Friday, May 30, 2014

Bobbling birds

Grasshopper Sparrow
One of my bird books insists that the distinctive call of the bobolink can be transcribed as “bobolink,” which is ridiculous. You can perch on a treetop calling out “bobolink” from now until next Tuesday and no one will ever accuse you of sounding bobolinkish. (Bobolinkesque?)

My other bird book takes a more descriptive turn: “Song a bubbling, jangling, rising warble with short notes on wide pitch range.” This sounds accurate now that I’ve actually heard the bobolink’s song, but it wouldn’t help me identify the bird in the wild.

For that I need my birding-and-botanizing buddy, whose new hybrid car proves a real boon for birding in the hinterlands. We crept along a country road on the edge of The Wilds, her silent car allowing us to sneak up without startling shy birds. In addition to seeing my first bobolink (and then my second, third, and fourth), we stalked grasshopper sparrows, Henslow’s sparrows, and a solitary Savannah sparrow plus meadowlarks, horned larks, common yellowthroats, kingbirds, killdeer, and whatever kind of flycatcher says something like “leap year!” I spotted an orchard oriole and a pair of ospreys, and later at a rest stop we saw an owl.

Orchard Oriole
What kind of owl, you ask? A chintzy plastic owl of the type you might hang in a picnic shelter to discourage birds from nesting in in the eaves, such as the pair of barn swallows we saw nesting just inches above the plastic owl.

Barn swallows know when an owl is not an owl, but now that I look at my photos, I can't always distinguish between the grasshopper sparrows and Henslow's sparrows, and the bobolinks look like mud spots on the lens. You'd know them if you heard them. They sound like nothing so much as bobolinks, and once you've heard them, they can't possibly be anything else. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I hope this post isn't contagious!

Despite all the major projects I need to tackle over summer break, I spent a good part of yesterday trying to write a song about borborygmi, not exactly my favorite topic but one that was on my mind constantly as I recover, slowly, from the gastrointestinal virus steamrolling its way through my entire family. This morning as I left the house (for the first time since Saturday!), I warned my husband, who I hope is the last of us to be so stricken: "Don't expect to get back to full strength right away. It may take days." And sure enough this morning I found my stomach turning when I caught the merest whiff of the odors wafting from a local fast-food restaurant. When will I be able to eat again?

So we've been sick. Some of us are done being sick, I hope. At any rate I couldn't take another day sitting indoors waiting for some kind of food to appeal to me, so I set out to do some errands and attend a campus event, cheering for the accomplishments of some of my colleagues. Surely I'm no longer contagious, right? I would hate to be the vector for an epidemic of borborygmi. For one thing, it's hard to find a rhyme:

Borborygmi awakens me,
grumbling and complaining;
I try to keep it under wraps
but it's capable of sustaining
winds of such foul magnitude,
such furious intensity,
that I give up and hunker down,
embracing my borborygmi.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ph.D. in Vomit Studies

Any parent quickly learns to distinguish various types of cries: the hungry cry, the tired cry, and the I'm bored and tired and frustrated and no one is paying attention to me cry require vastly different responses.

One type of cry cannot be ignored: the cry of pain or terror or, more simply, help! That's the cry I heard the other night, and the fact that I felt guilty about my immediate response is a measure of my peculiar upbringing.

I was at my daughter and son-in-law's house last week to celebrate my granddaughter's birthday, but I cut my visit short and went home to battle a nasty allergy attack.  I didn't really get back to full strength until Wednesday.

But then my granddaughter got sick--just a little gastrointestinal bug. Nothing to worry about except for cleaning up the vomit. (Did she match her mother's record, I wonder? Once when my daughter was small and sick, she managed to vomit in every room in the house.)

So my daughter and son-in-law dealt just fine with the sick baby--until my daughter got sick with the same bug, followed very closely by my son-in-law. When both parents are overcome by upchucking, who will change the baby's diaper?

