Saturday, November 30, 2013

Confusion amongst the cousins

Definitely cousins. First cousins once removed?
Cousin is a useful word, flexible enough to cover a variety of relationships but still meaningful when used with precision. Case in point: my husband's parents died young so he lived with his aunt and uncle (who were like parents to him) and his cousins (who were like his brothers). So this aunt and uncle served as grandparents for our children, while these particular cousins served as uncles, but then what do we call those cousin/uncles' children and grandchildren, and how do we define the relationship between those descendants and our own children and grandchildren?

Definitely cousins, but what kind?
My son-in-law the engineer knows his cousins as well as his cosines, adept at unraveling all the ins and outs of first and second cousins or first cousins once removed, but those labels aren't particularly helpful in casual conversation: "Hey first-cousin-once-removed! Pass the gravy!"

So I opt for cousin even when it's not quite right. Get all the relatives together and see the resemblances, the repetitions of hair color and facial shape and long, skinny fingers, the common blood showing amongst the cousins, and even the adopted cousins share facial expressions, tones of voice, and baseball teams. Go back far enough and we're all cousins of one sort or another, first or second or many times removed--just don't ask me to do the math!

Not cousins--but aren't we cute?!

Definitely not cousins: uncle/nephew, with complications.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who invited Elvis to this feast?

I didn't know that a certain local radio station had switched to holiday music already, so it was a little jarring when I hit the tuner and suddenly heard the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley singing "Blue Christmas," possibly the worst Christmas song ever recorded but someone must like it because it comes on EVERY TIME I switch from NPR to the holiday music station (which generally inspires me to switch right back), and so today in the car 100 miles from home when my son was scanning through the channels to find a Cleveland station, the first voice we heard was Elvis singing "Blue Christmas."

What could we do? We all sang along, adding smarmy yodels as needed. It seems I am doomed to have a Blue Christmas with Elvis, but I refuse to infuse my Thanksgiving with that obnoxious song. Among all the other things I'm thankful for this year, I'm delighted that the radio has an OFF switch.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Snow day!

I believe my class is important but not important enough to die for, so this morning I looked at the weather forecast, considered the number of students who had already informed me that they were leaving campus early to travel home before the big storm hits, thought about how annoying it would be to get stranded in town, and cancelled class.

A free day! Pork loin with apples and root vegetables bubbling in the crockpot, chocolate-orange cookies cooling on the racks, cranberry chutney in the fridge, and just a few student papers to read--and wonderful papers at that. Who could ask for more?

How about birds? Juncos have arrived along with the snow, and a chunk of seed-studded suet is attracting woodpeckers and nuthatches. The red-breasted nuthatches so abundant last year seem to have stayed in the north woods this year, but we have plenty of the white-breasted variety.

And plenty of time also. I've read all the drafts I needed to read and prepped my classes for next Monday so the next five days are wide open for baking, traveling, visiting family, and maybe getting a little ahead on next semester's syllabi. The storm may yet bring good reason for complaints, but at the moment the weather makes me nothing but thankful.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Unremarkable me

I like to tell my creative nonfiction students that an attentive writer shouldn't require remarkable events for inspiration but ought to be able to write compellingly about anything--or nothing. Personal essays do not require personal trauma, I tell them, hoping to head off an outbreak of the Peel-Off-the-Bandaid-and-Let's-Compare-Wounds game.

Nevertheless there's no denying that trauma attracts readers--and as evidence I offer my recent adventure with the car in the creek (here), which produced a readership spike like the ones I used to see when I wrote about cancer treatment (here). If I could produce a wreck in the creek or a needle in my arm every day of my life, I'd be the world's most popular blogger!

But frankly, I'd rather not. Once was enough. I'd rather write about birds and teaching and visiting my grandbaby and life in the very slow lane where I live, but this morning that slow lane took me to the cancer center for my annual round of blood tests and CT scans, and the results are clean. That's right: four years after finishing chemotherapy, my body snows no evidence of disease. I'm entirely unremarkable!

But who wants to read about that?     

Friday, November 22, 2013

Is it time to buy stock in Woolite?

