Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Singing the deluge blues

A few years ago a newly hired colleague asked, "Does it rain in Marietta all the time?"

"No," I said. "Only when you're here."

Sad but true. That poor guy--he came from out of state and taught for us during a highly unusual year year in which we endured two hundred-year floods three months apart. He lived in a lovely house that was usually located near the river and only occasionally in the river. He was here just one year, but I'm sure he tells all his friends that it always rains in southeastern Ohio.

This winter feels like a replay of that wet season. Today we're under a tornado watch and a flash flood advisory, but I took advantage of the one brief hour of sunshine between downpours to visit the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge and see what I could see.

The answer is: not much. It was the wrong time of day and the wrong season of the year to see many birds, although the chickadees were out in force and I saw a few eastern bluebirds. The walk along the river was soothing, though, and the silence helped me clear my brain. No one was out fishing or birding or hiking or boating, which was probably wise given the weather.

I drove home through a deluge that decreased visibility pretty close to zero, and now the sky is shifting among ominous shades of gray. Rain again? All the time.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Fumbling in memory's closet

It doesn't matter how strenuously I'm working out during my exercise class: when the CD gets to "Eye of the Tiger," I smile, and I may even laugh if my lungs aren't otherwise occupied. I used to associate the song with high school football games, but then one of the students on the California Lit trip dreamed up (literally) entirely new lyrics, and then when she reported the dream (and the lyrics) to the rest of us, we laughed.

Here's the thing: I don't even remember the lyrics or which student dreamed them up. All I remember is the flash of joy the lyrics brought to the group, and it's that joy the song recovers for me.

A similar thing happened this morning when I heard the familiar doot-doot-doot-do-DO-do-do-doot-doot rhythm coming through the speakers and suddenly I was transported back to a junior-high math class in which a friend was trying to teach me the steps to the Hustle. I couldn't do it then and wouldn't want to try now, but "The Hustle" inevitably takes me back to that moment when a cheerleader stepped outside her usual social stratum and tried to teach me to dance. (In math class. Don't even ask.)

Now that cheerleader sat in front of me in that class for most of the year, which is how we got to be good enough friends so that she would buy me a Pet Rock for my birthday, and then when she was killed in a car wreck a few months later, I skipped classes so I could go to the funeral. I still have the Pet Rock (in its original box so maybe it's worth something, but the box is a bit battered so maybe not). The rock's name is Marvin.

The cheerleader's name? No idea. "The Hustle" brings her face back to me as clearly as if we were still standing in Miss Fike's algebra class, but her name has fallen into that black hole hidden in the darkest corner of memory's closet.

Music provides a powerful key to that closet, bringing to light scenes that have been lurking in the shadows unnoticed for years, but it also reveals the existence of the black hole. Who knows what's down there? For all I know, my old cheerleader friend is in that undiscovered country singing comical new lyrics to "Eye of the Tiger."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A strictly gnome-free vessel

A few years ago when one of my colleagues learned he would be receiving our top teaching prize, he announced the news to his friends thus: "We're gettin' a boat!"

When people ask me what I'll do with the prize, I'm generally a little more subdued, mumbling about deferred maintenance and new ceiling tiles and the crack across my front porch slab. But today I have to shout a little bit because I just made the final payment on a hospital bill I've been nibbling away at since 2009. That's right: we may not be gettin' a boat, but we're gettin' a bill paid off! A bill that has been sitting on my shoulders like a malicious gnome constantly reminding me of the pain and distress associated with surgery and chemotherapy and radiation and all the other horrors of that wretched time. But thanks to my teaching prize, I have paid the bill and banished the gnome. Woo-hoo!

How shall I celebrate? By gettin' a boat!

Not a great big speedboat for cruising the river or a clunky catamaran or a fishing boat or even a rowboat. I realized last week that what I needed to get closer to those eagles was a nice slow quiet canoe. We live a mile from a scenic river and we have a roof rack suitable for hauling a canoe--it wouldn't even have to be brand-new. I'm keeping my eyes open for a used canoe for two--woo-hoo! We're gettin' a boat!

There's only one rule: no gnomes allowed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Non-complaint noncompliance

Cold wind whipped and whistled around the church this evening and the temperature inside was not much warmer--45 degrees. Apparently no one informed the programmable thermostat that we might want some warmth at the Ash Wednesday service.

Not that I am complaining. Much. I keep promising myself that I'll try to give up complaining for Lent but before you know it I'm complaining about how difficult it is to stop complaining. I'm tired of hearing myself gripe (she griped). Please, someone, make it stop!

