Friday, August 31, 2012

The sound of stillness

Sitting on a sunny bench just outside the library, eating a salad while puzzling over the identity of the song pealing over the carillon: ah yes, this is where I belong. Students and others mill about, heading toward classes or lunch or simply killing time, as I am. I find my office in the dungeon much more bearable if I spend some time outside in the sun every day, so I'm idly watching colorful people pass by while soaking up some sun and trying to empty my mind.

Except for that song, that perky, jaunty song with the melody that sounds vaguely familiar. I ought to know it, but there's something not quite right, like a merry-go-round steam organ trying to perform a rendition of the Dies Irae.

Finally I've got it: "Something in the Way She Moves," not a particularly carnivalesque song but what can you do with a carillon? Next comes "The Sound of Silence." Apparently, the carillon is trying to take us down memory lane. It wouldn't surprise me at all to look up and see the carillon tower dressed in tie-dye and beads.

But I won't look up. I don't want to ruin the moment. I'm happy to just sit, eat my salad, and watch the passersby while the sound wafts over me.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Solely sartorial solecisms

I'm crawling around the floor of my closet looking under and beside and behind all that dusty detritus and part of me wonders why. Why, if I am devoted to the life of the mind, do I start the day obsessing over the location of the only belt that goes with my new suit?

And while we're at it, why didn't I notice before today that this jacket has attractive buttons down both sides but no buttonholes anywhere? Why would I buy a jacket with nonfunctional buttons? Operating a button is really not all that difficult--slide button through hole, rinse and repeat--but it simply cannot be done without the requisite buttonholes.

I never found the belt and no other belt would do, which left me with a clear choice: change into an entirely different outfit or go beltless. Belts are supposed to hold up your trousers but in this case the trousers are in no danger of falling down, so the belt would be purely ornamental, much like the buttons on the jacket. However, everyone knows that the absence of a belt makes belt loops feel incomplete, unappreciated, and futile, so a belt is necessary even when it isn't, if you know what I mean.

But I didn't want to change so I came to campus wearing purely ornamental buttons and no belt, although you'll never notice the lack of belt unless I take off my jacket, which may be necessary if the temperature goes nuclear again. And on top of all that (or beneath all that, if you want to get technical about it), my feet hurt.  

It is impossible to devote yourself to the life of the mind when your feet hurt. So today I'll bypass the mind entirely. No thinking allowed! Unless you're wearing my belt.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sometimes it takes a sharp rap

A colleague offered me an Altoid yesterday and I followed the "Never refuse the offer of a breath mint" rule and took one. 

"Ask me why I always keep an Altoid tin in my car," I insisted.

"Okay, why do you always keep an Altoid tin your your car?"

"So I can tell how much fuel I have in the gas tank."

She looked puzzled.

"My gas gauge is a little moody," I explained. "Some days it just doesn't feel motivated to rise above Empty, and then the only way to make it care is to rap sharply on the plexiglass covering the gauge."

She still looked puzzled.

"Sometimes a light tap will do," I added, "but sometimes the gas gauge gets so distraught about its sad, sorry, meaningless existence that it refuses to budge unless I hit it really hard, which hurts. Try it sometime--our delicate finger bones are not designed to take that kind of strain without complaining."

"Which is why you keep the Altoid tin," she said. "To beat on the dashboard."

"Correct," I said. "The Altoid tin is Curiously Strong and perfectly designed for rapping sharply on the gas gauge--plus it leaves behind that minty-fresh scent. In fact, I'm surprised the company doesn't promote the tin's fuel-gauge-motivating capabilities in its advertising."

She gave me that look--you know the look I mean. You're probably giving it to me right now, so find a mirror and you'll know what look I'm talking about. You wouldn't want to walk around with that look on your face all day, would you? I can help: here--have an Altoid. Curiously Strong, in more ways than one. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

No sleeping in class--especially if you're the teacher!

After all these years you'd think I'd be able to relax before a new semester, but no: I was wide awake this morning at 4:00, long before I needed to get up. I had no teaching-panic nightmares, no racing mind, no pre-teaching jitters. I just could not sleep.

