Saturday, January 30, 2016

Slime trails, sluggish writers

How often do I confront two unique and startling experiences before 9 a.m. on a Saturday? I guess today is my lucky day, because within a 10-minute time span I discovered the spelling "sort've" in a student paper and a trail of slug-slime on my nearly-new living-room throw rug. I don't know which one is worse.

I know the presence of slug-slime in the house sounds horrible, but it has an entirely innocent explanation: when the resident plant maniac brings in a bunch of potted plants in the late fall so they'll survive the winter, sometimes little critters come along for the ride. The banana trees downstairs often host spiders that soon make themselves visible by weaving webs, which makes them easier to remove. Sometimes we see a beetle or two or other kinds of creepy-crawlies, but never before have we seen signs of a slug. (Which doesn't mean they're not there.)

If this slug rode in on a plant last fall, then it's been cruising around that dense clot of plant pots all winter without showing its face, such as it is. What drove the slug to explore more distant terrain? Slugs need moist places, which the new rug definitely isn't. The glittery slime trail suggests that the slug blundered about on the rug for a while and then returned to the plants, although it's impossible to say which one. 

What harm can one slug do? Once years ago we came back from a picnic not knowing that a great big nasty spotted slug had hitched a ride on the bottom of the hamburger-bun bag, exactly where you would grab the bag if you were the one unpacking the picnic basket, which I was. The last thing you want to grab onto while reaching for food is a slug, and the unexpected slimy sensation may have resulted in a sharp vocal response and some violent throwing of buns.

If I were to walk out to the living room in the middle of the night and step on a slug in my bare feet, I suppose I might jump up in alarm and break a leg, but on the other hand, it's no worse than some other things I've stepped on in the dark. (If you've ever had an incontinent cat, you know what I'm saying.)

So I'm feeling fairly sanguine about the slug. I don't want to see it or step on it or look it in the face, but I take comfort in knowing that it doesn't want to see me either. Eventually it will shrivel up and die and we'll forget that we ever had a slug in the house, as long as I clean up the slime trail on the rug.

The spelling, on the other hand, is a different kind of problem entirely. I've never before seen "sort of" spelled "sort've" and I'm not quite sure how to handle it. Every semester I have to deal with students who have been told in high school never to use contractions in their writing but they're not aware of the derivations of "should've" and "could've," so I get a lot of "should of" and "could of" on student papers, as we all do. 

I fight this but I fear it's a losing battle. I may persuade a student to write "should have" in a paper for my class, but he'll go right back to "should of" in the next paper or the next class. We pronounce "should've" as if it were "should of," so it's really hard to persuade students who have been saying "should of" all their lives that they need to write "should have." Sometimes I have to let it slide so the student can focus on more serious issues, like the lack of thesis or insufficient evidence or plagiarism. In fact, if a student who consistently writes "should of" suddenly produces a paper full of "should have," plagiarism is the first thing I suspect. 

Now comes "sort've." If I'm drilling into students the need to change "should of" to "should have," then how do I prevent this student from overgeneralizing and producing "sort have"? Habits like this are really hard to break and getting a sluggish writer to attend to two different patterns simultaneously will take some effort: sort of, should have--the pronunciation is similar but the spelling is oh, so different. I suspect that I'll have an easier time eliminating the slug.

***Update: The slug has been found and removed from the premises. The spelling problem remains.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaching tasty texts (It's all about the mouth-feel)

This morning I'll introduce my Postcolonial Lit class to Jamaica Kincaid's "Blackness," and I know from experience what complaints I'll hear as I walk into class:

I don't understand!

Why can't she just say what she means? I don't get it!

Who is this person and what is she doing?

It doesn't make sense!

And that's when I'll say, "Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, but what else can a work of literature make besides sense?" And that's when we'll start talking about sound and images and rhythm and the feeling of words rolling around on the tongue, and before the end of class I'll make them read passages out loud to each other just to relish Kincaid's delicious sentences:
How soft is the blackness as it falls. It falls in silence and yet it is deafening, for no other sound except the blackness falling can be heard. The blackness falls like soot from a lamp with an untrimmed wick. The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The blackness is not the earth, though I walk on it. The blackness is not water or food, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins.
And on she goes, kneading the blackness until it feels mutable as a diphthong on our tongue, solid as a lump of clay in our hands.