I'll start by not complaining about how cold it was in church. Maybe shivering in a freezing sanctuary is the right way to start the season of self-denial. At least I had a warm coat! With a hood! And gloves! And a blanket! And besides, all that shivering led some interesting vibrato to the singing and extra texture to the ashes marking my forehead.

But I'm not complaining! Merely reporting the facts as I see them, objectively and without rancor. At least that's what I'm telling myself. When I cross the line from reporting to complaining, I'm sure someone will tell me.

First, though, tell me this: is it technically considered a complaint if I complain that not complaining is my cross to bear?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A no-brainer--for now

Okay ladies, here's a quiz:

You've put it off long enough, but it's time to schedule that mammogram! Fortunately, two excellent local medical facilities are competing for your business, both accepting your health insurance. How do you decide where to go?

Which would you prefer to hear:
A. "Who's next?"
B. "So good to see you again. Come right back here and make yourself comfortable."

You're going to have to put on one of those horrible hospital gowns, but where would you prefer to sit while wearing it:
A. In a drafty corridor where busy people dressed in professional attire keep passing by and trying not to notice that you're sitting there in a flimsy pastel garment that reveals more flesh than you normally show in public.
B. In a private room in the presence of the technician--and no one else.

It's time to step up to the big bad machine--and maybe both medical facilities use the same big bad machine, but the people who run them have different skill sets. Which technician would you rather have manhandling your tender girly parts:
A. The highly efficient technician who causes so much pain you wonder whether she trained by repeatedly slamming a garage door down on a grapefruit.
B. The slow and gentle technician who has learned the secret of squeezing grapefruits without making them burst, who somehow manages to squash your breasts without causing more than a modicum of discomfort.

I don't know about you, but I'm choosing B every time; in fact, the only people I can imagine choosing A are those who are unaware that other options exist. Yes, it is possible to get a pain-free mammogram!

For now.

The slow and gentle technician told me this morning that the B practice has been purchased by medical facility A, but it's too early to know what that will mean for the future. Will the B people teach the A people how to make mammograms less unpleasant? Or will the force of the larger A facility lead inevitably to a pervasive mediocrity of service?

Only time will tell--but as long as it makes a real difference, I'm choosing B for better breast care.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Feathered tales

Where I saw random scattered feathers, my colleague saw a story: "This looks like an owl's feather caught on this thorn, but down here I see dark bars, and look at these rusty-brown spots. Could be a Cooper's Hawk, but it looks like the predator became prey."

She followed the trail of feathers to a tree and then looked up and pointed. "See the feathers caught on that branch? The owl sat up there and tore the hawk to pieces."

This is the advantage of going out bird-watching with an expert: she sees what the birds are doing even when they're not actually present.

In just a few hours at two local wetlands today we saw a host of cormorants, great blue herons, mallard ducks, hooded mergansers, kingfishers, assorted gulls and little brown birds, and one fat muskrat.

And did I mention the pair of bald eagles?

At first I had to take the eagles on faith. To the naked eye they looked like black lumps on a distant tree, and my telephoto lens just made them look like slightly larger black lumps. My colleague's high-powered binoculars rendered the lumps more birdlike, but she was certain their size and color marked them as eagles.

I was less certain until I got home and enhanced the photo. They're eagles all right--a little blurry but eagles nevertheless.

If I'd been bumbling about on my own, those black lumps in the trees would have remained black lumps--I wouldn't have looked twice or known what I was seeing. And later I wouldn't have understood the evidence of the battle of the owl and the Cooper's Hawk, nor would I have diagnosed the cause of the wedge missing from the trunk of a big dead tree. (Beavers!)

Through careful attention I'm learning to see what's happening in the woods and wetlands around me, but spending the afternoon with a real expert opened my eyes to how much I still have to learn. Binoculars are helpful only if you know where to point them and how to interpret what they reveal, how to translate scattered feathers and lumpy black blotches into a story, an image, and a truth.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Three cheers for shoes! (And other stuff)

YES that was me standing on the stage at Founders' Day last night, but I'm not sure what all the fuss was about. Probably my shoes. In my expert opinion as an arbiter of fashion, I maintain that it doesn't matter what you wear under all your academic regalia or what color your robe is or whether you've got blue velvet chevrons on the sleeves or brown and orange satin lining the hood or a wee gold tassel on your silly velvet hat--no, none of that matters as long as you're wearing super-cute shoes. And if your shoes are as cute as mine were last night,  your colleagues just won't be able to hold back the applause.

