Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lesson one: cliches should be avoided like the plague

One year ago today I came out of anesthesia to hear my husband saying the surgeons had found cancer. Must be hallucinating, I thought. Cancer was not on the agenda.

A year later I'm thinking about how much has changed since cancer entered the agenda, how much I've learned from this encounter with the unexpected. One thing I've learned is that the "lessons I've learned from cancer" is a required chapter in the Cancer Story genre and that those "lessons" often take the form of timeworn cliches: It's not the destination but the journey that matters most. Take it one day at a time. Simple pleasures are the best. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Knowledge is power, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing--and besides, ignorance is bliss. Etc.

Cliches are easy. Truth is complicated.

Over the next few days I'll share some of the complicated truths I've learned from cancer. I wish I could have learned them in a less painful way, but I'll pass them on as painlessly as possible.

Coming up tomorrow: why there's no algorithm for friendship.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I was sitting on the front porch at my daughter's house reading a book when a bright yellow mustang slowed right in front of the house, paused briefly, and then went zipping on up the road. Odd. When the next two cars that came along did a similar slow/pause/go routine, I had to get up and see who or what was holding up traffic.

It was a groundhog, a scrawny one, running in circles on one little patch of road right in front of the house. It looked as if it was chasing its tail, but whenever a car came close, the groundhog would stop going in circles and charge directly toward the car. It put on quite a show, switching between circling and charging over and over while three of us watched, puzzled.

Groundhogs normally appear on roads in one of only two attitudes--quick or dead--so this little fellow was clearly not normal. Rabid, maybe? Even if he wasn't a health hazard, he posed a serious road hazard.

So the resident he-man strode out forcefully, armed with a spade, and approached the groundhog, which turned and charged right toward him. I don't want to ruin anyone's dinner by going into too much detail, but in the timeless battle between man and groundhog, man won. The show is over. The goundhog is no more.

But the traffic is moving along briskly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

When the chickens come home to roost

In his youth, my husband spent a lot of time with cute chicks--and ducklings and goslings and whatever you call baby turkeys. His family once had a huge hatchery in northern Ohio, but by the time Garry started working there (at age 9!), it had morphed into a feed-and-seed/garden equipment store that sold baby chicks and other fowl every spring. When other boys were messing with cars, he was raising poultry.

Now we don't have any poultry at our house but we've always had a lot of chicken tchotchkes. Garry's Gram was known far and wide as the Chicken Lady, so people used to give her chicken stuff: stuffed chickens, ceramic chickens, chicken salt-and-pepper shakers, a chicken teapot that would regurgitate tea right into your cup. When Gram died, her grandsons divided up all the chicken stuff, so we've always had some corner of the house where the chickens came home to roost. In one house we even had chicken wallpaper and chicken curtains, and I confess that I once cross-stitched a chicken sampler. Over the years, friends have noticed our chickens and have added to the collection. You just can't keep those chicken tchotchkes from multiplying.

So you can imagine how delighted I was to find chickens in my daughter's kitchen. She tore down tacky wallpaper all over the house, but she decided to keep the chicken border in the kitchen. I offered to give her those old chicken curtains, but they're the wrong size and the wrong color for the kitchen. So instead I gave her one of our chickens, a lovely jointed wooden chicken who can sit on the stove and rule the roost. It's good to see the family tradition continuing.

This just in: the resident poultryman informs me that the correct term for baby turkeys is "poults." When they're small, you can call them paltry poultry. Or not.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My kind of chaos

I'm sitting in the living room at my daughter and son-in-law's new house, surrounded by boxes, suitcases, and the joyful sounds of hard work accompanied by Michael Buble singing his heart out. What a terrific place to be--even if I had to work like crazy to get here.

I was in the garden before 7 this morning picking green beans, lettuce, radishes, a great big beautiful cabbage, and two lovely heads of cauliflower, and then I finished the weed-eating chore that nearly prostated me yesterday. Church next and then packing the car (curtains, lemon cake, watermelon, garden veggies--oh and let's not forget that suitcase!) and then a long drive in a very full car in very hot weather.

