Saturday, July 31, 2010

A butterfly feast

This morning I saw on the road a great blue heron so thoroughly flattened that it looked like something out of Roadrunner cartoon--I kept expecting it to peel itself off the road, shake itself off, and fly away. Instead, butterflies were supping on its carcass, lovely little swallowtails with tiger or zebra stripes.

I've seen a lot of roadkill out here in the boonies but never a dead heron. Herons don't generally loiter in the middle of the road, so maybe it was swooping down toward the creek when the car came around that blind curve. I'd like to see the look on the driver's face. Then again, maybe not.

I would also prefer not to see butterflies chowing down on fresh roadkill. I know butterflies often sip fluids from dead beasts, but butterflies are so light and ethereally lovely that the sight of a swallowtail supping on a carcass is thoroughly incongruous. That's nature red in tooth and claw. Nothing at all cartoonish about it.

Hopeful paid no attention to the dead heron but instead dashed off into the bushes after a possum, which she quickly caught and killed. She took one look back at me and then ran off toward home with the possum clutched in her mouth. By the time I arrived home, she had already hidden the carcass somewhere. I would rather not know where--and if she's planning to share her bounty with butterflies, I'd rather not hear about it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where's Yoda when you need him?

I've been working on matching up new faculty members with experienced mentors and I've come up with an idea that ought to earn someone a pile of money: The Virtual Mentor, an electronic entity equipped to guide new faculty as they adjust to the demands of teaching, professional development, and service, not to mention that nebulous category called "collegiality." (And anyone who figures out how to bottle "collegiality" will retire to a private island in the South Pacific.)

Right now we rely on flesh-and-blood mentors, who do a great job providing information, encouragement, and understanding to newbies fresh from grad school or other careers. But let's face it, the problems that bedevil a brand-new faculty member don't always arise during working hours. No matter how dedicated the mentor, he or she is not going to welcome a 2 a.m. phone call full of frantic questions about submitting grades online.

The Virtual Mentor is the answer. This electronic avatar could be programmed to cater to the needs of the individual mentee, providing information on a continuum running from Basic (Where do I get a parking permit? What is assessment anyway?) to Intermediate (How do I assemble my tenure portfolio? Which committee will make good use of my skills and also look impressive on my vita? How do I fit research into a four/four teaching load?) to Advanced (Why do I take it personally when a student cheats? Does my department chair hate everyone or is it just me? What am I doing here anyway? I could have been a welder. The world needs welders.)

Mentees could select The Virtual Mentor's appearance (gray-haired grandfather, fussy schoolmarm, Yoda, or a dominatrix with whips and chains) and tone (on a sliding scale from "kindly" to "stern" on up to "hectoring"). The Virtual Mentor will never call in sick or forget to return a call and will have answers to every possible question at her (its?) fingertips.

It's a plan so brilliant that I'm sure someone already has the idea in development. I wish I had the computer skills to make it happen. If only I'd had some good mentoring early in my career....

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Call it a Virtual Conscience

Speaking of technology, Jeffrey Rosen's article "The Web Means the End of Forgetting" (in the New York Times--read it here) thoughtfully explores the potential consequences of posting private information on the Internet. He describes one possible method of discouraging people from posting things they will later regret:

"A silly but surprisingly effective alternative might be to have an anthropomorphic icon--a stern version of Microsoft's Mr. Clippy--that could give you a reproachful look before you hit the send button. According to M. Ryan Calo, who runs the consumer-privacy project at Stanford Law School, experimenters studying strategies of 'visceral notice' have found that when people navigate a Web site in the presence of a human-looking online character who seems to be actively following the cursor, they disclose less personal information than people who browse with no character or one who appears not to be paying attention."

And here I always thought that we all came equipped with a humanoid character that follows our every move and makes reproachful faces when we fail to live up to expectations--pretty much all the time, in other words. Doesn't everyone have an internal Mr. Clippy or is it just me? My internal Mr. Clippy has enough reproachful faces to equip a whole host of human beings. I'd be happy to share!

Ooh, Mr. Clippy's getting mad!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Setting the tone

By the time I saw my friend's Facebook post warning everyone to stay away from the construction zone on Pike Street today, it was too late: I had already spent way too much time muttering under my breath while stuck in that traffic jam in the heat of the afternoon. Good thing ToneCheck doesn't work on muttered imprecations.

I heard about ToneCheck on the radio while I was stuck in traffic, and at first I couldn't believe it. A computer program that checks the tone of outgoing e-mails to make sure you're not being too snarky or angry or sarcastic? Yeah, right.

