Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quarterly report

Last night poet James Harms explained why he wrote a series of third-person poems for his 2001 collection Quarters: "I had gotten too conversant with the first person and I was getting lazy," he said. "I thought I should learn something new about writing."

I learned something new about reading over the summer when I read four poetry collections searching for poems to use in my fall classes so my students would have some familiarity with the poems before the poet visited campus. I read quickly, seeking content appropriate for each class, and I had forged ahead five or six poems into Quarters before I noticed some spare change jangling around in each poem, and then I had to go back to the beginning to confirm my suspicion: yes, in a collection of 25 poems titled Quarters, each poem contains the 25-cent coin.

My obliviousness suggests that I ought to have been reading more carefully, but it also indicates how subtly Harms drops the quarters into the poems. Harms gave himself a very strict set of limits, from the number of poems (25) to the point of view (third person) to the number of words in the titles (one) to the necessity of including quarters in the poems, but none of the poems feel forced or artificial. The quarters appear in ordinary places--in a jukebox, on a sidewalk, under a girl's pillow after she loses a tooth--but the anticipation leads us to receive each quarter as a gift, a sparkling coin plinking down on the counter before our eyes.

My favorite Harms poems come from other collections, particularly Freeways and Aqueducts, in which "Elegy as Evening, as Exodus" reminds us that "The Pacific is nothing like its name. / For one thing, there are no silences, / despite the palm trees leaning into stillness." Halfway through that poem an ineffable silence utters itself in the blank space between stanzas when "I heard a name escape its word, // the wind between waves," a moment that takes my breath away to breathe the unspeakable silence.

But despite that, I find myself recommending Quarters to anyone seeking an introduction to Harms. All of his collections are good (and the cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its parts), but reading Quarters is like finding money on the street--no matter how smudged and battered the coin, it's impossible to resist bending over and picking it up.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Surprising the fibers

"This little move will really sculpt your deltoids," says the exercise guru, and I can feel the chisel--right there.

"You'll feel this tomorrow," she says, but I feel it today--and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

"We're trying to surprise the fibers in your biceps," she explains, but my biceps do not experience that surprise alone. I am surprised to deepest fiber of my being every time I walk into the gym for my exercise class and even more surprised when the class is over.

"See you next time!" she calls out--and you know, I think she's right

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Better or bitter?

I have always believed that trial by fire refines character, that surviving adversity makes people better, but what if instead it makes us bitter and brittle? (Bittle? Britter?)

Since my brush with death two years ago I have watched myself becoming both more and less patient: more patient with struggling students, less patient with colleagues behaving badly; more willing to speak up compassionately when someone needs help, less willing to bite my tongue when nonsense gets bruited about in meetings.

Surviving the fire made me more open to new experiences (hey, let's take a bunch of students to California!) but less willing to waste time slogging through mediocre fiction or hollow scholarship.  Life is too short to spend long hours in the company of Jude the Obscure.

Today I work harder and I demand more of myself than ever, but if I occasionally feel the need to watch an episode of The Office on my office computer, I make no excuses. I say No more often and stand up for my rights more firmly, and just today I demanded a well-deserved apology from someone who would have intimidated me into silence before.

I sort of like the new me but I wouldn't claim that I'm a better person. Bitter, yes: I struggle to keep the anger from bubbling over and poisoning my environment, but I'm always aware of the potent brew simmering away beneath the brittle surface. I may have survived my trial by fire, but deep inside the coals are still burning.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Earth and sky

Turkey vultures are not attractive up close, whether they're tearing bloody chunks from road-killed critters or perching buzzard-like on tree limbs. When they first return from their winter homes in early March, we see sometimes 10 or 20 at a time swirling overhead, and down below we remind ourselves to keep moving and look alive. We see a few throughout the summer but now they're massing up again to travel south, and in the air they look magnificent, their six-foot wingspans describing slow circles over our meadows. Watching a red-tailed hawk and three turkey vultures swirl and swoop overhead was a Saturday treat for those of us who are not road kill.
Down below the wet season has produced more earthbound treats--or perhaps tricks: an abundance of mushrooms and toadstools of greater variety than we've seen here before. Our lawn is dotted with fungi in marshmallow white, lemon yellow, and chocolate brown, but we don't know enough about mushrooms to risk eating them. Instead, we feasted last night on chestnuts picked up from the ground and roasted in the oven. I hover buzzard-like over the pan waiting for the earthy nuts to be cool enough to peel, awaiting the moment when the flavor will make my taste buds soar.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

On and off the pedestal

The first time Hopeful met our neighbors' new dog, I thought I was seeing an encounter between the Dionysian and Apollonian worldviews--and not just because the neighbors named their new dog Apollo.

