Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I was late for work this morning

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Remembrance of futures past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Jingle bell time is a swell time

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thanksgiving puzzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Attack of the lounge lizards!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about one more big hurrah?!

Friday, November 18, 2011


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

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

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

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

Rise or fall?

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Come fly with me

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Restless legs

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, can somebody get me an aspirin?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Peripatetic in Prague (in pictures)

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

[drum roll, please]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

The imaginary Alp

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

On not suffering at a suffering conference

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

It could. Let me count the ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The refreshing absence of anguish over Joe Paterno.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Resilient, positively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Terrible twos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partly foggy

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 07, 2011

Dream trip

I show up on campus on the morning I'm supposed to fly to Prague and all I have to do is teach one class, grab my passport, itinerary, and computer bag, and hightail it down to the airport--but power is out all over campus and the card-readers won't work so I can't get into my building to get my passport. Trip cancelled.

Relax: it's just a nightmare. I had no problem preparing for my trip or getting into my building, and my passport is now safely tucked into my bag so all I have to do is read some drafts and teach my class and I'll be on my way to Prague.

For weeks people have been asking whether I'm excited about my trip, and I've been saying yes even when it's not remotely true. I do the same thing when they ask about my sabbatical, but the fact is that I can't allow myself to get excited about an event that I can't quite believe is actually going to happen.  It's a flaw in my emotional makeup: possible disasters, no matter how unlikely, are always more real to me than probable blessings.

I booked my flight to Prague, wrote my paper, and reserved hotel rooms while suffering from the constant fear that something disastrous would occur to prevent the trip: my travel grant request would be rejected (it wasn't); my parents' health would take a downward turn (it didn't); the Occupy people would swarm the conference venue (they haven't). Not until last Friday did I allow myself to start thinking about the people I'll see in Prague and how I'll spend my free time.

Am I excited? You bet I am. Once again, the disaster I've been preparing for has remained imprisoned within my nightmares, and I couldn't be more delighted.

Just don't ask about my sabbatical. A lot of things can happen between now and January!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Creative Nonwriting

I just heard a student accidentally refer to my nonfiction class as "Creative Nonwriting,"  but trust me on this: we won't be developing a major in Creative Nonwriting any time soon, despite its potential popularity.

Many students arrive on campus as highly accomplished nonwriters and devote four years to further developing their Creative Nonwriting skills. Some are talented enough to tackle a PhD in Creative Nonwriting. In fact, much of a PhD's process depends upon the ability to come up with creative reasons to not write, so perhaps many of my colleagues have made careers out of Creative Nonwriting.

I suppose we could design a major in Creative Nonwriting, with Intro to Excuse-Making serving as the prerequisite for Survey of Procrastination I and II, Research/Shmesearch, Technology for Nonwriting, Nonreading for Nonwriters, Nontheory of Nonwriting, and so on. Such an unusual major would sell itself (negating any need to do any advertising nonwriting), but one big obstacle stands in the way of implementing a successful Creative Nonwriting program: Who will write the course proposal?

An educated adjective

Yesterday I saw a letter (from someone smart enough to know better) that included the phrase "an educated populous." An educated populace ought to know the difference between populous (an adjective) and populace (a noun), even though they are indistinguishable when spoken: A populous city has a large populace. See? Easy.

More writers might be aware of the distinction if the words were used more frequently in writing, but the Google N-Gram Viewer indicates that the use of the words in books has declined steadily in the past two centuries

Of course, both words appear in such a teeny percentage of printed texts that the difference is not as dramatic as it might look. And of course this chart does not indicate whether the words are used correctly; for that, let's see how many times these phrases appear in a basic Google search:

an educated populous: 33,300 hits
an educated populace: 505,000 hits

So the general populace seems to be getting it right most of the time, but those 33,300 hits disturb me. Who are these people? The first hit led to an article with the phrase an educated populace in the title, so why did it show up at the top of the list for an educated populous?

Then I looked at the web address. Bingo: an educated populous was part of the url. Who got it wrong: the original author, the headline writer, or the tech person?

Many of the hits under "an educated populous" came from blogs, which is not surprising (and new searches will lead to this one as well!), but I was a little surprised to see an educated populous in this official statement on the site of a teachers' association: "Public education benefits all of us, from the children whose lives it enriches, to the rest of us, who, though out of school, reap the benefits of an educated populous."

Except for those whose education fails to introduce the difference between populous and populace. Time to go reap some more benefits of education, people! Let's not be part of the 33,300!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Follow the breadcrumbs

At a teaching workshop this morning, a colleague inspired an idea for an assignment in an upper-level literature class: Follow the Breadcrumbs. Make students read an academic journal article and choose a source cited in that article; read the cited source and choose another source it cites; follow the breadcrumbs back through five or six sources and then write some kind of short paper analyzing the scholarly conversation. Would this work? Would students simply select the shortest/easiest sources or would they engage deeply with challenging ideas? I'm accepting suggestions.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A time to tweak

Every time I mention this particular project, someone wants to tweak it some more. Frankly, I'm tired of tweaking. There's a time to tweak and there's a time to be done tweaking, and I am done.

Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season--a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to mourn and a time to dance--but it doesn't say anything about tweaking or other important activities:

A time to tweak and a time to be done tweaking.

A time to speak and a time to speak a little louder.

A season for keeping the snow shovel by the front door and a season wherein the snow shovel should be kept out of sight. 

A time to fidget and a time to sit on your hands.

A time to change the channel and a time to hide the remote.

A week to relax and a year to pay for all the relaxing.

A time for keeping something yummy bubbling in the crock-pot all day long and a time for stashing the crock-pot in the closet.

A time to write blog posts about times and seasons and a time to close the computer and go home to enjoy whatever's bubbling in the crock-pot.