Friday, June 27, 2014

Flunking in the clutch

I see in the news (here) that three aspiring carjackers in Seattle were thwarted by a lack of education. They earned an A+ in proper carjacking attire (hoodies) and selection of victim (70-year-old lady), but they must have skipped Carjacking 101 the day they covered How to Drive a Manual Transmission. That's right: the three youthful hooligans piled into a manual transmission car but couldn't figure out what to do with that extra pedal left of the brake.

70-year-old ladies 1, youthful hooligans 0.

Next time I'm feeling inadequate as a parent, I'll remind myself that despite my failings, I equipped my children with the skills they'll need should they ever decide to take up a life of crime. It wasn't easy teaching them to find that sweet spot where the clutch engages without bucking or stalling, but now I know it was worth it. If they ever approach a 70-year-old woman intent on stealing her car, at least they'll be able to make a clean getaway. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Invasion of the Academic Publishing Monkeys

I've reached the point in my writing project when I'm forced to face certain annoying questions:

Which would be worse, cutting 1000 words or transforming the entire manuscript from MLA to Chicago style?

Would I rather submit to a smaller publication with a good chance of acceptance but poor editing, or take the risk on a more exclusive publication with better editing?

Submit to a journal that has published me before or stretch out into new territory?

Which would be worse: waiting six weeks for a rejection or two years for a revise-and-resubmit?

And how can I keep writing with these unanswered questions jumping up and down on my back like playful monkeys? I swat them down but they pop right back up again to pester me and laugh at my paralysis. I'm tempted to hand the whole writing process over to them, but how many monkeys and how many typewriters would it take to produce a masterpiece? 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Advice to tourists: don't be sucky

Trail through a green world.

We're sitting on a rock wall in the Hocking Hills catching our breath after a strenuous hike through the most sublime and wondrous landscape in Ohio when a woman stalks up to the wall, takes one look at the waterfall in front of us, and says, "This sucks."

My husband and I give each other a look--you know what kind of look I'm talking about. If that look could speak, it would say something like this:

"This sucks?" No, this does not suck. What could possibly suck about a waterfall? Granted, it's not Niagara Falls, but it's lovely and majestic and located in a ravine full of swaying ferns, birds, butterflies, turtles, massive colorful rock formations, and shade, lovely cool shade protecting us from the 90-degree heat.
Rock embraced by tree roots.

But maybe by "this" you refer not to the waterfall but to the narrow cable designed to discourage visitors from plunging into the pool beneath the soaring rock face. The cable wasn't there last time we visited, but if you lived in the area, you'd read news stories every summer about hikers venturing too far off the trail and plunging to a painful death in Hocking Hills State Park. The cable may discourage a few disasters, but if you don't like it, you can simply step over and explore the waterfall from a closer vantage point. Go ahead! Lots of people are doing it! And if you drown, so much better for the gene pool. (Wait, did I say that out loud?)

I could almost understand your "This sucks" attitude if you were a surly adolescent forced to accompany the old fogies on a visit to a natural wonder, but you look to be a thirtysomething mom with a pair of impressionable kids in tow. Great way to introduce the youngsters to the wonders of nature! "Look, kids, this sucks! Let's go do something else!"

I'll tell you what sucks: tourists who hike through this secluded ravine without any concern for what they leave behind. I wish we'd brought some trash bags with us to pick up all the water bottles, Coke cans, McDonald's containers, and other trash previous visitors dropped alongside the trails--but if we'd loaded up with other people's trash, we wouldn't have been able to squeeze through the tight spots between rocks or clamber over treacherous steep spots. 
Me watching light reflections dancing on rock face.

Somewhere under there is a great big rock.
Pollution sucks. People who treat nature like a landfill suck. People so blind to the glories of nature that they abuse its wonders suck. And if you are determined to be one of those people, maybe you'd better take your vacation somewhere and leave Hocking Hills to those of us who can appreciate it. Or, better yet, maybe you'd better sit down, open your eyes, and let your soul be sucked into submission to the beauty of nature.      

