Friday, December 30, 2011

Season's questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps this?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Aimless bullet-points of puttering

Over the past three days, I have:

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Whitehead pays witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A little light in the darkness

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Escaping the conflagration

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

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

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

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

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

Men at work

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sitting pretty

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

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

Sign me up!

Monday, December 19, 2011

In grading jail

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

Brown, Joe. 1993. Jail.

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

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

No wonder grading invades my dreams.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm dreaming of a white ceiling

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Diversionary tactics

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

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

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

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

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

Nah. Let's play Solitaire!

Graze your way through finals week

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I hear sabbatical calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

My favorite (Christmas) things

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

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

Mannheim Steamroller CDs.

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

Fuzzy red socks.

Fingernails shining with bright red nail polish topped with glitter.

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

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

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

Handel's Messiah, again.

Stirring fudge.

Packing fudge in boxes to send to people I love.

Eating fudge.

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

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

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

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

Christmas cookies.

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

Wrapping packages.

Sending packages.

Getting packages in the mail.

Playing board games with friends and family.

Holiday chai. 

Christmas cantatas.

Christmas Eve candlelight services.

Advent wreaths.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Airing out the exhaust fumes

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

This morning's serving of Spam

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


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

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

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

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

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

I love the smell of eggnog in the morning

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

[Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Mouse tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 05, 2011

Return of the Volvomice

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

It was a mouse squeaking.

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

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

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

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

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

In the car.

With the mouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 02, 2011

Out to lunch

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

So here's some time-wasting silliness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

When it finally clicks

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

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

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