Monday, September 24, 2018

Attack of the killer syllabi!

Sometimes it feels as if my syllabi are ganging up on me, conspiring to inundate me with the most demanding reading, prepping, and grading all at the same time--but then I remember who's responsible for writing those syllabi. If I'm running as fast as I can just to keep up, I have no one to blame but myself.

Maybe all this grading will go more quickly if I switch to a different chair, or maybe the exam will be easier to write in a larger font with narrower margins. Some of my students believe in this kind of magical thinking, and apparently there's something to it because every student sitting in the center row in one of my classes received a well-earned A on the first major essay. None of them, however, tried the bigger-font trick. Last week I read a draft written in 14-point type with two-inch margins all around and extra space between paragraphs, but I must have said something persuasive to the writer because I don't see any sign of such trickery in the revised essays. 

In fact I'm mighty pleased with my classes so far: five weeks in and I'm not tearing my hair out to any significant degree. One student had to leave campus because of a health problem, which made me sad but I'm confident he'll be back eventually; another is struggling to figure out how to submit papers in a format I can open, but we can work through that. Most of them seem to be doing most of the reading, and many are engaging in class discussions. They're not all earning A's, but neither do they all expect to. No complaints so far.

I had expected a complaint from a student who decisively bombed the first essay. I agonized over grading that paper, worried that the grade would cause the student to drop the class and resolve never to take another literature class--or, worse, suffer a breakdown and start kicking puppies. But then the next time he came into the classroom, he came up to me with a grin and said, "I wrote that paper 30 minutes before class. I'll do better next time."

So it's all good. Sure, I'm up to my eyeballs in quizzes and papers to grade and I have more drafts coming in Wednesday and an exam to write by Friday, plus I need to get caught up on the mowing (except it's raining again) and I just killed another weed-eater (my third, I think) and the house could use a good scouring and eye fatigue is causing my left eyelid to twitch violently at the least opportune moments, but I can't complain that the syllabus is working me too hard because it's doing exactly what I told it to do, and doing it very well indeed.

(Hey, do you suppose switching to a bigger font will make my eyelid stop twitching?)

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Bubbles to soothe the savage beast

It was already a busy week thanks to students turning in drafts in every class, but add an extra 300 miles of driving and some bonus grandparenting on top of the normal craziness and you get one exhausted grandma--so spending some time on Saturday morning sitting on the front porch watching the grandkids blow bubbles was just about my speed.

I don't know how many thousands of extra people are in Jackson this weekend for the annual apple festival, but everywhere we've been has been loud, crowded, and redolent of fried fair food. We weren't downtown during the busiest part of the fair, but I still started feeling that internal gripping panic that accompanies massive roiling crowds. The grandkids enjoyed the ice cream and a few of the tamer rides, although they found the Fun Slide a little more exciting than they'd expected. 

Now my house is full of napping people, and I've half a mind to join them. Soon they'll wake up and the whole three-ring circus will start up again, but we're well stocked with apple pie, and if that won't keep the wild animals happy, we can always break out the bubbles.



Monday, September 17, 2018

A sticky (but delicious) lesson

Some of my students who are studying Appalachia had never tasted pawpaws before, so today I brought some, picked from my woods, and peeled them right there in class so they could get a taste of a treat that grows wild all around them. I've encountered many other gaps in students' knowledge, but rarely can they be repaired so easily--and deliciously. 

I had more trouble this morning trying to teach a student how to save a document as a Word file and attach it to an email message, but I was hampered by the fact that I was trying to explain the process via email. For the first time I have multiple first-year students who are a  shaky on email use and who claim they've never used Word, so I'm getting documents in all kinds of crazy formats and often with filenames like "Document 1" or "Untitled." Wish I could give them a magic pill that would endow them with word-processing and emailing skills because I can't spend a lot of time on that in first-year composition, or how will we ever get to semicolons? 

Poor semicolons! Don't even get me started on the dying art of punctuation.

On the plus side, my postcolonial students were enlightened enough to spot the rampant sexism in a clip from a James Bond film today, so if they don't know how to use a semicolon, at least they know how to spot creepiness. Which skill will be more practical in real life? (Man shall not live on semicolons alone--or woman either.)

