Friday, August 18, 2017

Eyes on the ibis

When the clerk at the photo counter handed over an enlargement of one of my bird photos yesterday, she said, "I don't know what it is, but I know it's free."

Yes! That sense of freedom is one reason I have an 8x10 of this glossy ibis hanging in the living room at home. I took the photo in Florida in May, on a day so clear and bright that everything ended up overexposed. It's kind of a strange photo--weird color combination, peculiar composition, wonky exposure--but of all the photos on my walls, this is the one my eye seeks out many times every day. And now I have another print hanging on the wall in my office, where I can glance up and feel that freedom flapping in on glossy wings. 

Let the students charge in and the papers pile up--I'm keeping my eyes on the ibis.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gone caving

It feels a little ridiculous to tell people we're going hiking to a new cave when there's nothing new about it. The walls and rock layers at Whispering Cave show signs of eons of weathering and erosion, and intrepid hikers willing to go off the beaten path have been able to get to it forever. What's new is the trail, recently opened in Hocking Hills State Park, that allows (and encourages!) anyone to visit Whispering Cave.

Well, it's not accessible to everyone. The trail winds more than half a mile beyond Old Man's Cave, through the gorge, over a swinging bridge, and up a steep hillside studded with roots begging to trip you up. I managed the rough parts with help from my husband, but even his steady hand couldn't help me on the swinging bridge, which induced vertigo within seconds. On the way back, I skipped the bridge and waded through the creek. (Pretty shallow this time of year, so no problem.) 

Along the way we saw massive rocks topped with ferns, moss, and lichens, rocks in various shades of orange, brown, green, gray, and black weathered in honeycomb patterns or ridged striations, and we heard pileated woodpeckers and hermit thrushes. At the end of the trail we found a cave too wide to fit comfortably into a photo, offering a cool resting-place under a sloping ceiling that loomed and sparkled.

We've been hiking Hocking Hills for twenty years, on and off, but every time the experience is a little different: bridges get washed out and paths re-routed, and you never know what you'll find blooming or whether you'll see butterflies or birds or other forms of wildlife. The light in the gorges changes by the minute, making the trees glow golden one minute and highlighting a rock that looks like a ship the next. Always something new to see--in the midst of something very, very old.

Steep stairs down into Whispering Cave

Tree root shaped like a J!

Can't get the whole cave in the frame.

Down in the gorge

Lower falls--not much water

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My start-of-semester security blanket

A student once asked me whether I have a handout on everything, and I was tempted to respond with Yes I do--or if I don't, I can make one.

The good news is that I no longer have to keep hard copies of all those handouts on file, which explains why I no longer need two big filing cabinets in my office. The bad news is that I have so many handouts saved in files on my computer that I don't always remember where to find the one I need right now.

I have folders full of handouts for specific classes and other folders for handouts I use in multiple classes, sometimes in various versions. Some file folders have other file folders embedded inside, each embedding leading into a black hole of more and more files. If I haven't taught a class for a while, I have to go through all the folders just to see what's in there. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I find (My, how clever I am!) and sometimes just befuddled (What was I thinking?).

I'd be lost without my Find function, and it really helps to give files screamingly obvious names. A special version updated to meet the needs of a specific class gets an abbreviation for the semester at the beginning of the name (f17 thesis powerpoint), but the rest of the name has to communicate clearly across time to Future Stupid Me, who isn't going to have any idea what f17tp might mean. 

I rarely delete a handout entirely, even if it seems hopelessly out of date. I may move it to an Archive folder, but it'll still be sitting there when old format standards or certain types of writing prompts come back into style.

All those handouts near at hand pile up like a security blanket to soothe the start-of-semester jitters. I may not know when I'll need every single one of these handouts, but it's good to know that when I need them, they'll be there.  

Files for just one class.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Can literature put the brakes on racism?

A long time ago while working on my dissertation, I had to hold my nose and read a bunch of virulently racist literature dating from the early 20th century, like Thomas Dixon's novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman, which inspired the film Birth of a Nation. Dixon promoted the one-drop rule, portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats being victimized by invading northerners and angry ex-slaves, and described African Americans as subhuman beasts. Pretty awful stuff.

