Friday, September 29, 2006

Because Sheila asked...

The "improving" books to which I referred are generally books that would have been deemed (at the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th) as appropriate Sunday School graduation gifts for girls.

I believe - from what I've got from context - that "wide awake" was code word for "Christian."

One of the books I have, for example: called Bertha's Summer Boarders. As best I remember, it featured two girls and their widowed mother. The girls were teenagers (I think 14 and 16). They were, of course, big helps around the house. The main social life of the book focused on church socials (which are not as extremely pious as they'd sound; people played games and even 'forfeits' [but probably not the kissing-kind of forfeits] at them).

The girls grow up through the course of the book and the older one even has a gentleman caller of sorts...but the book ends before even marriage is proposed. VERY old-fashioned, in the stereotypical view we have of the 19th century - a (probably mostly imaginary) world where there were no "six month's babies" or hurried marriages or furtive gropings in the parlor, and where girls grew up to be either good wives and helpmeets who had many children, or else they were spinster schoolteachers beloved by their young charges (but apparently sexless and without much of a social life outside of caring for aged parents or working to better the lot of the poor)

If people die in the book it is beatifically and usually after some crippling suffering illness. And you know they've been whisked up to Heaven. Sentimental books. V., v. sentimental.

The book I referred to was published by the Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society in 1893. So there's no doubt as to the intentions. They also have a list of other acceptable books in the line in the back - most of the titles are lost to the mists of time but The Water Babies is there, as is The Princess and the Goblin.

Some of the descriptions of other books:
"this is a story showing in a charming way how one little girl's jealousy and bad temper were conquered..."
"Jill is a little guardian angel to three brothers who tease and play with her..."
"...the cheery helpfulness of spirit developed by the girls in their shared circumstances.."

In other words: improving. Moralistic. Designed to teach the kiddies how to behave.

The books would make any feminist's skin crawl but in their odd way I kind of like them - I think it's because they present an idealized world where everyone is happy and "pure" and thinks good thoughts and if they're poor, they're clean and quaint, and if they're rich, they're either generous souls or they're a Scrooge-type that you know will be shocked into redemption by the end of the book.

They're very simple, and I think that's why I like them. Even if in the real world there were marriages of necessity, or women so weakened by childbearing and corset wearing that they were dead by 45, or people addicted to opium or "Lydia Pinkham's" as an escape from their dreary world, or factory labor, or tainted food...I can kind of close my eyes to what I really know what happened from history and read about apple-picking and playing whist and girls sitting around in the evening sewing on their "waists," and the whole thing seems so cozy and SAFE.

Actually - The Bird's Christmas Carol that you spoke about some time back is not too far off of this style of book.


Sheila had a link today to an article about people's bookshelves. Or, more specifically, about snooping in others' shelves and what might be found there.

And here, I openly admit my snobbery: I am very suspicious of a person who owns few or no books. I grew up in a bookish family. We had to rent a separate, small, moving van JUST to move the extra books when we moved house. (But no thought was given - at least no SERIOUS thought - to discarding the books).

When I moved to my current home, I had 36 boxes full of books. I have lived here 5 years now and I've probably acquired at least 10 more boxes.

I love books. They are the first thing I notice in a room (or in a picture of a room, as I commented on Sheila's blog). I love old books, new books, any kind of books.

I have a lot of older books because I was a grad student for years upon years, which meant I was well-nigh broke all of the time, which meant I generally frequented used book stores. (There was one just a short walk from my office when I was in grad school. When I was fed up, tired out, and close to throwing my computer against the wall while writing on my thesis, I'd pick myself up and go down to the book store for some sweet sweet bibliotherapy. I always felt better afterwards.)

It was there I discovered Heritage Press. This was a company - kind of like Folio Press but without the "veddy British" attitude - that published fine books. They'd get a classic book, find an appropriate illustrator, choose a good paper, choose a typeface, a binding method...whoever ran that company must have been incredibly anal and he was probably a right prick to work for, but the books are so wonderful I'm willing to forgive him for his anal qualities.

Most of the books came slipcovered; they originally came with a little flyer that talked about the illustrator, and the company that made the paper, and what the typeface was, and all.