I would generally use this kind of exercise to introduce poetry-phobic students to the visceral pleasures of poetry, but in this case we're reading what purports to be prose. Jamaica Kincaid writes in several genres, often simultaneously: her fiction is suffused with biography and poetry, and her nonfiction creates poetic worlds situated at a slight angle to reality. Students who have trouble comprehending "Blackness" as fiction should not be embarrassed but should instead congratulate themselves on having detected the work's essential hybridity. "If it's difficult to make sense of as fiction," I'll ask them, "how would you read it differently as poetry?"

And that's when I'll make them read passages out loud to each other. Some will not feel the rhythm or hear the delicious permutations of sound, but at least they'll have an opportunity to taste and see that the word is good. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

My souped-up lunch lacks one essential ingredient

"Go ahead, expand your horizons," said the woman behind the lunch counter, but if all it takes to expand my horizons is to try a new type of soup, then my horizons are pretty constricted. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I shouldn't have needed to buy lunch at all today thanks to my forward-thinking work in constructing a lovely ham sandwich with mustard on homemade rye bread last night, but a ham sandwich forgotten in the refrigerator back home provides little satisfaction when I'm miles away at work, so I decided to try the soup despite the fact that it was billed as "Philly Cheese Steak Soup." It strikes me that soupiness would not be a desirable trait in a Philly Cheese Steak, and I don't want to think about what would result if you put a bunch of Philly Cheese Steaks in a blender and hit "Puree." But the lunch counter lady told me to expand my horizons so how could I resist such a challenge? 

I am now prepared to reliably report that the soup contains just about everything you'd expect to encounter in something called Philly Cheese Steak Soup: pale melty cheeselike product, limp bits of green bell pepper, floating microscopic shards of a substance that may at one time have been attached to a cow.

Everything, that is, except flavor.

It did not taste like cheese. It did not taste like steak. It did not taste like onions, grilled peppers, or a toasted bun. It did not, in fact, taste like anything. I submit to you that any food product that claims a resemblance to Philly Cheese Steak ought to, at the very minimum, taste like something, but this soup failed the taste test. I'd rather try to survive on an invisible ham sandwich.

Now I'm busy trying to contract my horizons to exclude Philly Cheese Steak Soup. I just hope my horizons have not gone all flabby from being overstretched.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Who wins a snowball fight between a leopard and a shark?

And now it's time to dig myself out of a different type of blizzard: student papers. Some colleges have barely begun the semester but this week I'm responding to drafts in two classes, moderating an online discussion in another, and commenting on homework assignments in the fourth, not to mention the exam I'm giving on Friday. (Already!) 

Not to mention long meetings. Not to mention preparing classes. Not to mention having an actual life. So yeah, I'm kind of snowed under and desperate to find a shovel.

Today as my film class finished watching the madcap antics of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, I saw myself on the silver screen. That's me in the jail scene, surrounded by easily distracted people assaulting me with a torrent of words and demanding answers right now, except instead of actual people, they're student papers. I promise to spill the beans if someone will just shut up and open a window! I've got to get out of here and get those wandering leopards under control.

Or that's me in my American Lit Survey class, bobbing on an open boat with the correspondent, the cook, the captain, and the oiler, except there's not enough room in this little boat for all those student papers and no matter how hard I paddle, I never get closer to shore. And who sent the sharks? Surely there's a life-saving station out there somewhere!

So I'm feeling a little overwhelmed, I guess, but whether I'm snowed under or stuck in a jail cell full of screwballs or bobbing in a boat amidst sharks, there's only one way out: better get reading. 

(If I toss the sharks to the leopards, do you think they'll stop bothering me?) 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Notes from the edge of the storm

I wish I'd brought a camera this morning so I could show you the sky glowing pinkly above the frozen river, the river sparkling white except where patches of silvery water break through the ice, mottled sycamores lining the shores and releasing sudden showers of snowflakes from their branches. There's nothing prettier than our river valley after a thick snow.

It took me less than minute this morning to traverse the hill where I was stranded for half an hour Friday afternoon, although "stranded" isn't quite the right word. I pulled off the road voluntarily to wait for the traffic to thin before attempting the roller-coaster course down those snow-covered curves. If I must slide out of control down a steep hill, I'd rather not do it in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Eventually I joined the parade creeping at about five miles an hour down the hill and made it to the bottom with only a few sideways slides, thanks to the magic of antilock brakes.

