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.