Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Of cocoons and comfort zones

"You are probably more prepared for this class than I am," I told my honors students this morning--not an easy admission to make, but all too true. I had done the reading and prepared some preliminary questions but I lacked the usual ream of notes telling me where to find the important passages in a novel I've never taught before. I had intended to assemble those notes during my trip to Florida last week. Then my computer died. 

I don't often walk into class as unprepared as I did this morning. Fortunately, my students had completed a writing assignment in response to the novel, which provided a foundation for an intense and insightful class discussion. I explained my plight. They commiserated. They have been in my shoes.

This afternoon I stepped into my students' shoes and gave a presentation in the art history class I've been taking. I don't generally get nervous standing in front of a group of students, but this time I was outside my area of expertise, talking about art that tries to make sense of the aftermath of violence. I talked too fast. I fumbled with my notes. I worried about whether my hair was okay, why I was repeating myself, where to find the button for the laser pointer. And I'm not even taking the class for a grade!

Crawling out from my protective cocoon of expertise can be painful; I fear that spreading new wings may reveal their flaws. But it's good sometimes to see the classroom experience from the perspective of students, to know the panic of unpreparedness and drip with the sweat of public performance. And then it's really, really good to walk away afterward and know that it's over and that it was not nearly as awful as I'd feared.

Forget stepping outside the comfort zone. Let's just work on moving its borders ever outward.

Monday, March 30, 2015

On the De-Etch-A-Sketchification of my life

When our IT crowd got hold of my nonresponsive computer this morning, they managed to get it to power on only after shaking it up and down like an Etch-A-Sketch, and then they had to examine its inner workings to determine why it had suddenly entered Etch-A-Sketch mode. Project De-Etch-A-Sketchification had begun!

Now, though, after four days with no computer, I am finally up and running, in gratitude for  which I utter a weak Hurrah. Lugging that dead computer through airports and airplanes all day yesterday took a lot out of me, and this morning I've been scrambling so frantically to catch up on all the work I couldn't do without my computer that I was ready to collapse by noon.

But I'm still working. The really important stuff is done but I need to respond to a few more student drafts before I can consider myself sufficiently caught up. For motivation, I'm delaying a wonderful reward until after I'm done responding to drafts: downloading the zillions of photos I took in Florida. Limpkins! Ibises! Frank Lloyd Wright buildings! It's all good.

Meanwhile, I need to collect all the random thoughts scattered like sand across the Etch-A-Sketch screen of my travel-weary mind. A few tidbits:
  • People who insist on carrying on loud cell-phone conversations for hours at a time in airport terminals should be required to say something entertaining on pain of death. I can listen to drivel for only so long before I want to kick someone, in which case I would be arrested for assault, but what about the person who insists on assaulting my ears with endless yammering about nothing in particular? 
  • I heard a radio ad for a company called Aggressive Appliances, and I wondered who would want, for instance, a washing machine that spits suds in your face or a refrigerator that slams the freezer door shut on your hand when you try to grab Klondike bar. What would be worse than an Aggressive Appliance? How about a Passive-Aggressive Appliance: "Fine, go ahead and eat the Klondike Bar. See if I care. But don't come running to me when you can't fit into your swimsuit!"
  • I'm driving through a lovely rural area in the very flat part of Florida when I spot in the distance a green hill with flocks of birds circling the summit. I wonder what hill it could be and whether it would be worth exploring. Then I catch a whiff of the stink and note  the garbage trucks crawling up the slope. Who wants to sign up for the Mount Landfill trek?
  • If the airlines insist on delaying my flight so that I have to sprint from one end of a huge terminal to the extreme opposite end while carrying a backpack and computer bag, the least they could do is offer a water bottle and a free T-shirt.
At some point I probably ought to write something interesting and relatively coherent about my tech-free trip, but that's all I've got right now. Maybe tomorrow I'll be ready to give the Etch-A-Sketch another shake.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Heeding the call of the limpkin

Given a destination, a deadline, and a mostly free day, why take the most direct route? This morning I've been making my way semi-aimlessly through the parts of Florida tourists tend to miss. Once I'd left behind ThemeParkWorld traffic and areas densely populated with garishly colored hotels featuring faux-medieval turrets, I found myself in the part of Florida where you're more likely to see pickup trucks than Porsches.