Hopeful the plump, cheerful mutt who loves rolling in the mud, splashing in the creek, and gobbling down any tasty treat that comes her way (from dead groundhogs to chunks of ripe deer carcass the mold-encrusted wad of sofa cushion she found in the woods last week) gambols up the road to encounter a dog that looks like a statue standing on a plinth, with lordly mien surveying his vast domain.

Apollo is tall and lean with clean, crisp lines and pointy teeth; if he had come running toward me unencumbered by his master, I would surely have run screaming for the woods. He looks like a king of the dog world, a stern, godlike figure of power and self-control.

But then Hopeful bounces up with her girls-just-wanna-have-fun attitude and issues an invitation to play, and Apollo comes down from the plinth. It took two strong adults to remove Apollo from the muddy Dionysian revels and restore him to his place of stern dignity.

That was two weeks ago and I haven't seen Apollo outside his house again. Sometimes when we walk by we hear him barking as if begging to come out and play, but he remains behind closed doors safely separated from mud and mold and road kill. I hope he's happy there, but Hopeful shows no desire to join him. Why live on a pedestal when you can roll in the mud?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stupid is as stupid does

Further evidence that sometimes doing something really stupid can make you feel really good:

Yesterday the department secretary sent out a note reminding everyone to check the spring semester course schedule to make sure everything was correct, so I dutifully walked over to the office to look at the schedule and see whether all my classes are listed with the correct times, classrooms, and caps.

Only after I had the schedule in my hands did it occur to me that I don't have any classes on the schedule next semester because I'LL BE ON SABBATICAL.

Happy dance! Right there in the office!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rethinking grading methods (again)

Coming up for air after completing one paper-grading frenzy and before beginning the next, I encounter yet another reason to reconsider the way I grade papers. For a few years now I've been collecting drafts, suggesting changes, and grading essays electronically, but now a post over at Quackademic makes me wonder whether I need to rethink the whole process.

I know why I started commenting and grading electronically: because I can type faster than I can write and students can't read my handwriting. (Not that I blame them--half the time I can't read my own handwriting.) When I write out comments longhand, I spend a lot of time outside of class interpreting those comments for my befuddled students, explaining, for instance, that the word that looks like "vile" is actually "nice."

But maybe that's not a bad thing. As Quack points out, an important element of writing instruction is "having meaningful discussion about their writing and the writing process." Am I missing out on opportunities for face-to-face discussion when I insert comments into Word documents and send them back via e-mail?

Quackademic also raises another important question: are students reading our comments? Sometimes I'll write up extensive comments suggesting that a draft needs major revision--when a student misunderstands the assignment, doesn't know the difference between summary and analysis, is ignorant of MLA citation, or has butchered the draft so badly that not much can be salvaged--and then the student fails to read my comments until the paper is just about due. I get these frantic e-mails saying "I can't possibly do this much work on my paper before tomorrow morning!"

Of course the obvious response is, "Then you should have started last week when I sent you my suggestions." I wonder, though, whether it's easier for a student to ignore comments received electronically than those that appear hand-written in bold red ink in a paper shoved right in front of the student's face in class. Or, better yet, make students pick up their papers in person in my office and discuss their revision strategies face-to-face.

Electronic comments are just a whole lot easier--for me. But are they better for my students? Are they the best way to engage students in learning?

I don't know...and right now I don't have time to think about it because that big pile of papers isn't going to grade itself.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Spidey 'n' me

It's not every day that I compare myself to Spider-Man in class, but this morning I found myself explaining to students that "with great power comes great responsibility." Spider-Man never asked for the ability to swing from webs and I never asked for an extraordinary capability to write very bad prose, but like Spiderman, I dedicate myself to employing my superpowers for the good of all. 

This may or may not explain why I make my writing students revise passages like this one:

If they cut out all those repetitive, redundant, bland, colorless, unnecessary adjectives, they would have less words and write bad. On the other hand, if they use few adjectives but only, like, make them really incredibly wonderfully awesome, then they will have esoteric, poignant, and just plain neat prose that marvelously overshadows all that high-falutin' gussied-up bullcrap.