I had to read Dixon to understand his influence on other authors I was examining, especially Gene Stratton Porter, the gentle nature writer from Indiana noted for woodsy romances like Girl of the Limberlost. Her racism and xenophobia simmer in the background of her Indiana novels but step securely into the center in Her Father's Daughter, set in California, where the author had moved in order to make movies. The villain in Her Father's Daughter is a recent Japanese immigrant described as resembling a plant--so not even worthy of animal status, much less human. When a female character pushes this villain off a cliff to his death, readers are supposed to cheer. What could this character have done to merit such treatment? He lied about his age so he could get a high-school education. 

Her Father's Daughter was a failure for a variety of reasons, not least being Stratton Porter's insertion of recipes and tidy lessons about home economics, which made the novel half Suzy Homemaker, half racist tract. But her other novels were massive best-sellers, and so were Thomas Dixon's.

But that was 100 years ago. Surely their ideas have died out by now?

The photos of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend reveal a bunch of twentysomething white guys who would look right at home in my classes; in fact, the man who rammed his car into a crowd of protestors was a 20-year-old from Ohio. Will I be seeing these men in my classes--or are they already there but I haven't noticed?

I don't encounter much overt racism in my classes. Okay, there was that one time when a student loudly announced that Title IX had been "invented by President Clinton to screw white guys out of a chance to row," a statement wrong on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. (When I asked for his sources, he said, "Everybody knows that." No, I'm not making this up.)

And once a student made a flippant xenophobic comment in class, but the other students called her out before I even had a chance to pick my jaw up off the floor. If a student made a more explicit appeal to white supremacist ideas, what would I say? What's the best way to call out racism without shutting down discussion? 

What I'd like to tell them is this: Thomas Dixon is dead and so are his ideas. We're not going back to 1905 or 1918 or 1950. Open your eyes and get to know the complexities of the people around you, the wonders of a world that's wide enough for many types of people. In fact, that's the underlying message behind every syllabus I write: Look at how many different ways there are to be human. 

But maybe that message is too subtle for our trying times. I look at the faces of those men in Charlottesville and I wonder what steered them so wrong and whether reading a semester's worth of literature would make a difference in their entrenched ideas. A hundred years ago  popular literature promoted white supremacy, so I hope literature can play a part in combating the same ideas today. If I didn't believe literature could change minds, I would stop teaching--but how effective is literature at stopping cars from ramming into protestors?

Friday, August 11, 2017

So simple it's complicated

My brother was maybe 12 years old when he bought a used canoe with his lawn-mowing money. He paid something like $50--so, not a great canoe. We lived in Florida a few blocks from a lake, so he and his fishing buddies would carry the canoe down to the lake and come back, sometimes, with a fish or two. It was an easy and harmless way for young guys to burn off their summer energy.

But imagine how much more complicated it would have been if they'd had to take along a horse.

Not in the canoe, of course--what kind of idiot would put a horse in a canoe? But what if the only way you could get to the lake was by horse and buggy? 

This morning we saw three Amish boys--maybe 14 or 15 years old--launching a canoe and two kayaks in a quiet cove at the upper reaches of Salt Fork Lake, and their launch process was considerably more complicated than ours, primarily because we don't travel with horses.

We'd chosen that particular launching place because of its remoteness from civilization; it offered a parking area but no boat ramp, just a grassy spot leading into shallow water. We paddled in the early mist without seeing a soul except one guy fishing from a bridge, and then when we headed back to our launching spot, we saw the two black Amish buggies with two bright blue kayaks and a green canoe strapped on the backs.

We pulled in to shore as they unhitched the horses, and their responded to our greetings by offering to buy our canoe. (Not for sale!) They seemed quietly competent as they took care of their horses, buggies, boats, and fishing gear. We're pretty efficient at strapping the canoe to the top of the van, but by the time we were done, the three Amish boys had silently disappeared in their boats while the horses stood near the woods, sedately chewing.