But then I got home and tried out the ToneCheck demo (and you can, too--click here). Bob has drafted an e-mail message to Danielle, but before he sends it, he runs ToneCheck to make sure he's using an appropriate tone. Oh no, his message has exceeded his own personal Tone Tolerance! Two sentences are flagged for further attention, both fairly banal: "I trust all is well with you and you're having a great day!" and "It is time to either solidify matters or move on." The second one is labeled "angry," but Bob revises it until it achieves the coveted "contented" crown: "I would like to make sure that you are satisfied with the terms of our agreement."

I agree that the revised sentence sounds less confrontational and more conciliatory, but sometimes it is time to solidify matters or move on, in which case I hope Bob has the sense to reject ToneCheck's suggestions. If ToneCheck can persuade a few people to carefully review what they've written before hitting "Send," it will have performed a valuable service, but it's not going to cure a tone-deaf writer or one who has learned to block out all those nagging reminders about long sentences and incorrectly spelled words. Like we REALLY need ANOTHER mechanical voice hectoring us about what ROTTEN WRITERS we are!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ooh, I hit the triple whammy there: the Sarcasm Detector is off the scale, the Exclamation Point Posse is after me, and the All-Caps Cops have are writing up a citation. Maybe I'd better try ToneCheck today!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! After all, it is time to either solidify matters or move on.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: stop bugging me!

Anyone driving past my garden this morning might have thought I had lost my mind. What kind of person jerks up and down and flings her arms around and waves her hat like a maniac in the middle of the blackberry patch?

"A person being bothered by a deerfly" would be the correct answer. Now before you tsk at me for allowing a puny little fly to wreck my composure, let me tell you: this was no puny little fly. It looked like the Fly that Ate Toledo--and come to think of it, it had that smug Carty Finkbeiner look about the eyes.

Deer and cows and horses have tails to help them swat these pesky biting flies, but I have to rely on my hands and whatever they happen to be holding at the time. I'm not about to swat flies with freshly picked blackberries so I used my hat, which discourages the flies only temporarily. At one point I was using a pen-knife to cut swiss chard when a fly attacked. Note to self: next time, close the knife first.

The low point of my morning, though, arrived when I was up to my elbows in okra and a fly began drilling right into the middle of my back. I pulled off my hat and started swatting--and sent my glasses flying across the garden.

I quickly learned that my glasses blend in pretty well with weeds, mulch, and overgrown okra. I might have had an easier time finding them if I'd had my glasses on, but if I'd had my glasses on, I wouldn't have needed to search for them.

I came in from the garden with three big painful welts on my back and a small cut on my hand. And my glasses! I don't know how long I was out there searching for them, but I finally saw a glint at the base of an okra plant. Thank God for small blessings.

I left the flies outside. As far as I'm concerned, they can go bite themselves.

Deer fly buzzing round my face,
please go find another place,
another person to distract.
Please stop landing on my back!

Don't bite my arms, my legs, my neck,
avoid my face--and what the heck
would made you want to bite my ear?
Annoying pest, get out of here!

Fly, you make me lose my grace-
fulness and poise and any trace
of sanity--I dance and twitch
and swat. Deer fly, you make me itch!

What makes my flesh so tasty, fly?
Why must you bite me? Why oh why
must you disrupt my mental health?
Deer fly, please go bite yourself.

Now it's your turn: write verse of any form about what's really bugging you.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

February is the cruelest month (except for July)

It happens every year so I ought to be prepared but I'm not. Call it the Cruelest Month Malaise, a bout of existential despair that hits every year in February and July and sometimes in November. February is bad because of the weather and the darkness and huge pile of work and the lack of holidays, and November is bad for the same reasons except for the warmth and light that Thanksgiving provides. In both months, the workload piles up while motivation loses itself in a maze of conflicting demands or dwindles in the deepening darkness that is winter.

July is different: plenty of sunshine, plenty of fresh vegetables in the garden, plenty of hummingbirds and butterflies and reasons to be outdoors. What July does not provide plenty of is time. July is like an annual midlife crisis: I realize that the summer is half over but I've finished only a fraction of what I needed to do, and meanwhile I'm itching to take a break from all my hard work but I can't slow down because August is coming. July is when I want to throw my hands in the air and say "What's the use?" but I have to make myself keep functioning efficiently or I'll suffer in August when classes and committee work commence.

So here I sit in my office in the waning days of July waiting for motivation to strike so I can start working my way through my immense to-do list, but instead of working, I'm hosting my own private pity party. Kind of pathetic, don't you think? Let's see if a collective sigh can purge the midsummer malaise. All right, everybody, on my count: one, two, three, deep cleansing breath, and now let's sigh it all out. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh....that's the way.

