and I were in charge of making sure exactly 30 people moved into each row, leaving no seats empty on the ends. The problem is that the first people don't move to their seats quite quickly enough, so the last three or four see a row that looks full and try to move to the next row, so I spend a lot of time persuading processing people that yes, they actually should stay in this row instead of moving back one. This effort sometimes makes me lose count, which is not good. The faculty are even worse, because they are less inclined to trust the judgment of a colleague just because she happens to be speaking softly and carrying a big stick. With ribbons on it. That are not dragging on the floor.

Even with three of us counting, we ended up with some uneven rows: two student rows each had an empty seat on the end, and one faculty row had three empties. I hesitate to use the "herding cats" cliche, but it did occur to me while I was seating students that the stick could be used the way shepherds use crooks to count sheep: I could hold the stick out and make each graduating senior jump over it.

The problem, of course, is that many of the female students wobble in wearing entertaining footwear--heels up to here, gladiator straps, spiky patent-leather strappy sandals adorned with shocking-pink flowers--and I doubt that five-inch heels would enhance a student's ability to jump hurdles. One small slip and all those black-robed grads will be falling like dominoes, and the next thing you know we've got a lawsuit on our hands.

But if making them jump over the stick won't work, how about if I hold up the stick and make them duck under it? A little limbo action would liven up the processional, especially if the band director can be persuaded to ease a Latin beat into Elgar.

I want to suggest this to the Chief Marshal but I'm afraid she'll just unleash that indomitable smile and take away my stick. That would be the time for hitting.

On the left.

With the ribbons not dragging on the floor.

Friday, May 07, 2010

It was a very good year

At lunch with my fellow members of Faculty Council today, I noted that four (out of six) of us were hired the same year. I had already been at the college for a year as an adjunct, but I signed my tenure-track contract the same year as three other Council members, and we were among an unprecedented group of new faculty--17 in one year!--hired during the thaw after a long hiring freeze.

Several of those 17 have moved on, but enough of us remain to be a force on campus. One has served as registrar. One has served as director of the Honors Program, and several have served as department chairs. We've chaired various campus committees, and now we make up two-thirds of Faculty Council.

Either 2001 was a really good year for hiring or else we're just gluttons for punishment.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


For Godot? No:

To finish all the end-of-the-semester claptrap so I can stop driving to campus every day.

For my dog to realize that no amount of barking will bring the squirrel out of the tree.

For the cows to come home--or a home to come to the cows grazing on the hill where our neighbors are building a new house.

For the wild turkeys to come out of the woods so I can watch their frantic wobbly race across the meadow to the creek.

For a certain bit of sizzling-hot news to be announced so I can stop biding my time and biting my tongue.

To learn the fate of an article I submitted to a publication in January. (January!)

To drop a few pounds so I can get back into my cute blue skirt.

For my digestive system to get back to normal after all that cancer treatment--unless this is as close to normal as it's going to get.

For eighteen more months of clean blood tests and CT scans to pass before I can get my medi-port removed.

To pay off all my medical bills before I can even think about planning a vacation.

To find a way to visit my son this summer.

For my daughter and son-in-law to buy their house so I can help them move and paint and fix things up.

For the tomato plants to blossom, the corn to sprout, and the blueberry bushes to decide whether they're interested in producing anything interesting.

To read my course evaluations.

For Commencement.

To commence.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Heavy lifting

Last summer's move to a new office required a lot of heavy lifting, but this year I'm moving digits. We're switching to a new course management system in the fall, discarding WebCT for the more euphoniously named Moodle, and the Powers That Be keep insisting that we're aiming for a "seamless migration," which makes me wonder what sort of seamstress one might take along on a migration and what sorts of seams she might be called upon to sew, but never mind the mixed metaphors: today I'm dealing with the niggling little bit of the migration that will not be seamless. Namely, the gradebook.

Now I like keeping my gradebook online. It's so much easier than those messy old spiral-bound gradebooks with the pages half falling out, and the online version calculates grades much more accurately than I can. But the problem is that the gradebooks for past courses will not carry over into Moodle, so if I want to preserve a record of students' grades, I need to download them from WebCT.

Fortunately, for a few years I recorded grades both online and off, so I have hard copies of grades for some classes. But I still had a pile of classes for which I had no record of the grades except on WebCT. How big a pile? 21 classes. Not a lot. How difficult could it be to download 21 online gradebooks from WebCT and then save them as Excel files?

Not difficult---but tremendously annoying. WebCT is notorious for demanding multiple clicks for every action, and then, of course, I had to convert the downloaded data into an Excel file, give it an appropriate name, and save it in a sensible place. The first few files took some thought, but after that it was just mindless clicking.

How much clicking? I counted: 32 clicks per class, 21 classes, 672 clicks. Six hundred seventy-two. I kept sliding into that Zone of Mindlessness that opens up whenever a task requires endless mindless clicking, but then I would get to the point where I needed to name and save the Excel file, and suddenly I needed to retrieve my brain from the Zone, a migration it wasn't always eager to make. A few times it didn't quite make the trip all the way back and I ended up saving the file in the wrong format or in the wrong folder, and then I had to do some more clicking to fix the problem.

But the files have all migrated--not quite seamlessly, but you can't have everything. At least the heavy lifting is done. Now my clicking digits need some R&R, wrapped around a nice cold glass of iced tea.