So here I am eight hours later getting ready to teach my second class of the day. The first went well (I think--I may be dreaming!) but I'm quickly running out of steam. I need to stand up and blab for about 30 minutes before making my students write, so I need enough energy and alertness to get through the standing-and-blabbing part and once they start writing, I can start snoring. (In theory. I haven't actually tested this theory in the classroom.)

Two new classes today, two new classes tomorrow--but I've already met with one of them during freshman orientation. It's my 17-football-players-and-one-softball-player class. They seem like a lot of fun, but they're definitely giving me a workout already. Which is a good thing considering how little sleep I've been getting. 

All right, class! Drop and give me 40 (winks)!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bulletin bored

I've been in a crabby, cranky, cynical mood all day, ever since a cavalcade of pickup trucks went speeding past me during my morning walk on a gravel road, kicking up a dust cloud that seems to be following me wherever I go. It's time to spray some Cloud-B-Gon to clear the air, so let's write some poetry!

Colored paper, printed words,
Thumbtacks, staples, scissors:
time to decorate bulletin boards!
Mine's finished!  How's yours?

Okay, that's pretty pathetic. I'm clearly out of practice. But it's true: I didn't realize when I moved offices that I would have not one but TWO bulletin boards to decorate, and that makes me really happy. My bulletin boards tend to be colorful and eclectic and maybe a little sloppy, with many lines verging from the perpendicular to varying degrees. Over in the Education building they dangle a weighted line from a thumbtack to keep lines straight on their perfectly balanced bulletin boards, but they're getting a grade. I'm just posting stuff that interests me and hoping someone occasionally takes a look. 

The little board outside my office offers some helpful information (office hours, class schedule, how to contact the former resident of my office) plus some poetry and a mess of funny cartoons, while the larger one down the hall is called "Recommended Reading" and features photos of books recommended by faculty plus little blurbs about why they're good. Colorful. Eclectic. Interesting. Sometimes a little silly. I'd give my bulletin boards a solid B+, although the Education folks might quibble.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

There ought to be a prize

...for attending six meetings in 48 hours without succumbing to a mad urge to stuff pastries down the throat of the next person who announces that we need to appoint a new task force to study a problem we've studied numerous times before.

...for locating a clean, usable photocopy of a single article I haven't used in six years deep in a file drawer so full I needed a backhoe to dig it out.

...for getting all my syllabi done, all my materials uploaded to Moodle, and all my first-day-of-class lesson plans written out while many of my students haven't even started packing their bags to return to campus.

For all this, there ought to be a prize, but there isn't--unless the promise of a stress-free Friday counts. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In the weeds

The green heron is two birds for the price of one: he's the short, stumpy shore bird blending dully into the browns at the edge of the water, but then he extends his remarkable neck and the light hits his plumage and suddenly he's transformed--tall, elegant, and brilliantly colored. We watched this fellow fishing in the shallows of a secluded weed-choked cove at Lake Hope, near Zaleski, Ohio. He didn't seem at all bothered by our presence even though we weren't particularly quiet while paddling amongst the weeds. 

I worked like a maniac to get out of the weeds syllabus-wise yesterday and celebrated by spending most of this morning in a different kind of weeds. It was like canoeing through a series of Monet paintings, with the water shifting from absinthe to cobalt to deep midnight. Dragonflies and darning needles whizzed past in brilliant shades of blue, green, and orange while kingbirds chattered and swooped above the water. Next time I'm entangled in campus craziness, I'll think back to today and remind myself that sometimes the best place to be is in the weeds.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Antlympic antics

I'm sitting in my living room minding my own business when out of the corner of my eye I catch some movement out on the porch. It looks like a gigantic horsefly sliding across the porch on his back, which is not the textbook method of horsefly locomotion. So I went out and took a look.

It was a fly all right, but it wasn't surfing the cement. Instead, it was being pulled, pushed, carried, and shoved by a group of intrepid red ants. They shoved the fly over the step and it landed in a crevice between bricks on the walk, and it took a handful of ants a good five or ten minutes to get the fly moving again. They moved in a straight line, pulling the fly over a clump of dirt and grass they could more easily have gone around, but nothing was standing in the way of those determined ants.

