Monday, April 30, 2012

A sabbatical shout-out

I'm back on campus this morning after spending four days never setting foot outside my front door (sick, bleh) and one of my wonderful colleagues comes up to me with a big smile, pats me on the back, and says, "I can't believe your sabbatical is over already!"

Thanks. Thanks a lot. I can't quite believe it either. I look back and tote up how much I've accomplished since January and I feel pretty good--until I notice those pesky bits of my project that remain incomplete. Kind of important pesky bits.

Then I remind myself that I still have all summer, except for the parts set aside for working in the garden, preparing for four fall classes (two of them brand-new!), teaching my online course (provided that at least three more people register), and spending a week sequestered in a secret bunker in an undisclosed location reading and evaluating hundreds upon hundreds of essays written for the standardized test that dares not speak its name. (The contract I signed includes a confidentiality clause so convoluted that I keep expecting Q to pop up and issue special cat-eye glasses spangled with jewels capable of emitting laser beams strong enough to incinerate intruders at 20 paces--and if I'm allowed to choose my own Q, I choose John Cleese.)

So yes, I've got all summer, except it's no different from any other summer except that I'll need to squeeze in the last little bits of my sabbatical work. Sabbaticalsummer. Summsabbaticaler. Sabbatisummicaler. Whatever. All I know is that it's all over but the shouting so we may as well shout.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A fine whine

Here's a challenge: open a childproof aspirin bottle with one hand tied behind your back--or if you lack rope or you don't want to put your loved ones to the trouble of tying you up because it's 2 a.m. and they're all sound asleep, just imagine that your left hand hurts so badly that the mere thought of grasping an aspirin bottle makes you feel faint and you need a little something to take the edge off the pain so you can get back to sleep and you know aspirin won't help much because last night you took a Percoset and all it did was make you dopey without putting a dent in the pain, so you stumble to the kitchen gently cradling your tender throbbing left hand to your chest and grab the aspirin bottle (with its childproof cap that's hard enough to open when you're not in pain) and open it up.

With one hand.

Because the other hand HURTS.

What have I done to my hand?

How could I have injured any body part this badly without being aware of it?

That's one of life's little mysteries. There's just a faint bruise and a tiny bit of puffiness--and the pain. Let us not overlook the pain.

Do you want to know what this pain reminds me of? Well I'm going to tell you anyway: it reminds me of the time I dropped a book on my foot. It was a big book, a bound volume containing a year's run of a weekly community newspaper, which slid out of my hand and landed with the narrow edge right on top of my left foot, which immediately started to turn colors and swell up like a Macy's parade balloon. Fortunately, there was an Emergency Medical Technician present to provide prompt medical care. He took one look at my ballooning foot and said, "You ought to get someone to look at that."

So helpful!

But I did get someone to look at it and the verdict was nothing broken but lots of what they called "soft tissue damage." Do you want to know how long it took my foot to get back to normal size and usefulness?

Well I'm going to tell you anyway: a full year. Twelve months. In the meantime, my injury led directly to my being cussed out by the mother of an Eagle Scout--and trust me, you haven't been cussed out until you've been cussed out by the mother of an Eagle Scout. She was upset because I didn't show up to take photos at her son's Eagle Scout ceremony. I apologized for inconsiderately spending the afternoon at the emergency room getting x-rays, but what could I tell her? "I dropped a book on my foot"?

Frankly, the cussing out felt appropriate. My foot was already screaming at me, so why shouldn't everyone else? 

Now my hand is screaming at me in the same annoying way, except without the swelling and the vivid colors. What did I do to my hand? I don't know, but I'll tell you what I can't do with it: open an aspirin bottle.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Please don't feed the vultures

They look scalped and angry, with sharp talons ready to eviscerate anything that sits still long enough to look deceased. No matter how you look at 'em, vultures ain't pretty.

So why would I want to keep looking?

This pair and I observed each other carefully at a local wetland this morning. I kept trying not to look like roadkill while they craned their heads to closely follow my movements. Can they turn their heads all the way around? It sure looks that way.