I'd like to lament the loss of skills that seem to be slipping away before my eyes, but who has time to cry when there are papers to grade? Instead, I'll grab a pawpaw and carry on, repairing the gaps I'm able to fill and trusting that others will fill the rest.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Seeing the world at 60 miles per hour

"So what is the drive to Jackson like?" they ask me, and I'm always tempted to reply, "It's, like, 90 minutes." What can I say about the drive I've become accustomed to making twice a week? It's like a lot of other drives in rural southern Ohio: an hour and a half on a four-lane divided highway through rolling hills, not particularly dramatic but pleasing all the same.

I follow the Ohio River west out of Marietta, sometimes seeing coal barges and other boats or watching a parade of fluffy white clouds reflected on the water. Later I leave behind the mighty Ohio for a series of ever diminishing waterways: I cross the Hocking River three or four times and Raccoon Creek three times within a mile, then Little Raccoon Creek, barely visible from the road even at flood stage. The long stretch of the Hocking River that runs along the edge of Athens looks tame and lifeless, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of a heron or some geese or ducks. Turkey vultures and hawks frequently circle overhead and there's never a shortage of roadkill.

What do I look at for three hours a week? The wide road snaking past trees and more trees, chemical factories and trucking depots along the river, campgrounds and fish ponds and Ohio University's airstrip, where I once matched speeds with a landing plane so that it looked as if it was hovering motionless in midair. I pass a dollhouse-like structure purported to be the smallest functioning church in Ohio, and later I pass a much larger church surrounded by 30 or 40 American flags on poles, though I've never seen any signs of life at either place. 

I pass cell towers and cattails nodding above a wetland, a phalanx of red tractors begging for buyers, a storage site for fracking waste and a row of tiny square houses, the last remnants of a company town once housing coal miners. I pass cemeteries and cornfields and the back side of a strip of big-box stores, but mostly I see trees and hills and then more hills and trees until I reach Jackson, where I have several options: if I need groceries, I take the road straight through town with its thick Friday-night traffic waiting impatiently at a million traffic lights, but I prefer the less traveled route, a twisty back road that takes me off the highway and leads past decaying country houses, a defunct rail yard, and big empty brick buildings of uncertain provenance. I like to follow the little creek that runs along the road until I reach town, where a few right turns take me to my weekend home.

The route offers nothing much to write home about, no majestic cliff faces or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas; it's just a smooth, easy ride through nice enough terrain. And yet I like it, especially after I enter Jackson County, where there's little traffic and the road seems to wend onward through hills and trees forever. What's the trip like? It's about like that, only moreso. 


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Why I keep teaching 9/11 literature

This morning I wondered as I walked to my office why the flag outside was half-staff, and it took a while before it hit me: Sept. 11. Of course. A day to remember.

Even my senior students are unlikely to have formed clear memories of that day, which explains the response I received when I told some English majors that I'm thinking about focusing next year's capstone class on 9/11 literature. "That would be great," she said, "because I really don't know a whole lot about it."

I remember walking into the department office and hearing the secretary say, "We're under attack!" Her husband had called to tell her about the planes hitting the towers, but I'd been teaching a class in total ignorance of the events. Soon you could see clusters of people gathering around every screen on campus, watching in grim silence as the towers fell. 

I don't remember much about the next day or the next or how we got through the week and the rest of the semester, but somehow we did because that's what we do. It would have been difficult to imagine at the time that the attacks would, in a few short years, inspire enough literature to fill a syllabus, from The Submission to Falling Man to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and even, yes, Amiri Baraka's incendiary poem "Somebody Blew Up America." And, later, "The Beard" by Amit Majmudar. And Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. And, more subtly, Ian McEwen's novel Saturday, where the attacks fall into the deep background to spawn a web of fear. 

And now the attacks themselves have fallen into the deep background, predating my first-year students' earliest memories. I'm happy for them, in a way: they don't have to carry the pain of that horrible day throughout their lives. I envy their ability to look at the flag at half-staff and feel not a twinge of pain. Which is why, I think, it's time to teach a class that focuses entirely on literature responding to that horrific event: they need to know what forces helped form the world we see today and to feel its impact on the imaginative lives of writers.

