Friday, May 29, 2015

Enraptured by raptors 'n' writing: H is for Hawk

Speaking of birds, here is a paragraph from H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, from an early chapter in which the author describes her first childhood experience observing goshawks:

We walked in dark winter light over fields furred with new wheat. Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like a sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls. It was cold. My feet grew heavy with clay. And twenty minutes after we'd set out, it happened--the thing I expected, but for which I was entirely unprepared. A goshawk killed a pheasant. It was a short, brutal dive from an oak into a mess of wet hedge; a brief, muffled crash, sticks breaking, wings flapping, men running, and a dead bird placed reverently in a hawking bag. I stood some way off. Bit my lip. Felt emotions I hadn't names for. For a while I didn't want to look at the men and their hawks any more and my eyes slipped to the white panels of cut light in the branches before them. Then I walked to the hedge where the hawk had made her kill. Peered inside. Deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn. Reaching through the thorns I picked them free, one by one, tucked the hand that held them into my pocket, and cupped the feathers in my closed fist as if I were holding a moment tight inside itself. It was death I had seen. I wasn't sure what it had made me feel.
I'm not sure what this paragraph makes me feel but I've been trying to figure out what makes Macdonald's prose so compelling. What happens here? A young girl sees a hawk kill a pheasant and feels something she can't quite describe, and yet the adult's description of the child's feelings breathes life into the scene. How does she do it?

Macdonald's sentences tend toward the opposite of flamboyance--they don't jump up and down and wave their arms calling "Look at me! Look at me!" Instead, they amble toward the edge of the hedge and invite readers to peer quietly at mundane treasures.

"We walked in dark winter light over fields furred with new wheat" could be a line of poetry, offering compression, rhythm, alliteration, and an interesting image--furred fields, as if the earth itself were a sleeping beast. Then comes the next sentence, with the apt "netted" and that unexpected pearl-encrusted sleeve, one of the longer sentences in the piece at 19 words. The longest sentence is a mere 38 words, the shortest 2, and the average words per sentence is 13.4--hardly Faulknerian, but her prose carries me forward one careful step at a time until a simple statement delivers a gut-punch: "It was death I had seen." 

If I encountered that sentence in a student paper, I would probably suggest that the student write less monosyllabically and avoid the "it was" construction because it tends to multiply words without adding much to meaning, but Macdonald somehow makes six common one-syllable words speak forcefully, placing "death" at dead center of attention. How does she do it?

I'm only three chapters in to H is for Hawk but it's slow going because I keep needing to re-read passages like this one to see how she produces such powerful prose with so little apparent effort. And aside from the writing (if it's possible to talk about the content of a book aside from the writing), the story is engaging as well, describing the author's attempt to cope with her father's death by training a goshawk. Far from the typical "seven stages of grief" self-help cliches, Macdonald's memoir has much to say about topics that touch all of us daily--the weather, for instance, and the lasting significance of apparently insignificant details drawn from past events, like those six copper pheasant feathers.

Say that out loud: "six copper pheasant feathers." Or try the whole sentence: "Deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feathers glowed in a cradle of blackthorn." How many people could produce even one sentence that perfect in a lifetime? And here Helen Macdonald has boiled down her life into a memoir full of sentences like that. I don't know about you, but I want to follow her into that hedge and see what other treasures she'll find there.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Birding with words

Birding without a camera means I don't have any photos of the birds I saw, so let's put them into words while the memory is still fresh: 

1. A prothonotary warbler, my first, perched on a branch low in a willow alongside a quiet backwater at the lily-clogged edge of a lake, the brilliant yellow and gray bird bobbing down to the lilies and back up to the willow branch over and over, giving us a warbler show without making us crane our necks toward the treetops.  

2. A cerulean warbler, also my first, singing its distinctive song deep within the dense tree canopy so that all the bird experts present know just what they're hearing without being able to catch a glimpse until finally, just for a moment, he shows himself, a flash of blue and white on a branch, and then flies off.

3. A hermit thrush building a nest in a thicket of ferns atop a boulder deep in the woods at Conkle's Hollow, popping out on a nearby branch before flying off to forage for nesting material and then returning with a beak full of twigs.

4. A prairie warbler sitting on the third branch up the trunk of a dead pine and singing its heart out--and best of all, being the first to spot him, despite being the least experienced birder in the group.

