Friday, July 31, 2015

Swift Friday mini-rants

Dear charming new coffee shop: I like your edgy decor, your tasty tea, and your cheerful service, but if the chicken salad tastes like dessert, it's too sweet, and if the texture feels like babyfood, then you need to stop pureeing and start chopping--or, better yet, tear up the chicken by hand so it comes out in chunks recognizable as meat. Too sweet + pureed to smithereens = off my list of acceptable lunches.

Dear person responsible for communicating with me in a timely manner: GAAAAH! If you do your job correctly, then maybe I can do mine too, okay?

Dear person responsible for selecting fabrics for women's professional attire: What ever happened to natural fibers? Not everyone wants to be walk around wearing the equivalent of a Hefty trash bag every single day. And another thing: if the fabric on the SALE SALE SALE blouse is so thin that I have to buy a second shirt to wear underneath it just to preserve a modicum of decency, then how am I saving any money?

Dear helpful bank employee: You did exactly what I needed you to do quickly and efficiently and with a smile on your face, and you even apologized for something that was totally not your fault. What's wrong with you? How am I supposed to write a mini-rant if you won't supply me with some good material? Get with the program or I'll--I'll--let you take care of all my banking needs! 

So there!


Farewell to July! (Go away, August.)

I remember a time--not so very long ago!--when July spread before me as an entire month absent of major commitments, a vast gift of time for writing with nothing much else to worry about.

And now it's over. Where did it go? I did some writing, yes, but not nearly enough. I worked on syllabi. I read a pile of books important to my research plus a few others. (Percival Everett's Watershed--how have I missed this for so many years? And why am I just now reading Thoreau's The Maine Woods?) I did a little canoeing and went to my son's softball games and spent some time with my adorable granddaughter and saw a few movies, but how did I get to the end of July with so little to show for it?

And you know what comes next, don't you? August, the month of meetings and mayhem. It's true that classes don't start until August 24, but I already have no fewer than eight meetings scheduled between now and then, including several multi-hour meetings. If I have to be on campus more than three days a week, summer is officially over.

So it's been fun, July, and I wish we could hang out a little longer but it's time to move on. Come back and see us sometime, okay? And next time, don't be in such a big hurry to get out the door, because once you're gone, there's no holding back the mayhem.


Monday, July 27, 2015

The new-class crazies invade my space

It's the first day of class and my first-year writing students are tearing around the room behind my back while I hunch over the computer at the front of the classroom frantically trying to finish writing the syllabus in time to e-mail it to our department's administrative assistant so she get the photocopies to me before the class ends, but I keep getting distracted by the rampaging imps in the room until I finally have to turn around and warn them: "If you hit me with that squirtgun one more time, you're outta here!"

I know it's a dream for three reasons:

1. Squirtguns? This isn't third grade!
2. My department doesn't even have an administrative assistant anymore!
3. Showing up on the first day of class without a syllabus? I'd rather walk in naked!

It's way too early to be suffering from new-class nightmares, but I've had some variation of this dream three nights in a row. The squirt-guns were a new touch, startling enough to wake me up. I'm always hopelessly overprepared on the first day of class: Classes start four weeks from today and I've already completed three out of four syllabi, while the fourth one just needs some page-number tweaks to account for a new three-meetings-per-week schedule. So these nightmares clearly aren't expressing anxiety over syllabi; instead, they're probably channeling some other anxieties:
What will we do without our beloved administrative assistant? Who will order those special green pens she used to keep hidden in the drawer just for the two of us who love them?

How will I deal with three first-year classes, including one that meets three days a week at 8 a.m.? 

How many new students will actually show up this fall? How will the campus respond to the enrollment figures? Are more staff cuts in the offing, or have all those voluntary departures bandaged the gaping wound in the budget? 

How will I cope with the stress of serving on Faculty Council? I've already fallen behind on some important online discussions because I don't have a smart phone and I haven't figured out a way to respond to e-mails while getting a root canal. Who expects an academic to respond instantly to e-mails in the middle of July anyway?

There's more--a lot more. When I think about it calmly, I'm quite sanguine about my class preparations and the challenges I'll face in the classroom; the challenges outside the classroom, on the other hand, make me want to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.

But only if those guys will put away the squirtguns.    

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Grandma's little helper

Yesterday my granddaughter asked me to read her a book she'd found among the many children's books sitting neglected downstairs, this time a Little Golden Book called We Help Daddy, in which little Benjy and Sue lend a hand while Daddy has a Very Busy Day--pulling weeds, painting a fence, giving the dog a bath, and more. 