And this is a mark of how big a book fetishist I am, but I LOVE those little flyers. I will pay more for a Heritage Press book if I know it has its flyer intact. There's just something so wonderful about thinking that the book even hs a special PAPER that it's printed on, different from the run-of-the-mill (literally!) papers that most books were printed on. And the fact that the books were illustrated - I love illustrated books and I think it's a shame that most "grown up" books don't have them. (Yeah, I know: they're expensive and they take up space in the binding. But I still love them).

So I have a whole bunch of those. Some from my beloved used-book store (which, I recently learned, is closing: apparently the whole block of shops where it used to be has been bought out by some "civic minded" idiot with no interest in history; he's going to tear down the neat old buildings and put up a damn "upscale" restaurant or something. In a college town. Well, I suppose he'll be able to exploit hire college labor, but I'm willing to bet none of the students OR faculty will be able to afford to eat at the place). Some of the Heritage Press books I own were bought from Alibris or Abe Books or Powell's. A few I've picked up at other used-book stores over the years.

It makes me happy to see them on the shelf. Even though I've not really read them that actively. Oh, I'll pull one of the tomes of poetry or the book of Poe short stories off the shelf now and then and read a bit, but I've never even attempted Don Quixote or Zuleikia Dobson or War and Peace or any of those. Will I? I don't know. At the rate my life goes now, I can barely push my way through the book-club book-of-the -month.

But - I have a good memory. Most of the books I own, I can actually remember where I got them and when (the used ones, at least: new books seem more anonymous). I remember the shelf of South Sea books got started on a trip to Hawaii when I found that the Waldenbooks in the mall near where I was staying had a whole raft of University of Hawaii press books. And then, I found more, oddly enough, in a used-book shop when I was on a trip to Madison, Wisconsin. And the copy of Lucia di Lammermoor was bought one rainy fall day when the computer had seized up on me and I deserted my lab for the friendlier confines of my local used book store.

Looking at them all is a catalog of my travels. Even down to the weird mid-century novels by authors I've never heard of (A.J. Cronyn? The "Oaks of Jalarna" series?) that I bought when I first lived here, was desperately homesick and missing my beloved used-book stores, so I'd buy whatever wasn't too water-damaged or roach-eaten at the local antique shops, as long as they didn't overprice it.

I have a huge range of books on my shelves. I have some classical stuff: a new translation of the Peloponessian War that I do intend to read sometime, my college-copies of Plato and Herodotus. Books on learning Latin, something I still want to do someday. I have many biographies, including the two-volume set on Washington and a gigantic one on Bach that I will probably never read. I have my South Seas books, my "classics," my 19th century "improving" novels (Another fascination of mine: the books for "wide awake" girls that are SO moral and SO hokey and yet are also strangely fun to read). I have shelves of historical essays, books on mathematics and quantum physics (another pet interest of mine). I have piles of mysteries - almost all of Rex Stout's mystery novels, mostly acquired used, in hardback, in the old Viking Press bookclub editions. I have lots of Ngaio Marsh, I think everything Josephine Tey wrote...and lots of the nice little paperbacks of the Maigret stories. (I should read more Maigret. I forget about him.)

In my bedroom - well, ignore the piles on both sides of my bed, I intend to buy another bookcase soon - I have three more bookcases. (small ones). One loaded with the "chapter books" saved from my childhood - Narnia, and some of the Oz books, and My Side of the Mountain, and the Borrowers, and Mary Poppins, and the Madeline L'Engle books - most of which I only came to as an adult, and regret what I missed when I was 10. Another shelf holds my spiritual books - ranging from pretty straight Christianity into Buddhist-Christianity mixes to more mystical stuff. And a third shelf where things that I don't have room elsewhere for go - lots of the recently-purchased novels, a couple of books on the Balkans, the Jasper Fforde series. And in my dining room: my cookbooks (a whole wall full) and my gardening books.

