Saturday, December 30, 2017

Fighting or dancing?

When great blue herons feud over feeding grounds, they look like they're dancing: wings spread wide, beak pointed to the sky, they circle each other until one drives the other off. In less than a minute, the dance is over and the triumphant bird returns to feeding. (At Orlando Wetlands Park, yesterday afternoon.)


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Trees, birds, brrrr!

I'm not going to complain about temperatures in the 30s this morning at Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina. Granted, we had to bundle up in our winter coats, gloves, and hats, but considering that the temperature back in Ohio was in the single digits, I have no complaints.

And besides, the long hike through woods and wetlands worked up some warmth. We saw massive cypress trees, tupelos, and loblolly pines, along with holly trees 30 and 40 feet tall. We lost track of how many pileated woodpeckers we saw, including two pecking at opposite ends of one branch, and we saw many ruby-crowned kinglets flitting through the undergrowth. A black-and-white warbler showed off its elegant stripes on a tree alongside the trail.

What would these woods look like in spring? I've wanted to visit Congaree for years, and now that I've seen it in the depth of winter, I'd like to come back in warmer weather--with the canoe. 

A very invited 2.4-mile boardwalk through woods and wetland

Look for two pileated woodpeckers on one branch

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Hairy or downy woodpecker?

I do love a swamp

Lots of old-growth trees

Black-and-white warbler


Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Ghost of Christmas (Squashed)

So I'm sitting on the sofa with my hot tea and my cozy lap blanket and I'm trying to motivate myself to go out into the cold, bleak, damp afternoon and fight the Christmas Eve crowd to shop for a few last-minute stocking-stuffers, when suddenly I hear a THUMP and a CLUMP and a CLATTER and SPUTTER from the chimney and then a lumpy bundle lands in my fireplace, only it's not a bundle but a person, a petite blonde woman clad in a white gauzy gown badly smudged and torn from its progress down the chimney.

"Who are you?" I ask. "You don't look like Santa."

"Santa?!" she says, her voice ringing like a bell, albeit a slightly rusty, dusty, sneezy bell. "What are you talking Santa? Look at the clock. Does that look like midnight to you?"

"Well, you did come down the chimney," I point out.

"Not my preferred means of transport," she says, "but it's murder these days getting a zoning variance to construct a new magic portal ever since all those Harry Potter folks overbuilt and then couldn't manage the upkeep. But chimneys are grandfathered in--Santa makes sure of that. You wouldn't believe the clout that guy wields down at City Hall. Ever wonder why you never hear about Santa's sleigh getting a parking ticket? The Jolly Old Elf keeps more than one list, if you get my drift."

All this time she's brushing the ash off her dress and trying to punch her pointy viewing cone back into shape.

"Back in the day I used to float in on a dust mote," she explains, "but these days I take what I can get, even a filthy chimney. Seriously, when was the last time you got this thing cleaned? You might have a chimney fire in your future. But don't ask me. The future is outside my bailiwick. You'll have to wait til you meet my cousin, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come."

"Wait, you're the Ghost of Christmas Past?!"

"Present and accounted for," she says, "but I'm afraid I won't be able to show you much. My magical viewing cone took a bit of a beating coming down your chimney and it seems to have blown a gasket. But we can talk."

"About what?"

"Christmas past, of course. Your past."

"But why? I'm not Scrooge! Why, just last week I donated to a food bank to help the needy, and I've got plans to have a joyful Christmas with my family! I wouldn't know how to cook a goose or where to find one, but I'm certainly not planning to settle down alone with a bowl of thin gruel on Christmas!"

"Yeah, whatever," she says, "but what's that I see hanging from the mantelpiece?"

"A Christmas stocking."

"Right," she says, "an empty Christmas stocking. Why haven't you bought anything to stuff it with?"

"Um, well, I forgot."

"Planning to go out and buy something this afternoon?"

"Well, I've been thinking about it, but it's cold outside, and the stores will be mobbed, and I'm tired, and I'd rather sit here and drink my tea."

"You're tired," she says. "Hard to believe. Let's think about all those years when you directed the children's Christmas program at church. You wrote scripts, sewed costumes, organized rehearsals, built sets, and manhandled hordes of fidgety kids until they produced something beautiful and touching that made their parents proud. That would be enough to make you tired--but you haven't done anything like that this year, have you?"

"Well, I--"

"And what about baking? What about all those gifts of fudge and caramels and different kinds of cookies--why, the year your daughter was born on Christmas Eve, you baked fourteen dozen cookies while on the verge of giving birth. And that's not even counting all the fudge. How many cookies have you baked this year?"

"I can explain! We don't have a refrigerator right now, and--"

"And remember all those matching outfits you sewed for your family at Christmas? Those red plaid ties and vests and skirts and shawls, and then another year the plaid was green--all that plaid! What is it with you and plaid?"

"Don't forget about the black-velvet-and-purple-taffeta year."

"I rest my case. How many hours did you spend cutting and pinning and stitching and ironing just to make some cute holiday clothes that the kids would wear a couple times before they grew out of 'em? That's a lot of work for not much reward."

"That's not true! My husband still wears the plaid ties I made for him back then."

"Yeah, but they won't last forever, and how long has it been since you sewed him something for Christmas? You haven't even bought anything to put in his stocking this year!"

"I've got time. I'll go after church."

"But look at the past: you used to sew and bake and direct the children's program and send hand-written cards to all kinds of people and host holiday parties and build a gingerbread manger scene with little gingerbread animals and a tiny gingerbread Baby Jesus, and don't even get me started on the gifts! Remember the year you made a giant Raggedy Ann for your daughter? And your son's cross-stitched Christmas stocking? And what about that beautiful cross-stitched piece still hanging in your parents' dining room? When was the last time you created a hand-made gift? I'm telling you, it doesn't take any effort at all to buy a gift card. And you say you're tired!"