People like to call the Amish lifestyle "simple," but that feels a little reductive. Paddling a canoe on still water is pretty simple, and fishing from a canoe can be simple unless the fish has a lot of fight. I've never found managing horses simple, but then I wasn't raised alongside them. Strapping canoes to a horse-drawn buggy and driving it down narrow country roads...well, with enough practice it might feel simple enough, but all those simple parts add up to an incredibly complex endeavor. How many 15-year-olds would be able to pull off that feat without breaking a sweat?

And I thought my life was complicated! At least I don't have to take along horses when I canoe. 

Our launch site.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Paddling among the egrets

This morning for the first time all year I took the camera out in the canoe, which I would not have done yesterday when we spent the afternoon fighting waterskiers' wakes. We're spending a couple of days at Salt Fork State Park, just an hour from home but a nice getaway before the semester begins. Yesterday we paddled in a more populous part of the lake, but early this morning we drove to a boat launch at a no-wake zone and explored the upper reaches and backwaters scented by lotus blossoms, where great blue herons and great egrets perched in trees or swooped majestically over the water. We had the lake to ourselves for over an hour, but then storm clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Time to head for shore and leave behind the birds. (But not their pictures.)

Morning stiillness

Storm rolling in.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Not in my wildest dreams

There's a knock at my office door so I open it even though I'm wearing my rattiest nightgown, and there I find a well-dressed woman who tells me she'll be observing my class to determine whether I qualify for our biggest teaching prize and we'd better hurry if we want to start on time, but I can't go to class until I find my bathrobe and then I can't find my class roster and it's only the second day of class so I won't know anyone's name and I can't find the right textbooks so I grab a random stack of outdated Norton anthologies and hustle up the steps to the classroom, where all my students are sitting on the floor because someone has taken away all the desks, so the observer sits on the windowsill rolling her eyes while I try to get the computer booted up and the projector turned on and then realize that I can't even pull up any course material online because I haven't posted anything on Moodle, and the observer is so disgusted with my miserable pedagogy that she comes to the front of the room and starts teaching my class just to show me how it's done.

And do you want to know the only thing that bothers me about this nightmare scenario? I keep berating myself for not wearing a nicer nightgown to class

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A well-hidden superpower

I was trying to tell a colleague about a book I read last week (The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, a lively, insightful, thought-provoking critique of critique that offers a clear path out of the labyrinth) but I got flummoxed by this response: You read a book in a week? I wish I could read a whole book in a week.

What am I supposed to say to that? I'm certainly not going to admit that I read not one but three books last week or that this is not such an unusual feat. I can't help it: I'm a compulsive reader with a freakish ability to read really quickly with full comprehension.

That's not the kind of superpower most people seek. In fact, Mild-mannered English professor saves the world by exercising her power to read really, really quickly is the plot of no action movie ever. Once you get past elementary school, there are no more gold stars for reading quickly, and you'll never see a reality show reward a contestant's ability to breeze through the pages of Remembrance of Things Past.

Granted, my ability to read quickly without sacrificing comprehension allowed me to earn a Ph.D. while working as a journalist and raising small children, but otherwise, it's a superpower that rarely earns respect and therefore remains well hidden. Nevertheless I'm certain that others of my freakish ilk exist out there somewhere, readers whose fingers blister from turning pages so quickly, who view a blurry world through eyes that insist on staying focused on reading-distance. Ye shall know them by their squints.

If you're out there, please: read Rita Felski's book The Limits of Critique and then get back to me so we can discuss it, preferably by tomorrow. Monday at the very latest.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

When the room demands writing

A colleague walks into a small conference room and says to the rest of us, "Greetings, writers!" Only three of us are in the room so far, but it's early. This is our penultimate Writing Wednesday, a weekly opportunity for colleagues to gather for a few hours in a quiet room in the library and simply write. 

There's no formal structure or programming. We chat a little before we get started and we often go out to lunch afterward, but usually it's just two or three or five faculty members tap-tapping away at their laptop keyboards. Sometimes we send each other drafts of our articles for feedback, but all that reading and responding happens outside the room, because our time here is reserved for writing.

I know some people can't write in a group, but somehow, I find it easier to remain focused on the task at hand when I'm writing in the midst of my colleagues. No one is checking my work, so I could be sitting over in my corner playing FreeCell for all my colleagues know, but something about the space and the company demands that I keep writing. 