Books everywhere. Which is paradise to me.

one thing I know

If, on a college campus, you EVER suggest that you 'could' do something that technically wasn't your responsibility, all of the people that the thing you 'could' do is the responsibility of, will slough it off onto you.

there is a committee I used to chair, but do no longer. I'm not on the committee any more even. I sent an e-mail out to the people who are NOW on the committee saying, "Hey, guys, you need to select a chair. People are asking me when you're going to meet because they know I'm former chair." And I made the mistake of saying, "I could help you in the first meeting."

so now, everyone expects ME to set up a meeting and play schedule sudoku and find a time when everyone can meet. And it's precisely THAT that was making me go grey, gain stress-weight, develop a twitch under my left eye...

maybe it's generally true, and not just profs who are wicked lazy and will leap at the chance to let someone else do their work for them, but most of my experience is on a college campus.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

oh, how I hate grading.

I'm a college prof.

I teach at a small campus - really no grad students (we don't have a doctoral program; what few ta's we have are on loan from the larger psychology program). So I do all my own grading.

I loathe it. And yet - I keep assigning homework and giving tests. (The tests I have no choice in. The homework I could dump but my informal, non-statistically-analyzed study convinces me that students get higher grades if they have homework to do over class topics).

The worst part is interpreting what the students write. Some will write in teeny-tiny-eye-strain-o-vision so, I suppose, they figure that if the prof can't read it, they won't bother to check it. (I usually just mark it wrong, if I can't read it. Sometimes the students complain and I make them tell me what their answer was.)

Others - they just put these cryptic scribbles and expect I can interpret it.

I gave a genetic analysis homework to one of my classes and I am kind of regretting it now - trying to figure out "is that an R or a K?" for the different alleles they're working with is giving me a headache.

I have a colleague who's totally dumped doing homework. (He's kind of become bad-attitude-guy in the past year; part of it was he got a lot of plagiarized papers in one of his classes, part of it he's got a successful book out and I guess a contract on another one, so I think he has a short-timer mentality, that eventually he'll be able to chuck it all, tell us what he REALLY thinks of us, burn his bridges, and go live on advances and royalties.) But for now, he's trumpeting the damn "work smarter, not harder" propaganda that the b-school types love; for him, "working smarter" means sloughing off as much of the actual work of teaching as possible - including assigning papers or homeworks.

And it pisses me off on two levels, because first, I feel like a chump for continuing to spend HOURS reading students' cryptic scribblings, and second, he has free time to, like, write. And I'm expecting the "But the students in Professor Utonium's class don't have to do THIS!" complaints any day.

I don't know. I think working through mathematical analyses of problems, or figuring out the results of genetic test-crosses are valuable - it's not that I'm giving busy work - but a lot of times the students see it as such.

I'm getting fed up with the instant-gratification attitude that so many of them - hell, so many PEOPLE - have. The "it's tooooo haaaaaaaAAAAARRRdddd!" whines. Or the "But it's BORING!"

well, gut up, folks. There's a lot in life that's hard and boring. But you put up with it, you do it, and you don't do a half-assed job.

Even with grading. Even when you can't read what they've written and you suspect the tiny crabbed handwriting is a ruse to keep you from telling they've answered the question wrong.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I listen to the radio news while I work out early, early in the morning.

Probably it's not good for me because most of the news these days, rather than "just the facts, ma'am," is designed to elicit maximal emotional response from the listener.

And as I am somewhat of a cynic, and as I am someone who hates being manipulated, it frustrates me at times.

And this morning: they were talking about voting machines. New spangly touch-screen computerized voting machines. And there was someone frothing on the radio about it - about how teh TERRORISTS or CHINESE PEOPLE could screw up the voting, that they could disrupt the machines, and I suppose, vote some terrorist-friendly write-in candidate in or somesuch thing. In fact, according to this chap, the CHINESE PEOPLE could CONTROL the machines without EVER LEAVING CHINA.

(The capital letters are to give you an idea of the urgent emphasis in his voice).

And this is the kind of story that frankly pisses me off. I have no idea how "risky" the new internet-based voting machine things are. I suppose someone somewhere could game the system. And in this day and age, it seems that Your Candidate Losing seems to many people to be grounds for claiming someone is gaming the system, because, you know, Your Candidate is so wise and so wonderful and is going to cut taxes on 'families' while taxing those "fat cats" who "won't feel it." And he's pro-schools and pro-recreation and pro-four-day-work-weeks and pro-minimum-wage-being-$15 and all that - so no one in their right mind would not vote for Your Candidate.