We arrived to join the horde of friends and family helping the young folks move the heavy stuff, and then we set to work unpacking and sorting things and assembling furniture. There's plenty more to do, which is good because we'll be here until Wednesday morning tackling the tough jobs while singing and laughing and talking--and enjoying all those fresh garden veggies.

This evening five of us had dinner at a terrific little sushi restaurant where we raised mugs of green tea to many happy events: a one-year anniversary, a new house, two people starting grad school, a year of cancer survival, and the joy of being together. Yes, it's a terrific place to be, despite the boxes and the disassembled furniture and the chaos. It's a joyful chaos. My very favorite kind.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More on publishing (or moron publishing?)

Harmonic convergence of academic events:

1. Yesterday I read the current issue of a top-notch academic journal, in which EVERY article features a thesis worded something like this: "This essay will argue..." or "The purpose of this essay is...." I hate hate hate this thesis because it shows a profound disrespect for readers, who are presumably so clueless that they won't be able to discern the purpose of an essay unless they encounter a sentence stating "The purpose of this essay is..."

2. Yesterday I read the Chronicle essay "We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research," in which Mark Bauerlein and his co-authors assert that "While brilliant and progressive research continues apace here and there, the amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs." This emphasis on quantity over quality creates an "avalanche of ignored research" that clogs up the academic publishing system. While the essay focuses primarily on scientific research, I've certainly seen plenty of poorly written and eminently ignorable scholarly essays in my field.

3. Yesterday my brilliant proposal to present a paper at an international conference this fall was brutally rejected.

The solution to the avalanche of poor-quality research is obvious: everyone should just publish what I like and ignore everything else. That would open up plenty of space for articles by me and my bestest buddies while driving out the drivel. Likewise, academic conferences would focus on my work and the work of people I find interesting. Imagine the power! I could be the Academic Writing Tsar. It would be a tremendous amount of work for me, but I would be willing to make the sacrifice. (Especially if the job comes with a tiara.)

Nuts. Now it's back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bubbling over

Yesterday at freshman registration I was impressed by a colleague's patience as she helped a clueless student struggle toward a workable class schedule. "If I were an incoming student, I would want you to advise me," I said. "You always sound so calm and warm and pleasant."

"That's on the outside," she said. "You should see what's bubbling up inside."

I know what she means, because I've found some interesting things bubbling up inside while working with incoming students. This was the third freshman registration session I've worked this summer, but everyone agreed that this group was different: in the large-group information sessions, they were wiggly and giggly and inattentive--and so were their parents! I wondered whether this restlessness would show up in the one-on-one scheduling sessions.

Of the students I registered, half were smart and attentive and ready to work, while the others ranged from moderately confused to utterly disengaged. They couldn't seem to grasp our general education requirements, which is understandable because it's not the easiest system to grasp, but they also didn't seem to want to try. One of them kept telling me, "I don't care what I take. Whatever you think is best. As long as it's not too hard."

I could manage these students pretty well, helping them understand requirements and select meaningful classes, but one student made that stuff inside threaten to bubble over. If we offered a major in text-messaging, he would be the ideal candidate. It didn't matter what I said or did: his eyes stayed glued to the cell-phone and his fingers kept flying across the keyboard. When I asked a direct question ("Would you like PSYC 101 at 1 or 2 in the afternoon?"), he would utter a brief monosyllable. Finally I turned to him and said, "Am I interrupting something?"

He put away the cell phone and started paying a modicum of attention--just enough to get done and get out of there so he could whip out the cell phone again. He ended up with a decent schedule, but if he can't learn to focus on learning instead of text-messaging, he's unlikely to succeed.

At least I succeeded in keeping my anger in check. I felt that stuff bubbling up inside and I let a wisp of sarcasm escape, but I tamped down the rest. One of these days it'll bubble over for real--and trust me, it won't be pretty.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Finding fault

I've just finished reading Kate Chopin's first novel, At Fault, which would be the ideal textbook for a course in How To Write a Bad Novel. The plot is ridiculous, the characters are flat, and the writing is, how shall I put this kindly, uneven.