Heard on the radio that a big rodeo is going on this weekend in Kissimmee, and my travels took me through the part of the state where cattle ranching is still a going concern. I had a great morning hike at Circle B Bar Reserve, a nature preserve on a former cattle ranch, where I saw nesting eagles, herons, ibises, alligators, egrets, and my very first wild limpkins. (Photos to follow eventually.) The call of the limpkin is like something out of a horror flick; you half expect to see Godzilla creeping up behind you, but it's just this lovely brownish bird.

I worked up a pretty good sweat so now I'm taking a break with a smoothie at a MacDonald's in Bartow, where the music loop leans heavily toward Johnny Cash. Next on my meandering route is a visit to Bok Tower, where I'll hike a bit before enjoying a picnic lunch during the hillside carillon concert. 

I keep reminding myself that this is a business trip. This evening I'll have to take a good long look at my paper and find some chunks to cut, and maybe I'll even iron my blouse for tomorrow. But who can think about editing or ironing when limpkins and carillons are calling?


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A few peeves from Passenger Huge

I love to travel--in theory. Love the idea of getting away from my dirty house, demanding students, and pesky piles of papers and heading south toward sunshine, friends, and all the fun of an academic conference.

However, I'm not a fan of airport parking, airport security, airport food prices, or really anything about the airport itself, most especially the ticket agent's difficulty in pronouncing my name so that when the call goes out for "Passenger Huge," I have to step up and say "I think that's me." When it really isn't. Not at all.

And don't even get me started on my poor wardrobe choice. I remembered to wear slip-on shoes for ease at security, but I had no idea that a little lovely beading around the neckline of my blouse would look threatening to an airport x-ray machine. Yes: full pat-down in public just because I had to go with the beaded blouse.

And how hard did I have to work this week to clear the decks for this trip? I won't be back until Sunday evening but I didn't want to carry two bricklike Norton anthologies on the airplane, so I spent the first part of this week dealing with this week's work while also preparing next Monday's classes. Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, and fingers tap-tapping on the keyboard to cut my conference paper down to a presentable length.

I love academic conferences--in theory. Meeting of minds, exposure to new ideas, networking with interesting people inside and outside my field, plus a little time to see the sights. But in practice, I'm not a fan of working like a maniac to write a brilliant paper only to deliver it in a big room populated by an audience of two people. 

But I have high hopes for this conference. It's a small but devoted group and I'm presenting at a good time--and even if the conference is a flop, I'll still be in Florida. We had snow in Ohio yesterday and more in the forecast for tonight. I doubt that I'll encounter any snow in Florida. Instead, I'll have time for a brief visit with my parents and some relaxation with an old friend in a beautiful location. 

And best of all, I won't have to answer to "Passenger Huge."

Monday, March 23, 2015

When reading for pleasure isn't

Last night in a social setting I struggled to respond to a simple question: "What are you reading these days?" It's true that I'm reading a lot, but I'm always reading a lot--reading is what I do, and I occasionally have to stop and thank my lucky stars that I found an employer willing to pay me for pursuing my love of reading.

But there's a difference between reading for pleasure and reading for work, and right now I'm finding much more pleasure in my work-related reading than elsewhere.

Thanks to some kind of harmonic convergence of syllabi, my three classes have recently been tackling A Streetcar Named Desire, The Awakening, and Their Eyes Were Watching God--and the Streetcar class today switched over to Fences. Last week I found myself asking similar questions in all three classes and wondering what would happen if Blanche Dubois, Edna Pontellier, Janie Woods, and Rose Maxson could sit down for a chat while their assorted menfolk play a game of poker in the next room. What could be more fun than that?

But my casual reading has been significantly less delightful lately. In search of a different text for the Sports Literature class, I read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which offers many amusing moments but falls apart about halfway through. No chance I'll assign this book for a freshman literature class--first, because it's more than 400 pages long, and second, because I doubt that first-semester students in a Sports Lit class are capable of discussing a sexual fling between a college president and a college baseball player with any degree of maturity. And besides, if I make anyone read a 450-page book, they had better be some pretty riveting pages, which these often aren't.