Of course, they may have had something else to clap about, like that prize thing. You know, that little teaching award. No big deal. Well okay, maybe it's sort of a big deal. And if the college press release wants to call it the "highest honor of the evening," who am I to quibble? All I can do is express my gratitude to everyone who made this honor possible (well, not everyone or we'd be here all night): Thank you for the applause. Thank you for your confidence in me. Thank you for the $support$. 

And thank you for giving me a great excuse to step out in my super-cute shoes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mostly true (unless it isn't)

In "Facts are Stupid," Dan Kois examines the ongoing debate about truth vs. fact in creative nonfiction, making a compelling case for the need for trust between author and reader. I can't tell you exactly how he twists the knife in your gut at the end; you'll just have to read it for yourself (here). But I will raise the question: are readers more likely to trust a writer who reveals his inaccuracies or one who denies them?

Of course there's an important distinction between outright untruth and exaggeration for comic effect--or at least I hope there is. (But what if that's a specious claim? What if the toaster manual I recently ridiculed was only 20 pages long instead of 40? Will revealing that inaccuracy destroy my readers' trust?) "Some inaccuracies are good for business," claims the Foundling Father in The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks: "Take the stovepipe hat! Never really worn indoors but people dont like their Lincoln hatless."

Truth hurts--but so does falsehood. My commitment to telling the truth may have initially arisen from an innate inability to lie convincingly. I won't claim that I cannot tell a lie, but I know that any lie I tell will make my head hurt and my heart race, and I'm convinced that a lie will telegraph its falsehood as if in blinking neon lights on my forehead. (But what if I'm lying right now about my inadequacy as a liar? How would you know?)

So while I'm pretty good at telling the truth, I'm even better at not telling the whole truth. More than 20 years as a pastor's wife have trained me to bite my tongue and keep big chunks of truth to myself. I haven't mentioned publicly, for instance, the campus brouhaha that's currently making me grind my few remaining molars into dust. (Would a fact-checker challenge that statement? If I tell you that I'm missing two molars and the ones that remain are so badly cracked that my dentist keeps asking me whether I've ever fallen face-first out of a third-story window, will you believe me or assume that I'm exaggerating to win sympathy?)

Dan Kois convinces me that writing effective nonfiction requires a commitment to both truth and fact, but that commitment needn't crowd out creativity, comedy, and art. If facts alone could speak for themselves, we wouldn't need writers; we would just point out the window toward the big wide world and say, "See for yourself!" But when a nonfiction writer tosses facts out the window, that's when he ought to lose my trust.

(Unless he doesn't--and then what do I do?)   

Monday, February 13, 2012

The hard work of healing

My surgeon's eyes lit up when he examined the incision left behind by my port removal. "Wow!" he said. "That really healed up nicely!"

"Thanks," I said. "Healing nicely is one of my hidden talents. I worked really hard to get it right."


If anyone ought to be thanked, it's the surgeon--he did, after all, make that incision and stitch (and glue) it back together. All I did was lie there obliviously while I was anesthetized and afterward refrain from scratching when it itched. I'm not sure my inaction contributed much to the final outcome.

But hey, compliments are hard to come by these days, so if my surgeon insists on commending me for healing up so nicely, who am I to object? And while you're at it, go ahead and congratulate me for how splendidly I manage to keep my blood flowing, my peristalsis proceeding, my joints bending, and my toenails growing. I'm just full of hidden talents!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Welcome to Epiphany City

Yesterday morning I woke up with an epiphany, a sudden understanding about how I will frame the argument in my current writing project. This is always an exciting step in any writing project--the moment when a nebulous mass of ideas starts to crystallize around a core insight that will shape my work from this point on.

Epiphanies like that come along only after proper preparation; all the reading, thinking, talking, writing, and traveling I've been doing created the right conditions for the production of epiphanies. I'll have to work pretty hard to transform a momentary epiphany into a polished journal article, but that's what my sabbatical is for. For once, a great idea won't get shoved aside by committee work, grading, and all the petty annoyances of the academic life.