Or this:

Them professors are too demanding; whomever teaches a class should think more about the needs of the students. They should not give students assignments every day; instead, they should give he or she a few days off during the week, especially if him or her has to work to earn money for tuition.

Or, heaven help us, this:

One of the best ways for maximum effect to be created in sentences is for interesting verbs to be used. The reason being is that verbs actionify nouns, making static sentences seem as if they are being more movement-oriented.

I can't help it: once my writey-senses start tingling, sentences like these just pour out. It's a gift, but whatever you do, don't let these sentences loose on the general public. You wouldn't want a power like this to spread to people who don't know how to use it responsibly.

The wrong stuff

I stopped by the grocery store in the way to campus this morning to pick up a birthday card for a colleague and what song did I hear coming from the speakers but the theme song from The Poseidon Adventure. When I'm still feeling my way around on a dark, dank, dreary morning, the last thing I want to hear is Maureen McGovern wailing about the morning after. What a pill.

"1972," I told the cashier. She looked puzzled. I'm sure she's an expert at blocking out the music that loops endlessly through the system at the store, and besides, she's far too young to have had her youthful psyche permanently warped by repeated viewings of The Poseidon Adventure. If Shelley Winters stood before her in a dripping swimsuit and said "In the water I'm a very skinny lady," she would probably faint dead away. (Which would be appropriate, since Shelley Winters has been dead since 2006.)

Which reminds me of my creative nonfiction students, who will discuss in today's class an excerpt from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, whose name no one in the class confessed to recognizing when I mentioned it last week, and when I followed up by asking if they'd heard of Chuck Yeager, they all said no even though THERE'S AN AIRPORT NAMED IN HIS HONOR JUST DOWN THE INTERSTATE. For today's writing students, The New Journalism has become old hat.

1979. That's when The Right Stuff was published. Back in my youth when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

After this kind of morning, my only hope is that there's got to be a morning after.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When life gives you groundhogs...

Today's well-dressed hound accessorizes with a groundhog carcass draped tastefully across the incisors. She turns and struts and shows her stuff, but don't try to get too close! She is fiercely protective of her new fashion statement.

Times like these I'm really glad Hopeful is an outdoor dog. We already have enough wildlife inside the house, what with giant spiders and crickets that jump at you when you  least expect it and mice in the kitchen and fruit flies in the tomatoes. The cat has been gone for two weeks but I'm still finding hidden deposits of cat hair stashed beneath the sofa, and what's this? Mold? Last week's plumbing catastrophe will be haunting our house for a while.

But at least I don't have to contend with dead groundhogs. Hopeful stashed her treasure beneath a big pine tree, pantry to the great outdoors, so I hope I won't have to see it again. I appreciate her prowess in hunting down the groundhogs that nibble on our garden plants, but that doesn't mean I intend to socialize with the carcass.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

Circling the C

Sometimes a work of literature is so strange and powerful and mysterious that the best I can do is put it in the middle of the classroom and lead my students as we circle it in wonder. That's what happened this morning when my Concepts of Nature class discussed Ernest Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp."

We've just been talking about poets who guide readers toward a particular element of nature in order to extract moral lessons. Hemingway's story also provides a nature guide: the father who leads his very young son into the woods to expose him to one of the wonders of nature, except instead of having a kum ba yah moment or joining hands to sing about the circle of life, the boy watches his father using a jack-knife and fishing line to perform a Caesarian section without anesthesia.

"Her screams are not important," says the father. "I don't hear them because they are not important."

The boy hears the screams and sees the blood and gore and he does what any small boy would do: he looks away, refuses the knowledge of messy natural processes, but he can't avoiding seeing the corpse of the man who slits his own throat rather than endure the woman's screams.

(Cue "The Circle of Life.")

Birth and death are part of the same cycle, so why does the father want to show his son one natural process but shield him from the other? What kind of father takes his small son to observe a C-section performed without anesthesia? How did the mother feel about having a boy in the audience? And what possible lesson did the father hope to teach his son?

At the end the boy joins his father in a canoe on the lake, with the sun coming up and the fish jumping and the water warming the boy's cold hand, and "he felt quite sure that he would never die." Probably not the lesson the father intended.

And what about us? We circle the story; we hear the screams; we see what we can see, but then we turn away, some in wonder, some in disgust, unsure of exactly what we have just witnessed. The circle of life may be amazing, but sometimes it just ain't pretty.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Breathe two three four!

"Feet on the floor. Hands behind your head. Contract that T-A muscle. Big breath! Exhale as you lift! And hold! Chin off your chest! Keep that muscle contracted! And don't forget to breathe!"

