Thursday, September 30, 2010


On the first day of the Scientific Imaging class I took two years ago, the professor wrote on the board in large print the letters "RTFD."

"This means 'Read the fine directions,'" he explained, "but some people substitute another word for fine."

Lately I find myself frequently telling students to read the friendly or ferocious or flabbergasting directions and then come back to me if they still have questions, but that doesn't mean I'm planning to sit by my computer all night eagerly awaiting that 2 a.m. e-mail from a student who can't understand the directions for an assignment due today even though he or she has had the assignment sheet for FIVE WEEKS and we have discussed it in class at least once a week. Here's a thought: how about reading the first-rate directions a little sooner next time?

A colleague told me yesterday that he never puts detailed assignments in writing but instead issues instructions orally in class. If students have questions, they have to ask him right there on the spot where everyone can hear. I suppose that's one way to deal with the problem, but then he never gets the opportunity to tell the students to read the frightful directions or read the formidable directions or read the fan-freaking-tastic directions.

From now on I'll just issue all my directions via interpretive dance. If nothing else, it will give me an opportunity to try out some new f-words: Read the flamenco directions. Read the flat-footed directions. Read the fandango directions....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Discerning "concerning"

I'm trying to discern whether I ought to be concerned about "concerning," which keeps cropping up in the form of an adjective. Note the following pairs of sentences:

A. I am very concerned about Jim's health.
B. Jim's health is very concerning.

A. I am very concerned about the state of the environment.
B. The state of the environment is very concerning.

A. I am very concerned about my student's performance.
B. My student's performance is very concerning.

I don't recall hearing the B form before a few years ago, but now I hear it all the time. Is there any real difference in meaning between A and B? I see a shift in emphasis: the A sentences express statements about my feelings, while the B sentences express a statement about Jim's health or the environment or my student's performance. In the A sentences, the concern lives within me, while in the B sentences, the adjective "concerning" applies not to me but to Jim or the environment or my student.

Taking "I" out of the picture places the emphasis firmly on the problem causing the concern, but does it also shift responsibility for the problem? Let's see what happens if we create a C pattern by adding the word "to me" at the end of each of B sentences:

A. I am very concerned about Jim's health.
B. Jim's health is very concerning.
C. Jim's health is very concerning to me.

C seems closer in meaning to A than to B, but it still places the emphasis on Jim's health rather than on my state of mind. Does this distinction matter?

This adjectival use of "concerning" grates on my ears every time I hear it, but is it more accurate to say that I am concerned about "concerning" or that I find "concerning" concerning? "To me" or not "to me"? That is the question.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Swift, saintly, sticky

Why I love about my recently refurbished office laptop computer:

1. Everything's running really quickly (perhaps because I no longer have malware constantly running in the background).

2. New operating system with pretty icons!

3. Word 2007! I love the "Review" tab, and whoever invented "insert endnotes" ought to be sainted.

4. Electronic sticky notes! On my desktop! With cool fonts! Think of the trees I'll save!

5. A fresh new supply of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Amongst monsters

During this morning's class discussion of Stephen Crane's The Monster, students compared the novella to works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King. One student saw a precursor of Cormac McCarthy's prose in Crane's description of a fire in a lab full of colorful chemicals that burst into horrifying beauty, with flames resembling flowers and panthers and fairies until

Suddenly the glass splintered and a ruby-red snakelike thing poured its thick length out upon the top of the old desk. It coiled and hesitated, and then began to swim a langourous way down the mahogany slant. At the angle it waved its sizzling molten head to and fro over the closed eyes of the man beneath it. Then, in a moment, with mystic impulse, it moved again, and the red snake flowed directly down into Johnson's upturned face.

And thus evil enters the bucolic garden.

I've read The Monster perhaps a dozen times but never taught it, and after seeing my students' responses today, I wonder why this slight novella is never anthologized. Year after year I teach Crane's story "The Open Boat" because it's in the Norton anthology and provides a good introduction to naturalism as a literary movement. It's almost too obvious: four guys in a boat subject to forces outside their control! Look how small and insignificant they feel in the face of indifferent nature! Why, they don't even have names! Etc.

