Saturday, March 31, 2012

From blobs to blooms

The infamous xylobolus blob.
The highlight of my day might have been the moment when my colleague darted off into the woods exclaiming, "Look! A blob of xylobolus!"

And she meant it.

Xylobolus, as I'm sure you're aware (right!), grows on oak and is sometimes called ceramic parchment fungus. It looks--well, blobby. I would have walked right past it if I hadn't been tromping through woods and muddy streams with a trained botanist.

Earthstar fungus.
I would have walked right past the jelly fungus too because it looked like a wad of icky goo stuck to the side of a branch, but it's dry to the touch and feels like fine paper. In the middle of a stream my colleague suddenly stooped and pounced on a rock and crowed, "Liverwort!" And nearby she showed me a star-shaped fungus clinging to the side of a damp rock. It's called an earthstar but it looks extraterrestrial or aquatic, as if it's about to burst out singing "Under the Sea." 

The weather was cool enough for coats and hats and wet enough to thoroughly muddy up our hiking boots, but recent warm temperatures led to early blooms for some spring wildflowers. We saw twinleaf and bloodroot already past the blossom stage, and elsewhere we saw hillsides festooned with blue-eyed mary or  lovely yellow celandine poppies. Deep in the ravine we ran across rarer specimens: perfoliate bellwort and trout lilies just barely blooming,  mertensia and spring larkspur vying to produce the most abundant blue blossoms.

Squirrel corn. Note the little nodules belowground.
Everywhere we saw moss and ferns (maidenhair fern, Christmas fern, walking fern, club fern--which isn't a fern at all despite the name). I learned to distinguish dutchman's breeches from squirrel corn (darker leaves and more delicate heart-shaped flowers) and I even learned why it's called squirrel corn (because the roots produce these little corn-shaped nodules just beneath the soil's surface). We saw hepatica and rue anemone and waterleaf, foamflower and squawroot and two kinds of trilliums.

Sessile trillium.
I was the one who spotted the sessile trilliums, a discovery that me ridiculously happy. For an hour or more I'd been blindly stumbling past earthstars and liverwort and blobs of xylobolus and then feeling really blind and ignorant when my colleague pointed them out, so I got a little excited when I saw these mottled leaves and subtle violet flowers and said, "Is this some sort of trillium?"

Yes! A new type of trillium to know and love! Woo-hoo! It's not exactly a blob of xylobolus, but nevertheless it made my day.

Not jellyfish--jelly fungus.

Blue-eyed mary.

That blue-eyed mary gets around!

Club fern. (Neither a club nor a fern.)
Celandine poppies.
Squirrel corn on the left, dutchman's breeches on the right.

Fern fiddleheads unfurling.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Cited and delighted

I'm just grumbling my way through the latest issue of a literary journal, registering the usual complaints about the ubiquitous stiff and lifeless thesis statements following the "In this essay I will show" model and the prevalence of flat analyses and uninspiring writing, when suddenly the page lights up. I see my name--and not in a footnote! Right there at the start of a long paragraph that understands and engages with my ideas! Properly cited, too! Suddenly it seems there's hope for academic writing.

I suppose the slow pace of academic publishing heightens the pleasure produced when our work is finally noticed. Pour all your efforts into producing a worthy article, submit it to an appropriate journal, endure the inevitable wait period and perhaps a few rounds of "revise-and-resubmit," wait wait wait for the eventual publication, and then--silence. Is anyone reading? Does anyone care? Or is your brilliant work just another line on the vita?

So how delightful to discover that my ideas didn't just fall off the edge of the earth but instead inspired another scholar to advance the conversation. Let's see, the article he cited was published in 2008, but it had been submitted at least a year earlier and was based on a section of my dissertation that I'd been fiddling with since--oh, the late 1990s I suppose. That's a long time to spend throwing out a conversational bon mot and awaiting a reply. It's like communicating across the galaxy using only smoke signals and hoping someone out there will eventually understand and respond.

But when a response finally arrives--well, then it's time to give a little whoop and holler, even if I've long since moved on to composing the next message.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The game is underfoot

So I'm out at the big-box store looking for a rug for my new office (because making plans for my new office distracts me from my distress over losing my old office) and my heart isn't really in it because all the affordable rugs look pretty similar--same range of geometric shapes, same range of colors--but I manage to narrow it down to three rugs that would suit just fine and then I have to decide: the vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright stained-glass pattern, the swoopy curvy colorful shapes, or the muted misshapen checks. Not one of them really makes me stand up and sing, but singing isn't really part of my office repertoire. All I need is something to walk all over and all three are within the right price range, so how do I pick? Draw straws? Throw dice? I don't know how to play rock/paper/scissors with a rug.

Then my eyes land on the names of the rugs. All these patterns have names, of course, not Fred and Norm and Valerie but names reminiscent of apartment complexes: Green Leaf, Winchester, Halsey Court, Fireside. The names of two of the finalists are so generic I've already forgotten them, but the third stands out:


How could an English professor say no to a rug called Scrabble?

Come summertime, this rug is MINE! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The longest story never told

"It was the longest book I've never read" was what I thought the student said, but how would he know? He'd have to start with a list of every book ever written, cross off all the ones he has already read, and then find the longest remaining title on the list--which could easily change the next time a monolithic tome gets published. How could anyone possibly know the title of the longest book he's never read?

But of course that's not what he said. I heard "never" when he said "ever." He said the longest book he's ever read is Vanity Fair, so apparently he's never tackled Tolstoy. But he made me wonder: if I can't possibly name the longest book I've never read, what about the longest book I've never read that I ought to have read?

This is where I have to confess that I never finished The Magic Mountain (904 pages), never started Infinite Jest (1104), and never even thought about reading 2066 (912). I'm most embarrassed about Magic Mountain because it was on the reading list for my comprehensive exams. I read everything else on the list, including Bleak House (560), War and Peace (1296), Middlemarch (800), Ulysses (612), and Remembrance of Things Past (3200)--and I even made it all the way through Main Street, comprising a mere 360 pages so dull they seem like 3600.

But I never made it more than halfway up Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. I believe that's the only required book assigned throughout my academic career that I simply could not force myself to finish reading. Good thing it never came up on my comprehensive exams. (Shh! Don't tell or they might revoke my Ph.D.!) 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bigger on the inside

As much as I hate the thought of packing up all my books and saying goodbye to my beautiful big windows and sage-green walls, I'm getting ready to move to a new office. My three-year term in the Worthington Center is coming to a close so at some point this summer I'll invite all my friends to a moving party so we can shift all my stuff across campus.

My new office is in an older building--built the year I was born, so I wouldn't call it decrepit. Seasoned, yes; a bit eccentric in spots, certainly; but not exactly an antique. The best office available is oddly shaped: taller than it is wide, with a window set so high in the wall that you'd have to climb up the bookshelves to get a good look out, and then you'd just see the feet of passersby. It's a basement office, but it's in a great neighborhood, surrounded by friendly and interesting people.

To make the room less cramped and dungeon-like, I'll paint the walls a sunshiny shade, bring in a colorful rug, and get rid of any excess furniture. (Four filing cabinets? Who needs four filing cabinets?) I'd like to ask the physical plant to blast out a big part of the outer wall, shove the dirt to the side, and install a walk-out porch--or wait, the ceiling is surely high enough to allow the installation of a loft!

I'm dreaming, of course--but wouldn't it be great to find a way to make my office bigger on the inside than it is on the outside? Sort of like a Tardis--which would also simplify the task of moving all those books. Where's Doctor Who when I need him?