Friday, December 30, 2011

Season's questions

Why is it so much easier to un-decorate a Christmas tree than to decorate it?

How am I supposed to write reference letters to eight different graduate programs when all I've been given is the name of the school and the deadline? And what is it with the number eight anyway? Why have two different students requested letters for eight schools this season?

Is there any end to the holiday sweets? What kind of miracle is taking place in my refrigerator to make that wonderful fudge keep multiplying?

Why am I suddenly receiving requests from people who want to pay me money if I'll insert a little text and a few links into my blog posts? Haven't they read the post in which I explain that I once quit a brief stint as a newspaper reporter because the advertisers were allowed to dictate news content? Or haven't I written that story?

Are there bloggers out there who are accepting $50 payments for inserting text that doesn't even fit the intent of the post? What kind of person expects me to sell my soul for a measly $50?

What am I supposed to do with all these pretty Christmas cards? It seems wasteful to throw them away, but who has room to store them all? Fifty to 100 cards each year for going on 30 years...who has a closet that big? And what if the mice get into 'em?

Why does it feel so satisfying to delete items from my Amazon wish list after the holidays?

Why does my dog feel the need to keep track of every bone she's ever hauled home from the woods? Why can't she delete a few items from her bone list? Is it really necessary to make our lawn a boneyard?

Why can't I think of anything interesting to write about? Will the new year bring a new bag of ideas or will I keep kicking around the same old tired detritus?

What will be the final question of the year? Will it be this one?

Or perhaps this?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Aimless bullet-points of puttering

Over the past three days, I have:

  • Driven north to visit relatives and driven back south again with snow all over my car.
  • Eaten Mexican food--twice.
  • Shopped for kitchen rugs, jeans, a bedspread, and books.
  • Watched the final two episodes of the first season of Downton Abbey on Netflix.
  • Engaged in conversations regarding family history, preachers' kids, attention-deficit disorder, gasoline-powered generators, the decline of the U.S. Postal Service, and cranky colleagues.
  • Experienced confusion when a relative asked me what odd sort of car I drive (Volvo) and who makes that model (Volvo) and what the name of the company is (Volvo) and what other brands of car they make (Volvo). I'm still not sure exactly what he was looking for but I don't intend to go back and find out.
  • Taught my husband how to text-message.
  • Set up a g-mail account so my husband can get his own mail.
  • Not blogged.
  • Not started my thank-you notes.
  • Not written a word except via text-messaging.
  • Not established any sort of research and writing schedule for my sabbatical.

And yet I'm feeling content. This aimless puttering seems like the right way to bring a busy year to a close.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Whitehead pays witness

In Colson Whitehead's new novel Zone One, a character who calls herself Quiet Storm arranges wrecked cars in a pattern visible only from the air: "Ten sport-utility vehicles arranged one-eighth of a mile apart east-west were the fins of an eel slipping through silty depths, or the fletching of an arrow aimed at--what? Tomorrow? What readers?"

The novel's protagonist, called Mark Spitz for reasons even he does not initially understand, admires the immense complex text but admits the difficulty of interpreting its meaning. "We don't know how to read it yet," he says. "All we can do right now is pay witness."

Zone One pays witness to the End of the World as we Know It, a zombie apocalypse that nods to 50s horror flicks while the drifting gray ash of incinerated bodies draws to mind the more potent horror of the Holocaust. The novel is a profound meditation on how human beings adapt to horrific circumstances--but that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun.

This is, after all, Colson Whitehead, who gave us a rolicking romp through the detritus of folklore and history in John Henry Days, a memorable deconstruction of literary theory in The Intuitionist (with its warring philosophies of elevator inspection), a summer visit to the land of adolescent angst in Sag Harbor, and, in Apex Hides the Hurt, a comedy/romance/history/critique of popular culture focusing on the rarefied world of nomenclature, after reading which you will never again look the same way at flesh-colored bandages.

Some concerns of these earlier novels reappear in Zone One, including the reliance on nomenclature specialists to sell the general public on focus-group-tested terms to rebrand the chaos. PR flacks in the new seat of power (Buffalo!) label the postapocalyptic landscape  "The American Phoenix," while massive compounds surrounded by barbed wire are called "Bubbling Brooks" and "Happy Acres" (an echo, perhaps, of Sweet Home, the horrific slave plantation in Toni Morrison's Beloved). Mark Spitz sees the return of buzzwords as an encouraging sign: "what greater proof of the rejuvenation of the world, the return to Eden, than a new buzzword emerging from the dirt to tilt its petals to the zeitgeist."

Spitz is hardly the traditional horror-movie hero; always a mediocre student, "His aptitude lay in the well-executed muddle, never shining, never flunking, but gathering himself for what it took to progress past life's next random obstacle." In Whitehead's version of the zombie apocalypse, Spitz's ability to muddle through without attracting attention turns out to be a vital survival skill:
This was his world now, in all its sublime crumminess, where intellect and ingenuity and talent were as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity....Beauty could not thrive, and the awful was too commonplace to be of consequence. only in the middle was there safety. He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its uenxceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.
Zone One also departs from the horror-movie model by denying readers a happy ending--or a sad ending or, really, much of an ending at all. Whitehead rejects the tidy resolution, resists the heartwarming denouement. Moments of pleasure occur briefly when random people create temporary families on the fly, such as when Mark Spitz shacks up with Mim in an abandoned toy store or when he stumbles upon a well-barricaded rural farmhouse where a trio of survivors wait out the disaster by playing endless games of Hearts. "What were the chances of this raggedy bunch finding one another in the ruins," wonders Spitz, but he has little time to relish the luxury of human connection before the barricades fall.

In Zone One, barricades are both comforting and confining, keeping the horrors out while keeping the survivors locked inside, but even more threatening are the invisible barricades that separate individuals even while uniting them. "There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth," muses Spitz, but "it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all. Even if they didn't know it."

This sublime isolation lies beneath all Whitehead's novels, but in Zone One it becomes tangible in the form of zombified human beings wandering through a wasteland while struggling to satisfy a hunger they cannot identify. Whitehead's funny and insightful and profoundly moving novel bears witness to the horrors to erect a barricade and keep out the chaos, if only for the span of time it takes to read from cover to cover.   

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

All week my husband has been walking past the presents piled under the Christmas tree without noticing the distinctive shape of one of his gifts,  but once he held it in his hands, there was no mistaking the heft of the wood-splitting maul.

First prize for holiday cluelessness, though, goes to me: I've been complaining for months about how bare the bar in front of the picture window looks since a bunch of our hanging plants died, but I sat in that room for at least an hour this morning without noticing two big new plants. I might never have noticed them if someone hadn't pointed them out.Which goes to show, I suppose, that sometimes the best place to hide a gift is right there in plain sight.