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writing in public (and researching too)

I just finished the last bit of research for a 30-page essay while sitting in a booth at McDonald's. It was pretty minor research--locate the publication info on some academic articles for which I neglected to take sufficient notes--but still, I'm in McDonald's! I'm old enough to remember hours spent in academic libraries leafing through volume after bricklike volume of the print edition of the MLA International Bibliography, something you couldn't begin to accomplish while eating a sloppy lunch. That's pretty exciting.

Here's what's even more exciting: I have finally finished the essay that arose out of my sabbatical research. My sabbatical, for those who haven't been paying attention, was in spring of 2012. Two years is way too long to spend on a single essay, but I've been busy. I need to clear the decks to prepare for the next big project, an essay I've been invited to write for an anthology on Southern gothic literature, so it was high time to finally finish off the sabbatical project. Put a fork in it and call it done!

Except maybe not a plastic fork. How do I get greasy fork tines out of my keyboard?

What is the sound of one hoof clapping?

The neighbors' cows look placid this morning, but they're capable of stampeding at a moment's notice. I know this because the last time I walked up near the cow pasture, Hopeful charged toward the fence and startled the cows on the other side. She's an intelligent dog who knows better than to tangle with a barbed-wire fence, but the cows don't know that. This morning they eyed us with some concern.

On the power line above the pasture a mockingbird was running through his repertoire. I read somewhere that female mockingbirds are attracted to the males who voice the greatest variety of calls, and if that's true, this guy must be the Alpha male of the mockingbird flock--he sounded like a birdsong CD set on random. Every few minutes he would flip up off the power line and do an acrobatic maneuver like an aerial cartwheel, and then he would settle back down to sing some more. Was he taking a bow? I didn't notice any cows clapping.

Careful observation reveals that the oriole nest in the big tulip poplar has been abandoned, and in fact I haven't seen or heard from any orioles since I returned from Louisville. The prairie warblers are still around, as are the indigo buntings, towhees, common yellowthroats, and about a million chipping sparrows. This morning I watched a Carolina wren digging up some sort of yummy grub from the front garden, and I sat there for a while trying to get some hummingbird photos but I was thwarted by a bossy little bird that sat on the phone line monitoring the feeders. Every time another hummingbird would come to feed, Mr. Boss-bird would swoop down and chase the other bird away. I snapped a few shots but captured nothing but colorful blurs.

Up our hill the milkweed is abundant and on the verge of blooming, which is good news for the butterfly population. I saw a bunch of fritillaries and some tiny blues but nothing else, and it occurs to me that I haven't seen a single tiger or zebra swallowtail so far this season. It's early--maybe they'll come back. And in other news, the volunteer catalpa tree growing way too close to the driveway has produced these lovely white blossoms frosted with pink. One of these days we'll have to cut that tree down to prevent it from infringing upon the driveway, but for now we're enjoying the show.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Night lights, just right

I mowed. I swept. I cleaned the sink.
I even washed the sheets (no lie!).
I swept the floors and now I think
I'll sit and look at fireflies.

I ought to wash my car or re-
arrange the furniture. I'd try,
but first there's nothing else to see
but flitting, flashing fireflies.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

The best things in life aren't things

What a difference a day makes! The minute I was released from rating essays for the Test That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I collected my colleague, dashed to the car, and hit the highway for the five-hour drive home, with just one brief stop for gas and an even briefer detour to figure out how to get back to the turn I'd missed. I hoped to get home in time to see my adorable grandbaby, who was visiting my house with her parents, but we worked later than expected Sunday afternoon so she was already asleep by the time I got home.

But no one else was. In fact, my house was buzzing with activity; young people were sawing baseboards, painting a ceiling, installing new flooring. As a Mother-and-Father's Day gift for us, my kids fixed up the guest bathroom, transforming it from dreary to gleaming, with a new floor that doesn't look as if it's been mauled by wolverines.

They put the finishing touches on it this morning while I played "Let's Put Ridiculous Things On Our Head" with my granddaughter. I don't know what made me happier: the little one's laughter or the sound of my son and son-in-law working together to reinstall the toilet. What did I ever do to deserve such great kids?