That's my driveway, before it got plowed.
We had it pretty easy here compared to those further east: a few hours Friday afternoon when the snow fell so thickly the plows couldn't keep up, followed by a long, cold Saturday of staying off the roads (and playing in the snow). This morning I encountered just a few slippery spots on my little country road and none on the highway, but the streets in town are another story. Those historic brick streets might look picturesque, but they're hard to plow and it doesn't take much snow to make those bricks slick. 

Today begins the big thaw: temperatures will rise well above freezing and all that melting snow will have have to go somewhere. Here's hoping the temperature stays above freezing tonight so the runoff doesn't turn to ice.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Preparing for the worst (or the best, depending on your perspective)

With an undetermined amount of snow in the offing, the entire county quivers in the grip of Pre-Storm Toilet-Paper Panic, which compels otherwise rational people to dash to the nearest grocery store and fill their carts with jumbo-size packs of toilet paper. What are they planning to do with all that toilet paper--weave a warm rug? What makes people believe that they'll need massive amounts of toilet paper during a storm? Maybe the thought of a blizzard scares the bleep out of 'em.

We're situated on the distant edge of the oncoming blizzard, so forecasts vary from one inch to 13. My husband would prefer 13 or even 30 inches--the more time he can spend on the tractor shoving snow around, the happier he'll be.  Our granddaughter, meanwhile, says snow is her "favorite water," mostly because of all the neat things she can do with it: sledding, snowmen, snow angels, snowballs, throwing snowballs at Grampa on the tractor. What's not to love?
Whatever the outcome of this weekend's storm, we have what we need to face the worst: hot tea and coloring books, wood for the fireplace, fresh homemade bread and a freezer full of food, and a granddaughter to provide entertainment. And, of course, a sufficiency of toilet paper to serve our family's needs. (But not enough to weave a blanket.)

Hot tea, a book,
a cozy nook,
a fire gently crackling;
warm boots and gloves,
a child who loves
the snow--what could be lacking?

A snowman's nose
(a carrot!) grows,
as angels stretch their snow-wings

pull up a chair
and linger there
to watch what winter's showing.

That's what my weekend looks like. How about yours?  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Drown the metaphor, not the bunnies

Half of the pleasure of reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed lies in the occasional realization that some academic somewhere has done some spectacularly stupid thing and it wasn't me.

I had that experience this morning on reading Inside Higher Ed's report on this spiffy new method to improve retention at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland (read it here). The logic is either brilliant or twisted or brilliantly twisted: High retention numbers make colleges look good in rankings, but students who drop out before the official census date don't affect retention numbers; therefore, colleges should quickly identify at-risk students and encourage them to drop out within the first two weeks of the semester, before the official census date, thus weeding out students in a way that makes the college look as if it's doing a great job holding on to students. Neat trick, that.

Among the many flaws in this argument, I will mention only two: first, lots of students get a slow start but later pull things together, but this plan would flush those students out of the system before they got a chance to prove themselves; and second, a far more efficient method of flushing woefully underprepared students out of the system is not to admit them in the first place.

But the plan itself is not the most compelling part of the article. Not at all. What everyone will be talking about is the extremely vivid metaphor employed by Simon Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary's--or I guess I should say allegedly employed because he says he doesn't remember making the statement in question, which is really unfortunate because I doubt that he'll ever escape its taint. Speaking to faculty members who criticized the new retention plan, he (allegedly!) said, "This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can't. You just have to drown the bunnies...put a Glock to their heads."

Now I'm a huge fan of vivid metaphors but this one inspires a few questions:
Does anyone really look out over that vast sea of sleepy faces on the first day of class and think cuddly bunnies? If animal metaphors are called for, why not prickly porcupines or chattering chipmunks or whining weasels?

What's the best way to weed out a weasel, silence a chipmunk, or propel a porcupine from the premises? Drowning, shooting, or something entirely different?
Once you've drowned the bunnies, what's the point of putting a Glock to their heads? Do you drown them first and then shoot them or the other way around?

I'm sure someone out there is drafting a report on Best Practices in Drowning and/or Shooting Cuddly Bunnies in Order to Improve Retention, but if so, I don't want to read it. I'm too busy trying to work with my wriggling menagerie so that they can stay in school and show what they're capable of doing--and if they can't, let them go drown themselves in a sea of McDonald's French-fry orders. I'm not going to be the one pulling the trigger.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Excelsior! (All over again)

Ten years ago today I committed myself publicly to packing this space with "curly little shavings from the wood block of my mind," determined to "venture ever onward and upward until the St. Bernards come to save us" (read it here). It's been a fun ten years, but what kind of fool would keep running up a frozen mountain waving a little sign that says Excelsior when so many others have laid down their banners and taken to tweeting? Or, to put the question more bluntly, why do I keep doing this? And when do I plan to quit?