Someday I'll be like Walt Whitman in "The Wound Dresser," an old poet responding to young people's demands for stories of war and glory, a poet who pours out painful memories "While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, / So soon what is over is forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand." Resisting the urge to pretty up war and transform its horrors into abstract concepts, Whitman rips off the bandage and shows readers head wounds and amputations, rotting limbs and men too far gone to cry out in pain:
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
For Whitman, the wound still bleeds and cries out to be shared with those who never felt that pain, but it also sparks the flame of creativity, suggesting that poetry plays a role in both opening wounds and healing them. A poet can beat the drum that calls for war, but Whitman found a different role: "To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead." This, too, is what 9/11 literature can do: to witness, to watch, and somehow to soothe.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Lost in familiar territory

I got lost on the way to class this morning--not physically, of course. All my classes this semester meet in the same classroom just upstairs from my office, so if I ever lose my way to that room, you'll know I've totally lost it.

No, I got lost mentally. Just for a moment I had to pause in the hallway and ask myself Now what class am I getting ready to teach? This despite the fact that I was carrying a great big Norton Anthology of African-American Literature in my arms. 

I blame the spider, or the weather, or the dog, or all of the above. The spider arrived in my living room yesterday afternoon, marching across the rug as if it owned the place and temporarily taking away my power of speech. It was big--really big. I don't remember ever seeing a spider that big inside the house before, and there I sat with no shoes on and no desire to get any closer to stomp it. Fortunately, my son was there, with shoes and pretty good aim, resulting in a squashed spider. 

First, though, I had to take a photo with my phone. (No way I was letting that thing stay alive long enough to let me go fetch the camera bag.) If the red diamond on the carpet is four inches long, how big is the spider? (I can't look at the photo long enough to do the math.)

But the spider was not the least of my worries yesterday afternoon. We've had rain pretty constantly since Saturday morning and I kept getting flash flood warnings, so I was concerned about whether I'd have another water-related driveway disaster like the flood last spring. How would I deal with a washed-out driveway while my husband's out of town? Asking my son to toss a shoe at it won't help.

I kept stomping down the driveway through puddles to check the water level last night but it stayed within bounds. Then late last night the dog starting barking hysterically at some invisible invader and I heard a huge crash from outside and I had to go investigate. In the dark. In the pouring rain. Trying to wend my way around puddles and mud without fumbling my flashlight, umbrella, and car keys, which I did not realize I'd dropped into a puddle until I was ready to leave for work this morning.

And I never found the source of the crashing noise or the cause of the dog's frantic barking.  Neither did I find a way to calm my brain down enough to get any decent sleep. Between the bug dreams and the flood dreams and the why is she barking dreams, I tossed and turned all night.

So this morning I was a little lost. I don't know how long I spent searching for my car keys before I found them in that puddle, but I made it to work on time and taught my classes without falling on my face.Now classes are over and the spider is dead and the driveway remains above water, but still the rain continues to fall.

Friday, September 07, 2018

On the need for monsters

Because my honors students are reading about Odysseus's encounters with various mythical beasts, I introduced them this morning in Dave Lucas's poem "Lake Erie Monster," which addresses a variety of modern monsters reputed to live in "lacustrine / fresh depths / ... a family to obsess / so many would-be Ahabs / in crytozoology labs."

The poem, from Lucas's excellent collection Weather, plays with words in delightful ways, rhyming "amaranth" with "coelacanth" and "behemoth" with "mammoth."  I mean, just finding a coelacanth in a poem is exciting enough, but when was the last time you observed a successful attempt to rhyme anything with "Latin nomenclature"? 

But despite the playfulness, the poem asks a serious question: If all attempts to scientifically verify the existence of such monsters result in failure, "Why, then, / would-be leviathan, / do we insist on you?" In other words, why do we need monsters?

It's easy to see why Homer needed monsters: to dramatize the heroics of Odysseus. But I like to imagine Odysseus as some random guy who came back from war ten years later than all his friends and immediately encountered an angry wife saying "Okay, buster, where've you been for the past ten years? And you'd better make it good!" How many monsters arise out of the need to provide an alibi or point a finger of blame away from oneself?

My students talked about the lure of mystery and the need to know that there are things we don't know, a need also echoed in Lucas's poem. Monsters retain that sense of mystery, though, only as long as they remain elusive, so Lucas urges the Lake Erie Monster to "Swim, loom aloof / from any hint of proof." Doubters may skim the surface of the waters scoffing at mystery, but the poem gives the final word to the unknown monsters that linger in the dark depths where they can continue to "Hulk, reign, lurk."