Grandma will, that's who. When my daughter called late Wednesday, I didn't hesitate to hop in the car--but even as I said yes, I heard the voice of my Puritan forebears: If you're always rushing to a kid's rescue, she'll never learn to do it for herself or How do you expect her to become independent if you'll always come when she calls?

In my mind I rehearse clever responses, but I wonder why I feel compelled to justify my actions. My kid needs help and I'm free to respond. Case closed.

But she'll never be independent says the voice in my head, which is ridiculous. My daughter and son-in-law are so independent and competent that you could parachute them into any godforsaken backwater in the world and within a week she'd be teaching the children to read music and he'd be running the power plant. Independence is not a problem here. The problem is too few hands to handle all the vomit, a problem I am eminently qualified to handle. I'm an expert in vomit. If they gave advanced degrees in vomit, I'd be summa cum laude.

Besides, I keep remembering all the ways my daughter helped me when I was sick. Sure, she cheered me and helped clean when I was recovering from chemotherapy, but I'm thinking of another time, years and years ago, when I was sick with some kind of bug that laid me out flat on the sofa and my adorable daughter decided I needed some help. She grabbed a big box of Cheerios from the pantry, toddled out to the living room, and poured out the Cheerios--the whole box.

On my back.

She was just trying to help! And you know, she did. And now it's my turn. Grandma to the rescue! Just don't make me eat any Cheerios. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This game is the opposite of avuncular

Who lets renal in the door while excluding rectal?

Sounds like the setup to a really sick joke, but it’s a serious question addressed to the developers of a word game I’ve been playing on my Kindle. It’s a fairly simple game--find all the possible words that can be made from a given group of five or six or seven letters—but I find it oddly soothing, and it often provokes interesting juxtapositions. Thanks to this game, the words deliver and reviled will always be associated in my mind, along with nope, open, peon, and pone.  

Occasionally, though, I key in a perfectly good word and the game rejects it outright, even though the letters are available and the word appears in dictionaries. Some rejected words are recent coinages like selfie or twerk, but other exclusions seem more arbitrary. For instance, the game loves ilea, which thrives primarily within the confines of crossword-puzzle grids, while it rejects oryx, an elegant gazelle grazing far beyond the newsroom.

Sometimes the game evinces the personality of a prudish maiden aunt. Common vulgar terms do not exist within the game’s milieu, but the game distinguishes between terms related to human bodies and those of other types of beasts, accepting teats but not tits, udders but not breasts.

Despite this prudishness, I was puzzled when the game accepted renal but not rectal. The game accepts ass, bum, butt, behind, and bottom, but rectum is rejected, perhaps because of its scientific precision: the prior words all have alternative meanings unrelated to body parts, but a rectum is always a rectum. And let's go back to the game's peculiar appreciation for ilea, the plural of ileum, a particular portion of the small intestine. What kind of maiden aunt embraces ilea but sniffs at rectumMoreover, the game accepts cardiac, ulnar, and renal, suggesting that the game accepts the existence of blood, bones, and kidneys, but it remains ignorant of the existence of assholes.

The game, by the way, is called Every Word, a name that requires serious editing. Every Other Word or Almost Every Word would be more appropriate, but I fear that no one would buy a game called Every Word Except Those At Which Your Maiden Aunt Would Tsk.

Wait, would the game accept tsk? Or would it treat it the way it treats rectum--flushing it right out of the system? 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Coming out of the fog (briefly)

Tap, tap--is this thing on?

Not the invisible microphone I seem to be speaking into but my brain cells. Anything happening in there? Any brilliant insights left unscathed by fever, drugs, and massive mounds of mucus?

Apparently not. So I'll go with some links:

Why I'll keep telling my students not to grab quotes at random from online quotation websites (read it here). Who would have thought that the proximity of the names "Schopenhauer" and "Schultz" would result in such a bizarre misattribution?

And while I'm at it, I'll use this article to encourage them to take notes by hand instead of on their laptops--although at this point I'd be happy to see them taking any notes at all.

