Tuesday, June 30, 2015

From blocked to bursting

On my first day without access to a computer, I didn't write at all. I was busy enjoying the zoo with my granddaughter--and besides, my arm hurt. Muscle spasms in my shoulder made my whole right arm limp and useless, with shooting pains when I tried to hold anything--a pen, a pickle, my granddaughter's hand. Good thing I had decided to leave the camera and computer bags behind on my trip to Idaho because I never could have carried them through the airport.

On my second day without a computer, I didn't write because I was in transit. My arm felt much better, but when called upon to sign the rental-car receipt, I used my left hand to lift my right hand up to the counter, and I did all my driving one-handed.

On the third day I started scribbling little notes on the conference program and on the backs of receipts and other little scraps of paper. I wrote down interesting concepts ("birderazzi"), titles of books and poems I want to read ("The Long Rule" by Nathaniel Perry, everything on terrain.org), unusual place names I saw in my travels (Excelsior Road near Spangle, home of the Spangle Gun Club, and aren't you just dying to see their club jackets?). Late in the afternoon I bought a notepad and started taking serious notes at conference sessions, but writing more than half a page by hand seemed daunting, the ideas dammed behind a solid block of pain and inadequacy.

This is it, then, I thought. I've dried up entirely. I don't need or want to write and if I tried to write I'd have nothing of any significance to say.

On my fourth day without a computer I woke up (too early) without pain and picked up the pen. The dam had broken; words started flowing out and refused to stop, filling my notebook with streams of ideas I can spend the summer following.

What happened to break up the dam? Terror--sheer, unadulterated terror caused by a long drive that took an unexpected turn.

But that's a story for another day. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Traveling light

Whereas my new lightweight college laptop (which was supposed to arrive by the end of May) is still in limbo, and

whereas I don't want to go schlepping through multiple airports with a not-entirely-reliable laptop hanging heavily from my shoulder, and

whereas my dying camera will only break my heart if it pulls one of those I-refuse-to-save-that-photo tricks while I'm basking in the beauty of some majestic waterfall in Idaho, and

whereas I don't want to spend all my free time at the ASLE conference hunched over a laptop or muttering angrily at a cranky camera, and 

whereas the nasty plumbing bill ate up most of my new camera fund,

Be it therefore resolved that I'm traveling with only one suitcase and a tote bag on my trip to Idaho, leaving behind computer, camera, and all associated accessories.

(Except maybe my Kindle. Gotta have something to read. And my Garmin. Gotta find my way around confidently. And my cell phone. And charger. But nothing else.)

So don't be looking for blog posts, or photos, or any type of communication for at least a week. 

(Unless I change my mind.) 


Friday, June 19, 2015


How many gnats does it take to knock me off my feet?

I don't know the answer and, frankly, I don't want to know. I'm just glad they're gone. Well, mostly. After two hours of cleaning this morning, I'm still seeing occasional dead gnats tucked in around the edges of everything, but that's nothing like the swarm that descended last night.

We've never seen such a swarm in our house before (or outside either) and this one arrived with particularly poor timing. I hadn't seen my husband for nearly two weeks because of our overlapping AP/conference schedules, so I was sitting in the living room reading while eagerly awaiting his arrival. I guess my reading lamp right near the front window attracted the gnats to the front porch, so that when I saw my husband's car drive up and opened the front door to greet him, the gnats rushed through the door like a curtain of creepy-crawlies falling all over me.

It was startling. I'm not afraid of gnats but then again I've never had that many attack me at the same time, so some shrieking may have occurred. And then of course there they were all over the house. I don't know if you've ever tried to repel a swarm of gnats inside your living space, but it's no fun at all. Flyswatters and bug spray are required. It would be great to have some full-body hazmat suits, but alas, that's not part of our household equipment.

This morning we found dead bug bodies everywhere both inside the house and out on the front porch, where a large spider web held a solid curtain of little dead bug bodies. Earlier this week we had to complain to the neighbors again about their recalcitrant cow that keeps wandering into our garden, but I'll say one thing about cows: at least they don't come barging into the house, knock me over, and interrupt a passionate reunion. If they did, I believe I'd move someplace devoid of bovines and bugs. (Do you suppose there's any great need for literature professors in Antarctica?)  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Avenging the honor of the humble meatloaf

To avenge a great evil and fulfill a promise, today I made meatloaf.