The Monster is longer than "The Open Boat" but not by much, and the plot moves at a much more brisk pace. Granted, "The Open Boat" struggles to recreate for the reader the deadly boredom of being stuck in a small boat on the open sea for many hours, which means that for long stretches nothing much is happening: "They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed." Again, etc.

This morning's discussion of The Monster was so engrossing that we got out of class late. There's so much more to say! The Monster defies easy categorization, starting out as in the William Dean Howells light-of-common-day realistic mode but later entering gothic and naturalistic and impressionistic territory, all while remaining entirely believable. It's a slice of small-town life at the turn of the twentieth century and a philosophical exploration of the problem of pain and the responsibility for evil, but unlike the gothic novels it echoes, The Monster offers no hope of resolution. The monster is not destroyed (and indeed may not be a monster at all!) and the evil is not vanquished, which means it's still out there--or possibly in here.

The Monster is not without its flaws; for instance, Crane's treatment of race tends toward the patronizing and stereotypical. I admire "The Open Boat," but few students share my enthusiasm so the discussion can be slow and grim. The Monster, on the other hand, lets loose ideas so monstrous they can't be contained in one hour's discussion but keep coming back begging to be fed.

And to be read! The University of Virginia's electronic text is available here. Go ahead--feed the monster!

Friday, September 24, 2010


I arrived on campus this morning to find my classroom in the dark. The rest of the building had plenty of light, and the computer and projector in the classroom worked just fine, but that one room remained unillumined. The class that meets before mine was taking an exam today, so the prof had to scramble to find a clean, well-lighted place. Good thing my class was scheduled to visit Special Collections!

Do I really need light in a literature class? I could lead a class discussion in the dark, but how would students take notes? They would have to brush up their memorization skills, I suppose, or we could recreate the ambiance of an earlier time by gathering 'round a flickering candle or a whale-oil lamp, if we could find a supply of whale-oil, which is highly unlikely.

Candles might have been appropriate today. My students have been reading Kate Chopin and Stephen Crane's stories about children, so we went down to Special Collections to examine nineteenth-century children's books and magazines. It's very enlightening to read Stephen Crane's charming short story "The Angel Child" alongside illustrations of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Gaslight would be great! But of course we can't use gaslight or candles or whale-oil lamps in the library, especially in Special Collections. We could discuss literature in the dark by relying on as much of the text as we have stored in memory, but to handle the book, read the text, examine the illustrations, we need light.

And then there was light! Snuff the candles: we have illumination!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On the chopping block

Today I've put my own precious prose on the chopping block and it hurts. The conference I'm attending in Prague in November requires that a draft of the paper be submitted by this Friday, and the draft can be no longer than 2600 words. I'm cutting down a larger essay to present at the conference, but to make it fit within the limit, I'll have to cut out around 4000 words. Ouch.

Of course cutting a paper down to size is easier than expanding it, especially when I can chop out whole sections in one fell swoop. But then I discover that I've destroyed the connective tissue between ideas, so I have to add a sentence or two to tie the remaining pieces together. It's chop, add, chop, add all day long.

And then I encounter a passage I simply hate to sacrifice. It's so clever or original or perfect in context, but will it fit in the slimmed-down version of the paper or will it just sit there like a partially severed thumb dangling from the body of the piece? It's hard to say. So I keep it in, check the word count, trim it a little, check the word count, put it aside to think about later.

After I get the paper trimmed to size, I'll have to go back through and change the citation format. I generally use MLA in-text citations and a Works Cited, but this conference requires footnotes and a bibliography in Oxford style--plus British spellings throughout. Okay, I'll work on that...maybe I can find a proofreader eager to sniff out my non-British spellings.

First, though, I've got to get back to the chopping block. Caution: butcher at work. Watch your step there--you wouldn't want to slip and fall on that severed syntax all over the floor.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The little savages!