So forget sports; let's take a look at Happy are the Happy by Yasmina Reza: interesting characters, compelling voices, unusual structure, but in the end I just can't care about these people's lives or their affairs or their cheese preferences. I'm just over halfway through, so I've committed too much time to the book to just abandon it altogether, but I have to force myself to keep reading.

But guess what's coming up next in my classes? The Red Badge of Courage! Life of Pi! Short stories by Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, and Jhumpa Lahiri! Now that's exciting! How could my non-work-related reading possibly live up to that level of pleasure?  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Flailing toward flight

On the way home today I stopped to visit two bald eagles, marveled over a flock of turkey vultures wheeling majestically over my neighbor's cow pasture, and opened the door to find a great blue heron perched in a tree just above my creek. That's springtime in Ohio!

I've been observing this pair of bald eagles for weeks, viewing them almost daily on a  tree above the Muskingum. I haven't been able to stop and visit, though, because first the highway shoulder was covered in snow and then the river was up over its banks. Today I was determined to get a closer look, even though it required walking down a muddy slope from which the river has only recently withdrawn. The river is still swollen there, with barrels, tree limbs, and other debris bobbing in the swift current, but the eagles perch above and watch, unperturbed by high water, mud, traffic, or a curious onlooker.

The turkey vultures have been returning slowly; I've spotted a few solitaries here and there and two weeks ago I saw more a little further south in Kentucky. This week, though, they are back en masse, swooping above the meadows or perching in trees to await the next tasty bit of road kill. Up close they're quite ugly but the sight of a flock of vultures circling high above never fails to impress.
And suddenly, herons. They've been traveling from somewhere semitropical and they may have miles to go before they sleep, but I'm delighted that one decided to rest a spell right there in my creek. But of course it couldn't stay long: I tried to creep silently down the slope so as not to scare the heron, but I was still wearing my teaching shoes, which are not conducive to walking downhill in mud. I may have indulged in a bit of flailing. 

But I did not take flight. I concede that privilege to the birds.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

A little Q&A

Because people keep asking:

Do you intend to apply for the provost's position?
Absolutely not. From what I've observed, it appears that provosts spend a lot of their time doing two things I absolutely hate: listening to complaints and talking on the phone. Frankly, I'd rather be teaching.

Do you want to be elected to Faculty Council?
To me, serving on Faculty Council is like going to the dentist: wanting doesn't enter into the discussion, but I'll do it if necessary for the good of the institution.

How do you feel about proposed cuts to academic programs?
Angry. Appalled. Aggrieved. Agitated. Annoyed. And those are just the A words.

Any ideas for trimming the college's budget?
Any cuts must start at the top with administrative salaries. While I realize that taking a voluntary pay cut would be a purely symbolic gesture, symbols matter. Those of us struggling in the trenches would appreciate knowing that we're not alone.

That is all. Now let's get back to work.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Does this metaphor hold water?

I keep hearing about the need to develop additional "revenue streams," as if there's this huge mass of liquid assets flowing all around us and we need to divert a little bit into our own reservoir, or else we need to lower a bigger bucket into the well or cast a new fly into the trout stream or repair the holes in our nets. 

Or maybe we're gonna need a bigger boat. 

Or a better metaphor.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Short sleeves short-circuit thinking

This morning I saw a remarkable sight on campus: people sitting--outside!--on benches!--in short sleeves! (No, the benches don't have short sleeves....)

I was out there on a bench with a book, drinking tea. (No, the bench didn't have a book and the book wasn't drinking tea....)

Here's what I wasn't wearing: boots, long johns, turtleneck sweater, wool socks, coat, hat, gloves, earmuffs. I felt light as a feather, watching all those smiling faces walking past. (No, the feather wasn't watching faces walking....)

The sunshine seems to have addled my brain. Do I care? No, I do not. I'll take an addled brain with short sleeves and sunshine. (Yes, my brain is wearing short sleeves. Why the heck not?)    

Friday, March 13, 2015

When glee meets gloom

Years ago a colleague pulled the curtains tight so his neighbors wouldn't be appalled by what was going on inside: a small child's birthday party. 

On September 11, 2001.