At Fault is the story of David and Therese. David loves Therese. Therese loves David. David is always quoting his best friend Homeyer, who never makes a single appearance in the novel despite being the most influential person in David's life. David has a younger sister, a silly girl who enjoys flirting with Therese's nephew, Gregoire. What is David's sister's name? I've already forgotten--that's how memorable she is. I've also forgotten the name of David's wife, so let's just call her Bob. If the BP boss can call his yacht Bob, why can't I do the same with David's wife? Especially since she eventually ends up bobbing on the water like a yacht. Or an oil slick. Only smaller.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: David loves Therese and Therese loves David, but David has a wife, or actually an ex-wife, Bob. Why is Bob a problem? Because the novel is set in 1890s Louisiana and Therese is a Catholic. David explains the reason for his divorce and places all the blame on Bob, whose vices are whispered in code language but a discerning reader can guess that she's a lush and perhaps a floozy. Therese persuades David that his lack of husbanding skills drove Bob to drink so he is actually at fault (see? the title!) for her sins, and if he were an honorable man, he would uphold his marriage vows.

And David loves Therese so much that he goes right back to the city and marries Bob. Again. It happens so quickly that if you blink you'll miss it: David shows up and says "Let's get hitched!" and Bob just goes, "Um, okay, anything you say!" So then David takes Bob back to the country to live next door to Therese and show her what an honorable man he is: "See! I love you so much that I remarried my wife, the lush! Now come into my arms and tell me you love me!"


Then Jocint burns down the lumber mill.

Who is Jocint and why does he burn down the lumber mill? Good questions, which the novel unfortunately fails to answer. Jocint is this shadowy figure who pops up once or twice to mumble dark imprecations and oil his gun, but when he burns down the lumber mill, the novel tells us that "everyone" knew he would do it someday.

Wait a minute! I'm part of "everyone" and I didn't have any idea Jocint would burn down the lumber mill! Why did he do it? As far as I can tell, the only reason Jocint burns down the lumber mill is to provide Gregoire an excuse to shoot him, which provides Gregoire's girlfriend (David's sister) an excuse to act like an idiot. Yes: the lumber mill had to burn to send a silly girl stomping off in a huff.

But back to Jocint: just as everyone knows Jocint was fated to burn down the lumber mill, everyone knows that Gregoire is at fault (see! the title!) for killing Jocint, even Jocint's elderly and infirm father, who arrives on the scene to pull Jocint from the flames while threatening to kill Gregoire, so you think it's all up with Gregoire until the moment when Jocint's father keels over and dies right there in front of everyone. The novel doesn't reveal what he dies of but I suspect SCD, Superfluous Character Disease. There's a lot of that going around.

Fortunately, the lumber mill is insured, but it must be the most incompetent insurance company that ever existed because no one ever comes around to investigate the arson or the murder of Jocint. There is no Sheriff, no fire inspector, not even a mild-mannered insurance investigator, and in fact no one ever even asks Gregoire any questions about the shooting of Jocint, which leaves Gregoire free to go off on a spree and eventually succumb to SCD.

Which takes us back to the central plot: the love story between Therese and David, whose devotion to each other is undying even though David is married to Bob, the lush, who, despite living in a cabin in the middle of Nowheresville, finds a handy supplier to keep her liquored up. She's a bad woman, that Bob. You can hardly blame poor honorable David for wanting to be rid of her, but how can he remove Bob from the picture while retaining his honor? What he needs is some sort of horrible accident that will take her life while sparing him so he can hitch up with Therese. What he needs is another outbreak of Superfluous Character Disease.

And he gets it. I won't tell you how Bob dies because you'll see it coming three chapters away, but SCD takes her out of the scene in a way that allows David to act heroically, so heroically that you lose sight of the fact that yet another minor character dies at the scene, disappearing so completely that you might have to leaf back to an earlier part of the book to confirm that she ever existed.

But she's not important. This is the story of David and Therese, who love each other. That's all you need to know. In fact, if you know that much, you don't even have to read the book.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no naugabeasts

On the eve of her first anniversary, my daughter had a deep philosophical question that only her mother could answer: "What's naugahyde?"

Naugahyde, as we all know, is a fine leather made from the tanned hides of the rare Naugabeast, a rodent-sized antelope that dwells in the lowlands of Naugaland, where it grazes on daisies, plays dominoes, and dances in the moonlight.