I'm pretty good at following directions but all I can think of is: at least she's not asking me to smile. You know how professional photographers like to twist us up in knots--"Right shoulder down, left shoulder up, chin left, eyes right, elbow forward, knees back"--and then insist that we smile? I don't know about you, but by the time I make all my body parts toe the line, I'm in no mood for smiling.

My exercise class instructor does not insist that I smile while contorting my body, but the class makes me smile anyway. Not at first: at first it makes me grimace and grunt and feel like a fool as I try to stand on one foot without falling over sideways or try to contract the right muscle and point my toes and relax my fingers and keep my neck relaxed AND breathe.

Breathing can be a problem. I don't exactly forget to breathe, but I get distracted and sort of postpone breathing while I'm focusing on more immediate matters: Which knee am I supposed to bend? When do I contract that muscle? Oops, I'm falling over again! Then when I do remember to breathe, I'm always exhaling when I'm supposed to inhale or vice versa.

I often feel clumsy and lumpy and dense in my exercise class until the end when we lie on our mats and the music mellows out and I mindlessly follow directions with my eyes closed (so the ceiling fans won't make me dizzy--because it would be just too humiliating to fall over while lying on my back on the floor!). Sometimes I remember to breathe but even when I don't I always end up feeling like smiling.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stirring up the hornets' nest

Am I getting too cynical for all this?

The question arises in relation to my Concepts of Nature class, which today discussed three typical examples of nineteenth-century American nature poetry: "To a Waterfowl" and "To the Fringed Gentian" by William Cullen Bryant and Longfellow's "The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz" (links here, here, and here). Students' responses were mixed: some complained that the poems were "dry" and full of "Old English language" (ha!) and they didn't know whether "fringed gentian" might refer to a space alien or an obscure nautical tool, but others found the poems more inspiring and exhilarating than anything else we've read this semester.

I brought them down to earth with a thud when I asked, "If nature serves as such a wonderful nurse-maid, providing nurture and care and moral uplift to those brave enough to follow her untrodden paths, why don't we send out all our infants to be raised by wolves?"


"And come to think of it, if we're looking for moral lessons in nature, why focus on the fringed gentian or the lovely lone waterfowl instead of, say, the slime mold or the parasitic wasp?"

Ruined the moment. Killed it. Stomped right down on that exhilaration and uplift. I mean, here we all are oohing and ahhing over Bryant and Longfellow's raptures over nature and I have to stir up a hornet's nest.

Don't worry: they're non-lethal hornets. If you ignore them, they will go away, but you may find them again next time you look behind a fringed gentian.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Insert clever title here

Today's the day! The honeymoon's over! This is where the rubber meets the road: all my students are turning in some sort of writing this week, so I will get a good look at their writing skills and they will see my responses to their writing and get an inkling of how much work lies ahead.

And how much is that? I've just briefly glanced at a few dozen drafts and I am pleased to note that most of them follow the format guidelines pretty well and only a few have titles like "Essay 1" or "My Draft." I tell students that the reason I insist upon a good title is that it makes them think about how to appeal to reluctant readers, but the fact is that I just don't ever again need to see another essay called "Essay 1" or "My Draft." At this point I'm amused by the essays called "Insert Clever Title Here" because at least those students are aware of the need to write a title, but occasionally a student fails to follow up and I end up with a final paper called "Insert Clever Title Here." It might have been clever the first dozen times I saw it, but eventually the cleverness wears off.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Imagine that!

I told my senior capstone students this week that "academic writing" need not be dull or dry or incomprehensible but can in fact convey sophisticated ideas with sparkling clarity, but sometimes I wonder. All week I've been trudging dutifully through a new and possibly important work of literary scholarship, but I'm about ready to toss it out the window.

Early on I decided to grit my teeth and overlook the occasional bits of tortured syntax and mangled idioms, and I refrained from tearing out my eyeballs when I reached the line about the "global chickens...coming home to roost." I read that "it is for the first time since World War II that critics may have to consider resetting the boundaries of the present" and I wasted only a few moments wondering, "what is the 'it' that is?"

I even resolved to put aside my prejudice against the use of "imaginary" as a noun, and I was doing pretty well until I got to this passage: "In approaching the cosmodern predominantly as an imaginary configuration--in canvassing the cosmodern imaginary--I insist, then, on the ontological inscription of an imaginary that captures objects and facts undoubtedly 'real,' 'out there.' As it does so, this imaginary imagines, gives them imaginal bodies but does not quite make them up."