Is there any dish less heroic than the mundane meatloaf? The word "gourmet" would be embarrassed to share billing with meatloaf, and "artisanal" would slink from the room in shame. And yet a juicy meatloaf served with mashed potatoes and salad makes a tasty, satisfying meal--and it's so easy!

I made my personal meatloaf pledge last week, on the first night of the AP reading in Louisville, when I was served a dish purporting to be "meatloaf in tomato gravy," which had all the flavor and texture of a cardboard box left too long out in the rain. On first biting into this travesty on the name of meatloaf, I told myself, "As God is my witness, when I am released from this dungeon I shall make meatloaf!"

And I did. It's not at all difficult, and it filled my house with the comforting scents of garlic, good beef, and slightly charred ketchup. (No "tomato gravy" at my house. There's no shame in slathering meatloaf with ketchup.) 

How was it? I don't want to toot my own horn, but the universal response to my meatloaf is to ask for seconds. Go ahead, give it a try. Now that's a dish to avenge the honor of meatloaf everywhere! 


Next stop: Idaho

Today I turn my tired eyes westward toward Idaho, where next week I'll present a paper at the biennial conference of ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment). I've never been to Idaho but wow, does it look great online. Mountains! Waterfalls! Lakes! Rivers! Buttes! We have many lovely land formations in Ohio but we suffer from an unfortunate dearth of buttes.

And then there is the conference itself. This will be my third ASLE conference and I've enjoyed every one, from the engaging panels to the networking opportunities to the many people passionate about literature and nature. It was at an ASLE conference that I first encountered Joni Tevis and bought her first book, The Wet Collection, which was the start of a rewarding relationship; next week I'll ask her to sign her new book, The World Is On Fire, which is also terrific.

ASLE lacks the intensity and pretense of a big conference like MLA; no one is interviewing for jobs or trying to impress anyone, so the atmosphere tends to be relaxed. I won't even pack a power suit. Instead, I'll take lots of hiking clothes and hope to get out into the wild a few times. 

But where? 

That was my morning project: finding locations I'd like to visit within an hour's drive of Moscow, Idaho. I'm staying in the dorm on the cheap so I can afford to splurge on a rental car, and I'm accepting suggestions for terrific things to see. I don't know Idaho, but I like what little I can see from this distance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rest stop at the end of the road

By the end of my week of essay-reading in Louisville, I was thoroughly tired of people. 

Nothing personal--I love people! Some of my best friends are people! I had a great time with my regular AP roommate and some other charming individuals, but I am less enthralled with people en masse. I just can't spend eight or ten hours a day working, eating, and being shoved to the back of elevators with the same thousand people without wanting to sit in a quiet room all by myself and stare out the window at birds.

Which is what I intend to do today.

Yes: finally I am back home. It took some work. We were dismissed later than usual, and then the drive home was impeded by an overturned truck on I-71. I dropped my colleague off first and then hied me on home by around 11 p.m., which means that the five-hour trip took us a little over seven hours. Who's been driving trucks all over my eyeballs?

My front lawn is screaming to be mowed and my garden cries out for weeding, but it rained all night long so I think I'll just sit here and stare for a while. The hummingbirds are zipping around already. They toil not, neither do they spin--and they never shove me to the back of the elevator. This day is for the birds! 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kentucky fried

On my last full day in Louisville I walked upriver in search of chickens--and found them! Yes: the chickens have come home to roost! Along with the geese, ducks, flamingos, and guineas.

Last year I wrote about my failed quest to introduce a new acquaintance to the Flock of Finns, my favorite spot in Louisville, only to discover that the colorful steel folk-art birds had been shipped to Oberlin, Ohio for repairs and repainting (read it here). They're back now, brighter and cheerier than ever, although they looked pretty hot out there in the sweltering summer heat. (Broilers or fryers?)

I know my brain is pretty fried after six full days of reading student essays. At some point tomorrow the final essays will be read and we will be officially released from the big ol' reading room, at which point this Kentucky fried reader is going home to roost just as quickly as my wings--er, wheels--can take me there.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

An elevating experience

It's hard to maintain contact with the outside world when you're sequestered in a hotel in an undisclosed location and spending your days in a room full of super-smart people trying to thwart an evil plot to take over the world.

