Saturday, December 26, 2015

Who let the grouch out?

Here's some totally unsolicited advice for people filling my mailbox with holiday cheer: If I have to use a magnifying glass to read your annual letter, you need to pick a bigger font. Let's face it: none of us are getting any younger, and while I might have been delighted decades ago to read two dense pages of 9-point faux script, these days I'm more likely to put it in the "do it later" pile, where it will sit visibly reproaching me until maybe mid-February, when I'll finally decide that all the news is out of date and toss the letter in the trash.

I confess that I hate writing our annual holiday letter, but certain persons who shall remain nameless really want the tradition to continue and are willing to perform annoying household tasks in exchange for my writing it, and certain other persons get miffed if they don't receive our annual letter, and so I comply, year after year, trying to find something interesting to say to people who, if they're really close to us, already know everything important that's happening in our lives--and if they're not really close to us, why would they care?

My strategy is to keep it simple: choose three great photos, one for the front and two for the back, and print 'em in color big enough to have an impact, and then write the letter itself in a readable font, no smaller than 12 point. I don't try to talk about everything we've done all year because, frankly, it's not that interesting. The people who send me holiday letters describing their exotic trips to Cancun or their new skydiving hobby aren't going to want to read about how many varieties of tomatoes we planted and how many hours we spent weeding the garden.

Instead, I choose a theme and mention a few interesting incidents related to the theme; this year it was all about seeking and finding, which gave me a chance to write about my granddaughter's love for turning over rocks to see what's underneath, which is way more interesting than, for instance, a list of every single lake or stream we've paddled on or all the accolades my children are earning or every little step we've undertaken in a particular home improvement projects. 

(Tell the truth: you've seen those letters, haven't you? Maybe even written them! Will you consider me a total Scrooge if I ask you to please not send them my way?)

My philosophy of holiday letters is simple: Leave them wanting more. Offer just a hint of interesting incident and move on. In the writing of annual holiday letters, as with many other indefensible but irresistible cultural practices, less is more. (Except when it comes to font size.)

Road trip: heading south!

I'm sitting on the sofa, drinking hot tea, coloring birds with my new rainbow of pencils, my house so silent that all I can hear is a mouse scrabbling in the hall closet (attracted to the poison bait, no doubt), when my husband opens the door and says, "Hear that?"

It's the creek. We don't hear the creek from the house unless it's pretty high, so apparently we had some rain while we were out of town for holiday granddaughter time. We got home after dark last night and didn't notice that the creek was high, but as long as it's not over the road, I'm not worrying about it. I have other things to worry about. 

Like that mouse. Okay, it's eating the poison bait, but that means it will die, which is, of course, the goal, but suppose it dies while we're out of town and sits there rotting for the next week and a half? Once (a long time ago, in a different house with a whole different level of vermin infestation) we came home from a long road trip and I collapsed in exhaustion onto the sofa, only to hop right back up again when I smelled that familiar smell: dead mouse under the sofa. I don't care to repeat that experience when we get back.

We're leaving for Florida tomorrow, stopping in North Carolina to visit my brother's family and then heading south to visit my parents and brother-in-law. I've been pulling all my shorts out of storage since temperatures are expected to be in the 80s down there, which won't be that much of a change since we've had temps in the 60s here lately. In fact, if we didn't have to pack for the trip, I'd be tempted to try out our new canoe paddles this week. But the canoe is not going with us to Florida. 

Let's stow the snow boots and search for sandals--we're heading south! I'll worry about mouse when we get back. (The creek can take care of itself.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In sync and in style

So stylish!
Here we are at the finals of the Synchronized Vacuuming competition, where Little E and Mommy will tackle the living room mess armed, respectively, with a Little Tykes play vac and a full-size Hoover Wind Tunnel. Fingers poise above the start buttons--and they're off!

They start their long program with a side-by-side parallel vacuuming extravaganza, but then they switch it up with a back-to-back move. Now Little E is running circles around Mommy--but wait, they're too close to the corner! Little E is stuck behind Mommy and the Hoover! That'll be a major point deduction if she can't find her way out--and can you believe your eyes! Little E and the Little Tykes vac duck under Mommy's legs and come zipping out the other side! The fans go wild!