My Sports Lit students were discussing Garrison Keillor's short story "Where Did We Go Wrong," which features the (fictional) first female professional baseball player in the U.S., who plays baseball like one of the guys but also chews, spits, cusses, and makes hand gestures like one of the guys, which creates problems for fans who want their female athletes to remain "ladylike" (whatever that means), and my students pointed out that it's kind of like Lingerie Football.

Now I've never heard of Lingerie Football (not that I'm complaining!) but apparently it's a real thing that's been around for a while. I mentioned it to my husband, whose first concern was the danger of rug-burn if they're playing on artificial turf. I worry more about the mistreatment of all those lacy little underthings. Who does the delicate hand-washing? What's the best way to get grass stains out of silk? They must order Woolite by the barrel!

I'd like to say that this is The End of the World as We Know It, but we who live in a cave in Appalachia don't know it very well at all. We've only recently learned that people who ask "What does the fox say?" aren't interested in the fox kits that romped along our cliff, and we still think of Venice when we see the word "doge," so how are we supposed to know about Lingerie Football?

Maybe this is one of those cases when ignorance really is bliss.

If I ignore it, will it go away?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

When cheating doesn't "count"

Another year, another futile attempt to make my academic dishonesty policy airtight. No matter how much I revise the policy, students try to wriggle through loopholes. A few examples:

1. An online upper-level writing course requires students to submit a proctored writing sample before the course begins, but a student submits a sample mostly copied from Wikipedia. The student says there's nothing I can do about it because it doesn't really "count" toward the grade, and besides, she would never cheat on something really important. I point out that I am obliged to report dishonest students to the provost, but if she drops the class before the semester begins, she will no longer be my student. That's called "fighting loopholes with loopholes."

2. In my sophomore-level literature classes, students are required to submit 20 reading comments over the course of the semester, each one worth 5 points, for a total of 100 available points. A few years ago a student copied and pasted just one of the comments from SparkNotes and then tried to shrug it off by saying, "It's only 5 points." The assignment sheet now specifies that plagiarizing any one reading comment will result in a 0 for the entire reading comment assignment--100 points. Loophole closed.

3. In most of my classes, students must submit drafts or receive an F on the final version of the paper, but the draft itself is not graded, so students caught plagiarizing tend to shrug it off with "It's just a draft. I'll fix it on the revision." This is a tricky issue. If it's early in the semester and the student has been sloppy with quotation marks or citations, I'll highlight the problem and explain that failure to revise properly will result in an F on the paper, which works. But what to do when the draft is largely copied? The slippery student insists that I can't give a 0 on an assignment that "isn't worth anything," a statement that's misguided in so many ways. 

I really need to add a line to my academic dishonesty policy specifically covering this circumstance, but the more examples I add, the more students niggle about how the rules don't apply to their particular circumstances. I'm tempted to toss out all the specifics and boil it down to one broad statement: "Don't even think about submitting someone else's work as your own or you will fail, with a capital F and a letter to the provost." But I can imagine the excuses: "I wasn't thinking about cheating; it just happened. I have a different learning style, see, that makes words just fall onto the paper without ever passing through my thoughts. It's not my fault!"

And if that's the case, it's not my fault if a big fat 0 accidentally falls into the gradebook.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mysteries of you-don't-go

There comes a time in every semester when I'm tempted to throw my hands in the air and go home, and this is that time. I'm tired of time-wasting senseless meetings, freshmen who won't follow directions, advisees who can't keep appointments, and students who try to convince me that their plagiarism was entirely accidental. (What are the odds that nearly identical paragraphs would turn up in two separate papers by accident? If you gave a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters, would their research papers be any better than the ones I've been reading?)

But no matter how often I've been tempted to slam my office door and stomp off into the sunset, I'm still here, still teaching, still smiling (most of the time). Maybe in a few weeks I'll remember why, but right now it's a total mystery. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Further evidence of the futility of education

This morning a student came up after class to ask about a comment I'd written on his draft. "I don't know what this word means," he said. Which word? "Italics."

"I was just pointing out that you've put the title of the book in quotation marks when it ought to be italicized," I explained.

"But what does that mean?"

