Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mow better blues

Mowing the lower meadow is, first, a logistical problem: find the tractor key, find the right gas can for diesel fuel, get the fuel, fill up the tractor--finally on the way!

Next it becomes a geometry problem: what's the most efficient way to mow an irregular shape without leaving behind those annoying little wedges? Finish the small end first or keep circling the entire perimeter?

At one point it's a power problem: the meadow looks fairly flat, but the mower lets us know just how much the ground falls off over in the back corner, where the ground stays moist and the grass grows thick and tall. Mowing uphill through thick grass while making a sharp turn to the right--the tractor bogs down and stalls, and then I'm rolling backward toward the creek. Where did you say the brakes are on this thing?

But mostly mowing the lower meadow is a getting-away-from-your-problems problem. It's almost mindless: follow the lines around and around, swinging the occasional loop to cut the corners, and then follow the lines again. Scare up a field mouse or two and watch the birds lingering amidst the cuttings, but otherwise, just follow the track already laid down and keep on mowing.

I'm not a terrific mower--my son does a neater job and my husband a swifter one, but at the moment, I'm available, so off I mow, putting my mind in neutral and the tractor in gear. After I've shaved down that last thin wedge of tall grass, I survey the interlocking rings, stripes, and wedges I've left behind, evidence of an afternoon's labor. In my line of work, it's not often that I can point to something tangible and say "I did that," but mowing the meadow offers clear evidence that I've left some sort of mark on the world.

Until the rain starts again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wall-to-wall car pets

So many things to think and do today but I keep getting distracted by the knowledge that I have mice in my car.

Let me repeat that: I have MICE. In my CAR.

That's just wrong.

The good news is that they're probably not living in the car. They're unlikely to find food and water in there, although they've been quite successful at tearing up tissues and distributing them (and their droppings) all over the back seat and under the front seats and in the way-back and even in the spare tire compartment.

I never noticed any problems until last week after I took the car in for new rear shocks and also got the air conditioning fixed. My wonderful mechanic cleared a bunch of leaves and things out of the fan housing, so now I can run the AC without hearing what sounds like a bike with playing cards in the spokes.

On Friday I noticed a few bits of tissues on the back seat but didn't think anything of it, but I left a jacket back there and this morning it was covered with mouse droppings.

On the drive to campus this morning I kept thinking about all the damage mice can do: wreck upholstery, chew wires, clog vents.

They could come out for a visit while I'm driving and startle me into swerving into the path of a semi.

Or they could die.

Dead mice in the AC system: there's a scenario I don't want to think about, especially since I may need to drive this car to Florida on a moment's notice. (Because my dad had a stroke last week and has surgery today, which is one of the things I ought to be thinking about instead of devoting so many brain cells to the fact that I have MICE in my CAR.)

Who wants to drive around in summer heat with a dead mouse in the fan housing?

My sweet hubby put some mouse poison in the tissue box the mice seem to find so attractive. It's the sort of poison that will make them thirsty and drive them out of the car to find water, so he assures me that I shouldn't end up with dead mice in the vents. (But if you're riding with me, take my advice: stay away from the tissues.)

Mice in my car.

The poison might drive them out of my car, but how can I prevent them from scurrying around all day in my brain?

Monday, June 27, 2011

One of a kind

Q: Why is there only one Eiffel Tower?
A: Because it eats its young.

I've been telling this joke to everyone I know for the past few days, with mixed results. Mostly it has been received in puzzled silence. My son-in-law laughed, but only after my daughter handed him the phone with the words, "Mom wants to tell you a joke and you're sort of required to laugh." Would he have laughed otherwise? He's an engineer, so maybe so.

I encountered the joke in the book Engaging Humor by Elliott Oring, who is known for having written the definitive account of the history of the dumb blond joke. "Blond Ambition and Other Signs of the Times" is required reading when I teach humor theory, but I've never read the chapter in which he introduces the Eiffel Tower joke. He analyzes the joke in a brutally humorless paragraph that includes the following helpful statement: "Since the Eiffel Tower is not a living organism, it does not eat or reproduce anything, and it seems absurd to explain its singularity in such terms."

Well, duh.

But even after Oring takes scalpel in hand to subject the joke to this brutal dissection, I still find it funny. (The joke, not Elliott Oring, whose name rhymes with...never mind. Cheap shot.) That's right: for me, the Eiffel Tower joke remains impervious to the depredations of the humor theorist.

Which is why I find it odd that others do not share my delight. It eats its young! What a perfect answer! I picture a monstrous Mommy Eiffel giving birth to little baby towers only to gobble them right up before they can leave the nest. I get the giggles just thinking about it, but then I tell the joke and meet a blank stare and try to explain and I end up sounding like Elliott Oring.