"But I can't do all that! It's too much work!"

"You used to do it all. What happened to your Christmas Spirit?"

"Life happened," I say. "I got older, and so did my kids, and my eyes can't handle all those close-up work any more. If I tried to dress my kids in matching holiday outfits at this point, they'd laugh me out of the room. And I have a job now, a real one that gets really busy this time of year, and then I don't have much energy left for Christmas."

"Hmph," she says. "So maybe you can't do everything, but what about that?"

She points to the stocking hanging from the mantel--empty, flat, forlorn. I still have time to fill it if I get to work, but I look out the window at the dull gray sky, and I know it's cold out there and the stores are full of desperate people, and I think how much I'd appreciate a nap right about now.

And so I pick up the magical viewing cone, dented and dusty but still emitting an otherworldly glow. "How does this work?" I ask.

"Hey, give me that! You're not authorized to operate that--you haven't had the proper training--"

She tries to grab it out of my hands but it's too late: I shove the thing over her head and squish it right down to the floor, where the cone dissolves in my hands, taking the Ghost of Christmas Past with it and leaving behind nothing but a smudge of ash.

I can't do everything and it's futile to try, so I brush the ash off my hands, grab my cozy blanket, and I just settle down for a long winter's nap. (If anyone else comes down the chimney, don't wake me up.)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Sitting in style

My husband donated his battered old recliner to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore the other day to make room for a new chair, and he brought back a receipt acknowledging our donation of  "one wingback chair--good condition."

Ha! If that chair had been in good condition, we would have kept it or given it to a loved one, but we got rid of it because its condition had become unbearable, bordering on dangerous. It wobbled and released little clouds of rotting cushion dust every time anyone sat down in it. The upholstery was so worn and faded that we usually kept it covered with a big black towel, and the chair was a magnet for the grandkids, who were always pushing it back in a way that made it look like someone was going to get squished in the works.

That chair was only 13 years old but it was chintzy to begin with and it's been in nearly constant use. You want to see a recliner in good condition? Go downstairs and take a look at the gigantic green leather Lazy-Boy we've had for something like 20 years: it's as sturdy as it ever was and doesn't show a single sign of wear. But that battered blue wingback? "Good" is not the word.

The new chair is a delight: sturdy, attractive, comfortable, and more difficult to recline so that it will resist the grandchildren's machinations until they're considerably older. It arrived right on time too, although the delivery guys gave themselves plenty of leeway by predicting that they'd arrive "between 1 and 5." (Good thing I didn't need to go anywhere yesterday!) The important thing was that it arrived in time for my husband's birthday, so he'll be able to enjoy his special day on a special chair, if I can get him to stop chopping wood long enough to sit down.

I hope someone gets some use out of our old chair, but if they're expecting something in good condition, they're bound to be disappointed. And I hope we'll be enjoying our new chair for many years to come, because this time we paid for quality.If it's still in good condition 13 years from now, Habitat will have to look elsewhere for its donations.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Chilling out (without a fridge)

My husband informs me that our granddaughter told him (and this conversation is already too complicated for me to follow) that she's really looking forward to having Santa cookies for Christmas, and I assumed she meant cut-out cookies decoratef like Santa, but he said no, she wants Santa's Whiskers, and I said "How can I make Santa's Whiskers without a refrigerator? The dough has to be chilled!" And he said, "You can wrap it up and stick it out in the car overnight and then bake 'em in the morning."

Now I had already promised myself that I would not do any heroic holiday baking in the absence of a refrigerator, and I was feeling pretty much at peace about not baking since we won't even be home for Christmas this year. But if my granddaughter wants Santa's Whiskers, then by golly I'm not going to let a little thing like the absence of a refrigerator deprive me of the pleasure of baking them for her--and furthermore, if no one else is around to lick the mixing bowl, then I'll just have to take care of that little chore myself.

Which is why I now have flour all over my shirt and two cylinders of cookie dough chilling out in my car. 

It's not the first time we've used the car for cold storage. Yesterday's leftover lasagna spent last night out there, and so did a casserole last week. It's also not a bad place to store leftover pizza. In fact, I can think of only one place that would be better: an actual refrigerator.

People keep asking me whether it's a nightmare to live for two weeks without a refrigerator, and I keep saying no, it's more of an annoyance than a nightmare, except for the actual literal nightmares about errant refrigerators that kept waking me up the other night. That was the day when I had my most recent discussion with the guy in the appliance department who keeps trying to explain why the refrigerator that was supposed to be delivered Nov. 30 is still not on the premises. It may be here Saturday, or it may be here sometime after Jan.5.

The old refrigerator waltzed out the door in the company of the recycling dudes on Dec. 9. Since then, we've put a bunch of stuff in the deep freeze, sent some things over to the refrigerator in our son's apartment (so if you're looking for the hoisin sauce, you're out of luck), and stashed the things we use frequently in a pair of coolers that keep getting underfoot in the dining room. And then of course there's auxiliary cold storage in my car.

I'll bring the dough in tomorrow morning and bake the cookies while awaiting delivery of the new recliner for the living room. And if that delivery is also delayed, we can  sit on the floor and eat cookie dough. Try 'em yourself:

Santa's Whiskers

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2  1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup finely chopped maraschino cherries plus about a tablespoon of the juice
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (I like pecans)
flaked coconut

Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla, chopped cherries, flour, and nuts. Stir just until dough holds together. (Add more cherry juice if it's too dry.) Divide dough in half. Roll each half into a log. Roll each log in coconut until it's coated all over. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill a few hours or overnight. 