In this room I have written big chunks of the article that I sent off to a journal last month, and since then I've been working on a conference paper proposal and a sabbatical proposal. And now I'm writing this blog post! That's not really what I'd intended, but look, we're only 20 minutes into our writing time. I'll post this and then get down to doing what the room demands: writing--in a hurry before the summer runs out! 

Next week is our final Writing Wednesday, and we'd love to keep it going through the school year but it's really difficult to find a common time. But that doesn't mean I won't try. After all, if we are writers, then we'd better focus on making time to write. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Beware the advent of August

I woke up this morning to find a big ugly number looming over my life: the number 1. August 1, to be specific--tomorrow. We may have a bunch more summer left before the fall semester starts, but August is when things get serious.

In August all the ideas I'm been ruminating over all summer have to be gathered together and written down in a form that will make sense to students. I'll have to finish writing syllabi, create my online gradebooks, construct new assignments where needed and figure out how the major changes in the first essay assignment for the freshman writing class will impact the rest of the assignments. And what about changing the point value for the low-stakes writing assignments in the Honors Literature class? Too many points and they overshadow the major assignments; too few points and the students aren't motivated to improve their performance.

Meeting schedules crank up in August. No more dropping in once a week to water my plants; over the next couple of weeks I need to meet with a bunch of people and schedule a mess of events, including a book discussion and regular meetings for the faculty publishing group. (My partner in crime is on sabbatical all year, so it's all on me.) Plus I need to meet with the director of the Honors program to figure out how All Scholars' Day works, since I'll be in charge of running that next spring.

August is when I come to terms with the mess I've been making of my office all summer: sorting through books and putting them away, setting up the shelves that hold this semester's course materials, dealing with a summer's worth of dust and a carpet that hasn't seen a vacuum since everyone went away in April. I figured out that if I replace my four-drawer filing cabinet with two two-drawer cabinets and move them to the other side of the office, I can make room for a recliner--but that's a pretty big if

Finally, August is when everything unfinished, every tenuous and ephemeral and half-formed idea, every loose end has to be gathered up and woven into a complex web of documents, plans, and activities. Simply surveying the massive task wears me out, but I either buckle down and do it now or spend the rest of the year scrambling to get caught up. 

Time to get to work! (Tomorrow.) 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A show-me state of mind

New play space: colorful chaos.
"Show me how!" echoes through my house this weekend, and not just because my grandkids are visiting. This time I'm the one asking for help as I try to figure out my new smartphone and the new e-mail program our college just adopted. Fortunately, I have ready access to the world's greatest help desk: my daughter and son-in-law. Personalized service at a reasonable cost, paid in fresh blackberries--what more could anyone want?

While I explore my new tech, the grandkids are exploring some exciting new opportunities: we moved two big weight benches and all the weights out to the garage to make a safe play space downstairs. Add a battered coffee table, a few chairs, and a drawer full of play dishes and plastic food and you've got a kid-sized indoor picnic. The four-year-old has been helping her daddy fix nasty greasy gloppy things and helping Grampa pick tomatoes and okra in the garden, and the one-year-old has been chasing bubbles, eating berries, and experimenting with various methods to get up and down stairs. "Uh-oh" is his new favorite word, guaranteed to get attention from any adults in the room.

Amidst all the fun, I've been fiddling with settings and figuring out how to take photos, send texts, configure settings, and do all the stuff that comes with a new piece of technology. My personalized help desk offers answers to questions I don't even know how to ask, so I'm way ahead of where I would have been without their help. The real test will come after they leave. If I get into any trouble, I'll just echo my grandson: "Uh-oh!" Watch that help desk come running!


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

But what's the most satisfying way to throw away a throwaway phone?

An old friend has two grandsons who recently spent the night at their other grandmother's house, where they heard an unfamiliar sound that made them scream in terror: an old-fashioned landline phone ringing. Further evidence, if you need it, that the world of our childhood has fallen far enough into the past to terrify our offspring, as if a ringing landline were a pterodactyl shrieking down from the sky to snatch them back into a world of prehistoric gloom.