Now be glad it's not February and get back to work.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thirty minutes I'll never get back again

I called Verizon/Frontier with a simple question: why have I not received a phone bill for the past two months? After spending thirty minutes providing the same information to four different people, I finally received an answer: Nobody knows.

Well alrighty then! I'm glad we've got that straightened out.

Of the four people to whom I spoke, three were pleasant and polite and as helpful as they could possibly be under the circumstances. The fourth was a piece of work.

Piece. Of. Work.

He was actually the third person I spoke to and the only one making crunching noises. Numbers or Cheetos? Whatever he was crunching, it put a pretty big dent in his Customer Service skills. When he told me he's not the right person to deal with my problem, I politely asked him to figure out who the right person might be and connect me to that person.

He bumped me back to the main menu.

Where I discovered that if you say "I need to talk to a real live person right now," the recorded voice will actually connect you to a real live person who will profusely apologize for the delay and do everything she can to figure out the answer to the problem, and if no answer can be found, she will promise to "put in a ticket" to make someone "look into the matter further." Somehow, this promise fails to restore my confidence, but that's okay. I've thoroughly satisfied my weekly quota of time spent in fruitless conversations with recorded voices, so good has been done here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beta-testing my sabbatical plan

After banging my head against the wall to try to shake loose some ideas for a sabbatical proposal (read it here), I finally came up with an exciting plan that will require a trip to Florida to do research on the portrayal of place in the works of two early-twentieth-century Florida authors. This research could feed into a journal article and also provide the foundation for a version of the Concepts of Place course focusing on the literature of Florida, which would require me to scope out sites of literary interest for a possible trip with students.

Sounds perfect, yes? Over the past week I've shared this idea with several colleagues, both faculty and administrators, and the most common response is something like this: "Sounds great--if you can convince the committee that it's not a junket."

And there's the rub. Of course I have colleagues doing research in Fiji, Australia, China, Brazil, and other distant places with the college's support, so it's hard to see why the desire to do research in Florida would color me Slacker. It's true that I lived in Florida for years and I have many friends and family members wondering when I'm planning to visit again, and it's also true that the trip would come close enough to my 50th birthday to justify a smidgen of celebration, but the committee doesn't have to know that.

They also don't have to know that my prior research on Florida literature has been a bit slim. I've done the merest modicum of work on the two authors at the center of my proposal, but my only other experience researching Florida literature was when I did an interview with science fiction author Andre Norton for my high school newspaper. To land the interview, I had to employ sophisticated investigative techniques: I looked her name up in the phone book. (For readers born with a silver cell-phone in your hands, a "phone book" was an actual book the size of a cinder block made of paper covered with names and numbers that you had to manually dial on a rotary phone, if you have any idea what that is.)

I don't recall anything about the article I wrote, but I do remember that the author responded very graciously to the questions of a fawning 15-year-old. At the time I thought Ms. Norton was about 102 years old, so you can imagine my surprise when the news broke in 2005 that Andre Norton had just died at the age of 93.

But the committee doesn't have to know that the forerunner to this foray into Florida literature was a bit of amateur journalism perpetrated three decades ago. "A research trip to study the portrayal of place in the works of two early-twentieth-century Florida authors" sounds legitimate, while "A visit to Florida to see family and friends and celebrate my 50th birthday" most definitely does not. So let's just not mention the other stuff, okay? What the committee doesn't know won't hurt them.

Bonus: those unfamiliar with the deathless oeuvre of Andre Norton are unaware that I have planted an obvious allusion to one of her works in the previous paragraph. First person to correctly identify the work in question will receive, absolutely free and pre-read to ensure quality, a copy of the novel Continental Drift by Russell Banks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't fear the weaver

The headline says "IBM Ups 2010 Forecast but Fears Loom," and my first thought was, "Why would IBM fear an apparatus for weaving cloth?" Oops, back up: "fears" is the noun and "loom" is the verb. Now I get it.

For an analysis of another headline that goes in too many different directions at once, read Language Log.

The air is humming

Hummingbirds have been scarce so far this summer, but suddenly this week they're zipping up and sipping from the flowers and feeders. Sometimes one hummingbird will guard a feeder and chase away all comers, and then sometimes we'll see as many as three at a time feeding together. The big picture window in the living room opens onto a constant show: goldfinches perching on sunflowers, woodpeckers visiting feeders, hummingbirds hovering over the hollyhock blossoms, swallowtails flitting toward the petunias.