Am I the only one who finds this joke funny? Am I doomed to spend my days emitting humorless explanations about the reproductive habits of a tourist attraction? The Eiffel Tower and I have this in common: we're one of a kind. Except I don't eat my young. I just bore them to death.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Friday poetry challenge: postponed poetry

Grief, heartache, despair, and death can inspire great poetry, but nothing kills the poetic impulse like faculty governance.

Committee-produced blather is the antithesis of poetry. Poetry has no regard for Robert's Rules of Order. Contentious meetings stomp on poetry's feet. The muse flees before the reading of minutes. Meetings have drained my creative juices. I can't produce.

But you can! (Please?) Poetry of any form on any topic...even if it's not Friday anymore.

Meeting adjourned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Grapevine jungle

What happens when you plant a bunch of grapevines on a steep, fertile, well-drained slope and then ignore them for a few years?

They grow. Along with other things.

I can't even remember exactly when we planted the grapevines, but I know we had the best intentions: we would let the wee slips establish themselves for a while and then pound in some metal fence-posts and tie up some baling twine and train the vines to grow along this homemade arbor. Our little vineyard would eventually cover the steep unmowable slope stretching between the berry patch and the driveway.

But somehow we got distracted. One summer someone (possibly me) weed-whacked that whole slope, including the grapevines. The next summer someone (definitely me) weed-whacked the slope while someone else located the grapevines and held them up out of harm's way.

One summer we had a wedding and surgery, and the next summer we were recovering from cancer treatment. Occasionally I would glance at that overgrown hillside and wonder whether any grapevines could survive the onslaught of weeds, but mostly I didn't think about them at all.

But that didn't stop them from growing. I knew we needed to address the grapevine issue when the vines starting snaking their way across the driveway. From above, the whole patch looked like a riot of tall weedy green with the occasional grape leaf lifting its head above the fray; we had no idea what we might find until we hacked our way into the jungle.

And it felt like a jungle out there: with the temperature in the 90s and high humidity, wading into that sea of weeds put me in mind of the boat-hauling scene in The African Queen, except with horseflies instead of leeches. Weeds make miserable flyswatters, as the welts on my legs would attest.

We found ironweed up to our eyeballs, multiflora roses reaching out to scratch our legs, a few small poison ivy plants hiding amidst the weeds--and grapevines, many of them, climbing among the weeds to form a huge matted mess of foliage. We pulled weeds and followed vines until we'd isolated the source, and we worked on pounding in posts and tying up twine until stormclouds rolled in. The last place anyone wants to be in a lightning storm is out on a hillside pounding on metal fenceposts.

So we left the job half done, but we'll get to the rest of it soon. With a little pruning and some TLC, those grapevines ought to eventually recover from the years of neglect. I look forward to the day when we'll pick our first grapes, but meanwhile, you'd better be careful. It's a jungle out there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nothing about anything

"You can write about anything," she said, but really? Anything? There's an awful lot of anything in the world. How could anyone possibly write about that?

Take hedgehogs--please. I'm sure someone can write about hedgehogs, but that someone can't be me. I don't know diddly about hedgehogs, so how can I write about them? (Unless asserting my inability to write about hedgehogs qualifies as writing about them.)

The list of things I can't write about would have to include abacus, ailerons, anaconda, Antietam, Asperger's Syndrome, Angelina Jolie, and the Alps--and those are just the As. I can't write about Belgium, carborundum, deltoids, or (to skip a whole bunch of letters) shimmy-dampers. My son the pilot could tell you all about shimmy-dampers, but once I've told you that, I've told you everything I know about the topic.

"Go on," she said. "Just write. About anything."

But I can't! Writing about something is hard enough--now you want me to write about anything too? Harrumph to that. No one can write about anything. Someone can write about something--and at the moment, this someone can write about nothing.

"Anything," she said.

There: I've written about it. Satisfied?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Well-protected weeds

Tell me, butterflies: of all the wildflowers in all the meadows in all the world, why did you have to land on the one surrounded by poison ivy?

Milkweed, daisies, butterfly weed all abound right up next to the path, but you couldn't stop there, could you? You had to flutter off to feed in the middle of the poison ivy. And I had to follow.

What made me think it was a good idea to go bounding up the hill after butterflies without first putting on long pants and high socks?

I couldn't get close to you this time, butterflies, but don't worry, I'll be back.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday poetry challenge: acronymophilia

For reasons too complicated to explain, a colleague and I spent a ridiculous amount of time this week trying to come up with a way to use the word FUEL as an acronym. The L could refer to Learning, of course, and the E suggests a variety of interesting verbs--enhancing, engaging, empowering, equipping--but we kept running aground on the first two letters.