I remember these little big-eyed round-faced children from my own childhood, but today the book reads like a dispatch from a different world: Daddy smokes a pipe without a worry about lung cancer or second-hand smoke; Benjy and Sue spend an entire day outdoors, only lightly supervised, without a flickering screen in sight; and Mommy stays in the kitchen baking cookies without getting a single grain of flour on her elegant silk blouse. Sue and Benjy work really hard without ever getting dirty, a trick I've never observed in children living outside of books. In fact, very little inside this book resembles the life I see my two-year-old granddaughter living.

She loves to help Daddy grocery-shop or help Mommy pick strawberries ("Only the red ones!"). Yesterday she helped us make a peach pie: Mommy rolled out the crust, Grandma sliced the peaches, and little E stirred the peaches, sugar, and spices in the big bowl, narrating all the while: "Stir stir stir! All stirred up!"

"It's delicious!" she says. And you know, she's right.

She also helps Grampa throw rocks in the creek, a never-ending task since the creek is always delivering up more rocks to throw. She helps Grandma wake up in the morning ("Grandma! Come in here! I'm awake!"), and she helps Uncle Steve loosen up ("Push me higher! Higher! Again!"). When her baby-doll is hungry, she puts colorful blocks in a bowl and calls it soup. 

"What kind of soup is that?" 

"It's purple and yellow soup," she says. And you know, she's right.

There are no pipe-smokers or silk-blouse-wearing bakers in our house,  which is not surprising since we don't live in 1965. Maybe in 2065 our more enlightened descendants will look back at our current way of life and find us hopelessly quaint and backward, but let them think what they want. The past is a a closed book that the future sneers at, so I'm glad to have a grandchild around to help me focus firmly on the present. 

"It's time to play!" she says. And you know, she's right.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

RBORCR, or something like that

"You've just been impaled by paper points," said my dentist in the middle of my latest bout of Dental Hell. No idea what that means. All I know is that my gum is swollen, my mouth feels as if it's been stretched to admit a bowling ball, and all I want to do is ... well, nothing. Thus, these Random Bullets of Root-Canal Recovery: 

Unless I'm hallucinating, I just heard on the radio that the minor-league baseball team in Akron, the Rubber Ducks, will play a series against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This is what happens when you put toddlers in charge of naming baseball teams. (I'm rooting for  Underdog.)

Jill Lepore's long New Yorker essay "Joe Gould's Teeth" makes for some really interesting reading, touching on topics as diverse as the nature of biography, the brutality of authorial friendships, and the heyday of the prefontal lobotomy. For chuckles, though, nothing beats "Mitt Romney's Slumber-Party Diary" by Paul Rudnick. ("'I mean, what kind of unions do they have in Wisconsin, anyway? Cows and chickens?'")

I saw an acquaintance in the grocery store today and almost ducked down the next aisle to avoid her because who wants to talk to a grieving widow with a mouth full of novocaine? (Meaning my mouth was full of novocaine, not hers.) But I'm glad I stopped for a chat because we somehow managed to mutually encourage each other. (And I somehow avoided drooling all over myself too.)

Too much summer squash? Yesterday I baked a summer squash bundt cake containing ground pecans and dates, and my my my was it good. However, it called for only one cup of grated squash, which won't put a dent in my squash supply unless I make a lot more cake. In which case I'll have plenty to share. Come on over!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reassessing disengagement--or, how to manufacture eureka moments

I could have yelled “Eureka!” on my walk this morning and no one would have heard it except the indigo bunting singing in the top of a willow. What does he care about my writing problems? He’s a bird. Birds don’t spend their summers agonizing over academic essays.

This is what I’ve been doing since I gave my paper at the ASLE conference last month: agonizing over how to patch a glaring hole in my argument. As I was revising my conference paper to fit the time available, I hesitated over a particular point that seems, to me, fairly brilliant, but it did not fit well with the focus of my paper. I hated to cut such a cool point, but on the other hand, I couldn’t possibly explain it thoroughly without cutting something more central to my argument. So I crossed it out.

But it’s been nagging at me ever since: as I expand my conference paper into a journal article, how do I deal with that dangling insight? It’s too interesting to bury in an endnote, but how do I make it feed my central argument? Three weeks of diligent thought have not solved the problem, but 20 minutes into my walk this morning, I had the answer.