Folks, you may never again see such a virtuoso display of synchronized vacuuming skills, and the judges are bound to give this dynamic duo extra style points for their colorful costumes. It just doesn't get better than this, folks--10s all around! The fans are on their feet! And, to top it all off, you've never seen a living room so clean! 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Robinson Jeffers on our (lack of) duty toward poetry

I've just finished reading Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet, an excellent brief biography in which James Karman claims that "Jeffers, like planet Earth, had a molten interior around which a thick mantle of stone had formed," which sounds about right to me. The photos carried me back to the poet's stone house in Carmel, and Karman's careful explication of historical and cultural contexts illuminate the poems without diminishing their power. It would be a great text to use in a class devoted to Jeffers, if I ever get a chance to teach such a thing. I was especially struck by this passage from an essay Jeffers wrote in 1948:
I have no sympathy with the notion that the world owes a duty to poetry, or any other art. Poetry is not a civilizer, rather the reverse, for great poetry appeals to the most primitive instincts. It is not necessarily a moralizer; it does not necessarily improve one's character; it does not even teach good manners. It is a beautiful work of nature, like an eagle or a high sunrise. You owe it no duty. If you like it, listen to it; if not, let it alone.
He may be right--but if everyone took this advice, then I'd never have a chance to introduce poetry-phobic students to the powerful poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Friday, December 18, 2015

In and out of the jury box

In retrospect, the worst part of serving on a jury this week was not, surprisingly, that time I missed a step coming out of the jury box and fell flat on my face in front of the judge and jury and attorneys and bailiff and clerk and security guards and social worker and various miscreants and then had to suffer all these strangers hovering solicitiously over me to ask whether I was okay when all I wanted to do was crawl under a pew and cry for about a week. 

That was a bad moment. It hurt. Still does. But it was only one of several horrible moments.

The first happened during jury selection, when I was safely ensconced toward the back of the courtroom with 14 people in the jury box and 12 ahead of me in line to replace anyone who got dismissed. Surely the judge and attorneys would not find valid reasons to dismiss 12 jurors, right? I felt certain that I would be heading home before the trial even started, but then as one juror after another offered compelling reasons for dismissal, the line of potential jurors in front of me got ever shorter until just one man sat between me and the dreaded box.

I'd been hearing him muttering under his breath in response to the judge's questions, and while I can't share the substance of his thoughts (but I'll paraphrase: "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Off with his head!"), I felt pretty certain that if he made it into the box, he'd be quickly dismissed. So when a juror was dismissed and my neighbor in the pew got called up, I knew I was in for it. 

And I was.

In for what?

Straining to listen to a low-quality recording of a detective questioning a distraught and inarticulate 19-year-old explaining that yes, he did have sex with that 12-year-old girl, but he never forced her and he always used a condom and he really really loves her.

That was bad. But that was not the worst.
The worst moment was when the prosecuting attorney gently but pointedly questioned the now 13-year-old victim about what part of his body he put into what part of her body and where they were when it happened and how many times and what happened next, and then what happened after that?

What would it be like for a child to tell such a story with all these people watching? The judge, the attorneys, the jurors--we all could have been as friendly and supportive as Mr. Rogers, but we were strangers listening to details of a very private story she clearly did not want to tell.

That was the worst. Much worse than falling down. After all, I fall down all the time and I generally find a way to get back up again, even if it hurts. I only hope that girl can do the same. 

In the end we never got a chance to deliberate over the case. After we'd been sitting in the jury room for more than an hour this morning wondering what was up, the judge came in to tell us that the defendant had changed his mind overnight and had just pleaded guilty to all charges, including some unrelated to the case we'd been hearing. "Your time hasn't been wasted," he said, "because we would not have gotten to this point if you had not been sitting in that box." 

The best part of jury duty? Not the $20 I earned to compensate me for my time, and not even the kind words from the wise judge. The best part was seeing justice served--and finally going home. That didn't hurt one bit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ho ho ho hum

My house smells like gingerbread and roasting pork and the peppermint extract I spilled making fudge, but where have all the juncos gone? Where's the winter cold and snow? Yesterday I drove through a cloudburst so intense that cars were pulling off the interstate due to poor visibility, and today I see green grass and gray sky and temperatures so warm my rhododendrons are setting buds. That's just wrong. On the other hand, if all that rain yesterday had been snow, no one would have been driving anywhere.

I was on the interstate because I needed to exchange a sweater I'd received as a birthday gift and the nearest Macy's store is a 150-mile round trip, but the trip didn't hurt so badly after I'd paid 95 cents per gallon for gas (with a dollar-off-per-gallon coupon) and then exchanged one lovely sweater (not my size) for two sweaters for me, an outfit for my granddaughter, and a pair of socks. I didn't really need the socks but I don't intend to make that trip again any time soon so I was determined to spend every penny of the store credit I received for the sweater, but they were having such great sales that I ended up with seven dollars left over. What can you buy in Macy's for seven dollars? Hence, new socks.

The fact that I have nothing of any interest to write about aside from unseasonably warm weather and new socks suggests that the pace of life has slowed significantly. Yes: my grades are all turned in and I've finished my spring semester syllabi and I'm on my way to boring myself to sleep. Good thing I have an assessment meeting all day tomorrow and jury duty on Thursday! Otherwise I'd have nothing to do but sit here and look out the window and write about nothing of any interest to anyone. Not a bad way to start my winter break!