Merry Christmas to all! And may the new year be full of unexpected blessings!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A little light in the darkness

You know those "blank spaces on the earth" that lured Marlowe into the Heart of Darkness? We live in one--a sort of darkness Joseph Conrad couldn't have imagined--but now a wee ray of light has slipped in and I think we're going to like it.

In an ongoing attempt to ease us into the 21st century, yesterday my son-in-law went exploring for some method of equipping our house with wireless internet service. Dial-up is slow, cranky, and unreliable, but I've put up with it over the years by limiting my use of the Internet at home while relying heavily on the high-speed network on campus. (That's why I often don't post on the weekends and why I don't try to post photos from home or do anything involving our bandwidth-hogging college portal.)

At the local Verizon store he learned that our house sits in the middle of a blank space on the map, one of the few spots in the county where service simply isn't available. Nevertheless, Verizon loaned him a little black box that sits on the windowsill and blinks silently and through which I am now posting this message.

I don't even know what the black box is called, but we can use the thing for four days to see whether it will suit our needs. So far, it does: it's not as fast as the campus network but it's much faster than dial-up. Last night we even managed to watch a bit of online video, although it was a bit herky-jerky. But that's okay--videos are not my main priority. This little box lets me use the college's course management system without waiting 10 or 12 minutes for it to load, and it makes checking my e-mail a breeze instead of a chore. I can even upload pictures:


Of course, that one little photo took nearly four minutes to load, so maybe we still need to work out some kinks in the system. But there is hope! This blank spot on the map may not remain blank much longer.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Escaping the conflagration

I've just finished reading The Conflagration of Community: Fiction before and after Auschwitz by J. Hillis Miller, and what a peculiar book it is. He proposes what he calls Miller's Law: "If Holocaust novels get more complex, more 'interest bearing,' narratologically and rhetorically, the closer the author was to direct experience of the camps, at the same time the rendering of the conflagration of community becomes more pronounced. Those novelists further away are most likely to want somehow to affirm that community survived the conflagration of the crematoria."

Interesting, but he bases this law on analysis of only four books. Give me four books on any subject and I'll bet I can come up with some broad generalizations about all books on that subject, except no one would pay any attention to Hogue's Law.

But I am not J. Hillis Miller, who in this book frequently repeats himself, cites Wikipedia while admitting its unreliability, and takes every opportunity to move smoothly from insightful literary analysis into extended political rants. His readings of Kafka's unfinished novels are immensely readable (even when he repeats himself), but why write about Kafka in a book focusing on Holocaust fiction? Because "Kafka's novels are uncanny premonitions of Auschwitz." He explains:

Though of course I do not believe in telepathic foreshadowings, any more than did Freud and Derrida, so they claimed, nevertheless it almost seems as though Kafka must have had some occult telepathic premonition of what the genocide would be like, though he got the details a little garbled....
I love that "of course," and his "so they claimed" could be applied to Miller himself. Miller claims that Kafka couldn't complete his novels because he saw his protagonists moving inexorably to a conflagration to which Kafka could not bear to deliver them; indeed, Miller all but implies that Kafka himself died to avoid the Holocaust his work somehow foreshadowed. Neat trick, that.

Miller makes a compelling argument for the importance of literature in helping us understand the Holocaust, but the book's digressions interrupt and ultimately weaken the argument, which is a real pity. I won't soon encounter another such charmingly telepathic Kafka.

Men at work

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to wear goggles, face masks, gloves--and why not a whole Hazmat suit? Taking down old acoustical ceiling tiles may be easy, but it's not what you'd call a clean job.

You would be amazed at the amount of stuff that accumulates above a basement ceiling over the years: dust, dirt, dead bugs (not too many, not too big), and mouse droppings were the more ordinary items. You don't want to know about the desiccated mouse skeleton. Or the snakeskin. Just forget I mentioned it.

Installing the new tiles and cleaning the mess kept me busy while the men made those tricky cuts in the tiles that had to fit around odd corners and heat vents. My son spent some time installing ceiling tiles while he worked for the physical plant at college, so at some points he had to tell his dad to step back and let the expert work. A dad and son who can work together without discord--who could ask for a better gift?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sitting pretty

I'm done grading, baking, shopping, wrapping, stamping, and mailing, and now I'm ready to do some sitting. For the true connoisseur of sitting, nothing beats Sidney Lanier's instructions for comfortably sitting on the deck of the steamboat Marion on a trip up Florida's Ocklawaha river in 1875:

Know, therefore, tired friend that shall hereafter ride up the Ocklawaha on the Marion--whose name I would fain call Legion--that if you will place a chair just in the narrow passage-way which runs alongside the cabin, at the point where this passage-way descends by a step to the open space in front of the pilot-house, on the left-hand side facing to the bow, you will perceive a certain slope in the railing where it descends by an angle of some thirty degrees to accommodate itself to the step aforesaid; and this slope should be in such a position as that your left leg unconsciously stretches itself along the same by the pure insinuating solicitations of the fitness of things, and straightway dreams itself off into an Elysian tranquility. You should then tip your chair in a slightly diagonal position back to the side of the cabin, so that your head will rest thereagainst, your right arm will hang over the chair-back, and your left arm will repose on the railing. I give no specific instruction for your right leg, because I am disposed to be liberal in this matter and to leave some gracious scope for personal idiosyncrasies as well as a margin for allowance for the accidents of time and place; dispose your right leg, therefore, as your heart may suggest, or as all the precedent forces of time and the universe may have combined to require you. 

Sign me up!

Monday, December 19, 2011

In grading jail

In my dream I'm reading a student paper including the following enigmatic Works Cited listing:

Brown, Joe. 1993. Jail.

Now what am I supposed to do with that? I always tell my students that the Works Cited must provide enough information to allow readers to locate the original source, but this student doesn't even tell which jail I'm expected to visit!

I'm just about done with grading jail, a little later than I'd expected. I confess that I took Friday off to go Christmas shopping with my daughter (and while we're on the topic: any ideas on the best way to wrap a wood-splitting maul?). On Saturday I sat down with the final batch of papers and worked through them until I had only one left, and then halfway through that paper I encountered a sentence that seems--what's the kindest way to say this?--alien. It appears to have wandered in from elsewhere without any indication of where that elsewhere might be. I was THAT CLOSE to being done, but now I have to try to track down the source of the alien sentence and take appropriate action.

No wonder grading invades my dreams.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm dreaming of a white ceiling

I've been debating whether to wrap the big box I brought home yesterday, but how can I wrap it if I can't pick it up? The gentleman who carried the box to the car warned that it might look tempting to thieves since it's the right size and shape for a flat-screen television, but I'm trying to imagine the look on the face of the thief who breaks into a car and hauls off a large, heavy, unwieldy box only to discover that it holds a stack of ceiling tiles.