Except that's not quite what I'm doing. Once again I find myself in Louisville reading essays for the Test That Dare Not Speak Its Name, sworn to utmost secrecy about every detail of the test on threat of being beaten about the head and shoulders with a sheaf of student papers. So I really can't reveal anything about the actual work, but I'm happy to talk about elevators.

We spend a lot of time in elevators, of necessity. In past years my roommate and I have avoided the elevator problem by walking up and down the steps, but this year we're on the 22nd floor, which has its advantages (great view, no traffic noise) as well as disadvantages (I'm not walking up 22 flights of stairs; I walked down once and got horribly dizzy from all the turns). In the morning we hit the "down" button on the elevator and wait wait wait until an elevator finally stops for us, often empty--but it doesn't stay that way for long. With something like a thousand people all wanting to get down to breakfast at the same time, the elevator tends to stop at nearly every floor, so those of us who got in first keep getting pushed further back as new folks enter. Just at the point when I have my back shoved up against the wall and my nose jammed into some tall person's backpack, someone up front says, "Sure, we've got room for one more!" 

But somehow we've survived morning elevator madness and we were smart enough to bring fleece jackets to fend off the Arctic blast in the great big reading room. Ninety degrees outdoors, something like twelve below inside: how am I supposed to dress for that? And the food hasn't killed us. Yesterday there were blueberries on the breakfast bar! They almost made up for the "meatloaf with tomato gravy" served at supper, which appeared to be soggy cardboard topped with watery ketchup.

But, as I've said, we're surviving. So far. Two days down, five more to go. We can do this! (When we're done, I'm swearing off elevators for a while. No, we don't have room for one more!) 

Friday, June 05, 2015

Verse for a holey week

In On Poetry, poet Glyn Maxwell directs me to consider the shape of the white space surrounding, preceding, and following a poem, the nature of the emptiness that calls forth lines. Today I consider the blank spaces in my week: the void at the end of my driveway where the cow stood staring, the shape of the air that keeps my canoe afloat, the birding excursion that vanished into nothingness when my car broke down, the blank Word document begging to be filled with grant-application verbiage, the hole opening up beneath an old filling in a tooth I don't remember cracking--and now the loss of yet another valued colleague, who just announced she's taken a job elsewhere starting immediately so we won't soon be sitting around the department office comparing our dental woes, as women of a certain age tend to do.

I may not be a poet, but lately I feel like an expert on emptiness:

Empty chair
holey tooth
buoyant air
fading youth

docs to write
cows to shoo
birds to sight
pills to chew

(bitter pills--
better start!)
voids to fill
open heart

So that's the poem of my week. How about yours?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

From Lunchbox Envy to Mechanical Mourning

I was heading for an early rendezvous with the local birding group when my car decided it had other plans: first the check engine light came on, then the traction warning light (on a clear summer day!), then the battery and oil pressure lights, and I didn't even realize that I had no power steering until I detoured into the nearest parking lot, where my car came to a crooked stop right in front of a wooden "welcome" sign with a cheery painted bluebird perched on top.

That was the end of my birding for the day, which is fine, actually, because I have a ton of stuff to do before I leave for Louisville next week and I'm not really in the mood for another round of Lunchbox Envy. This birding group consists of retired people with enough time on their hands to go on all-day (and sometimes multi-day) birding expeditions once a week all year round, and they're always equipped to survive the birding apocalypse, whatever that might be. I don't envy their expensive spotting scopes and smart-phone birding apps and precision binoculars with names I can't pronounce, but every time they sit down for lunch with their colorful insulated multi-compartmental lunchboxes, I find myself transported back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when I would eat lunch in the grade-school cafeteria surrounded by fancy-shmancy lunchboxes with pictures of The Partridge Family on the front and real thermoses inside while I sat there with crumpled paper bag containing a peanut butter sandwich and an apple.