Cut logs into 1/4 inch slices. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. If coconut comes loose, sprinkle it over the cookies. Bake at 375 until golden, about 12 minutes. Cool and eat.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Owl see you at the mall

Leave the snowy owl alone, they said, but they said it on local television news while revealing the exact location of the owl, so naturally dozens of people have been showing up with cameras to get up close and personal with our rare Arctic visitor. Members of the local birding group have been trying to keep the crowd from getting too close and disturbing the bird, but they can't be there 24 hours a day and some folks just refuse to listen to reason, so the owl has been getting annoyed.

But not annoyed enough to move to a less busy area. When I first saw the snowy owl a few weeks ago, it was perched on a light pole next to the interstate, near a couple of motels, a construction site, some woods, and a lot of traffic. Getting close to the owl was a physical impossibility.

About a week ago, though, the owl relocated to a creek that runs behind a bunch of fast-food restaurants in front of the Grand Central Mall in Vienna, West Virginia. Yes: the owl is hangin' at the mall, sometimes perched on a heat pump behind Applebee's and sometimes sitting at the foot of a tree just inches from the parking lot behind the Men's Wearhouse. 

Why would a snowy owl spend its days within spitting distance of the busiest street in the county at the busiest shopping season of the year? Local birding expert, writer, and artist Julie Zickefoose (whose book Baby Birds would make a great gift for all the birders on your holiday list) told the local news that the creek running behind all those restaurants is like a "rat highway," a concept more  appealing to the owl than to its human visitors.

To see the owl, all you have to do is park next to Panera and look. You don't even need to get out of the car, although it helps. The owl seems oblivious to all the traffic, but people who walk too close can startle the owl into action.

I kept my distance when I visited early this morning, and so did the ten or twelve others who showed up to take a look. I enjoyed seeing the snowy owl but the whole time I felt guilty, as if I was doing something wrong, invading the owl's space or disturbing its sleep, and I fear for the times when no one is on hand to monitor the crowd. I'm reminded of the 11-year-old foster child whom I once caught throwing rocks at a great blue heron near our house. "It's just a bird," he said. I'm sure he's not the only one who thinks that way.

The snowy owl is not just a bird: it's a really cool bird that rarely visits this part of the world, and it's just trying to survive far from its natural habitat. Part of me is delighted that so many people will have a chance to see such a majestic bird in the wild, but another part wishes the owl had chosen a less accessible place to hang out. The presence of a snowy owl feels like a gift, but probably the best gift we can give in return is to keep our distance. 

An Update: A member of the local birding group set up a spotting scope around 100 feet away and allowed more than 150 visitors to take a look from a safe distance this afternoon--but then some people came along toward dusk and walked within 10 feet of the bird to take flash photographs, which scared the owl away into the darkness.  

Later update: Finally, the owl has been captured and taken to the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, where it is being treated for a fractured wing and other injuries. Click here for the full story. 

Yes, the owl really is that close to the parking lot.

The "rat highway," with the back of Applebee's on the right.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Not really about naming conventions

Just moments ago I graded the last final exam and submitted the last set of grades for the fall semester, which means I'm free!!!!! Hallelujah it's party time! I know I'm supposed to spend some time reflecting on the semester, evaluating what went well and how I can improve things for next time, but seriously, I've spent the past week grading something like 172 pieces of student work and my brain hurts. 

And besides, the most compelling lesson I've learned from teaching these classes is the importance of insisting upon consistent naming conventions for electronic documents. Who wants to read about naming conventions? I know I don't want to write about them, except to note that I never again want to be confronted with an electronic file with a name so unprofessional, disrespectful, and vile that it made me want to give the paper a zero without reading it.

Instead I will recall the set of final papers that kept making me laugh and think in new ways about the human condition. It's an assignment I've used before and it tends to spark a lot of passion: Imagine that a group of space aliens wants to destroy Earth to make room for an interstellar bypass; your task is to persuade the aliens that the human race is or is not worthy of preservation, based on evidence drawn from certain comic texts. About half argued for preservation and half for extinction, but either way, they were the best papers I've read all semester. Before the final exam, I told the class that their papers were great but that I'm not sending any of them to negotiate with the space aliens because if I do, we're toast.

Then they asked me a question: "Which way would you argue? Are we worth preserving or not?"

That's the kind of question that makes me love my job. Not particularly easy to answer, but worth the effort.
I told them something like this: "Your papers gave plenty of examples of human beings behaving badly, suggesting that we're a pretty awful bunch, but somehow someone was able to make comedy, literature, and art out of evidence of our awfulness. And that creativity, that ability to make beauty from base materials, that spark is worth preserving, no matter what."

And that, I think, is how I'll look back on this semester: an uneven mess of awful moments intermingled with occasional transcendence, but in the end I saw evidence that creativity survives, that beauty is possible, and that we've kept the spark burning a little bit longer.

Now it's time to take a match to all those final papers and dance around the bonfire--metaphorically, of course. Wouldn't want to torch my laptop just to get rid of a few awful file names. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Snow fun

"Grandma, let me snow you something," she said with glee, and so I watched while she pulled on the end of the branch. That'll snow her!


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Links for the mid-grading break

I'm not even halfway through my grading pile and I'm already tired of seeing infer used where imply is needed and wondering why students like to lengthen analysis into analyzation while shortening adaptation to adaption. Time for a break! 'Tis the season for mid-grading break links:

1. If Dave Barry's annual holiday gift guide doesn't make you laugh, your sense of humor has fled the territory (click here). Now I'm desperately trying to figure out who on my list needs a Barry Manilow coloring book; Dave Barry suggests giving it to a young adult who refuses to move out of the house:
Imagine the look on some lucky young person’s face when he or she unwraps this item, along with a pack of crayons (not included) and you say, quote: “If you think this Barry Manilow coloring book is exciting, just wait until you hear his music!” Then you turn on your stereo system (not included) and the room fills with the scintillating sounds of “Copacabana” or one of the many other Barry Manilow hits from the past two centuries. Pretty soon that young person will develop an appreciation for good music. Either that, or that young person will move out of your house. Either way is good.