I watched them for awhile (yes I'm watching ants when I ought to be working on syllabi!) and then went inside to deal with something else, and about 20 minutes later when I looked outside again, there was no sign of ants or fly. Where did they go? No idea, but those little ants ought to get gold medals in the Antlympics! 

Friday, August 17, 2012

And the semester hasn't even started yet!

Tearing out my hair, staring at a screen as I sit in a chair all afternoon, clicking here and there....and did I mention my nightmares? Every night I awake in a sweat, all het up over things I don't get: a former student screams in my face but I simply can't place her name or claim to attention, and a colleague smirks and exposes my quirks in sarcasm aimed toward humiliation.

Time to go home. I've been here too long. Stop me before I start crooning that "Friday" song!

So now I'm an art critic?

I realize that my confession might cause some to question my devotion to Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but I have to admit that I miss the old mural.

By any objective measure, the new mural is superior: it's bold, colorful, and massive; it livens up a particularly bleak commercial strip along the busiest street in town; and it was executed with skill by a professional artist. The old mural was small, subtle, easily overlooked, not at all colorful or bold or patriotic, and appeared to have been executed by some amateur skulking about in the dark of night with a simple stencil and a can of black spray-paint. 

The new mural is a clear sign that a formerly derelict building is now occupied and contributing to the local economy, while the old mural was a reminder that the building was unoccupied, unprotected, and slowly falling to pieces. For all these reasons it would be right and proper and patriotic to send out a round of applause for the new massive flag mural, but once again I have to admit it: I miss the old mural.

Which was not, in the strictest sense, a mural at all, unless you want to call it a minimalist mural. It was composed mostly of white space marked by the high-water line from some recent flood, with a single command painted near the edge: "Be nice." That's it. Two simple words that I would occasionally glimpse while driving on a nerve-wracking stretch of road often congested with cars driven by frantic people unfamiliar with the proper function of the turn signal. "Be nice" was an appropriate message in that setting, and it always made me smile. So simple and yet so necessary: Be nice!  Who could argue with that?

The new mural conveys an entirely different message: Be proud! An important message, I suppose, but it won't sustain me in the heart of traffic the way the previous mural did. But perhaps it will inspire people to drive more patriotically!

Right. You first.        

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In the fog, all birds are gray

Great blue heron.
Fog shrouded the Ohio River backwater at Newell's Run early this morning, washing the colorful water birds with shades of gray. I watched a group of ducks swim silently beyond a curtain of fog--mergansers, I think, although they looked more like ghosts. Green herons and kingfishers swept briefly out of the fog before disappearing again, their raucous calls dampened by the gloom.

Near the road a great blue heron fished for breakfast, utterly unconcerned by my presence. They generally stay far from the road, but this one kept fishing even when I walked within 10 or 12 feet. Maybe the fog made me appear nonthreatening--or maybe it was just hungry.

Later I saw another blue heron that didn't look at all blue, this one in sunlight so bright the bird's pure white plumage hurt my eyes. I would never have identified it as a blue heron, but the expert birders in the group confirmed that that white bird striding around the wetland was the little blue heron in its white phase. 

Little blue heron in white phase.
We had traveled to Bellville wetland (in northern West Virginia) in search of another blue bird, the blue grosbeak, which rarely comes this far north. And there he was, deep blue with a clunky beak and a rusty stripe on the wing. The experts used their fancy spotting scopes to find sandpipers, swallows, killdeer, and other small birds, frequently stepping away and offering others a chance to look. They're quiet people, my birding buddies, even when they get excited. 

This was my final birding expedition before the fall semester starts. In the early-morning fog I felt like the only human being in a world of gray ghostly birds, and in the afternoon sun my spirit soared with the flight of the grosbeak--feelings I'll store in a deep reservoir of stillness to which I'll return frequently whenever the academic craziness cranks up.

Blue grosbeak.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sex and the single doorknob

When I heard that the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan had died, I thought, "Old news! William Dean Howells has been dead for decades!"

But of course the news reports were about a different legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote Sex and the Single Girl. Howells, who died in 1920, edited the magazine briefly in 1892 during its previous incarnation as a literary magazine, back when the title had a definite article: The Cosmopolitan

Howells is remembered for insisting that writers should shelter young ladies from exposure to impure thoughts (read: any thought that reminds them that they have bodies), and the sexiest scene he ever penned featured an unmarried woman kneeling to kiss a doorknob. (I'm not making this up! Read A Modern Instance (1882), the first American novel to attempt a realistic portrayal of divorce.)