Maybe it's time to choose a new acronym.

Or better yet, let's write an acrostic poem!

Full stop: empty tank--
Utter desolation.
Exxon near. Move your rear!
Leg it to the station.

Summer heat slows your feet;
Tar oozes like treacle.
One more drop--top it up!
Power to the people.

Okay, that's pretty silly, but isn't that what summer's for? Your turn now!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Not summer camp

Two weeks into my summer online writing course, I've lost another student and possibly a third. I've read that completion rates for online courses are low all over and now I'm starting to understand why. Since summer registration opened and students started asking about the course, I've been fighting two common misconceptions: online courses are (1) easy and (2) self-paced.

Now it's possible that some online courses are easy and I suppose it's also possible that my online course is easier than the same course would be in a face-to-face setting (although I doubt it), but I have consistently drilled into students one simple message: in an upper-level writing course, expectations are high. I regularly require my freshman composition students to write at least 1000 words each week, so why should students in an advanced writing course expect any less?

And I understand that one of the attractions of an online course is that students can squeeze in the course work around other activities, like work or travel or having a life; however, this doesn't mean the schedule doesn't matter. I've created a syllabus that will help students build writing skills over time, mastering one technique before moving on to the next, which doesn't work if they're postponing assignments and then trying to complete them in one fell swoop at the end of the eight weeks. Further, as in any advanced writing course, I expect students to read and comment on each other's writing assignments and to revise their writing in response to suggestions, which won't work at all if students are all at different stages in the syllabus. Online or not, deadlines count. Late work will not be accepted. There are no make-ups or extra credit assignments. Submit the assignment when it's due or lose the points.

So far, most of my students are doing a great job; they are posting interesting comments to online discussions of their reading, trying out new techniques in their writing assignments, and offering insightful suggestions to their classmates. Now begin the requests for extensions: I'm working too many hours, I'm going on vacation, I'm just really really busy...why can't I turn in the assignment later? Like, say, August?

I hate to crack the whip on such a lovely summer day, but the answer is no. Do the work and submit it on time or lose the points! This is not summer camp! In fact, it's more like boot camp. Now drop and give me 1000! (Words, that is.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Life's persistent questions

Which would you rather carry up a flight of stairs: an aquarium full of fish or a large unwieldy cactus?

Which would you rather read: bad poetry, bad student essays, or bad poetry badly interpreted in bad student essays?

Which would take less effort: cleaning the house or developing such thick callouses on your conscience that you don't care whether it's clean or not?

Where would you prefer to vacation: Biloxi in July or Gary, Indiana, in January?

Which dish would you rather prepare: baked Alaska on a boat, boiled lobster in a hot-air balloon, or sushi in the subway at rush hour?

When you reach into your Christmas stocking, which would you rather find: a live mouse or a dead mouse gorged on fine Swiss chocolates?

Which would you rather do right now: ask these questions or answer them?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Catch of the day

The shrill call of a Carolina Wren pierces the backyard quiet. How can this tiny bird produce such a huge sound? They scrabble in the loose mulch near the house until they find something worth singing about, usually a grub or small worm. In this case, the catch of the day is a two-course meal: a large spider with egg sac attached. The bird perches on the edge of a rusty grill and calls out like a ballpark vendor hawking beer and popcorn, turning to repeat the call until all bases are covered. And then suddenly it's gone, flying off with its take-out meal still impaled on its beak.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday poetry challenge: dullicious

A student keeps sending me e-mail messages addressing me as "Dr. Rogue," possibly as a result of a hyperactive autocorrect feature that refuses to recognize "Hogue" as a legitimate word. Dr. Rogue could be the archenemy of SuperProf, who is faster than a student's cut-and-paste, stronger than an athlete's dirty sweatsock, and able to leap tall library stacks in a single bound but can be stupefied into paralysis when Dr. Rogue unleashes her evil power to (gasp!) appoint SuperProf to the Assessment committee.

Dr. Rogue skips committee meetings without excuse.

Dr. Rogue scoffs at tenure, pooh-poohs promotion, and wilfully omits closing parentheses in parenthetical citations.

Dr. Rogue sends snarky responses to students who spell her name wrong--until SuperProf escapes the evil clutches of the Assessinator and swoops in to insert comments about poor collegiality into Dr. Rogue's annual review. SuperProf saves the day! But stay tuned for the next episode, when Dr. Rogue (gasp!) brazenly parks in a no-parking zone to return a library book two weeks late--barefoot!