"Cheap imitation leather," I said, "made of vinyl or something."

The question arose because we had sent her and our son-in-law an anniversary card that listed variations on the traditional gifts for various anniversaries. Everyone knows the traditional first-anniversary gift is paper, the 25th is silver, and the 50th is gold, but what about all the ones in between? This card suggested for various dates gifts such as duct tape, spackle, soup, air, and naugahyde.

I suppose it's not a bad thing to have raised to adulthood a daughter who is ignorant of naugahyde--as long as she's not ignorant of other important items. Recently she's been demonstrating her ability to remove wallpaper, paint paneling, plant irises, and buy a house, skills much more important than a working knowledge of naugahyde.

Just after our daughter and son-in-law closed on their new house, I met their real-estate agent, who told me how much she had enjoyed working with them. "You've raised two terrific kids," she said, but I pointed out that I can take credit for only one of them. If she'd known of their ignorance of naugahyde, what would she have thought?

We'll just keep that in the family. Nobody ever needs to know.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Come down for a chat

On my walk this morning I thought I saw a yellow-breasted chat, but the more I think about it, the less certain I am. Actually, at the time I had no idea what I was seeing except that it had a bright yellow breast and a black eye-line and it didn't hang around long enough to let me get a closer look. I was about a mile from home at the time so I spent that last mile chanting "yellow breast, black line, chip chip chip chip tweeeeeet," trying to keep the bird's appearance and call fresh in my mind until I could look in the bird book.

The problem with using a bird book to identify a bird that does not happen to be present at the time is that the many options available mess with my memory. By the time I've looked at all the yellow and black birds and rejected those that are clearly not right, I'm second-guessing myself: was it smaller than a robin or about the same size? Was the black bit more like a hood or a mask? Was the song shrill or warbly? Was it saying "toop-toop-toop" or "terp jedek" or "jerZIK"? I've never heard any bird produce a sound I would transcribe as "jerZIK." It's all "tweet" to me.

So it could be a yellow-breasted chat or it could be something else entirely, like some sort of oriole or even a meadowlark, but I won't know unless I can find it again and get it to sit still long enough to give me a clue. Next time I'll ask it to come home with me for a little visit over the bird book. You know, just a casual chat. What larks!

Friday, June 18, 2010

A final interruption

"For long hours he had walked through the General Cemetery, he had passed through epochs, eras, dynasties, through kingdoms, empires and republics, through wars and epidemics, through infinite numbers of disparate deaths, beginning with the first sorrow felt by humanity and ending with this woman who had committed suicide only a few days ago, Senhor Jose, therefore, knows all too well that there is nothing anyone can do about death. On that walk made up of so many dead, not one of them got up when they heard him pass, not one begged him to help them reunite the scattered dust of their flesh with the bones fallen from their sockets, not one asked him, Come and breathe into my eyes the breath of life, they know all too well that there is nothing anyone can do about death, they know it, we all know it, but, in that case, where does it come from, this feeling of angst that grips Senhor Jose's throat, this unease of mind, as if he had cravenly abandoned a half-completed task and now did not know how to return to it with any dignity."

Jose Saramago wrote that in his novel All the Names, in which the cemetery becomes an invisible labyrinth where the greatest love anyone can show is to mourn for a stranger. Today the Portugese author is dead. His most recent novel, Death with Interruptions, portrays Death as a character who falls in love with a living person, but the book leaves readers wanting to know Death more thoroughly. Now, after this final interruption, those of us who love his books without knowing the author can show no better love than to mourn for this intimate stranger.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mind the gap

I didn't enjoy getting a new gap in my mouth earlier this week, but a sudden visit to Dental Hell made it necessary. As I wait for the new hole in my head to heal, though, I'm enjoying a few other unexpected gaps.

There's a gap between what I expected to pay the electric company this month and what I'll actually pay. I suddenly have a $200 credit on my electric bill thanks to an error--theirs, not mine.

And I worked so efficiently during and between my two campus meetings this morning that I ended up with a big gap in my schedule this afternoon. I came home early and now I'm thinking about how to fill that gap: weeding, mowing, or reading something totally frivolous? Maybe a little of each.