Unexpectedly interesting articles on two once influential women now largely forgotten: Nelly Bly (here) and Florence Ripley Mastin (here). 
And for a delightfully non-influential woman who offers up the opportunity to enjoy the phrase "Little Miss Polyester Underpants," say hello to my pal Agnes (here).

That's all I'm up to at the moment. Powering down. Zzzzzzzzz.......


Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I write when I can't write

I wanted to write about taking my granddaughter to the zoo for the first time, her delight at the big kitties and the bear impersonating a stuffed ottoman and her attempt to make monkey noises at the spider monkeys, with digressions about the many hours I spent at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo when my kids were little, where we would go walkabout amongst the wallabies and visit the colorful and active lorikeets and listen to the gibbons bellow when storm clouds moved overhead, and how sometimes we would take along a neighbor whose dark-haired kids looked like they belonged with me while my two little blondies looked like they must be hers, and how frequent visits to a pretty decent zoo went a long way toward keeping me sane during those demanding toddler years, and maybe I'd mingle in a few references to missionary antelopes and reactionary zebras and see if anyone caught the allusion, and the whole thing would have created a delightful ramble through the things that matter to children and their parents, but instead I got sick.

I blame the tree pollen. Since Friday I've been fighting a nasty allergy attack that feels like someone stuck my head in a vise and started squeezing. I can't lie down without coughing, so I try to sleep sitting on the sofa, which hurts. Thinking and writing? Impossible. I experienced my granddaughter's first birthday party from a distance, observing from the sidelines and occasionally retreating to the sofa for a brief sitting-up nap. Woo-hoo great times! Maybe someday I'll be able to write about it, but for now, all my energy is committed to coughing. And sometimes humming about skeptical orangutans and kindly elephants. Which would make me smile if I had any energy for smiling.   

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Grandbaby time!

A year ago today at about this time I was sitting in a hospital waiting room eagerly awaiting the arrival of my adorable granddaughter; today I watched her toddle around the yard patting gently on iris blossoms and squealing in excitement over pinecones and dirt. 

What a year! What a baby! What a great time to be a grandma! We'll celebrate with family on Saturday but meanwhile I'm enjoying some girl time with my daughter and granddaughter, my two favorite girls in the world. There's nothing more exciting than the joy of discovery, even if what we're discovering is that flowers are soft and dirt may be good for playing but it's not so good for eating. There's a great big world out there, kid! Let's go play!

Monday, May 12, 2014

After all the pomp and circumstance

This is how summer starts: on the back deck with a glass of iced tea, a light breeze rustling through the leaves, and the sounds of birds filling the air. Earlier I heard a Carolina wren out here and off in the distance I hear a peewee--and there's one of the resident orioles! I found their nest the other day but it's too high up for a good photo.

What you won't hear out here is "Pomp and Circumstance," a tune I heard umpteen million times yesterday while leading students, faculty, and various Grand Poohbahs to their seats for Commencement. I spent a little too much time on my feet in shoes I wear only with academic regalia, which is not often enough to make them feel comfortable. Today I'm a little stiff, a little sore, a little empty-headed, but my feet are happy again.

I've now surrendered my Interim Faculty Marshal mace and I'm ready (eager!) to take my place back in the ranks. Commencement came off without a hitch--well, with several hitches, actually, but we worked around them. A student marshal injured her knee and had to back out at the last minute--but not before finding a worthy substitute. My faculty ID slipped out of my bag and disappeared amongst the throngs--but it turned up again within the hour. And just when I thought we were out of the woods, we led the academic procession out the door at the end of the ceremony and prepared to form faculty into two lines for the graduates to walk through, only to find an ambulance blocking the way. (Somebody fell. Nothing fatal.) So I made an executive decision: let's go the other way. (That's why they pay me the big bucks! Except there's no compensation provided for marshals, so I guess that's why they give me the big mace.)