Today would be a great day to quit, to wrap this all up with a neat little bow after a good solid ten years, but I find that I can't. Call me addicted, obsessive, compulsive, or bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, but I keep coming up with just one more thing to write and I can't quit until I send that one last bit of excelsior to fluttering into the ether, and then the next one, and then the next. And so herewith I present (not than anyone asked) an abecedary of reasons I can't stop blogging, with links!

Anger arrests creativity, but writing transmutes anger into something more manageable.

Birds flutter overhead and disappear, but not before leaving marks of peace all over this space.

Conference sessions become much more enjoyable when I'm puzzling over ways to transmute their leaden language into gold. 

Daisies keep pushing their way through the thin, rocky soil of my front garden, and if they insist on arriving utterly unbidden, the least I can do is share their loveliness with others.

Excuses to avoid writing arrive with regularity, but this space demands words, nags until I can't say no.

Found poetry pops out of student papers, slithers through academic essays, or creeps into correspondence, but disappears if not shared.

Grading big piles of student papers can make my brain as functional as dryer lint, but taking a little blogging break turns that fluff into fun.

Humor lubricates life's harsh realities, so I'm happy when I can make bitter medicine a little easier to swallow.

If you don't want to read cute grandbaby stories, go read something that delves deeply into politics or economic injustice or literary theory; I'll just sit here on the floor with a toddler and a tub of Play-Doh and share the joy of grandparenting. (Care to join us? Plenty of room for us all!)

Juicy figs, tender eggplants, red ripe tomatoes emerge from my garden, bringing deep colors and delicious flavors into my otherwise dull existence, and it's nice to share!

Kicking cancer's butt is a task best undertaken alongside a dedicated posse, such as the community I've encountered through this site, whose encouragement I will always treasure.

Life in the slow lane can be duller than watching a muskrat carcass rot, but wrapping words around the mundane dullness ameliorates its stink. 

Metaphors make the unspeakable more manageable, but when I wrote a post about the helpful air-conditioning repairdude who made my house bearable by replacing a capacitor, I had no idea that a few months later he'd be permanently incapacitated due to a drug overdose. (Where's the repairperson for that problem?)

Nonsense surrounds me, piling higher and deeper until I have to shove some into this space just to get it out from underfoot.

Onward implies steady progress, but I tend to travel in fits and starts, punctuating long periods of immobility with sudden swoopings into unknown terrain--and when my travels bring me face-to-face with limpkins or Russians or invisible chickens, something compels me to write it down.

Poetry pleases me in ways I can't quite put into words, whether I'm reading great poetry or scribbling derivative doggerel, but since I have trouble getting anyone in ordinary life to join in all my language games, I'll happily play with my imaginary friends.

Questions dog my days, yapping at me at inopportune times and even demanding attention in the middle of the night. Kenneling the questions here quiets them down.

Reading books is a solitary pleasure, but writing about books multiplies the joy.

Students! They make me laugh, they make me cry, they make me want to tear out my hair, but the time I spend with them is such a gift that I would feel selfish if I didn't share.  

Technology may sometimes serve as a barrier to effective communication, but blogging has opened a door to interesting people I might never have encountered outside this space.

Useful advice for academic writers is worth sharing, even if I wouldn't expect many professors to follow my circuitous path.

Venting strong emotion here provides a safety valve so it doesn't bubble over and make a big burned-on mess all over the place.

Words flutter like butterflies inside my head, demanding that I let them out to fly and play freely.

X marks the spot where a car flipped into our creek, disturbing our peace for more than just one night, but when disaster hits, crafting a blog post helps sequester the pain. 

Yes, I'm a very busy person who probably ought to be doing something more important with my limited time, but everyone has to relax somehow and I prefer blogging to bowling.

Zucchini: a blessing and a burden, but having friends with whom to share the excess makes the world a little more delicious.

And that's my goal here: gather together the random bits of stuff scattered around on the ground and share it with anyone interested to help sustain us on our trip up the big, steep, icy mountain. Excelsior! 