But I'm not here to complain about my sad, pathetic inability to get with the program, lunchbox-wise. I'm here to talk about my garage mechanic, who responded to a phone call at 6:45 a.m., drove five miles down to where I had pulled over, fiddled with my car there in the parking lot, and then let me follow him in his car while he drove my car back to his shop, where he scanned the car's computer, located the loose clamp that had caused a particular part to come loose (thereby messing up the oxygen mix and making the oxygen sensor shut down the engine in alarm), replaced the clamp, cleaned the corrosion off my battery, took the car for a drive to make sure everything was back to normal, and let me get away for a mere $60.

Is he the best mechanic ever or what? I can't count the number of times he has come to my rescue. He's had some helpers over the years but he's mostly a one-man shop, and we have always found him helpful and trustworthy--and I always come away from his shop with a smile, even after I've paid way more than $60.

And now he is retiring!

For good!

I suppose he deserves a break, considering how hard he's worked over the years, but I fear that I'll never find another mechanic like this one, who seems to care as much about us as he does about our cars. Anywhere else, we'll just be customers.

So I guess I should be thankful that I had one last chance to spend some time with my mechanic before he shuts down for good. It was $60 well spent--and besides, it saved me from once again exposing the birding group to my pathetic lunchboxlessness.   

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Powerless before the bovine invasion

Today I find myself facing a challenge for which a Ph.D. in literature provided inadequate preparation: how to get a cow out of my driveway.

It is not my cow. I do not have a cow, except occasionally in the form referred to by the colloquial expression "Don't have a cow, dude." Nevertheless there is a cow in my driveway and it needs to go away. Why? Because this driveway isn't big enough for the two of us.

Where did the cow come from? Whose cow is it? Why did the cow cross the road? The cow is supremely unhelpful, only gazing placidly at me without uttering a peep. (Or a moo, I guess. Cows don't peep. As far as I know. I've never seen a peeping cow, I hope to never see one....But on the other hand, I have seen a pooping cow. Don't get me started.)

The cow isn't really doing any harm in my driveway; in fact, if she keeps chomping on the weeds alongside the drive, I may not have to mow out there this week. But what happens when the weeds run out? Will she notice greener grass over in the meadow and then move inexorably toward the garden? I can't have a cow eating my tomato plants. Time to call in the cavalry! (Cowvalry?)

It doesn't take a village to reroute a wayward cow, just one neighbor on a four-wheeler, who leads the cow to pasture. Finally, the cow has left the driveway, allowing me to drive off utterly cowfree. (Udderly?) 

Monday, June 01, 2015

A welcome home with woodland creatures

A doe nursed a tiny spotted fawn on the shore as we sat in the canoe silently, hardly daring to breathe, wondering how long the deer would endure our presence. How long did we sit there bobbing on the water while watching the deer? Five minutes? Six? Ten? Eventually the fawn finished feeding and went bounding through the shrubbery while the doe simply watched us, and then, having apparently decided that we posed no threat, she turned and walked calmly into the woods. The fawn took a few more playful leaps through the greenery before mother and child disappeared from view.

Moments like that are why we love canoeing. This morning didn't look like a good canoeing weather, with temperatures starting in the 50s, overcast skies, and a light but persistent breeze, but the gloomy outlook must have discouraged other boaters because we saw only one small fishing boat when we set out from the dock and not another boat or person as we paddled the full length of Lake Hope. At the upper end we snaked through pink water lilies and yellow lotus blossoms and shoved the canoe over mud flats to find the channel through reeds into a feeder creek, which we followed until we met a dead end at a very tightly constructed beaver dam.

We didn't see the beavers, but later we watched a muskrat washing its face, a great blue heron fishing, and hordes of tree swallows swooping over the water's surface to snatch insects. Once a slender dragonfly perched on the top of my husband's baseball cap, transforming it into a propeller-beanie. 

Lake Hope is small and not at all spectacular, but it's a good easy starting point to our canoeing season. How can we have avoided canoeing up to today? Bad weather, too many weekend commitments, too much work--I can't remember the last time we took a whole day off together. I was a little worried that it would take a while to readjust after being away from the canoe since last fall, but the minute I felt the boat under me, muscle memory took over and I felt at home.

But not so much at home as the doe and fawn we watched on the lakeshore. I've never seen a fawn feeding in the wild before and I'll probably never see it again, but I wish I could thank them for letting us share their peaceful moment even for just a little while.