What can you do when personal glee intersects with public gloom? I've been wondering that today as I'm enjoying a marvelous time with my adorable granddaughter while my colleagues digest a proposal that, if adopted, will gut some departments very close to my heart. We're out here splashing in puddles and looking at eagles and throwing rocks in the creek while people I care about are wondering what they'll do if they suddenly find themselves up the creek without a paddle.

We're having fun! But everywhere I go, I see signs of distress and gloom. I ought to be commiserating with my colleagues, but instead I'm chasing after a perpetual-laughing machine (at a time when laughter is really unseemly). 

Ah well, I'll have time for gloom tomorrow after the little jumping-bean goes back home. Meanwhile, we'll just pull the curtains shut and share our joy in private where we won't disturb the mournful.

Beyond attention

In Sancta, poet Andrew Grace asks us to consider the pileated woodpecker: "Its gun-hammer neck makes to crack its beak into shards, just to suss out one puce beetle hidden in a wrinkle of bark. It is willing to break itself for hunger."

What hunger drives the speaker of this poem into the woods? We don't know. We open the book to find him living in a small cabin with someone whose leaving completes the first half. The second, solitary section finds him coping with cold and silence, with the sound of garbage trucks climbing a hill and the drumming of pileated woodpeckers.

Grace builds brief blocks of prose poems into a book-length work in which the speaker takes to the woods in an attempt to rebuild a broken life. The poems are studded with fresh metaphors:

And the wind pushes another load of used light over the horizon.

A convergence of kayaks makes the lake cross-eyed.

My mouth is seamed as a scar, debarred and redeemed.
But even as Grace excels at describing the natural world in new ways, he questions the sufficiency of such description: 
Do you ever feel like description is a filibuster against emotion? Today is boredom and the scent of cedar. I used to chide myself for being satisfied. Now I watch the lake's mirror etc. and I sing etc., etc.
More than anything, Sancta is a call to move beyond etc. and see:
Look, is all. The cabin. Look. The lake. Flies like quarter-carats of Hell festoon the curtain. Slipped fires take to the sky. Sweet pine strewn with nude opal birds at its base. O if only my attention led to something besides more attention.
Sometimes the looking becomes painful as Grace "navigate[s] the radiant aftermath of loss," but the invitation to look remains irresistible. Sancta wonders whether there are "other places as knotted with light and shade" and then takes us into the shade to shed some light on the dark places. What hunger drives him there? The hunger inside all of us.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

In Just--mud

In Just--
(not quite but almost) 
spring   when the world is mud-
luscious the little 
rushed   vacuum-man 

rumbles        whoosh          and whirr

and dustydried mud comes
rushing up from rugs and
carpets and it's


and my driveway is a mud-pit
(and don't even ask about my
and rugs
and floors) 

in just--
(not quite but almost)

(With apologies to e.e. cummings.)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Whitman, Illuminated

In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman invites readers to follow along enrapt as he tramps his perpetual journey; in Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, Allen Crawford boldly reimagines the journey through color, image, and design in a book that fills the hand solidly but won't sit still.

You can't just sit and turn the page. Crawford's illustrations--or illuminations, as he calls them--are surrounded by Whitman's words, which snake sinuously about or march in sharp formation or float and bob like dandelion fluff through the air. A page might contain a half-dozen hand-lettered words or a hundred, and you may have to flip the book three or four different ways to follow the thread. 

It's an infuriating book for anyone in a hurry, but Whitman Illuminated invites readers to lean and loaf at their ease, observing: a hand made of leaves, a head wrapped in barbed wire, a baby floating in space. Two snails mirror each other in a dance of passion; two hands play cat's cradle with fishing line dangling lures. Frogs, birds, bugs, hats, and faces of the many people whose lives Whitman subsumes--all appear in rich hues of midnight, grass, or brick. 

Crawford's Foreword explains that he "tried to make the vigor of 'Song of Myself' tangible," to "liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd." Crawford's expansive and detailed illustrations surge with life, pulsing with the procreant urge of the world and weaving word and image into a song of many selves. Reinterpreting such a sacred text requires a touch of hubris, but Crawford's work leads readers always back to Whitman's words by new, unexpected paths.