Thursday, December 10, 2015

A little linky grading break

My eyes are blurry from squinting at every possible variety of student handwriting, from big swoopy swirls to tiny, faint block letters to chicken-scratchy blotches, but I'm stuck in a classroom for the next two hours while proctoring my final final exam. So let's give the old eyeballs a break and look at pretty things:

If you haven't visited the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar, now is the time to repair that oversight (here). My favorite is number 8, but we still have half of December to go!

Speaking of space exploration, published four poems in which G.L. Grey addresses various heavenly bodies (here); my favorite offers advice to the Voyager II space probe:

                          .... I won't tell you
to embrace the space between destinations,
call someplace empty endurable, worthy.

But when you hit that unknowable edge,
Earth's message tucked inside your metal heart,
resist despair.
And speaking of embracing empty spaces, I recently watched the movie Mr. Turner on DVD, a beautiful and terrible and slow and not particularly pleasant glimpse into the life of the artist JMW Turner. I found the silent interactions between artist and landscape intensely moving, and I had to go take a new look at some of his art (here). They're like a vacation for tired eyes.   
I'm already tired of seeing these Harry & David Christmas sweater cookies pop up in my newsfeed (here). They're so cute that I want to give them a big hug, which would be a mistake and inevitably result in a shower of cookie crumbs all over my sweater, which might inspire me to go out and buy one like this. Then again maybe not.

I wouldn't call it pretty, but if you still need some great holiday gift ideas, head on over to Dave Barry's annual holiday gift guide (here). I don't know about you, but I definitely know someone who needs a camouflage kilt. If any of you are tempted to send me the wearable hummingbird feeder, I would much prefer that you go visit the Nature Conservancy website (here) and support the migratory bird resting area. I don't need any more plushed stuffed animals, no matter how adorable they might be, but it would make me happy at Christmas to know that some sandhill cranes might find a hospitable place to rest their wings.

Now that we're done resting our eyeballs, let's go grade those exams!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Acknowledging some universal truths of teaching

I wouldn't be sitting in my office right now if I hadn't violated one of the Universal Rules of College Teaching: If a student begs for a face-to-face meeting outside of office hours because it's the only time he can possibly meet, he won't show up. (Doubly true for Friday afternoons. Triply true if it's my birthday.)

I should have known better than to expect the student to meet me at the time he had specified, but the end-of-the-semester grueling grading mayhem marathon may have led to some discombobulation of my teacherly instincts. For instance, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the student who begs and pleads for an extra-credit assignment won't bother to turn it in, while the student who needs it least will complete the assignment. I know this! We all know this! So why am I surprised that my very rare offer of a tiny serving of grace was ignored by the student who's been lobbying loudest for extra credit?

Today I'm enjoying a rare hiatus between piles of grading: I'm caught up on grading but expecting two more piles of exams tomorrow and the final capstone papers on Friday. I wouldn't have come to campus today if I hadn't fallen victim to another Universal Rule of College Teaching: Any blank space on a professor's schedule functions like a powerful magnet to attract committee meetings, service obligations, and students who desperately need to meet (but then won't show up). 

And as usual, just when we've reached the time in the semester when things ought to be quieting down, suddenly we suffer the Attack of the Grade-Grubbing Quibblers. They come armed with arguments based on what their friends, family members, and favorite online paper services say about their writing but rarely with the actual paper under discussion, much less the grading rubric or prompt. 

It happens every semester so why should I be surprised? I am living proof of the truth of another Universal Rule of College Teaching: No matter how many times we see students screw up in the same old predictable ways, we always harbor some small hope that this time things will be different.

(Now how long do I have to wait before I give up on this guy?)  

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Can't weasel my way out of this one

The first time I served on a jury, we reached a verdict based entirely on which attorney had better hair.

Maybe I'm exaggerating--but not by much. Twelve jurors, one judge, two attorneys, and a handful of witnesses spent an entire day adjudicating the thrilling case of the Eagle Scout who claimed that he honestly intended to pay for those baseball cards in his pocket but just forgot. This was more than 20 years ago so I don't remember why we voted to acquit, but I do recall that the defense attorney repeatedly gestured toward his visibly pregnant wife out in the pews, as if to suggest that a guy blessed with both terrific hair and an adorably pregnant wife couldn't possibly be involved in anything underhanded.

I think of this today for two reasons: first, our friendly little town made national news last week when a judge issued subpoenas and threatened dire consequences for potential jurors who ignored the call of jury duty (read it here); and second, because I've been called to serve jury duty next week, right in the heart of Can't-Pack-Another-Thing-Into-My-Schedule Season.