But like I said: I have no grounds to evaluate how secure touch screen voting is, and I'm sure someone will make hay with concerns over security, even if it's double secret super secure.

But I was thinking about the various voting methods I've used. Where I live right now, we use optically scanned ballots: they hand you the ballot and a black marker, and you complete a line next to the candidate or the yes/no on the issue you're voting for. You have to be pretty inattentive to mess up this kind of ballot. And if you do, there's a mulligan: you can go and tell a judge and they'll give you a new one.

They're easy but boring.

I've also voted using the infamous butterfly ballots (no, not in Florida though). Yeah, you have to pay at least minimal attention to what you're doing and make sure the thing's properly aligned with the voting booklet. And frankly, the method kind of irritated me - the little stylus and all.

My favorite way to vote ever - which was how I first voted, back in the day, and which for me will always be the Platonic ideal of voting systems - were the big old literal "voting booths." I lived in Michigan when I turned 18 and registered to vote. The first election ever that I voted in, they had those big old giant booths. You stepped in and closed the curtain, and were faced with a wall of little levers. You flipped down the levers for the candidates you wanted, or for the yes/no on issues. You could check yourself and unflip or reflip levers easily if you realized you had made a mistake.

Then came the best part - the part of voting that made it real to me, far more real than sticking my little drawn-on ballot in the ironically trashcan-shaped optical reader will ever be - you pulled down a big honking lever. I remember it as being like the lever on a slot machine. There was something very physical and very satisfying about voting that way - you KNEW you had voted; you KNEW your vote had registered.

There was also something very patriotic-70s, very Bicentennial, about those voting machines to me (even though it was the 1980s before I was old enough to vote). Perhaps it was my vague memories of being taken along by my mom when she went to vote when I was a small child. Or perhaps it was having seen cartoon versions of the machines on Schoolhouse Rock. But I loved those machines and I miss them now. I guess they've all been sent to the scrap heap.

Which is sad. I think voting should feel like something. Or rather, feel like something more special than filling out the "what did you think of your food and service" card at an Applebee's, which is what the complete-the-line ballots always feel a little bit like to me.

I've also heard reports that people won't vote if it's raining, or if they have to wait more than a couple minutes in line. And that makes me sad. Maybe I'm a big geek, but voting is important to me and it's still special, even if the ballots are kind of anticlimactic. I guess it's because I had suffragist ancestors. I guess it's because I've read too much about dictatorial nations, or had junior high school teachers tell about how in the Soviet Union, you got to "vote," but there was only one choice on the ballot, and you were in trouble if you did not "vote." (I have no idea if that story was true or just designed to inspire patriotism in us: "Hey -we can vote. And we have more than one choice!")

But I think of that when I go to vote. I usually go early in the day. There's almost never a line. But it's important to me.

I still miss the big old impressive voting booths, though.

Nation of adolescents

Sometimes I wonder if we are seeing a fundamental change in how we do business as a society. (Other times I wonder if this is just the regular generational complaint that people in their late 30s or early 40s make, looking at the rising generation).

But I worry a little bit - and sometimes, more than a little bit - about a lot of my students.

I teach, among other things, an introductory-level college biology class. I try to get discussion going in there. So I ask questions about things in the news.

It alarms me, the blank stares I get about stem cells. Or the blank stares about genetic disorders - sometimes, if a student in the class has a relative with cystic fibrosis or something, then I can get some discussion going, but often, there's just this sense of "we don't know and we don't care."

And that alarms me. Because probably these people are going to be voting - if not on the issues, certainly voting for people who will be talking about the issues. And they'll be having to make decisions about their lives. And what are they basing those decisions on?

It's not like it's hard to stay informed - it's not like my parents' college-days, where maybe a few people in the dorm had radios (and no one had televisions, not even the rich kids). And it's not even like my days, when most people had radios, lots had televisions, but there was no internet yet.

The students in my classes get free cable hookups in the dorm. And they get free high-speed internet. And there are newspapers delivered around campus.

But I guess they're not using them for news.

Now, maybe I'm just strange - I brought this issue up with a friend who's a few years older than I am. She laughed, and said, "When you were a college student, did YOU read newspapers or watch the news?"

