Monday, October 31, 2011

Thank Q

A colleague has decided to stop writing comments on paper in cursive because her students can't read her writing. Nothing wrong with her handwriting--it's neat and regular enough to earn high marks from my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, who walked up and down the rows with her white hair piled high and a white handkerchief up her sleeve as she drilled her students relentlessly in the correct way to make loops of uniform height and tilt. My colleague can do that; her problem is that her students never learned to write in cursive and have little experience reading it.

I suppose it had to happen eventually, but already? As we move inexorably toward the day when texts written in cursive will be legible only to those with special training, let us pause to celebrate the moments those who don't learn cursive are cursed to never know:

As a child I had struggled to get the loops of the lower-case f to go the right way, but what a thrill it was to master the upper-case Q with its big loose swirl. Uniformity was the goal: Mrs. Davis frowned upon teetering cross-ties on the lower-case t and roundly condemned dotting an i with an open loop. But even the Palmer Method cannot hog-tie the personality forever; by junior high my friends and I were vying to create distinctive handwriting--dotting i's with bubbles or hearts or varying the way I wrote the capital Z to display varying levels of formality and flair.

Journalism killed my handwriting. I always took copious notes very quickly, but those hasty scribbles had a very short shelf-life: if I didn't transcribe my notes within 24 hours, they became about as legible as the Thorkelin transcripts of Beowulf.

These days my handwriting is hopeless. I think back to the first day of tenth-grade biology class when Mr. Hatcher told us students to go to the blackboard and write a word indicating something we valued, and amidst all the adolescent scrawls one girl I didn't know (yet!) wrote "Intelligence" in a cursive script so perfect it made the rest of the words on the board look lazy, unpolished, and stupid. Today all my handwriting looks that way, so I write comments on student papers electronically, thereby enabling students to forget that cursive writing ever existed.

The language of classification of ancient handwriting is almost hypnotic: insular half uncial, Merovingian minuscule, prescissa, curialis, cursiva Anglicana--words to conjure by or curse. How will future generations classify twentieth-century American cursive hands? Cursiva Mrs-Davisana, bubble-i totter-t, journoscrawl? It won't be long now before the experts unleash their vocabulary, tack a name to every departure from the Palmer Method, and direct disseration research projects on deciphering immense corpora of hand-written postcards and thank-you notes.

They won't find my thank-you note to Mrs. Davis because I never wrote it, so I'll write it here: Thanks, Mrs. Davis, for forcing me to master a skill that flourished for a while and served me well but will soon become a lost art.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Singing the Special-Case Blues

I know the deadline's 9 a.m.
but I need an extension:
my goldfish died, my laptop fried,
and in case I haven't mentioned--

I'm special!
So special!
You can't expect a guy like me,
so special and extraordin'ry,
to follow rules so arbitrary
because you see:
I'm special.

I know it's Sunday afternoon
and you enjoy relaxing,
but I need you to hop right to
my project--and I'm asking

I'm special!
So special!
You can't expect a prof like me,
so special and extraordin'ry,
to follow rules so arbitrary
because you see:
I'm special.

There's a very special prize in store to the first person who sets this to music and sends me a recording!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hot hot hot (and cold)

I admit it: I gave up on our pepper patch way back in September. Fortunately, it didn't give up on me.

I would blame the weather, but I'm not sure which weather to blame: the cold, wet spring; the hot, dry summer; the incessantly soggy fall; or the warm days and pleasant nights extending well into October. The peppers grew slowly and ripened late; we've had some nice hot chilis and poblano peppers on and off, but those twentysomething pimento pepper plants produced maybe one edible specimen all season long.

I gave up picking peppers after school started and I haven't really thought about them since, but the peppers kept growing. This afternoon the temperature dipped into the 40s and the forecast calls for several cold nights, so any pepper that remains on the plant will soon freeze and rot.

