Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Well, they couldn't possibly build a WORSE mousetrap, right?

I did not give up trying the first time a mousetrap snapped shut on my fingers, or the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. Getting into double digits discouraged me but I kept trying until I started throwing things, and then I had to clean up the peanut-butter smears on my hands and shirt and on the floor. (What are the odds that a falling mousetrap will land peanut-butter-side up?)

When my husband and I first began this adventure with living (mostly) in separate houses, I knew I would face challenges, but I did not believed dealing with the mouse problem would be the most serious one. We've worked out a way to make it easier for me to load the wood-burner, and we're contracting out snow removal for the winter. I've learned to avoid buying large amounts of produce because I can't eat it all by myself and I hate the smell of rotting vegetables, and I even managed to bury my own dog when she died. But somehow the mouse problem has me flummoxed.

I've caught mice! (In traps my husband set the last time he was here.) I experimented with glue traps, which work admirably except for one thing: the mice do not die immediately, which means I have to either live with an expiring mouse squirming around trying to free itself or else I have to toss the whole thing into the wood-burner while the mouse is still alive, which seems inhumane. I can hear its squeaky little voice screaming No! Not the fire! Anyplace but the fire!

So I decided it was time to bite the bullet and learn to set the old-fashioned wooden mousetraps that work so well. I read the directions and even watched a YouTube video that made it look really easy. That guy never got his fingers snapped in the trap! And besides, people have been using those mousetraps for centuries without a hitch. How difficult could it be?

I used exactly the same brand of trap the guy used in the YouTube video, and I followed his method exactly--and I snapped my fingers in the trap EVERY. STINKING. TIME. 

Maybe the traps are defective--or maybe it's my fingers. Either way, no mousetraps got set in my house last night, which will no doubt make the pesky critters bolder. I hear them scrabbling in the walls, laughing, no doubt, at my incompetence: 

How many PhDs does it take to set a mousetrap? None because they can't do it!

She can split an infinitive at 50 paces but can't set a mousetrap!

Hey, let's have a square dance on her eyeballs while she's sleeping! 

In the war between my klutzy fingers and the vermin, the mice seem to be winning. However, I have a secret weapon, and no, it's not a flamethrower, tempting as that may be. My husband is coming home later this week, and he takes no prisoners. So look out, mice! There's a trap in your future and it will be fully loaded. (With bits of my fingers.)


Monday, November 26, 2018

A welcome surprise in the mailbox

After being away for five days, I wasn't exactly expecting a welcoming committee when I arrived home yesterday, but I did find some surprises. I was pleased to find the wood-burner still well stocked and the laundry more or less under control, clear signs that my son had done his due diligence in my absence. I found two dead mice--hurrah!--but also several mousetraps that had been sprung without catching anything, and I found a lot of empty birdfeeders. Also, the undergrowth in the woods has died back enough to reveal hidden things, so I was surprised to see the green garden bench that got washed away in the flash flood last spring. It's lodged against the trunk of a tree downstream from our bridge, a little out of reach but I think we'll be able to retrieve it eventually.

But the biggest surprise was a letter about books from someone I barely know. I mean, a real, hand-written-on-paper letter from a young person interested in books and reading. "You probably don't remember me," it began, but I do remember and I was pleased as punch to read and respond--by hand, in words written on actual paper and enclosed in an envelope with a stamp, if you can imagine such a thing.

I've always loved receiving mail but these days it's pretty rare to find a real letter in the mail. For a while my mailbox was so jam-packed with election flyers that I hated to open it up and let the vitriol spill out, and these days the mailbox serves as a temporary repository for holiday catalogs that I'll stack up and throw away, so it's nice to get some real mail that's not asking me for money or votes or any immediate response. Somehow, the lack of urgency makes me want to drop everything and respond right away.

And then what a letter! It came from the sister of a former student, someone I probably met once and then glimpsed a few times on Facebook. She'd just read Toni Morrison's Beloved for the first time and was trying to process her complicated response; "Not only was it unexpected," she wrote, "but it was impossible to expect." A letter from a virtual stranger eager to discuss a work of literature: what's not to love about that?