That's the magic of the sabbatical. I'm living in Epiphany City, where ideas can come out and play without fear that shopkeepers will shoo them off the sidewalk.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Final rusting place

If I found a rusted hulk of a classic muscle car plonked down in the middle of my sodden potato field, I believe I'd call it an art installation, charge admission, and open a gift shop offering colorful postcards, bronze reproductions, and silk-screened scarves plus occasional appearances by the reclusive artist, Mephisto Limpet, who would earnestly intone pretentious twaddle about "interrogating the scintillating liminal continuum linking the conception, as it were, of the virgin-soil-qua-final-resting/rusting-place with the exhaustion of the catalytic vision of mobility stopped, as it were, in its tracks by the feeble hedonistic vacuity demonstrated in the post-industrial pre-apocalyptic anti-pre-postmodernist whatness of the artifact returning, as it were, to its natural elements."

But it is not my art installation or my potato field or my rusting hulk of a classic muscle car, so all I can do when I walk past is to utter a silent homage to the Ford Fairlane meeting its final reward: may it rust, as it were, in peace.


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

In a jam

Yesterday I received hearty congratulations on a major milestone: the adoption of a new toaster. The thick multilingual manual greets me with "Congratulations on your purchase of an OSTER Toaster," as if buying a toaster merited a ticker-tape parade and a medal the size of a hubcap.

I'm not sure who needs a 40-page manual to learn how to operate a toaster (Conociendo Su Tostadora!), but I don't intend to read the whole thing. I have seen Groundhog Day, so I don't need to be reminded that it's a bad idea to use my new toaster in the bathtub--although maybe that would be a great place to use the old toaster. Nobody warned me not to!

Anyone who needs to be told repeatedly in writing to "Press the toast button if you are going to toast bread" probably shouldn't be permitted to own a toaster, especially considering the manual's stern warning that "Toasted food can be very hot." (Isn't this the whole POINT of a toaster? I mean, the reason we had to retire the old toaster was that it got out of the habit of producing heat, which transformed it into a clunky decorative item with little practical use. If the need arose I suppose I could toss it at an intruder, but what would stop the intruder from simply tossing it back? I can't keep a nonfunctional toaster clogging up the kitchen just on the off chance that I might someday want to play Toss the Toaster with a masked stranger!)

But I digress.

My new toaster has entered the Internet age: it comes equipped with directions for accessing the Oster Inspire Club, an online forum promising "Exclusive access to recipes, entertaining ideas, and exciting new products." Entertaining with a toaster? Sign me up!

A quick search for toaster-related recipes results in the luscious-sounding Toaster Petite Italian Hazelnut Chocolate Spread Puffs, but further exploration reveals that this recipe requires a toaster OVEN, which is a different animal entirely. If I had purchased an Oster Toaster Oven, Oster Inspire could inspire me to entertain a glittering assemblage of friends with Spa Pizza (prebaked pizza shells, one sliced tomato, and a dollop of goat cheese) or Meatloaf Enrobed in Mashed Potatoes. (Is this a bathrobe-themed party or what?)

For plain old toasters, though, Oster Inspire offers nothing except helpful hints about what the "bagel" button is for. (Toasting bagels. Who knew?) If I want to use my new toaster to entertain my friends, I'll have to come up with my own recipes. Whole-wheat toast with raspberry jelly, anyone? How about a nice bagel with cream cheese?

Be careful! Toasted foods can be very hot!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Sirens vs. silence

Every once in a while I wonder how much easier my life would be if I lived in town instead of out here in the sticks. Just think of it: I could have city water and sewer service instead of a cranky well and septic tank, and if I accidentally left something important at my office, I could just zip over there and grab it instead of carefully weighing the time and energy costs of driving 20 miles each way. If I lived in town I would be surrounded by people and cars instead of possums and coons, and if I needed help, I could find some pretty quickly.

I wouldn't have to walk a quarter mile to pick up my mail.

I wouldn't get stuck at home in winter weather. Instead, I would have to go to work. (Score one for living in the sticks!)

If I lived in town I wouldn't find the neighbor's cows wandering through the yard, and I wouldn't have to worry about whether my driveway might be under water after heavy rains because I wouldn't have a creek.

Right: no long walks along the water's edge to fill my ears with the sound of the creek splashing over rocks. No kingfishers swooping above the water's surface, and no great blue herons wading in the shallows where the little fishes live. No golden sunshine reflecting off the surface of the water or shining on the mottled bark of tall sycamore trees.

In town I might have many other things--convenience stores, for instance, and trick-or-treaters at Halloween--but I wouldn't have a creek. I need a creek, and I need a meadow and a piney woods and a butterfly garden and silence. In town I could listen to the sounds of sirens and passing cars, but in the sticks I hear the creek, the birds, the wind, the silence.

All things considered, I think I'll stick with the sticks.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Doing our homework

College professors of all stripes moan and groan about students' unwillingness to read, but try to organize a faculty event requiring a little reading and what happens?