I came home with fatigued eyes (reading, driving) and sore shoulders (hunching over essays, driving) and stiff hips (sitting all day long), but today I restored my tissues with a great hike in the woods followed by lunch and some serious loafing. One of these days I may start to feel like reading again, but today I've been feasting my eyes on things that look nothing like words: a new floor, a freshly painted ceiling, some trees, a creek, and a curly-topped kid with a colander on her head. What could be better than that?      

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Just a closer walk with beans

You will be relieved to know that I did not raise my voice and belt out the Butter Beans Song during tonight's dinner. It's a simple song devoted to simple southern food, a tune I first heard sung by a country band at the Zellwood Sweet Corn Festival some years ago, to the tune of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee": 

Just a bowl of butter beans,
Pass the cornbread if you please.
I don't want no collard greens!
Just a bowl of butter beans.

I have been known to belt out this tune whenever lima beans appear in my presence, but this evening I dined out with some colleagues at the Mayan Cafe (and if you're in Louisville, here's how to find it), where we sat on the patio enjoying the summer breeze while eating the best Mayan food this side of--well, I don't know where else Mayan food is served so you figure it out. I had the Cochinita Pibil, wonderfully tender roast pork in a piquant sauce with something called tok-sel lima beans, and since I don't have the first clue what tok-sel might be I'll just say they were way too classy for the Butter Beans Song. 

And besides, I was with people I actually like, and I wouldn't want to risk getting booted out of their company because of a knee-jerk hick reaction to lima beans. 

The beans were great. The pork was great. The three of us split an order of chocolate bread pudding for dessert, and that was great too. The walk was great and the talk was great and everything about the evening was great great great, not just because the Mayan Cafe is great but because today we finished our final full day of reading essays for the Test That Dare Not Speak Its Name. We have a meeting in the morning and then more reading until we're done, but I doubt that it'll take all day. I've already packed my bags so the minute they release us we can hop in the car and head back to Ohio.

Not that I haven't enjoyed myself (see above re: lima beans), but enough is enough. I've read just over 1600 essays, some of them coherent and a few quite good, but after today's reading, I'm ready to throw in the towel. A minute ago I asked my roommate whether I ought to return next year and she said, "Of course you will--it'll be my last year here." Throw a visit to the Mayan Cafe into the pot and it's a deal.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gone aloofing

I seem to be suffering from a surfeit of words.

Four four days I've been reading essays for The Test That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and I have two more days to go. I'm reading 250 to 300 essays a day, which is a little off last year's pace but still a lot of essays. Some are brief and some are blank but many go on for page after page after page. I'm not permitted to reveal anything about the prompt or the essays so I can't share with you, for instance, a perfectly charming use of an obscure adjective as a verb, but I can tell you this: that's a lot of words. (Many of them spelled correctly!)

And then there are my colleagues. Spending eight hours a day in a big room with a thousand English teachers has its charms, especially when they let us loose for a break and all our saved-up gems of student writing come spilling out, but I've been working with these people all week and I've shared every breakfast, lunch, and supper with them. Last night we went to a minor-league baseball game (perfect evening, exciting game, and the Louisville Bats won!), and tonight we'll wander off to Shakespeare in the Park to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, and while I'm enjoying them all immensely, that's a lot of people sharing a lot of words all day long.

At home I can spend whole summer days speaking to no one but my husband and my dog (and sometimes just my dog) and doing nothing more exciting than paddling upstream or watching hummingbirds zip around the feeder or spending long stretches of time alone accompanied by the tap-tap-tap of fingers on the keyboard. Some would consider this a boring life, but summer is my time for extended work on research and writing projects--and besides, silence and solitude feed my soul.

This week my soul is hibernating and my brain is being pelted by a constant onslaught of words, which is why this morning I've decided to eschew breakfast with the ravening hordes. I have juice and granola bars in my room, so I shall hold myself aloof and possess my soul in silence. That's right: I've gone aloofing. Tomorrow I shall have aloofed.     

Monday, June 09, 2014

Applause from a little swinger

When I'm immersed in a pile of fair-to-middling student essays and wondering how many hundreds more I'll have to read before lunch, I lift up my eyes from the page and see in front of me this wonderful photo of my granddaughter smiling and swinging and clapping her hands. I imagine that she's cheering me on: "Yay Grandma! You can do it! Keep reading! Go go go!" And I do.

