Saturday, April 30, 2016

Traipsing through the Windust

"I've always depended upon the kindness of stranglers," says Maxine Tarnow, and all I can think is I can't believe I had to wade through a page and a half of inane dialogue just to get to that ridiculous punchline. 

But that's the risk you take when you read a novel by Thomas Pynchon: he'll go to any length for a gag--in fact, some of his characters exist primarily as a pretext for trotting out funny names. (Pynchon is, after all, the guy who gave us both Stanley Kotecks and Mike Fallopian in the same novel.) His 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, which only recently rose to the top of my leisure reading pile, offers up Reg Despard, Lester Traipse, a guy named Windust, and Gabriel Ice (a cold-hearted criminal, obviously), along with a mess of throwaway characters no more consequential than dandelion fluff.

What's at stake here, though, is serious: the novel unfolds in Manhattan during the six months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, which provides all kinds of opportunities for clever ironies since readers know what's coming but characters don't. Suspense mounts as we move closer to that fated day; I turn the pages more quickly, wondering which character will die in the towers or book a ticket on the wrong plane. But then the date comes and goes with little fanfare or impact: the planes come in; the towers fall; the characters pick up the pieces; life goes on for Maxine and her peculiarly named pals, many of whom are entangled in what is either a massive worldwide conspiracy or perhaps simply a bit of dodgy accounting.

Maxine, see, is a Certified Fraud Examiner, or used to be one before she indulged in a bit of dodgy accounting of her own and had her certification revoked. She plays the role here of the hard-boiled detective who gets lured into a web of deceit and corruption involving online hacking, massive shipments of fiberoptic cable, and a weapon oddly reminiscent of those rockets that provide the airborne trajectory to Gravity's Rainbow. In Bleeding Edge, Maxine finds herself drawn deep underground into a mysterious secret bunker and then into the Deep Web, the dark undercurrent of the Internet. Despite her street smarts and savvy banter, Maxine finds herself scrambling, with "no idea how to step outside her own history of safe choices and dowse her way across the desert of this precarious hour, hoping to find what? some refuge."

One possible refuge is a private online space called DeepArcher, which promises departure into a sanctuary where anything is possible; Maxine believes the Internet offers empowerment, but her father offers a darker view, reminding Maxine that the Internet's origins lie within the military-industrial complex: 

"Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid....Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future."

Soon enough, Maxine's online refuge is invaded by tourists and trolls, becoming as polluted as the Fresh Kills landfill she characterizes as "the perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence," a mound containing the city's "collected history" made up of "everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself." But the trash is impossible to contain, keeps oozing back across the invisible line, just as real life and virtual life seem to intermingle promiscuously while Maxine teeters precariously on the bleeding edge.

Maxine has her moments but I don't find her as compelling or believable as Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 (published 50 years ago!), whose encounter with a worldwide conspiracy seems much more treacherous than Maxine's, even though Oedipa's conspiracy is hopelessly low-tech. Like Maxine, Oedipa must decipher messages indistinguishable from garbage and stumbles into a morass of undecidability, but Maxine gets the satisfying resolution unavailable to Oedipa.

I started reading Bleeding Edge while traveling last week and it's the perfect book to read in transit: interesting enough to distract from the awfulness of travel but lightweight enough to leave behind without regret, consigning it to the landfill Pynchon describes so lyrically.    

Friday, April 29, 2016


Finished grading!! This calls for a celebration! Call me a wild and crazy girl, but I think I'll stay home all day waiting for the phone company to restore service to my landline! 

Frontier has promised to send a technician today within a fairly narrow time slot--between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.! I can't imagine a better way to spend my entire day than to sit and wait for the phone guy! If I get bored, I can clean the bathrooms or sweep the floors, or if it stops raining I can even mow the lawn! And if the phone company fails to show up, I can drive five miles down the road to find some cell-phone coverage and file a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio!!!! I've filed a PUCO complaint before when Frontier refused to show any interest in repairing a nonfunctioning landline, and I can do it again if it's the only way to make them care!!!!! 

What an exciting life I lead!!!!!!!!!!

(Oops: It's only April and I've already used up my entire annual quota of exclamation points. Time to bring out the ampersands&&&&&&.) 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Three cheers for final exams! (Well, maybe two and a half)

My first exam as a college student was in a Western Civ class and consisted of a single question: "Outline the history of ancient Egypt."

I'm doomed, I thought, because let's face it: no matter how many names, dates, and events you frantically scribble on a page in an hour's time, you're bound to leave something out. I left that exam certain not only that I'd flunked but that I would soon flunk out of everything, lose my scholarships, and go back to Florida to work at the orange juice bottling plant. Doomed.