And you know, I did. I subscribed to the town newspaper where I lived - it was an afternoon paper and I'd come home at 5 or whenever from class, and I'd sit down and read it. It was part of my decompression from the day. Now, I didn't always read it cover to cover: usually I read the local stories, those pertaining to my university. I might have skimmed national or world stories that caught my eye, and I usually checked the editorials page to see if there were any that were entertainingly frothy-at-the-mouth. (Typical college town, so usually there were. On both sides of the aisle, so to speak.) And I frequently watched an evening news program.

I just did - because it was something my parents did. It was, I considered, part of being a grown up. You needed to be informed about your world. Ideally, you got information from a bunch of sources - you didn't just listen to NPR or watch ABC news or something like that.

I guess the idea I internalized from my parents was (a) news was part of being a grown-up and (b) if you have the privilege to vote, you should be informed so you're able to vote intelligently.

And that's part of what worries me - if people choose to be ignorant (note: I did not say "stupid," I said "ignorant." Those are two different things; ignorance can be fixed if you have the motivation), what's to stop them from voting for some dangerous person who panders in slick advertisements? One thing I've learned as a grown up is that political issues are never as simple as they seem on the surface. (For example: my father was generally known as the best advisor to have if you were a woman because he treated you as an equal and some of the other guys in his department didn't. But my father didn't support the ERA for some very specific reasons - which I didn't understand as a child, to me the ERA was a simple matter- because that's how the Weekly Reader or whatever presented it as).

But it's as if lots of people don't want to think about that.

I ask my students how they get information. Some of them just kind of shrug. Some of them say they half-listen when the news comes on on whatever country station they listen to. A few boldly claim that Jon Stewart is their source, and is the only source they need.

(I've tried watching the Daily Show. I really have. I cannot like Jon Stewart. To me, he seems symptomatic of the whole culture-of-extended-adolescence - the way he grins and mugs at the camera, the way he subtly makes things about HIM rather than about THE NEWS. The way serious issues are batted off with a snarky comment).

And you know, that's a big part of my concern: it seems that for a lot of people, what "should" be serious is not treated seriously any more.

I think there are some rules of grown-up-i-tude that I keep in my mind:]
1. Be informed, know what's going on around you

2. Be appropriately serious. That doesn't mean NEVER laugh at stuff - this morning I was racking my brains trying to come up with a good "attorney-client privilege" joke after hearing that Anna Nicole Smith's attorney is claiming he's the father of her new baby. But it means not making terror threats a big joke, not laughing off the very real possibility of danger. (I think one of the problems with the Hugo Chavez issue is that the translator - the flat expressionless way she spoke - made Chavez' very real and very dangerous [and very unhinged] comments about Bush being "the devil" seem funny, and therefore, less dangerous and alarming).

3. Take responsibility. (This is a big frustration of mine. I can't count the number of times I've had someone agree to do something and then not - because they were "too tired" or some other lame-ass excuse. Guess what? I'm tired too. I'm frequently "too tired" and yet I manage to do things other people are depending on me to do).

4. Uphold the social contract. One of the reasons we have so many idiotic nannying laws springing up is that people don't uphold the unwritten rules that stick society together. Like unwritten rules about noise. I don't run my lawnmower or other power-lawn-tools early on weekend days. Even if it's going to be killingly hot later and I'm courting heatstroke by waiting, I don't turn on the edger until 11, because I know there are people in my neighborhood who work the night shift and might need to sleep in. But I also expect people to do the same courtesy to me - to let me sleep at 11 pm because I get up at 5 the next morning. (I'm glad it's getting cooler out because boom cars seem to be less attractive in cooler weather. But for a while, we had this one guy in my neighborhood - I'm not sure what he did but he basically turned the metal panels of an old, old Cadillac into a sort of metal subwoofer. So not only did we have to listen to his tooth-jarring bass, but we also got the half-second-later, discordant added noise of the body panels on his car rattling from the music).