Read more here:
I don't know about the Man-Bun Ken Doll or the Star Wars lightsaber barbecue tongs, but maybe we can get some Shakespeare insult bandages for our department office! 

2. Everyone's twittering about Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" in the New Yorker (read it here), a bit of short fiction about a train-wreck of a relationship (if you can call it a relationship). Days after reading the story, I finally realized who it reminded me of: Henry James. 

There is nothing the least bit Jamesian about Roupenian's style, but James pioneered the kind of limited perspective she employs, and like Roupenian's main character, James's protagonists make unfortunate relationship decisions based on inadequate information. If Winterbourne could have stalked Daisy on Facebook instead of relying on rabid gossip, he  would still have dismissed her as nothing more than a "pretty American flirt" (just as Roupenian's Robert dismisses Margot, except Robert uses more pungent language). Similarly, Isabel Archer prefigures Margot when she ignores all her misgivings about Gilbert Osmond, filling in the gaps in his character with her own romantic inventions. The difference, of course, is that Margot escapes after one horrible date while Isabel is stuck with Osmond forever.

3. I don't have a whole lot to say about Julie Beck's "The Secret Life of 'Um'" (read it here), except, um, yeah. If using a lot of vocal filler suggests that one is "really playing an important role in the smooth operation of the conversation machine," then I'm well equipped to keep the gears turning.

4. Nina Handler's essay "Facing My Own Extinction" made me very sad (read it here), dealing as it does with a college's decision to discontinue the English major. But this paragraph especially struck me:
The belletristic tradition is obsolete, and those who once imparted the art of rhetoric now strive to teach basic literacy. English, once a backbone of the university’s structure, has become a little-used organ with only vestigial value — the appendix of academia.
The "appendix of academia"! I'm feeling it: nobody quite understands why we still exist, so it's easy to suggest surgical removal. It hasn't happened here but many of us who teach in English departments can hear the surgeon scrubbing up in the next room and fear that it's only a matter of time before we end up on the operating-room floor.

But not today. Today we have work to do, like trying to explain to a student why infer and imply are not interchangeable. It's a tough job, but, um, somebody has to keep the wheels turning. (Maybe some Barry Manilow will help...)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There are many aspects of grading that can be analyzed

"You do a really great job weaving quotations seamlessly into your sentences," I just wrote on a student's paper. Clumsiness with quote integration is endemic to first-year papers, so when someone integrates quotes elegantly, it's time to pass out the gold stars.

I'm seeing evidence of haste on many of these papers, which is peculiar because they had plenty of time to seek help and revise the draft. Last Friday a student told me that he had failed to look at my comments on his draft until late the night before it was due, so it was only then that he realized that I'd accidentally sent him another student's draft and comments. Oops. My mistake, of course, but then if he'd looked at the file a little earlier, he could have asked me to send him the right document. 

Apparently he was distracted. So am I. In fact, these marathon grading sessions make me eager to grasp at any distraction that happens to flit past. I assigned all these papers so I have to grade 'em, but my goodness I wish I could put some of them off until, say, January. Of 2027.

But here I sit dutifully reading one paper after another after another, puzzling over peculiar punctuation, trying to untangle incoherent prose, wondering where a student ever learned that a great way to start a paper is to write something like "There are many aspects of literature that can be analyzed." When I'm drowning in drivel, an elegantly crafted sentence arrives like a lifeboat, buoying my spirits and inspiring me to keep reading. 

Let's hope I see a lot more such sentences; otherwise, I'll be ending the semester with an excess of gold stars and nowhere to stick them.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Remembrance of libraries past

A student came to me with a great idea. He was showing me the scholarly article he'd received in his e-mail inbox via interlibrary loan, and he said, "Why don't they have a place where all these articles were printed out and we could go read them right away instead of waiting for them to come to our e-mail?"

What a concept--a whole building dedicated to collecting texts and making them available to students! We could call it--a library! And it could have a big room dedicated to print copies of academic journals! Sort of like what we have in our own beloved library, except we don't have nearly enough space for all the specialized journals students might need, so we could go back to the days when dedicated students would drive two or three hours across the state to a whopping big academic library and then spend hours and hours in the dusty stacks photocopying articles from academic journals, only to drive back home to read them!

And if starting up an institution like that would be too much trouble, we could build a time machine and send my student back a few decades to research his paper. He'll be begging to return home within minutes, but how will he ever reach us? He'll never find a cell-phone signal!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Adventures in refrigerator recycling

When the Fridge Collection Dude (hereafter FCD) called last night to say that he would like to pick up our refrigerator earlier than the time originally promised, I was delighted. I've been wanting to go out stalking that snowy owl again, which I can't do if I'm sitting around between 10 and 2 waiting for the FCD to show up and haul away my fridge. So I said sure, how early, and he said between 6:00 and 6:30.


....on a Saturday.

....that also happens to be (1) the day after the end of an exhausting semester and (2) my birthday. 

But sure, I said, we get up early, go ahead and try to find my driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, and if you have trouble, give us a call, except that you'll have to backtrack a mile or two to find any cell-phone reception.

So this morning we got up early enough to clear the last few things out of the fridge and prepare for a week of fridgeless living, and we were dressed, fed, and ready to answer the phone when it rang around 6. I expected to hear the voice of the FCD explaining that he couldn't find my driveway, but no: this was an entirely different FCD, who explained that last night's FCD got called away for a sudden family emergency and had to dump his work on this new FCD, who sounded as if he'd just crawled out of bed himself and was clearly in no position to pick up our refrigerator at 6 a.m., so he'd come by later, between 9 and 1.