This evening during a break in the rain I sloshed on down to the pepper patch to pick anything still worth picking: a few underripe habaneros, a handful of jalapenos, two (!) green pimentos, a pile of lovely red and green chilis, and about a dozen of the prettiest poblano peppers you've ever seen--small, yes, but deep green and glossy enough to hang from a Christmas wreath.

About halfway through the pepper patch I found some plants still covered in blossoms. My hands were numb with cold and tingling from touching capsicum oils, but the pepper plants were still devoted to producing new fruit. I'm afraid the next few nights will put an end to their endeavors.

Now I have this big pile of peppers in my kitchen. The weather outside may have turned wintry, but inside I've got poblanos to keep me warm.

Shopping 101

It's the end of a hectic and confusing day full of many commitments and minor catastrophes and you find yourself standing in line at the grocery store trying to buy a gallon of milk before you can finally get in the car and drive home and get some supper and put up your feet and let your neck muscles begin to un-knot themselves, and the only thing standing between you and escape is the woman in front of you in line, who, despite her youth and apparent alertness, has somehow reached full adulthood without knowing how to shop.

How can this be?

How can any reasonably intelligent human being stand for eight or ten minutes in a checkout line without making any effort to locate her billfold and count her cash? With all those exhausted shoppers behind her, why does she wait until the cashier tells her the total and only then open up her immense purse and begin a desultory search through random detritus before finally happening upon her billfold? And then why does she peel off the bills as if in slow motion and dump all her change on the counter so she can count out dimes, nickels, and pennies to provide exact change?

Nothing against exact change--it's always a pleasure to get rid of the loose bits of currency clogging up purses and pockets. But if you're planning to hold up a whole line full of shoppers while you count out coins, then it might be a good idea to locate your money while the cashier is scanning your groceries. In fact, finding your money would be a great way to entertain yourself while waiting your turn in line. What else are you going to do--read soap-opera magazines? That way lies madness.

But madness also lies in trying to re-educate total strangers who have never learned how to shop in a busy store without making other shoppers so angry they're tempted to reach out and grab a soap-opera magazine so they can roll it up and batter the thoughtless shopper mercilessly about the head and shoulders. Bad shopper! Bad bad bad!

But we don't do that, do we? We stand there stoically gritting our teeth and biting our tongues and waiting patiently to pay for our purchases. We use our time well: we find our money and hold it tightly in our hands. Very tightly. Don't loosen your grip for a moment or that hand will reach for a magazine and start rolling it up.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Doomed to Dune

Learning works both ways: I teach students and students teach me. Sometimes their papers remind me of pleasures I've long forgotten, like playing jacks at recess or watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday morning, and sometimes they inspire me to read something I've never read. A few years ago a capstone student wrote a paper on House of Leaves and I felt obliged to read it so I could offer appropriate guidance, an experience I've never regretted. One of my current capstone students introduced me to Poe's Journal of Julius Rodman, which I look forward to reading if only to see how Poe plays with the conventions of the travel narrative.

And then there's Dune.

Yes, one of my students is writing about the Frank Herbert novel full of sand and spice and great big worms. I've read it before, possibly during my adolescent science-fiction phase or as an assignment in the science fiction class I took in grad school. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with science fiction, but rereading Dune is pushing me closer to the hate end of the continuum.

There is no denying that Dune is ripe for an ecocritical reading and I have no doubt that my student will produce a brilliant essay, but I don't find it fun reading--and not just because you can't even get to the first chapter without first wading through a thick glossary of names and nouns and references to historical events.

I skipped the glossary. I just don't have the energy to learn a whole new language right now.

And I'm tired of The Chosen One. Why does every science-fiction universe have to feature a Chosen One whose coming has been foretold through countless eons? And why does he have to be a raw adolescent with understanding beyond his years? And why does he have to have a half-dozen different names? The Desert Mouse, the Duke of Earl, the Dumpster-Diving Dynamo of Doom--can't anyone just call a hero Eric?