Of course we could have shared this exchange of ideas more quickly and efficiently online, but I like the measured pace of snail-mail discussions, the ability to think clearly before committing ideas to writing and then mull over responses, and I love the happy little moment when I see a real letter in the mailbox and the eager anticipation before opening.

But yesterday that anticipation lasted longer than usual, as I couldn't enjoy opening the mail in a house that smelled like dead mice. First carry in the luggage then put away groceries, discard the mice, feed the wood-burner, burn the trash, start some laundry, and finally reward myself with a nice cup of tea and a real letter. What a nice surprise! Not only unexpected, but impossible to expect.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Where the thankfulness never ends

If you'd been dropping off a child at a certain elementary school in chilly northeast Ohio this morning, you might have wondered, "Who's the crazy guy riding a unicycle to school in this frigid weather?"

That would be my crazy guy. We're spending some time with the grandkids and that's the way we walk the oldest one to school, with the resident clown in a big black puffer coat riding a unicycle alongside our granddaughter while I bring up the rear with her little brother in his light-up R2D2 boots. I love a parade!

If you had asked me 36 years ago to list the characteristics of my ideal spouse, it would not have occurred to me to say, "I want a guy who rides a unicycle a half mile in freezing weather just to entertain his grandkids." But that's what I got, and for that I am thankful.

I'm thankful also for the granddaughter running to keep up with grampa, a sweet and creative girl who loves sparkly things and flowers and books and bikes and unicorns. I'm thankful for her two-year-old brother, who keeps bringing me books to read and then, when he gets tired of carrying them up and down the steps, sits and listens to fresh stories we make up ourselves, about adventures with dinosaurs in a big squishy swamp. I'm thankful for how much he loves his sisters, loves to help his daddy, loves to blow raspberries with Grampa and baby sister in the back seat of the car.

And I'm thankful for that baby sister, the eight-month-old whose smiles light up the room even when she's under the weather, who squeals with delight at Peek-a-Boo and tries with all her might to say "Mmmma-mmma-mmmma."  And of course I'm thankful for her mama too, who brings delight into the world with her singing and serving and constant energy, whether she's making curtains or custard pies or family celebrations. 
I'm thankful for a son-in-law who knows how to install a new tub, train engineers on new software, or kiss a boo-boo to make it better, and for a son willing to feed the wood-burner while I'm gone, a guy who keeps me fully supplied with silly puns. I'm thankful that my dad is holding steady since my mother's death and finding new ways to be helpful with his church family. I'm thankful for a family that pulls together in difficult times, for a terrific dog who walked beside me for ten blessed years, for friends who know what to say when the pain is beyond words.

For colleagues and students who keep me focused and make me think and smile and laugh I am forever thankful. For a ruby-red car and a water bottle to match, warm scarves and space heaters, dark chocolate and spiced chai and cranberry chutney; for podcasts that enliven long drives and poetry that reaches deeper into my soul with each passing year; for many more wish lists to consult as the family expands and for a good excuse to buy a bunch of kazoos--for all this and more I am thankful.

And for that clown on the unicycle, puffing away in the early-morning chill, laughing with his granddaughter as they move forward into the future--it's nothing I ever asked for, but it's exactly what I need, and for that I am thankful. 


Friday, November 16, 2018

Getting a little snippy, are we?

"Do I need to--"
Yes you do!
All instructions
apply to you!

"But why should I--"
'Cause I said so!
"But can't I--" No! 
The answer's no!

"But my friend said--"
Shut him down!
The prompt is where
answers are found. 

"But--" What? "But--" What?
"But but but--"
Instructions are
very clear-cut:

Just buckle down
and do your work.
(Under his breath--
"She's such a jerk.)


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Don't talk back to the jacket

First of all, I stink at selfies, so don't judge. This one shows that my hair is still thin on top where I singed it, but that's not the point. The point is the jacket.

What is it about this jacket? It's just a cheapo faux leather thing that I picked up on clearance--nothing really special at all, but every stinking time I wear it I get compliments all over the place, including from total strangers in the grocery store. "Nice jacket," they say. On Sunday an oldish man at church said it was pretty. (Not the word I would have chosen.) The first time I wore it, a student said, "You should wear that more often." (A student!) And this morning a colleague told me it makes me look like Badass Bev, which was good timing since I was on my way to a class where I needed to hold the line against a flood of excuses, which is hard to do when I'm dressed in kindly grandmother garb.

