Friday, August 29, 2014

Ode to the uncommon comma

There's no abasement
in quibbling over placement
of a comma,
even if yo' momma
(or Lynn Truss,
who must
be disgus-
ted with us)
taught you the rules.
You're not a fool
just because you want to color outside the lines
Intelligent people
can be deepl-
y divided
(in often one-sided
over punctuation.
So skip the drama
and place the comma
(on purpose, not by accident)
where it's meant
to be.
And if we
every once in a while,
we'll do it with style.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Feasting on color

This time of year it's exciting to consider all the colors in the garden: deep purple eggplants hiding behind gray-green leaves, mottled watermelons angled among vines, yellow sunflower blooms stretching into the sky. 

This year we planted rainbow Swiss chard, with bright red, yellow, and orange stalks teasing the eye like a candy-shop window display. And how can so many different colors coexist on the same tomato plant? They'll all turn red eventually and then I'll have to process them, but for now I'm happy to feast my eyes on their luscious colors. Mm-mm good!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

First-day oddities

Some things just don't compute:
  • Of the 10 women in my 9:00 class, 7 have names beginning with C or K, including three Chelseas. What are the odds?
  • To help me get to know my new students, I ask them to respond to questions related to the course material when I call roll in the first week or two of class. Yesterday's questions were "Who's your favorite African-American author?" and "What's the funniest thing you read or saw over the summer?" The most common answer, provided by more than half of the students in each class, was "I don't know" or "I can't think of anything."
  • Who is teaching students that addressing a professor as "Miss [First Name]" is a great idea? I'd like to get hold of that person for a good talking-to. This is not kindergarten, and I am not Miss Beverly.
  • It's always interesting to give students a writing prompt on the first day of class and see how they interpret the word "essay." Of the alleged essays I received yesterday, only a handful have a thesis statement or extend beyond a single paragraph. The good news is that most of them include some really interesting ideas.
Looks like I've got my work cut out for me! Time to tackle Day Two: all freshpersons, all the time. Wish me luck!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hup, two, three, four, bring your pencils in the door!

Fall classes start in an hour and I am ready! In fact I've been ready for a week but had to wait for students to actually arrive. I'm never very good at waiting, which is why I spent last week saying Yes to everyone who asked me to do anything, including spending four hours one rainy morning helping incoming freshpersons unload their baggage in front of their dorm. (And let me just say this: if it takes four vehicles to tote all your baggage, you packed too much.)

I didn't want to spend the weekend obsessing over my classes, so I drove north (without my laptop!) to get some grandchild therapy. At one point my adorable granddaughter sat in my lap pointing at a picture of Humpty Dumpty and saying "Hup-hup," and I wanted to give her an A+. She's doing her homework, practicing new skills, and coming back later to build on those skills--just what I like to see in my students.

We'll see how well my students do today. I make them all write on the first day of class and I expect to see something significantly more sophisticated than "Hup-hup." I'll take them where they are and hope to move them to the next level by the end of the semester, but to make that happen, we have to start work right now. 

Am I ready? You bet! But let's hope they are too.   

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My new office!

Finally, photos of my new happy place!

The view from the doorway. The big window lets in plenty of light, and notice the utter absence of ugly green furniture.

Built-in bookshelves!

Storage closet and nook where I can hang regalia and jackets.

Plenty of room to tuck things away.

Feeling right at home here!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When abundance is a burden

My heart sings when I get home from campus and see a cooler full of ears of corn in the foyer, but then it sinks because I know the two of us can't eat 60 ears of corn before it goes bad and therefore someone is going to have to shuck and process all that corn for the freezer, and it looks like that someone is me.

This is the season of abundance. We took tomatoes to church and campus this week but today my kitchen counter is covered with more, and the fridge is full of broccoli, beans, radishes, peppers, squash, swiss chard, and I don't know what else. Downstairs bunches of basil hang from the ceiling to dry, and the potato bin is brimming with spuds.

I can't complain because I love to eat fresh veggies, but I do complain because I don't always love to process them. And now I'm busy with another kind of abundance on campus--meetings, paperwork, class preps, and then more meetings. I need to hire some part-time help to process the vegetables so I can focus on classes, or vice versa. 

Good thing I'm not in this alone. I came home full of energy yesterday and processed the corn, but tonight I'm dragging so my sweet hubby is taking care of the beans. First, though, it's time to dig into a little bit of heaven: the first cantaloup of the season. You won't hear any complaints about that kind of abundance!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Please don't kick the colleagues

I need to stop admitting out loud that my syllabi are done or one of my colleagues is going to kick me. Sorry! I can't help it that I'm totally neurotic about deadlines! And I don't know what came over me when I agreed to attend 13 different meetings and events this week, some of which require me to actually present information! With all that going on, there's no way writing syllabi would fit into this ridiculous week.