After a lengthy discussion of the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this morning, I asked my honors students whether they would characterize the culture Achebe describes as "civilized" or "savage." A lively debate followed, with students offering abundant evidence supporting claims on both sides.

Then I reminded them of the exercise we did last week in class: students sat in groups of four and wrote two brief descriptions of the group on the opposite side of the table, one description portraying their classmates as "civilized" and the other as "savage." For instance, one girl's necklace was described variously as "a sample of the fine art of her culture" or "an artifact seized after a bloody battle," and a male student was described as "dominating his women through superior strength." Art/artifact, wife/women: what a difference a word makes.

Judging from their ability to enter into civil debate, I would describe my students as highly civilized. Even after the fire alarm sounded, there was no every-man-for-himself scramble for the exit. No savages in my class!

I wouldn't want to speculate about yours.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Let 'em eat cake!

When life gives you egg whites, make angel-food cake. At 5:30 a.m. on a school day. Because that's when the oven is available.

Okay, I'll admit that my cake-making has gotten a little out of control, but I'm just trying to build a dike to hold back the flood of egg whites and keep the chickens from coming home to roost in my refrigerator, just to mix a few metaphors. (Would I rather mix metaphors or egg whites? Don't distract me from the issue at hand, which is what to do with these dirty beaters....)

The problem is that the resident bread-baker keeps using egg yolks and leaving the whites in little plastic quart containers in the fridge, and when the containers start stacking up, I whip up an angel-food cake. They sell well at the Farmers' Market, but I have to bake them right about the time that the oven is full of bread, which doesn't work, or else squeeze them in at unusual times like 5:30 a.m., which is what I did last Friday. And then when I explained to my students why I had been up since the crack of dawn, they said, "Bake one for us!"

Well, I've got all those egg whites, right? And I can't eat all that cake myself, right? So I baked a cake for my students. Served it with strawberries in this morning's class. They enjoyed it, but now they'll be expecting cake all the time. That's what's happened with the Farmers' markets: I started baking cakes just to clear space in the fridge, but now we have customers who complain if cake is not forthcoming.

Maybe I'll start sending the raw egg whites to the market with recipes attached. Let 'em bake cake! I'm going back to sleep.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Story as storage

From Scott Russell Sanders, two storytelling metaphors:

"Like a woven basket or a clay pot, a story is a container. It provides a shape for holding some character, some act or insight, some lesson we can't afford to lose. It stores the kernels of past experience like seeds harvested from earlier crops and carefully saved for future planting."

"By linking events, a story binds together a stretch of time and a portion of the world, something tidy enough to carry in the mind. It is a form of stored energy, like the sunlight captured in a chunk of coal, but unlike coal, which disappears in the burning, stories retain their heat and light as long as there are minds capable of understanding them."

These and other stories appear in "The Warehouse and the Wilderness," an essay in Sanders's new collection, A Conservationist Manifesto.

Looking in, looking out, looking up

I was walking up a hill near our house this morning when the call of a pileated woodpecker stopped me in my tracks. I looked up and saw a tree with yellow leaves so bright they looked electric, and nearby I saw another tree, dead and leafless but pockmarked with the distinctive oval holes drilled only by the larger woodpeckers.

By the time I heard that chattering call, I'd been walking about 40 minutes without much awareness of anything. I've been walking around that way all week, my eyes glazed and turned inward toward the big campus issue everyone's trying to talk about without quite knowing how. How did I get to this point? I remember leaving the house, seeing a heron in our creek and a deer up the road, and then nothing until the woodpecker's call.

I scanned the tree and waited a while but the call didn't repeat. I never saw the woodpecker, but I know it's out there somewhere--and the only way I'll find it is to keep looking out and up.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: Errorless messages

If my computer insists on talking to me, I wish it would say something I'd like to hear:

File found, not corrupt
but safe and pure, complete. How
else may I serve you?

There's a message that would make my day. Or how about this one:

I found the file
you thought you lost,
un-crossed the line
you thought you'd crossed,
deleted spam,
prevented peeves.
Don't call me Mac:
my name is Jeeves.