I mentioned yesterday that I've been called to serve jury duty, and a colleague said, "Again?" Yes: the county bailiff's preference for my name is so well known that even casual acquaintances know about it. "That's Bev," they say, "the county's favorite juror."

This is the fifth time this year alone that I've been called to serve on a jury, but so far four of those trials were cancelled and I weaseled my way out of another one by claiming pressing dental work. (True.) While I was on the phone with the bailiff sharing my tale of dental woe, I tried to persuade him to take my name off the list.

"I get called every year but my husband has never been called," I said.

He just laughed, so I went for the heartstrings:

"Listen," I said, "I was the foreman of the Grand Jury that indicted that 13-year-old kid who broke into the gun cabinet and shot his grandma and his disabled aunt at close range with a shotgun. I had to look at those crime-scene photos. Just on the basis of that trauma, I ought to be exempt from jury duty forever."

"We appreciate your service," he said, "But you'll have to come when you're called."

And so I do, but after all the fuss about threats to fine jurors who don't come running when called, I hope so many other jurors will show up that I'll be lost in the crowd. 


Monday, December 07, 2015

Give me a "Give me an A!" (Please?)

I walked down to the department office just to take a break and gripe about all the grading, and one of my colleagues said, "You can do it! Go go go!" And that's when I realized what I need to get through all the coming week: Cheerleaders.

Why not? Even utterly inept athletic teams merit cheerleaders, so why not those of us who do the academic work of the college? Surely someone could come up with some grading-related cheers:
Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, 
make those spelling errors stand up and holler!

Give me an A! Give me some B's! Give me some C's! Give me some D's! Give me an F!
What's it spell? Bell curve! Bell curve! Bell curve!

Red pens to the rescue! Go! Grade! Win!
But since we don't all grade in a central area, we would need roving bands of cheerleaders going from office to office to jump and prance and shout encouragement, although frankly I don't know how they'd pull of those big pyramids and jumps in my little office. OSHA would probably object.

So instead I'll grab some pom-poms and offer encouragement to my colleagues who are similarly immersed in end-of-the-semester grading. Grab that red pen! Go! Grade! Win!

(Just don't ask me to do any fancy splits or jumps. I'll never get my grading done if I can't get up off the floor.)

Friday, December 04, 2015

Ten reasons I won't be shooting holes in my radio

Let me just admit right up front that I'm a sucker for Christmas music. My stack of favorite Christmas CD's is close to a foot tall and runs the gamut from Nat King Cole to Christmas with the Chipmunks. Listening to Pentatonix singing "Mary Did You Know?" gives me goosebumps every time, and the community oratorio chorus singing The Messiah brings me to my feet and makes my heart sing. When I hear Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, I want to dance with abandon like those little cartoon kids.

BUT! If I turn on the radio and hear Elvis singing "Blue Christmas"--well, it's a good thing I don't carry a handgun in the car or my radio would be full of bullet holes. And you know that whiny "Last Christmas" song? I always want to insert new lyrics:
Last Christmas I gave you chlamydia
The very next day you gave it away...
Yes: I hate that song that much. And don't even get me started on "Santa Baby."

I love to hear just about anyone singing "Silent Night," even a children's choir singing it hopelessly off key (or especially a children's choir singing hopelessly off key). But Stevie Nicks singing "Silent Night"? The aural equivalent of waterboarding.

I'm not sure why my responses are so extreme, but I know that wandering through Wal-Mart is hazardous this time of year because they can't be counted on to avoid the songs that make me want to scream. So as an antidote to horrible holiday songs, I keep my favorites close by. I figure listening to the songs I love is a far better response than shooting out my radio. Here are my top ten:

10. Jose Feliciano, "Feliz Navidad." Limited lyrics and repetitive tune but it makes me want to dance.
9. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a tough call because when it's bad it's really, really bad, but no one does it better than Straight No Chaser.

8. Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, "Throw cares away"--and I do whenever I hear "Carol of the Bells." I can listen to just about any version with pleasure, but the two I can't live without are performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and (I'm embarrassed to admit how much I love this) John Tesh.

7. Ottmar Liebert playing "The First Noel." Starts slowly but gets really fun fairly quickly.

6. "Sleigh Ride" by virtually anyone, from the college band to the Boston Pops. I like the version by the Ronettes, but I will even listen to Johnny Mathis if he's singing "Sleigh Ride."

5. I'm not a huge fan of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," but when that folksy version by Barenaked Ladies comes on the radio, it brings me comfort and joy.

4. "Christmas Canon" by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So simple. So sweet. So Christmas.

3. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," especially when sung a capella. It's one of the oldest hymns in the hymnal and it's in a minor key, but it nevertheless fills me with hope.