"What does what mean?"


Here we are 13 weeks into a semester in which I've mentioned the need to italicize book titles approximately eleventy-seven times and he's just now realized that he doesn't know what "italics" means?

"I never really wrote papers before," he explained. Except that's what we've been doing in my class all semester long.

Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Maybe her first word will be "Eureka!"

My mailbox runneth over with holiday catalogs sparkling with shiny plastic toys, but yesterday the only thing my adorable grandbaby needed to entertain herself was a slice of raw carrot. She gummed it with glee and then waved it around with an expression of sheer joy, as if to say, "You won't believe this amazing thing I've just discovered!"

She was less impressed with the chunk of parsnip in her other hand. At first she alternated between the carrot and parsnip and then briefly tried to stuff both in her mouth at once, but she finally shook the parsnip free and settled in to study that carrot from every angle.

Every time we see her she's learned a new skill and on the verge of developing another. Now she's using her hands together to grab and pull things (watch out for your glasses!), and she rolls effortlessly over and over to get from one side of the room to another. When Grampa plays the harmonica, she turns her head and looks intently until she locates the source of that interesting sound, and then she stretches out her hand to try to reach and touch this amazing new thing.

A baby's life seems simple--eat and sleep, roll and play, eat and sleep some more--but she's exploring her world with the diligence of the Mars Rover, moving a little further every day and building a vast repertoire of skills and knowledge. In fact, she's making so many discoveries that her days are filled with one "Eureka!" after another.

Maybe that's what all that babbling means: Eureka! I found it! Come and see this amazing thing! And she's right--it is amazing, even if it's just a chunk of carrot.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Walking away from the wreck

We've had an enormous outpouring of support since our encounter with the car wreck in our creek the other night, for which we are grateful. People keep asking how we're doing and I keep saying we're fine, which we are, mostly, except for a few lingering aftereffects:

  • Sore muscles in the legs and back from hauling around bodies and babies.
  • An obsessive need to keep talking about what happened, trying to illuminate the darkness of that chaotic night.
  • A growing anger as more details come out concerning the causes of the wreck. Drunk driving is stupid and irresponsible wherever it happens, but drunk driving on a narrow, twisty, poorly lit country road like ours is simply suicidal.
  • A raw spot inside like a scrape that's slow to scab over.
But we're fine--really. And this weekend we plan to get some grandbaby time, which is always good for what ails you. One of these days we'll be able to enjoy our creek again without seeing the ghostly image of that car marring the view, but for now we're concentrating on walking away from the wreck.     

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A crash in the night

A woman died in my creek last night, a sort of neighbor although I never knew her (and now I never will).

I don't know how the car flipped into our creek but the police were out there investigating all night long (in the cold, in the drizzle, in the snow) so I suppose we'll learn the rest of the story in the local newspaper just like everyone else. 

For us, it started with a loud noise in the night. I thought it was thunder but my husband thought a tree might have fallen on our neighbor's garage. "I'll just step out and take a look," he said, but immediately he came back in yelling, "Call 911!"

I called but I didn't have much to tell them--a loud noise, a voice calling for help from the creek--but then I threw a coat over my nightgown, grabbed a flashlight, and made my way down the hill to a scene growing more chaotic by the minute.

A car in the creek, wheels spinning in the air. A man stumbling around yelling frantically, a small child (his daughter?) strapped in a car seat sitting in cold water, my husband on the other side of the car, our neighbor too, turning off the car, pulling someone out of the window, the man screaming "She's dead! She's dead!", the little girl sitting in the car seat, in the water, in the cold.

I carried her up to the house, a shivering three-year-old unaware of how much her life had changed. "The car broke," she said. Indeed it did. I stripped off her wet clothes and wrapped her in a blanket and waited, watching out the window at the flashing lights. Soon my house was swarming with emergency personnel who checked over the little girl (hardly a bruise on her!) and took her to the ambulance, and then I thought to text my son and warn him not to come home.

But he had already arrived to find an ambulance blocking the driveway, a fire truck and police cars all over the road. When the ambulance finally pulled away and I could cross the bridge, I found my son on the other side with the neighbors, grateful that all were safe and well (except the dead woman in the creek). And then I tried to find my husband.