Well what could I say? I'm not going to physically haul this FCD out of bed and drag him out here to pick up our fridge, so instead I guess I'll sit around enjoying the morning. One of the advantages of cleaning out the fridge is that you sometimes find things you'd forgotten about, which explains the pawpaw smoothie I enjoyed for my birthday breakfast. The sun is starting to illuminate a frosty world outside, and the dog is bumbling about wearing the Cone of Shame--she had a skin growth surgically removed yesterday but seems to be recovering just fine. I have a pot of hot tea, an unread magazine, and a clear view of the birdfeeders out front, and if I get tired of all that excitement, I can always grade some papers. What more could I possibly want?

(Besides, of course, the absence of refrigerator.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Night Stories: Illuminating absence

I thought I was being a little extravagant when I bought myself a hardback book for $45, but then I looked for other books by the same author and I found only one, selling for $1,827.93. (Plus $3.99 for shipping!) So I guess my Linden Frederick collection will remain limited to one book.

But what a book! Linden Frederick is a New England artist, and Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings and the Stories they Inspired is exactly what the title says: 15 of his paintings accompanied by short stories (and a one-act play) written by contemporary authors as diverse as Ann Patchett, Dennis Lehane, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Russo.

I was initially attracted by the art. From his home base is in Maine, Linden Frederick allows his eye to roam across small-town America, producing austere images reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Night Hawks. Though his paintings generally lack human figures, Frederick's night scenes of dimly lit vacant lots, isolated gas stations, and silent houses hint at lives barely imagined. The cover image, Offramp, invites viewers to travel further down the highway or follow the offramp into some forgotten community where lonely people lead lives of quiet desperation.

The night sky is a brooding presence in many of these paintings, its rich shades of blue, green, and gray often pierced by unexpected points of light. In Downstairs, a hulking mass of house crowds the left side of the frame, but our eyes are drawn to the lower edge, where a brightly lit basement window suggests the presence of vibrant life. Vacant Lot presents a greeny-blue night sky so murky it seems to be drowning the planet, but some sort of ordinary life survives in a tiny house where a car drives into a well-lit garage.

In 50 Percent, a one-story house seems squeezed between bands of darkness, as if it is being swallowed up by earth and sky, but large windows reveal a group of women dressed in candy-colored prom dresses. On closer inspection, the festive women resolve into mannequins. A commercial sign shines blankly on the right side, suggesting that this is some sort of business, but in the absence of words, the meaning of the assemblage of mannequins remains a mystery.

Lois Lowry fills that absence with a story called "Vital Signs." The stories in this volume reverse the usual process: instead of finding an artist to illustrate a text, Linden Frederick found a bunch of authors to create stories suggested by his paintings. Lowry imagines a group of retired men trying to play a prank on one of their own but instead coming face to face with the power of loneliness and loss. 

Ted Tally's one-act drama "Repair" closes with a reminder that "Some things can't be fixed," even by an honest mechanic, and many of these stories features lives so broken that the possibility of redemption does not even enter the picture; nevertheless, light shines through the murky depths of the human condition. In "Ice," Andre Dubus opens the doors of a cold, lonely convenience store to reveal the beating heart of passion, and in "Downstairs," Richard Russo takes us inside that dark, hulking house, where a glimmer of life lingers in the midst of despair and death. In Dennis Lehane's "Offramp," a cynical U.S. Marshal on the verge of retirement takes a brief detour toward compassion, while Joshua Ferris's "Maniacs" follows a teen boy through an idle summer vacation; the story throbs with youthful energy that leads the boy headlong into dangerous terrain.  

Louise Erdrich's "Green Acres" takes a turn into uncanny territory, though it begins normally enough:
The house was a soothing color and the streets had pleasant names--Joy Street, Lydia Street, Crystal Way--the names of the developer's wife and daughters. There were also echoes of the old farm--Hereford and Holstein Streets and Jersey Trail. The breeds of the animals that once had grazed the subdivided fields. Our cabin house was at the end of Angus Avenue. Which had the ring of happiness, I thought, pregnant. It had the feel of the address a family would refer to one day with nostalgia.
This pastoral setting soon turns strange, though, in a way that will resonate with any nursing mother who has felt a kinship with cows. Erdrich's brief story dramatizes what happens when we attempt to transform forces of nature into comforting nostalgic images: nature does not forget. It may take a while, but eventually, the cows will come home.

At $45 for a hardback beautiful enough to grace any civilized coffee table, Night Stories would make a great gift for the literary-and-artsy people in your life, but it's currently listed as "temporarily out of stock" at Amazon, and if you want something else by Linden Frederick, you'll have to fork over $1,827.93. (Plus shipping!) But you can view images of some of his paintings here, and who knows, maybe they'll inspire you to write your own story. Imagine the hearts that beat behind those dark walls and within those dimly lit landscapes. I know the people who live in these paintings--and so do you.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Only one calling bird, but it's a doozy


I really should be sitting in my office right now, I thought as I scrambled along a muddy hillside in the rain, trying desperately to keep my camera dry while gusts of wind kept whipping my umbrella around. I should be back at work, quietly awaiting visits from my hordes of students who have papers due this week and may need a little last-minute advice. If I'd stayed on campus, I wouldn't have wet feet and muddy shoes! 

But I wouldn't have seen a snowy owl either, and that was definitely worth an adventure with rotten weather.

Word went out over the weekend that snowy owls had been spotted nearby, rare visitors to this area. I get a lot of these e-mail alerts from the local birding group, which is mostly made up of retired people with time on their hands;  they can squawk about cattle egrets 20 miles upriver all they want but if I'm in class, I'm not going anywhere--and if I do manage to scrape together enough daylight to drive to some remote area to look for a rare bird, it's bound to be gone before I get there. That's how I missed the unusual visitation of sandhill cranes a few years ago, and cattle egrets last weekend, and snowy owls yesterday.