How does this work? I was just walking up the road watching goldfinches flee from one Queen Anne’s Lace blossom to the next when eureka! There it was: I knew how to incorporate that important point into my argument, where to suture it smoothly into the essay, what examples to use in developing the idea, and even how to connect it back to the opening paragraph and lead into a great conclusion. And (this is the best part!) I came up with a new title, just two little words that tie all the parts together and ought to grab hold of readers' eyeballs really nicely. I couldn't wait to get back home so I could write it all down.

As I'm preparing to teach our senior capstone class this fall, I wonder how to explain to students the essential ingredients of the academic writing process. Reading widely, yes; research, yes; really outstanding note-taking skills, absolutely. But sometimes it's important to just close the books, put down the notes, and disengage entirely from the process, to let the mind wander randomly without direction and see what it picks up along the way. How do I include mind-wandering as a requirement on the syllabus? How would I assess student disengagement? When I encourage students to make time to walk away from the project and let their minds wander, will they roll their eyes at me and turn up the volume on their earbuds while tweeting thousands of followers about the latest lunacy proposed by their English professor? 

I know what it takes to produce eureka moments in my life: a mind stocked with interesting ideas; a disciplined approach to bringing those ideas together in writing; and a regular time to disengage from the process entirely and let my mind wander. What I don't know, however, is whether that formula will work for my students or how to help them discover their own methods. I want to create the conditions that will multiply their eureka moments--but unless I'm there to hear the eureka, how will I even know how it works?      

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Do you spell euphoria with an eye?

Today my wordhoard expanded to admit exophoria, which is not, sadly, a combination of exotic and euphoria or even euphorbia, a group of herbaceous plants of the spurge family, and if I were to splurge on spurge I might experience both euphorbia and euphoria but not exophoria, which describes a tendency of eyes to deviate outward. Yes: my eyes are not exotic or euphoric or euphorbic but deviant and also presbyopic, which refers not to my eyes' religious beliefs but instead means, simply, old eyes that respond very slowly when asked to shift focus from near vision to far.

Together, exophoria and presbyopia explain why, when I've been reading or focusing on small stuff for an hour or so and then get in the car to drive, I see two center lines, one hovering just above the other, with two cars coming the other way, one on top of the other, which makes me feel not euphoric but deviant and plain old old.

My exophoric eyes demand new lenses with more prism to help my eyes cooperate more effectively, and since my frames are old and cranky, I picked out a pair of frames that aren't quite exotic or euphoric but if the prism helps me avoid going to prison for vehicular homicide, I'll splurge. (Not spurge.)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Love me? Mow my lawn.

One of these days, I keep telling myself, I'll find the perfect answer to all my lawn-care problems, but unfortunately, today is not that day.

I once thought a weed-eater was the answer, but that big old gas-powered weed-eater is so heavy that it wears me out--and besides, I've never been able to start it, so I couldn't do any weed-eating at all in the absence of the resident weed-eater-starter.

So I bought myself a lightweight electric weedeater that plugs in to a pair of 50-foot extension cords so that I can trim all around the front, sides, and back of the house plus up around the herb gardens and part-way down the driveway. Great! Except that it runs through weed-eater line at the speed of light (three spools each week!) and the spools are hard to load and unload so that someone who shall remain nameless squeezed it a little too hard and cracked the head so that it's now hard to get it to load properly, and if you don't load it just right, then the minutes you turn it on, all the line comes flabbering out in one big green plastic mess that you then have to stop and untangle and rewind or else waste  that entire spool, thereby driving up the cost of weed-eating even more.

And then there is the poison ivy problem. The resident poison-ivy-eradicator does valiant battle against the noxious weed wherever it rears its ugly face, but sometimes I don't realize that poison ivy is hiding in the tall weeds until I'm in the middle of mowing them down, and then poison ivy bits go blasting all over everything, including me. If I haven't had a poison-ivy breakout this summer, it's only because I'm pretty diligent about getting straight to the shower the minute I've finished the day's trimming.

And here is my final problem: Even the lightweight weed-eater wears me out when I'm trimming on those steep slopes that surround our house, so I tend to spend an hour or so trimming and then save the rest for tomorrow, except maybe it rains tomorrow or we're out of town or it's 102 degrees and humid and I'd rather not. The end result is that our yard constantly looks as if it's being maintained by someone with an extremely short attention span: when the front yard looks good, the back looks like an experiment in tallgrass prairie restoration; when the back looks nice, the strip along the driveway looks like the path to the witch's house. 