Personally, I prefer my monsters to lurk in poems--which is a great reason to read Dave Lucas's poetry. I'd like to be in the room when all the literary monsters get together to talk about their encounters. with human beings: Do Scylla and Charybdis fight over the comfy chair while Grendel's Mother passes around a tray of severed arms? Somebody needs to write that poem.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Sing a song of gym class

News flash: "Negative memories of gym class may impact adults' lifestyle....Thirty-four percent of respondents reported feeling embarrassed by their childhood PE experience....People's gym-class memories 'had some degree of influence on their self-perception and ... the degree of their sedentariness' ...."

Let us sing a song of gym-class badness, a litany of humiliations that still burn decades later:

That time in the kickball game when by some miracle I made it to first base but then did not know what to do when I got there so my helpful classmates screamed at me to Tag up! Tag up! Tag up! but I did not know the meaning of the phrase and instead got tagged out and my helpful classmates let me know how they felt about my foolishness. Loudly.

Getting picked last for every team, of course, because while my classmates were experts in running, kicking, and hitting, my areas of expertise were tripping, falling, and closing my eyes whenever a ball came near my face. And then that brilliant gym teacher decided that students would take turns being captain and worked her way down the roll book as I waited patiently at the end of the alphabet, confident that I would finally get a chance to be the one doing the choosing instead of the one not chosen, and then when she'd reached my end of the alphabet the gym teacher skipped my name and went back to the top of the roll.

Not that I am bitter.

Let us glance over the casual humiliations of the locker room and focus on that instrument of human torture, the one-piece gym suit, a shapeless item in jersey knit that required wearers to fit the entire body through the neck-hole, and if you can show me someone whose neck size equals her hip size then you've found the only person capable of wearing that particular gym suit. The overstretched neck would stretch and sag and droop while the shorts would ride up and bunch just where you didn't want them to bunch, and since this was in Florida and I was fat, I sweated a lot during gym class, so by the end of the week the gym suit emitted odor rays capable of melting eyeballs at 30 paces. 

And seriously: horizontal stripes? Whose thought that was a great idea?

Why did I take beginning tennis three different times? Because I couldn't hit the ball. Why did I quit golf lessons after the first day of class? Because I couldn't hit the ball and the teacher wouldn't let anyone go inside until everyone had hit three golf balls so they all stood there watching me not hit the balls. Why did I allow my membership to lapse at that one gym? Communal showers--are you kidding me? And those kids who couldn't stop staring at my scars!

I could go on, but who wants to dwell on all that awfulness? If I must sing the song of gym-class badness, I'll do it while walking the track at the rec center, where nobody tells me to tag up and I don't have to wear a horrible gym suit and I don't get picked last because I'm not on a team. Forget the litany of humiliation--I'm going for a walk.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The hazards of living (almost) alone

Driving home after a busy day crowded with work, students, meetings, and constant demands, I relish the thought of arriving at my empty house and enjoying the quiet, eating a light supper and reading a good book, maybe listening to the Cleveland Indians game on the radio, cherishing the knowledge that no one will be there to ask anything of me.

But then I walk in the door and realize I'm not alone: I'm sharing the house with a Very Bad Smell that lurks underfoot like a slovenly roommate. It doesn't take long to sniff out the source: inside the potato bin, where some potatoes have rotted.

Here is one of the hazards of living (mostly) alone: I don't cook or eat enough to keep up with the fresh produce, so things occasionally rot. Someone will need to remove the stinky, mushy potatoes and then clean out the bin, which appears to be developing its own ecosystem. No use looking around for volunteers: it's all on me.

Similarly, this morning the dog started barking frantically at a particular spot on the front porch. Who will go out and see what foul beast she's cornered there? That would be me--but I'd better grab the broom first and sweep away the spider that insists on building a web across my front door every night. When I finally get out there, I see nothing worth barking at except a swarm of ants emerging from a new crack in the porch, which does not make me happy but I have to wonder why the dog is so hysterical about a bunch of ants. Did some other small beastie get scared away before I got out the door? We do get snakes out there, but she never seems to care about them, and neither do I since they help control the mouse population.

Mice! That's what I dread about winter: as soon as the nights get cold, the mice will start looking for warm winter lodgings, and then I'm likely to catch a few in the mousetraps in the kitchen. Unless the mice happen to get caught on the one day a week when my husband is here, I'll have to be in charge of emptying the traps (yuck) and then re-setting them (ouch!). It's a chore that can't be postponed (speaking of Very Bad Smells), but a dead rodent in a trap that can pinch me is not what I really feel like facing first thing in the morning. 