I'm sure some of my students felt that way this week. One student told me my American Lit Survey final exam was the hardest exam he's ever taken, and I don't doubt him because it's the hardest exam I ever give. The questions are not tricky or obscure or even unexpected (since I provide a thorough study guide), but students have to write a lot and do some original thinking about a mess of poems. Most students took two hours to complete the exam and several took the full two and a half.

And most of them aced it.

Seriously: the vast majority of grades on this exam were A's and B's, suggesting that when students are challenged to show what they've learned and given sufficient time to do so, they can produce some really amazing work.

We all complain about the burden of grading all those final exams, but let's not overlook the rewards: when we give students a chance to shine, we get to bask in the glow they produce. Even on my most brutal exams, students find interesting connections among literary works, write engaging analytical essays, and demonstrate mastery of concepts we've been developing throughout the semester. 

And they do all this even though final exams don't really make much difference in their grades.

Dirty little secret here: unless a student totally bombs a final exam, it won't have much impact on the student's final grade in my classes. It might nudge a borderline grade one way or the other, but final exam grades rarely move the world or send a student packing for the orange juice plant.

And my first college exam didn't send me packing either. Much to my surprise, I aced it, which provided a boost of confidence that carried me through the rest of the semester. I may have encountered more difficult tests since that time (I'm looking at you, Comprehensive Exams!), but that first baptism by fire made me feel first I'm doomed and then I can do this. This week I'm passing that experience on to my students, and every time they show me that they really can do it, I want to stand up and cheer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Get your procrastination here!

In case anyone needs a distraction from grading:

Apparently I'm the last to learn about this great blog called Awful Library Books, in which librarians from all over post comments about awful books they've discarded. I love books too much to enjoy the prospect of large-scale book purges, but on the other hand, how many books about psychic Sasquatch does a library need?

The Atlantic hit a nerve this week with Neal Gabler's article "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans" (read it here), concerning the financial fragility of the middle class. Gabler writes, "the primary reason many of us can't save for a rainy day is that we live in an ongoing storm," and I think, Yep, that's me. 

But then I read "Why So Many Smart People Aren't Happy" and I think, Me again. In the article (here), Joe Pinsker interviews Raj Raghunathan about his book, If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy? Raghunathan discusses the constant dissatisfaction caused by the search for extrinsic rewards and claims that "what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis. When you observe children, they are very good at this. They don't get distracted by all those extrinsic yardsticks. They go for things that really bring them a lot of enjoyment." So I guess spending time with my granddaughter really is the key to happiness.

I know it's been a few weeks since this came out but it still makes me laugh out loud: if Donald Trump had written Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (here). ("And by the way, this snow is pathetic.") It's brought to you by a fun quirky blog called The Rotting Post, which is addictive enough to seriously interfere with my grading.

Finally, if you've familiar with the evangelical Christian community, please run--don't walk--over to The Babylon Bee, the Onion for the churchy set. The headlines alone are enough to make me giggle: "Youth Pastor Forgets What His Hebrew Tattoo Means"; "Adult Coloring Books to Feature Favorite Imprecatory Psalms"; "Church Small Group Looking Forward to Six-Week Study of Awkward Silences." My people, my people!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Once were--what? Was I saying something?

Last week when I was out of town I didn't spend one nanosecond worrying about my classes because I knew I'd left them in capable hands--and sure enough, they did what they needed to do and did it well. This morning I've been grading quizzes and interpretive maps and fielding a few last-minute questions about exams and papers, but mostly I'm seeing students demonstrate that they learned the things they needed to learn despite (or perhaps because of) my absence. 

It's true that the postcolonial class hated the film they had to watch, but that's not surprising. I'd be concerned if they didn't find Once Were Warriors disturbing, what with the poverty, drinking, fighting, domestic violence, rape, suicide, and wholesale cultural marginalization. It's supposed to be a disturbing film because it depicts a disturbing reality--so much so that when it first aired, many viewers recognized their own lives reflected on the screen. Now that's disturbing!

Now my students have the chance to show what they've been learning: I'm giving two final exams today and one tomorrow afternoon and collecting final papers in the film class tomorrow morning. My brain still seems to be working in slow motion, but maybe it'll get up to speed once I get back into the grading groove. Meanwhile, there's chocolate. I brought some for my students who have to take long final exams at odd hours like 3:00 to 5:30, but it won't hurt if I have just one piece, right? (Or maybe two.)     

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dandelion time

At first I thought the stress of the week had addled my mind, or maybe a big chunk of brain cells got lost in transit, but then I remembered where I was. This is, after all, Appalachia, so I should not be at all surprised to read that the Pike County Sheriff had this to say about a recent spate of shootings: "I cannot confirm that there is no one on the loose who is not involved with this. If he is, he's armed and dangerous."

I've read those sentences a dozen times trying to untangle the negatives, and if he's saying that there's no one out there who's not involved, then I think we're all in trouble.