"At the close of 'Song of Myself,'" explains Crawford, "Whitman invites us to look for him under our boot-soles. Now that my work is done, it's my hope that you may also find a little of him under my pen." 

(Find him here from Tin House Press--but be patient. I had to wait three months for my copy to arrive.) 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Spring is breaking out all over

A sure sign of a change in the weather: water flowing every which way on the interstate as the piles of plowed snow melt in the sun. On Friday morning I drove carefully on treacherous roads still covered with snow, but today snowmen all over Ohio are bowing to their fate.

Even the swastika snowman is melting. What kind of person erects an immense snowman right next to the highway, sticks a snow-coated traffic cone on top to mimic a Klan robe, and then forms a dark swastika right on its belly? The swastika didn't last more than a few hours before it got scraped off one morning last week, but now the entire creature is succumbing to the elements.

Meanwhile, my driveway seeks to transform itself into a mudpit before the snow is even half melted. Last week we were snowed in, but this week we could be mudded in. Time to call the gravel guy!

Spring is coming just in time for spring break. I've just turned in midterm grades so I can devote the next three days to writing the anthology essay, after which I'll start prepping next week's classes and do some work on my art history project. But what I really look forward to is putting away the long-johns, stashing my snow-boots in the closet, and getting out into the sun for some real walks. (Provided that I don't get stuck in the mud.)

If you don't hear from me by Friday, send in the Saint Bernards.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

From my window

I stepped outside this morning just to get the camera out of the car, where I've been keeping it in hopes of eagles. However, yesterday's rain followed by falling temperatures followed by snow resulted in a car thoroughly frozen shut. Good thing I'm not going anywhere this morning!


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

All set for a snow day

Something apocalyptic this way comes, weather-wise: Rain! Floods! Ice! Snow! Warning warning warning! As if to confirm the dire predictions, on my drive home I saw flooded fields, a muddy landslip closing one lane of the highway, a mass of ice chunks piling up at the end of our creek, the creek covering our neighbor's bridge, and water edging ever closer to our road. Falling temperatures are supposed to turn all that water to ice and snow tonight, possibly closing roads and schools.

But I'm prepared. I've just finished putting a pot of potato soup to simmer on the stove and we have a fully stocked refrigerator when the soup runs out. Better yet, I brought home my college laptop computer, so I'm fully equipped to administer two midterm essay exams electronically even if I can't get to campus tomorrow. I have everything I need to get through the next couple of days, provided that the power doesn't go out.

(Couldn't happen again, right? So soon? I refuse to think about it.)  

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Lost among the zombies

One of the great benefits of attending an academic conference is the opportunity to make small talk with interesting people. You're standing in the coffee line, waiting for an elevator, or loafing between sessions and you just start chatting with someone in the same boat, and before you know it you're laughing or learning something or, at the very least, thanking your lucky stars that you're not in that person's predicament.

I fear, however, that these serendipities are coming to an end. I base this on my experience at a recent academic meeting where no one was interested in small talk, preferring to spend down time staring at tiny screens.

Now I'm the first to admit that I'll never win the Most Outgoing prize, but over the years I've developed some pretty reliable techniques for engaging in meaningless chatter with strangers. These skills, however, failed utterly at the meeting I attended over the weekend. In a daylong event, I managed to engage exactly one person in chit-chat; every other opportunity was rebuffed by devotees of tiny screens.

I realize that it's a waste of time to try to chat with people engrossed in their phones or tablets in public, but finding anyone not so occupied is a challenge. It's as if they're so fearful of venturing into public alone that they have to stay tethered to the nanny lest someone approach with poisoned lollipops. 

I know I'm not the first to notice the impending death of small talk with strangers in public places, but this was the first time I felt utterly cut off from everyone around me simply because I was busy watching people instead of screens. People-watching was once a pretty interesting practice, but people attached to screens are boring. It's like being surrounded by zombies, except the brains being consumed are their own.

The cure is simple, of course: join the crowd devoted to avoiding engagement with the crowd. But I'm not quite ready to zombify myself. I hold out hope that somewhere out there in smartphoneland there exist a few other holdouts who still hold dear the art of conversation. If only I could figure out where they're hiding.

(Maybe there's an app for that?)