I've proven that I can manage on my own as long as I'm well and truly alone, but I'm less adept when my space is invaded by mice or ants or Very Bad Smells. If only I could find a way to put the invaders to work! The snakes can eat the mice and the dog can bark at the ants but who will harness the Very Bad Smell?   

Friday, August 31, 2018

One down, 14 to go

My brain runneth over
with names I can't match
to faces of students
who sit in my class.

My eyes are fatigued
and my mind is aghast
at the vast pile of work
I've already amassed: 
The books, notes, and quizzes
(already!) are jumbled
amidst my green gel pens.
I seem to have fumbled

some page numbers, dates,
and assignment details.
This semester's a train wreck!
It's slid off the rails!

But at the end of the tunnel
I see a light glow:
The first week is over!
(Just 14 to go!)


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Taking flight with my students

I was going to grumble about how difficult it is to get back in the swing of the new semester, how disconnected I feel from the concerns of my colleagues, how little energy I have for thinking about curricular change, but then I got distracted by the joys of teaching and suddenly I find I have nothing to complain about.

Today I talked about the value of oral narrative in three different classes, in reference  to Homer's Odyssey, African-American folklore, and marginalized cultures in colonized Africa. I asked my first-year students why space exploration matters and what drives people to undertake difficult journeys, and then I asked my Honors students whether fate or free will are responsible for Odysseus's trials. Where else do 18-year-olds get the chance to wrestle with such questions?

In postcolonial class we discussed Doris Lessing's short story "The Old Chief Mshlanga," in which a young white girl in South Africa comes to understand the complexities of colonization and how possession and privilege can alienate person from place, and I thrilled to read aloud this stunning paragraph:
The fear had gone; the loneliness had set into stiff-necked stoicism; there was now a queer hostility in the landscape, a cold, hard, sullen indomitability that walked with me, as strong as a wall, as intangible as smoke; it seemed to say to me: you walk here as a destroyer. I went slowly homewards, with a empty heart: I had learned that if one cannot call a country to heel like a dog, neither can one dismiss the past with a smile in an easy gush of feeling, saying: I could not help it, I am also a victim.
I asked my students how the story would be different if the Old Chief Mshlanga had told it, just as I'd asked my African-American Lit students how many songs and stories might have been washed overboard during the Middle Passage, which made this paragraph from a folk legend of the flying African even more compelling: 
And as he spoke to them they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which had once been theirs. Then all the Negroes, old and new, stood up together; the old man raised his hands; and they all leaped up into the air with a great shout; and in a moment were gone, flying, like a flock of crows, over the field, over the fence, and over the top of the wood; and behind them flew the old man.
They remembered what they had forgotten and recalled their power--this is why we study literature, why we struggle with philosophical questions, why we hone our communication skills, so that together we can fly off into a less oppressive future. I don't mind being the old person bringing up the rear as long as I have the chance to show my students how to fly.

Monday, August 27, 2018

First-day fragments

First, the closet quandary: What to wear for the first day of class? Dress for climate, comfort, or confidence? And which climate--Amazon Rain Forest outside or Arctic Tundra inside? That smashing new blue blouse makes me feel confident but wearing new clothes on the first day causes emotional discomfort, even though I know that's a ridiculous superstition. 

Next, calling roll: I always ask the class whether I should start at the beginning or end of the alphabet and then I comply with the request of whoever responds first, just to reinforce the value of responding to questions. Today the question produced a chorus of responses in one class and a bunch of blank looks in the other, as if students feared being wrong. It's an easy question: "Would you prefer that I start at the beginning or end of the alphabet?" If students fear providing a wrong answer for such an easy question, how will they handle the hard ones?

And we're off! By the time I've gone through four different syllabi, I'm tired of hearing myself talk--and I'll bet my students are too. Time to make them write! 

I thought I'd do some mowing this evening, but after four classes, I barely have the energy to drag my tired body to the department meeting. If I could hike nearly five miles through rugged terrain two days ago, why does teaching four classes today make me want to put my head down on the desk and sleep for a week?

(And I thought choosing an outfit would be the hard part!)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

But what are they whispering?

I've hiked in the Hocking Hills often enough to know what to expect: stunning views of cliffs and caves, fern-covered hillsides, massive roots growing over more massive rocks, and the occasional glimpse of interesting wildlife. I saw all that this morning, but then near the halfway point of my hike I turned a corner and found something entirely unexpected: an army of little rock people, or towers, or beings of some sort, at least 50 of 'em, all assembled in the shadow of a looming rock face near Whispering Cave.