I didn't plant the petunias or the sunflowers or the portulacas or the yellow celosias. Several of the flowers I planted this spring died, while others that I didn't plant at all are thriving, especially in the ant-infested area near the cistern. The ants object when I try to plant there--they swarm all up my legs and arms and make me swat and stomp them into submission, although I'm usually the first to sound the retreat. I know I planted some nicotiana in the ant area but there's no sign of it. Instead, petunias and celosias are growing thick on the ground. Apparently the ants prefer to do their own planting.

This year for the first time, two big stands of ironweed tower over the flower garden, just about ready to blossom. Ironweed doesn't belong in the front yard but butterflies love it so I'm not planning to pull it up. It's too close to the ants. Trust me: you don't want to mess with the ants.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blackberries and butterflies

This morning I picked the biggest blackberry I've ever grown plus oodles of yummy tomatoes and beets and three plump cucumbers, but I also discovered that raccoons had ravaged our corn patch last night. Every stalk was bent over and every ear had been reduced to bare cob. Those ears were watered with my sweat so it caused me great pain to see them go to waste. It's time to stop planting corn or start building an electric fence.

The butterflies don't seem to mind. I haven't seen many fritillaries this summer but the swallowtails are abundant, including this spicebush swallowtail I found flittering around in the upper meadow. The only sounds I heard in the summer stillness were my own feet tromping through Queen Anne's Lace and Hopeful's panting. It can't be easy carrying around that black fur coat in this heat. When we came down from the meadow, she dashed right down to take a dip in the creek.

Meanwhile, I think I'll dip into those blackberries.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The little idea that could

How many new ideas idly waft through one's brain every day only to waft right back out again? And how many fleeting thoughts are really worth pursuing?

Last week I went looking for a single scene in a book and got sucked into reading the whole thing and then this idea just sort of wandered into my mind, only this time it didn't wander out again. Sometimes it seemed to be sleeping, but then it would reappear, arm in arm with another idea.

I took the idea out and played with it while I was cooking, walking, gardening, and it kept growing and growing and demanding attention like an insistent two-year-old. It's a cute little idea but it was distracting me from projects that needed my full attention.

So I put it away. Maybe I'll pursue it after I'm done with some other things, I told myself. It'll come back to me when I want it.

But as I tried to put it quietly to bed, that cute little idea kept kicking and screaming and pounding its tiny little fists on the floor. Finally it collapsed in a heap, allowing me to get some sleep, only to wake me up by jumping on the bed in the middle of the night.

So after fighting it for nearly a week, I finally took that idea out for a spin today, spending most of the day writing it all down. I'm not sure what the idea is trying to say or to whom, but the writing was exhilarating.

A week from now when I look at today's writing with new eyes, it may look like a sad, sorry, seething mass of solecisms, but today when I rummaged around in the toybox to entertain a clever little idea, that idea ended up entertaining me so much that I didn't want to stop writing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now I've got the Spam song stuck in my head...

My buddy Abu from Nigeria says he's waiting for me to pick up my cashier's check for $800,000, but I'm afraid he'll be waiting a long time. All I have to do to claim my check is send him $80 for shipping and handling. (How much weight could you send to Nigeria for $80? Is the check encased in marble?) Abu is now in Japan to pursue his new job offer. Or so he says. Whoever he might be. If there's actually a real person behind all these spam messages and not just a bundle of zeroes and ones.

My spam filter generally sidelines this kind of appeal but Abu's message somehow slipped through the cracks. Every once in a while I glance into my spam folder, skimming the subject lines before hitting "delete all," and it's just astounding how little variety I see: viagra ads and more viagra ads; nearly identical appeals from women who claim to have a great deal to offer to the right guy (hint: not me); offers for drugs that will enhance my hair growth and set my career on fire. That same $800,000 has been dangled in front of so many millions of people so many times that it's a wonder it doesn't slink off in shame every time someone like Abu (or whoever) hits "send."

I hate to disappoint my buddy Abu, but his offer just doesn't tempt me. I suppose some people must fall for the scam or it would cease to exist, but spammers never offer me anything the least bit tempting--like extra hours in the day or the ability to eat all the ice cream I want without gaining weight or a working time machine so I can go back and fix some serious mistakes. Offers like those might make me bite, but $800,000 in imaginary money just makes me laugh.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My dream sabbatical

I thought today's project would be easy: write a proposal requesting a spring 2012 sabbatical. Piece of cake, right? I'm way overdue for a sabbatical and I've written so many successful proposals for travel grants and research grants that I ought to be able to write a sabbatical proposal in my sleep.