Nobody shows up.

Well, usually. In the past when I've planned book discussions or teaching workshops requiring just a smidgen of advance reading, attendance has been abysmal. Apparently, faculty members don't like to do homework any more than students do.

But today was different. Since September, we've given away free copies of Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift to close to half of the faculty on our campus, and we've talked it up at every workshop and event sponsored by the Worthington Center for Teaching Excellence. We lined up two excellent colleagues to lead the discussion and served lunch to participants--all 24 of them. That's nearly a quarter of our full-time faculty, and certainly more than we've ever attracted for a book discussion. And even more have registered to attend the discussion of the second half of the book two weeks from now.

Was it the book's controversial content that reeled in so many of my colleagues or was it the free lunch? Were they so awed by the cool bookmarks publicizing the event that they simply couldn't stay away? Who knows? But as the discussion veered today toward questions about how to motivate students to study outside of class, I wanted to ask my colleagues: what motivated you to do your homework for today's discussion? Bottle up that motivation and sell it on the open market and we'll all make a bundle.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On reading bad books

Life is too short to waste time reading bad books, and yet I sometimes find myself slogging through a book I'd really rather throw through a plate-glass window. Why?

Sometimes a bad book provides valuable context for a better book. Want to understand the convoluted logic of the Old Plantation Myth that enticed readers of popular American fiction from around 1890 to 1920? Then you're going to have to hold your nose and read Thomas Dixon's wretched novel The Leopard's Spots, full of abhorrent racist rhetoric that inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. When I introduce students to the Old Plantation Myth to help them understand Charles Chesnutt's subversive short stories, I tell them, "I read Thomas Dixon so you don' t have to."

Sometimes a badly written book is a gift from a friend or colleague who is likely to ask me for a response, and I'd better read the whole thing so I can locate the bright shining moments to mention in conversation. (And if you think I'm planning to mention any titles or authors, think again.)

Sometimes a bad book is just silly enough to provide lightweight comic relief in an other wise gloomy week. Many of the self-published books sent to me by earnest strangers seeking my affirmation fall in this category, offering up mixed metaphors and sentences of such clunkiness that they make me laugh--but that doesn't mean I'll read the whole thing. If you haven't hooked me by the end of the first chapter, it goes into the recycling pile. (Sorry, self-published authors: I know there's some talent out there, but editors exist for a reason!)

Sometimes a bad book holds out the hope that it just might get a whole lot better, but by the time I realize it's a hopeless case, I'm too far in to turn back. Recently, for instance, I've received in the mail piles of unsolicited books from writers who read about my California Literature class in the Los Angeles Times and think my students would enjoy reading their work. Some of them are good and some are not half bad, but today I read a flimsy novel that is, essentially, a pale imitation of Nathanael West, and not even the mature Nathanael West who wrote The Day of the Locust but the juvenile West of The Secret Life of Balso Snell. We don't need another Nathanael West, number one, and number two, even if we needed another Nathanael West, we certainly don't need any pale imitations of Balso Snell.

But I think I'm done reading bad books for a little while at least. I would bet that the number of bad books I've read in my lifetime exceeds the total number of books most of my English majors have read. I've reached my quota; it's time for someone else to take over. Bad books, anyone? Just say the word and I'll send one on its way.

All I really want right now something to drink. Water, orange juice, tea, coffee, whatever--I just really want a drink. And some breakfast. I know for a fact that there's a little leftover veggie pizza in the fridge, and that would suit me right down to my toes.

But I am under strict orders: nothing to eat or drink after midnight. How will I make it through the morning with no caffeine? I'll be a basket case by the time I get to the hospital.

Yes: it's finally port-removal day! That handy little chunk of plastic installed beneath my skin to assist in the delivery of chemotherapy drugs has got to, and good riddance!

My surgeon tells me that the port is much easier to remove than to install, but it still requires anesthesia, boo hiss. I have requested something other than propofol, which provided Michael Jackson with a dose of euphoria (and death) but only gave me vertigo so severe I couldn't turn my head without getting seasick. I have to get to the hospital two hours early (!) for a ten-minute procedure that will eat up my afternoon, and I can't eat or drink a thing until it's over.

I intend to spend my morning not thinking about all the things I'd like to eat and drink. I won't think, for instance, about orange juice, chai latte, pineapple chunks, veggie pizza, peanut butter sandwiches, or water. This is me not thinking about water. Water water water water water. Someone get me some water! It's all I really want right now!