2. Anyone singing "O Holy Night" at a Christmas Eve service, especially my daughter.

1. "Joy to the World" sung by any congregation anywhere. I can't hit the high notes, but I take comfort in knowing that I'm not the only one. It's sort of like singing the national anthem--being there is more important than doing it well.


Thursday, December 03, 2015

How did they fit twelve days into one week?

In the last week of classes a student gave to me a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me 
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy. 

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
eight research papers
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
nine metaphors mixing
eight research papers
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
ten fingers texting
nine metaphors mixing
eight research papers
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
eleven blank expressions
ten fingers texting
nine metaphors mixing
eight research papers
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

In the last week of classes my students gave to me
twelve gripers griping
eleven blank expressions
ten fingers texting
nine metaphors mixing
eight research papers
seven gpas plummeting
six bad excuses
five cell-phone rings
four office visits
three spent pens
two grammar flubs
and a draft that made me very happy.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Don't let me interrupt that extremely important cat video you're watching

Back in the Cold War era, when sympathy for the Soviet Union was thin on the ground, students in my high school Russian class used to begin each class period by standing and reciting in unison a formal greeting to our teacher: "Dobry ootra, Ivan Vasilevich!" While this tradition seems rather, um, Soviet in our current informal age, I find myself wishing for the days when students would acknowledge the existence of their professors.

When I walk in the classroom with a cheery "Good morning!", I'd like a student or two to look up from their smartphones and respond. I don't expect them to snap to their feet and recite a formal greeting, but a muttered "good morning" doesn't really require all that much energy.

And when I attempt to make small talk before class, asking how they enjoyed Thanksgiving break or how they feel about the impending end of the semester or whether they've read of the latest outrage in the news, it would be nice if someone--anyone--would say something. Anything!

The problem is most acute in my freshman classes, but it pops up elsewhere as well. What to do? I can banish smartphones during class time, but students insist on protecting those precious three to five minutes before class. Imagine what they would miss if they put down their phones and actually engaged in conversation! How dare I expect such a sacrifice?

I grow tired of silences and averted eyes. I worry about how these students will act in job interviews and networking opportunities, but more than that, I'm annoyed when I treat them like adults while they insist on treating me like an interruption. It makes me want to stamp my foot and make them snap to attention with a salute. (Now who's acting like a child?)

One of these days I'll get a smartphone of my own and then I'll stand in front of class texting "Good morning!" to my students. And then we'll conduct class entirely in emojis.

(How do you say "Dobry ootra" in emojis?)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Now that's a kick in the assessment

It's probably a bad idea to write a final exam on a day when half of my students skipped class.

I'm sure they all had really good reasons for skipping class today. I'm sure the fact that today is the first day back after Thanksgiving break and the first day of deer-hunting season has nothing to do with their absence. I should give them the benefit of the doubt. 

Or else I should give them the benefit of my twisted ability to produce absolutely brutal final exam questions that they can't possibly answer if they skipped today's class. Or would that be too--I don't know--medieval?

No, medieval would involve thumb-screws or exam papers suffused with plague virus. I'm just tempted to toss some puppy treats to the students who actually showed up while leaving the class-skippers out in the cold. 

But wait: an exam's purpose should be neither to punish nor to reward but to assess student learning. Or so I'm told. And I suppose I believe it most days.

But on a day when half of my students skipped class? I'd like to give them all a good sharp kick right in the assessment.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the virtues of big fat novels

Everyone loves a four-day weekend, right? But for a reader, a four-day weekend without a book to read would be torture.

So I made sure to bring home two books to carry me through the Thanksgiving holiday: a scholarly tome I thought might be helpful for a class I'll be teaching soon (but quickly convinced me that it won't be helpful at all) and a big fat collection of mini-essays that came highly recommended (despite the fact that they're so tedious and precious that I gave up after 60 pages). So there I was at the dawn of a four-day weekend with no new books to read.

Of course I have papers to grade, classes to prep, and syllabi to write, and of course I had a house full of people for part of the Thanksgiving break, but at some point the houseguests all left and I can't grade papers 24 hours a day. I need a book. 

But I have a Kindle! First I ordered a short new novel that purports to be amusing: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. Reviews suggested that deWitt might be the bastard lovechild of Flann O'Brien and Italo Calvino, which sounded interesting. The novel, sadly, isn't. It's a light bit of frippery that bored more than amused me. But at least it was short! There's nothing worse than a long bad novel.

A long good novel was really what I needed, something that could grip my interest for days on end without taxing the exhausted brain cells too strenuously. I could re-read any of the honking big novels loading up my bookshelves, but sometimes the mind needs something new, even when the pocketbook is running short. For this there is one great solution: all those neglected fiction classics available at no charge for the Kindle. I'd recently enjoyed Vanity Fair (which I first read at age 14 or 15, far too early to understand its nuances), so I decided to take another stab at Thackeray. Which is how I ended up starting Pendennis.