Of course, the advantage of living our here in the sticks is that no one really cares what our lawn looks like. Except me. I care deeply. Someday I'll even care enough to find the perfect tool to fix the problem. 

Today, though, is definitely not the day.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Living in the "ish"

I asked a colleague how things are settling out in her troubled department and she said, "Oh, we're fine....ish." She paused a moment before adding, "I'm trying to make peace with living in the ish."

Three of us from different departments sat over lunch today and shared stories of living in the ish--trying to make plans in the midst of a budget crisis, staff cuts, curricular changes, and a shifting pool of students. Living in the ish means delaying writing syllabi for classes that might get cut because of low enrollment, scrambling to find people to cover classes and committee assignments for faculty who have suddenly left for greener pastures, being ready to teach the students we have in the courses we can fill even if they're not quite what we expected.

One of us at the table is a survivor of the previous budget crisis 15 years ago and is thus a veteran of living in the ish. "You have to find things to celebrate," he said, "and you have to make time for the things that make you feel fulfilled."

Canoeing, gardening, long walks in the woods--that's how I'll cope with living in the ish. Also, my spring course release for research and my summer work on this big writing project have left me feeling so jazzed that I've resolved to apply for every possible bit of research support on offer, from summer research stipends to course releases to NEH grants. If I can't count on teaching the things I love to teach, I'll make my own fun in other ways.

Not that I'm worried about losing my job. As I keep reassuring people: my job isn't going away, but we'll all have to make changes in order to survive--and as long as it's not clear what impact those changes will have on curriculum and course offerings, we'll be living in the ish. But we're fine. Really. Just fine.


Midsummer (un)sunshine

Tastes of summer: Freshly grilled bratwurst with homemade relish, tomatoes straight off the vine, a peach so fresh and ripe that I eat it standing over the sink while the juice runs down my chin--yum!

So what if it's raining every day and wind is knocking debris all over the deck and grilling is out of the question--we'll take our picnic indoors. 

So what if cool, damp nights have slowed the growth of tomato plants and increased the chance of blight--the first taste of a fresh garden tomato offers hope of fresh garden goodness yet to come.
So what if we haven't seen the sun for two solid weeks--there's enough summer sunshine packed in one fresh peach to carry us through the damp gloomy days until the sun comes back. 

(It is coming back, right? Right?)


Monday, July 13, 2015

A hell of my own making

"Root canal time," said my dentist. "The nerve's dead."

"I guess I killed it," I said.

He shook his head. "No," he said, "life killed it. Just the normal wear and tear of living."

I thank my dentist for that--for lessening my load of guilt over the state of my teeth. Teeth don't last forever, but my lifelong habit of night-time tooth-grinding wreaks havoc on teeth that might otherwise last much longer. Just normal wear and tear? Sometimes when I slam my jaw shut in my sleep, it sounds like a gunshot or a crack of lightning. I killed my tooth by translating stress and worry into tooth-grinding, and now I'll pay the price with a visit to yet another ring of Dental Hell.

There's really nothing hellish about a visit to my dentist. He's always kind and patient, keeps the big pointy needles out of sight so I don't hyperventilate when I see them, always asks about my family and my job (and puts his money where his mouth is by supporting the college), does a great job for a decent price and doesn't blame me for the sorry state of my teeth. His office staff is professional and encouraging and proficient at all the latest equipment to make the most complicated dental procedure (relatively) painless. There is no other dentist I'd rather see, especially since mine has seen me through a series of fairly serious dental crises.

But I really did not intend to spend so much time with a dental drill in my mouth this summer. Why couldn't I have been born with better teeth? Why couldn't I have learned about mouth-guards at a young age before all the damage was done? When will someone invent a less invasive procedure than the root canal? It would not surprise me at all to learn that root canals were invented as a form of medieval torture.
Let the record show that the tooth in question was not hurting at all when I went to the dentist's office this morning; the abscess only showed up when he took a scan to prepare for an entirely different procedure. Now one side of my mouth hurts where those nasty big needles poked me this morning, and the other side will hurt next week when I go for the root canal. I felt fine while I was under the influence of Novocaine, but now that I'm home and the drug has worn off, my entire face feels stretched.