That's the kind of gap I don't at all mind.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Call of the Raspberries

The raspberry patch presents a challenge--aggressive canes stretching across every path, weeds reaching for the sky--but within all that jungly greenery, the berries are ripening and calling out. This morning I answered the Call of the Raspberries and what a terrific breakfast we'll have tomorrow!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Testing, testing

I'm sitting in a big room where a bunch of faculty members are meeting one-on-one with incoming freshmen to advise them on fall classes and help them put together a schedule. Over the next two weeks I'll be devoting five long afternoons to this endeavor, and I'm impressed by how well prepared a few of the incoming students are. Nevertheless, there are a few sentences I'm already tired of hearing:

"I just don't test well." That's why we've scheduled you for a special class designed to sharpen up your reading, writing, and thinking skills so you can excel on the kinds of testing you'll encounter in college.

"But I don't belong in a remedial class!" That's what everyone who gets put into a developmental class says.

"But you can't rely on my test scores! I'm smarter than that!" Yes, it's undeniably true that test scores are not always a reliable indicator of how well you'll do in college, but experience suggests that students with scores in this range will benefit by taking some time to develop the skills they'll need to succeed in college classes.

Yes, I'm already sick of hearing myself make all these same tired old arguments. Isn't there a way I can test out of freshman registration? I don't belong in this class!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

In a pickle

Heavy rain + bright sunshine = growth...of broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, blueberries, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peas, beans, bugs, and weeds. We picked the first broccoli and some beautiful tender Bibb lettuce this morning, so we're all set for salad.

Every time I walk past the herb garden I stuff a bunch of fennel leaves in my mouth, and yesterday my weeding in the dill patch made me smell deliciously like dill. I'd rather eat a pickle than smell like one, but dill is much better than some other things I could smell like after bending and stooping under the hot sun up to my elbows in weeds, bugs, and mud.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I went out to run some errands but couldn't get past the tree in my driveway. What was a tree doing in my driveway? Not the hokey-pokey, that's for sure.

I went back to the house to alert the resident woodsman.

"There's a tree in the driveway," I said.

"A what?"

"A tree," I said, "in the driveway."

"I'll take care of it," he said.

"Better take your chainsaw."

"Nah, I'll just shove it out of the way."

"Trust me," I said. "You need the chainsaw."

He didn't need the chainsaw. He just shoved it out of the way--with a little help from the tractor. He'll need the chainsaw later to cut it up, but for now, it's enough just to get the tree out of the driveway--and if it wants to try doing the hokey-pokey, I don't intend to stand in its way.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A web of errors

I've just read a scholarly essay identifying the author of the Oz books as Frank Zappa, a silly error that ought to have been caught by a good fact-checker--but don't even get me started on the sorry state of fact-checking and line-editing in academic publishing today.

The Zappa error made me smile but I'm more annoyed by a web of errors in what ought to be a reputable work: The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie. In an otherwise unexceptional essay called "Salman Rushdie and the English Tradition," Peter Morey compares Rushdie's Shame to A Tale of Two Cities, noting the similarity between Rani Harappa's embroidery and Madame DeFarge's knitting. So far so good, but then he slips up by asserting that Madame DeFarge "claims to be knitting 'shrouds,' like the burqas stitched by Rani Harappa in which her husband eventually flees."

Nope. Rani stitches no burqas and her husband never manages to flee his prison cell--unless you consider his violent death a metaphorical flight. Bilquis Hyder is the one who weaves burqas in which her husband flees.

But that minor error is nothing--nothing!--compared to this more egregious example perpetrated by Abdulrazak Gurnah in the book's introduction:

"The three sisters rebel against their incarceration by going to a dance in the British 'lines' and returning with a joint pregnancy, whose outcome is Omar Khayyam Shakil, whose self-indulgence knows no shame. Rani Harrapa, Iskander Harrapa's wife, knits a shawl in which she records her husband's murders."

1. The three sisters do not go to a dance but host the party at their own house.

2. "Harrapa" is spelled wrong. Try Harappa.