Which makes me wonder whether I'm a sort of dinosaur: Am I the last person on the planet not to own a smartphone? 

Stupid question. My grandkids, for instance, don't have smartphones, and neither does my father or my husband. That's four whole people, plus me, making five. But soon that number will be reduced. Brace yourself: I've ordered a new smartphone that's supposed to arrive tomorrow, which means I'll soon be retiring the eight-dollar throwaway phone I've been using since the last Ohio mastodon slunk off to Johnstown to die of humiliation over never buying a smartphone.

I find myself alternately glorying in the possibilities and feeling oddly apologetic about finally joining the 21st century. For years I've avoided buying a smartphone because (1) we don't have cell-phone access at our house; (2) we couldn't afford the cost of phone plus a data plan on top of our landline; and (3) I resist being absorbed into the Borg that seems to have eaten up so many others. 

So what changed?

We still don't have cell-phone access at home, but we do have money--or at least less debt. For years I felt that every penny I earned went straight to paying our various horrible debts, but you wouldn't believe what a difference it makes to stamp debts "paid" and banish the monthly obligation. No more scrambling from paycheck to paycheck! We've actually put a little aside so we won't be flattened by the next emergency! And we can even have a few nickels to play with at the end of the month! So the financial objection is no longer so persuasive.

I've also come to realize how handy a smartphone would be even if I can't use it at home. For instance, in March when the loathsome Spirit Airlines cancelled my flight to Florida at the last minute, a few passengers managed to find and book seats on other flights very quickly by using their smartphones. I was left wandering around trying to find the only public computer terminal in the building, which specialized in producing a continuous scroll of gibberish. A smartphone would have given me other options--or at least entertained me while I was stranded.

Yes, I'd like to be able to play Words with Friends with my brilliant offspring, but I don't foresee selling my soul to every glitzy game that comes along. I'm more interested in the iNaturalist app, which my daughter uses to help her identify the interesting plants and insects she encounters on her hikes, and I want to get a good birdcall identification app. And would it hurt to be able to watch highlights of Cleveland Indians games on that tiny screen?

So I've been toying with the idea of getting a smartphone for about a year, but the incident that pushed me over the edge occurred when it became apparent that I needed to buy my husband his own Garmin so he won't have to keep borrowing mine. Why not just buy myself  a smartphone and let him have my Garmin? That would make us both happy: I'll have a smartphone equipped with gps and he'll have a gps system but no smartphone.

So I may not be the last person on earth without a smartphone, but I'm definitely married to him. Which is fine. (I'm kind of fond of dinosaurs.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Probed by a proboscis

I come back from a long, hot walk covered in sweat and plop down on the deck to cool off with a tall glass of water and a bag of cherries, and I'm sitting there spitting cherry seeds out into the hostas when a butterfly lands on my leg and starts probing my with its proboscis.

It's a plain little brownish thing, some sort of skipper with a distinctive spot on its lower wing, and it sits there for maybe five minutes sucking up whatever minerals it can find in the sweat-spots produced by my morning walk. Lacking a handy camera, I memorize the marking so I can look it up later--a silver-spotted skipper, distinguishable by a silvery blotch that's supposed to resemble the outline of India, although in this case it looks a little more like Maine.

But never mind about that: let's go back to that sweat. I don't mind if a butterfly wants to drink my sweat--after all, I'm not exactly using it--but such lovely, delicate creatures ought to feast on nectar and fairy tears, not sweaty clothes. Nevertheless I've seen butterflies sucking up sustenance from mud flats, carrion, and even sometimes feces. One of the lovelier butterflies in Ohio, the Red Admiral, is known for its appetite to rotting fruit and carrion, a word that calls to mind blood, guts, and maggots, not feathery fluttery butterflies.

But I suppose I can't begrudge butterflies their little pleasures: they may bring us tremendous beauty, but their lives nevertheless can be nasty, brutish, and short. It's not unusual to see great big showy butterflies flitting around with big chunks missing from their wings where birds grabbed 'em, and the other day when I accidentally knocked over a milkweed plant, I wondered how many monarchs that plant could have sustained.