What irks me most in Dune, though, is the constant ominous tone. Every idle conversation hides a hidden meaning that may spell doom--DOOM!--for poor old Eric and his ilk. (Er, make that Paul.) Every breath our hero breathes might mean The End of the World As We Know It. If there's never a dull moment, then all moments are equally charged with potential disaster, which gets tedious. I keep wanting to grab Our Hero by the shoulders and tell him to for heaven's sake lighten up a little. Kurt Vonnegut knew how to infuse playfulness and humor into the bleakest science-fiction scenario, but Frank Herbert seems to have suffered from a severe deficiency of fun.

Unless you consider worm-riding fun. I'll admit that the giant worms are a nice touch. I just wish one of them would come along and swallow up the book so I won't have to finish reading it. I wouldn't even mind paying the library fine.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shades of gray

I walked to the upper meadow yesterday to see some fall color before everything turns dull and brown, and there I saw deer tracks, a roly-poly groundhog scuttling off into the underbrush, and this bird. It's a juvenile woodpecker of some sort, about the size of a hairy woodpecker but fluffier and with just a hint of red on the forehead and chin. Its dull gray plumage blends right in with the gray tree bark, and every time I stepped closer, it would scoot around to the other side of the tree or fly to another branch. A pretty boring way to spend a lovely afternoon, but I've been struggling with a sinus infection and that's about all the excitement I could handle.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Missing the mark

Every once in a while I like to show my students a draft of my dissertation all marked up with comments from readers. I repeatedly subjected individual chapters to rigorous proofreading, seeking and receiving substantive feedback from my committee chair and several friends who make their living writing and editing, and I revised extensively until I was certain that everything was perfect--but the penultimate draft still ended up with a word containing the letter L three times in a row.

If multiple careful readers equipped with advanced degrees can't catch an errant L, who can hope to produce error-free prose? Why do I keep encouraging students to aim for perfection if it's virtually impossible to hit the target?

Because if they can't hit the bullseye every time, I would like them to at least be allowed to stay in the contest.

Much as we'd like to deny it, much of academic life is contest: we compete for the approval of hiring committees, tenure committees, editors, grant institutions, and others with the power to make our lives wonderful or miserable. It's a bad idea to hand those readers easy reasons to reject our ideas, and if they're distracted by our inability to distinguish between its and it's, they're unlikely to be wowed by our brilliance.

Which is why I'm returning a set of sloppy papers without comments and offering students 24 hours to revise and resubmit. They probably won't see this opportunity as the gift it really is, but I'll achieve my goal if they move their writing a little closer to the target.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Safari day

When bad winter weather causes schools to close, students know how to enjoy their snow day--but how will students around Zanesville, Ohio, spend their Lions-and-Tigers-and-Bears Day?

The hunt is on for exotic animals on the loose just 45 miles north of here after officers found a wild-animal collector dead and his animals set free last night (read about it here). Several school districts in the area cancelled classes and the sheriff urged people to stay indoors while officers search for more than 40 animals, including lions, tigers, wolves, black bears (which are native to Ohio), and grizzly bears (which are not).

Right now we have more questions than answers about this incident: How did the owner die? Who opened all the animals' cages? How many animals were released? Will the remaining animals be captured or will they all be destroyed? Which poses a greater danger: a fleeing cheetah or the armed men in hot pursuit?

The sheriff urged residents to stay home and leave the big-game hunting to the experts, and I sincerely hope all those idle schoolchildren will take that advice to heart--or if they can't resist the desire to go on safari, this would be a good day to explore the wonders of the imagination.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Accounts receivable

This morning a student brought me a draft of a research proposal featuring an interesting and original thesis, well organized ideas, and a firm grasp of relevant theory, so it really doesn't matter that the draft was written on the back of a bundle of wrinkled receipts.

"I was at work," he explained. "I didn't have anything else to write on."

This morning my creative nonfiction students were chatting about what tools we need to work as writers: pens, pencils, and paper or computers, recorders, and iPads? Stacks of receipts didn't even enter the discussion, but I admire the dedication that inspires a student to lean on the counter at a retail store and scribble sophisticated ideas on whatever scraps of paper happen to be lying around.