I don't believe I'll wrap it in red with a bow on top even though it's a great gift. I don't see anything in the Bible about the wise men from the East bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and ceiling tiles, but surely baby Jesus could have used a roof over his head, and installing them would have given Joseph something to do besides stand there looking reverent. I'm not sure how you pack ceiling tiles onto the back of a camel, but that's a problem for the freight department.

The strong men in my house brought in the ceiling tiles so the box now sits on the floor in the living room, where last night it served as a fine playing surface for a game of Banangrams. Some time this week we'll remove the stained, moldy ceiling tiles downstairs and replace them with bright clean new ones. Hey, maybe on Christmas morning I'll attach a bow to the new ceiling! We can gaze upward and sing a new version of that old Christmas classic, "Away in a Manger":

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head,
The acoustical ceiling tiles looked down where he lay,
The little lord Jesus asleep in the hay!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Diversionary tactics

I worked too hard yesterday and now I'm being punished for it--or that's one way to tell the story. Yesterday I plowed through a pile of papers (including one so good it made me want to dance on my desk and another asserting that understanding nature helps us understand nature), leaving me little to occupy my time while my Concepts of Nature students write their final exams. I read through the few remaining reading comments and I had intended to spend the rest of the exam time grading the Creative Nonfiction multimedia essays, but most of them include music or sound effects, which would distract my students, especially the sound effect demonstrating the noise your lips make when you're trying to play the French Horn. (Don't ask.)

So here I sit in a crowded classroom listening to pens scribbling and pages turning and I've got nothing.

Except my trusty computer! Earlier today (between the morning class session and the 20-minute wait to find a parking space at the Post Office so I could spend $60 on postage, not that I'm complaining because the people who are receiving those packages are worth every penny, but seriously--20 minutes just to PARK?!)--now where was I?

Oh yes: earlier today I was running through digital photo files to find some interesting things to put in our annual Christmas letter (which nobody ever reads so why do I put so much effort into it every year, not to mention the cost of postage?) and I was surprised at how many surprises I found. I had forgotten all about the foxes, for instance, and doesn't it seem like way more than nine months since I took my class to California? I saw lots of smiles in my son's graduation photos in May and our family reunion in August, and I was reminded of how much I love birds and wildflowers. (Maybe too much. How many photos of trilliums does one person really need?)

But the point (yes, there is a point to this little trip down memory lane) is that this was a really busy year, so busy that events that seemed really memorable at the time have been crowded out of my mind by the next big thing, and then the next. So maybe what I need is a few minutes of nothingness, some time to just sit and think and let my mind wander while my students write their exams. Which means maybe this empty time is not a punishment but a gift, and one I ought to accept with open arms.

Nah. Let's play Solitaire!

Graze your way through finals week

Forget the holiday gift guides--what we need is a holiday grazing guide. This time of year it's possible to graze your way from one end of campus to another. Yesterday the Admissions office fed us all lunch, but today you can forage for wonton soup and egg rolls in the English Department office and then dip downstairs for cheese and crackers or Chex mix. For dessert, there's candy at the Records Office, cookies in Leadership, buckeyes and truffles in the library (if you know where to look), and muffins in the Worthington Center. I haven't even ventured down to the science buildings, and who knows what they might be munching on down at Fine Arts? If this keeps up, we'll all be too fat to get out of our offices!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I hear sabbatical calling

Last Friday as I stood before my final class of the semester leading a group of wonderful students in a sparkling discussion of interesting ideas, I paused for a moment and told myself: I will miss this.

My sabbatical starts as soon as I submit final grades so I won't be in a classroom regularly again until next fall. I won't miss reading zillions of student drafts and I definitely won't miss listening to lame excuses, but I get such a buzz out of being in the classroom that it's hard to imagine giving it up, even for a few months.

What else will I miss? It will be difficult to give up high-speed internet access and daily conversation with some wonderful colleagues, but that just gives me a good reason to visit campus occasionally.

I won't miss committee meetings, especially the committee that meets for two hours Friday afternoons. (Who thought that was a great idea?) I won't miss faculty meetings or discussions of general education assessment or massive misunderstandings caused by faulty lines of communication between faculty and administration.

Instead, I'll write. First, though, I need to do some research, and if that research happens to take me to Florida in January--well, that's the price I have to pay for being a scholar. My two-week research trip is shaping up nicely: a trip to the Everglades and the Keys with an old friend, meetings with experts on Florida literature at Rollins College, a visit to special collections at the University of Florida library, side trips to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house and the Zora Neale Hurston museum. I may even be in Eatonville for the annual Hurston festival. If that trip doens't give me plenty to write about, then it's time to hang up the Scholar badge and take up welding.

Tomorrow I give finals and then I'll spend the rest of the week grading, but at some point the grades will be submitted and I'll be ready to lock my door and walk away from my office. A little voice inside me keeps saying, "No! Don't go! Your students need you!" But every day that voice gets a little softer, and it won't be long before it gets drowned out by the sound of gulls calling and waves rolling and pages turning, turning, turning. I can see my sabbatical looming on the horizon and soon, to borrow Hurston's lovely words, I'll pull that horizon from the waist of the world and drape it over my shoulders.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My favorite (Christmas) things

I keep hearing "My Favorite Things" playing on the local Christmas radio stations and wondering when "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens" became a holiday sentiment suitable for play alongside "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Silver Bells."

If I wanted to wrap up all my favorite things about Christmas, how many brown paper packages tied up with string would it take? Here's a start:

Mannheim Steamroller CDs.

Putting up the Christmas tree with help from the family. Three of us working together can assemble and decorate the tree in approximately one and a half Mannheim Steamroller CDs.

Fuzzy red socks.

Fingernails shining with bright red nail polish topped with glitter.

Window-shopping while wearing fuzzy red socks and sparkly red nail polish.

The Dave Barry Holiday Gift Guide, which this year includes the "toad purse: A gift she will always remember, even after therapy."

Merry Tuba Christmas, in which (mostly) amateur musicians ranging in age from 12 to 82 play Christmas carols to a packed house of carol-singing, key-jingling, laughing, chortling, and giggling listeners

Handel's Messiah, again.

Stirring fudge.

Packing fudge in boxes to send to people I love.

Eating fudge.

Finding great gifts--and keeping them secret until Christmas.

My birthday! (Which isn't exactly a Christmas thing, except that turning 50 surrounded by great friends feels like a gift.)

My daughter's birthday! (She'll always be my favorite Christmas-Eve gift.)

Egg nog. (Just a little. And then just a little more.)

Christmas cookies.

Finding little jars of specialty mustards to put in everyone's stockings.

Wrapping packages.

Sending packages.

Getting packages in the mail.

Playing board games with friends and family.

Holiday chai. 

Christmas cantatas.

Christmas Eve candlelight services.

Advent wreaths.

Singing "Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!"

Deciding which of the Christmas gift books to start reading first.

And then, finally, the droopy eyelids, the nodding head, the falling book, and the very welcome Christmas afternoon nap.