Sometimes it's the small things that make me go on. And on and on and on. One day down! Only six more days of reading essays in Louisville! Woo-hoo! Applause all around!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

When the invisible chickens come home to roost

I stood on a streetcorner in Louisville wondering why I wasn't seeing chickens. "They ought to be right around here," I told my new  acquaintance.

"Sure," she said. "A flock of chickens in the middle of the city. I believe you." 

"I swear I saw them last year, right in this corner of the park" I insisted. "A flock of colorful steel folk-art birds, geese and flamingos and ducks and chickens."

"Regular or extra-crispy?"

My companion had asked me to show her the way to the new pedestrian bridge across the Ohio River, and since it's a gorgeous evening for a walk, I was happy to oblige--"And we can swing by the chicken park on the way back." She was disinclined to believe in the chicken park, but I know I posted photos two years ago (sure enough, here they are!) and I can't imagine that a big flock of colorful steel birds would just vanish.

"Maybe they've flown south," she suggested, but then I spotted the chicken park--but no chickens. No birds of any kind. We looked at the sign referring to "The 28 colorful steel sculptures before you," but behind the sign was a vacant lot with no sign of chickens or any other kind of birds.

"Did I mention that they were invisible chickens?" I asked.

She laughed and said, "At least now I know you weren't making them up." 

Have the chickens flown the coop or is this mysterious disappearance part of a massive anti-avian conspiracy? A little research (read it here) reveals that the steel sculptures recently traveled to Oberlin, Ohio, for restoration, but they're posting regular photos and updates on their progress. Yes: the birds are tweeting (here).

So the birds flew north while I was preparing to come south to see them. Next time I'll stay home and let the chickens visit me!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Whacker, whacked

I wanted to call this Thoughts While Weed-Whacking, but thought doesn't really enter into the process. Weed-Whacking Rambles. Random Bullets of Weed-Whacking. Have You Whacked a Weed Today? Nope, nothing doing.

One thing is certain: Robert Frost never would have written any lyrical poems about mowing if he'd used a weed-whacker instead of a scythe. Nothing contemplative or lyrical or pretty about weed-whacking. You go out and whack some weeds. Sometimes they whack back, tossing bits of gooey green glop onto your goggles or smacking you right in the lips with a stone. The process of whacking and being whacked engenders not one iota of poetry.

I weed-whacked around the end of the driveway and on the steep slopes where the driveway approaches the bridge, and I was pleased to see that some of our plantings have recovered from last summer's flood. Four yuccas are back in force and a mess of crown vetch is blooming, albeit not exactly where it was planted. I found plenty of weeds to whack, many of them bound tightly together by wild morning glory vines. If morning glories were money, we'd be in Tahiti right now. Not to mention creeping charlie, pokeweed, and jewel weed--and is that poison ivy over there? Yes! A bumper crop!

I steer clear of the poison ivy. The worst poison ivy outbreak I ever suffered was a result of overzealous weed-whacking, and I don't relish the thought of sitting in a room in Louisville eight hours a day next week reading student essays while trying not to scratch my poison ivy. Let someone else deal with the poison ivy--I've got plenty of other weeds to whack. I only hope they don't whack back.  

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Change is afoot--in living color!

Old and new
When I first tried on my new walking shoes, I had to reassure myself: at least they don't look like old-lady shoes. Unless, of course, the old lady is colorblind. Or suffering from dementia or a terminal lack of taste. Next week I'll be walking the streets of Louisville while random strangers glance at my new shoes and then throw me that pitying gaze we reserve for the damaged who walk amongst us. Poor old girl, they'll tell themselves, but how brave that she's still willing to step out in public in her condition.

But I bought them anyway. Better than going barefoot, right?

I’m not sure just when my good walking shoes transformed themselves into my old walking shoes, but this spring they slid far enough down that slippery slope to become my stomping-around-in-mud shoes. It was clearly time for some new shoes and I wanted some just like my old walking shoes, the only walking shoes I’ve ever owned that don’t make my right big toe go numb. (Don’t ask. I can’t explain it.) So I went to the athletic shoe store at the mall to find a replacement pair.