I would never hit the "mute" button on that kind of message. How about you? Let's see some light verse conveying messages you wish your computer would send.


My helpful IT guys have been working on and off all week to exorcise the demons possessing my office laptop, finally declaring it cured yesterday. This morning I'm hearing voices, messages from the great beyond--snippets of music, fragments of ads, hearty voices proclaiming "You're a winner!" I don't mind being a winner except when my laptop is a loser.

So the IT guys have it and they're wiping it clean. I'm fumbling around in the computer lab, trying to get useful work done while awaiting the next incarnation of my office laptop. If the screen starts spinning around and spewing vomit, I'm outta here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tossing in the tiara

Sunday afternoon I made the mistake of congratulating myself for being so organized. I'm the Organization Queen, I told myself: caught up on grading, class preparation, meeting planning, working out, even laundry. Someone ought to hand me a rhinestone tiara.

Well, the Organization Queen has been deposed. I am now behind on everything--even laundry. What happened?

Grading happened. Meetings happened. Car repairs and computer problems and muscle spasms happened. The high pollen count affects my inner ear and makes my head spin. Workmen wielding power tools and ladders infested my office space with noise and clutter. My office computer is possessed by demons that resist IT's attempts to exorcise them. My car window was stuck open. I'm trying to refinance my house. Students keep completing their assignments and expecting me to grade them (of all the nerve!). And my feet hurt.

Today my schedule is pretty clear so I'll try to dig out from under the onslaught. My car window is up (and the switch disabled so I can't put it down again) and the workmen and ladders have disappeared from my office space. Rumor has it that my computer will be fixed today. And I have no meetings until next Monday.

Maybe this evening I'll do some laundry. Better toss in the tiara. It's looking a little tarnished.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Un-biting my tongue

The big news is finally public: we're getting a new provost. People keep asking me what I think of this news but I'm reluctant to open my mouth because, as I learned to my sorrow over the summer, casual comments made in social settings can get passed around as if they're pronouncements from the Great White Throne, returning to me so twisted that I don't even recognize my own words. But I will say three things:

First, I am saddened at the prospect of losing our current provost. I enjoy working with her, value her leadership, appreciate her devotion to scholarship, and admire her professionalism. I will miss her.

Second, I am relieved that the news is finally public. I'm tired of biting my tongue on the topic.

Third, I am convinced that those of us who care about the future of the college ought to work to keep the conversation civil, to squelch misinformation, and to resist the temptation toward divisiveness. It won't be easy, but if we work together, we can do it.

And that's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The post-workshop workshop

A group of faculty members sit around a table sipping soft drinks, eating pizza, and sharing ideas about using rubrics to evaluate student work. The workshop is over and the presenters are packing up, but no one wants to leave when they have so many great ideas to share (or gripes to air).

This is my favorite part of our whole teaching workshop series: hearing my colleagues talk and laugh and learn even after the formal workshop is over. We've had some terrific presenters and engaging topics, but I like to see participants hanging around long after the session is over. We come here to build our own teaching skills but we're also building a community of colleagues who support and encourage one another--even when workmen crank up their power tools so we have to raise our voices to be heard.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Policing pokeweed and pawpaws

It occurs to me that if I'd been pulled over this morning on the way to work, the cop might have wondered why I was transporting baggies full of green vegetative matter. I swear, officer, they're not mine...I'm just holding them for a friend.

And besides, they're just leaves. And a little dirt. Tomato leaves and dirt from the tomato patch and two green tomatoes, plus a handful of pokeweed leaves. For a friend. A colleague, actually, a biologist who is studying manganese uptake in tomato and pokeweed plants and needs some samples. Scientific samples is what they are. Perfectly harmless. And legal.

It took us a little while to find suitable pokeweed leaves. We have plenty of pokeweed, which looks quite pretty right now with its festoons of purple berries attracting birds, but the local electric company's scorched-earth weed-eradication program has made large patches of greenery in our area shrivel and die, including everything on the hillside across the road where the trilliums bloom so abundantly in spring.