I've found the portal to Dental Hell--right here in front of my face. Open wide!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Choking on dust in the memory attic

So I'm updating my resume for a grant application, trying to squeeze everything I've ever done down to no more than two pages without making the font size unreadable, when I realize that I can't recall the title of my dissertation. 

Right: the "little writing project" that dominated my entire existence for two years has succumbed to slippage, tucked away in some dusty, inaccessible attic of the memory alongside other bits of information I don't need very often--my vaccination history, my first address, the names of all the elementary schools I ever attended, and I've forgotten what else. (There's no search engine for the memory attic, and how would you search for what you've forgotten you ever knew?)

The sections of my dissertation that I've managed to publish as articles over the years carry different titles, and I don't have the full dissertation text on this computer or the print document at home.  (This is probably a mistake.) Fortunately, my PhD institution holds a copy of my dissertation in its library, which easily searchable via OhioLink. Voila! Problem solved.

But wait: now they want the title of my Master's thesis, which I wrote for a completely different institution in a completely different state not accessible via OhioLink--in 1986! In what sense is a thesis I wrote in 1986 relevant to anything I'm doing today? I've moved on!

But the granting institution has not, so off I go to search for the title of a thesis I haven't even thought about in at least a decade. What was I thinking and writing about back in 1986? I'd better find out soon or this grant application will be dead on arrival.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Hounding the yonder with Amy Leach

In Things That Are: Essays, Amy Leach issues an irresistible invitation: "Come and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games. We'll read aloud the illegible green script of the northern lights; we'll speculate about which star in the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova." Those who accept this invitation will find wonders both great and small described with playful energy and sparkling insight.

The beautifully designed book (published by Milkweed in 2012 and accompanied by delightful illustrations by Nate Christopherson) takes its title from John Donne, who wrote, "All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing." While Leach does not attempt to discuss all things that are, she covers wide territory, from the reproductive habits of penguins to the migrations of tiny warblers to the human tendency to impose patterns on the stars. While these brief essays demonstrate great depth of research into the workings of the natural world, they often read like fables or wonder-tales in which simple, elegant language conveys ineffable truth.

Take, for instance, the humble goat. Leach's charming essay "Goats and Bygone Goats" considers the advantages of being a gustatory generalist. "When the grass withers away in Morocco," she writes, "sheep will stumble dully along, thinking horizontal thoughts. No grass. But goats look up, start climbing trees....Put them in a barn with frocks and cigars and political pamphlets and toy blocks and banjos and yo-yos and frog leather--they will try everything, even the barn studs. They investigate by chewing and chew more than they swallow, in contrast to sharks who investigate by swallowing and swallow more than they chew."

Pandas, on the other hand, are strict Bambooists who “show a remarkable resistance to temptation: a stream runs by, serving up fresh fish, and what does the panda do? Wades across, to get to a stiff thicket of bamboo on the opposite side.” This extreme specialization makes pandas less able to adapt to changes in environment that would leave goats unperturbed.

Can anything perturb a placid hippopotamus? Leach describes the hippo's affinity for lotuses:
Lotus leaves hover up to six feet above the pond, like magnificoes. That is why lotuses are highly flood-tolerant, and why more hippopotamuses doze in lotus lagoons than in celery bogs. Under the ruffly round green canopies the hippopotamuses can lie low, feigning absence, or they can trundle around like gigantic inklings. They can protect their pink tender ears from the sun that fireball. The only trouble is that in a windstorm the gently swaying parasols turn thwack, like when the hula girls around you start slam-dancing. After the squall the hippos are bestrewn, like passionately celebrated sopranos, with petals stuck to their foreheads and greenery embellishing their rumps.
But enough with the charismatic megafauna; Leach is capable of infusing drama into the life cycle of the lowly pea. In "Pea Madness," she describes the pea plant growing "madly wending tendrils, to sweep the air for lattices" strong enough to support the weight of the leggy plant, but "Since there is no way for them to apprehend a lattice, the only direction to grow is yonder....the teetery-pea kind send out aerial filaments to hound the yonder, tending every which way, guessing themselves into arabesques, for they are fixed on the imperceptible."

Like peas, people also teeter and seek support: "When you cast your small, questioning arms into the opaque universe, you may find a trellis to tether yourself to; or you may find a tree sticky with birdlime; or a snuffling piglet; or a trapeze artist swinging by who takes you for an aerialist and collects you—then alas, unless you have excellent timing and a leotard, you will be a lost cause."