(And if the zucchinis run out, we can hold hands and wait for the St. Bernards to bound up carrying zucchinis strapped under their shaggy chins.) 



Friday, January 15, 2016

How do you search for what you don't know you need?

I saw an eagle this morning when I wasn't even looking for it. Yesterday I went out of my way to drive down near the dam where eagles have been known to hang out this time of year, but I saw only gulls swirling above the ice and spray; today, on the other hand, I was driving along the highway not even thinking about eagles when there it was, looking majestic on a tree along the river.

Such serendipity early in the day has got to be a good sign. Today I will find all kinds of things I'm not looking for, things I don't even know I'm missing. What will they be? Impossible to say. I'll know 'em when I see 'em.

I still don't know my new students well enough to predict what gifts they'll bring to class. I'm learning their names pretty well, except in the composition class, where the roster has been different every day as students shop around for sections they find appealing. I'm not sure exactly what they're looking for but several students clearly weren't finding it in my class, so they've gone on to greener pastures.

I've been surprised already by which students are willing to speculate wildly about literature out loud and which ones prefer to keep their insights tucked neatly away in some secret hidey-hole. Half of my job is finding those hiding-places and releasing those insights to enrich the rest of the class, but where shall I look for them? It's too soon to tell. I'll know 'em when I see 'em.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My zippy accessories

Quick--I need a word! I don't know what to call the zippers on my new sweater, inserted on both shoulders where a five-star general would wear his epaulettes. Zipaulettes? Epaulippers? 

I don't know why I have zippers on my shoulders. I like the sweater: it fits well, keeps me warm, and looks good, but some designer somewhere decided that what this perfectly functional and attractive sweater needed was a pair of shiny gold zippers on the shoulders, in case I ever need to expose some shoulder flesh in the dead of winter. Meanwhile, the zippers just sit there looking decorative and useless and defying description. 

A wonderful invention, the zipper, although there is some disagreement about who should get credit for creating the zippy little device. A quick and superficial internet search suggests that Whitcomb Judson invented the zipper and Gideon Sundback perfected it and made it marketable, while some nameless worker bee at B.F. Goodrich came up with the name "zipper," which stuck.

Now I'm stuck for a word to describe the function of a zipper that serves no useful function except to look pretty. Whatever challenges I may face today, I meet them zippingly accessorized. (Zipperized? Accessorzipped?).

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An eye-opening experience

So I'm sitting at my desk staring out the window with my Slinky at my side and my kaleidoscope in hand when in walks my department chair, who says, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything important."

But it is important! I'm resting my eyes! Trying to ameliorate the symptoms of presbyopia--the blurriness that occurs when I do a lot of close-up work and my decrepit eyes can't quickly adjust their focus to anything in the distance. Spend an hour reading small print and I walk into a classroom to find the desks inhabited by blurs. How am I supposed to learn my students' names if they exist only as "blue blur in the back row" or "blond blur up front"?

So I'm trying to give my eyes regular breaks, for which my office window is the ideal facilitator. There's nothing much to see out there--a hedge, a brick wall, passing cars, some blowing snow--but it doesn't matter what I look at as long as it's farther away than my computer screen. I lean back in the chair, pick up the Slinky, and look out the window, and before you know it my eyes are rested. (If they're still open.) 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Illocality: world igniting word
"Parse," the opening poem in Joseph Massey's Illocality, begins with the poet's coming to consciousness in the morning, evoking

The speed
at which sleep's
fogged dialogue withers

into the present

After drawing readers into the process by which the dream world resolves into ordinary life, Massey concludes,

What's seen
is dreamed

We think
ourselves here

That closing line sets the stage for Massey's 2015 collection, which portrays the poet thinking himself into awareness of a landscape that seems to flow through him onto the page. Massey's haiku-like evocations of place, season, and perception often open in the concrete and move toward gnomic conclusions. "Turned," for instance, paints a mountainscape on the page and ends by inviting readers

To walk into it--

breathe the frequencies
that knot the air, another

animal baffled
to be an animal.
These poems focus lovingly on a particular place (the mountains of western Massachusetts) but present place as beauty always broken, the "Yellow centerline / split by roadkill" and the double-wide trailer "half-sheathed in ice" surrounded by blank whiteness, "Every other noun / frozen over." Massey echoes William Carlos Williams by declaring "No ideas / but in parking lots,"  but he expresses a difficulty in making these cold, blank landscapes speak.

