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.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Tweaking time's algorithm

Facebook informs me that four years ago today I posted the first photo of my hero-blue Camry, a car that keeps making me happy. That's a notable date, but what's the proper gift for a four-year Camryversary? A car wash? (I'll let the rain take care of that.)

Facebook also reminds me that ten years ago we celebrated my parents' 50th wedding anniversary with the whole family right here, and eight years ago I was still sorting through photos of my daughter's wedding, and one year ago I was getting to know my new grandson, but it didn't say a word when I passed the eight-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. A date once seared on my consciousness passed by unnoticed, which is probably a good sign.

Facebook insists on reminding me of the time we picked all those blackberries, the year a week-long power outage made us AC refugees, the lakes and streams we've paddled and the birds we saw there, and while I really appreciate all the fond memories, what I really need is the Facebook Future function: show me what I'll be doing a year from now or five years or ten. 

But given the way Facebook often presents me with arbitrary or insignificant events--the seventh anniversary of that cake I baked, the fourth year since I posted a comment about a particular book--they'll have to really tweak the algorithm or else we'd end up with a lot of fairly meaningless Futureversaries: the shoes I'll buy three years from today, the deer that will visit our meadow in seven years, the bumper crop of zucchinis we'll harvest in ten.

So many silly things Facebook wants to tell me, but so often it ignores the important questions: Is it safe to forget that I ever suffered through chemotherapy? Will the beautiful people in all those photos stay safe and healthy far into the future? Will I still love my car ten years from now? 

(Of course I will, if it's still running--but Facebook can't possibly tell me that.)



Saturday, July 01, 2017

Amit Majmudar channels James Wright (with a difference)

Two Ohio poets working 60 years apart look murderers in the face, and the result is a thought-provoking examination of the links between identity, community, and place. 

James Wright's 1959 poem "At the Executed Murderer's Grave" (read it here) portrays the poet visiting the grave of George Doty, a small-town Ohio taxi driver executed for rape and murder. The poem begins with Wright establishing his identity in connection to his place of birth:
My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father. 
Wright wrote frequently of his love/hate relationship to his homeplace, which, in his poems, often threatens to consume and constrict his creativity. This poem is no different, for he confesses to remaining "aloof" from "dead Ohio, where I might lie buried, / Had I not run away before my time."

"Ohio caught George Doty," he continues, with the verb "caught" suggesting both the act of prosecuting Doty's crime and the fact of Doty's interment in Ohio soil. Wright works hard to distinguish himself from the executed murderer, insisting, "I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying." In Wright's eyes, though, the dying include those unable to escape from stultifying small-town life, those too eager to judge others' crimes while silently forgiving their own hidden sins. Wright imagines a final judgment when "we dead stand undefended everywhere," forced to expose hidden scars and "sneaking crimes to God's unpitying stars":
Staring politely, they will not mark my face
From any murderer’s, buried in this place.
Why should they? We are nothing but a man.
Most telling here is the shift from the insistent "I" to the inclusive "we" that links the poet with all people, including the wretched murderer before whose grave he stands: "Doty, killer, imbecile, and thief: / Dirt of my flesh, defeated underground."

Wright, though, can walk away from the grave and need not carry his connection to Doty on his daily face; Amit Majmudar, on the other hand, cannot so easily slough off his unwitting association with a criminal. In "The Beard" (read it here), Ohio's first poet laureate describes what happens after he discovers that he bears an uncanny resemblance to terrorist Ahmad Rahami. Like Wright, Majmudar begins with identity, which he described as fluidly adapting to his surroundings:
Who I was depended.
Among believers an atheist,
among atheists a skeptic,
among skeptics an agnostic...
But this fluidity becomes more difficult when photos of Rahami fill the airwaves and the poet sees those around him erecting prison bars formed of fear: "The more they eyed me / the more my face began to itch" until a beard erupts all unbidden, growing bushier in response to the gaze of others until it has "quite foreclosed / the flux of me." Others' appraising glances associating the poet with the murderer transforms the poet from "e pluribus unum" to "maybe him, unknowably."

Majmudar refers to Rahami as "my doppelganger Afghan, / mon semblable, I will not say mon frère," but it is clear that he feels trapped and isolated within a resemblance he cannot shake. In the end, his resemblance to the terrorist leads fearful observers to question the poet's connection to his homeplace:
I am alone here now,
among Americans a foreigner
when just last year I used to be
among Americans American.
In both poems, a poet finds his identity and individuality disrupted by an arbitrary connection with a societal outcast. Wright discovers that he cannot throw off his bonds to his native soil or to his community's outcasts, but this does not stop him from walking freely away from the executed murderer's grave. Majmudar, on the other hand, carries the criminal's image on his face and thus finds himself dislocated, his fluid self imprisoned behind bars constructed from others' fear, "with no way now to bare / my true face veiled beneath his beard."