These are a few of my favorite holiday things. How about you?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Airing out the exhaust fumes

Today a student asked for special treatment because he's, quote, exhausted.

Look around the room, I told him: we're all exhausted. Students are exhausted. Faculty members are exhausted. Secretaries and janitors and campus police are exhausted.

Our energy is exhausted; our funds are exhausted; our exercise routine gave up the ghost weeks ago. The semester is nearly exhausted and so is the year. I'm all out of class sessions and the syllabus has called it quits. My patience is exhausted and my wardrobe is exhausted and my shoes keep wanting to stomp off in a huff, but I won't let them.

Why? Because despite all the exhaustion, we still have work to do. The library is full of exhausted students feverishly searching for sources, and the study rooms are studded with exhausted groups putting the finishing touches on group projects. My exhausted students are revising their own essays or offering comments on their classmates' papers, and a few are already preparing for next week's exams. I get exhausted just thinking about all the grading that lies ahead.

I could alleviate a lot of exhaustion just by canceling final papers and exams, but that would violate the spirit of the season. At this point in the semester, exhaustion is the normal condition, so the only thing to do is jump right in and join the club.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

This morning's serving of Spam

Seriously, people: don't send me silly Spam if you don't want me to notice its silliness.


So you work with a class for an entire semester introducing methods of literary analysis and the vocabulary appropriate to those methods, but then when you read the final essays, you see too many broad generalizations and too much vague language instead of the sophisticated concepts you've been mastering in class.

How can we encourage students to employ appropriate vocabulary in their essays?

I can't hold a gun to my students' heads to make them use certain literary terms, but I can hold a grade to their heads. I've done it before and I'll do it again, this time on the final exam in my Concepts of Nature class. It's a sophomore-level class that fulfills two general education requirements, so I have a handful of English majors and a whole mess of students just trying to check off boxes on the degree audit.

On the final exam, they will have to respond to two essay questions worth 30 points each, and the remaining 40 points will come from their correctly employing a list of terms I will provide. If they use the terms in a way that demonstrates awareness of meaning, they get full credit; for each term they ignore or use incorrectly, they will lose points--and if they ignore all of them, the best grade they can earn on the exam is a D-.

I've tried this method before in several classes and I find that students go out of their way to make sure I notice how they're using the critical vocabulary: they underline or highlight the terms and sometimes they go overboard in explaining the concepts, but at least they're using appropriate language! And I am rewarded with an opportunity to read substantive essays employing sophisticated terms. What's not to love?

I love the smell of eggnog in the morning

Charlie don't surf....and Ginger don't swim!

[Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Mouse tales

A colleague greeted me this morning by asking, "Any more rats in your car?"

That's what I get for opening my mouth. Since I wrote yesterday about receiving a surprise visit from a mouse while driving to work, many people have offered suggestions, some more helpful than others:

"You know that's a safety hazard, right?" Right. I was there, remember? I know how hard I struggled to maintain control of the car while the mouse went leaping about on the edge of my peripheral vision. But let's face it: driving a cranky 17-year-old car is a safety hazard, moreso because of the lack of cup-holders. (How did we ever live before cup-holders?) I silently accept a certain amount of hazard daily--but I can't keep my mouth shut when the mice start leaping.

"Nothing works better than an old-fashioned mouse trap." Right again, but picture me blindly reaching into the back seat for an umbrella or a Kleenex or a can of oil and unexpectedly locating the mouse trap. Talk about a safety hazard!

"Time to get a cat." In my car? Where would I keep the litter box?

"This wouldn't happen if you lived in town instead of out there in the godforsaken wilderness." I'm not so sure about that. I've heard stories of critters getting into cars even in the heart of the city. Some of those critters walk upright and find that opposable thumbs come in handy when it comes to stealing hubcaps. (Not that my car suffers from a surfeit of hubcaps.)

For a while now I've kept a cake of mouse poison in my car, the kind that makes vermin thirsty and drives them out of the car to seek water, but that did not deter yesterday's visitor. This morning I approached my car with some trepidation, and all the way to campus I kept expecting to hear a squeak or see a flash of gray fur or feel little mouse feet climbing up my neck. If merely thinking about mice in the car is a safety hazard, then it's time to find a better solution before driving Miss Mousy starts seriously driving me crazy.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Return of the Volvomice

You know that annoying noise in my car? Not the mournful groan on sharp left turns or the occasional clickety ticking associated with the left rear wheel, but the tiny peeping sound like a mouse squeaking?

It was a mouse squeaking.

The last time I became aware that mice were visiting my car (read it here), I didn't actually see any mice--just the droppings and nesting material they left behind. This time the mouse was right there next to me on the passenger seat while I was driving down the highway at 55 miles per hour.

The next sound you hear will be considerably louder than a mouse squeaking.

You may notice how calmly I am writing this, but if you had seen me at the moment when I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw the mouse leaping from headrest to headrest, the last word you would have chosen is calm.

I had to pull over. Beside the highway. In the middle of the morning rush hour. I couldn't sit there calmly in the driver's seat while a mouse went leaping from headrest to headrest behind me. Who knows where it would leap next?

I saw it run into the way-back and I thought I might just open the hatch and let it leap out, but the lock back there is cranky and the only way to open it is to use the key, which was still in the ignition.

In the car.

With the mouse.

Now don't go thinking I'm some hysterical female who faints dead away at the sight of a mouse. We live in the woods, for heaven's sake! This is just the season when they're looking for a warm place to hunker down for the winter, so it did not surprise us to find a mouse in the kitchen mousetrap this morning. When I see or hear a mouse scampering across the kitchen floor, I don't panic. All I have to do is make some noise and it will find a place to hide--preferably near a mousetrap.

But my car is a different story. Where will a mouse go to hide? Up the leg of my pants? In my coat pocket? Under my foot while I'm trying to hit the brakes? Over my dead body!

So I had to steel myself to reach back inside the car (where the mouse was!) and grab my keys out of the ignition, and then I fiddled with the hatchback lock while keeping half an eye on the mouse, which seemed to enjoy sitting right on top of the rear heat vents, and when I finally got the hatchback opened and grabbed the big stick we use to prop it up (because the hydraulics don't work), the mouse ran back toward the front seats.

What would you have thought if you'd driven past and seen me banging loudly on the windows of a rickety old Volvo wagon and yelling my head off when there was no one there to listen?  Loony. Time to call the Keeper of the Straitjackets.

Fortunately, it worked. Usually my car makes noise at me, but this time I directed a mess of noise straight at my car and I was rewarded with the sight of a little gray mouse leaping from the rear door and scurrying off into a nearby field.

Note to self: from now on, make noise first before leaving the driveway. Bang on the hood, yell at the way-back, kick the tires, crank up the radio, and if the first thing that comes on is Blue Christmas," all the better. If Elvis can't drive the mice away, nothing will.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Out to lunch

It's the penultimate Friday of the semester, I've had evening meetings every day this week, I read a pile of student drafts yesterday, and my brain wants to take a little vacation, okay?