Howells left the helm of The Cosmopolitan fairly quickly, although I don't now remember why. I'm sure Cosmo covers have kept him rolling in his grave at least since the 1960s, which is not necessarily a bad thing. At least he's certain of getting plenty of exercise.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

My secret, in a nutshell

Ever since I posted new hummingbird photos last week, people have been asking for my secret. I wonder myself: after years of trying to take pictures of hummingbirds and occasionally getting an okay shot, how did I finally get some good ones?

I can tell you that no magic technique or crucial piece of equipment made the difference. Instead, these photos were a result of a convergence of a bundle of unrelated factors, many of them outside my control.

Take the weather--please. While the drought hasn't been as severe here as elsewhere in the Midwest, we have seen a decline in many of the flowers hummingbirds generally visit, so they're relying more heavily on our feeders. And then it's the right time of year, when fledglings have left the nest and the hummingbird population is starting to fuel up for its fall migration.

Did I use a tripod and a remote trigger? No I did not: I sat on a garden bench about five feet from the feeder, leaning my arm against the back of the bench to hold the camera steady. I've spent enough time out there this summer that the hummingbirds have learned to ignore me, so all I had to do was sit still and wait.

What about lighting conditions? I went out in the middle of the afternoon, which is generally a horrible time for nature photography, but the cloud cover was thick and uniform, providing a soft, diffuse light with no shadows and no washing-out of colors.

I didn't want any distractions in the background, so I positioned the bench facing a green hillside. There are all kinds of trees and weeds and herbs growing over there, but the 70-300 zoom lens blurs everything into a mottled green that allows the birds' plumage to pop.

And then I just sat there an shot pictures--lots of 'em. The hummingbirds come and go so quickly that I couldn't do a lot of minute adjustments of exposure or focus, so I set my Nikon D60 on the action-shot automatic setting and kept my focus on the edge of the birdfeeder and just shot whatever came close.

You haven't seen the shots I deleted: the green square from which a hummingbird has just decamped, the gray blur wobbling off the edge of the frame, the bird half-hidden behind the feeder. Here's one secret I'm happy to share: the "delete" button is the photographer's best friend. 

The rest of my secret is more complicated: drought, clouds, time of year, hummingbirds inured to human presence, bench placement, zoom lens, many snaps, much patience, delete delete delete. So easy a baby could do it. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012


I'm sitting on the bench in the front garden trying to count up the hummingbirds visible from my vantage point: two on the phone line, one on the hydrangea (but then another one zips over and chases it away), two or three buzzing about in the magnolia tree, two--no, three at the feeder right in front of my face, three at the farther feeder--no, four, then five, then six, then the one with the brilliantly red throat comes along and chases the rest away.

I can see them and hear them buzzing around on the periphery all the time but I can't begin to pin down how many hummingbirds we're currently hosting. The fledglings have left the nests so they're fighting for space at the feeders, and a few seem to serve as protectors, chasing off intruders while the others drink. 

And my, do they drink! Early in the season we were filling the feeders about once a week, but now they're empty every day. Little piggies is what they are--little piggies with iridescent feathers and wings flapping so fast my camera can't catch them. Sugar gets expensive, but I won't complain about the cost of birds that bring into my life so much sweetness.  

A mental cul-de-sac

All my life I've suffered a mental block against the word cul-de-sac, a useful word that trips satisfyingly off the tongue, but I can't call it up without first running higglety-pigglety through a host of unrelated words and phrases: tete a tete, coup d'etat, s'il vous plait, rue morgue--and then, suddenly, my reluctant mind offers up the right word: cul-de-sac. Of course.

Fortunately, cul-de-sac doesn't come up often in casual conversation, but lately I notice that the cul-de-sac effect is spreading. It happens just about every day: I know the word I want but my brain refuses to cough it up on demand. Maybe this is characteristic of the postmenopausal aging brain or maybe it's a result of all that nasty chemotherapy, but it's a problem--and it's getting worse.