This morning I've been making progress on all those petty little details that must be completed before classes begin, but I keep running into dead ends. Speaking of wanting to kick a colleague, did you know that all it takes to derail a powerful committee is to refuse to respond to e-mail? It doesn't matter that all the rest of the committee members have dutifully sent me their scheduling information--the one holdout will prevent the committee from taking a single step this semester. Applying for tenure or promotion this year? Sorry, folks! The committee can't schedule any meetings until that one guy reads his e-mail! No tenure for anyone!

Rumor has it that people are having trouble sending files to the department photocopier this morning. Good thing I got all my photocopying done before the trouble started! Oh, and by the way, I used up all the pretty yellow paper! I'll just sit here and watch my colleagues struggle--but I'd better look busy or someone's bound to kick me.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wind, waves, weeds, beauty

Around noon yesterday we grounded our canoe on a mud flat and ate sloppy sandwiches while watching wind ripple through the tall grass alongside the lake. The grasses and reeds swayed in waves, softly rustling. The only other sound was the occasional blue heron squawk and, somewhere in the distance, a muted beep-beep from a big truck backing up.

Ask me what we saw on our canoe outing yesterday and I'll tell you "Not much": wind, water, swaying reeds, a few herons and kingfishers and a pair of eagles. And beauty so stunning I can't begin to express it.

This morning I read an article in the Atlantic exploring "The Beauty-Happiness Connection"  (read it here). Scientists who study the sources of happiness (and who wouldn't want that job?) conclude that being in the presence of beauty--even ordinary, everyday beauty--is closely correlated with feelings of happiness, perhaps because beauty "is able to conjure the feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps surprisingly, hope."

What's hope got to do with it? According to the article's author, Cody D. Delistrati, "the beauty around us--the sky-high nave of the Westminster Cathedral, the ability to appreciate a simple lunch--offers hope that life can inch closer to perfection."

The search for perfection, of course, is a double-edged sword: seeking the ideal leads the perfectionist to live in a constant state of disappointment. Which is why it's so wonderful when beauty crops up serendipitously in the midst of an imperfect world, such as wind blowing soft ripples across a sea of water and grass. I couldn't recreate that beauty in word or picture without leaving out the most important part: being there, imperfectly. 

But we couldn't stay there. We didn't have enough sandwiches to last forever and there are no porta-potties in the lake, so finally we turned around and paddled directly into the wind. The same wind that had contributed so much beauty and peace was suddenly a force to be reckoned with, pushing us around the lake and making us pour every ounce of energy into paddling just to make slow progress back to the boat ramp. It was exhausting and exhilarating and occasionally a little frightening.

So when I recall yesterday's canoe trip I may think of the calm moments of beauty with our backs to the wind or the strenuous effort of paddling with our faces to the wind. Add them both together and the result is happiness.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer sweetness

The reward for all that weeding: sweet corn fresh from the garden! The solar electric fence is doing a great job keeping the raccoons and deer away from the corn, but if you take your harvest out on the back porch to shuck it, you'd better be willing to share with Hopeful!

In other news, I have somehow promised to do various important things for various important people and groups at 11 different times next week, plus possibly a twelfth on Monday. Up until today, I had Monday free, but NOOOO. It's nice to be needed, but this is ridiculous. What have I done to myself?

Ah, but that's next week. I still have a smidgen of this week to enjoy, and that means sweet corn today and getting the canoe out on a nice quiet lake tomorrow. I intend to squeeze the last bit of sweetness out of summer in hopes that it will carry me through the deluge.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A syllabus I can live with

Constructing a syllabus is an exercise in chopping: start with a long list of wonderful readings and then trim to fit the time available. Sometimes this can be quite painful, but lately I've been taking the long view: No room for Henry James this time? I'll teach him next time. No room for Sara Orne Jewett in American Lit Survey? I'll move her to Concepts of Nature.

This represents a profound shift from my early years of teaching literature, when I felt compelled to teach every student everything I knew in every class. The Firehose Approach to teaching--be sure to bring an umbrella!

I'm still packing an outrageous amount of reading and writing into every syllabus, but you wouldn't believe the things I've been cutting out. For example, the new Norton Anthology of African American Literature grew so huge that they broke it into two volumes, which is a good thing because the one-volume version served as a personal weight-training regimen. Each of the two volumes includes over 1400 pages. That's nearly 3000 pages of small print that I could assign in my African-American Lit class, which is too much even for an upper-level class.