So here's some time-wasting silliness:

"Our shoes tell tales," insists Slate this morning, and I have to agree: the shoes I'm wearing today look as if they might have been stolen from a homeless person. But Slate isn't interested in my shoes but in "Comparing Shoes of the Very Famous" (read it here). Lawrence of Arabia's desert sandals don't look any more battered than a few I could find in my husband's closet, and I grew up wearing flip-flops just like the Dalai Lama's.

Inside Higher Ed informs us that "College Men Sometimes Think About Things Besides Sex." Don't believe me? Read it here. (Food and sleep. Those are the other things they sometimes think about.)

The linguistics experts at Language Log try to parse the following sentence: "Cash nor credit will not be issued for balance of gift voucher not redeemed in full" (read it here). Don't try to make sense of it yourself or your brain will explode, which would deprive the neighborhood zombies of a square meal.

The Oatmeal offers an alternative high-school curriculum in "What we should have been taught in our senior year of high school" (read it here). The math lesson alone is worth the visit.

And if you want to get all high-brow, the New Yorker asks "Who Wrote Shakespeare?" in an article suggesting that many of the world's great classics were penned by ghost writers (read it here). Moby Dick, for instance, "was written not by Herman Melville but by Herman Melbrooks, who wrote most of it in Yiddish on the boat over from Coney Island."

I don't know who wrote this blog post. Couldn't have been me, because until further notice, I am officially out to lunch.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

When it finally clicks

The final weeks of the semester hold many horrors--too many drafts to read, too many students panicking over projects, too many urgent meetings and special events--but it also offers the occasional magic moment when I look at a student's draft or project or paper and realize he they got it--he finally got it.

Yesterday before class a student came up to me and said, "Thanks for talking to me about my paper the other day. It helped." (I looked at his draft. He was right.) At the end of class, after peer review, he brought me his draft and asked where the period goes in relation to a parenthetical citation, and after I showed him, he said, "I've been doing that wrong all semester." He has--and I've marked the error on every draft so it's high time to start doing it right--but something finally clicked.

In this situation it would be tempting to say, "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times: the citation is part of the sentence!" Satisfying, but not productive. So I bite my tongue and rejoice in the fact that he's got it--he's finally got it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I was late for work this morning

If you need proof that I spent that I spent much of the morning watching men remove a big tree from my driveway, you could look at the mud specks on my shoes or the sawdust all over my coat--or just look at the photos! Too bad they don't show the cold.


Last time a tree fell across my driveway, it didn't take long to fix: smallish tree, pleasant weather, no rush. One man with a chainsaw and a tractor opened the driveway to traffic within an hour.

This time it's different. I need to get to campus for a meeting with the provost this morning, and it's cold enough outside to chill your toes pretty quickly but not cold enough to freeze the sodden ground. I don't dare drive down into the meadow to get around the tree or I'm sure to get stuck in the mud.

And it's a really big tree. Until my car learns to levitate, all I can do is wait.

On the plus side, that tree has been on the removal list for quite some time. It's thoroughly dead and close enough to the garage to cause damage if it fell that way. In fact, the resident woodsman had taken preliminary steps toward removing the tree, attaching a ladder to the tree so he could climb up and tie a stout rope around the trunk fairly high up there. The next step would be borrowing a bigger chainsaw to cut through the trunk, but not before attaching the rope to the tractor to pull the tree in an appropriate direction. (Not on the garage or the driveway.)

Well it missed the garage. The rope and ladder are still attached, utterly undamaged by the fall, but the tree took down two smaller trees along the way. A tree that takes itself down certainly saves wear and tear on the chainsaw, but that chainsaw is still to small to cut through a trunk that size, so I'm stuck.

The irony is that the resident woodsman spent much of yesterday cutting down trees. Several trees up the hill behind the house were knocked over during a summer windstorm, and yesterday he went up there and chopped sufficiently to serve as firewood. One of the trees was wedged against another tree at about a 45-degree angle, and when the woodsman cut off the top of the tree, the root ball started shifting and the trunk rose up to a standing position once again. A tree resurrected! But not for long. It will heat our house nicely this winter.

I don't know where the big tree sat on the tree removal list, but this morning it rose to the top. It successfully brought itself down--now if only we can persuade it to move out of my way...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Remembrance of futures past

In one version of the future, my students will walk everywhere; in another, they will swim. Some envision a future that looks like the past (living close to the land, eating what they can hunt, gather, or grow) but with really nifty accessories:  clothes that change color and texture at the touch of a button, pop-up wind turbines and solar panels.

My Concepts of Nature class has just finished reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and we're preparing to watch Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and in between these dystopian visions of a ravaged natural world, we paid a visit to the future. Several futures, in fact--futures of the past.  We discussed the essay "Back to the Future" by James Howard Kunstler (read it here), who suggests that visions of the future reflect the concerns of the present. For instance, he describes a 1950s vision of the year 2000, "a city of towers cut through with swooping super-duper highways," but, he continues, "The amusing part is that the cars depicted all have giant tail fins--because people were cuckoo for tailfins that year. So, naturally, the future would be all about tail fins."

I told my students about my past future--the future vision of a childhood informed by near-daily viewings of Star Trek reruns. In that future, there would be no more harvest gold or avocado appliances, and human beings would have the ability to travel throughout the galaxy without running up long-distance telephone charges or being tethered to a dial phone that stretched only to the end of that tangled curly cord. Imagine that!

We could imagine personal communicators, but we never imagined Kirk and Spock playing Angry Birds on their communicators or Sulu checking his stock portfolio or Lieutenant Uhura keeping track of stats for her fantasy baseball team. The future was a Very Serious Place where communicators would be used for communication--period. (Except for that one time when Spock took a communicator apart to make some sort of laser. But I digress.)

That was my past future--but what about my students? This morning they worked in groups to examine their current relationships with nature and extrapolate from that a vision of the future. Their results varied, but none of the groups envisioned any major change in the nature of human beings. We might finally eliminate obesity and learn to get along with one another, but in my students' visions of the future, people of the future will be at heart pretty much the same, only with cooler stuff.

We started the semester looking at creation myths and stories of nostalgia for a lost pastoral paradise and we'll end with visions of a post-apocalyptic future in which nature has been subsumed by technology. The past and the future have a great deal in common, both existing primarily as stories that help us make sense of the present--which, when you come right down to it, is a pretty cool place to live.

I know the present is better than some of the futures my students envision, because, frankly, if the only way to get around is by swimming, my last words will be "gurgle gurgle."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Jingle bell time is a swell time

I clearly remember the first time I ever heard the song "Jingle Bell Rock." I was in the fifth grade and visiting my friend Patty, who strapped on her tap shoes to tap her way to happiness to the tune of "Jingle Bell Rock." I thought it was snappy and peppy and much less stodgy than the holiday music the old folks made us sing. Who would croon "Away in a Manger" when we could tap to "Jingle Bell Rock"?