3. Knits a shawl? There is no knitting. Rani embroiders.

4. One shawl? Try 18.

5. Rani records not just her husband's murders but his debaucheries, profanities, deceptions, and other evil acts.

It wouldn't matter so much except that the sentence describing Rani's embroidery is among the more remarkable passages ever written, weaving a host of voices into one highly embroidered sentence covering five pages of text. No one who has been swept away by that sentence could possibly err as Gurnah does, which makes me question the extent of his engagement with the text.

But these errors also echo the problem I face every time I teach Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles." In order to fully understand the act of deception practiced by the women at the end, readers must understand exactly what it means to "quilt it" or "knot it," knowledge that the vast majority of my students lack. Likewise, Rushdie's readers who lack an understanding of various types of needlework may consider embroidery, knitting, and weaving as pretty much the same thing.

But they're not the same, and sometimes the difference matters. A simple typo can be forgiven, even if it transforms L. Frank Baum into Frank Zappa, but this systematic ignorance of traditional needle arts serves to further marginalize women's work and women's voices.

A critical question

Okay literary scholars, help me out here. My revision-and-submission plan is working so well that I have articles under consideration at four different publications, but now I've finished all the easy stuff and I need to tackle some more complicated projects. My next task is to revise a conference paper into a full-blown scholarly essay, but that requires significantly beefing up the scholarship, so I'm reading a big pile of books and articles on my author.

Nearly 20 years ago, a particular critic published an influential analysis of Mr. Author's work, and I would estimate that at least 90 percent of the books and articles I've read feel the need to respond in some way to that critic's argument. Now I have read Mr. Influential Critic and while I find his ideas interesting, they have no bearing whatsoever on the argument of my essay.

It's tiresome to see so many scholars fighting the same battle nearly 20 years after Mr. I.C. published his work, and I would prefer not to echo what has already been said (probably better!) by others. It's time to move the argument on to the next stage, but who has the authority to do that? No one wants to be accused of sloppy scholarship.

If I ignore Mr. I.C. entirely, I can foresee receiving a reader's report accusing me of carelessly overlooking essential scholarship on the topic, but on the other hand, I hate to include a critic simply to point out that his ideas are irrelevant to my argument. Is it better to ignore Mr. I.C., engage briefly with his ideas in order to show that they're not relevant, or dismiss him in a footnote?

I know what I would tell my students to do, but in this case I resist taking my own advice. How about you?

Monday, June 07, 2010

There will be mud

As I drove away from the house last Thursday to spend a few days at the other end of the state, I could hear the weeds in my garden applauding. "She's gone!" they cried out. "Time to party!" They ordered out for some heavy rain and spent the next three days drinking deeply and indulging in unbridled growth and reproduction.

This morning I took hoe in hand and walked down to the garden to announce that the party's over. Except it isn't, quite.

The rain stopped around noon yesterday but this morning the ground was still too wet and heavy to make hoeing possible, and walking on wet ground compresses the soil, making tender young vegetable plants unhappy. So I mostly stooped over pulling weeds around the edges of the garden that I could reach from the grass.

Weeds pull up easily from wet soil, but they also bring a lot of that soil up with them, so I had to shake off the soil before tossing the weeds away or else they would just sprout right back up again. Where does all that heavy wet soil go when I shake it off? Why, a little bit of everywhere. Within minutes I looked like the Muskingum Mud Beast.

I barely made a dent in the weeds this morning, but if the sun keeps shining today, the garden should be dry enough for some serious weeding tomorrow. The weeds have been reprieved for now, but tomorrow--look out, weeds. The party's over.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Home sweet house

There's something tremendously satisfying about pulling old wallpaper off a wall, shelf paper off a shelf, weeds out of a garden. I spent most of the day doing all of those things while helping my daughter and son-in-law prepare to move into the house they just bought, but now I need to give my back a rest while they tackle the next round of work.

A few weeks ago I asked them what they liked best about this house, and my daughter lauded the flower gardens and space for a vegetable garden while my son-in-law said, "I'm looking forward to coming home at the end of the day and having fix-it projects to work on." They will both have their wish.

The previous owner must have been crazy about gardening, because the house is surrounded by flower beds packed with irises, columbine, hollyhocks, poppies, roses, yucca, lavender, mint, hostas, and a whole host of other flowers. Unfortunately, the previous owner has not been able to maintain those gardens for a while, so they're all overgrown and jungly; we spent a good three hours this morning clearing ivy, mint, and weeds from one large flower bed.