Well, maybe I'd better try it that way because I'm not making any progress in my current state. To take a sabbatical starting in January 2012, I need to submit a proposal this fall outlining a specific sabbatical project. The problem is simple: I don't always know what I want to do next week! How am I supposed to outline a project to which I'll devote an entire semester in 2012?

Of course I have projects, zillions of little projects, some of which I am attempting to publish piecemeal and then knitting them together to make larger and larger projects that will eventually coalesce into my Magnum Opus, or actually several, um, whatever you call the plural of "Magnum Opus." Opera? Sing it with me!

But those projects ought to be done way earlier than January 2012. One of them is done right now and two others are well on the way. At this point it's hard to imagine where my restless brain might lead me in the next 18 months.

Besides, I'd like to use my sabbatical to do something completely different, something I can't normally do during the regular course of teaching, professional development, and service. My dream sabbatical would involve a short-term teaching gig someplace interesting and relevant to my research (like New Zealand, say, or eastern Europe or the Caribbean or even Chicago), but I don't have the vaguest idea how to make that happen. I look at opportunities on the Fulbright website, but they seem designed for someone with a life very different from mine. I can't leave the country for six months! Who would weed my garden?

So instead I sit here trying to invent a project that will sound convincing on a sabbatical proposal, something other than "just give me the sabbatical and I'm sure I'll find an interesting way to spend my time." I have a feeling that the only way to achieve my dream sabbatical would be to write the proposal in my sleep--and then keep on dreaming.

Another excuse to use the word "liminal"

A common motif of the coming-of-age novel is the protagonist's quest to understand who he really is, to form an identity he can comfortably inhabit, however scarred and battered it might be. But why must Our Hero limit himself to only one identity? Why not grab a handful?

So reasons one character in Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, which, like his earlier novel You Remind Me of Me, concerns a character trying to locate his lost brother (and perhaps find himself in the process). This time, though, the lost brother is not one person but many, a master of identity theft who borrows underutilized identities for his own ends. He persuades one of his disciples to do likewise, convincing him that "Most people...had identities that were so shallow that you could easily manage a hundred of them at once. Their existence barely grazed the surface of the world."

Chaon specializes in such liminal characters, people who exist on the edges of reality but struggle to break through into more meaningful lives. In his previous novel and short stories, most of the memorable characters are male, but in Await Your Reply Chaon presents a fully developed female character whose peril drives much of the suspense of the novel. Lucy's story is one of three separate tales whose connections become clear very slowly, culminating in a final revelation that is absolutely perfect but nevertheless arrives like a kick in the gut. Each storyline involves a quest--for self, for survival, for a lost loved one--that shifts at times into a life-or-death chase. Chaon controls pace and suspense masterfully, doling out hints that could portend real peril for beloved characters while always holding in reserve the possibility that the characters might be mad or simply mistaken.

Lucy seems sane enough, an intelligent teen who grabs the first ticket out of her bleak midwestern town. She soon discovers, however, that stepping into a new identity is not as painless as she had expected: "The life she had been traveling toward--imagining herself into--the ideas and expectations that had been so solid only a few weeks ago--this life had been erased, and the numb feeling crept up from her hand to her arm to her shoulder." This numbness creeps deeper as she careens down an unknown road seeking a city she has seen only in dreams:

Her future was like a city she had never visited. A city on the other side of the country, and she was driving down the road, with all her possession packed up in the backseat of the car, and the route was clearly marked on her map, and then she stopped at a rest area and saw that the place she was headed to wasn't there any longer. The town she was driving to had vanished--perhaps had never been there--and if she stopped to ask the way, the gas station attendant would look at her blankly. He wouldn't even know what she was talking about....In one life, there was a city you were on your way to. In another, it was just a place you'd invented.

Here Lucy resembles no one so much as Isabel Archer, who, in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, defends her preference for not knowing where she's going: "I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see--that's my idea of happiness." This strategy traps Isabel in partnership with a man made of lies, so it's not surprising to see Lucy drifting into a similar situation.

Will she escape, or will she finally succumb to the suffocating numbness? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A tiring tale

Good news: it's raining! Our creek is nearly dry and our garden is parched, so rain is good.

Except that it's also bad. Yesterday when I picked up my Volvo, my mechanic told me that the rear tires were dangerously bald. "Don't try to drive in the rain," he said, "or those tires will take you right off the road."

But I needed to be on campus this morning for a meeting and I don't currently have access to the faculty helicopter, so I drove--carefully--to Wal-Mart, where the tire guy acted as if I was interrupting some very important business and then quoted me a ridiculously high price for tires.