Since then I've heard the song approximately eighteen million times, give or take a few million, and it's beginning to wear. I still find the song snappy and peppy and a whole lot of fun, but my enjoyment is tinged by the bitter knowledge that a few short weeks from now I'll be tempted to pull the plug on any speaker that emits a single jingling note.

Ditto "The Little Drummer Boy." Double-ditto "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Super-double-ditto "Frosty the Snowman," which makes me want to take a blowtorch to the next snowman I see.

A few holiday songs never lose their appeal; I can listen to Jose Feliciano sing "Feliz Navidad" any day of the year, and just about anyone singing or playing "Sleigh Ride" makes me happy. I never get tired of the Vince Guaraldi music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, although I rarely watch the show. Christmas carollers singing a capella are wonderful even when they're not, if you know what I mean, and I'll even happily sing along loudly despite the fact that I can't carry a tune.

You should have heard me a little while ago trying to whistle along with the fluty parts of a Mannheim Steamroller song. Then again, maybe it's better than you didn't--or you might want to pull the plug on me!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thanksgiving puzzle

Assembling Thanksgiving dinner for 16 people requires bringing together many different pieces, and it works best when everyone likes each other.

Last night the family sat down in my daughter and  son-in-law's living room to assemble a jigsaw puzzle, arms reaching past each other to grab another edge piece or a bit of blue, and this morning in their kitchen we began putting together the pieces of our family Thanksgiving dinner.
The old guy fried bacon for breakfast while the young guy engineered a towering pile of potato-peeling. My daughter and I traded off time with the power mixer: she's baking custard pies and I'm making masses of dough for pumpkin yeast rolls.

Who will do the dishes? Don't worry, we'll have enough dirty dishes to give everyone a chance. Who will run out to the store to pick up a few forgotten ingredients? The young men will handle that. What about moving the furniture to make room for extra tables? We have enough strong arms to help.

I'm backing up to move the mixer when I suddenly bump into my son (oops). I spill pumpkin and sugar, adding to the palimpsest of stains on a well-used page in my favorite cookbook. Flour sprays and butter drips, but they're just more pieces of the puzzle.

In a few hours the guests will arrive, bringing the rest of the pieces: sweet potatoes and pies, salads and cranberry sauce and a coffee-maker. And let's not forget the turkey! It's a well-traveled bird--we smoked it Tuesday evening and transported it up here yesterday.

Many strong arms eager to help are bringing all the pieces together, but the puzzle isn't complete until we all sit down around the table and bow our heads to offer thanks to the author of our feast--the final piece in the puzzle.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In the new issue of The Writer's Chronicle, poet Rita Dove characterizes 20th-century poets based on the topography their works evoke:

The jungles of the Beats and Confessionals, a cityscape intersected by the neatly parallel thoroughfares of Pound Boulevard....Stevens gets a solitary Great Oak and Hart Crane's doomed Dutch Elm stands of course for his grand opus 'The Bridge,' which had a profound effect, though it's rarely read nowadays. Twin rows of poplars for Bishop's geometric elegance, which we all pass through but cannot seem to touch. William Carlos Williams earns a patch of sycamores....Langston Hughes is an American maple dropping its colorful leaves. And so on.

And so on indeed. If your favorite poet were a tree, what tree would he or she be? Rita Dove loves ballroom dancing and named a poetry collection American Smooth, so she can be the American beech, a smooth-barked tree with leaves that dance in the breeze.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Attack of the lounge lizards!

I don't know which is more fun: hearing John Williams's Symphonic Marches performed or reading my daughter's analysis of John Williams's music. Doing both in the same evening is just double the fun.

"Fantasy and Humor in Music" was the theme of the college's fall band concert last night, and I don't recall the last time I laughed so much at serious music. Well, mostly serious. I've never seen a band perform the gargle quite so effectively, and the duck calls were, um, memorable.

Gargling, duck calls, gun shots, falling drums, and other odd sounds appeared in Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion by P.D.Q. Bach. The director said the gargling bit was especially difficult to practice because students kept getting the giggles and spitting water all over the band room.

Also on the program were some circus marches by Karl L. King, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, the Mars movement from Gustav Holst's The Planets, and Gandalf by Johan de Meij, all performed beautifully. The climax, though, was simply unforgettable: Godzilla Eats Las Vegas by Eric Whitacre.

There were graphics--and oh, what graphics: Godzilla stomping Frank Sinatra. Godzilla stomping Wayne Newton. Godzilla dancing a tango with the sphinx. A horde of Elvises (Elvii!) attacking Godzilla.

And then there was the music. My my my what music. Who knew Godzilla was such a lounge lizard?

What a treat to go straight from hearing terrific music to reading about it. My daughter is working on  her M.A. in music theory and asked for my feedback on some papers, and I have to say that while I don't understand much about music theory or music history or, frankly, music, the papers were a ton of fun to read. I learned why John Williams isn't your ordinary movie music hack, and I always enjoy seeing what terrific writers my kids are.

I know my kids have occasionally heard statements like, "Of course you're a good writer! Your mom is an English teacher!"--as if they would let me write their papers for them. The fact is that I didn't teach them to write, and I've never made a habit of proofreading their papers. I rarely even see a sample of my son's writing, but when I do, I'm impressed. He can write! And so can his sister! Really well!

And that's something to sing about--if only I could carry a tune.

Now it can be told! (Well, some of it...)

It's hard to write when I've been inundated with good news but commanded to keep silent about some of it, but here are the bits I am permitted to shout from the housetops:

1. Two years to the day after my final round of chemotherapy, all my tests came back clear. No sign of recurrence! And I've been cleared to get my port removed! Hurrah!

2. A recent job interview went well so my husband will soon be able to give up his booth at the Farmers' Market. Many of his customers will be unhappy, but we're looking forward to a time when he can sleep more than a few hours a night, escape constant back pain, and enjoy an occasional day off with the family. Hurrah again!

3. I've finally figured out how I want to celebrate my 50th birthday. I'm not big on birthday parties, but how about gathering a bunch of friends and family in a nice location on a lazy afternoon with munchies and a bunch of board games? Scrabble, Apples to Apples, Bananagrams, Monopoly--that's my idea of a good time! I realize that others may not enjoy a board-game party, but hey, I'm the one with the big birthday, and anyone who doesn't like it can stay home. Hurrah once more!

That's a lot to be thankful for, but that's not all. It's just all I can talk about. For now.

How about one more big hurrah?!

Friday, November 18, 2011


A very intelligent student wants to know why we can't have a class in napping: "We have classes in running and bowling, so why not napping?"

She has a point. I've never seen much difference between napping and bowling, so if students can earn a credit toward graduation by learning to bowl, why not earn a credit for learning to nap?