Thirty-nine pages into the book and I'm ready to conduct a non-imaginary defenestration. If you happen to be walking past my office window--duck!

And let's not even mention Sisyphus

On two separate occasions this week I've found myself stuck in one of those endless-loop conversations I thought I'd left behind in grade school: "Oh no you can't / oh yes I can / oh no you can't / oh yes I can" ad infinitum. I had this conversation once with a pair of persistent students and once with an administrator, and it's frustrating regardless of which side of the power differential I'm standing on. I caved in to the administrator's demands, but with the students I stood my ground but still didn't feel like king of the hill (or queen of the hill or even princess; more like paper-pusher of the hill).

That conversation is never fun no matter which side of the hill I'm standing on, which is why I was thrilled to create a conversation that leveled that hill entirely. Our first pedagogy workshop of the year brought together a mix of lively colleagues from all over campus to talk about understanding and responding to students' nonverbal communications, and as I sat at the table enjoying my colleagues' contributions, I gave myself a little invisible pat on the back. I didn't preside or present or take center stage in any way, but my administrative skills brought that group together so the magic could happen.

Can one wonderful hour of synergy and serendipity counteract the ill effects of two dead-end king-of-the-hill conversations? I hope so, because I don't want to climb that hill again.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Follow that pencil!

Follow the scrawl of mangled handwriting from the top of page one to the bottom of page three and you'll move from a description of pretty yellow butterflies to a suggestion that Disney princesses need group therapy. How could such a short piece of writing carry readers such a distance?

The writing was mine, produced during a series of free-writing exercises in my creative nonfiction class. We had read and discussed Joni Tevis's essay "In the County of Rent and Tatter," which creates a rich mental map of a place by quilting together colorful fragments of meaning. I asked my students to think about an incident in their own lives that they could associate with a particular color, and then I set them loose to free-write: Write as fast as you can. Don't stop until I tell you. Follow the pencil wherever it leads.

I decided to write along with my students. I started by describing a moment in the meadow with yellow butterflies hovering over goldenrod, but then the dog barged into the scene and reminded me of my encounter with mud-wallowing butterflies who rose and scattered and swirled around me like airborne bits of gold, and then it occurred to me that if I were a Disney princess, those butterflies would have settled on my hair like a coronet.

I had reached that point when it was time to stop writing. I told my students how I had followed my pencil into ideas I wasn't even aware I possessed, and I asked them whether their pencils had led them into surprising territory. A few shared the unexpected turns their writing had taken, and then I asked each student to underline just one interesting sentence or idea from their free-writing and use that as the start of another round.

So I started with the Disney princess crowned by butterflies and wrote about the number of princesses who rely on help from woodland creatures (Snow White), creatures from the sea (Ariel), or even household appliances (Belle). Why, I wonder, do so many Disney princesses depend upon assistance from unexpected quarters? Why do they need butterflies and bunnies and crabs and clocks to ease their path through life? Maybe they need to take a good, old-fashioned Home Ec class or join a support group for codependent princesses.

Time's up. Stop writing. No really, I mean it, stop writing! I can tell it's going to be a fun class when my students don't want to stop writing--and neither do I. I need to figure out what group therapy for princesses might look like, but the only way to find out is to keep following that pencil wherever it leads.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A sabbatical to die for

Ever since Stephen Kinzey's name entered the news last week, academics everywhere have been wondering how he managed to maintain a double life: associate professor of kinesiology at Cal State and leader of an outlaw biker gang/drug ring. I mean, just the photocopying alone would be outrageous. However, an article in Inside Higher Ed (read it here) offers some insight for academics interested in moonlighting:

1. Forsake spelling. His biker gang was called the Devil's Diciples, which makes me cringe and reach for the white-out every time I see it. But just think of all the time Kinzey saved by leaving the s out of disciples! Just select a common letter to systematically omit from your writing and you, too, can earn millions of dollars a year on top of your professorial salary!

2. Focus on the money. Kinzey earned $70,000 a year teaching kinesiology, but experts estimate that leading an outlaw biker gang might have boosted his income into the low seven figures. That extra million would provide ample motivation any time he felt like skipping a committee meeting.