So I said no thanks and drove--carefully--through the pouring rain to a tire place downtown, where they quoted me a price $20 lower per tire, which sounded like good news until the tire guy came and told me that he could not in good conscience rotate the front tires to the rear without warning me that the front tires were worn nearly down to the metal.

"I wouldn't drive on those tires in the rain," he said. "They'll drive you right off the road." He and my mechanic must be reading from the same playbook.

I couldn't afford four tires so I bought two and drove off--in the rain--carefully. So far I've stayed on the road pretty well, but the rain falls on the tired and the tireless, so who knows where that road might lead?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Summer assessment and stuff

Summer break is half over--or more than half when you consider that my administrative duties start up August 1. I hate to bring out the A word in the middle of the summer, but it's time to assess how I'm doing on summer projects.

On the home front I'm doing fine: I've been keeping up with the garden, taking the dog for long walks, and helping my daughter and son-in-law move into their new house. I've cleaned out one closet but haven't touched the other two--and frankly, I'm not terribly motivated. Those closets are stuffed with stuff I stuffed in there because I didn't know what else to do with it, and I don't know what to do with it now any more than I did when I stuffed it in there. So the closet-cleaning project has moved to the back burner, where it may remain simmering for some time.

On the writing front, I'm doing pretty well on the plan to revise and submit one article each week, although I gave myself time off for helping the young folks move. I now have five articles in the hands of various editors and another ready to send to a publication that doesn't accept submissions during the month of July. I suspect that one of the articles wasn't quite ready for prime time, but I feel pretty good about the rest. Who knows when I'll hear anything from all those editors?

On the academic front, I've done some informal fiddling with fall syllabi (two classes I've never taught before!) but they're far from completion. They're not even in the same time zone as completion. But that's to be expected this time of year; I expect to focus on syllabi more intently in August when I'll have to be in my office nearly every day to fulfill administrative duties (which I've worked on steadily all summer long so I won't be overwhelmed in August).

Over all, I'd give myself a solid B+ for my my summer midterm grade. The problem, though, is that July is the month of enervating ennui, when heat and humidity sap my motivation. I need to keep my momentum going or that B+ grade will drop like a safe out of the sky in a Warner Brothers cartoon, leaving me squashed. I need a pep rally and a cheerleading squad to pump me up.

I would write some cheers myself, but I can't find a rhyme for "closets."

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

And now for something completely different

We picked the first okra of the season this morning, plus cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, and one plump red juicy tomato that we immediately sliced and served with fresh basil leaves on buttered toast. Wow. The first garden tomatoes of the season arrive like a revelation.

Butterflies have returned to the upper meadow along with zillions of little green grasshoppers. The place is hopping. The other day I followed a pair of indigo buntings through the bracken in an attempt to get a photo, but they kept ducking behind leaves and leading me onward until I was up to my elbows in tall weeds and poison ivy.

And then there were ticks. Let's not talk about the ticks.

The temperature stayed above 100 degrees until well after dark yesterday and the humidity is just wretched, but for a few brief golden moments early in the morning we can work in the garden and believe that we live in paradise.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Lesson six: It's not over until it's over. And over. And over.

Why am I doing this?

During the past week I've asked myself this question over and over. Why am I putting so much time and thought into writing little lessons about things I'd rather not think about? After all, it's not as if anyone begged me to please please PLEASE reveal the most important things I've learned from cancer, like the thousands of Dickens readers lining the wharf in New York eagerly awaiting the next installment of Little Nell. Does Little Bev live or die? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of our tale!

Of course I'm aware that last summer when I started writing about my struggle with cancer, my page views spiked. As a former journalist, I know what sells--pain, conflict, life-and-death struggles--but it's a little disconcerting to find that I'm much more interesting when I'm writing about cancer than when I'm writing about teaching or gardening or walking the dog. Every journalist knows the litany: "Dog Bites Man" isn't news, but everyone is interested in "Man Bites Dog."

How about "Cancer Bites Bev"? That's a story.

Except it lacks one essential ingredient of a good story: an ending. Real life doesn't always provide tidy conclusions the ways Dickens did, so I'm writing this to provide an artificial sense of closure. I need closure. I live by lists, experiencing a frisson of pleasure every time I manage to cross off a task and move on to the next one, but when will I be able to cross cancer off my list?

My cancer is most likely to recur in the first two years, and if it doesn't recur within five years then I've beaten the odds. But it could always come back somewhere else--and in the long term, I could develop secondary cancers from all that radiation. So it's not over until it's over, and even then it may not be over. Look at Henrietta Lacks! Her cancer is still growing in petri dishes all over the world.