So I give butterflies their due: they make the best of a difficult situation, finding sustenance where they can. And I give them my dew, staying still as the skipper sips sweat from my leg so delicately that I can barely feel the touch of its proboscis. Giving of my sweat is a small price to pay for the beauty butterflies bring into my world. (I draw the line, though, at becoming carrion.)


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sounds of silence on the Shade River

Early on a weekday morning, Forked Run Lake is still as glass with little plumes of mist rising above the water. We paddle the length of the lake and far up the headwaters without seeing another person or boat--and in fact the only other sign of civilization is the helicopter that zips over hours later as we head back to the boat ramp.

It's a little lake and not too far away but somehow we've never been there before. The narrow lake winds between low hills and stretches into cozy coves, and the headwaters meander through marshy wetlands and curve past overhanging rocks and trees. At one point we have to maneuver beneath a massive cedar tree, its feathery needles stretching across the narrow stream and filtering out the hot sun. No wonder they call it the Shade River.

We welcome the shade--we've been experiencing oven-like temperatures lately with lots of humidity, but storms are in the forecast for the next few days so we decided to set out early to beat the heat. All morning we have the lake to ourselves; we see kingfishers and a few ducks and plenty of swallows and what may be a muskrat, but mostly we're accompanied by waterstriders, dragonflies, and a deep, restful silence.

I need that kind of silence. This week I've finished an article and submitted it to a journal, written a syllabus, started research on my next writing project, picked blackberries, pulled weeds, made carnitas and guacamole and black-bean soup, and spent so much time pecking away at the edges of a whole bunch of projects that I feel as if my brain is heading in twenty directions at once. On the lake it feels good to move slowly and smoothly in one direction, meandering upstream with no particular purpose before turning around and heading back down.

Now I'm so relaxed that I may just drift off in the middle of a sentence, sliding smoothly into the Shade River of my dreams. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Put a pencil to my temple, connect it to the syllabus...

The other day I confessed to a colleague that I've been blasting the Hamilton soundtrack in my car all summer (even the parts that leave me helpless) and I'm working nonstop to squeeze the play into my American Lit Survey class next spring, but he got a sour look on his face and said, "I understand that Hamilton is very"--sniff--"popular," in the same tone in which you might say "I understand that bubonic plague is very"--sniff--"uncomfortable" or "I understand that genocide is very"--sniff--"messy."

So okay, it's not every day that I include popular music in a literature class; in fact, last spring's experiment with Nobel-Prize-winning poet Bob Dylan may have been the first time. Students enjoyed that exercise even if I found it less than enlightening, but then I'm not a Dylan fan. Hamilton, though, is a different story--when I find another fan, I just can't shut up about it. You should hear me babbling with my daughter, the music theory expert: I go on and on about narrative structure and how certain phrases gain depth and richness as they recur in different contexts, while she talks about musical structure and how the rhythm reinforces important ideas. I will never be satisfied until some part of Hamilton gets dropped in a forgotten spot on the syllabus.

A few weeks ago I was talking to an English major who's due to take my American Lit Survey next spring and when I mentioned that I'm trying to find a place for Hamilton, her face lit up. When students get that excited about an assignment--well, I want to be in the room where it happens. Fortunately, Hamilton will fit right in with the reading list.

For years my theme for the class has been “Discovering America All Over Again,” which is what American writers were doing after the gaping wound called the Civil War. We look at each new literary movement as an opportunity for authors to explore and expand upon what it means to be an American, watching as the canon opens ever wider to embrace different kinds of voices, a theme that will easily embrace the young, scrappy, and hungry immigrants who get the job done in Hamilton. If I have one chance to capitalize on the popularity of the show, I’m not throwing away my shot.

But how do I include it on the syllabus? I doubt that we'll have access to a filmed version of the play before next spring, and only a few scenes are available online. On the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the opening number at the White House Poetry Jam would follow nicely after the Beat poetry section of the syllabus, with its emphasis on poetry as performance. Here’s a thought: assign that early version of the work alongside a video of the finished piece and talk about the fluid connections among poetry, music, storytelling, and drama as an interactive process instead of a set of static categories. Showtime!