We finally found some undamaged pokeweed but in the process we also found pawpaws growing like fuzzy green lightbulbs under their canopy of donkey-ear leaves. Plenty of pawpaw trees grow on the edge of our woods, but generally the deer and raccoons get to the fruit before it's ripe enough to pick. Yesterday, though, we found one plump juicy pawpaw with those distinctive yellow speckled spots indicating ripeness and we took it up to the house to save for this morning's breakfast. It was perfect: yellow custardy flesh with a flavor I would describe as bananaesque and mangolicious.

But it's a good thing I didn't get pulled over this morning because no traffic cop would have stood still to listen to this whole unlikely tale, especially with all that plastic taped over my car window. But that's a story for another day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The elusive allusion

My hands smell like mustard, a consequence of having eaten lunch in front of my computer while reading and trying to respond to student drafts. Probably my computer keyboard smells like mustard too. But not the drafts. They're nice drafts and I'm enjoying reading them, but I really don't want to take them home this weekend so I'm sitting here in front of my computer and responding to drafts one after another after another until they're done. Ten down, six to go. Think I can do it? The race is on!

I don't mind copying certain types of comments over and over: When you use a complete sentence to introduce a quotation, use a colon. Titles of poems should be in quotation marks, titles of books in italics. Please learn the important distinction between "then" and "than."

Today's papers, though, introduced a repeated error I've never seen before: using "eludes" where one would expect "alludes," as in "The poem eludes to Greek myth." This showed up in one-fifth of the papers I've read so far, and it made me want to compose an etude conveying the illusion of an allusion that would elude comprehension. But I'll never get out of here if I keep waxing poetic over amusing errors in student writing.

I'd like to insert a comment saying "Don't you mean Quaaludes?" But I fear that the allusion would elude my students.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Making the world safe for My Pretty Pony

Yesterday a faithful reader sent me some shocking news from our old stomping ground: an elementary school in Orange County, Florida, "was placed on lockdown Tuesday morning for more than an hour while authorities investigated a suspicious device." What manner of strange device sent Waterbridge Elementary School into a "modified code yellow lockdown"?

A stuffed pony.

Or, to be more precise, "a pony-shaped stuffed animal" that was "determined to be non-threatening after the Sheriff's Office conducted a thorough investigation." Wouldn't you like to see the notes from that investigation?

The photo accompanying the article (read it here) suggests that the threatening device was retrieved by a robot made of tinker toys, but what happened next? Did the bomb squad X-ray the device to determine whether that suspicious pony shape might be hiding something insidious within? Did Deputy Fife shine bright lights into the pony's beady little eyes and demand information about other fugitives from the law? "I've got a bullet and I know to use it," says Deputy Fife. "So cough it up, My Pretty Pony: bring me Mr. Potato Head's head on a platter."

And what of the child responsible for introducing this dangerous device to Waterbridge Elementary School? I hope they didn't send her to Guantanamo!

It's encouraging to know that the Powers That Be are equipped to handle such a threat. After the pony-shaped device was fully investigated and neutralized, the children at Waterbridge Elementary School went back to their classrooms secure in the knowledge that their little lives had escaped the depredations of My Pretty Pony.

No word on whether that tinker-toy robot is still on the loose.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Duds 'n' suds

"Boxers, Briefs, and Books," an article in yesterday's New York Times (read it here), reveals that John Grisham and I have at least one thing in common: we both hated working at Sears.

Grisham describes the long line of dead-end jobs he pursued in his youth, including spreading asphalt, laying fence, and creeping into dank, dark crawl spaces to locate plumbing problems. Retail sales caught his attention because "it was indoors, clean and air-conditioned," but the only opening he could find was in the men's underwear department at Sears, a job he found so humiliating that he tried to get fired:

"I became abrupt with customers. Sears has the nicest customers in the world, but I didn't care. I was rude and surly and I was occasionally watched by spies hired by the company to pose as shoppers. One asked to try on a pair of boxers. I said no, that it was obvious they were much too small for his rather ample rear end. I handed him an extra-large pair. I got written up. I asked for lawn care. They said no, but this time they didn't offer me a raise. I finally quit."