But today I'm not teaching, merely holding office hours for students who seem universally uninterested in assistance on their final papers. I'll have a pile of grading later in the week but this morning I devoted a few hours to fiddling with next semester's syllabi, utterly uninterrupted.

So when the e-mail alert arrived telling me that a snowy owl was hanging out atop a light pole ten miles down the Interstate, I first rejoiced that I still had my camera in the office (because I'd used it yesterday to take pictures of a department event) and then grabbed the keys and hopped in the car. I didn't even leave a note on the door. What would it say? "Gone owling"?

The owl was exactly where the e-mail said it would be, just sitting on top of that lightpole as if it ruled the world. Getting close enough to take a decent photo was a problem, though, since I'm not stupid enough to stand in the middle of the Interstate with all those trucks zooming past at 70 miles an hour. Gray sky, limited light, cold rain, and sudden gusts of wind all combined to make the photography conditions less than ideal.

But the owl seemed unbothered. At first it looked motionless as a lump of dirty snow, but then its head swivelled my way and I knew I'd found a treasure. My first snowy owl in the wild! And it was a good thing I went when I did, because by the time I'd packed up my camera and turned my car around, the owl was gone.

Later in the week I'll be complaining about the pile of end-of-semester grading that will hound my every waking hour, keeping me tied to work all day and long into the night, but today I'm rejoicing over the rare combination of circumstances that allowed me to walk away in the middle of the day to visit a majestic bird. If any students complain that I wasn't in my office during office hours, I'll have to explain that sometimes there's nothing to do but answer when nature calls. (Even if you have to get your feet wet.)


Sunday, December 03, 2017

A moving story with too many steps

My daughter reports that she walked more than 15,000 steps and climbed 31 flights of stairs yesterday while moving into her new house, and I don't doubt it but I wish she'd sit down and put her feet up for a little while. She is, after all, pregnant. It's time to let someone else do the hard work! But I know how difficult that can be.

It was nearly 30 years ago that we moved houses while I was eight and a half months pregnant. I wouldn't have chosen just that date to move all our belongings halfway across the state, but at the time our lives were ruled by the Methodist hierarchy, which determined a single moving day for all pastoral families living in parsonages. It makes perfect sense: the previous pastor moves out of the parsonage one one day so that the new pastor can move in on the next, and if any painting or repair needs to be done in the interim, everyone just has to stay out of the way.

We moved houses under this system every two or three years and usually it worked well enough, but if you have a choice, I do not recommend moving while heavily pregnant and accompanied by a two-year-old.

The good news is that we didn't have quite as much stuff back then. Our kitchen was still full of wedding gifts in pretty good repair and our bookshelves were overstuffed, but we had no drum sets or giant boxes of Legos or dining tables capable of seating twelve, and we had only one or two desks instead of the six or eight we currently possess. 

I'd been teaching the occasional adult education class at the local community college but at the time of the move I was unemployed, so I had spent about a month packing up everything we owned: pack a box, change a diaper; pack a box, take a nap; pack a box, sit down and put my feet up for a while. Of course I wasn't supposed to be doing any heavy lifting, but sometimes boxes needed to be moved and, lacking servants, my choice was to wait until my husband got home from work or do it myself. I didn't have a Fitbit so I can't tell you how many steps I walked or stairs I climbed or boxes I moved, but I'm sure it was way too many.

The worst part was when moving day arrived and I had to watch other people manhandle my things. Moving out was not too bad but then we got to the new house and people I didn't even know kept telling me, "Sit down and rest! I'll unpack this for you," or "You just sit there and tell me where you want this." 

It's hard work sitting idly while everyone around you is carrying things and unpacking boxes, and it's much easier to put things where I want them myself than to try to explain my preferences to a total stranger. As helpful as church members may be, I don't necessarily want them unpacking my ratty old nightgowns or sorting my underwear.

The new house had no air conditioning and the summer heat was brutal, so eventually we found my daughter's swimsuit and filled up the little plastic kiddie pool, where she romped in the cold water while I soaked my tired, swollen feet and tried not to think about the chaos inside the house. I was supposed to be taking it easy, but I can't just sit back while there's work to be done. In fact, the only person in the family who was really taking it easy was my unborn son, who was so comfortable in utero that he decided to stay there a little longer than he should have and was eventually wrenched into the world two weeks late, shrivelled, scrawny, and gray.

After all the times we've moved, I understand his reluctance to shift homes: why disrupt a reasonably comfortable home, endure the pain and chaos of relocating, and then suffer all the trials and indignities of getting accustomed to a new place? Better to just stay in the womb!

Except we can't. We have to stretch our legs, expand our horizons, boldly go where no baby has gone before. Sometimes we just have to pack up and move. I just wish I could find a way to save my daughter a few of those steps.

Friday, December 01, 2017

So apparently this hasn't been a complete waste of time

This morning I congratulated my composition students for completing the final reading response of the semester. "Now don't you all feel like better writers?" I asked, and a few of them said "Yes."

It's always nice to pause for a moment at the end of the semester and remind students of how much they've accomplished. Sure, they still have to revise their researched essay and write the final exam, but they're through with everything else--all those reading and writing assignments, all those in-class exercises, all that research. (Well, some of them will need to do a little more research as they revise, but in theory, they're done.)

And they are better writers--every single one of them. Not perfect, certainly, but every student in that class has moved from point A to point B, while some have progressed much further up the alphabet. 

The improvements are visible in the reading responses I collected today: at the beginning of the semester, any set of papers from that class would feature massive variety in line spacing, margins, and other elements of format, but today they all look pretty much identical. Earlier papers would include no quotes or quotes dropped in without proper punctuation or citation, but today's papers demonstrate an admirable uniformity in ability to integrate, punctuate, and cite quotes. The ideas expressed are still those of 18-year-olds, but at this point they've read enough to know a little bit more than they did at the start, or perhaps to have gained an awareness of just how much they don't know.