And so I'm chopping. Ruthlessly. Sometimes it hurts, but let's not forget the payoffs: trim a little in the slave-narrative part of the syllabus and suddenly I have room for Nella Larsen. Shove a couple of modern poets out the window so Suzan-Lori Parks can walk through the door. Trim a little here, chop a little there, and before you know it I have a syllabus I can live with.

For now. But just wait until next time!   

Monday, August 11, 2014

Not Shibbolethless

In the midst of a busy morning of typing and clicking and clicking and typing, I encountered this:

I've been authenticated before, but never in quite these terms. My laptop computer pronounced Shibboleth correctly and was allowed to cross the Jordan! Makes me feel so special.

Some Googling reveals that Shibboleth has evolved beyond its biblical roots, as I am apparently the last person on the planet to learn. Shibboleth can still refer to words or customs (particularly "outmoded" belief, according to some definitions) that identify a particular group, but Shibboleth is also "among the world's most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations."

(Federated Identity Solutions: institutional jargon or great name for a rock band?)

Whatever it is, I'm delighted that my laptop passed the Shibboleth test because at the moment this computer is connection to the wider world. We're accustomed to having no cell-phone coverage out here in the woods, but for the past month our landline has been in decline. First it was infected with a bad case of loud static, but after we filed a complaint with Frontier, the static went away--but so did the service. We now have a dead line, total silence, not even a dial tone, and Frontier is not responding to my e-mails.

On the plus side, we're not answering a dozen robo-calls every day. On the other hand, we need a phone. If my house decided to burn down right now, I would have no way to dial 911--and what if I were suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to hear my adorable granddaughter giggle? Dead phone = it's not happening.

But our internet connection, amazingly enough, is stronger than ever. Gone are the days of ultra-slow dial-up or unreliable wireless access; my genius son-in-law installed an antenna that boosts our signal so that I can do just about anything online except view video. In fact, I've even used my laptop to make voice calls over Skype, which worked well enough to make me wonder whether we ought to cancel the land-line entirely. Would my tech-resistant spouse be willing to master a new technology? Or would that be a Shibboleth too far?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

So that's where dance crazes come from!

A little while ago when I walked straight into a spider web at mouth level, I didn't fuss or squawk but simply accepted it as my due, cosmic payback for my unsympathetic response to the little dance my husband performed this morning after we got home from church. He's normally not a dancing person thanks to severe congenital rhythm impairment, but when a bee started buzzing around inside the pants of his most dignified preaching suit, he started busting out some pretty impressive moves.

He did get stung--on the leg--but fortunately, he's not allergic. He will live to dance another day. Maybe he'll inspire a new dance craze! If hordes of young people all over the planet suddenly start jerking spastically to the Bees-In-My-Pants Dance, you'll know who started it.

I won't be doing the dance (I hope!) but I found three black swallowtail butterflies dancing around the butterfly weed in our upper meadow. That's more butterflies than I've seen in one place all summer long, and they were definitely worth a face full of spider web. 

I didn't see the spider. Absent or hiding? And what would the Spider-In-My-Pants Dance look like? 

Friday, August 08, 2014

Fulfilling my zucchini's destiny

A message in my e-mail inbox urges me to "Fulfill your sewing destiny," which may be difficult considering that I can no longer see well enough to thread a needle. No matter, though: this week I've been too busy fulfilling my office-painting, book-moving, syllabus-constructing, broccoli-chopping, veggie-processing, and online-shoe-shopping destiny to worry about my sewing destiny. Who decided that it would be a good idea to harvest a whole bushel of Swiss chard the day I moved into my new office? And who, exactly, is responsible for overlooking that one zucchini until it grew big enough to require a separate storage silo? 

This is true: I shredded half of that zucchini to make eight loaves of zucchini bread. Yes. How can people be starving anywhere in the world?

The good news is that my syllabi are pretty much done and my office is done except for plants and picture-hanging, and it's not likely that we'll have that much zucchini, broccoli, and Swiss chard in the kitchen at one time anytime soon. My many-meeting-marathon begins August 18, which leaves next week wide open for finishing up my summer writing and research projects. If all goes well, we may even get the canoe out again.

Wait: if we hollow out that giant zucchini, do you think it will float?  

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The whining wheel

When I arrived on campus this morning, the very helpful woman who keeps my office clean accosted me with a question: "Are you going to try out every office in the building until you find one you like?"