And what about the indigo buntings, yellow warblers, and yellow-breasted chat? And the solitary cedar waxwing sharing the branch of a dead tree with a pushy brown-headed cowbird? And the great blue herons, blue-grey gnatcatcher, and northern parula? They sang my sorrows away today, taking me to a green world where nothing much matters except a burst of song and a flash of color high in the treetops.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Watered-down writing

I don't need water to write, right? That's what I keep telling myself as I postpone starting on the next stage of my writing project while waiting for the plumber to arrive and fix the well pump. We haven't had running water at our house since Saturday night, but the lack of water really should not prevent me from getting down to work. Right?

In fact, the lack of water ought to open up extra time since it prevents me from doing so many other things: cleaning the house, washing dishes, doing laundry, showering. (I haven't washed my hair since Friday. You don't want to know what it looks like.) Yesterday we did our annual Memorial Day putting-in-the-garden thing, which was impeded by the need to haul water out of the cistern and carry it down to the garden in buckets. We're also using cistern water for flushing the toilets but you wouldn't want to bathe in the cistern water or, worse yet, drink it. It's kind of green. In a pinch we could boil some, but we have five-gallon jugs full of drinking water so it's not an emergency. Yet.

And now look at those dark clouds rolling in! If we get a hard rain, I'm taking my shampoo outside and washing my hair. (Which I clearly can't do while writing. Right?)  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Literally no tomorrow (figuratively speaking)

"There's no tomorrow," says a deep, calm, trustworthy voice on the radio. "We end at 9:00, so there's literally no tomorrow."

That's not the kind of news I like to hear when I turn on my favorite NPR station to hear the morning news--and why does he sound so calm if this really is the end of the world?

But wait--it's not the end of the world; it's just the end of the fund drive. What a relief! 

Oops, better pledge quickly so I can get one of those crank-up radios designed to keep me connected in the event of apocalypse. That way, I'll be able to keep listening to my favorite radio newscasters when there really is no tomorrow--literally.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fruitful conversations across disciplines

We've reached my favorite part of the daily schedule at Writing Boot Camp: colleagues reading each others' drafts and offering comments. I love to eavesdrop as colleagues from different departments discover commonalities, such as the two who got into a passionate discussion of the joys of actuarial science. (We don't have an actuarial science program, but where two or more get excited about a potential program, you never know what might happen.) Yesterday an expert on Buddhism gave me some great insights on an essay I'm writing that deals with a Buddhist nun, and right now an expert on the economics of oil and gas markets is conferring with an expert on petroleum geology. We're rocking and rolling!

Best of all, this week we've experienced the benefits of working as part of a community of scholars, encouraging each other to refine ideas and reach writing goals. I've challenged my Boot Campers to form writing partnerships over the summer, linking up with another colleague to offer regular encouragement, offer updates on progress toward goals, and meet periodically to read and respond to drafts. We'll see how it works, but first we need to wrap up this week and wander over to the all-campus picnic before it's over.

They're still talking. I don't want to make them stop. Why can't we keep this conversation going all summer long?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Getting a boost at boot camp

I was in a meeting all morning so I had no idea that the weather had turned from wretched to wonderful. I stepped out of the library expecting dark clouds and oppressive heat and humidity, but I found instead blue sky and a dry breeze. This is the nicest weather we've seen for weeks. It ought to be illegal to sit inside on a day like today.

However, I'm delighted that I had the chance to attend my meeting today, along with similar meetings tomorrow and Thursday. Today I led the inaugural session of our faculty writing boot camp, beginning with goal-setting and writing sprints, then an hour and a half of intensive writing time, then feedback from colleagues, then lunch. We had a small group (seven including me), but I'm pleased that anyone signed up at all considering that we are two weeks into summer break and there are no stipends or other rewards for participation.

Well, there are intangible rewards: distraction-free writing time, feedback from fellow scholars, encouraging discussions during breaks--and let's not forget the free lunch. Most of the participants are untenured and eager to boost their scholarly productivity, and this three-day workshop is designed to get the momentum going so they can ride it all summer long.

I'll be riding that wave too. I managed to write 1000 words on a conference paper draft this morning, and then I got some good advice about how to shift around two paragraphs to clarify the argument. I've hit a bit of a snag at the start of the next section, but I'm not worried. I'm counting on tomorrow's writing boot camp to hoist me over the obstacle and propel me down the course.

Our boot camp slogan? "Drop and give me 50! (Words)." So far, it's working.   

Monday, May 18, 2015

Breaking into summer

This is the rhythm of summer break: 

First c0mes the scramble to finish tasks--submitting grades, attending final meetings, assembling assessment reports--while the interlibrary loan books pile up unread amid the flurry of activity.