"The Span," for instance, seems to offer simple instructions for writing about place: 

               Start with
a map, a sheet
                     of paper

              is site-specific

And "Contain" suggests that the act of writing releases a place's latent energy:

world without

delineation. No
thing until
into its word.

However, this detonation depends upon the erratic perceptions of the poet, a problem explored in the long poem "Take Place," one of Massey's two-faced titles: does "Take Place" refer to a happening or an act of possession--or both? Here he succinctly demonstrates the tenuous connection between word and world: 
Between sidewalk and curb
tiger lilies flare and bend

--a shape that resembles
the shape of the thought
that found them

Thoughts and presumptions aim the poet's perception toward a shape resembling thought: how can a poem so far from the concrete nevertheless immerse readers in a world that feels solid as ice?

Another long poem, "An Interim," points to weeds sheathed in ice and embankments with mud but confesses the difficulty of the poet's task:
To speak, to point

To account for anything
in the drift

The weight--the weightlessness--of it

Massey's slim book carries that weight, dense with lines that hand readers clods of mud and shards of ice yet pointing toward ideas weightless and ephemeral as flame. Often, the landscape itself serves as subject of sentences, as in "Easter (2)":

a world        this one
ignites on a word
and the landscape uncoils
hinged to a name

Landscape and world act independently, igniting and uncoiling onto the page. These poems may appear under Massey's name, but he suggests repeatedly that they spontaneously combusted onto the page through a partnership of poet, place, and language. The poems present Massey in the act of reading his world, admitting that "the yard's the only news on." Fortunately, it's the kind of news that remains fresh and timeless despite being tethered to particular places, seasons, and perceptions.

Friday, January 08, 2016

The cosmic grace of Beth Moon's trees
I think that I shall never see a book as lovely as Ancient Trees by Beth Moon. With her stunning black-and-white photographs of ancient oaks and yews in Great Britain, massive baobabs in Madagascar, freakish dragon's blood and desert rose trees on the Indian Ocean island of Socotra, sequoias and live oaks and joshua trees in the U.S., Moon makes visible the strength and fragility of trees that have stood for centuries as silent witnesses to time.

Her "Bristlecone Pine in Schulman Grove" might be mistaken at first for a sere carcass, but the twisting trunk suggests constant struggle and growth by a tree that may be as much as four thousand years old. Clocking in at a much younger 400 years, an immense English oak named Majesty carries on its trunk a hole that evokes Edvard Munch's The Scream, as if this tree were bellowing the pain of the centuries. On the other side of the world, a plump baobab named The Ifaty Teapot could, if miniaturized, inspire a whimsical cartoon character.

What makes these ancient trees so compelling? In an essay accompanying the photographs, Steven Brown captures the power of Moon's images:
To translate a tree's individuality into something universally intimate demands the skill of a portrait artist....Moon's baobabs and dragon's bloods, her ancient figs and cedars, reveal something far stranger than time's hauntings. To put it in terms equally ephemeral, Moon's portraits entertain time's blessings....Moon's trees may exist as small, monastic assemblies, some as lone oracles, but they bare their eccentricities with a cosmic grace.
Cosmic grace: I feel it in the presence of impressive trees, and Beth Moon captures that ephemeral quality and preserves it in photographs so beautiful that I hope they live as long as the trees she loves.    

Thursday, January 07, 2016

In the company of squiggles and blurs

After half a day on campus I'm ready to tear out my eyeballs with a claw hammer. For the past three weeks I haven't spent much time in front of computer screens or small print, instead surveying broad vistas of sand or swamp. This morning I've been fiddling with syllabi and putting the finishing touches on my Moodle pages and now the entire world looks blurry--except for those little squiggles floating in front of my face, which are clear as day. I'm going to have to get in the habit of giving my eyes a break.

The good news is that it's all over but the photocopying. Classes start Monday and I'm pretty excited about my schedule. Last semester I taught three freshman classes and the senior capstone, but this semester I'm down to only one freshman class (hurrah!), two sophomore-level literature surveys (postcolonial lit and post-Civil War American lit), and a surprisingly full upper-level film class (Romancing the Beast, thoroughly revamped the second time around).

My biggest class is only 18 students, which is about perfect, but all four are writing-intensive classes, so I'll have plenty of opportunities to ruin my eyes on student writing. From the class rosters, it looks as if my freshman class is predominantly male while the other three are mostly female, which makes no sense on a campus where men vastly outnumber women. I see some names I recognize but many more that I don't, so I'll have a mess of new names to match with faces. 