"Of course I'll turn in the finished paper in the usual way," he said, but I'm not complaining. His unusual method reminded me that any hack with a word-processor can make vapid ideas look professional. Real writers, on the other hand, can transform mundane materials into writing that matters.

Monday, October 17, 2011

50/50 Update

In the past two months I have thrown a paper airplane at a faculty meeting, stood in the cold rain listening to music that's not at all my style, played a Monty Python clip in a literature class, worn blue sparkly nail polish to the office, attended my first-ever college football game (which we won, suggesting that I ought to attend more often), and stolen an umbrella.

Borrowed. I borrowed the umbrella, and I am fully prepared to return it as soon as the person who left it behind at a Board of Trustees committee meeting steps forward and demands that I hand it over. 

I have now reached number 20 on my 50/50 Challenge: 50 unusual, unexpected, or outrageous things to do the year I turn 50 (read about it here). I have broken no laws (unless someone gets really picky about that abandoned umbrella) and so far I haven't done anything that demands much preparation or funding, but a few of the more complicated items on my list are waiting for January, when my sabbatical begins.

Best of all, I have made some people really happy. Including me, which is sort of the point.

Autumn glow

 The setting sun provides backlighting for colorful autumn leaves, making them glow as if lit from within. Yellow dominates right now but splotches of red are beginning to appear on the hillsides. Soon the leaves will fall and merge into brown mush, but today the hills are aglow with the colors of autumn.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lyrical list

In Don Lee’s novel Wrack and Ruin, artist/welder/Brussels sprouts farmer Lyndon Song confesses to his masseuse that he stays awake nights thinking about things. 

What things? These things:
His life, money, weeds and aphids, sparks and puddles and slag, sex, his aloneness, cormorants and least terns, reality TV, blue elderberries and flannel bush and cellulose and lamina and the transparency of shed snakeskin, the fetch of wind swells, pecorino cheese, the cholo in the low-rider who had nodded and let him go through the intersection first, X-ray machines, global destruction. A few other things.
Last night I stayed awake far too long thinking not about these things but about the throbbing pain in my right foot caused by an unfortunate dishwasher-related incident. (Hint: don't dash across the kitchen with an armload of dishes without first ascertaining whether the door of the dishwasher is blocking your path.)

But at least I didn't have to think about pecorino cheese! It's amazing how a little pain can push all other worries right out of the bed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sink or swim

When the chips are down and we're stuck between a rock and a hard place in a situation that separates the men from the boys, who will step up to the plate and take one for the team?

Scratch that. In some situations, cliches simply don't help. The question at hand is this: under what circumstances am I willing to make a significant sacrifice? I would give up my place in line at the grocery store to an exhausted mom shopping with three screaming brats and I would give up a kidney to save the life of someone I love, but what about situations that fall between the two extremes?

I am willing to make sacrifices
  • that benefit people I care about
  • to achieve goals I believe in
  • to follow leaders I trust
  • to work together with others toward a common goal.
The more of these conditions are present, the larger the sacrifice I'm willing to make; likewise, my willingness to sacrifice diminishes with each bullet-point that's missing. And if the sacrifice is not voluntary but forced--well, that just makes it feel like punishment.

Which is why no one celebrates a salary freeze.

But at least we're all in the same boat.

With the water rising and boulders in the way.

Heading straight for a waterfall.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Just call me Miss Quotation

A few years ago a colleague got angry when the student newspaper published a fairly innocuous quotation in which my colleague, who has never committed a colloquialism since emerging from the womb, allegedly said that something "needs done."

"I would never say that," she insisted, and she was right but I didn't see the point in having hysterics about such a small thing--until a hack misquoted me as saying that a certain software system provides a convenient method of "distributing information out."

I would never say that! The phrase is so ugly it's polluting my page! It doesn't even sound like me! (I hope!)

But that raises the question: what do I sound like? This week I'll introduce my creative nonfiction students to voice, tone, and lyricism, elements of style that defy easy definition. We all have distinctive voices and sometimes like to play with other voices, but how do we pin down just what we mean by "voice"? We can speak with a high pitch or an angry tone or a playful mood, but how do we translate those voices to the written word without resorting to emoticons?