Then a week of fitful sleep and grumpiness as body and mind adjust to the new, loose schedule and sudden absence of pressing deadlines. I plant some flowers, do some mowing, grab a book but can't seem to focus on any one task for more than a few minutes.

Then one day I find myself so immersed in a book that I forget to eat supper, my mind bubbling with ways to incorporate these new ideas into my research and writing, and when I put the book down I can finally see the long summer break stretching before me, offering both obligations and recreation but also a chance to follow a network of ideas through a variety of texts and spend long hours writing it all down for my next big project.

It takes some time and a little stress to work through the transition, but now that I've shifted my focus from what has just passed to what lies ahead, I'm definitely liking what I see. It's time to let the good times roll.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Crowded out by nature's mysteries

I want to sit on the back deck and read a book in the sunshine but I can't because of the carcass, once a roly-poly groundhog but now a rotting slab of flesh sitting in the grass just a few feet from the deck, probably deposited there by the dog. We've had some hot days so the odor is ripe and the flies abundant--in fact, a glance at the carcass reveals an area so thick with flies that it sparkles like an iridescent carpet. I suppose I could move the rotting carcass to a more distant location, maybe dump it over the cliff at the back of the yard, but that would require first finding the shovel and then getting close to the stench and the flies.

So I go to the bench in the front yard, which isn't nearly so comfortable as my nice chaise longue on the deck but has the advantage of not being surrounded by the buzzing flies and the stench of dead groundhog, but there I confront yet another mystery of nature: wasps scouring the worn parts of the wood, perhaps scraping up bits of building materials for their nests. I am generally unfazed by wasps fluttering nearby, but I draw the line at moving over so they can chomp at the bit of bench I happen to be occupying.

A carcass covered with flies, a bench being devoured by wasps--what sort of world do I inhabit? Close encounters with nature drew me to my little house in the not-so-big woods, but I do have boundaries. I don't mind snakes living under the front door, but the snakeskin we found above the ceiling tiles downstairs gave me the heebie-jeebies--and those gigantic spiders? Outdoors I'm happy to live and let live, but the minute they cross the threshold and come inside, I'm putting on my stomping shoes.

The back deck and front porch are liminal spaces, bits of indoors projecting into the exterior world. My chaise longue, my bench, my space--only the wasps can't seem to stop themselves from building nests in the plastic recesses beneath the lawn chairs, and the dog likes to drag her kills close to home where she can keep track of them. 

Here's a plan: drag the chaise longue up by the herb gardens, where I can relax far from the stench, flies, and wasps and also get a good angle on the hummingbird feeder. It's a temporary solution but far better than spending such a gorgeous day indoors. At some point someone will have to address the dead groundhog situation, but who says that someone has to be me? Let he who misplaced the shovel wield it wisely.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ramping up the despicability quotient

On the one hand, we have cheery notes from students grateful for the great experiences they've had in my classes; on the other hand, we have a bitter complaint that causes me to wonder who in that class might be familiar with the spelling of "despicable."

Yes, it's the time of year when an entire semester's back-breaking labor gets reduced to a handful of numbers and incompatible comments on course evaluations: the student who wants to banish all poetry from the survey class or the one who wants me to require no papers in a writing proficiency class, with "best class ever" nuzzling right up next to "worst class ever." I get variations on these every semester, but I pay more attention to the real oddball comments, like the one that called me "a despicable person." What did I do? I don't recall ramping up the despicability quotient in any of my classes.

Hey, maybe that student is a fan of Despicable Me, which could be good news if the role comes with minions. Even one minion would be enough to offset the disadvantages of despicability. So sign me up!   

Monday, May 11, 2015

A miobile Mother's Day

Only a small portion of my Mother's Day was devoted to cleaning vomit off a car-seat (because that's what mothers do), which is a good thing because it wasn't exactly the high point of my day. What was the high point? It's hard to say:

Sitting in the front pew at my brother's church along with my parents, my children and grandchild, both of my brothers and a sister-in-law, a cousin, and a pair of nephews, who had all gathered in North Carolina for a fun family weekend involving a pile of old family photo albums, finger-licking barbecue, and lots of stories.

Waking in my motel room to the sound of my adorable granddaughter singing to her stuffed animals--and, later, sitting on a bench at the Wal-Mart where we stopped during our long drive home and hearing her sing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" to me as we waited for our traveling companions.