I spent some time hugging my students, meeting their parents, and sending them happily on their way, and then I came home to soak my feet and dig into the box of exquisite chocolates a student gave me. Commencement was the final item on my "Things to Do before Summer Break" list, so now it's time to start on my next list:  "Things to Do before Fall Classes Begin." It's a long list, but it requires no maces, no fancy footwear, no pomp at all, and very little circumstance.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A tale of two gallons

The best part of painting a room is not the painting but the having painted--when the paint dries and the dropcloths disappear and I get to pull all that blue masking tape off the ceiling and baseboards to reveal a pristine new look.

For a while this week I wasn't sure I would ever get to that point. My first mistake, I think, was trusting the expertise of the woman behind the paint counter at Lowe's, but I wouldn't have made that mistake if I weren't a home improvement imbecile, and I certainly wouldn't have fallen backward off the step-stool right into the paint if I weren't a world-class klutz, so maybe my first mistake was simply being born. Nothing to be done about that at this point, tragically.

But I wanted to paint my daughter's old bedroom, which was last painted ten years ago when we first moved into the house. After living so long in parsonages where we couldn't paint without getting the colors approved by persnickety church trustees whose primary concern was "what if the next pastor doesn't like it?", we moved into a house where we had no one to please except ourselves. So we told our kids they could paint their rooms whatever color they wanted.

For my daughter, one color wouldn't do: she single-handedly created a color scheme that expressed her colorful personality. The upper half of the wall was white, the lower half sponge-painted a combination of bright red and yellow, and the two halves linked by a shiny black stripe running all around the room. One closet was painted red inside and the other yellow, and red curtains, black bedspread, and a glossy black dresser completed the look.

It worked for her but she doesn't live here any more and I wanted something a little more soothing for the guest room, but I was worried about what kind of paint would cover those very intense colors. So I approached the woman presiding in the paint department and asked her what kind of primer I ought to use to cover all that red and yellow and glossy black. That's where the trouble started. (Unless you think the trouble started at birth, in which case, again, nothing to be done.)

She told me I wouldn't need any primer at all if I bought this very expensive brand of paint, and in fact it's so good that one gallon would be enough to cover the entire room. "Are you sure?" I asked; "It's pretty dark." She looked at me with what I interpreted as contempt for my home-improvement imbecility but what was probably simple boredom, and she said, "No problem. One coat of this will cover everything."

Ha! And again I say, Ha! 

I had to leave the near-empty paint can up-ended over the roller pan to let every last drop drip out and still just barely made it all the way around the room, and then of course the colors underneath showed through clearly, especially the black stripe. After all that work, the room just looked dirty.

One coat: black stripe still clearly visible
So I called the manager of the paint department and complained. "Everyone knows you can't cover black with one coat," he said, but I pointed out that I didn't know that and neither, apparently, did the salesperson who pushed the very expensive paint on me. My ignorance didn't cost her a penny while hers had left me looking at an ugly room. Seeing my point, he invited me to come back for a second gallon of the very expensive paint at no charge. 

From that point everything would have gone very smoothly if it hadn't been for the falling-backward-into-the-paint incident, which slowed my progress considerably. This morning, though, I cleaned up the mess, pulled of the tape, and stood to admire my handiwork. The second coat did the trick: now all the walls are covered in a rich buttercream that will coordinate beautifully with the art I'll hang on the walls. One reminder of the former color scheme remains: open the closets and see intense red or brilliant yellow, a little unexpected touch of passion in the midst of a soothing room.

And as a result of my painting misadventures, I'm a little less ignorant about paints and primers and maybe less of a home improvement imbecile. Still a klutz, though. I wonder if Lowe's has anything to fix that?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Even the good news is not so good

At some point on Sunday, a shale drilling operation a few miles north of here sprung a leak and released an unknown quantity of fracking mud into what a drilling company spokesman calls "an unnamed creek near Beverly, Ohio."

"Unnamed," however, does not mean unknown or unloved. I know that creek! I have canoed on that creek! I intend to canoe on that creek again! It does not need to be polluted by fracking mud! Nevertheless, hundreds of barrels of drilling mud (75 percent synthetic oil, according to the news story here) spilled into a creek that flows through cornfields and cow pastures and into the Muskingum River.