The assignment would be popular with students, who don’t often apply the p-word to other authors on the syllabus--Henry James, for instance, or even Toni Morrison. (“Why does the story have to be so long? Why can’t she just tell us what she means?”) Students sometimes say these authors are intense or they’re insane, but that's just because they've never seen a rap battle between Henry James and Toni Morrison about the nature of American literature. If there’s a reason Hamilton’s in line when so many other authors decline in popularity, that would be nothing to (wait for it!) sniff at.

So there it is: a task, a goal, a purpose, a vague idea that needs to be developed into a workable plan. There’s a million things I haven’t done—but just you wait! I’m teaching Alexander Hamilton.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Writing in lotusland

Pink lotuses blooming all over the place!
Why is it so difficult to finish an academic article? I've researched until my eyeballs are falling out of my head, drafted and revised and polished and repolished the entire text until it sparkles, written the Works Cited and endnotes, and I've even sprinkled witty subtitles in appropriate places. All I need to do is write one concluding paragraph.

Well, I've written that paragraph over and over and over, but every version makes me want to run screaming from the room. And since I don't have a firm deadline, it's hard to motivate myself to just buckle down and finish it.

Instead, I made my escape to lotus-land. Is there anything more peaceful than a group of iridescent dragonflies flitting amongst tall pink lotus blossoms? Add some dulcimers playing softly under the trees and you've found yourself at Lilyfest, the small but delightful garden and arts fair that draws me over to Hocking Hills every July while I ought to be putting the finishing touches on the current writing project.

This year's visit seemed doomed from the start: I was scheduled to work freshman registration yesterday, and the weather forecast called for thunderstorms and flash floods throughout the area. But then it turned out that I wasn't needed at registration after all and the storm clouds decided to loom threateningly over the area and then move on, so I grabbed a friend and off we went, leaving behind all thoughts of academic writing.

My little mascot.
The lilies were so stunning that I wanted to take some home with me, but I resisted the impulse. I could not, however, resist this little twisted-steel preying mantis that now stands in my front garden. He followed me home--may I keep him? To earn his keep, he'll have to inspire some great idea about how to finish that article. (Wait, maybe he's a she. How does one establish the gender of a twisted-metal mantis?)

Now that I'm back and thoroughly refreshed, I have no excuse for not finishing that article--except that today they really do need me to work freshman registration. Well, there's always tomorrow. 

I don't know what this tall ornamental grass is called. Gorgeous.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Pass the pig slop, please

You need to eat more fiber they said, but we already eat lots of salads, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, so to take the next step I adjusted all my favorite rice recipes and learned to cook with brown rice, which is fine, but then they said you ought to try black rice, which only recently became available in the local grocery stores. It's more nutritious than brown rice, they said, and it has a nice nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture.

Which is all true--but (you knew there had to be a but) it looks like garbage.

More specifically, it looks like what you'd get if you just took the coffee grounds out of a coffee-maker and dumped 'em on a dinner plate. Not particularly appetizing.

For my first attempt at black rice, I made an old favorite one-dish recipe involving onions, peppers, garlic, cilantro, chorizos, and tomato sauce, with gooey cheddar cheese mixed in at the very end. Delicious! The flavors worked well with the black rice, and the rice's slightly chewy texture was perfect with the sausages and cheese. However, as previously noted, the whole thing looked like something you'd want to dump straight into the trash: Pig slop. Compost. Loam.

My next challenge, then, will be finding a way to make black rice dishes more aesthetically pleasing. If everything that gets mixed in with the rice ends up looking like coffee grounds, maybe I need to keep the black rice separate from other ingredients. Alternately, I could go back to brown rice--or even white! What would they have to say about that?

(If I ever figure out who makes up this mysterious they, I'll force-feed 'em a plate of warm coffee grounds.) 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Where the wild moo-cats roam

Like a farmer, outstanding in his field.
Today's nature lesson comes from my one-year-old grandson, who has so fully mastered the word cat that he applies it to every non-human creature he sees. He points and says cat when he sees cats, dogs, squirrels, or even the neighbor's chickens. He ran after the chickens while calling out cat! cat! cat!, but he'll never catch them while he's wearing shoes that sound like squeaky dog toys every time he takes a step. 