What's new this semester? I haven't made many big changes except to freshen up the reading lists, but I'm excited about adding a new type of assignment to the postcolonial survey. To help students grasp the relationship between literature and place, they'll create interpretive maps illuminating three of the works on the syllabus. The stakes are fairly low gradewise and artistic merit will not count for much, so I hope students will have fun illuminating the contexts of their reading.

All that reading! I get goosebumps just thinking of the cool stuff I'll be sharing with students this semester. The future is looking pretty bright! (Except for the parts that are still blurry.)

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

In the vicinity of 43

Goodbye, sunshine!
Two days ago I was walking barefoot on the beach, but this morning I'm bundled up in a warm robe and fuzzy slippers while sipping hot tea and wondering where I stashed my winter gloves. The thermometer tells me it's 10 degrees outside this morning, which is as good a reason as any to stay inside. 

We spent most of yesterday in the land of 43: the temperature dipped to 43 degrees as we left Florida and stayed there all through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, finally falling below 43 just as we got into Virginia and falling faster all the way home. Fourteen hours from the beach to the frozen tundra, about three-quarters of it spent in the vicinity of 43.

(Why not 42? I'd like to spend time in the vicinity of the Answer to the Ultimate Question, even I don't know what the Question is. Forty-three, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be the answer to anything except "How cold was it along I-77 in North Carolina yesterday?")

Now we're back to the territory of 10, where today's tasks will have to include unpacking, doing laundry, going through the mail, paying bills, buying groceries, and getting the house back to some semblance of normalcy. Also cleaning sand out of my car, although I'm not in a huge hurry to get rid of reminders of our tropical idyll. 

Tomorrow I go to campus to do absolutely everything necessary to get classes off to a good start next Monday. At some point I'll want to post a few more vacation photos and ruminate about my New Year's Resolutions and my upcoming 10-year blogiversary, but today I'm staring at the suitcases and laundry bags piled on the living-room floor and wondering whether they somehow multiplied while we weren't looking. 

How many bags must I unpack? (If the answer is 43, I don't want to know about it.)  

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Enrapt by raptors

I'm not sure what makes me so happy about getting up close and personal with birds of prey, but a visit to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida put a huge smile on my face. I hear owls in our woods at night and sometimes see hawks, vultures, and eagles at a distance, so it's a real treat to study them at eye level and observe their interactions with their handlers.

All the birds at this center have been rescued from the wild, some damaged in accidents or trapped in fishing line and others treated too long like pets and therefore unable to return to the wild. Some carry permanent damage in the form of twisted wings or a missing eye, but all get medical treatment and plenty of loving care at the Center, which also conducts education programs for schoolchildren and offers tips for those who want to help injured raptors. 

And of course they take donations. Someone has to pay for all those meaty bits of rats and mice the raptors eat, right? May as well be me. (They probably wouldn't like it if I tried to mail them the dead mice that turn up in our mousetraps.)   

Barred owl with handler.


Mississippi Kite

Red-shouldered hawk

Friday, January 01, 2016

A little photographic irony

Say you've been taking pictures for a couple of decades, taking classes and reading books to keep up your skills, taking untold thousands of photos in all kinds of conditions until you feel pretty confident of your abilities, but you're traveling with someone you love even though he has never taken more than a handful of photos and doesn't know the first thing about f-stops or blown highlights so when he says, "Quick, hand me the camera," you hand it over with low expectations, and he takes only one photograph.

And it's the best photo of the day.

Not fair. Not at all fair. I marvel at the beauty of the bird, but seriously: not fair! 

We're having a marvelous time tromping around various bird- and relative-intensive areas of Florida, including Wakulla Springs, where The Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed, and you can certainly see why. We hiked at some length through the part of St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge that provides the setting for Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, and we even managed a side trip to Payne's Prairie, which wowed William Bartram in 1774. We have a few more days with family and a trip to the beach and then we had back home, where I understand it's getting cold.

But don't worry: we'll keep soaking in the sun so we can take some home with us, along with the photos and the sand in our shoes. And the photos.

Maybe I ought to share the camera more often!  

The lighthouse at St. Mark's.

I haven't been able to identify this adorable bird.

At Wakulla Springs, home of the Creature.


A particularly elegant moorhen.