The great thing about reading a long good novel is that I don't have to worry about finding another book to read for days, maybe weeks. I can dip into Pendennis with delight for a few minutes or an hour, secure in the knowledge that the book will still be there beckoning next time I have a gap in my busy days. A great big fat delightful novel is a doorway to another world, and it makes me happy to know that I can step through that door and that world will still be there.

Until it isn't. The worst thing about a big fat novel is when it's over. The door closes, leaving me on the outside, lost and wandering.

The cure? Another big fat novel. 


Friday, November 27, 2015

Non-black Friday

After the annual smoking of the turkey, mashing of the potatoes, and baking of the pies; after the raucous conversation around the tables and the long walk in the woods to work off that second slice of pumpkin cheesecake; and after all the giggles with the girlie who loves to play with tractors and who can charm a crowd simply by asking for more vegetables ("Grampa, may you pass me some brussels sprouts, please?"), it's time for Blah Friday.

I'm aware that others celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by fighting the ravening hordes at the nearest Wal-Mart or outlet mall, but for me, a noisy crowd is the opposite of what I need right now. After all the Thanksgiving guests have left, I sit in our quiet house and sink lazily into the silence as if it were a cushy chair, and I loaf. I may have a book or a pile of grading in front of my face, but mostly I'm resting both body and mind, content as a cat curled up in a shaft of sunlight. 

Boring? Maybe, but I rather enjoy a little boredom after all the potato-peeling and dishwashing I've been doing. I'm resting my back, so call it Back Friday; the dishes are done, so it's No More Stack Friday; there's leftover dessert in the kitchen, so it's Black(berry) Pie Day. 

One of these people is only pretending to sleep.
And Thanksgiving reminds me that there's nothing I lack--nothing really important in the long term, and those unimportant needs that press on me the rest of the year can't possibly satisfy anyway. So today in my house it's No-Lack Friday--and if there's nothing I lack, why go shopping?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thankful for what I won't be doing this week

Things I'll definitely be doing this week: grading papers, shopping for groceries, playing with my granddaughter, making pumpkin cheesecake, and serving a turkey and all the Thanksgiving trimmings for family and friends. Plus dishes--someone has to wash the dishes. Maybe take in a local Christmas parade. And I predict some napping.

Things I won't be doing this week for the first time since 2009: driving around in circles at the hospital's parking garage,  spending time in medical waiting rooms, getting poked with needles, having vials of blood rudely removed from my body, drinking horrible gluey "smoothies," trying to lie still with a needle in my arm and my arms over my head while listening to commands issued by a whirring machine with horrible bedside manner, and then tensely awaiting test results.

That's right: six years after my final round of chemotherapy, I'm free of the need for medical monitoring. 

I don't know about anyone else, but that's enough to make me thankful.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maybe someone forget to pay the punctuation bill

Commenting on drafts would be much easier if I could stop looking for patterns where they obviously aren't or seeking reason behind random sloppiness:

Why did this student put quotation marks around two titles but not the third? Did the rest of the quotation marks elope with the ampersand? 

Why is the character's name capitalized roughly three-quarters of the time? Did it find the stress of being a proper noun so exhausting that it had to lie down and rest for a paragraph or two before standing upright again?

Why would a student consistently place commas precisely where they are least necessary? Or did he load a shotgun with commas, point it at the paper, and pull the trigger? 

And why does the next paper eschew commas in favor of dashes? Who does she think she is--Emily Dickinson?!

I look for patterns so that I can diagnose the problem and prescribe an antidote (so maybe I should be reading through a stethoscope), but lately I find myself  thwarted. I think I see the beginning of a pattern (he's putting commas after 'and' and 'but') but then it falls to pieces (wait, here's an 'and' surrounded by commas, and here's a 'but' with no punctuation whatsoever). 

My mistake, I think, is in assuming that students are always making conscious choices about their writing and if I just uncover the flawed reasoning behind those choices, I'll be able to fix it. But what if reason has nothing to do with it? What if they're too tired or busy or drunk or distracted to notice little details like punctuation and capitalization? What if they simply don't care?

I'm seeing a constellation of errors and trying to connect the dots, but I fear that they're as random as the stars and equally inaccessible. (So maybe I should be reading through a telescope.)  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Let 'em eat pie!

It's Friday Pie Day because pie heals all ills (according to our new provost), but today is also Penultimate Friday--the second-to-last Friday classes of the semester--and I for one am ready to celebrate. I'll teach three classes on Monday and then a full week after Thanksgiving, but despite the mountain of grading I'll need to drill through, I'm seeing some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. It's an oddly shaped shaft of light, like a wedge--or a piece of pie. It's Penultimate Friday! Let 'em eat pie!