In a textbook example of the use of the passive voice to obscure responsibility, the U.S. EPA reports that during the drilling process, "a pocket of unexpected natural gas was encountered." The drilling company, PDC Energy of Colorado, is also drilling at a site exactly 2.1 miles from my house and leases the gas and oil rights to our property. They can't drill here--our hollow is too narrow, providing no foothold far enough from our creek to establish a drilling operation--but horizontal drilling reaches far beyond the initial site, and spills such as the one reported Sunday pollute streams that connect to our homes and our hearts.

But let's not start the day by thinking about distressing news. Fortunately, today's Columbus Dispatch reports that Ohio has achieved yet another superlative: according to this report, my beloved state leads the nation in "insurance claims from metal thefts." Yes! Ohioans excel at filching metal ornaments from gravesites, breaking into empty houses to rip out copper wires, and stealing crosses from church steeples! 

Or maybe Ohio is just better at catching metal thieves. According to the Deputy Director of the Columbus Department of Public Safety, "We are the leader in the state in trying to stop scrap-metal theft." So there you have it: we may not be so good at keeping fracking mud out of unnamed creeks, but by golly we can beat the record for filing insurance claims for metal theft! I'll be holding my head high today.   

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Smells like freedom

Wood thrush, singing
I started the day tipping my head back and straining to see a tiny blue Northern Parula high atop a sycamore tree, and I ended it down on my knees as I bent to attach blue masking tape to the baseboards in the bedroom I'm getting ready to paint. In between those events, I just kept busy doing the sorts of chores that get postponed amongst the demands of finals and grading. Today I worked every muscle in my body harder than I have in weeks, so why do I feel so relaxed?

No papers, no meetings, no assessment reports or plagiarism cases--and until just now, no Internet access. I have one more set of meetings on Friday followed by Commencement on Sunday, but then I'm free to look at birds and paint bedrooms and crank up all the writing and research projects I've been avoiding. Summer is so close I can smell it! Smells like iced tea, honeysuckle, and freedom.

I smelled it this morning in the woods with my birding-and-botanizing buddy. We both ended up with sore necks from craning toward the treetops to observe the warblers,  and we didn't do much talking except for "Look, fiddleheads," or "look, butterfly" or "look, towhee." A wood thrush, often heard but rarely seen, perched on a branch before us and sang its little heart out in a series of ringing musical phrases, and we kept being called back to the woods by the calls Kentucky warblers that we never managed to see amidst the leaves. 

Red-eyed vireo
"You know they're just playing with us," I said. "They're keeping a tally of how many times they can make us turn around and come back." 

After the kind of semester we've had, though, that's the kind of game we're happy to play.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Hovering on the threshold

Rose-breasted grosbeak
My first official post-grading day with no scheduled meetings until tomorrow, but nevertheless here I am on campus. I didn't intend to be here today but rain interrupted a lovely muddy birding hike and I wanted to go somewhere to dry off and warm up, so here I sit in the English Department Reading Room not exactly working but not quite not working either, on the threshold of summer break but not able to step across until I clear up a few pesky issues, like marshaling at Commencement and dealing with a plagiarism case. Sing it with me now: "Let's get liminal, liminal, I wanna get liminal...."

Yellow warbler
One of the reasons I went out hiking this morning was so I wouldn't have to think about the plagiarism case, which arose on penultimate paper on the final day of finals week, which means I was only two papers away from finishing grading when I got that sinking feeling and spent a few desultory moments searching before finding the offending passage on SparkNotes. It was like running a marathon but falling and breaking your ankle just a few feet from the finish line, and then of course the students had already left for summer break so all the outrage has to happen via e-mail, which makes it worse. 