I don't get it. No one comments when I wear fuzzy red socks to match my sweater or a startling purple scarf to liven up a ho-hum outfit, but all I have to do is throw on this chunk of synthetic polymer extruded from a machine and all of a sudden I'm a compliment magnet. Maybe it's just because this jacket is so different from my other teaching clothes, so dressing like this every day would make the compliments dry up. I need to wear it strategically, save it for those moments when Badass Bev needs to make an appearance. Tomorrow I'll be back to my usual boring wardrobe; today, though, you'd better not mess with me unless you're carrying a heap of compliments.    


Monday, November 12, 2018

Desert Cabal: a compelling invitation

Desert Cabal 
In his introduction to Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey described his book as "not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You're holding a tombstone in your hand." Fifty years later, Amy Irvine wrapped herself around that tombstone and started talking back; the result is her penetrating and elegant little book Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness. 

Abbey concluded his introduction to Desert Solitaire by encouraging readers not to drop his book on their feet but to "throw it at something big and glossy." In the years since his death, Abbey's myth has grown into a big, glossy monolith promoting a particular vision of wilderness, but Irvine throws the book right back at him to examine the flaws in that myth and formulate a new vision.

The difference is evident in the two books' titles: Solitaire versus Cabal. Abbey portrayed himself as a solitary explorer eager to protect and preserve wilderness--but also to possess it. In "First Morning," the chapter describing the start of his tenure as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, Abbey looks over the surrounding scene and muses, "I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not--at least there's nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me."

Irvine points out that Abbey was not alone but instead chose to erase his companions in the desert, including his wife and child, and reminds him that this urge for possession takes many forms. In Utah's mountains "the footwork of dinosaurs can still be fingered, a kind of earth braille by which to read the poetry of prehistory," but today the area is ravaged by "the thumper trucks, the earthmovers, the drill rigs" feeding our addiction to fossil fuels. "Like all good addicts," she writes, "we are choosing to die rather than to withdraw. and with us we are taking down every other living thing--the hoary bat, the pike minnow, the purple sage."

Irvine also schools Abbey on the added dangers women face in the wilderness and the continued attempts by outsiders to appropriate Native American culture. "So don't be that creepy white dude who's trying to siphon a sense of meaning and belonging off the desert's Native peoples, Mr. Abbey," she writes, "And for godssakes. Leave the women be--or you might get punched, kicked, maced, or worse. We're a little on edge these days."

While she admits that Abbey's "claiming of Utah's desert outback taught an entire nation what it means to be in collective possession of a place," Irvine asserts that "[i]t's the rough country, after all, that's in possession of us and not the other way around." Abbey insisted that "[w]e need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it," and Irvine agrees that we need wild places "that exfoliate our neuroses. That refuse to coddle our compulsions. That remind us, in these times of profound greed, what we really need." However, she also points out that Abbey's exalting the virtues of solitude in the desert drew hordes who wanted to follow in his footsteps, making solitude ever more rare. 

"Everywhere you look," she writes, "there are these hyped-up, tricked-out, uber-fit, machine-like humans that pump, grind, climb, soar, and scramble through the desert so fast they're just a muscled blur. The land's not the thing, it's the buzz." We need people to love wilderness enough to stay away from it:
Because if people came to care about the way the air shimmers when the rabbitbrush shrugs off the heat and sends it rolling across the slickrock, the way the antelope bolt like lightning unleashed from a squalid sky--maybe we'd stand a prayer of a chance to save the places we  treasure from those who would take some quick and dirty form of amusement over poetry, beauty, and wonder.
And to accomplish this, she insists, we need each other. "To survive without turning into heartless monsters, or soul-sucked automatons," she writes, "we'll need intimacy with people every bit as much as with place." In the end she extends an invitation to Abbey: "join me in asking your followers to do away with their rugged individualism" and join "a cabal. A group gathered around a panoramic vision."