I was looking for green herons and I finally saw a pair, but they were too quick for me to catch on film. Geese paddled slowly through a fine mist that made them look like mirages, and in the trees orioles and warblers sang. I don't know warblers well at all so I hoped a photo would help me determine whether I was seeing yellow-rumped or prothonotary warblers or common yellowthroats or Wilson's or hooded or mourning warblers, but I think this is just a plain old yellow warbler. Also sighted: tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, sandpipers, and a great blue heron.

I've already forgotten the song of the warbler but I won't soon forget the glare of those vultures. What do they want from me? Whatever it is, they can't have it.


Monday, April 23, 2012

A CFP built for me

There's nothing like a solid deadline and a clear sense of audience to spur along a writing project, so yesterday I spent some time scrolling through page after page of calls for papers, hoping to find something to motivate me to finish my sabbatical project. I found a few conferences on topics tangential to my research, most of them in ho-hum cities, and I found a few more promising CFPs with expired submission dates.

BUT--I also found a CFP for an edited collected of essays on a topic perfect for my work--AND the deadline is near enough to motivate productivity without being downright scary. Sweet! Give me an audience, a purpose, and a clear deadline, and I'm off and running! (Er, writing.)  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Not that anyone asked....

 Q: What's that bit of bark dangling from the fencepost?
A: Stand at attention when you address the Red Admiral!

Q: If bluets produce the cutest minuscule blue blooms, what is their best super-cutesy nickname?
A: Quaker Ladies. Watch their prim and proper curtseys when the wind sweeps past.

Q: If the Quaker Ladies listened to Jack-in-the-Pulpit, what would they hear?

 A: He may seem green, but he's hiding a mean purple streak.


Pie squared

When life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie.

So what if you stink at pie crust? Once they taste the filling, no one will notice the crust.

And so what if you suddenly discover that you're short on sugar? It won't kill you to hop in the car and run to the store. Don't forget to turn off the oven!

And if it turns out that those lemons that looked so juicy at the store are so thick-skinned that their juice content is pathetic, don't worry! Just juice more lemons--or make smaller pies.

And then if it's a really dim, gloomy day with lots of moisture in the air so that your meringue comes out gummy and starts to droop as soon as it cools--well, it'll taste just as good even if it looks wretched. Just serve it to your loved ones and give them that tart look that says "One complaint and you won't see a home-made pie for months!"

They'll love it. So will you. So go ahead: bake my day. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Taking refuge (temporarily)

How can one small chipmunk make more noise running through the woods than four or five white-tailed deer? The deer were right in front of me, but they silently disappeared into the woods before I could point the camera; the chipmunks, on the other hand, kept dashing raucously across dry leaves with the subtlety of steamrollers.

I went for a walk through a wildlife refuge but heard more wildlife than I saw. I wish I could identify birds by their calls, but at this point I still have trouble seeing birds that are calling right in front of my face. I saw mallards, titmice, song sparrows, and towhees, but I heard many more birds I simply couldn't see, including a wild turkey. 

It's easier to see wildflowers, especially now that the big showy mayapples are blooming, but I saw only one Solomon's Seal with delicate green buds dangling beneath the leaves. For a while the woods hereabouts have been brightened by bright white dogwood blooms, but they're starting to fade as leaves burst forth and the woods turn green.

Some of that green will be poison ivy, already starting to show itself on the edges of paths and soon to become a nuisance. I've enjoyed my spring treks into the wild, but I can see responsibilities crowding onto the path and sending me back to a busy office. Will I go gentle in that good night? Or would it be better to scramble off raucously like a rambunctious chipmunk?


Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Ancient Romans believed the liver was the seat of the emotions, but to me, liver is the seat of only one emotion and it's not a particularly pleasant one. So recently when my loving husband asked me what I planned to do with all the liver in the freezer, I wanted to say "Throw it to the dog" but I knew that would be the wrong answer.

What are we doing with all this liver in the freezer? Periodically we purchase sides of beef from our neighbors, really good locally grown grass-fed antibiotic-free beef in a variety of cuts, from ground beef to stew beef to steaks to exquisite roasts.