I never landed a retail job at Sears, but I worked at a Sears distribution center in the personnel department, where I did a lot of filing while watching a steady stream of desperate job-seekers come and go. Once a girl I knew from high school arrived for an interview wearing a tight dress slit up to there and went into the boss's office to be interviewed behind closed doors. After the applicant left, the boss (male) came out and made an announcement to the rest of the (female) staff: "I'll tell you what, ladies, we'll hire the dress and you can all take turns wearing it."

But aside from the occasional sexist comment, that part of my job was not bad: the work was easy, my co-workers were pleasant, and best of all, I was bringing in a steady paycheck, small but much appreciated.

Everything changed in the evening when the lights were turned off, all the pleasant people went home, and I was shunted over to a dark little cubicle in a huge building where the only other human beings were the security guard and the one or two other unfortunate peons stuck with the job nobody wanted: calling up customers whose Sears appliances needed work to let them know that the repair crew would be arriving on the next day.

I would start the evening with a list of names and phone numbers. That's it. The only other thing I knew about the people I was calling was that something had gone dreadfully wrong with some Sears appliance and they were eager to get some help. I was empowered to tell them that help was on the way, but I could not tell them what sort of help or how much it might cost or why help hadn't arrived sooner or exactly when help might be arriving. Everyone wanted to know when the repair crew would arrive, and I would have to admit that I had no access to that information, and they would then say something like "Well if you don't know anything, what's the point of calling?"

The point was detergent. We were told to "push the detergent," and sometimes I did. The goal was to persuade people that since our repair crew would be coming out anyway, it would be convenient for us to send along a jumbo-size box of whatever type of detergent we were trying to push at the time. I believe we were actually offered prizes based on the amount of detergent we were able to push.

I never won any prizes. My detergent-pushing skills were less than stellar. I was calling people whose washers and dryers and refrigerators and dishwashers were making horrible noises or spurting soapy water all over the floor or bursting into flames, and all I could offer to ease their pain was a good price on a jumbo box of detergent? No thanks.

I could push detergent no better than Grisham could push underwear, but the frustration of all those horrible jobs drove him to the hardest job he ever tried: writing fiction. "It was more difficult than laying asphalt, and at times more frustrating than selling underwear," he writes, "But it paid off. Eventually, I was able to leave the law and quit politics. Writing's still the most difficult job I've ever had--but it's worth it."

Given the choice, I'd rather write about difficult jobs than perform difficult jobs--even if writing is the difficult job I'm trying to write about. As long as no one is asking me to push the detergent or wear a dress slit up to there, I'll take this job over any other, even when it's difficult.

Monday, September 06, 2010

A moooooving experience

We arrived home from church yesterday to find a herd of cows in our meadow and two dead kingfishers on our front porch. I can't imagine a scenario that would result in both live cows and dead kingfishers trespassing on our property, but if you can, please share.

I suspect that the kingfishers expired while trying to fly through our big front window, while the cows wandered over from the neighbors' meadow across the way. Getting rid of the kingfishers was simple enough, but getting the cows back home proved challenging. The neighbors were at the county fair all day, so it took us a while to find someone willing and able to round up the cows and lead them up the road and back home. I suppose they could have hung out in our meadow all afternoon, but we were on our way to a wedding and worried that the cows might get into our garden or wander out into the road and become ground beef. Stay home to babysit the cows or take them with us to the wedding? Even with an extra car at hand, we wouldn't have had enough seatbelts for all those cows.

The interlopers were removed. No cows attended the wedding. A good time was had by all. Except the kingfishers. By now they are the featured guests at a diet of worms.

[Hat tip to DR for the bad pun.]

Friday, September 03, 2010

Things I never thought I'd say in class

The following exchange occurred during a discussion of the Kate Chopin short story "Desiree's Baby":

Me: What do you think of Armand?

Student: He's a dick.

Me: How does he demonstrate his dickhood?