Irvine's compelling vision fits into a dense but lyrical 98 pages (available from Torrey House Press--click here). She echoes Abbey's chapter titles, untangling the knots in his paradoxes in order to empower a new generation of wilderness advocates. She envisions her cabal becoming "a thunderous, galloping gathering, a passionate, peopled storm, nearly indistinguishable from the ground on which it rains, on which it sprinkles seeds. This," she writes, "is how hope takes root."

Edward Abbey remains rooted in the desert, resting in an undisclosed location where his friends buried him after his 1989 death. Abbey did not want his grave to become a shrine attracting disciples, but it was already too late: his earlier tombstone, Desert Solitaire, attracted a small army of zealots eager to follow his footsteps into the wilderness. In Desert Cabal, Amy Irvine reaches out to everyone gathered around that tombstone and invites them to pursue a powerful new vision together. She does not disdain solitude, urging readers to "go solo, into the desert. Yes, do this and love every minute." But instead of staying there alone, she says, they should come back--and join the desert cabal.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Long, dark teatime of the semester

Eyelids droop. Heads loll and wobble and sometimes settle right down on the desktop. Students sniffle and sneeze, reach for the tissues, run for the rest room and come back with harsh scratchy paper towels to wipe snot from tender red noses.

They're tired from play practice, football, long hours in the lab. They're missing class to compete in Model U.N., attend a funeral, row in a regatta in cold dark November. Who can sleep with so many papers and projects due all at once? Some pull all-nighters and then sleep through alarms; others panic and plagiarize, creating extra work and anguish for their harried professors.

Excuses arrive daily: sick dogs, dead grandparents, someone's dad is in jail and another needs rehab. Students feeling sick, self-harming, disgusted, afraid. I offer extensions, refer them to the health center, tell them it gets better, hope it's the truth.

November cloaks us in darkness, rides like the Headless Horseman through our dreams, drives us forward toward the breaking point--but it doesn't last forever. Thanksgiving is coming, and then Christmas, a bright beacon drawing us through the darkest part of the semester. If we can just hold on, it will all get better.

But still: better take tissues to class just in case.


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Random bullets of "You'll poke your eye out!"

My polling place got moved five miles in the extreme opposite direction from my job, so off I went at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds but I found them there already, a long line snaking out the door and down the sidewalk in the cold dark rain, in a rural precinct in the middle of nowhere. But I had the extreme pleasure of casting a vote for a friend running for county office, so that made me very happy.

Then off to the eye doctor for my annual exam, which resulted in brand-new lenses at no charge because the anti-glare coating on my lenses is crazed, which is also how I felt after my eye guy dilated my eyeballs and bombarded them with bright lights and then gave me some very important information on a handout that I can't read because my eyes haven't recovered from all the bright lights. But the good news is that it's just a tiny cataract. So far.

Now I'm at my office struggling to prep tomorrow's discussion of Toni Morrison's Sula, a novella in which many horrible things happen--a child drowns, two people are burned alive (one intentionally), and a soldier in battle keeps running after his head gets blown off--but in the whole book no phrase horrifies me more than ironing diapers. I have put cloth diapers on the bottoms of my children and grandchildren and I have washed and folded cloth diapers, but if the survival of the human race depended on my willingness to iron diapers, we'd be extinct. I know what Morrison's doing here, characterizing Nel as the neurotic neat-freak mom obsessed with maintaining order at all costs, in contrast to her free-spirited (soon-to-be-ex-) friend Sula, but still: who irons diapers? I'd poke my eyes out first.

But at least I voted before getting my eyes dilated and bombarded this morning. Otherwise I would surely have cast votes for Mr. Smudge and his running-mate Blur.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Hiatus in the haze

Yesterday was that rarest of days: I was caught up on grading and class preps and did not have any reason to be on campus, so I stayed home and did some deep thinking and reading and cooking and walking. Thick fog in the morning softened the edges of everything, muting the fall colors and making my cozy little holler look like a place hiding some deep secret. Then the rain and wind blew up so that this morning the road was covered with small limbs and slippery wet leaves, and soon the trees will be bare and the woods bleak. So I'm glad I had a chance to enjoy my brief hiatus in the haze, but now I need to grade a pile of papers, which I hope will be entirely fog-free.

Two dead trees propping each other up...hope I'm not walking by when they finally fall.

Ever get the feeling you were being watched?