Then I took him to the edge of the cow pasture and showed him a herd of cows. Moo-cow I said, and he gave me that very intense thinking look, so I said it again: Moo-cow. And he pointed and said MOOOOO-cat.

So that's where I'm living this weekend: where the wild moo-cats roam. If you don't hear from me for a few days,  send the St. Bernard-cats.
Chasing the chick-cats


Friday, July 07, 2017

Joys of cooking

I know what you're thinking: Why would one person need so many cookbooks? I probably shouldn't admit that in addition to a cabinet crammed full of cookbooks, I have two metal tins stuffed with recipe cards and my husband has a whole separate pile of bread-baking books in his office. So yeah, I have a lot of recipes.

And what does it mean to need a cookbook? These days I cook most things of the top of my head, but I learned what flavors work well together over many years of faithfully following recipes. Many of my cookbooks stick around only so I can consult that one beloved recipe for a dish I can't create from memory. 

You can tell which recipes I use most by seeing where the cookbooks fall open naturally. The Joy of Cooking opens to my favorite angel-food cake recipe, and that one little church-lady cookbook opens to an easy and delicious recipe for brownies. The fancy-pants high-society Junior League cookbook comes out of the cabinet only when I need to make that marvelous raspberry cream cheese coffee cake, and if I have to keep a snobby and expensive book around just for that one recipe, it's worth it.

Some cookbooks carry sentimental value. The great big fat book full of recipes representing many nations was a gift from an old friend who said, "You're the only person I know who would try these things," and he was right--I do. (Ask me about my kim-chee.) And I would never buy a book called "Quick Dishes for the Woman in a Hurry," but who do you suppose would give such a book as a wedding gift? (If you guessed "mother-in-law," you're pretty close.)

The cookbook I use most frequently is Greene on Greens by the late Bert Greene, each chatty chapter offering up a cornucopia of recipes focusing on a single vegetable. Pumpkin rolls! Cabbage pancakes! Tater 'n' tomater pie! A borscht recipe bursting with winter root vegetables and bright red beets! He's my go-to guy when the garden's producing its goodies.

And I still hold tight to The More With Less Cookbook, a wedding gift from a friend who knew that we'd be cooking on a tight budget. Published in 1978 by the Mennonite Central Committee, More With Less had a very clear mission printed on the front cover: "Suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world's food resources."

When we were flat broke and couldn't afford meat, this cookbook taught me how to make curried lentils and soybean loaf, a godsend back when much of our provender came from my husband's work at a food pantry where soybeans were cheap and abundant. I haven't made soybean loaf in years (thankfully--it was awful), but the cookbook opens naturally to the basic biscuit recipe I still use regularly. 

And when the zucchini and summer squash plants start producing, I reach first for the squash casserole I've made for probably hundreds of potlucks and family dinners over the years. I made it just this week for some houseguests who asked for the recipe, but when I looked it up, I realized that I don't follow the recipe too closely any more. For one thing, it was written at a time when Americans thought margarine was real food, and also, it doesn't call for salt and pepper. Seriously, who can eat squash without salt and pepper? And then sometimes I crank up the color and flavor by adding red bell peppers or even jalapenos--but not for church dinners. I wouldn't want to give anyone a heart attack.

For the benefit of the friend who asked for the recipe, here it is, amended slightly from the original. (Does anyone seriously use margarine anymore?) 

Corn-Squash Bake

Heat oven to 350.

Cut 3 or 4 medium zucchini or summer squash in one-inch rounds. Cook in small amount of boiling salted water (or chicken stock) until just tender. Drain and mash slightly with fork.

Saute one small onion, chopped, in 1 T butter.

Cool squash slightly and combine with:
Sautéed onion
2 c. corn kernels
1 c shredded Swiss cheese
2 beaten eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Place in greased casserole dish.

Combine and sprinkle on top:
¼ c. dry bread crumbs
2 T grated parmesan cheese
1 T melted butter

Bake for 40 minutes, or until set. Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

This is comfort food at is best, seriously yummy, and it counts as a vegetable--and it gives me a good reason to hold on to a cookbook that got me through those first lean years.

But best of all, it's not soybean loaf.