Word choice plays a part but it's not everything. Here is a word cloud formed from my recent blog posts. I see that I've been writing about my daughter and water and readers and the calming autumn colors suggest a peaceful walk through the woods, but the same word cloud could have been generated if I'd written a shrill rant about first wanting my daughter to drown readers in water and then going back to impact students with balloons.

But I wouldn't write that. The words are mine, but voice is made up of far more than just words. The question is, how do I communicate the concept of voice to people who think it would be perfectly normal for me to say "distribute information out"?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Breaking away

Within the first five minutes after I arrived on campus this morning, three different people asked me what I'm doing here during four-day break (which really ought to be called "extra-long weekend"--but don't get me started). Here's what I did during the first half of my so-called four-day break: 
Traveled across the state, chatted with my son, played Bananagrams (repeatedly), giggled at Galaxy Quest, rambled in the woods with my adorable daughter, photographed mushrooms and milkweed and purple asters, helped my daughter shop for an interview suit, watched my daughter and son-in-law cook, ate really good pancakes, washed dishes, enjoyed an exhilarating worship service, graded midterm exams, leaned back in a lawn chair admiring yellow leaves while composing haiku, finished reading a very long book that would have been just as tedious at half the length, allowed my daughter to paint my fingernails sparkly blue, watched some random guy photograph some random girl who was wearing a long white dress and buried in colorful leaves, drank my very first (and probably last) pumpkin spice latte, and traveled back home again.

That's enough excitement for one weekend. I need a break! Time to get back to work.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Duly noted

Why should finding my name in an endnote give me so much pleasure? Few readers will ever notice me nestled amongst all that small print in the back of the book, and the reference to my work is so brief that it's unlikely to result in a flood of new readers. Nevertheless, seeing my name pop unexpectedly from the punultimate endnote produced a little frisson of delight, a reminder that an article I wrote eight years ago and published six years ago was actually read by a scholar and made an impact on his thinking, no matter how small.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A butcher, a baker, a museum curator

What is a writer? Today my creative nonfiction students discussed essays suggesting that the writer is like a museum curator, a spelunker exploring an unknown cave, a prophet, or a healer, and we tried to develop our own brief metaphors for the writer's task: an explorer, a problem-solver, an advocate for social change. One student suggested that the writer is like a timepiece always reminding readers of the passage of time, ticking the moments from present to past as we hurry toward the future.

It wasn't an easy exercise. "Writers do too many things to fit into one sentence," said one student, while others struggled to find original ways to sum up the writer's task without resorting to cliches. I rejected my first attempt because it was too obviously stolen from a poem, and my two next efforts didn't quite satisfy me but when time was up I shared them anyway. Six writers sitting in a classroom struggling to write a single sentence crystallizing the role of the writer...this is who we are. This is what we do.

And you?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Just don't let an anvil fall on my head

Imagine that you're walking down the road and someone tosses a red water balloon straight at your face. Pretty powerful: you would not fail to notice the impact of the balloon.

But then imagine that you are walking down the road and suddenly people start throwing all kinds of things all around you: cell phones and sofas, cream pies and basketballs, water balloons, watermelons, wisteria vines, and widgets. Suddenly, that red water balloon blends in with the chaos and becomes invisible.

This, I explain to my students, is why one really vivid metaphor can be more powerful than a dozen colorful images all vying for attention. Go ahead and smack readers in the face with an effective metaphor, but if the projectiles keep coming, don't be surprised when readers run away.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Wrack, hacks, and inky courage

I griped about the quality of the AWP Writer's Chronicle last month, so it's only fair that I should applaud the current issue, which includes a bunch of interesting stuff:

1. An author interview that actually made me want to read something new. I've never read anything by Don Lee, but the interview inspired me to order his novel Wrack and Ruin. The main character raises brussels sprouts. I'm trying to remember the last time I encountered a brussels sprout farmer in a book and I'm drawing a blank.