"I'm going to enjoy reading these papers," I told them, and I will. They're not perfect, but they provide concrete evidence that the 14 weeks we've spent working so hard have not been wasted. Good has been done here! Let's pause and give ourselves a pat on the back. (And then get back to work.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When "It Is What It Is" is what it is

It's not every day that PowerPoint wakes me up before 4 a.m., but such, apparently, is the life of an academic. In this very intense dream, I was creating a PowerPoint presentation about existentialism, and some part of my subconscious mind felt it was very important that I wake up and write down the title of the presentation, which I dutifully did. The title that seemed so brilliant at 4 a.m. looks less compelling in the light of day: "Existentialism: It Is What It Is."

I guess I've got existentialism on my mind because I've been talking about absurdism in the comedy class in preparation for viewing The Lobster next week. It's not very funny except when it's hysterically funny, but I predict that I'll be the only one laughing. My students will sit there with this wide-eyed gaze and an expression that says "What the--?" Bear in mind that many of these students sat stone-faced during large swaths of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If Monty Python can't make them laugh, then The Lobster has no chance whatsoever.

But never mind that: a little absurdity seems appropriate at this point in the semester, when we drink existential angst with our morning coffee. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why go to all this fuss and bother to try to stuff wisdom and truth into the brains of students looking for an easy A? I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas! If I were a lobster, I wouldn't have to worry about trying to explain absurdism to hungover general education students, and I wouldn't wake up in the wee hours from intense PowerPoint dreams.

But this is the life I've chosen. It is what it is. I must go on. I can't go on. I'm going on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Meeting with Mr. Nothing

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas always feel like a slow slog uphill through mud, with "Jingle Bell Rock" on the soundtrack. I look at my calendar for the next month and I see way too many things: concerts and papers to grade and finals and capstone presentations and shopping and wrapping and decorating and packing for a trip, plus dealing with the prospect of a week or more without a refrigerator right in the middle of holiday baking season. (The schedules got messed up and the new fridge got put on backorder and will be delivered probably around Dec. 18 but I can't get the rebate from the power company unless they pick up the old fridge on Dec. 9, so I will lose the old fridge on my birthday and gain the new one on our anniversary and simply live without a fridge for the intervening week, unless the schedule gets screwed up again, in which case I give up.)

What I don't see when I look at the calendar is a whole lot of nothing. I'd like to scatter swaths of nothing over the coming month, minutes or hours or days when I'm not required to go anywhere in particular or respond to anyone's urgent demands. I need to make a date with nothing, make nothing enough of a priority to post it on my calendar, but then when someone asks me what I'm doing on that date and I say "Nothing," they'll say, "Then I guess you'll have time to deal with this," and they'll hand me a big nasty mess of something.

So I need to disguise my spots of nothing with a code name, the way Algernon did in The Importance of Being Earnest when he begged out of commitments by claiming the need to visit an imaginary invalid named Bunbury. I don't believe I could convincingly create a Bunbury, but imaginary meetings might work. "I have a meeting" sounds plausible and so boring that it will spark few questions, because who wants to deal with the boring details of other people's boring meetings? And even if someone feels compelled to ask what I'll be doing at my meeting, "Oh, nothing much" will work because it perfectly describes the content of so many meetings.

No one needs to know that my meetings will be with Mr. Nothing. So don't tell, okay? It's just between you and me.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Seeing beyond black and white

A long time ago when I worked for a newspaper that printed only black and white photos, I grew so accustomed to envisioning my world in black and white that color photos started looking garish and chintzy. Now, though, it's the black and white photos that look odd.

I've been enjoying all the black and white photos showing up in my photo feed, but I was reluctant to participate at first because, frankly, I've never taken black and white photos with my current camera and I didn't know how to make it happen. But then my daughter challenged me and so I decided to figure it out, which took some time: reading the small print in the camera's instruction manual, fiddling with non-intuitive menus, trying out various lighting situations, looking for interesting subjects. My B&W days are so far behind me that I've lost the ability to visualize how various scenes will look when color is removed, so I ended up with a lot of photos that look muddy and dull. 

Further, all this emphasis on B&W occurred while the grandkids were visiting for four days and carrying light, color, and energy into every room of the house and out the door. How could I content myself taking sedate B&W photos without people in them when those colorful little balls of energy were careening through the house?

And the other thing that bothered me about the B&W photo challenge is that I wasn't allowed to write anything about the photos. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a  good photo makes me want to put a few words together in response. But the rules of the B&W photos challenge are clear: no people, no pets, no explanations. I don't know who makes these rules and I don't know what happens to scofflaws, but in the spirit of cooperation, I dutifully posted my B&W photos on Facebook, one per day, and wrote not a word.

They're a strange group of photos. If they reveal anything about my life, they suggest that I'm obsessed with wood, I'm content to live with imperfection, and I like interesting patterns and textures. All true, but the photos leave out an awful lot that I care about (like people and pets and colors), and the challenge itself stripped me of my reliance on words. It was an uncomfortable experience all around, but it made me look at my surroundings differently and realize that I've lost a skill that once served me well.

I could get it back. Give me some time and a whole lot of opportunities and I'll be seeing the world in black and white all over again--but after spending a week looking closely at B&W photos, I'm eager to return to living color.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This is what a real break feels like

I looked out the window this morning and watched birds at the front feeders, which may not sound particularly exciting except that this time of year I rarely see my yard in the daylight--it's dark when I leave home in the morning and dark again when I get home. And then to  be able to just sit down with a cup of hot tea and look idly out the window at the birds is doubly wonderful.