It's easy enough to handle the problem in writing: I simply skip the missing word or insert clues in parentheses (three-syllable word starting with L that means "on the threshold") and continue writing, and before I'm halfway down the page, WHOOMP there it is in flashing neon in front of my eyeballs: liminal! I'm a whizz at the Washington Post's Cricklers word game (single-digit handicap!) only because I can skip a word that's hiding in some mental cul-de-sac, hand the retrieval task over to my subconscious, and wait for the right word to pop into place. Works every time--as long as I'm willing to move on and wait.

It's not so easy, however, when I'm speaking. I don't know how many times lately I've radically revised a sentence halfway through because I couldn't wait around for a key term to come out of hiding, and I can't just stand there with my mouth open and leave a hole in the sentence. I picture myself standing in front of my postcolonial literature class this fall and saying, "What's the word we use to describe a person standing on the threshold?" Fine, as long as some student remembers liminal, but what if I'm the only one in the room who knows the word I'm seeking? "Okay, class, I'm thinking of a word--who can guess it?" Maybe no one--not even me.

I dread the day when all the words I need go circling 'round some inaccessible mental cul-de-sac and I'm left standing with my mouth open but nothing to say. When words fail, what's left?      

Friday, August 10, 2012

More holes in the security blanket

This morning's Columbus Dispatch reports that three men have been charged with selling fake training certificates to allow 613 people to get permits to carry concealed guns. " 'You don't see these (cases) too often,' " said Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott, but somehow I don't find that too comforting.

On the bright side, the 613 fake certificates are just a tiny proportion of the 18,294 concealed-carry permits issued in Franklin County since 2004, and what are the odds that you, personally, will run into one of those 613 untrained gun-carriers? 

I don't know what I find more alarming: the fact that more than 18,000 people in Columbus, Ohio find it necessary to carry concealed guns or the fact that one of the miscreants charged in the scam is a security officer for the Franklin County Court. Would you trust your personal security to someone willing to sell a fake gun-training certificate for $200?

If the people charged with protecting us can't be trusted to uphold the law, no wonder so many people feel the need to protect themselves by carrying guns.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Proliferating procrastination

I heart eggplant!
I have syllabi to write and students to advise and meetings to attend, so naturally I've spent half the week polishing my entry in the Washington Post humorous memoir contest (Deadline tomorrow! Don't be late!) and now I'm obsessing over Lingua Franca's grammar-and-usage limerick contest

And taking pictures of eggplants that look as if they're about to go lub-dub, lub-dub.

And hunting for butterflies that haven't had their wings clipped by voracious birds.

And puzzling over what to do with the hornet colony we thought we'd burned out of the meadow last summer. 

The proliferation of opportunities to procrastinate is a sure sign that real work is looming on the horizon and it's time to buckle down and get to it.

But first, I need to find a rhyme for "polysyndeton."

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Dead-on deadlines

"I have never worked in any community where deadlines are as routinely disregarded as they appear to be in the academy," writes Nate Kreuter in "Deadlines Matter," published last week in Inside Higher Ed. He describes scenarios familiar to anyone who has spent more than five minutes in higher education: work postponed or forgotten, reports unwritten or submitted late and in the wrong form, the last-minute frantic rush to complete a task assigned months in advance--and we're not even talking about the students!

Kreuter makes a good case for promptness, asserting that "when the routine, sometimes mundane business of the university is neglected or even just delayed, complications and stress cascade through the ranks, amplifying the problems that fellow faculty, staff, and even students must then deal with and solve." I don't know about you, but I've been on the downstream side of that cascade and it left me splashing around gasping and groping for a life-buoy.

Kreuter suggests that we take deadlines seriously, always good advice, but he fails to consider several common complications:

1. The Top-Secret Deadline
You know there's a deadline for submitting that grant request, but the web site lists last year's deadline so you contact the committee chair, who promises to get back with you but never does. 

2. The Imaginary Deadline
You finally find out the deadline and then scramble to get your request in on time, only to find out that people who submitted similar requests days or even weeks late were given equal consideration.

3. The Drop-Dead Deadline
There's often a significant difference between the speed limit posted on the sign and the real speed limit--the top speed you can drive without danger of getting a ticket--and likewise, no matter what that committee chair says about the deadline, savvy faculty members know that a little wheedling will often reveal the real deadline.