If I can't cross cancer off my list of things to do, I'll cross off "survive first year after diagnosis" so I can move on to the next task. This little list of lessons is my way of concluding this exciting installment of my life, even though I don't know whether it's the end of a chapter or the end of the book or merely the end of Book One.

Cancer taught me that truth is stranger than fiction, but that won't stop me from turning the page to see what's next.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Lesson five: Reality bites the queen of denial

Soon after word got out that I was battling cancer, I ran into a colleague in the check-out line at Wal-Mart. He briefly shared his own experience with cancer but he's a numbers guy so he got right down to percentages: "What's the five-year survival rate for your diagnosis?"

"Not good," I said, but I didn't get more specific. The five-year survival rate for my diagnosis is a scary number hidden safely away in a locked chest marked "High Explosives," and I'd rather not retrieve it out without first buckling on protective armor and calling in reinforcements. The check-out line at Wal-Mart is not the place for juggling dynamite.

I'm generally good at looking reality straight in the face, but in the past year I've learned to value selective denial. I know that cancer kills and that it could kill me, but I don't really need to think about that fact 24 hours a day. Sometimes I'd rather pull a Scarlett O'Hara and think about it tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

In the opening scene of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, a messenger arrives with news from the big bad real world, but Our Hero is so busy whooping it up with the Queen of the Nile that he dismisses the messenger without listening to the message. He gets the news later, of course, but a long habit of denying reality has left him ill-equipped to deal with it. When reality bites, Antony falls on his sword and Cleopatra reaches for the asps.

In the past year I've gotten really good at locking away harsh realities for long stretches while I pass my days as if cancer didn't exist. When the messengers arrive bearing news of the real world (a medical bill, a blood test, a reminder of that five-year-survival rate), I armor myself to face the facts and do what's required, but I can't keep those harsh facts in front of me 24 hours a day without developing a desire to reach for the asps.

Cancer has taught me that selective denial is a necessary survival skill--as long as I keep my armor handy so I can face the news when reality bites.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Lesson four: Simple pleasures aren't always the best, but they'll do in a pinch

Early this morning I was out in the garden picking swiss chard, lettuce, broccoli, and beans, and I couldn't resist popping a fresh green bean into my mouth--without even washing it first.

I wouldn't have dared to do that last fall after cancer treatment kicked the legs out from under my immune system and made my intestines recoil from anything fresh, green, and crunchy. Chemotherapy and radiation drastically restricted my menu options--no salad, no raw veggies, no screaming-hot peppers, no sushi--and made cheese and other beloved items taste like compost. For weeks it seemed I lived on peanut butter, bananas, toast, and mashed potatoes.

Cancer also cramped my style in other ways: No rec center workouts. No movie theaters. No travel. No money.

Too many doctor visits. Not enough writing. Too much pain. Not enough sex.

From the first I knew I would have to sort my activities into those I could give up and those I could not. I gladly sacrificed the responsibility for cleaning the catbox and bathrooms, but I suffered a few twinges of guilt on hiring a student to help in the garden. I could have taken a full medical leave from my job, but I'm happier when I'm working so I opted to give up half--and there was never any question which half. I get a great sense of accomplishment from administration, but given the choice, I'd rather be teaching.

In the midst of this constricted lifestyle, I tried to find moments of joy. They arrived in surprising forms--in a key lime pie, a phone call, a song, a book, a snuggle--and even when those moments were brief and fleeting, I clutched them the way a toddler clutches a lollipop, as if it's the last remaining drop of sweetness on earth.

Today I'm delighted to be getting my hands dirty in the garden and munching on fresh green beans, which seem sweeter after all those months of absence and blandness. Cancer temporarily restricted my ability to participate in the immense complex drama of life, but cancer also taught me to be grateful for the small moments of sweetness that punctuate the pain.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Lesson three: Knowlege is power(less)

Neutrophils, neutropenia, neuropathy, neurontin--do I really have to learn all this for the test?

If the test is cancer, the answer is yes. You do have to learn all this--but you'll need more knowledge than yours to pass the test.

They say that knowledge is power, but all my life I've accepted strict compartmentalization of that power. Let the doctors wield the power of neutrophils, neutropenia, neuropathy, and neurontin, and I'll focus on knowing about American authors, ecocriticism, pedagogy, and proper use of the subjunctive.

This scheme would be sufficient if the proper use of the subjunctive could help me survive cancer (Would that it were so!), but suddenly my vast but specialized knowledge left me powerless. So I set out to absorb a whole new field of knowledge, reading everything I could about endometrial cancer and its treatments.