A longer essay near the end expresses Leach's concern that we've already written off too many creatures as lost causes. "Memorandum to the Animals" begins with a quote from Genesis evoking Noah's ark and then calmly explains to the animals that "This time around we are in charge: producing our own cataclysm, designing our own boat, making our own guest list, which does not include Every Living Thing.”

"We need the space for our works and wonders," announces the Memorandum. "Many of you are being superannuated because we must give priority to our machinery: our televisions and computers and refrigerators and cars, trucks, airplanes, combination microwave/convection ovens with auto-timezone adjusters.” Those animals who are not on the guest list are encouraged to "know that the extinction of your type is not necessarily the extinction of your glory. You can live on in the imagination, like the angels—although like the angels, you are likely to be simplified.”

If Leach's fable-like essays sometimes simplify the complex lives of the creatures she describes, she does so in language that sparkles and startles with fresh, playful expressions and descriptions. In addition to those hippos trundling around like inklings, she gives us beavers that "speed to the nearest trees to chisel girdles around their trunks so they go whomping down and then they can stuff them into the chatterboxy river to strangulate it into silence,” galaxies that collide "as with crisscrossing marching bands" (but "unlike the gaps between clarinetists, a galaxy's gaps are sometimes flammable"). In the end she gives us a warning about numbness to environmental catastrophe:
But perhaps nature needs us like a hostage needs her captors: nature needs us not to annihilate her, not to run her over, not to cover her with cement, not to chop her down. We can hardly admire ourselves, then, when we stop to accommodate nature’s needs: we are dubious heroes who create a peril and then save its victims, we who rescue the animals and the trees from ourselves.
Reading Thing that Are makes me want to embraces the world, from the lowly pea plant to the lumbering hippopotamus, to celebrate our common remoteness from being nothing before it is too late--before many things that are simply aren't.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The making of a mud-beast

If weeks of rain and forced neglect result in weeds standing taller than the lima-bean plants in the garden, one way to approach the problem is to look carefully at each individual stalk and yank up anything that doesn't look beanlike. This, however, requires more painstaking attention than I'm willing to pay on the first dry morning in weeks, so I go for Plan B: find the biggest, fattest weed in the patch, reach toward the base, and pull it up, opening up a giant's-eye view into the forest of weeds to make bean plants more visible.

In the still-wet garden, my shoes soon become heavy with mud; I shake off the soil clinging to weeds and spray mud on my arms, legs, chest, and hair. At a wedding shower this spring I gave my colleague a trough full of herbs to plant in her garden and on the card I wrote, "My husband and I are never happier than when we're getting our hands dirty together. I wish for you the same happiness." And it's sort of true, although what we do in the garden doesn't always look particularly happy.

I grumble about the weeds, wonder what to do with a bean plant I've accidentally uprooted, call out "Bucket!" when I need him to come fetch the full bucket of weeds and replace it with an empty one. He takes away the weeds and uses them to weigh down layers of newspapers beneath the tomato plants. Sometimes we chat--about when we'll get the canoe out again (with the forecast calling for rain all week), how much dill two people really need (way less than we've got growing), the research trip we'll take next summer if my grant application achieves its goal (which won't happen unless I start writing).

Soon enough I've freed the row of lima beans from their imprisoning weeds and it's time to move over to the next row, where the deep purple-green leaves of cold crops--broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts--stand tall above the weeds. Hiding beneath the canopy are leaf lettuce, kohlrabi, and cabbages, plus a patch of borage. We planted the borage three or four years ago at the other end of the garden, and every year it comes back in a different spot. The fuzzy gray-green leaves provide soothing visual texture and the blossoms cast a sweet aroma over the summer garden, attracting bees and other pollinators. I don't really do anything with borage but it's nice to have around.
Dark clouds come rumbling overhead--time to go inside. My back complains when I straighten up and I must resemble a mud beast emerging from the primal ooze. Mud coats my gardening shoes so thickly that every step up the driveway picks up gravel until I appear to be wearing shoes made of stone mortared with mud. As I've transformed a patch of garden from weed heaven to productive soil, the garden has transformed me into something barely human, a mindless being burst forth from weed and muck. I don't mind getting a little garden on me today if tomorrow it means I'll get some garden in me. Bring on the beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and cabbage! All this weeding makes me hungry.


Friday, July 03, 2015

Conference serendipities

Enough about wandering and paying of debts--what about the conference? 