Following I-77 through a long dark tunnel under a mountain in Virginia and then, as soon as hit the other side, hearing my granddaughter say, "Do it again!" (But there are only so many tunnels on the interstate....)

Sitting in the passenger's seat secure in the knowledge that the driving was in the capable hands of my son, who maneuvered us around an interminable line of stopped cars on I-77 by detouring around the blockage on a twisty country road. (The episode of carsickness caused only a small delay compared to the time we would have wasted and the nerves we would have frayed lurching through stop-and-go traffic in the afternoon sun.)
Sharing a crackers-and-snap-peas supper with my family during that long drive home, which, despite interruptions, went smoothly enough to get us to bed by 10, exhausted but thankful.

So forget the vomit and the traffic congestion--my Mother's Day put me in the presence of four generations of my family and took me through tunnels and over mountains accompanied by crackers and snap peas and silly children's songs, and what greater gift could I want? 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Baby got back

"So what's it like to be married to a celebrity?" is what millions of people are not asking me this week--but they could! My husband recently made a big splash at a campus event, so big that his photo was featured on the College's Facebook page. When he first arrived at the retirement party for one of my colleagues, my husband was a total nobody, just a friend dropping by for a piece of cake and a farewell hug. Soon, though, his photo hit the big time and suddenly my husband became the face of the event.

Well, not the face, exactly. 

I never thought my husband's back was particularly photogenic, but surely it wouldn't have ended up in the spotlight if someone hadn't seen it as something special. What a back! Such a great photo is bound to go viral, leading eventually to clickbait lists like "Top ten sartorial secrets of  plaid-backed mystery man." How will such a humble, unassuming Everyman cope with the media attention? Who will handle all the calls from Oprah and ESPN and Vogue?

And what if that celebrated back starts to droop beneath the weight of sudden celebrity? The media spotlight can be fickle; how soon until we see speculation about whether it's time to get the back some botox? 

I don't foresee getting the back its own Twitter feed because most of its tweets would consist of some version of "Ow." It's a back that sometimes works a little too hard and doesn't always get the help it needs. However, now that it's a celebrity, maybe the back will get the pampering it deserves. Hey, here's an idea: auction off an opportunity for the back's fans to deliver back rubs. The adoring fans will get a chance to touch greatness and the back will get some attention. Win-win!

Monday, May 04, 2015

Day of reckoning

Now that the semester is over and grades are turned in (hurrah!), I can look back and reckon up the impact of my research course release. No one has asked for a reckoning, which indicates a gap in our culture of accountability--but just in case anyone is interested in how much a dedicated professor can accomplish with a one-course release and a measly $1000, here's the data:
  • Revised a journal article and saw it through the publication process.
  • Completed research and (most of the) writing for an anthology essay.
  • Presented a conference paper.
  • Attended a regional workshop on writing successful NEH grant applications and then led a workshop sharing that information with faculty members here.
  • Researched, wrote, and presented a talk on e.e. cummings for our campus colloquium series.
  • Served on an ad-hoc task force evaluating our course evaluation system.
  • Took an art history class that provided important context for my next big research and writing project as well as the capstone class I'm teaching in the fall.

Is that enough? Just looking at the list wears me out. I probably would have done a few of these things even without the course release, but I wouldn't have even considered the grant workshop, the art history class, or the colloquium talk--and without the funds attached to my course release, I would have had to skip the conference.

But the articles? I certainly would have worked on them without the research course release, but probably more slowly. The gift of dedicated research and writing time during the semester means that I can look forward to starting a whole new project over the summer, a multi-stage project that should take me through the next two or three years.

It all starts with a conference paper next month. Better get back to work!  

Friday, May 01, 2015

A new line on my vita

Here I sit not eating cupcakes, which is difficult considering the plague of colorful cupcakes infesting campus right now. With so many retirement parties, book publication parties, going-away parties, and other types of parties, avoiding cupcakes has become a full-time job. 

While trying to avoid the cupcake table at a colleague's retirement party just now, I asked him to leave behind something when he moves out of his office: His streak of good luck. "We need it more than you do," I pointed out. He promised that he will do what he can and then pointed me toward the cupcakes.

Someone left several dozen cupcakes in the department office, leftovers from some student event. I have two more food-related events to attend today; if I start eating cupcakes this early in the day, I'll be comatose by midafternoon. So this is me auditioning for the role of Cupcake-Avoider In Chief.

Won't that look good on my vita?!