He'd been in the thick of things from the start. I don't know how long he crouched in the creek holding the woman's head above water (a futile gesture by that time but he couldn't bear to let her go), and after that he took the hysterical husband to our car and sat with him with the heat on to help him calm down and warm up. And then he had to talk to the police, give a rudimentary report, although he knew practically nothing. They couldn't find the marks where the car left the road (in the dark, in the cold, in the drizzle), and there were questions about who was driving and who smelled of alcohol and who got the little girl out of the car.

When I finally found my husband he was drenched and shivering so I took him to the house and helped him warm up. The lights were still flashing out there long into the night, the last one finally leaving at first light this morning. Sometime in the night they hauled the car up that steep, slippery bank and took it away, and then the snow fell and covered all signs of last night's events, the creek still flowing silently as if nothing had happened.

A woman's life ended right in front of us last night and even now, all these hours later, I don't even know her name.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Conference flotsam

Leftover flotsam from the weekend conference:

At several conference sessions I was the oldest person in the room by at least a decade. When did they start granting PhDs to 12-year-olds?

I am no longer interested in hearing conference papers in which the thesis statement is something like "I am interested in [obscure topic]." Trust me: I already know you're interested--that's why you're giving the paper! The trick is to make me interested, and telling me that you're interested is not the way to do it. This is simply the grad-school equivalent of everyone's least favorite freshman thesis statement: "I can really relate to this topic because it's really important to me and has a really big impact on me in my life and how I feel about my future and my career." Please, people: if [obscure topic] is important, show me why I should care! 

And while you're at it, how about demonstrating a little awareness of context? I heard way too many papers that focused narrowly on extremely special topics that seemed to exist entirely in isolation from, well, everything else in the whole entire history of the world. 

I'm still dumbfounded by the professor who told me she can't assign novels in literature classes because students don't have time to read them. They're just awfully busy and they won't read anyway, so why try? But I'll bet she's still dumbfounded by the fact that I assign seven novels in my Later American Novel course--and my students read them. "They're English majors," I told her, and she said, "But where do they find the time?"

Milwaukee's airport offers a last-minute opportunity to purchase cheese curds at overinflated airport prices, but it also offers a used bookstore right in the airport. That's not something you see every day. Periodically that generic airport voice announced over the PA system that wireless internet was available throughout the airport, but that voice neglected to mention the cost ($4.95 for one hour). Tiny little Yeager airport in Charleston, West Virginia provides free wireless access all over the terminal, but Milwaukee has to lure travelers in with vague promises and then charge outrageous fees. I reject your $4.95 internet access, Milwaukee! (Which is why there was no blog post yesterday.)

When the pilot's voice comes on to explain that there will be a slight delay to allow the maintenance people to determine whether that little bump we felt did any damage to the plane--"It's probably nothing, but we'd like to get it checked out to make sure the landing gear will deploy when we need it"--there's nothing to do but sit there and wait and hope that the flight gets to Chicago in time, and then when the delay in Milwaukee eliminates any hope for lunch in Chicago and you end up close to sundown in Charleston without having had anything to eat since breakfast in Milwaukee and then there's some kind of mechanical failure in the gates at the exit from the parking garage so that you sit there in your car surrounded by other cars while maintenance people run around trying to get the thing working again without giving you any way out or any indication of how long you might be sitting there and whether you have time to get pizza delivered to the line of cars waiting to exit the parking garage and then when the gates finally open after 40 minutes you actually have to PAY for the time you've spent sitting there involuntarily with no way out--well, it makes for a very long day. 

So I'm glad to be home. I have a whole different set of annoyances to deal with on campus this week, but at least I won't have to worry about whether the landing gear will deploy correctly.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Six degrees of Xavier Cugat

Here's the most interesting fact I've learned at this conference so far: Francis Cugat, the artist who designed the familiar cover art for the first edition of The Great Gatsby, was the brother of bandleader Xavier Cugat, a fact that led my errant mind to stray far from the topic of the panel I was attending as I tried in vain to recover the stage name of Xavier Cugat's fifth and final wife, whose antics on the Merv Griffin Show frequently enlivened the afternoons of my adolescence. (Charo. I had to look it up later. I only wish the paper's presenter had looked up the correct pronunciation of Cugat, which sounds nothing at all like "coo-zhay.")