I was pretty winded by that time but these clever creations stopped me in my tracks and put a huge smile on my face. Did this congregation of rock creatures begin with one person balancing a rock on top of another and adding another and another until the whole assembly was complete, or was this the work of many hands, each adding another figure to the whole?

That's a lot of work to produce an ephemeral result. Granted, the location was remote: Old Man's Cave was so crowded with weekend hikers that I had to keep waiting my turn on the tight parts of the trail, but only the more intrepid hikers trek the path to Whispering Cave. The woods smelled strongly of skunk but often the only sounds I could hear were my own footsteps tripping over roots or squelching through mud.

The smaller rock creatures seemed to be facing two larger ones that looked as if they were getting ready to impart some great word of wisdom. I sat for a few moments to listen for the sermon, but either the rocks speak at a frequency inaccessible to my ears or else they're too shy to share when someone is watching. Maybe if I'd stayed longer I would have heard a message of peace and patience and comfort with the ephemeral, but I  had to hike a long way back, down the hill beside the cliff along the creek through the mud and up the many steps to the parking lot. 

It's a long way back from Whispering Cave, and all along the way I kept looking at rocks and wondering: what are they whispering?

I love the colors on the rocks.

Dangling over the path to Old Man's Cave.

I love the fluid forms of eroded rocks.

It's just a magical place.

This suspension bridge gives me vertigo but it's worth the trip.

I like the contrasting horizontal and vertical lines.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Another cirlce of Hell Dante never dreamed of

I'm trudging around the perimeter of the parking lot, hungry, wet, and tired of shopping; I'd really like to drive somewhere warm and dry and eat a hot bowl of soup, but I'm not going anywhere if I don't find my car, and so on I trudge, avoiding the puddles as much as possible, occasionally stopping to scan the parking lot that looks more unfamiliar the farther I go, until I'm so desperate the I briefly consider admitting to some kind stranger that I can't find my car. 

Once I was the kind stranger helping a frail white-haired woman find her car in a hospital parking lot--she had come out the wrong door and feared that she couldn't manage the long walk around to the other side, so I gave her a ride, all the while wondering whether someone so helpless could be trusted behind the wheel. And now here I was, imagining the conversation:

Excuse me, can you help me find my car? I've lost it.

Oh, you poor dear--of course I'll help. What kind of car is it?

A Toyota Camry.

I scan the parking lot, a sea of Camrys. No help there. My feet hurt. My stomach is growling. I can't manage another trip around the parking lot in these wet sandals--and oddly enough, it was shoes that brought me here.

I'd been shopping at a huge mall on the north side of Columbus, hoping to fill some gaps in my teaching wardrobe, and I'd made some great finds: a marvelous pair of  dress pants, a black go-with-anything sweater, a lightweight blue blouse so lovely I'd bought it without looking at the price tag. But I couldn't find teaching shoes, a perennial problem. One pair of good teaching shoes had declined so much that I've been wearing them when I mow the lawn, and while a good pair of teaching shoes can eventually be transformed into mowing shoes, the transformation does not work the other way. 

Shoe-shopping is always a problem. I could go into any large shoe store and say "Bring me everything you have in a 10 wide," and then I'd wait for twenty minutes or more until the sales clerk came out with exactly two boxes, one containing leopard-print stilettos and the other lime-green go-go boots. Apparently shoe manufacturers believe that only drag queens wear size 10 wide.

So after finishing up at my favorite Columbus mall, I searched on my phone for more shoe stores and was delighted to find several located at an outlet mall just ten miles up the interstate. I'd never been there before, but it didn't seem too hard to find.

Then the rain started--the kind of rain that inspires drivers on the interstate to turn on their emergency flashers and slow way down. Visibility declined as water pooled on the interstate, and within a few miles I was so tensed up that my knees were aching and my jaw wanted to explode. I didn't realize how long I'd been holding my breath until I stopped in the parking lot and let it out.

Still raining--pouring, in fact. I checked the radar to see if I ought to wait it out but no, I didn't want to spend the next hour watching raindrops in an outlet mall parking lot, especially at lunchtime. So I grabbed my umbrella and made a dash to the mall entrance, trying to avoid the deeper puddles, which distracted me from paying attention to where I'd parked. 