I, on the other hand, am as far away from trouble as I can possibly be. I arrived home yesterday to a house full of family, including my adorable granddaughter, who thinks a field of dandelions is about the greatest thing ever. Concern about my mom's health is on a constant slow simmer on my mind's back burner, but up front I see sweet girl bubbling over with energy, laughter, and song. We can throw rocks in the creek, run like the wind across the field, track down the woodpecker making a racket in the woods! Who could be blue when we're surrounded by fields of green and gold?

The minute we turned onto my road yesterday, we saw signs of welcome: a pileated woodpecker on a roadside tree, an indigo bunting flying across our path. It's good to be home, even if it feels as if some of my brain cells are still circling over Akron.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On elegant egrets and big clumsy oafs

Same park, four years ago

The juvenile great egrets stand on the nest calling out lunchlunchlunchlunch until an adult flies up with some take-out and quiets them down—briefly. A few quick swallows and they're begging again for lunchlunchlunchlunch, but this time a gangly chick perches on the edge of the nest, spreads its wings, and stretches out its pointy beak in a pose that would look fierce if the chick didn't so much resemble a fuzzy plush toy. 

I’ve come to this park a few minutes’ drive from my parents’ house to decompress from the stress of accompanying my mom to a long session of chemotherapy. All morning I’ve been listening to IV pumps beeping, patients vomiting, and frustrated people lashing out at the very people trying to help them, so it’s a real treat to sit in the park and listen as the egret chicks issue insistent demands and their parents glide gracefully to the nest.

I wish I could do that—gracefully glide in and provide instant relief. I feel like a big clumsy oaf, trying to lift my mom into a wheelchair or wipe her drippy nose or help her brush her hair. Her hair is fine and soft, still lively with curls. Brushing her hair is easy except when she can’t find the strength to sit up. When I brush my granddaughter’s hair, I have to remind her to sit still, but I’m happy if my mom will just sit up long enough to let me run the brush through. (And I'm happy that she still has hair. How long until it the chemo takes its inevitable toll?)

When it all gets to be too much, I get away—to look at the egrets at the park or visit an old friend at a coffee shop. We compare notes—Our parents! Our children! All the people who need something from us right now, something much more complicated than lunchlunchlunchlunch, so much more that we sometimes have trouble finding that fine line between helping and hurting.

But still I try, stumbling in gracelessly and doing what I can until I just can't, which is when I go to the egrets and allow them to feed my spirit. (If I opened my mouth wide and called lunchlunchlunchlunch, what would they bring me?)

Monday, April 18, 2016

We also serve who only stand and wait (or sit, as the case may be)

"Am I dead yet?” asks my mom, and at first I can’t tell whether she’s joking.

“That’s what the people at church want to know,” she says, but it’s not true: they want to know how she’s feeling, whether she’s up and around, when she’s coming back to church, but I think she fears that she’s not going back any time soon or maybe ever.

Mostly what she does these days is sleep. Mostly what I’m doing is watching her sleep, working quietly nearby, reading student papers or assembling a syllabus for a fall class, but every time she wakes up we go through the same routine:

“How are you feeling, Mom?”

“I’m fine. How are you feeling?"

“Great! Can I get you anything? Gatorade, Jello, bowl of soup?” 

“Not now. How about you? Can I get you anything?”

Her impulse is to be up and hopping, fixing a meal or fetching a glass of cranberry juice because she knows how much I like it, but right now her body is not cooperating. Simply sitting up and asking the question wears her out. She might take a sip of juice or swallow a pill, but then she’s lying down again and soon she’s asleep.  

I came here to help but there’s not much I can do. I sit and watch so my dad can step out to church or to his own doctor’s appointments, or I run to the grocery store to fetch milk and juice and hope to happen upon something Mom might want to eat. She drinks a little Gatorade, swallows some Jello, occasionally takes a tiny bite out of a banana, but that’s not enough to sustain a healthy body, much less an ailing one. Now her pants are so loose they could fit look two of her and she wobbles when she reaches for the cup, but she can’t make herself eat or drink more. “Maybe later,” she says, but later she can manage only one more sip.

Saying I feel helpless sounds like a cliché but it’s true: I’ve never felt so helpless, not just because there’s so little I’m capable of doing but because my mom is so unwilling to accept any kind of help. She refused the services of a visiting nurse even though their insurance would cover it; she doesn’t want me to help her dress even though she lacks the strength to pull up her pants. And so I mostly sit and do what I can: read papers. Work on syllabi. Review a textbook I may want to use for a class I’m teaching next spring (if it doesn’t get cancelled). And I wait—for the next time Mom picks up her head and says, “How are you doing, honey? Anything I can do for you?”

No thanks, Mom. Anything I can do for you?