It was great. Relaxing, exhilarating, inspiring, exhausting--everything I like about an academic conference without the  stress and snobbery of MLA, where people have to check your nametag to determine whether you're worth wasting time talking to. 

ASLE is just a bunch of profs and writers who are passionate about literature and the environment, and they have a lot of insight to share. I heard a theory-heavy paper on Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy, a group of pedagogy papers on using hydraulic fracturing as an exercise in critical thinking, and a well-researched essay on the history of fart jokes read at 8:30 in the morning to a standing-room only crowd (except by the end of the essay, most of us were falling on the floor laughing). 

(And if you're wondering what makes fart jokes an appropriate topic for a conference on literature and the environment, ask yourself this: what other natural process evokes so much cultural shame while inspiring so many great authors to create comedy?)
What about my paper? It went well. The room was crowded and the discussion afterward did what academic conferences are supposed to do: raised some questions I will need to pursue further, offered insights that helped me see how to refine my argument. Most conference papers feel like the end of something, a completed item to check off a to-do list, but this one felt more like the beginning of a bigger project that will carry me forward for quite some time.

And then, of course, I had plenty of opportunity to share ideas with interesting people. On the flight to Spokane I chatted with John Lane about W.G. Sebald and canoeing and later bought his book My Paddle to the Sea, which allowed me to vicariously experience a canoe trip that turns alternately enlightening and harrowing. I heard Joni Tevis read from her great new book of essays, The World is On Fire, and later we shared a refreshing piece of key lime pie and talked about teaching, writing, and odd little shops. I went birding with a poet, shared a dorm suite with an expert on children's nature books, and chatted with a prof who recently taught a book I'm teaching for the first time this fall.

These accidental encounters are the best part of an academic conference, but they don't happen at conferences where attendees are consumed by academic snobbery or concerned about impressing the right people. At ASLE, serendipity rules: any encounter could result in a new connection, every conversation in a new insight. I came home refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage in my summer writing project, with a notebook full of ideas to plug into my classrooms this fall. 

Plus a little sunburn and sore eyes--a small price to pay for such a refreshing experience.     

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Oh what two-beautiful morning!

One of us had a car but no binoculars; another had two pairs of binoculars but no car. The third had nothing but a smile and a desire to see some western birds.

One of us had a great set of eyes that spotted the tiny bird and another of us heard its musical trilling, but the third had the bird book that told us what it was. (Rock wren, probably.)

On an early-morning trek up Kamiak Butte, three birders who had just met helped each other see and hear some interesting birds that don't generally visit the eastern half of the U.S.--chattery magpies with their iridescent backs, a black-headed grosbeak and a red-shafted flicker. Our little group came together when I saw a conference attendee carrying binoculars and a bird book, and she agreed to share her spare binoculars if I would drive us to a good birding spot--which is how, early Friday, we ended up at Kamiak Butte.

I had been to Kamiak Butte very early Wednesday morning--and I know how early because I found a gate blocking the entrance. Opens at 7 a.m.--I had a full hour to kill. (I don't adjust well to time changes so I'd been wide awake with bright sunshine beaming into my dorm-room window at 5 a.m., and if I'm up, I may as well do something interesting.) When the gate across the road turned me back, I drove northwest a few miles to Steptoe Butte, an immense block of quartzite rising 3612 feet from the rolling waves of green. From the top of the butte, all those rolling green waves looked as flat and fake as a child's plastic play farm, and off to the east a wind farm's slow-moving blades looked like a yoga class stretching in unison.

I heard some bird calls up on the butte but had no binoculars or camera or bird book so good luck trying to figure them out. Maybe a yellow-breasted chat in the distance, if they have yellow-breasted chats in the west. (If "tweet-tweet-tweet-squiggly-tweet" sounds like a friend of yours, please send me his name!)
Throughout my trip I was astounded by the dearth of trees and water. Where I live, you can't spit without hitting some sort of water--a roadside brook, farm pond, puddle, creek, drainage ditch, or one of several area rivers. Spit in the creek at the end of my driveway and your saliva might float downstream to the Muskingum River and from there to the Ohio River and on down the Mississippi clear to the Gulf of Mexico, but in all my driving around the Palouse, I saw only the distant Snake River and one small creek. A ditch winding through campus calls itself "Paradise Creek," but if there's any water flowing beneath all that shrubbery, it's very well hidden.