And then there's liver. There's always liver--not a lot, but over the course of several years our freezer has amassed two or three pounds of beef liver. I've never cared much for liver; the flavor is blah and the texture can be rubbery if it's not prepared just right and it makes the whole house smell like liver, but I used to cook liver regularly when we were first married at my husband's request. The only liver recipe I ever enjoyed eating involved searing the liver quickly in butter with garlic and rosemary, and even then I wouldn't touch the leftovers because the texture turned dreadful.

I don't believe I ever made a conscious choice to quit cooking liver, but I'm sure I haven't touched it in at least 15 years. Why would I bother cooking something that pokes so painfully at the seat of my emotions? At some point liver eased out of my life, and I never even managed to say "Good riddance."

But here we are with all this liver in the freezer, and here was my husband, cookbook in hand, telling me he'd found an interesting recipe for a whole lot of liver. I reminded him that the only way I like liver is seared with garlic and rosemary, but he said, "I thought you might want to try something different," which is his way of saying he wanted to try something different. So I said, "Fine--you cook it."

Which he did.

And it was not totally dreadful.

The vegetables were terrific and the parslied new potatoes were dreamy and the liver was edible when drowned in the piquant sauce. "Was it worth all that work?" I asked, and he answered, "Well, it's still liver."

The fact is that he doesn't like liver any more than I do. Well, maybe a little more. He tolerates it while my feeling moves more toward disgust. I asked him why he wants to eat liver if he's not really fond of the flavor, and he said, "There are some things you have to do whether you want to or not."

"But there's no moral obligation to eat liver."

"True," he said, "but it's good for you."

"Not that good."

But I have fulfilled my moral obligation to eat liver and somehow I survived. There's a whole lot of leftover liver in the fridge which I would be happy to serve to anyone who arrives with an appetite.

And this time I'm not ruling out the dog.

Monday, April 16, 2012


In the movies, on commercials, in the park you see all kinds of dogs jumping to catch tossed Frisbees, but those dogs are not my dog. My dog treats the tossed Frisbee the way Superman regards Kryptonite, but that doesn't stop my son from trying to teach an old dog new tricks. He tosses, cajoles, and points, but the dog just licks his fingers. He offers rewards, even dips the Frisbee in dog food so it smells edible, but Hopeful declines to approach within five feet of a tossed Frisbee.

What do you do with a retriever that won't retrieve? Maybe it's time to let sleeping dogs lie.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Undented and undaunted

I was just sitting there minding my own business (totally unaware that I was about to become part of a story about a person just sitting there minding her own business when suddenly something totally unexpected happens) when suddenly something totally unexpected happened: my car was rear-ended, knocking loose some random thoughts about the nature of luck.

For years I've had a running disagreement with a colleague known for his good luck (in raffles, on the golf course, at the poker table, and just about everywhere luck is invoked). "You make your own luck," he insists. "If you think you're lucky, you'll be lucky."

My problem with this theory begins with the difficulty of distinguishing between good luck and bad luck. Take that fender-bender: I was driving away from a baseball game amidst hundreds of cars; what are the odds that any particular car should have ended up right behind mine? (To quote a student's T-shirt slogan: I'm an English major--you do the math.) If one of us had stopped for a burger or turned left instead of right then maybe I wouldn't have been rear-ended. Bad luck!

But wait: it was a low-speed accident that caused no injuries and left no mark on either car. Instead of spending a gorgeous afternoon standing around waiting to file police reports and insurance claims, we got back in our cars and moved on. What are the odds of getting rear-ended in a way that causes no discernible damage? Good luck!

Hold on: that was my second automotive mishap in a week. In the first, a college administrator and his wife walked right out in front of my car so that I had to slam on the brakes and squeal to a stop to narrowly avoid hitting them. (They didn't see me. What am I, invisible? The student who rear-ended me after the baseball game said he "lost it in the sun," suggesting that my car is suffering from an outbreak of Intermittent Invisibility Syndrome.)

Most of us would agree that mangling one's boss qualifies as bad luck, so missing him (just barely!) would have to be considered good luck. (Or good reflexes. Or good brakes.)