But the birds don't care about plagiarism. The rose-breasted grosbeaks care about bossing other birds away from the feeders, and yesterday a female cardinal cared deeply about the fledgling that had somehow fallen into the hands (or I suppose I should say the jaws) of my dog. The cardinal's alarm calls were loud enough to wake me up from a Sunday afternoon nap, whereupon I chided Hopeful for toying with the baby bird even though by that time there was nothing to be done except watch the mama cardinal mourn. 

orchard oriole?
This morning early I found hordes of towhees, chickadees, kingbirds, and yellow warblers at McDonough Wildlife Refuge across the river in West Virginia, and I spotted what I believe is an orchard oriole. A green heron flew across and landed at the far end of the pond but moved on by the time I'd slogged through the mud to get closer. A pair of Canada geese objected to some new arrivals and started hissing and chasing them across the pond, but I couldn't see what distinguished the interlopers from the others. (Maybe they'd "borrowed" their honks from SparkNotes.)

But before I could ponder whether birds are capable of plagiarism, the clouds rolled over and the rain began in earnest, sending me scurrying for cover back on campus, where I'm warm and dry and thinking about working on that plagiarism case. If I hiss at it, will it go away?

The geese in back hiss and chase the interloper

Hiss hiss hiss!


Friday, May 02, 2014

No Balrogs allowed at Commencement (unless their names are on the list)

My students' fingers dance across the laptop keys as they scramble to write their final essays in under three hours, a challenging task for them but for me too since it appears that few of us got much sleep last night. One student is popping chocolate-covered espresso beans and I'm tempted to beg for a handful except that I'm sure they would make my skull explode, so instead I'll sit here and try to look alert. 

It's not easy, thanks to the nightmare that disturbed my sleep very early this morning, and let me just pause for a moment to reflect upon the deteriorating quality of nightmares. Where are all the invading insects, threatening monsters, and endless falls from treacherous cliffs? These days all it takes to disturb my sleep is an irrational comment at a committee meeting.

Yes: the most terrifying moment in the current nightmare occurred when some sort of college administrator from another campus stood and screamed in my face, "Why aren't there any Mexicans in this graduating class?" Which is absurd in so many ways:
  • If anyone needs to scream at me over how I'm handling my duties as Interim Faculty Marshal, then it ought to be an administrator from my own campus and not a representative of our chief athletic rival.
  • I have no awareness of whether there are any Mexicans in this year's graduating class and neither do I have any control over the composition of the graduating class, so why is he screaming at me? He should borrow a time machine, travel back four years, and scream at the admissions staff.
  • There's no need to scream at a committee meeting. Can't we just all get along?
Despite its absurdity, this nightmare suggests that I'm suffering a twinge of anxiety over the whole faculty marshaling thing--and I'm not even the real Marshal! She's on sabbatical and I'm next in seniority, so I'm filling in--just this once! It's a relatively easy gig most of the time, but Commencement is a pretty big deal and the Faculty Marshal has a tremendous amount of power. For instance, I get to tell the President where to sit. (The President of the college, of course. Not the other President.) 

And if that's not enough excitement for you, I am the last hurdle between the graduating senior and glory: I stand at the bottom of the ramp leading to the platform where diplomas are awarded (except that they're just diploma cases--the actual sheepskin comes later). By the time they get to me, the seniors will have been cleared by the Records office and placed on the official Commencement list, led to their seats by my assistant Marshals, and cleared one final time by the Marshal closest to me in seniority, who will carefully check the list to make sure students approach the platform in the correct order. 

I stand at the bottom of the ramp like Gandalf blocking the Balrog's way, and I wield immense power in deciding whether to let each student pass up the ramp, but a good Marshal does not abuse her power. Instead, I will employ very strict criteria, to wit: how many students are already standing on the ramp? We wouldn't want it to collapse in the middle of Commencement, would we?

Come to think of it, the Balrog would make a great nightmare beast, far more frightening than a screaming administrator. The Balrog is not concerned about the racial or ethnic composition of the class moving toward the platform, and neither, when you get right down to it, am I. When I stand at the end of that ramp allowing students to ascend to glory one by one, my only concern is to keep the procession moving and guard against utter and complete collapse.

No wonder I'm having nightmares. If the Balrog shows up, I'm tossing him a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans.