Sunday, February 28, 2016


A week before Spring Break I see signs of spring popping out all over. Our front garden looks dry and brown except for those cheery orange crocuses coming up, and this morning we saw our first turkey vultures of the season returning from their winter homes in the south. It's a little early for turkey vultures, so the pair wheeling over our meadow this afternoon must be the vanguard of the massive flocks due to arrive in a week or two.

Sunshine lured me up the big horrible hill, a route that's been all but inaccessible for months because of snow, ice, rain, and mud. Recent rockfalls have revealed colorful new rocks, while the color has faded from the stop sign at the top of the hill. I slap that stop sign to mark the halfway point of my three-mile loop but it looks as if too sharp a slap would knock it over.

Back home a group of chickadees chatter in the big maple tree out front. They're not flashy like crocuses or majestic like vulture but I appreciate their constant reassuring chick-a-dee-dee-dee issuing from the trees through winter, summer, fall, and spring.  

My little chickadee
First of many
Obey that sign!
What makes those odd shapes in the rocks?
A great scene to come home to

Friday, February 26, 2016

Let me just brag on my students a little bit, okay?

This week I've been called upon to explain to students the difference between subtly and subtlety and to remind them that a question asking for characteristics of modernism will not be satisfied by a list of modernist characters. But those are small things, minor and easily repaired holes in vocabulary and knowledge. On the whole, I'm thrilled with my students' eagerness to learn and their facility in sharing what they're learning.

My first-year composition students may complain about how much I require them to write, but I see such improvement in their writing and in their engagement with ideas that it's worth all the griping. Today I'll commend their diligence. Ya done good, I'll tell them. And if you can improve this much in a mere six weeks, imagine where you'll be by the end of the semester! Let them groan. The proof is in the writing.

My American Lit Survey students at first seemed reserved, with just a few willing to talk about texts in class; now they speak up (most of 'em) with many interesting insights and probing questions. And best of all, they take knowledge gained in my class and apply it in other literature classes--integrative learning at work!

My Postcolonial Lit Survey students floored me with their most recent papers, and their eagerness to learn about the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan has led to some really fruitful discussions about why we know what we know and who determines what counts as "history." Best of all, they don't seem intimidated by Salman Rushdie's writing. Confused maybe, but not intimidated. 

And the film class...all I can say is Wow. Their papers are a joy to read, and discussions (both online and in class) venture into some really interesting territory. Yesterday after we finished viewing The Birds, a student pointed out that the film ends at what would be the halfway point of most horror films; what's missing is the part where human ingenuity develops a cure for whatever has disrupted the community and eventually restores stability. Yes, I said, but why doesn't that happen here? I don't know whether we found a satisfactory answer, but we had fun trying.

I could certainly come up with complaints about students--don't even get me started about that whole plagiarism fiasco, and I resent the need to confiscate the cell phone of a student who insists on using the rest room during every exam. But those are isolated instances, mere potholes on the road to job satisfaction. My job is not always easy to love (or, let's be honest, even like), but when my job is most lovable, it's my students who make it so. 

So three cheers for great students! Even the characters have some great characteristics.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Primary madness hits close to home

You don't need to watch the news or notice the proliferation of roadside signs to know that Presidential Primary season is upon us; all you have to do is sit next to the phone at my house any evening and fend off calls from pollsters.

They don't want to talk to me. No, the recorded voices that call us twelve or twenty times every evening all want to talk to my son, who works evenings and thus is never there to take the calls. They offer only two options--"Press 1 if you are Stephen" or "Press 2 if you are not Stephen"--when what we really need is something like "Press 3 if you'd like to short-circuit this recording and send it to the Annoying Recordings Circle of Hell, right next to the computer-generated weather voice that insists on pronouncing 'fog' as if it were 'fodge'."  

Every four years when politicians suddenly discover deep concern for flyover states they can't keep straight in the interim, when they are shocked to discover that Ohio and Iowa aren't just variant pronunciations of the same name, madness ensues. Our own governor is coming back from the campaign trail to deliver his State of the State speech in quaint, historic Marietta, Ohio, a news item that filled up my Facebook feed yesterday afternoon. One of the announcements featured an unfortunately truncated headline and lede:

Poor Marie--and what kind of joint is he requesting? Get a room, people!

The madness really hit home, though, when Ted Cruz's Superpac, Stand by Truth, produced an attack ad decrying the fact that undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition to  attend Our Nation's Top Schools (see it here, if you dare). The video they use to illustrate this claim, though, is an aerial view of my own campus, including a nice clear image of the building in which I am sitting right now. It's nice that the Cruz people think we're one of Our Nation's Top Schools, but we're kind of a bad example if you want to talk about in-state tuition, which we do not offer. Everyone pays the same outlandish sum.

What I'd like to do is put that ad on a loop and hook it up with the recorded voice that keeps calling every evening. Anything to get the pollsters off my back!


Monday, February 22, 2016

Eco on constructing a reader who can pass his test

Few scenes in literature spark such horror as the library fire in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but you don't arrive at the fire without first passing a test. Since Eco's death, everyone is quoting his charming statement about the origin of the book: "I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I wanted to poison a monk." However, reading further in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose provides a more satisfying explanation of his philosophy of composition. 

After he'd completed the manuscript, Eco explains, editors suggested that he shorten the first hundred pages, but he refused because

if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
What kind of reader passes such a test? The reader the author constructs:

What does it mean, to imagine a reader able to overcome the penitential obstacle of the first hundred pages? It means, precisely, writing one hundred pages for the purpose of constructing a reader suitable for what comes afterward.

I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, would become my prey--or, rather, the prey of my text--and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him....You believe you want sex and a criminal plot where the guilty party is discovered at the end, and all with plenty of action.... All right, then, I will give you Latin, practically no women, lots of theology, gallons of blood in Grand Guignol style, to make you say, 'But all this is false; I refuse to accept it!' And at this point you will have to be mine, and feel the thrill of God's infinite omnipotence, which makes the world's order vain. And then, if you are good you will realize how I lured you into this trap, because I was really telling you about it at every step, I was carefully warning you that I was dragging you to your damnation; but the fine things about pacts with the devil is that when you sign them you are well aware of their conditions. Otherwise, why would you be recompensed with hell?
In Eco's case we are recompensed with a fully realized world that makes us fear evil and seek justice and mourn when it all burns and want more, but when the author is dead, the only way to get more is to go back and re-read the book and know we have passed his test.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Reasons to be happy (and not just because it's Friday)

I made only one New Year's resolution this year, but that doesn't mean it's been easy to keep: I resolved to try to be happier. Kind of vague and hard to measure, yes, and it's easy to forget when I'm in the midst of unhappy circumstances. At the end of a week that included too many meetings, too much student distress, and too little rest and relaxation, I decided to look for reasons to be happy. To wit:

1. Pretty world! This morning the sky looked like a watercolor and the river like quicksilver, and though I didn't see any eagles, I found the roar of water rushing over the dam refreshing.  

2. Finally, warmth. Today I'm not wearing long-johns, wool socks, boots, earmuffs, gloves, or a heavy coat, and I feel as light as a feather.

3. The end of meeting madness. I survived my many-meeting marathon this week without losing my mind, although I did lose my temper (just once!).

4. Fun film classes. Great viewing, great reading, great discussion, and a set of really stellar papers--why can't all my classes be like this every day?

5. This website, which combines two of my favorite things: the Cleveland Indians and anagrams. Go, Lil' Cheery Batman!

6. Fantastic colleagues, whose achievements I cheered for last night as they received well-earned awards. 

7. I remembered my lunch! Three slices of my favorite thin-crust veggie pizza so good I would gladly eat it cold.

8. I haven't made anyone cry in almost 24 hours. (Of course, the day is still young.)

9. Student talent on display in my classes, at the student art show, and at their production of A Glass Menagerie this evening, which will put a nice positive spin at the end of my impossible week.  

10. One week closer to Spring Break!        

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What would you do if you had to quit teaching?

Cristi Hegranes wants to hire someone to fill an entry-level position at the Global Press Journal, but she's having a hard time finding qualified candidates. In "An Open Letter to Journalism Students Who Want Jobs" (here), she explains that she's received applications from graduates who have earned high grades at excellent journalism schools, but the position requires "fact-checking and other newsroom tasks" and apparently many of the applicants couldn't be bothered to check the correct spelling of Global Press Journal or of Cristi Hegranes.

"I just had flashbacks to my own J-school classes at NYU when students would automatically fail Professor Blood’s class for misspelling Giuliani," she explains, and while I never had a professor named Blood, I recall profs who could draw blood simply by glaring at a misspelled name in a news story. 

In unrelated news, an 18-year-old in Florida has been arrested for practicing medicine without a license (here). He looks like someone who plays a doctor on TV, but his publicity material screams Quack: "I utilize physiological, psychological, and mechanical methods, such as air, water, light, heat, earth, phototherapy, food and herb therapy, psychotherapy, electrotherapy, physiotherapy, minor and orificial surgery, mechanotherapy," and on and on.

And then there's the protagonist of Don DeLillo's story "Sine Cosine Tangent" in the current New Yorker (here), who transforms himself from a young man determined to make his mark the world to an adult devoted to self-erasure: "In the end, I followed the course that suited me. Cross-stream pricing consultant. Implementation analyst—clustered and non-clustered environments. These jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them. The job title was the job. The job looked back at me from the monitors on the desk where I absorbed my situation, in full command of the fact that this was where I belonged."

Given current crises in higher education, it's good to know that we have options!   

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

If it happened every day, it wouldn't be so special

Today a student told me I was pretty amazing, and I think she meant it. Normally I would blush and say "thanks" while secretly discounting the compliment, but today I decided to skip the discount. When I read course evaluations saying I'm unbending or unfriendly or "a despicable person," I agonize over what I've done and how I can improve; if I take negative feedback so seriously, I think I should be allowed to sit back and accept the occasional pat on the back. 

So in case you're wondering: today I was pretty amazing. (I'm not making any promises about tomorrow.)


Sonnet: To Plagiarism

How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height
my red pen can reach, when reeling from the sight
of copied-and-pasted paragraphs filling paper space.
I hate thee by the leveling of this day's
silent e-mailed screed, by laptop's gentle light.
I hate thy stolen phrases others wrote so right,
I hate thy purloined thoughts, seeking unearned praise.
I hate thee for betraying trust--I'm such a goose!
And in my grief, I hate your broken faith.
I hate thee with a hate that grows anew
with each new case. I hate thee with the breath,
groans, tears, of anguished strife; and, if I choose,
I shall hate thee none the better after writing "F." 

(With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

A mini-vacation for the brain

"If Robert Frost were alive today," said Paula Poundstone at her performance the other night, "he would write, 'Whose woods these are I think I'll Google.'" (And then he'd create a selfie instead of a poem.)

It wasn't the biggest laugh of the evening but it reinforced a concept I've been trying to drill into my writing students: if you want to get creative, give your brain a break!

I'm convinced that the human mind needs down time, time away from tunes, tweets, and entanglements. We can continually feed the brain on cute cat videos, pictures of other people's breakfasts, and inane text messages, but at some point the overstuffed mind needs time to digest. I suspect that's why so many prolific writers are also prolific walkers: there's nothing like the rhythm of aimless walking to put the mind into "refresh" mode.

Such unfettered time will be rare this week thanks to a million meetings and teaching tasks, so it felt good to take some time off over the weekend to sit in a beautiful historic theater, newly restored, and laugh loud and long with friends over a comedian who knows the value of down time. It was like a vacation for the brain, and if I make it through this impossible week without going completely insane, I'll have Paula Poundstone to thank.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Situation normal, if by "normal" you mean utterly impossible

Because I've worked three 14-hour days on campus this week,

and because I had so many back-to-back meetings yesterday that I got dehydrated from lack of a spare minute to take a drink,

and because I've attended seven meetings this week,

and because those seven meetings will seem like a very light load next week when I have either 12 or 13 meetings, depending on whether I can weasel my way out of one of them,

and because I have one set of drafts to read today and a set of papers to grade this weekend and two exams next week,

and because my inbox is bristling with righteous indignation over a minor snafu that is Totally Not My Fault,

and because I feel cold and tired and fat and cranky,

here is a picture of a wood stork.

I'm practicing that look. It will come in handy if anyone asks me to do anything outside my normal duties any time soon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Dispatches from the grammar front

So this blonde dame swings into my office, bracelets jingling, high heels clicking like a precision drum line in tight formation, and says she's got a problem--a grammar problem.

Well you've come to the right place, sweetheart, says I. There's no syntax too taxing for Dashiell Hyphen, Private Grammarian. So spit it out--what's your trouble?

She looks down at her hands, blushes like the nun that stumbled into the brothel, and says, My problem is like.

Like what? says I.

It's just--like, she says. Or I guess it's like and as. My boyfriend keeps telling me I ought to use as instead of like, and I don't mind so much when it's just us two but last night at a dinner party he and his mother--she's an English teacher, his mother, the old-fashioned kind with a hankie stuffed up her sleeve and cat-eye glasses with little jewels on them--anyway, he and his mother ganged up on me in front of everyone and wouldn't stop yammering about conjectures and a prostrations or whatever they're called.

Conjunctions and prepositions, says I, but I'm afraid you've got a bigger problem than grammar. Sounds like you need to ditch the boyfriend. You can bet his mama's got him wrapped around her apron strings, and besides, why would you want to hang around with a jerk who corrects your grammar at a dinner party?

Because he's loaded, she says.

Loaded with grammar peeves or with something more marketable?

She gives me this sad-puppy look and says, we met at a Chipotle where I was rolling his burrito and he promised to buy me my own franchise as a wedding gift but now he won't marry me unless I learn the difference between like and as!

I hand her a tissue. It's a tough case, all right. I could take a lot of time to explain that like is a preposition that takes an object while as is a conjunction that can link two clauses, but I don't want to drive this crying dame to prostration over such distinctions, especially when it's a well-kept secret amongst grammarians that the distinction is often overlooked in casual contexts. Give him the burrito like he ordered it is probably okay in the Chipotle context, but she'll never get a chance to step back into the Chipotle context unless I can explain like and as in a way that doesn't involve words of more than two syllables.

And then it hits me: verbs. Even a loved-crazed burrito-roller has to know what a verb is, right? And so I lean forward, hand her another tissue, and ask, What's your position on verbs?

Verbs? she sniffles. What's verbs got to do with it?

You know what a verb is, right? says I. 

An action word, she says. Everyone knows that.

Not everyone, says I, but don't get me started. You don't have to know about conjunctions and prepositions if you just remember this simple little trick: don't put like before a clause containing a subject and verb.

She looks puzzled.

So I get up to the blackboard and write out some sentences:

A burrito is shaped like a meaty torpedo.  
A smashed burrito looks like a mess.  

See? says I. The preposition--like--is followed by an object--torpedo or mess. Not a verb in sight.

Okay, says she, but what about Rolling a burrito is like massaging a torpedo? There's a verb after like!

But look at that verb, says I: massaging names an action and fills a noun's role in the prepositional phrase. We call that a verbal, and you'll notice that there's no subject in front of it, nobody actually doing the massaging. You can put like in front of verbs acting like nouns, but not verbs acting like verbs.

She clicks and jingles over to the blackboard, so close I can smell her cologne: eau de pico de gallo. Show me, she says in a husky voice.

So I show her:

When that jerk corrects my grammar, it feels like a slap in the face.
Why does he keep belittling me as if I meant nothing to him?
I feel as though I could smash a burrito right in his face--and his mother's, too.
Why do I want to marry a guy who treats me as tyrants treat peons?

She stands close, moves her lips while reading, and finally points to the word tyrants

I see it, says she. Tyrants treat--noun, verb. It's like a little sentence.

Right, says I. That's exactly what it is.

And you want me to put as in front of little sentences.

You got it, says I, but I'm not the one wanting you to do it. It's that tyrant boyfriend of yours--and his mother. They're the ones who want you to trade in your charming colloquialisms for a pile of tortilla dough.

She's silent again but I can see the little wheels turning behind those baby-blue eyes so I write one last sentence on the board:

Do you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who, when you tell him in a moment of passion that you love him just like he is comes back with "As, you idiot! I love you just as you are," or would you rather stick with someone willing to love you just as you are regardless of your like usage? 

She takes a while to get to the end but when she's done she blushes again and looks down at her watch. For a minute I think I've got her attention but then she smiles brightly and says, "Look at the time! I hear a tortilla calling," and then she's through the door faster than a jalapeno through a puppy's gut--and she doesn't even pay my fee.  

It's too bad, I tell you. We could make beautiful grammar together.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Not quite a snow day

"All of my other classes are cancelled today," says a student in my morning class, and another nods--"Mine too." I hear the accusation in their voices: if other professors can cancel classes, why can't you?

I consider several answers:

Because we have some really cool stuff coming up and we can't afford to fall behind on our work. (True but unsatisfying for students who had to get up and moving while their roommates stayed in their nice warm comfy beds.)

Because the College has not officially cancelled classes so I feel compelled to give you your money's worth. (Only partly true--I could easily have justified cancelling classes today if my intrepid husband hadn't shamed me with the "In my day we walked to school in twelve feet of snow" schtick. And let the record show that his job was cancelled today so he's staying in the nice warm house while I'm out sliding all over the highway.)

Because if I have to be here, everyone has to be here. (Heartless and untrue--I freely excuse any commuting student who does not want to drive on the roads today. My class may be important, but it's not worth dying over.)

In the end I settle for commending their diligence and putting them to work. Now my big concern is how much more snow will fall before I can leave today. I put a change of clothes in the trunk of my car in case I can't get home, but I'd rather leave campus before the snow gets too deep. 

Hey, maybe my afternoon meeting will be cancelled! All my other meetings are cancelled today--why not this one?

Friday, February 05, 2016

I need some R&R from R&R

At a time of enrollment crisis, when classes compete for a shrinking pool of students and faculty members fear that classes will be cancelled if they don't hit the magic number, it would be crass to complain about too many students. I've taught more students in the past and I trust that I'll have more in the future, but this semester I happen to be teaching twice as many students as I did last semester when I had some unusually small classes, and I feel the difference every day.

The problem, though, is not that I have too many students; in fact, for a writing-intensive class, any number between 10 and 18 is just about perfect, and that's what I have. The problem is that all four of my classes are writing-intensive. For a prof committed to providing swift and useful feedback on student drafts, that's a lot of strain on the little grey cells, not to mention the aging eyes.

I got smart on the syllabus and didn't require all four classes to turn in drafts on the same day, which has happened in the past. But even with assignments staggered, I'm swamped: Last week I read and responded to postcolonial and American lit drafts; this week I responded to freshman comp drafts on Monday and Tuesday and graded postcolonial papers Wednesday and Thursday. Today I'll respond to online discussions in the film class. Next Monday: American lit papers. Tuesday: film drafts. Wednesday: freshman comp papers. Friday: the next round of postcolonial drafts. And it never ends. (Well, maybe never is an exaggeration. Here's a circle of Hell that Dante never knew: drafts every day--forever.)

With all those papers piling in one after another, I don't have time to enjoy them. These postcolonial papers are really interesting and the film students are knocking my socks off with their insightful online discussions. I'm a fast reader, but I still have to zip through them at the speed of light if I don't want to be up all night reading papers until my eyeballs fall right out of my head. 

The goal is to avoid getting lapped--collecting a new round of papers from students before I've returned the previous round. All the best research in teaching writing tells us that students improve when they write frequently and receive feedback quickly, so that's what we do. It's just that some weeks it feels as if that's all I do: read and respond, read and respond, R&R, R&R, R&R like a machine. 

Someday someone will invent a Reading-and-Responding Machine that will do what I do much more quickly and efficiently. Until then, feed me a paper and I'll spit out comments. Again and again and again.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Winesburg, Indiana: A tasty casserole

"Everyone knows how to make a casserole," writes Marny Vanderrost in the Acknowledgments to Winesburg, Indiana: "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

The twist, of course, is that Marny is herself one of those ingredients, a character in a collection of linked short stories all set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Indiana, and penned by 30 different writers. Marny is the creation of Jim Walke, who knows how to top a casserole: "Some towns keep their crazy hidden, but we scatter it on top like potato chips."

The crazy comes out clearly in Winesburg, Indiana, which embraces characters who eat toenails, collect space-alien feces, or avoid barrels full of eyeballs, along with more ordinary people stuck in situations that challenge their quest for meaning.

Michael Martone and Bryan Furuness edited the collection and Martone wrote a baker's dozen of the stories, many of which include allusions to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio that range from the obvious to the obscure. Anderson experts will nod knowingly when they read a throwaway line about death by toothpick-swallowing or when a character named Clyde questions the reality of a town named Winesburg. (Note for non-experts: Anderson died of peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick, and his fictional Winesburg grew out of his knowledge of the small northern Ohio town called Clyde.) Further complicating the interplay of allusions is the book's subtitle: A Fork River Anthology. Let's see: Edgar Lee Masters wrote Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems in which dead former residents of a midwestern town speak harsh truths about their twisted little lives; Sherwood Anderson was a friend of Master until he (Anderson) ran off with Masters's mistress. 

Yes, it's complicated, but like the best stories, these remain compelling even for those unfamiliar with their influences.

The collection tackles the question of influence in Martone's opening chapter, written in the form of a cease-and-desist order from the lawfirm of  Biddlebaum Cowley Reefy and Swift (names familiar to readers of Winesburg, Ohio, which opens with a chapter focusing on the problems of a character named Wing Biddlebaum). The law firm claims that Winesburg, Ohio--the fictional town, not the actual town in Ohio named Winesburg, which Anderson didn't even know about when he wrote his stories--now where was I? 

Okay: the letter claims that Winesburg owns rights to "the distribution of dramatic monologues and third-person narrations to invoke the grotesque and map the psychophysiological and neurotic manifestations of its inhabitants in order to derive empathic and epiphanic pleasure and/or pain in a controlled hermetic setting," or, to put it more simply, "We have patented Madness. We own Trembling. We extensively market Grief."

Undeterred, these stories unleash their own versions of Madness, Trembling, and Grief, along with Absurdity, Illusion, and Despair. Kelcey Ervick Parker's "Limberlost," for instance, alludes to Gene Stratton Porter's sentimental tear-jerker A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), in which a young Indiana girl escapes from the swamp of provincial life to marry the man of her dreams, but such a fate eludes Parker's protagonist, who abandons her pursuit of a Ph.D. and becomes "an adjunct teacher in the department of Sure, I Can Teach That." After enduring a loss that carefully skirts the borders of the swamp of Limberlost sentimentality, she sees herself as a ghost, "A woman who wandered into this swamp of a town, got lost, and never made it out."

Beau Morrow (created by Robin Black) is also stuck, not in a swamp but behind a meat counter that separates him from his passion, "Flesh between our flesh, Death surrounded by desire." Meanwhile, "Manchild" Morrison, the creation of Porter Shreve, desperately seeks escape from his starring role in local sports legend. 

Despite their isolation, these characters, like those in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, occasionally experience fleeting moments of communion, such as when the adolescent protester in Shannon Cain's "Occupy Winesburg" sees her solitary cry of pain draw together neighbors in solidarity with her futility. Something similar happens when residents watch Constance H. Wootin paint the post office mural where those residents are painted into permanent togetherness contingent on continual change. She leaves her own figure unfinished, however, her face "an empty outline" until she completes "all of my studies of this little precinct of this unending, this infinite, heaven."

Michael Martone created Constance H. Wootin along with other distinctive voices that wobble along a fine line dividing heaven and hell, meaning and futility, absence and presence. Walt 'Helper' Voltz, for instance, walks a short line of railroad that connects life,  death, past, and present, while Ken of Ottumwa sees the future coming into focus right in front of his face. Ken, a photographer committed to making pictures using old-fashioned film and chemicals, arrives to takes yearbook photos of Winesburg's Smartphone-equipped students:
They make pictures of each other. They make pictures of each other making pictures. They make pictures of each other making pictures of each other. And then (I know it) they begin sending the pictures they have made to each other. I can hear the phones ringing, singing, buzzing, clicking as they receive the pictures. I can feel them, the pictures, being sent in the air around me like the floating after-images of all the real pictures I make of the same children on the spinning piano stool in front of the silver-white background strobing on the excited filmy film of my retina.
Martone plays even more complexly with self-referential images in "Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, Indiana," which is unquotable except in full so you'd better go read it.

In fact, you'd better read all of it. A few characters are less compelling than others, but as Marny Vanderrost reminds us, "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The curious case of the dog in the headlines

Friends in distant places want to know what it feels like to work in a city whose officials recently stepped in a steaming pile of dog poo that got smeared all over the media. I don't intend to add anything to that pile by commenting on the viral case of Officer Hickey and his dog (read it here), but I do wonder when I'll stop seeing Marietta, Ohio, in the "trending news" section of Facebook, as if the city were a long-lost Kardashian sister.

People all over the world now think of our little river town as a seething hotbed of injustice toward animals when there's so much more that makes Marietta special. For instance, what other small midwestern city can boast a former mayor who released a CD of music about road kill? ("Eat more possum--it's America's other other white meat.")

Wait, that's not helping.

When I travel to conferences I'm frequently asked how I like working in Georgia and I have to tell people "We're the other Marietta," but now I wish I could find a way to show the world another side of Marietta: a place where you can see eagles on a regular basis, get on the river in a kayak or canoe or speedboat or sternwheeler, visit Indian mounds and cemeteries full of the remains of Revolutionary War veterans who first settled here, take part in a CashMob on Monday evenings or visit the Farmers' Market on Saturdays, enjoy street fairs and blues music competitions and amateur theatricals, see Paula Poundstone perform in the restored historic theater or hear the college choir sing in a church built to caress the sound of the human voice.

But this other Marietta doesn't interest the media; it's too ordinary, too boring, too undramatic. They'd rather run with the "Man Buys Dog" story even if it smears a smelly mess all over the city. Which, I guess, is perfectly normal; they're just doing their job, exposing the foibles of city government in the way most likely to lead to clicks and page views. But here's my question: after all the reporters leave and the city falls out of the headlines, who will be stuck cleaning up the mess?

(Watch out--you're stepping in it!)