4. The "Drop Dead, Sucker" Line
The deadline is Friday at 4 p.m. but the committee chair wants to get out of town early and picks up the submissions at 3:30. You get your request in on time, but the chair later informs you that your request won't be considered because the deadline was changed retroactively. 

I wish these examples were invented but I've seen examples of all of them--some more than once. I tend to be obnoxiously obsessive about meeting deadlines, but I don't know how even an obsessive deadline-meeter to meet deadlines like these. So while I agree with Nate Kreuter that failing to meet deadlines starts a cascade that drenches everyone down the line, failing to set clear deadlines, communicate them clearly, and stick to them drowns everyone in a whirlpool of wasted work.

Can someone hand me a towel?  

Monday, August 06, 2012

Get ready--get set--get funny!

Early in my marriage I spent an entire summer teaching myself to whistle, something small children all over the world learn to do without much effort. My father can whistle like a bird or even like several birds at once, producing a strong, clear melody dancing jigs all over the scale, but either I never had the patience to learn from him or he never had the patience to teach me--or possibly, considering our similarity in character, both.

But then one summer during grad school my husband and I were living and working at a campground in Michigan and I asked him to teach me to whistle. He showed me how to make my mouth work like a reed and then encouraged me to just keep trying all summer long, and since we were working mostly outdoors, who could object?

So I spent a summer walking around the campground huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf without either blowing down little piggies' houses or producing anything close to my father's crisp, clear whistle. By the end of the summer I could just muster a faint, breathy tweet, and nearly 30 years later I can, if conditions are correct, whistle for the dog, but I've never in my life whistled any recognizable melody, and if the subject comes up, I generally say that I can't whistle at all--because (and here's the point I've been trying to get to for the past three paragraphs) the sad and simple truth is that no matter how reliably I can whistle when I'm not thinking about it and when no one is around to hear except the dog, I can't whistle on demand. Can't produce a single sound--nothing but a weak, pathetic wheezing.

Why is this relevant right now? It's a metaphor. (What's a metaphor? For cows to graze in, said the farmer.) Whistling, as it happens, is not the only skill that dries up on demand. Here's another sad and simple fact: while I am perfectly capable of saying funny things at just about any moment (even when it's least appropriate, such as after a friend informed me that her dog had died, and after all these years all I can say is, Sorry!), all you have to do to make my wealth of wit dry up is to make a simple demand: "Say something funny!"

Can't do it. Can. Not. Do. It.

This comes to mind right now because I've been trying very hard to say something funny (in writing) and coming up blank, and now time is running out with $1000 at stake. August 10 is the deadline to submit a funny, true, previously unpublished story to the Washington Post's humor contest (see rules here), and no matter how often I try to dip my bucket into the well of wit, it comes up empty. Every story I think of either (1) appears in print or on my blog; (2) wanders so far from reality that it spurns the label "memoir"; or (3) would embarrass people I know and love. (I don't mind embarrassing myself--hey, I've had plenty of practice!--but I wouldn't want to hold those near and dear to me up for ridicule, even well-deserved ridicule, such as would happen if I wrote about the the know-it-all relative so certain that the plant he'd found wasn't poison ivy that he rubbed it all over his hands, but wild horses would not drag that relative's name out of my mouth because he's suffered enough--and besides, that's his story, not mine).

So here I sit four days from the deadline diddling around with words without producing a single story worthy of submission in a contest promising its winner $1000. Someone ought to just come along and kick me in the head and see if anything shakes loose, because my usual invention techniques are leaving me empty-handed. Hey, maybe I could write a funny story about how hard it is to write a funny story on demand!

But who would want to read that?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Clearly, I need to get out more

The last time I drove to town, I filled up with gas as $3.35 a gallon. Today, it's $3.85. What happened?

Note to whoever was driving the minivan that almost got crushed to a road smear right in front of my face today: you can't play chicken with a tractor-trailer. Even if you win, you lose.

Wait, where did that hookah bar come from? And where did the locksmith go? And what is a hookah bar doing in a small Ohio town on the edge of Appalachia?