Pie makes so many things better--even poetry:

Let us go then, you and I
and fetch ourselves a piece of pie. 


How do I love pie?
It would require all the digits of pi to count the ways.

Two pies diverged in a yellow wood
and I ate them.

Because I could not stop for pie--
it kindly stopped for me--
banana cream and pumpkin pie--


The pie comes in
on little crust feet.

It sits looking
so sweet and enticing
in silent splendor
and then it's gone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Too much and not enough

This is the week of too much and not enough:

Too much tension; not enough sleep.

Too many drafts to read and too little few eyeballs on the ground, or on the page, or wherever.

Too many excuses and too many tears and so few time machines.

Too many petty little details to prepare for a Big Event, plus one big messy detail that dwarfs all others and will probably remain unresolved until the very last minute.

Too many meetings. 

Too many awkward silences at meetings plus one big beautiful eloquent silence at just the right moment. 

Too much everything. Not enough everything else.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris rising

"What I saw first of all," recalls James Thurber in "The First Time I saw Paris," "was one outflung hand of France as cold and limp as a dead man's." 

This was November 13, 1918, and young Thurber had made a difficult sea journey to serve as a code clerk at the Paris Peace Conference. He continues: "I know now that French towns don't die, that France has the durability of history itself, but I was only twenty-three then, and seasick, and I had never been so far from Ohio before." 

His first sight on land was a line of "desolate men, a detachment of German prisoners being marched along a street, in mechanical step, without expression in their eyes, like men coming from no past and moving toward no future." Soon, though Thurber and his fellow code clerks arrived in Paris, "the veritable capital city of Beginning." The city was coming back to life after the long, bloody slog through the War to End War, and Paris "was costumed like a wide-screen Technicolor operetta, the uniforms of a score of nations forming a king of restless, out-of-step finale." 

All was not revelry and joy, however; Thurber took a tour through battlefields with a friend searching for souvenirs and cemeteries: 
In our trek through the battlefields, with the smell of death still in the air, the ruined and shattered country scarred with ammunition dumps and crashed planes, we came upon the small temporary cemeteries arranged by the Graves Registration Service, each with a small American flag, such as the children of Paris waved at President Wilson, nailed to a post and faded by the rain and wintry weather. In one of these cemeteries my companion, a Tennessee youth, only a little taller than five feet, began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his hat over his heart, and went on singing it in a sudden downpour of rain, for the anthem, once started, must be finished.
Thurber's visit occurred nearly 100 years ago, when France lay scarred and wounded but still capable of resurrection. A visit that began with a vision of death had been transformed into a celebration of life and hope:

Paris, City of Light and of occasional Darkness, sometimes in the winter rain seeming wrought of monolithic stones, and then, in the early days of its wondrous and special pearly light, appearing to float in mid-air like a mirage city in the Empire of Imagination, fragile and magical, has had many a premature requiem sung for the repose of its soul by nervous writers or gloomy historians who believe it is dying or dead and can never rise again. Paris, nonetheless, goes right on rising out of war, ultimatum, occupation, domestic upheaval, cabinet crises, international tension, and dark prophecy, as it has been in the habit of doing since its residents first saw the menacing glitter of Roman shields many centuries ago.
 Of course, Thurber arrived in Paris at the end of something awful; what would he write today in the midst of a very different kind of conflict? I don't know, but I hold on to his image of a city that goes right on rising--despite the forces that would try in vain to hold it down.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Here's mud in your eye

If you're trying to create a work of art by throwing wads of mud at a wall (and let's not even get started on why you might want to do such a thing), you could draw the design first and toss the mud inside the lines or you could toss the mud first and draw the design around them afterward--but either way, the lines give shape and purpose to the random splats.

I've seen students draft papers using either method: create a clear, compelling, specific thesis statement and then arrange the points in the argument to fit within the lines, or toss a bunch of semi-related ideas on the page and then go back and write a thesis that specifies the connection. A diligent writer committed to revision can make either method work, so part of my task as a writing teacher is to figure out what kinds of writers I have in the room and guide them toward success.

Me? I'm a little of both: in the early stages of a project, I'll toss a bunch of ideas against the wall and see what sticks, but as soon as the ultimate shape of the essay starts revealing itself, I draw the lines and write the thesis. It will surely get revised along the way, but I need structure to guide my writing.

But what can I do when students want to toss a bunch of mud clods against the wall, draw a vague, squiggly, illegible line around them, and then declare the work a masterpiece? I offer suggestions on drafts and require revision and I frequently offer sample thesis statements to serve as models, but I can't do the thinking for them

Which is why it's so hard to answer the question "What should my thesis say?" If a student has put in the thinking required to determine how various ideas are related and has a sense of purpose, the question is simply asking for help putting that purpose into words. I worry, though, about the other kind of student, who hasn't done the thinking and doesn't have a clue about connections, and if I ask what purpose the essay is pursuing, the response is something like "I want to get a good grade." (Don't we all! But what does your paper want to accomplish?)  