From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Charo in four easy steps: that's the kind of serendipity an academic conference can produce. Although this particular chain of connections is unlikely to enrich my research and teaching in any discernible way, other panels inspire more usable connections. This morning, for instance, a discussion of ekphrasis in film made me want to do more research on prehistoric cave art and its relationship with graffiti, a topic relevant to the paper I'm writing and a novel I'm planning to teach in a year or two. That inspiration alone made this conference worthwhile.

Just don't ask me to try to put that kind of insight onto a balance sheet. I attended this conference without any indication of whether my travel grant request will be approved, so I've been obsessing a little bit over how I can justify this trip to anyone who might questions the expense. I'm tempted to do a cost-benefit analysis, but it's complicated.

Costs: airfare, lodging, conference fees, food, incidentals. (Forgot to pack toothpaste, which isn't cheap at a conference hotel.)

Benefits: a line on my vita, an opportunity to share ideas with other scholars, potential to boost the reputation of the college, a chance to learn new things.

Complicating elements: Some of those "new things" aren't very useful (like the Fitzgerald-Charo connection). How much sharing of ideas can occur when there are more people on the panel than in the audience? If I say something really stupid, I could actually harm the college's reputation instead of helping it. And how will I ever get caught up on my classwork after spending four days away from campus?

I give up: I can't make the columns balance out, not even if I factor in the fact that Charo studied classical guitar with Andres Segovia. Worthless trivia or useful insight? I wouldn't want to try to judge.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Not art-smart

From the outside it looks like a sail unfurling or a whale's flukes rising into the air, but inside it's all airy cathedral. I spent a few hours this morning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where I was more impressed by the building than the art it houses.This is entirely my fault. I'm just stupid when it comes to art: I know what I like and I know what I'm supposed to like but they don't always match. The Dale Chihuly glass left me cold, for instance, but I couldn't take my eyes off a little fuzzy hat a woman was knitting in the cafe. I tired quickly of the gallery of portraits by Thomas Sully (too many big-eyed children and simpering women), but a room full of Haitian folk art knocked my socks off.Part of my problem in museums is that my mind groups things perversely. I wanted to put the Haitian folk art next to an amazing 16th-century Russian portable iconostasis and a painting of chickens by Picasso, but alas, the curators had other ideas.If I could take any piece of art home with me I would pick something bright from the Georgia O'Keefe galleries or from the Haitian space, but more than anything I'd like to take home that soaring building. Too bad it would never fit in my carry-on bag!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The right(ish) stuff

I'm sitting in the terminal at Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, hoping someone will find a way to turn off the soul-piercingly obnoxious squealing alarm before I'm forced to propel myself through the plate-glass window in despair when suddenly, without warning, Lisa comes running up.

Who is Lisa? I don't know, but her flight is about to leave and an increasingly insistent disembodied voice keeps coming over the speakers to urge her to get to the gate before it's too late. Just as the disgusted voice says "This flight is closed," here she is! Running to the gate! Getting her boarding pass scanned and running up the ramp to the plane! I've never seen her before and I'll never see her again, but her just-in-time arrival provides a satisfying sense of resolution for those of us observing from the cheap seats. Lisa has arrived! My heart will go on!

And my body will go on too, eventually. Sitting in Yeager Airport always reminds me of Chuck Yeager, the test pilot whose lightning-fast flight exploits, distilled through the tornadic prose of Tom Wolfe's  The Right Stuff, represent the extreme antithesis of modern commercial air travel. In Wolfe's portrayal, Yeager is a force of nature blazing his way through barriers to burst the surly bonds of earth, while airlines today herd people like cattle through queues and security checks only to make us sit and wait and sit some more and wait some more while ear-splitting alarms pierce our eardrums and continuous urgent blather blares from televisions over which we have no control. 

In times like these, we all need our Lisas. You go, girl! And take me with you!    