"We could learn all kinds of stuff--the health benefits of napping, power-napping techniques, sleep disorders, whatever," she said.

Sounds like my kind of class! Maybe I should write a course proposal--right after a little nap.

Rise or fall?

There comes a point in every construction project when it's hard to tell whether it's a new building going up or an old one falling down, and our new dorm has reached that point. Standing bleak and forbidding on the edge of campus, it could be the ruin of a totalitarian Ministry of Obfuscation, a gateway to some bleak bureaucratic hell.

The artists' renderings indicate that this building, when completed, will present a warm and welcoming face to anyone approaching that side of campus, but right now it looks as if someone ought to hang a sign: Relinquish hope, all ye who enter here! But then the sound of nail guns and heavy equipment reminds me that this is not the ruin of something old but the promise of something new. It's exciting to see the steady progress day by day.

Now if I can just see similar signs of progress in the students who will live in that dorm, I'll be happy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Come fly with me

How is a hospital waiting room like an airport terminal? There's nothing to do but sit and wait; everything in the gift shop is overprices; and nobody really wants to be there.

At least the hospital has good wireless internet--free! The food options are pretty sad, though. All they'll let me eat is the wretched gluey "smoothie" that provides contrast for the CT scan I'll have in an hour or so. I'm still trying to get caught up on the work I missed last week so I've been sitting in the waiting room finishing up that pile of papers I started grading in the Zurich airport last weekend. I hope my bleak and colorless surroundings won't seep into the grades.

I'm really hungry because I haven't been allowed to eat anything since breakfast, but it just about kills me to swallow this thick white flavorless paste. As a food item I give it a D-. I hope its medical benefits earn a better grade.

I had a terrific smoothie at one of the airports I visited last week--but now I can't even remember which one, except I know the guy who waited on me didn't speak English. Could have been Brussels. Could have been Chicago.

A few more sips and a few more minutes and they'll take me back and strap me down into the big machine that will transport me to a colorless place where the only conversation will come from a recorded voice telling me not to fasten my seatbelt but to breathe in, hold my breath, and then breathe out. And again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Restless legs

Cleaning the bathroom at 4 a.m. on a weekday is just wrong--on so many levels. Cleaning is best done on Saturday morning during Car Talk or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Four a.m. on a weekday is the right time for sleeping. Case closed.

And yet today I found myself cleaning the bathroom at 4 a.m. Why? Because I'm still suffering from jet lag and running on Prague time; because no matter how hard I tried to keep awake last night, I fell asleep before 9; and because my feet hurt.

All that walking in Prague (in a broken shoe) followed by all that sitting in tight quarters on the flight home resulted in leg pain that won't quit. Yesterday I taught in pain, worked in pain, and sat through a faculty meeting in so much pain that I kept shifting in my seat trying to relieve first one area of pain and then another. By evening I was so exhausted that I slept soundly--until the drugs wore off and the pain woke me up. If there is no comfortable way to sit, stand, or lie down without pain, then the only thing to do is keep moving.

So I cleaned the bathroom. It needed to be cleaned and I needed to keep moving, so we worked well together. Later on I'll regret getting up so early, but I'm looking forward to the time when this pain will be a distant memory and my early morning bathroom-cleaning will be good for a laugh.

Meanwhile, can somebody get me an aspirin?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Peripatetic in Prague (in pictures)

People kept asking me why I was taking pictures of the table decorations at my hotel in Prague. "You must really like cactus," said one attendee, and the hotel manager told me I could take one home if I liked them so much. But it wasn't the cute little cacti that excited my interest. It was the curly little wood shavings dyed in the hotel's signature colors, saffron and scarlet. That's right: in Prague I found myself surrounded by--

[drum roll, please]


I explained several times that before the era of styrofoam peanuts, curly little wood shavings used as packing material were called Excelsior. Many people humored me by nodding and smiling and acting as if they cared. I can't help it: I encounter excelsior so rarely in the real world that it gives me a little frisson of pleasure.

Pleasure was easy to find in Prague, even when I didn't know where I was or what I was seeing. I spent a lot of time lost even though I had a map. You know how at Disney World you can orient yourself by looking for the spires of Cinderella's castle rising above all else? In the Old City of Prague, such spires rise on every other block, but that doesn't mean it's easy to get to them. Note to self: next time, take a guidebook.

At the center of it all is the lovely Vlatava River, lined with magnificent historic buildings, but you don't have to walk a block to find something thoroughly modern, like guns hanging in the courtyard outside an art museum or workers carefully removing and replacing ancient cobblestones so they can repair the drains.

The city's palimpsest of history is apparent in its architecture, with the lines of old construction visible despite newer additions, but Prague is more than just a picturesque tourist site. I had intended to tour the old Jewish quarter Friday afternoon but got well and thoroughly lost and then had to meet friends for supper, so I thought I'd try again Saturday morning. Stupid me: I had forgotten that Europe's oldest functioning synagogue would be busy functioning as a synagogue on Saturday. Earlier, I had walked up to the castle intending to finally get inside St. Vitus Cathedral, but they were celebrating Mass at the time so I stayed outside.

Despite my poor planning, I found plenty to enjoy in Prague. I got a ridiculous amount of pleasure from listening to these five gentlemen playing jazz on Charles Bridge as the sun fell and the full moon rose over the river on Friday evening.

By then my feet needed a break so I went down to this courtyard in Malo Strana to sit under the autumn leaves and await my dinner companions. While there, I noticed a bride and groom getting their pictures taken. I had seen several over the course of the evening and I saw more the next day: young brides in full white dresses, veils, and tiaras, accompanied by men in formal wear and photographers carrying masses of equipment. They posed on benches under the trees in Malo Strana, on the steps to Charles Bridge, near the Astronomical Clock, and in front of any number of religious statues all along the way. The brides looked chilled in the cold, damp air, and some of them bundled their long trains over their arms to avoid dragging them over the rough cobblestones.

This Asian couple bundled up against the chill, but I was most impressed by the groom's jacket: you can't tell from the photo, but the silver-gray fabric was so shiny it sparkled and shimmered in the autumn light.

I wandered around so randomly and saw so much I didn't quite understand that I've resolved to someday go back--with a guidebook and a good map and a plan and perhaps, if I'm feeling a little silly, a banner with the strange device, "Excelsior!"

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Why hello, Dulles airport! Pleased to meet you! Except I can't say my first impression is all that impressive. Perhaps I'm just exhausted from enduring a flight long enough to allow me to finish Orhan Pamuk's Snow, take a long nap, and grade a dozen student papers. Perhaps I'm just a little cranky because I'm still wearing the same clothes I put on Saturday morning and it's now Sunday evening. Perhaps I'm just spoiled from the ease of navigating security in Brussels, Zurich, and Prague. For all these reasons and more, dear Dulles, I'm not finding you very friendly.