2. A passionate essay by poet Martin Espada, who thinks poets should be less precious and more political. Commenting on Shelley's claim that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Espada writes,

Poets should have no trouble identifying with being 'unacknowledged.' They grouse about being ignored, about paltry attendance at readings and royalty statements that would cause most novelists to jump off a bridge. Yet poets also contribute to their marginalization by producing hermetic verse and living insular lives, confined to the academy or to circles of other poets, by mocking themselves as childish and unworldly, by refusing to embrace their role as unacknowledged legislators. The only antidote to irrelevancy is relevancy. The British poet Adrian Mitchell famously said: 'Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.'

3. A helpful article by Brenda Miller, "The Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction." She argues that the way to be courageous in creative nonfiction is not simply to let one's inner pain bleed all over the page but to focus on form. Caustic contents require sturdy containers; "For some writers," she says, "the conscious use of form can sometimes be the only way certain kinds of truths can be approached at all. Since these truths need to be contained more forcefully, form essentially becomes the writer's inky courage." She appreciates the "inadvertent revelations" that occur when "the essay now seems to be reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader." That's a fine line, but Miller provides some concrete examples and methods to help students achieve this kind of "inky courage."

Three good articles and a book full of brussels sprouts winging its way to my office. What's not to love?

Monday, October 03, 2011

The comma fairy would be appalled

William Bartram never met a comma he didn't like. The eighteenth-century American botanist and explorer of Florida tosses commas in the air and wherever they land, there they lie. At first I found his prose annoying, but after a while it grows almost hypnotic, as here:

I had the good fortune to collect together a sufficiency of sticks, to keep up a light and smoke, which I laid by me, and then spread my skins and blankets upon the ground, kindled up a little fire and supped before it was quite dark. The evening was however, extremely pleasant, a brisk cool breeze sprang up, and the skies were perfectly serene, the stars twinkling with uncommon brilliancy. I stretched myself along before my fire; having the river, my little harbour and the stern of my vessel in view, and now through fatigue and weariness I fell asleep, but this happy temporary release from cares and troubles I enjoyed but a few moments, when I was awakened and greatly surprised, by the terrifying screams of Owls in the deep swamps around me, and what encreased my extreme misery was the difficulty of getting quite awake, and yet hearing at the same time such screaming and shouting, which increased and spread every way for miles around, in dreadful peals vibrating through the dark extensive forests, meadows and lakes, I could not after this surprise recover the former peaceable state and tranquility of mind and repose, during the long night, and I believe it was happy for me that I was awakened, for at that moment the crocodile was dashing my canoe against the roots of the tree, endeavouring to get into her for the fish, which I however prevented.

I could quibble about just about every comma in that passage but I won't. I find myself more and more eschewing commas where formerly I would have inserted them; future readers (if there are any left) will no doubt look over my prose and gasp over the commas I've omitted, but my defense is simple: I gave my share to William Bartram.

A dose of my own medicine

When I observe a colleague's teaching in the classroom, I always give the same glib advice: "Just be yourself and pretend I'm not there."


This morning four strangers observed my classroom teaching in order to judge my worthiness for a teaching prize, and I can tell you that (1) it is impossible to overlook the presence of four extra people and a video camera in an already crowded classroom and (2) the self I can be while being observed by strangers in charge of awarding a large prize is not exactly the same as my everyday self.

For one thing, my everyday self sleeps a little better, while my observed-by-strangers self suffers from nightmares--and not just the usual first-day nightmares about arriving in class late, unprepared, naked, and with my teeth falling out, but nightmares about (shudder!) chairs. Inadequate chairs, insufficient chairs, chairs with the backs falling off, trick chairs that tip as soon as someone tries to sit in them--such are the horrors of my visitation-eve nightmares.

I taught today's class a dozen times in my dreams, all of them disastrously, but the reality was, I guess, okay. Good enough. Maybe not my best work but probably the best I could do under the circumstances.

And best of all, no chairs were injured in the teaching of this class.