I don't know, maybe the correct term would be "dickitude" or "dickiness." I've never given much thought to the problem. It certainly never came up in any of my grad-school classes, and I don't recall encountering the term in scholarship in my field, although I would have no problem developing an extensive reading list involving such characters.

I try to keep class discussions on a certain elevated plane, but sometimes I worry that some students haven't been issued a key to the elevator. Yesterday, for instance, I asked a group of freshmen whether a certain argument was "tenable." Blank looks. Time to rephrase the question in terms they're more likely to understand...provided that one of them isn't "dickhood."

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Mad Hatter's Me Party

I have a colleague who does a terrific job working in a very specialized field and who's a ton of fun to have around, but she hates to go to faculty events. "They're always asking me to do things for them," she said. "I can't relax."

I thought she was exaggerating until I accompanied her to a few events and saw for myself. She's right: she can't relax. People treat her as if she's on duty all the time. They fill her inbox and voice mail with requests at all hours of the day and night. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that they accost her at the grocery store. Who wants to talk about the finer points of pedagogy in the toilet paper aisle?

Now I understand even more what she's going through as I once again take up the reins as Faculty Chair. Last year I sat out half of my term, and I think my colleagues cut me some slack in the spring while I was getting back on my feet. But during the summer and early fall I've seen opportunities to relax dwindling as more and more of my colleagues assume I'm on duty 24/7.

Yesterday I really really wanted to just sit and eat my lunch with a few colleagues without being assaulted by demands for information or complaints about faculty governance, but it was a vain hope. I found myself getting more silent and more angry as I ate. I know I'm faculty chair all day every day, but please can I just sit here and eat my leftovers in peace?

But then I wondered: how many times in the past have I accosted faculty leaders with requests or demands or questions at the lunch table? It's a natural place for faculty to gather and toss around ideas about whatever happens to be bugging them, and sharing those complaints at the lunch table saves them the effort of coming up to my office or sending an e-mail. (Although I get plenty of those too. You should see my inbox. Trust me: you don't want to go there.)

People talk about all the different hats I wear as a teacher and administrator and faculty leader, but sometimes I'm tempted to transform the metaphor into reality. Depending on the context and my mood, I could wear my "So you want to get on the agenda?" hat, my "I'd be happy to hear your irate monologue" hat, my "Can your complaint wait until I'm done with lunch?" hat, or my "Go away and leave me alone" hat. I would need an easy method of carrying around multiple hats and I would have to work on my quick-change skills. These days not even Superman can depend on finding a phone booth when he needs one!

I don't want to withdraw from events where I'll encounter colleagues, but sometimes I'd like to eat my lunch in peace. Is that too much to ask? Or do I need to start carrying around a hat that says "Out to Lunch"?

Hot stuff

In the spring when we're planting dozens of pepper plants, I often ask myself why we need so many. We'll never eat them all and they don't sell well at the Farmers Market; I can make salsa and hot pepper sauce and put some of the tiny hot peppers in the freezer to use all winter in sauces, but why plant so many peppers in so many different varieties?

Because they're pretty, that's why.

Right now most of my garden looks awful: corn stalks stand dry and brown and done for; tomato and squash vines are shriveling and the last beans and lettuce have gone to seed. Deer are nibbling on the okra, sweet potatoes, and beets. The cucumbers are kaput and the carrot-and-parsnip patch has been overtaken by weeds.

But the peppers are lovely, shimmering in rich shades of green, red, and orange. This year for the first time we planted lemon peppers, which start out green and then go straight to bright yellow. I haven't eaten any of them yet and I don't know how hot they are, but when I look at those bright orange habaneros, I can taste that blast of habanero heat suffused with fruitiness. Deer and other garden pests leave peppers alone. We lose one or two plants a year to some sort of pestilence, but the remaining plants just keep growing without much attention or care.

Few of my friends share my love for hot peppers, and the poor sales at the Market suggest that it's a lonely passion. But this time of year when the rest of the garden looks downright apocalyptic, I enjoy visiting that one corner of bright color where the peppers preside. They're a feast for the eyes today, the tongue tomorrow.