First, you're just dull. You sent me on this long labyrinthine hike through blank white corridors without making any attempt to entertain me. I'm not demanding those colorful neon lights that zoom through the tunnel in Chicago, but would it kill you to hang a mural or two? Give us something to look at while we're walking up this staircase and down that one and waiting for the shuttle to terminal A and going up this escalator and up that one. And I don't expect going through customs to be a barrel of laughs, but a little color on the white walls would make it feel less penal.

And take security--please. I know you need to make sure I'm not dangerous, but it's really not necessary to bark out orders like a drill sergeant. When you're dealing with people who have been cramped in economy-class seats for seven hours, a little gentleness wouldn't hurt. I'm tired and slow and suffering from jet lag, so if I forget to remove the Chapstick from my pocket, please don't assume I'm plotting to destroy the universe. And oh yeah, I forgot about those two Swiss coins in my pocket. Obviously the act of a desperate criminal. 

On the plus side, you've provided very nice free wireless internet access, which will keep me occupied for the three hours I'll spend awaiting my flight. Unfortunately, you've got about twice as many passengers as seats in the terminal right now, and the constant announcements begging for volunteers to give up their seats on oversold flights are a little distracting. And now my battery is nearly dead. If I give up my seat to hunt for an outlet, I may never find a seat again. If you're going to force me to give up either my chair or my internet access, it's going to be a very long evening.

So thanks, Dulles, for being there when I need you, but after tonight, it's over between us. I'm moving on.

The imaginary Alp

From what I can see from the airport, Zurich looks an awful lot like Brussels: blank and white. They tell me there are Alps out there somewhere, but I'll have to take it on faith since the only thing I can see is fog. Everywhere I go in Europe, fog follows.

In Prague we had a day and a half of bright sunshine, which fortunately coincided with my walking-around-the-city time. I walked so much that my right shoe began to fall apart, and I ended up with blisters and sore joints. I'm thankful that today I'll mostly be sitting.

Photos will come later: I'm using a borrowed camera and I don't have a way to transfer the photos to the computer right now. Meanwhile, I'm carrying mental images: the view from the castle; the teetering tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery; the accordion-playing man singing Russian folk songs on Charles Bridge. Yesterday when I was just about ready to fall over from walking all morning, I restored my tissues with a meal I won't soon forget: smoked pork with creamy horseradish sauce and dumplings. I've got to find the recipe!

Today I'll while away the travel time by reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow, jumping from the fogbank into the blizzard. I just hope this fog doesn't follow me home.  

Friday, November 11, 2011

On not suffering at a suffering conference

Last year's Making Sense of Suffering conference was so terrific that I was worried that this year's conference could not possibly live up to my expectations.

It could. Let me count the ways:

1. Intense listening.  With so many  presenters for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language, we can't listen lazily or we'll miss too many interesting ideas.

2. So many interesting ideas! My must-read list is getting longer by the minute. Here's one question tossed off today: "Is there a biological purpose for suffering or is it just an unpleasant side effect of being sentient?" Discuss.

3. Discussions that continue outside of sessions over meals and coffee and long walks through the city.

4. The city! I can't recall the last time I saw anything so lovely a the full moon hovering over the opera house this evening. Everywhere I turn, I see something beautiful or historic or at least interesting.

5. The language! I don't speak a word of Czech but I keep hearing phrases that bring back my high school Russian.

6. Five guys who looked like my Lithuanian uncles standing in the evening cold on the Charles Bridge to entertain tourists by playing New Orleans jazz. In addition to a trumpet, clarinet, standing bass, and banjo, the combo included a man using eggbeaters and thimbles to play a washboard. And they were not bad.

7. Talking about my Lithuanian forebears with a scholar who teaches in Lithuania. I need to go!

8. Sharing ideas about suffering with philosophers, literary scholars, theologians, a linguist, a doctor, and others from America, Portugal, South Africa, England, Turkey, Montenegro, and I don't remember where else. I don't believe I've ever met anyone from Montenegro before. 

9. Gaining insight about the European monetary crisis from intelligent people who are right in the middle of it.

10. The refreshing absence of anguish over Joe Paterno.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Resilient, positively

At a conference with attendees from 12 countries and many disciplines, I'm bound to hear and see some interesting things:

1. The verb resile, which is what resilient people do. I don't recall ever hearing this word before but tells me it means either rebound or recoil, words that carry very different connotations.

2. Making sense as a phrase not universally positive in connotation: apparently, one can make either constructive or destructive sense of suffering.

3. People smoking over supper in pubs (yuck!).

4. Smoked trout on the breakfast buffet (yum!).

5. Engineers at the other end of the table tossing around terms like synergy and next-gen and The Cloud (which seems to be capitalized even when uttered orally).  

6. Clouds so thick and heavy that the city is shrouded in darkness by midafternoon.

Tomorrow's forecast calls for sunshine, which is good because I'll be setting out on an excursion in the afternoon. Despite the weather, I intend to resile--in the best sense of the word.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Terrible twos

Number of hours I spent traveling from Ohio to Prague via West Virginia, Chicago, and Brussels: 22.

Number of minutes I spent trying to figure out how to turn on the lights in my very dark hotel room: 22. Okay, that's just a guess. It could have been 2 or 122 for all I know since there's no clock in the room. If there are any hidden cameras in this room, someone somewhere is getting a pretty big laugh.

Number of e-mails and phone calls I made last week to make sure I would be able to use my college credit card to pay for my lodging in Prague: 2.

Number of seconds it took for that same credit card to be rejected at the hotel: 2.

Number of times I went down to the front desk to first borrow an adapter so I can plug in my laptop and then return the adapter they loaned me because it didn't fit the outlet: 2.

Number of hours I'll need to sleep before any of this starts making sense: 22.

Partly foggy

Here I sit in the Brussels airport awaiting my flight to Prague and wondering whether the tune I'm hearing from the speakers can possibly be what it sounds like: a light jazz version of "Little Brown Jug."

I may be hallucinating. I got approximately zero sleep on the seven-hour transatlantic flight, thanks to sharing close quarters with a large man who (1) snored; (2) squirmed like a restless two-year-old; and (3) spoke no English. Lack of sleep plus in-flight entertainment (Planet of the Apes!) could well lead to auditory hallucinations of the "Little Brown Jug" kind.

I've never been to Brussels before and I can't really tell you what it's like because all I've seen is the airport. Belgium is pretty well socked in with clouds and fog, so from the air it just looked white. We plunged into this dense cloud layer and I kept expecting to emerge beneath the clouds, but these clouds extended right down to the runway. 

Last year about this time I had about two hours to rest between the all-night flight and the first conference session, so that first day passed in a fog of tiredness. This year I'm arriving a day early so I can meet up with friends for supper tonight and then sleep off the travel weariness before the conference begins. As much as I appreciate this impressive fog, I don't intend to take it with me.