Not a bad idea! But no, I hope this is my final move. Yesterday my husband and I painted my new office and packed up some boxes and this morning the carpenter came in to fix broken things before a student arrived with a bunch of library book carts to help me move all my books. I've now unpacked and put things where they belong, with the exception of a small pile of stuff on my desk, annoying papers that need to be filed and books that need to be returned to others. (There's nothing like an office move to make missing items miraculously appear.)

Yesterday I overheard a little grumbling about why I got to move upstairs to an office with a window when others who have been in the dungeon even longer were not offered the same option. I could present highly persuasive arguments involving seniority and the need to be close to the rest of my department, but what it all comes down to is whining. I complained--a lot--to the right people. Yes: for two years I have been the squeaky wheel, and finally I found some grease. I think the final straw was when the provost visited my dungeon office on a day when I was bundled up in a blanket and couldn't get my fingers to fly across the keyboard because they were so cold. A little drama, a lot of whining, and here I am in a lovely office with a big window and lots of light.

Hey, I can have plants again! This office seems like the perfect environment for growing things--maybe a philodendron or two and maybe, if I'm lucky, an end to whining and a whole lot of peace.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

On golden sand

What's this leaf? Looks yummy! Let's try!
The other evening I watched my granddaughter discover sand, and you would have thought she'd found a cache of gold dust. First she bent over and ran her fingers through this odd new substance, and then she picked up a few tentative handfuls to see what this stuff could do. Before too long she was lying down in it, petting the sand as if it were the back of an immense cat, sifting it through her fingers, squishing her toes in the sand, throwing it in the air to see how far it could fly--she even took a little taste of sand but decided it wasn't at all yummy. 

As I watch her discovering marvelous things I try to remember my children at that stage, but I keep coming up blank. Did I delight in their discoveries as I do with my granddaughter, or was I too overwhelmed by the demands of parenting to take notice? I don't remember. A few distinctive moments stand out, mostly those that have become a part of family lore: Horse of Beauty; the pumpkin patch; the great lemonade incident. When did my children first discover the joys of sand? I have no idea.

Maybe this is what makes grandparenting great: it takes me back to the joy of discovery, the sheer delight of finding a whole new world full of wonders. I guess sometimes it takes a child to help me see the wonders in a grain of sand. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Hidden treasure in the hollows

Early morning sentinel on the lake
Living in Florida, I grew accustomed to seeing little lakes around every turn in the road, but with a few exceptions, Ohio lakes hide in deep hollows behind thick curtains of trees.  For years we drove up and down I-77 without any awareness of the gorgeous lakes hiding just beyond the trees--Wolf Run and Seneca and Salt Fork and more. Today we went further afield to find a gem of a lake I'm reluctant to name because I wouldn't want it to be overrun with tourists.

We left the Interstate to follow country roads that probably weren't designed to withstand the heavy truck traffic produced by hydraulic fracturing; we drove past Amish farmsteads and over hills and through little towns named Cadiz and Smyrna and Freeport, past Fish Hook Lane and Nibble Lane and a road named Tippecanoe (which we didn't), finally bumping our way down a road more pothole than pavement that led to lovely Clendening Lake

Green heron--hard to spot, harder to photograph.
Reputed to be "Ohio's largest undeveloped lake," Clendening is tucked amidst hills with no signs of human habitation except a marina and an occasional glimpse of a country road that crosses a neck of the lake over a bridge just high enough to allow a canoe underneath. On the way back we saw two Amish women and a boy fishing in the cool shade under the bridge and we saw their carriage parked near the road--but where was the horse? "Maybe they cut it up for bait," said the resident comedian.

Early this morning mist hung over the glassy lake, but later it lifted and we paddled in bright sun. A few fishing boats puttered around the edges, but in the shallow coves we heard no sound but the birds--and what birds! We watched three or four kingfishers swooping to grab fish from the water, and later we saw at least a half dozen green herons and many great blues. At the upper end of the lake we paddled through a maze of tall reeds to find Brushy Fork, a quiet creek that feeds the lake and leads through woods so still the only sound was the splash of the paddle. 

We wanted to explore more--that skinny cove beyond the bridge, the deeper end of the lake toward the dam--but the heat and humidity ramped up so we pulled out after nearly four hours, having explored less than half of the length of the lake. More for next time! I want to go back in the fall to see those hills awash with color, and next time we'll take fishing gear and see if we can bring home some of the big bass we saw jumping in every direction.

Funny, but in all the years I've lived in Ohio, I've never heard anyone mention Clendening Lake or seen it mentioned in the travel section. Perhaps there's a conspiracy afoot to keep its treasures secret so it won't get trashed. If so, the secret's safe with me. Shhh! Don't tell a soul!

Paddling up Brushy Fork