There are actually two athletic shoe stores at our mall, but long ago I realized that the sales clerks in one of the stores all suffer from a peculiar visual deficiency—call it middle-aged lady blindness. I walk in the store and they see this sort of shimmering void, and the only way to convince them that I exist is to wave a shiny credit card in front of their eyes, but even then they’ll act as if I’m interrupting some very important activity, like staring into space. Since that store refuses to see me, I refuse to recognize the store’s existence and I go to the other athletic shoe store, which for me is the only athletic shoe store.

There I found my walking shoes in the right brand, style, and size, but I wouldn’t call it the color right. In fact I’m not quite sure what to call that color; it looks like what Rainbow Brite would vomit after drinking too much Windex. I wouldn’t call it me, exactly, but I need new shoes now and alternate colors available for order aren’t all that much better, so I bought the shoes. 

Now I walk the country roads looking as if I’ve just stolen the shoes right off the feet of a colorblind demented taste-deprived old lady—but at least I’m not invisible!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Don't read this! Or else!

We saw this sign while driving to a canoe outing yesterday and had the dickens of a time trying to obey it. Go ahead, give it a shot. Tell me how it works out. 

I wonder who enforces this edict? And what sorts of penalties would scofflaws face? You'd need a jail cell the size of the planet to lock 'em all up, including the law enforcement officers, attorneys, and judges, who couldn't possibly prosecute offenders without violating the sign.

Let he who is without sin, um, never mind.

Monday, June 02, 2014

An argument I can't win (or lose)

If you've ever tried to play Monopoly against yourself (or chess or checkers or any other game of strategy), you know it's not very satisfying to play an opponent whose best moves you know by hard, and even if you favor one of your selves over the other, no matter who wins, you always lose.

Arguing against myself works the same way. This week I've been trying to persuade myself that yes, I will go to Louisville next week whether I want to or not so I'd better stop griping and adopt a Positive Mental Attitude, but an argument I can't win is also an argument I can't quit. In other words, I'm not a particularly fun person to be around right now. In fact, I'm kind of tired of hearing myself grumble, so if I could figure out a way to kick myself to the curb, I'd do it.

The problem is I don't want to go to Louisville. I have to go to Louisville and I know I will enjoy certain aspects of Louisville, but nevertheless I don't want to go to Louisville next week to read two or three thousand essays written by high school students for the Test That Dare Not Speak Its Name. On the plus side, Louisville is a nice enough city and I like my roommate and I'll get to hang out with a thousand English teachers from all over the country, but on the other hand, I don't want to go.

So don't go. No one's holding a gun to your head.

Bills! Car loans, student loans, the high cost of health care and home improvement, no faculty raises for two years in a row! Bills bills bills! 

Poppycock. You've already spent a week of your summer break being sick, and now you're going to hand over another week for filthy lucre?! It's just money!

Show me another way to make the entire summer budget deficit disappear with just one week of work. 

Deficit, shmeficit. Just cut out your fall vacation this year and don't buy and new teaching clothes and make sure your cars and major appliances don't break down. And don't get sick.

See? One small disaster and we'll be selling pencils on the streetcorner.

Pencils? Who uses pencils?

And another thing: I have to go. I've made a commitment.

Commitment shmommitment. What about your commitment to watch those orioles that keep carrying yummy tidbits to the young ones in the nest near the driveway? By the time you get back from Louisville, those nestlings will be packing up to go away to college. (At the University of Maryland, no doubt.)

There are birds in Louisville. Mostly house sparrows and seagulls. Pigeons. The occasional blue heron. River city birds. 

But you'll be stuck in a great big room reading essays eight hours a day and by the time you're done your eyeballs will be looking for a bridge to jump off of.

Well, if my eyeballs need to take a flying leap, the Ohio River will be handy. 

If you're so determined to go to Louisville, why do you keep complaining?

Because I don't want to go.

See? No end. I seem to have developed a monopoly on complaining, but what's the point of playing a game that I can't possibly win?