Some days I wear out my eyeballs staring at clods of mud thrown randomly at a wall--but when someone finally draws a line around it and reveals the design, all I can do is applaud.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

My tiny time machine

The chocolate sphere in my hand may look like a malted milk ball to you, but to me it's a tiny time machine: I pop the chocolate treat into my mouth and suddenly I'm transported back to the early 1980s, when my college newspaper staff held a weekly layout marathon fueled by diet colas, grapes, and a big bag of malted milk balls.

Those were the days of manual layout, when we would use scissors to cut typeset sheets into long strips of copy, run them through a waxer, and then lay them out on paper ruled to indicate columns and inches. 

We were armed with sharp exactos, metal rulers, and copy rollers but it still took a while; we often worked well past midnight on a Tuesday, which made Wednesday classes a bit hazy. Mistakes could be costly. Run the copy through the waxer upside-down and you'd spend the next 20 minutes carefully scraping wax off text. A dull exacto blade could tear and wrinkle the copy, while a sharp blade might veer off track, slicing through words or even flesh.

Sometimes staffers didn't show up, leaving the rest of us to do their work as well as our own. Sometimes they showed up eager to argue about issues that seemed really important at the time: When does a music review become newsworthy enough to go on the front page? How much detail do we provide about a student's suicide so we can tell the truth without sensationalizing the gory act? Where is the fine line between reasoned critique and ad hominem attack? 

The work and the talk were different every week but one thing remained constant: diet cola, grapes, and malted milk balls. The big challenge was keeping drips and dirty fingers off the strips of copy, but somehow we managed, most of the time.

These days most college journalists lay out pages electronically; they may have some of the same debates we had 30 years ago but I'll be they wouldn't know what to do with a waxer, an exacto, or a long strip of copy. But give them a bag of malted milk balls and they'll know where to put them. Student journalism: dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way, and, like many other labor-intensive group endeavors, fueled by chocolate.    

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reverie while quibbling over Robert's Rules of Order

At least we can be reasonably sure that no one in the room is carrying a gun.

At least we can sit in a clean, well-lighted space surrounded by all the hallmarks of civilization--desks and chairs, shelves full of books, computer terminals where students sit working on research papers, and even if they just appear to be working on research papers but are actually sending snarky e-mails or shopping for ski gear or playing Candy Crush Saga, at least they're doing it quietly and maintaining order, because that's what we're all about here--order, specifically Robert's Rules of Order, which attempt to provide structure and civility to our assemblies but sometimes feel like a straitjacket, particularly when things go a bit out of whack.

It's a first-world problem, I realize, to have to spend long afternoon hours struggling to submit our messy problems to Robert's Rules of Order in a way that remains faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the law, but at least we are free to disagree about the application of certain elements of Robert's Rules of Order without worrying about being silenced or imprisoned or beaten or dragged out of our nice comfy classroom to face a pink slip or a firing squad or public disgrace and humiliation.

So while a million other tasks call out for my attention, I'll sit here engaging in gentle debate about the finer points of Robert's Rules of Order because it's a sign that our civilization is still functioning, that despite any chaos that might be crashing down around us, we still believe in order and the value of listening and the freedom to disagree.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Controversy at a committee meeting: what color M&M's do you eat first?

We're academics, right? Some consider us know-it-alls, so confident in our areas of expertise that we feel authorized to issue pronouncements on just about everything--including the proper way to consume M&M's.

I separate them by color and then eat the smallest color group first, but my esteemed colleague from the math department told me today that I'm doing it backward. 

"You have to eat the largest color group first and save the smallest for last," he says, "because the groups with fewer M&M's are more scarce and therefore more valuable."

"No, I have to eat the smallest group first and leave the biggest group for last," I insist, but when he asks why I deflect attention to the other side of the table, where a historian is eating animal crackers without first separating them into species. 

"I don't even know what species some of these are supposed to be," he says, which is a valid complaint--in fact, I'm not sure why animal crackers are called crackers when they're clearly butter cookies.

But back to the point: when eating animal crackers, I have to separate them by species and then eat the broken ones first, the ones missing legs or heads or chunks of torso.

"To put them out of their misery," says the mathematician with a smile. Yes! Of course! We may disagree on the proper way to eat M&M's, but we're in total agreement on the necessity of eating the maimed animal crackers first.

Meanwhile, our colleague from the counseling center sits at the other side of the table looking blank, as if she might be surreptitiously taking notes for a study on Consumption Compulsions of College Professor. But what does she know? She hasn't even sorted her animal crackers!