All I know is that I felt such relief at narrowly escaping maiming or killing my boss that I was inclined to pay that grace forward a week later when a student rear-ended my car. Given his age and gender, it would have been really bad luck for his insurance rates if I'd decided to file a police report. So he had the bad luck to run into me, but he did it on a day when I was grateful for the good luck I'd experienced in failing to mangle an administrator who'd had the bad luck to walk right out in front of a moving car. Once you add up all those pluses and minuses, where does this incident land on the good luck/bad luck continuum?

If my lucky colleague is correct, I could have been sitting in my car thinking, "I'm lucky, so lucky, so very very lucky" and maybe I wouldn't have been rear-ended. Alternately, if I'd been sitting there sulking over my sad sorry pathetic string of bad luck, maybe I would have been rear-ended by a cement mixer--or, I don't know, a cargo plane flying overhead could have suffered a catastrophic failure and dropped a grand piano on my head.

It could happen. (To Wile E. Coyote.)

But I wasn't celebrating my good luck or mourning my bad luck or making any kind of luck at all. I was just sitting there minding my own business when something totally unexpected happened...and a week later, I still don't know what kind of something it was.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

You are now leaving the Cynicism Zone

"So what you've been doing," said my puzzled colleague, "is walking around the woods looking at flowers?"

"And birds," I said.

"And birds," he said. "Walking around the woods looking at flowers and birds. Must be exciting!"

Red trillium
But I knew by the way he said it that he meant exactly the opposite. We were, after all, on campus, inside the Cynicism Zone, where every attempt at pure unadulterated enthusiasm is sneered upon, where the enjoyment of beauty is considered an insidious disease that must be starved to death lest it spread.

Trillions of trilliums
Fortunately, the woods are posted with "No Cynicism" signs. I can walk there alone or in company and unashamedly exult over the presence of mayapples or woodpeckers, saying things like, "Ooh! Trilliums!" without any need for ironic air-quotes.

Birds and wildflowers don't bow down in awe at academic degrees or pedagogical jargon or plum committee assignments, nor do they reward cynicism and ruthlessness with rapid advancement. They simply sit there making me happy, and you never see them sneering at the prospect of of simple happiness.

One of these days someone will figure out how to extend the No Cynicism Zone to embrace campus, but until that happens, I'll keep on walking around the woods looking at flowers and birds.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Make way for woodpeckers

I startled a pileated woodpecker this morning, or I guess we startled each other. I was looking for geese and great blue herons at a local wetland so I had water birds on my mind while beating through the woods, and then suddenly this pileated woodpecker was pounding on a tree right in front of me. I managed to get only one shot before it flew off.  It kept taunting me by chattering in the woods nearby, but I never got another clear view. Still, I've never been this close to a pileated woodpecker before, so who's complaining?  

Great blue heron

A family of Canada geese

Further signs of the impending apocalypse

Baz Luhrmann is filming The Great Gatsby in 3-D, with Leonardo DiCaprio (the king of the world!) as Gatsby and Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway (without a net).

No snow, rain, sleet, or hail here on Easter.

Mike Wallace, the irresistible force meeting many immovable objects, is dead.

And a guy named Bubba won the Masters golf tournament, which was not filmed in 3-D.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


One day last week I was sitting on my back deck reading a book when two kingfishers started chattering and flying at each other right there in front of me, but the minute I got up (quietly) to get the camera, they vamoosed on up the creek. Not to be deterred in my eternal quest to photograph a kingfisher, I followed them upstream just as far as I could, right up until the creek edge turned vertical. Then I slipped and ended up sitting in the mud.

I never saw the kingfishers again that day and I've heard but not seen them along our creek since then. They seem to be living further upstream than they have in past years, but I can't seem to get a photo of them regardless of where they live.

Until today--but I had to go clear to the other side of the county to capture this photo. My local kingfishers are too camera-shy to pose, but this little female sat above a creek where a friend and I were looking at wildflowers. In flight they're such majestic birds, but at rest their heads look too big for their bodies, as if some toddler's been pulling apart his toys and can't quite manage to match up the parts. Our kingfishers seem to be mating so perhaps we'll have more--more birds, more chattering, more opportunities for me to fall in the mud.