All the guides to surviving cancer say the same thing: Know your disease! Greater knowledge will help you take charge of your treatment, make informed decisions, and manage the mystery that is cancer.

Mystery, however, rarely submits to management's power. The more I learned, the more I understood the vastness of my ignorance--and not just mine. Cancer research is studded with chasms of ignorance, huge gaping holes in the collective understanding of how cancer works, which treatments succeed, what side effects might show up in the long term. And some of the knowledge I gained left me feeling even more powerless.

Take neuropathy. Please.

My oncologist had warned me early on that one possible side effect of chemotherapy was peripheral neuropathy, which he described as a tingling in the fingertips--"But we can treat you for that," he said. I didn't bother reading about it at the time because my mind was occupied by other matters, like the constant need to know the fastest route to the nearest rest room. Through five rounds of chemotherapy I never showed a sign of neuropathy.

Then after my sixth round I noticed a change: I kept dropping things. I had to ask students to help me hand out papers in the classroom. My eyes wouldn't focus right and my mouth felt numb. I had trouble forming words.

I make my living forming words!

I felt helpless.

Time to learn about neuropathy. Let's see: numbness, tingling, pain, possible loss of balance and coordination, possible loss of bladder function...treatment can relieve symptoms but some nerve damage may be permanent.

Somehow, this knowledge wasn't pumping me up with the power to manage my disease.

So my oncologist prescribed neurontin, which had me feeling relatively normal within a few weeks, so when the prescription ran out, I didn't refill it right away. I felt fine! For about three days.

But then the neuropathy came back. Before refilling the prescription, I decided to learn more about it. I made the mistake of going online to read all the possible side effects of neurontin: dizziness and somnolence I can deal with, but what's this about possible amnesia, abnormal thinking, and amblyopia? I don't even know what amblyopia means! I learned that a very small percentage of patients developed the most alarming side effects, but that's comforting only if you're not part of that small percentage.

All this new knowledge left me feeling more powerful than a bleeding pullet. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I simply wasn't equipped to sort through the little knowledge I had and separate the relevant from the anomalous. I needed reassurance from someone who knew how to wield this knowledge properly.

That's what doctors do. I find facts that kick me in the gut, but my oncologist puts those facts into context and soothes the pain. Knowledge is power when it is accompanied by the profound understanding and wisdom I can't possibly develop in a quick crash course on cancer.

Cancer taught me that no matter how much I cram for the test, I can't possibly pass it on my own knowledge alone.

The neurontin is gone, by the way. And so is the neuropathy. Don't ask me about neutrophils or neutropenia because I've already forgotten what they mean.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lesson two: There's no algorithm for friendship

"Having cancer will show you who your real friends are."

I don't remember who told me that so I can't tell you whether the speaker turned out to be a real friend. It's true, sort of: like any life-altering event, cancer can test friendships, revealing surprising strengths and unexpected weaknesses. But if I had to make a list of the people who proved to be real friends, I'd be hard pressed.

Maybe I should call on Charlie Eppes, the math whiz on the TV show Numbers. Faced with some gnarly mystery of human behavior, his most common response is something like "I can create an algorithm for that." Let's imagine an algorithm that could sort out those amongst my acquaintance who qualify as real friends.

First we'd have to assign numerical values to various responses to my plight: sending a card, cooking a meal, covering a class, buying a scarf, and so on. Bonus points for sending me cases of ginger beer, taking over all my committee work, and driving out to the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn to take me to chemotherapy--but how many points for each?

Would a hand-written note count more than a store-bought card? How about e-mail? I appreciated every card I received but I was sustained for weeks by one simple sentence in a student's e-mail message. Extra credit for saying exactly what I needed to hear?

What about people who didn't say anything? Sometimes nothing is exactly the right thing to say and sometimes it's a cop-out. I can think of a few people who really should have kept their mouths shut, but the most painful comment was completely in character and taught me nothing new about the speaker. (And if you think I'm going to repeat that comment here, think again.)

Maybe our friendship algorithm should take into account how my understanding of the friend's character changed over time. Several casual acquaintances surprised me with their willingness to help, resulting in some newly strong relationships that will last. Others surprised me by becoming distant, unwilling to be involved with my persistent problems. I can't say that I blame them--after all, nothing clears a room like the whiff of death--but I certainly learned something about those friendships. Should the algorithm subtract points for disappointing responses? How many points?

It's no use. I can't put a number on the words and actions that mattered most during the darkest times, nor can I quantify the gratitude I feel for those whose apparently insignificant gestures helped me hold on. Cancer taught me why there's no algorithm for friendship: because real friends don't keep score.