And after all that effort the outlet mall was a bust: lots of shoe stores but nothing that worked for me, and do you know how annoying it is to try on shoes with wet feet? Nowhere to eat except Subway, which I loathe, and so I finally decided to get out of there and move on.

But the mall was disorienting and I came out a different way, and soon I found myself squelching around the perimeter in soaking-wet shoes, fearful that I'd become that frail, helpless old woman who probably can't be trusted behind the wheel. A guy dressed like a security guard went zipping past in a golf cart and I thought about flagging him down, but I couldn't work up the courage. Okay, I'm going around one more corner and if I don't see my car, I'm just going to curl up beside a bush and die of shame--but then I see the pond, and I remember: I parked facing the water, and it's not a very big pond, so if I keep going this direction a little farther--

And there it is. I've never been happier to see my car. The only thing that could have improved the experience would be if I'd been carrying a new pair of shoes and some lunch, but instead I'm carrying the vision of that helpless woman walking in hopeless circles but unwilling to ask for help.

But that's too much weight to carry around, so I shoved her out the door and left her standing in a puddle in the middle of the parking lot.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sometimes the bushes whack back

Too wet to mow this morning so we bushwhacked our way through the pollinator habitat, using a stick to clear out spider webs and beat back tall stalks of ironweed encroaching on the paths. I won't have many more opportunities to take daytime hikes before the semester gears up for good, so I grabbed at the chance to get out into the woods, even though I ended up thoroughly drenched and covered with little bits of yellow petals and fluff. Next week I'll be bushwhacking my way through campus meetings, a whole different kind of adventure leaving few visible marks. (Better leave the stick outside.)

Many of the wildflowers are past their prime.

Nine or ten feet tall, by a conservative estimate.

Toad habitat...we heard something jump in but couldn't see what it was.

It's purple and yellow season!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Fiddling with the syllabus

Fiddling with dates on syllabi--what could be a more boring way to spend the day? Click, copy, paste, shift everything to move an assignment over here and then change my mind and move it back again: it all feels pretty futile.

And yet imagine the power. With one click of the mouse, I can make my students' weekends miserable or open up broad expanses of free time. I can cram a bunch of demanding assignments into a short span of time or stretch them out more evenly, front-load the semester with reading and writing tasks or inundate my students in November.

No matter how I adjust the syllabus, one thing is certain: students will find something to complain about--and so will I. At some point in every semester I find myself wondering what possessed me to put so many pages of reading in the same week and what made me think I could read that many student drafts on the same day. 

But I think I've fixed it this time. I think this semester's syllabi are just about perfect, thanks to days and days of fiddling with dates and deadlines.

Of course I say that every semester. How long will it take for the inevitable flaws reveal themselves?


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What would the Lorax do?

Which came first, the tree or the house?

In the beginning the tree was small, but so was the house. The tulip poplar grew to shade the back yard, attract birds, support a tire swing, and spread beauty, and eventually the house grew too, doubling in size to stretch out under the tree and reach closer to the septic tank.

Now the tree has grown beyond its prime and dead limbs threaten to come crashing down on the house. Because of the tree's size and location, it needs professional help; however, the current configuration of house, tree, and hillside would require the tree service's truck to drive--and maybe even park--over the septic tank. I keep picturing a cherry-picker truck slowly settling into the septic tank while the chainsaw-wielding worker up in the bucket wonders why he's no longer able to reach the branches.

I love that tree and I hate to see it go, but I'd prefer to take it down intentionally than have it come crashing down on my house. However, I'm not willing to sacrifice my septic tank to the cause, and I'll bet the tree removal guys would balk at sacrificing their truck to my septic tank. 

So we're stuck: can't move the house, can't move the septic tank, can't remove the tree. I need to find someone who can cut down a big tree without the aid of a big truck--or else I need to learn to live with dead limbs dangling overhead. I wish the person who planted that tree had anticipated this problem, but then it's entirely possible that the tree was here first, before the house. And back then it would have been such a small tree--how could it possibly cause such big trouble?

It's hard to see, but this huge dead limb hangs right next to the deck.

I can't even get the whole tree into the picture.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

To sleep, perchance to breathe

I wondered whether the sleep doctor was trying to scare me this morning when she listed all the things that can result from failing to treat severe sleep apnea: high blood pressure, enlarged heart, stroke, memory problems, and "insult to the brain."