But no matter. It's all good. I like living in a world with kingfishers in it even when they lead me far astray.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Masterful notes

The greatest gift of the sabbatical is the freedom to spend long hours immersed in reading without interruptions from students, committees, or piles of grading. This week isn't even over yet but I have  already read 34 academic journal articles (some more carefully than others) and one book related to my research project, not to mention my usual quota of articles in magazines and newspapers and a truly silly novel by Richard Walter called Escape from Film School, which is what Nathanael West would have written instead of The Day of the Locust if he'd landed in Hollywood 50 years later.

But by far my favorite bit of reading this week bears no relationship to my research. Why am I reading the draft of a Master's thesis about a composer whose name means nothing to me?

Because my daughter wrote it, that's why. And I may be a wee bit biased, but I think it's pretty darn good.

I can't comment on content, of course--it's too far outside my area of expertise. (Ostinato figures, plagal half cadences, and ascending octave leaps? Anything you say, sweetheart!) But the writing! It's very musical, full of phrases that effectively but unobtrusively employ the sounds and rhythms of the English language: "free from the bonds of specificity," "these gestures convey tired sighs," "the accompanimental texture beneath this tune is tempestuous." I hear that!

I don't hear much of that musical phrasing in the articles I'm reading for my research project, but after immersing myself in a big pile of articles this week, I'm ready to stick a fork in it and call it done. Done with the reading, that is. Time to move on to writing. I just hope my finished product will be as polished and musical as my daughter's, even if I don't know an ostinato from an ostrich.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Eighth time's the charm

Jeffersonia diphylla, aka twinleaf
Twinleaf, I am told. was named to honor Thomas Jefferson (Jeffersonia diphylla) and often blooms around the time of Jefferson's birthday (April 13)--but you have to look quickly, because the blooms last only a day or two. I've admired twinleaf foliage forming clusters at the edge of our woods for the past eight years, but I've never managed to see one blooming.

Until today. The blossoms are tiny and white, the leaves still reddish on the edges and only about six inches from the ground. Later the leaves will grow twice as tall and broaden out like elephant ears, but right now they're so small they're easily overlooked--which, I suppose, is why I've missed them at blossom time all these years.

And I might have missed them this morning thanks to the other distractions that drew my attention--a pair of wood ducks on our creek, a brown thrasher calling from the treetops, a pair of red-tailed hawks circling the meadow and then visiting their nest on the hillside.

There's just so much to look at right now that it's no wonder I miss things. I'm just thankful that sometimes I get a second chance. (And a third and a fourth and even and eighth.)
Brown thrasher

Hawk's nest with hawk

Monday, April 02, 2012

A monument to the daily grind

From one angle they look like any other stones jutting from hillsides in the southeast Ohio woods, their angles softened by lichen and fuzzy green moss. Look again, though, and notice the stones' uniformity of shape and size, the unnaturally symmetrical squares piercing the centers. We're standing next to a defunct grindstone quarry, a potent reminder that these quiet woods once rang with the sounds of hard work.

When we first moved to this area, we noticed a big stone disk half buried in a small park alongside the highway. A nearby sign offered an explanation: "Grindstone." That's all it said. Not very helpful!

Later we learned that for a century sandstone quarries in the county fed the needs of industrialization by providing stones to grind and sharpen tools. Workers who cut and shaped the grindstones breathed in sandstone dust until their lungs became coated with the fine powder, many dying from an occupational disease known as "sandstone consumption."

How did they get the immense heavy stones out of a quarry deep in a ravine served by no surviving roads? We had to clamber down muddy slopes and jump across streams on stepping-stones just to find the place where all those stones were left behind when the need for sandstone grindstones collapsed. Starting around 1920, synthetic materials made these quarries obsolete and the industry that had employed thousands for a century fell silent.

We drive on streets still paved with bricks formed from clay quarried from the site where our grocery store now stands, and we marvel over the slate shingles still protecting roofs on historic houses more than a century after they were built, but it's easy to forget the labors of men who dug the clay, laid the bricks, notched the slate, cut the sandstone and hauled it away. Today these woods are so quiet that we feel like bold adventurers forging a trail into the wild, but the mossy remains of quarried grindstones stand as a monument to the many who have walked this way before, reminding us that we are not the first to walk these woods, and we will not be the last.