3. Delegate. Tom Barker, a criminal justice professor whom Inside Higher Ed describes as a "leading scholar on outlaw biker gangs," points out that the leader of the gang wouldn't do the actual leg-work like delivering drugs and keeping the books and general office tasks (so, no photocopying!). He would have people for that. Diciples, in fact, although it might be more fun to call them henchmen. Think how much time you could open up in your busy teaching schedule if you had a few henchmen to lean on the dean so he'll excuse you from attending faculty meetings!

4. Slack off in the classroom. Who needs to be SuperProf when you can make a million dollars outside the classroom? Inside Higher Ed reports that students gave Kinzey high ratings on until recently. Students commented that "the professor sucks, he comes in late and doesn't care, if he try's to help you he'll end up rambling about himself" and he "lost his focus & passion for teaching." For ordinary profs this kind of burnout can be treated by a timely sabbatical, but Kinzey chose an alternate route: life on the lam with his names in the headlines.

The rest of us can only dream about that kind of sabbatical.

Monday, September 05, 2011

A Walt by any other name

"I think I could turn and live with animals," wrote Walt Whitman, offering a number of compelling reasons: "They do not sweat and whine about their condition, / They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins," nor are they "demented with the mania of owning things." If I were writing the poem today, I would add to Whitman's list:

Animals don't worry about plumbing. Wombats are utterly unconcerned about leaky pipes or black mold growing on the ceiling tiles, and they never leave a nest of power tools near gaping holes in the ceiling.  If they wake up in the morning and discover that there's no running water in the bathroom, they just shrug it off. To the wombat, bathrooms are irrelevant.

They don't keep pets. Elephants might mourn the loss of family members but you don't see them crying over the deaths of wildebeests or putting leashes on them to lead them around the neighborhood while carrying little baggies to pick up the wildebeest poop.

They get their exercise au naturel, so they have no need of gym bags or locker rooms, and if an alpaca happens to walk right into, say, the Women's Faculty Locker Room unaware that it is temporarily being used by a group of adolescent male soccer players, she (the alpaca) isn't suddenly so overwhelmed by vivid memories of locker-room trauma and humiliation that she has to flee the building.

They don't worry about keeping pests out of the house. You never see a hyena having hysterics just because a spider the size of Zimbabwe happens to come waltzing up the hall, even if he's barefoot. (The hyena, not the spider, although I suppose the spider could be barefoot as well. And there's another advantage: no tight shoes.) And if a barefoot hyena notices a gigantic spider waltzing (or even doing the Macarena) up the hall, the hyena just moseys on by rather than, say, grabbing the nearest bottle of spray-cleaner, spraying the spider mercilessly until it shrivels up and dies, and then slipping and falling on the slick floor and smashing some vital joints.

They don't have to deal with contractors. If, for instance, the front porch slab suddenly splits and crumbles away from a fox's den, he can just move out and find another den or, better yet, curl up on a bed of soft leaves in the woods. The fox doesn't even consider grabbing a flashlight and venturing into the crawl-space beneath the house to determine whether the damage extends to the foundation, and neither does it scour the yellow pages for a reputable contractor while trying to suppress memories of previous disastrous encounters with dishonest contractors.

Animals don't feel any need to process traumatic experiences by transforming them into blog posts or fiction or poetry. I think that's why Whitman ultimately decided against turning to live with animals: "Leaves of Grass" couldn't have been written by Walt Wombat or Walt Wildebeest or Walt Earthworm. If bad plumbing, falling porches, pain, and humiliation are the price we have to pay for poetry, then I think I could not turn and live with animals. I'll call a contractor instead.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Curiosity and the cat

A photo on the wall at home shows my son sprawled on the floor reading the Sunday comics while the cat stands beside him looking curious. 

That was back when Whiskers could see well enough to take an interest in the world around her. She used to perch by the big front window watching birds fluttering and frolicking out at the feeders, but for a while now she hasn't even noticed birds--or anything else. Somewhere along the way she got wobbly, stopped jumping up on the furniture and going down the steps.

On Monday she stopped walking altogether. For a few days my husband kept carrying Whiskers to her food dish and the litter box, and in the evenings he sat with the cat in his lap just petting and soothing her for an hour at a time. Yesterday he took her on that last lonely visit to the vet, driving with the cat in his lap because he didn't want to let her go one minute too soon.

She always preferred the men in the family, and now I think the men will miss her most. These last days have been unpleasant for all of us, so I prefer to think of Whiskers curled up beside my sleeping son as if to protect him from intruders, or standing by his side as he reads the comics. Curiosity didn't kill this cat, but when she lost her curiosity, a little something died inside all of us.