For weeks the young people have been growing vegetable plants in pots in their apartment, and last weekend they tilled up a plot behind the house and planted their vegetable garden--before they had even signed the papers to purchase the house. The closing was delayed to await some necessary documents, but there's no delaying tomato plants.

There's plenty more gardening to do and plenty of fix-it projects too--painting rooms, tearing out wallpaper, pulling up carpet, repairing steps. I look around and see a lot of work, but they have a vision of the finished product. I'm just happy to have the opportunity to help make that vision a reality.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Dispatches from Slowsville

How long does it take to download a long journal article in pdf format on a dial-up internet connection?

Too long.

So why don't I download this article tomorrow when I'll have access to the campus's speedy internet connection?

Because I want to read this article RIGHT NOW.

Why do I suddenly sound like a two-year-old begging for a lollipop?

I'm trying to be patient, but sometimes this slow dial-up connection makes me crazy. I can use the library's research databases to find essential articles, order books through Ohiolink online, and even save citations in a handy electronic folder--but if I want to read a full-text article, I either wait eons while it downloads or else wait to download it the next time I'm on campus.

But I want to read it NOW. Or at least now-ish.

So I'm waiting, not very patiently, while this long long long journal article downloads very very slowly.

All I can say is it had better be worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Summer sweat, winter warmth

A few years ago some colleagues and I were entertaining a job candidate at dinner when the topic of spousal employment arose, as it so often does. I don't blame job candidates for wanting to know what sorts of jobs might be available in our little corner of Appalachia, but I always struggle for a good response when the candidate asks, "So what does your spouse do for a living?"

"Way too many things"would be an honest answer since there's no one-word label for a man who pastors a small church, serves as a substitute teacher, raises vegetables, and bakes more than 100 loaves of bread each week to sell at the Farmers' Market. This time I went with the whimsical: "He's a woodsman."

My colleagues laughed but they agreed that the label fits Garry like a glove. For the past month he's been donning his woodsman's gloves more often than usual to undertake an unusual endeavor involving a construction project, an auto mechanic, and a huge pile of wood.

This guy we don't even know (or didn't know until very recently) wants to build a building on a piece of hilltop property he owns, but there was a big swath of woods in the way. So he hired a company to come and cut down the trees and take away all the valuable timber, which left behind a huge pile of downed trees too twisted or hollow or otherwise unsuitable to be made into kitchen cabinets or veneers. This pile will have to be moved before construction begins later this summer.

Now the easiest thing to do would be to push that big pile of timber over the edge of the hill and leave it rot at the bottom, but the property-owner balked at wasting that much wood. On the other hand, he doesn't want to pay someone to haul it away. One day he mentioned the dilemma to his neighbor, who happens to be our auto mechanic. "I know someone who heats his house with wood," he said. "Let me see if he wants it."

He wants it.

And so began a complicated process: once or twice a week, our wonderful mechanic leaves his pickup truck and a long trailer parked near the immense pile of timber. Garry drives over there with his chainsaw and spends a few hours cutting the downed trees into moveable chunks and loading them into the truck and trailer, and then when our mechanic gets a break from work, he drives the heavy load of logs down 12 or 15 miles of winding country roads to our house, where he helps Garry toss the wood off the trailer. Garry then spends the rest of the week chopping the wood and stacking it so he'll have room for the next load.

So far they've brought over enough wood to get us through a good part of the winter at no cost to us--except for time, sweat, and lots of iced tea. (The men provide the time and sweat; I'm in charge of the iced tea.) I'm not sure what our mechanic gets out of the deal except a lot of wear and tear on his truck, trailer, and back--plus the satisfaction of knowing he's helping both us and his neighbor. But I know what my husband is getting out of the deal: a good excuse to play with his chainsaw and toss around big chunks of tree that will heat our house this winter.

They say wood warms you once when you chop it and a second time when you burn it, but right now we're enjoying the warmth that comes from cooperation and companionship under the hot summer sun. Three times the warmth from one pile of wood--that's a deal that can't be beat, and it wouldn't be possible without a working woodsman in the family.