Ah, what exciting lives we all lead. These days I feel less like Dr. Rogue than like Dr. Dull:

Today I think I'll sit in the sun
and read a book until it's done,
and when the sun has one arm fried
I'll turn and cook the other side.

How about you? Let's see some poetic reflections of your daily life, thrilling or otherwise.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The proof is in the writing

People keep asking how my summer online class is going and I don't know how to answer. Fine, I think, as far as I can tell. It's hard to say.

Take the first day of class: in a face-to-face class, the first class is suffused with a frisson of excitement and the nervousness of newness, but I can look out over the classroom and tell whether I'm connecting with students; certain lines earn laughs or groans while students' faces show signs of comprehension or confusion. (Unless they're just really good at simulating comprehension.) Ask me how the class went and I'll have a pretty good answer.

The first day of my online class was a different story. All day Monday I kept feeling as if something ought to be happening, but instead I just went about my normal activities and trusted that my students were busy listening to my podcast, reading the materials I'd posted, and completing their assignment. I had posted all that information more than a week ago, but through the magic of the internet, students can access it at any time. Later I look at their participation logs to see what resources they've clicked on, but those logs don't laugh or groan or show signs of comprehension at all. Are they getting it?

Writing assignments offer the only clues. So far my students have completed a discussion of a reading assignment and the first writing assignment, and the results look pretty good. They're reading! They're thinking! They're writing!

Except for the ones who aren't. When a student sits silently in a face-to-face class, I can usually detect clues: did he skip the reading assignment and come to class unprepared for discussion, or did he drink too much the night before, or is he one of those students who never speak in class regardless of the topic?

Silence in an online class is simply silence. I have no clue why a few students didn't do these first assignments. I can e-mail a reminder about the importance of participation, but all I know is what they write.

And they are writing a lot. Today I'll read their first writing assignments and see how well they've absorbed the lessons I've made available to them. I can't read their body language or look for signs of comprehension in their eyes, so I'll have to focus entirely on the words on the page. The proof of learning is in their writing--or if it isn't, I'll have to find another way to help them master the techniques I'm trying to teach.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

When Foxy met Waddles

A friend and I were watching the fox news last evening when suddenly it looked as if we might observe a Wild Kingdom moment: the fierce predator patiently stalks its prey, finally pouncing and engaging in a fierce battle offering close-ups of blood and gore, until the enemy animal is defeated and the voice-over offers platitudes about the circle of life.

But apparently our resident foxes have not read that script. We had been watching the foxes for about 30 minutes with nothing much happening: one yawned, another slipped into the den, the third slept, and the fourth was nowhere to be seen. The yawning fox ate a bird. Occasionally the two visible foxes changed places, one at the mouth of the den and the other on a rock higher on the cliff.

Then the groundhog waddled into view. The foxes' ears perked up and they began to monitor the progress of the groundhog. Would they stalk and spring or allow the intruder to waddle past unmolested? Do foxes even care about groundhogs?

Not much. The two foxes followed the progress of the groundhog and moved slowly closer, but then one of them lost interest and turned away. The remaining fox crept down the cliff until it came face-to-face with the groundhog on a narrow dirt path. When a fox and a groundhog meet on a one-way path, who backs up?

The fox. At least this fox did. The fox went back to its perch outside the den and the groundhog lived to waddle another day.

If I were filming a nature documentary, this little non-incident would no doubt end up on the cutting floor along with countless scenes of foxes yawning, scratching, and napping. But despite the lack of blood and gore, we found the encounter fascinating. Who needs television when the local wild kingdom offers this kind of drama?

Monday, June 06, 2011

Honeysuckle haven

As I walk up the steep road through the neighbor's woods, the aroma of honeysuckle hangs heavily in the damp early-morning air. I feel as if I'm swimming in perfume, and I recall the big gardenia bush that grew just outside the front door of my family's first house in Florida: opening the door on a very hot day was like being rolled in a thick blanket soaked with sickly-sweet scent. To this day I can't abide the odor of gardenia.

But honeysuckle is a different story. Right now it's blooming profusely in the woods and along the edges of our country roads, and while it can be a little overwhelming at times, I welcome its sweet aroma even though I know I should abhor honeysuckle as an invasive species crowding out native flora. Like the lilacs, wisteria, and multiflora roses blooming in these woods, honeysuckle was imported by early settlers to beautify their farmsteads only to spread into areas where they become pests.

Now I appreciate native wildflowers and I am willing to pull up invasive pests that threaten to take over their territory. Every spring we go on a garlic-mustard purge, which seems to be working because we find less each year. Garlic mustard spreads profusely--it's already colonizing the area at the end of our meadow where the power company's slash-and-burn crew chopped down trees and applied herbicides last fall to clear out foliage under transmission lines. Pulling it all out will be quite a job but if I let it get a foothold there, it'll soon spread all over our meadow.