So in the absence of trees and water, I looked at lichens. Striped and streaky Quartzite rocks on Steptoe Butte were so spotted with lichens in deep earthy shades--yellow-green, gray-blue, jet-black, and deep rust--that they looked like the clowns of the rock world, their stripes and spots competing for attention. I even tried to sketch one particularly well-dressed rock, but my sorry effort looks like what happens when you give a pen to a two-year old.

So I looked at lichens, listened to birds, felt the cool morning breeze, and felt that the butte had given me a great start to my day. But it was just a start. Why settle for one butte when you can climb up two? That's when I turned around and drove to Kamiak to make it a two-butte-iful morning.

Oh, and the buttes helped me repay a portion of the debt I'd incurred when the traffic cop let me off with a warning. Because while Kamiak Butte charges no admission fee, Steptoe Butte requires a day pass costing $10. I could easily have sped past the self-service day-pass station--there was no one there to stop me that early in the morning. However, the west had conferred some grace on me and now it was payback time: I pulled over, filled out the envelope, and opened my purse to find that all I had was a twenty-dollar bill.
It was a small price to pay for a morning of beauty that touched all my senses--and a few days later when it was time to go birding, I knew the perfect place.


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A drive, a drop, a debt incurred

By the end of the first full day of the ASLE conference, I was both exhilarated and despondent (Exhilapondent? Despilarated?): exhilarated because I was hearing so many wonderful writers reading their edgy, elegant, insightful essays and poems, but despondent because all my words were dammed up and I feared that I'd never be able to set them loose. So I went for a drive.

This was probably a mistake, given that I had spent the entire previous day in transit, had not slept well the night before or adjusted to the time difference, and don't see particularly well at dusk, but driving in the countryside soothes me and I needed some soothing. As I drove through the rolling green hills of northern Idaho, I kept hearing my father's warnings: "There's a lotta boondocks out there. Better be careful. A whole lotta boondocks." I drowned out his voice by trying to think of a metaphor to describe the peculiar landscape of the Palouse: it's like a crazy quilt constructed from angular patches of greens and yellows, tossed over a table covered with hard rolls in various shapes and sizes. Not a particularly elegant metaphor but at the time it was the best I could do.

So I'm driving south on highway 95 through rolling hills covered in green wheat as far as the eye can see, the hollows between the hills sometimes studded with groves of cedar, the sky gray with layers of rainclouds dropping lines of drops that evaporate before they reach the ground, the green waves below and the gray waves above standing before me like a watercolor encompassing the entire world, when suddenly the bottom drops out.

The Snake River merits only one dependent clause in John McPhee's monumental Annals of the Former World: "Just as magma moving under Idaho is causing land to collapse and form the Snake River Plain," and then he's on to another terrain entirely. What I know now about the Snake River is that it meets the Columbia River in Lewiston, Idaho, a city sitting in the Lewiston Plain, which stretched out before my eyes as an expanse of brown: brown stony flats, dry brown hills decorated with darker brown streaks. It was a lovely view--what little I saw of it.

I later learned that the twisty stretch of highway 95 that runs from the high green Palouse down to brown Lewiston runs seven miles at a seven-degree slope, which would perhaps have been a lovely scenic drive if not for the orange cones. Yes: that entire stretch of highway was being resurfaced. The new pavement was beautifully smooth but lacked some of the basic elements that make driving on a steep, twisty road safe, such as, for instance, edge lines and clearly marked lanes without orange cones intruding into them. 

Did I say driving soothes me? Driving without being able to discern the edge of the road does not soothe me, especially when there's a steep cliff that leads to destruction just beyond that edge. I had to keep one eye on the orange cones intruding from the left, one eye on the cliff dropping off to the right, and a third eye on the speedometer, while trying not to visualize the nightmare scenarios that would follow any minor error, most of them ending in fiery death.

Which is probably why I didn't see the traffic cop until he was right behind me, lights flashing. It took a while before I could find a safe place to pull over, since the shoulder was either covered with cones or leaning dangerously cliffward. I was vaguely aware that I'd passed signs saying "Traffic fines doubled in construction zone," and I knew I'd never find a way to disguise a traffic fine as a business expense. I calmly explained my panic at being surrounded by traffic cones in unfamiliar territory, and I must have seemed harmless because I got off with a warning. That's middle-aged white lady privilege for you!

I left, however, knowing that I owed a little something to the state of Idaho and the west, but how would I pay my debt? I found a way fairly soon--but that's a story for another day.