Insults? I can handle insults. What ever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me"?

But of course she wasn't talking about that kind of insult. Apparently my blood oxygen levels have been falling so low when I stop breathing in my sleep that my brain is feeling deprived and neglected, which can result, over time, in dementia. Now there's a word to scare the sleepy patient into alertness.

So okay, I guess I'm getting treated for severe sleep apnea. A home sleep test showed some really scary numbers so I'll be trying out a CPAP machine in the next week or so. Meanwhile, I'm being warned not to sleep on my back (lest I continue to insult my brain), although my ability to follow orders declines precipitately while I am asleep. Maybe if I just give up sleeping entirely, the condition will go away.

But how can I take such a big step without first sleeping on it?

Monday, August 06, 2018

When a flightless bird takes to the road

When my flight out of Orlando got delayed, I might have felt sorry for myself if I hadn't been chatting with a woman traveling with three small children: her flight had been delayed several times and she was looking at another three or four hours of waiting in the terminal--and she had run out of diapers for her baby. Sure, I was inconvenienced, but at least I wasn't stuck in an airport with three children and a dearth of diapers.

Remind me never again to try to fly out of Orlando on a Sunday afternoon. My whole area of the terminal was crowded with people whose flights to pretty much everywhere had been delayed, and no was was particularly happy about it. Then my flight got cancelled and the screaming started, one young man loudly encouraging the airline representatives to perform anatomically impossible acts while nearby a bride panicked over the prospect of missing her own wedding. I found a quiet space and checked online for options, most of which required waiting two or three days for an available flight, but if I'm going to be sitting around killing time for two or three days, I'd rather make a little forward progress while I'm doing it. 

So I rented a car and pointed it north.

I probably could have made it a little farther than Charlotte, North Carolina, by Sunday night if I hadn't started out at noon and then stopped for a dinner break at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. It was the wrong time of year and the wrong time of day to see many birds, but I saw some great blue herons, great egrets, and white ibises, one green heron, one snowy egret, and a really lovely tricolored heron fishing for dinner. My progress was briefly impeded by an alligator crossing the road, but I soon made my way back to the interstate and headed north.

It was an easy trip, with little traffic and not a drop of rain. I didn't realize that my rental car lacked cruise control until after I was on the road, but somehow I managed to avoid a speeding ticket despite heavy enforcement all along the route. At one rest stop the loudspeaker was blaring Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," but on a long road trip, girls just wanna clean rest room. (Sadly, you can't always get what you want.) And I'm pretty sure the bedsheets at the cheap hotel where I stayed in Charlotte were made of compressed styrofoam, but aside from that, I have no complaints.

I made it to the Columbus airport far more quickly than Frontier was prepared to get me there, and the airline will be footing the bill for my rental car (but not for the gas or one night at a cheap hotel). And then I picked up my own car and made it home without a hitch just 24 hours later than I'd expected, worn out and broke and kind of smelly but relieved to be sitting still. I'm not any happier with the airline than anyone else who was in that terminal yesterday, but at least I didn't have to sit there for two days listening to them scream.

I really love this place, even in the August heat.

Tricolor heron.

Not a speed bump.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

On the wing in the heat

Fun fact: even if I set out for a walk before the sun comes up, my fingers swell up so much from the heat that my phone can't recognize my fingerprint. Who thought traveling to Florida in August would be a great idea?

And yet here we all are: my brothers and sister-in-law and nephew, my daughter and son-in-law and grandkids, all gathered to celebrate at my dad's house. Yesterday the house was full of friends and family for a raucous lunch, and then those of us who didn't need an afternoon nap set out for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. My brother was disappointed to find no dinosaurs at the raptor center--maybe next time we'll visit Jurassic Park.

All the birds at the raptor center arrive there because of injuries, and after they're treated and rehabilitated, those that can't be returned to the wild are used to educate the public. We looked through the window of the clinic to see a tiny injured screech owl that looked like a Furby, especially when it batted its big eyes. Handlers brought out an osprey named Hank and a bald eagle named Frank, who look pretty fierce but know how to behave around the public.

I fly back to Ohio tomorrow and then I'll soon be back in getting-ready-for-the-semester mode, so today is my final day to relax and have fun. In August. In Florida. Remind me again why I'm here?

Swallow-tailed kite


Barred owl


Hank the osprey

Frank and friend

This reminds me of the eagle muppet.