So I'll pull out garlic mustard but I'm not planning to go on a honeysuckle purge anytime soon. We don't have much on our property, but even if we did, I would be reluctant to get rid of it. Why? Honeysuckle played an important role in my bringing me and my husband together. I would sit in my dorm room studying before supper, the scent of honeysuckle coming through my open window, and soon the scent would mingle with the sound of a distant harmonica playing some peppy hymn tune like "I'll Fly Away," and as the sound got closer, I would close my books, leave my room, and go out to greet my beloved harmonica-player near the honeysuckle bush. Since then, I can't smell honeysuckle without being transported to that delightful time.

I realize that my sentimental attachment to a decades-old memory is an irrational basis for my attitude toward invasive species. If he had played the harmonica while wandering through a field of garlic mustard, would I get all weak-kneed every time I smelled that weed's pungent scent? I think not! And yet when the naturalists tell us to tear out the honeysuckle, I reject their message in favor of nostalgia.

Knowledge complicates my relationship with nature. Naturalists tell me that I ought to abhor invasive honeysuckle but I can't stop loving it, except now that love is tinged with guilt. Why is it so difficult to stop loving things we know are bad for us?

And who can think about such complex questions when the air is sweet with the scent of honeysuckle?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Friday poetry challenge: mechanical mantra

Weedeater, leaf-blower, lawnmower: the machines lack grace and make a horrific racket, but the words themselves sound like a mantra. Three dactyls featuring repeated w and l and long e sounds--if you didn't know the meaning of the words, you'd think it was poetry.

Weed-eater, leaf-blower, lawnmower, rake,
Lemonade, cannonade, masquerade, cake.
Anapest, assonance, flatulence, fun,
Add a verse, make it worse, this poem is done.

Your challenge: put together some words that sound like poetry without regard for meaning.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Summertime, and the listing is easy

June already--and I haven't made my list of summer goals!

Well, I've made a mental list and I've already accomplished a few of those unwritten goals: summer haircut, check. Prepare summer online class, check. (Class starts next Monday!) Add two chapters to the never-ending ever-growing fiction writing project, check. (Someday I'll work up the nerve to call it a novel.) Cross a title off my "Books I Really Should Have Read Already" list, check. (John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman. Great book, but I wish I'd read it before A.S. Byatt's Possession.)

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's more:

Health: walk 150 miles. That's 15 miles a week for 10 weeks, which I ought to be able to do as long as my bum hip doesn't fail me.

Home front: paint the living room. (At the rate we're going, just agreeing on a color would be a major accomplishment.) Paint the trim around the front window and door. Get the Volvo's suspension fixed. Keep up with the garden.

Teaching: keep up with summer class. Write syllabi for three fall classes. (One can be recycled from the last time I taught the class but the other two need major revamping.) Assemble portfolio to submit for our annual teaching award.

Administration: finish writing a report summing up the year's accomplishments in the Center for Teaching Excellence. Work with my colleague to develop a program of workshops for next year. Assist as needed with new faculty orientation.

Research: plan reading, research, and travel for sabbatical (which begins in January 2012--and I'll be looking for cheap but bearable lodging all over Florida, so I welcome suggestions and invitations.) Continue reading about new advances in cognitive approaches to literature, even though I'm not sure how this information fits into my research plan.

Writing: finish pedagogy essay on teaching while undergoing chemotherapy. Write proposal to present a paper at the second Making Sense of Suffering Conference (details here)--and then write the paper. (Because I desperately want to go back to Prague in November!)

Fun: explore my woods in the dark. Visit my daughter and son-in-law. Play Bananagrams. Plan party for colleagues.

That's starting to sound like a really busy summer, but it's flexible enough to allow for some serendipity. I never expected a family of foxes to slip into my daily routine, but there they are every evening watching us work in the garden. My husband says they're trying to hear the Cleveland Indians game on the radio--and with the season the Indians are having, he may be right.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Fox news update

A colleague brought his three small boys out to see the foxes last night, and they (the boys, not the foxes) kept looking through their binoculars hoping to see something other than a solitary fox just sitting there. Just as we all turned to go, though, things got exciting: another fox arrived, and another and another, and they sat there on the rock playing and posing. Do they know how cute they are?

Now others want to bring their kids to come out fox-watching, which is fine with me. Do you think I ought to put up bleachers and a concession stand, maybe plop some porta-potties in the meadow and charge admission?

Nah. Fun this priceless ought to be free.