I brought no work home with me for Thanksgiving break--no reading quizzes, no drafts, no papers to grade. I'm even caught up on my course preparations. Last night I fiddled a bit with next semester's syllabi, but it was pretty low-pressure fiddling. It feels strange not to be buried under a crush of work, but I'm going to enjoy it while I can because all my students are turning in drafts or papers over the next two weeks, and then I'll have final exams. Beware the end-of-semester onslaught!

For the next four days, though, I intend to forget about classes entirely and enjoy being a grandma. The little imps will be here this evening (with their parents, of course) so I've been cleaning and cooking in preparation for doing Thanksgiving our way. The resident grillmeister will smoke two turkeys all night long, and if you're wondering why seven people need two full-sized turkeys, so am I. (Trying to clear out the deep-freeze!)

I've put together the pumpkin cookies, pumpkin rolls, and fruit salad already and I have a pile of sweet potatoes from the garden ready to cook tomorrow morning, along with dressing and all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings. I've even bought all the things I need to help the grandkids make cute candy little turkeys out of Vanilla Wafers, chocolate-covered cherries, and candy corn. (I'll post photos.)

We're going to make a mess, all of us together--a turkey-smoking, frosting-smearing, tater-tossing mess--but as long as it's a joyful mess, everyone will end up with an A+. (As long as someone else does the grading. I'm on break!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Yes, I'm torturing my first-years again. So sue me.

My first-year students trade papers so they can offer suggestions on each other's drafts and the first thing I hear is "Geez, she wrote a book!" Number one, no she didn't, and number two, who says a long paper is necessarily a bad thing? (Probably the same people who convinced Microsoft Word that a long sentence is an error requiring correction.)

I don't expect my first-year students to write books or even chapters, and in fact I often warn them that the thesis statement they've drafted would require a whole book to cover in any detail so they'd be better off narrowing their focus. On the other hand, if I ask for a 1500-word paper, I expect something more than a paragraph, and if the topic requires further evidence, then I'm delighted when the student exceeds the minimum word count. The papers that make me crazy are those that reach the minimum and then quickly tack on an "In conclusion" to bring the whole topic to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

The purpose of the word count, I keep telling them, is to inspire writers to make every word count. They've heard this often enough to be able to recite it along with me, often accompanied by undisguised eye-rolling. 

What they don't know is that it takes more skill to cover a topic thoroughly in a short space than to ramble on. "A really careful and concise writer can achieve this goal in 1500 words," I tell them, "but the rest of you will need more." 

They don't believe me. They'd be happy if I asked them to produce a PowerPoint slide listing bullet points, and then they'd try to negotiate the number of bullet points down from six to three or two, so being asked to read and respond to a draft five or six pages long must feel incredibly unjust. 

And if reading a five-page paper feels as onerous as reading a book, how do they respond when I ask them to read an actual book? Trust me: you don't want to know.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Soup or sabbatical?

Just got back from a mad dash on foot across town--well, not technically all the way across town but four blocks away, and a very cold four blocks it was with a brisk wind blowing straight into my face all the way there and pushing me forward on the way back, and then of course I had to get my eyes dilated and then try not to cough all over my eye doctor while he was shining very bright lights in my eyes to determine whether my retina is detaching, which it isn't so hurrah hurrah but as I walked back to campus in the cold everything was a total blur from the drops and the bright lights so I consoled myself with the promise of a bowl of hot soup at the library cafe but when I got there there was no soup, not just NO SOUP FOR YOU but NO SOUP AT ALL, on a cold day when I'd been coughing and dashing through the wind and working up a pretty good appetite so I ordered my favorite wrap even though it's overpriced and not as comforting as hot soup on a cold day and then I had to take it right back to my office because I have student appointments all afternoon even though Thursday is supposed to be my staying-home-and-writing day (except for next Thursday, which is cooking-turkey-and-all-the-trimmings-for-the-whole-stinking-family day, and the following Thursday, which is waiting-for-delivery-of-the-new-refrigerator day), but my freshman seminar students need some one-on-one time because of problems with their research projects so I promised to make some time available today, which I have done, and don't even ask me how many of those students failed to show up for their scheduled appointments this morning because it's too depressing to think about, but the good news, and the essential point of this whole rambling screed in case you were wondering, is that I've just learned that my proposal to take a sabbatical in Spring 2019 has been APPROVED and in my book a semester's sabbatical beats a bowl of hot soup any day of the week, even a day as cold, blurry, and ridiculous as this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Getting what's going around

Last week as I listened to my students coughing their way through an exam, I wondered how many viruses they would turn in with their test papers. I now know the answer: enough to make me sick for days and days and days. (Frankly, given the amount of coughing going on in that room, hand sanitizer wouldn't have put a dent in the problem. To contain that kind of outbreak, you'd need nothing less than napalm.)

My weekend was a dead loss: coughing, sleeping, coughing, sleeping, blowing through a whole box of tissues. On Sunday I never even left the house. Felt a little better on Monday, well enough to teach my classes as long as I carried tissues everywhere I went, but I'm not sure any of us got much out of the experience. 

I don't teach on Tuesdays so this morning I cancelled my office hours, slept until nearly 7 (!), lounged around coughing and drinking hot fluids all morning, and parked myself in a sunny spot on the sofa to respond to student drafts. The bright sunshine made my laptop screen hard to read, but I could feel the sunshine driving the sickness out of my body and I just couldn't move away.

Now I'm on campus again for some afternoon meetings. I could have gone to two meetings this morning but decided they could proceed just as well without me. I'm not carrying tissues and, at the moment, I'm not coughing. Tomorrow I expect to be pretty much back to normal, whatever that means. Soon this whole sorry incident will fade into the dim and distant reaches of memory, where it can't hurt anyone any more. (Because napalm lives there and kills all the germs.)