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Traveling light

Packing my bags for an academic conference is much easier these days than it used to be. No need to pack an interview suit; no stiletto heels, sparkly earrings, or shiny silk blouses--just sensible shoes, warm sweaters, wool socks. A few books, of course, neatly packed on my Kindle. No papers to grade (until Friday when a new batch comes in electronically), no advisees to meet (until next Monday), no crying students in my office (unless they want to cry via e-mail).

I'm trying to travel light but I fear stowaways--a nagging concern about an absent student, a desire to help a struggling colleague. I really need to leave this headache behind because air travel alone is headache enough.

A colleague who is presenting at the same conference has borrowed a projector to take along, but I refuse. A few weeks ago the conference organizers responded to spiraling costs by cancelling the contract with the company providing projectors and other audio-visual equipment, so presenters are expected to provide their own. I'm on a panel on the portrayal of animals in film and I would love to project some wonderful images to illustrate my paper, but that would require borrowing a projector from the college, transporting it to Wisconsin, and returning it unscathed next week. 

But I'm not doing that because (a) I'm a klutz; (b) can you imagine trying to haul a heavy projector through airport security along with all your other miscellaneous detritus? and (c) I refuse to carry the emotional burden of that added responsibility. The smart thing, of course, would be for me to share a projector with my colleague, but we're presenting two days apart and she won't even be there on the day of my paper, and by the time she presents, I'll be gone. Besides, what a pain. I simply prefer not to.

No, I'm traveling light, taking just what I need and hoping to leave nonessentials behind. If anyone's in the market for a good used headache, I'm selling to the highest bidder.    

Monday, November 04, 2013

Where's Beowulf when we need him?

It's draggin' time! Students are draggin' backpacks stuffed with capstone research and cold pills, and faculty members are draggin' stacks of student papers, advising folders, and travel grant proposals. Today I dragged home papers to grade that turn out to be better than expected, which is a tremendous relief after the previous batch. Electronic submission may make student papers weightless, but they're still fully capable of weighing me down until my nose scrapes against the sidewalk.

What we need is some serious draggin'-slaying, but where's that pesky sword? Must be buried under the leaning tower of advising folders. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A wish for Wisconsin

I've just finished my conference paper for next weekend (hurrah!) except for the excruciating part where I brutally cut out great big chunks of brilliant writing because it's too darned long for a 20-minute presentation. But now that it's written I can allow myself to start thinking about the trip to Milwaukee, except just this minute I realized that I haven't heard yet whether my travel grant has been approved. 


I leave on Wednesday. I bought the plane tickets and reserved the room weeks and weeks ago. I applied for travel funding well before the deadline, but the committee just met last week to discuss funding. That's cutting it a little close. If the Powers That Be decided to cut off faculty travel funds this year, I certainly hope someone will tell me before I sink a pile of money into four nights at a conference hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

Milwaukee--virgin land for me. I've been asking people for weeks what I ought to do between conference sessions in Milwaukee and they keep telling me Milwaukee's a wonderful town but no one can tell me why. "Breweries," they say, but I'm not really a beer person. "It's like Chicago only smaller" they say, or "It's like Detroit only with less bankruptcy and more cheese." Right. Just what I need!

I'll probably spend most of my time chopping my paper, reading my paper, hearing other papers, and grading students' papers, but just in case I find a little free time on the schedule, I need some suggestions. So help me out: what can I do for fun in Milwaukee? Aside from hope I get travel funding, that is.   

Friday, November 01, 2013

Get the lead out of the paste, or something like that

To judge from the current round of student drafts, someone has been eating the paste again--or perhaps the phrase "memories of times pasted" refers to scrap-booking. And what's with all the lead in these papers? Maybe lead (the noun) in the paste led (the verb) to the nearly universal inability to spell the past-tense form of the verb lead: today I lead; yesterday I led. Or lead, if you've been indulging in too many memories of times pasted.

This calls for some doggerel:

Don't waste
my time
with paste.

Don't lead
my brain 
to read

as verb.
It's dumb

to paste
the past.
You raced

to lead:
you led.
(Please heed,
she said.)