5. At least some of the time, put others' needs before your own wants.

I think of the people I think of as "grown ups" - the firefighters who ran INTO the WTC to try and get people out, even though some of them probably knew they were likely to die; soldiers; the parent who goes without a new widescreen television because their kid needs braces or because it would put the family into too much debt; the politician who thinks carefully about the issues and then chooses his or her positions based on what he or she considers best for the country - not best for his or her own re-election. And on and on.

But I look at a lot of the people around me - the students who sleep in on rainy days because it's too far to have to walk 500 feet in the rain from the dorm to the classroom buildings. The faculty who snipe and gripe about the pettiest damn things and keep meetings running long with their complaints. The local businesspeople who fight against anti-litter ordinances until it's someone in a competing business that they can blame litter on. - and I just see a shortage of grownups, of people who are willing to shut up and gut up and do what needs to be done without necessarily getting credit for it.

And it makes me sad. And it makes me wonder - on my more optimistic days, I say "The world isn't getting worse; you just notice it more than you once did." On my pessimistic days, I think "Good people are few and have always been few. And there is so much to be done, and so few people willing to work."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


One of our majors lost his mother 10 days ago. She was killed in a car accident. This is AFTER he was already dealing with some other family difficulties.

He came back to school today. I was amazed at how together he was - if I had lost my mom just ten days ago, I wouldn't be able to tie my own shoes, let alone show up and be courteous to professors.

He was here mainly to take care of paperwork things; he said that he didn't think he could do this semester the way it should be done, so he was going to temporarily withdraw and come back in the winter.

I feel for him. He's basically become an orphan in the past few weeks and now he has to take care of his mom's estate and all that stuff. (I really hope that if he has siblings, they are sane about things).

The real bad thing of it is, he was almost through. He was set to graduate, either this winter or next spring. So now he's set back a while.

And yet - he was so polite through it all, so normal. He thanked me for signing an "Incomplete" form for him - what he will need so he can get financial aid again in the spring without major headaches. I also reminded him that I had the form he had sent to me for job recommendations - partly as a mental note to myself that I MUST fill it out. (I just did, it's on its way). He thanked me again for that. He also told me he'd stop back in periodically to let us know how things were going. I wished him well and told him that I was sorry about his mom and that if there was anything else I could do, bureaucracy-wise, to make things easier for him, he should just call me.

And, as he walked out the door, he said, "You have all made this so much easier for me. You have no idea how much this helps."

And that kind of baffled me - I didn't really do anything much. I didn't do anything over and above what I'm supposed to do as a professor - I helped out a student with circumstances beyond his control to manage, and not to lose his chance at completing the degree that will get him a position in the field where he wants to work. True, I was pleasant about it - I mean, this is someone who's always been a nice guy, and it really does pain me to think of him cut adrift now, having to deal with the loss of his mom. (I think he will deal with it fine, in the long run. He seems to be managing okay right now.)

But you know - it's perspective. And it makes me sad to think that this fellow comes in less than two weeks after a major family upheaval and he can be polite and friendly and act as if the little things I have done for him a blessing, and that some of the students I deal with are not like that at all. People who get upset - I mean, violently upset - over something that is the cosmic equivalent of a broken nail. I've had students who are demanding over little things - who miss class for multiple weeks with no excuse and then expect me to cheerfully fork over all the missed work, and take late papers, and write make-up tests for them. And they get hostile when I'm not willing to do that, even though it's in the syllabus and I've talked about it in class. The people who believe that they are extra-special and so those rule-things don't apply to them. And those kind of people are the ones who chap my hide, who make me go home at the end of the day and lock my door and say, "thank GOD I don't have to deal with anyone else today."

And yet - the person who I would consider as having the "right" to lash out and be emotional and difficult because of what had happened to him, was nothing but pleasant.

The truth is- when I said to him that if there was anything I could do to expedite things, to make it easier for him - I was being totally truthful. I'm totally willing to help - to go out of my way - for someone like him, someone who has always been pleasant and friendly in class, who has worked well with the other students. But when it's someone who comes in and snarls at me that I "need" to give them a makeup test even though they missed the first one because they didn't pay attention to the syllabus and chose to skip class on the day when I gave a test - that's when I kind of clamp down and am not willing to help.

And I have conflict over that. I feel like, because of who I am, I should be nice to everyone. I should - even if I don't give the stinkin' make up, which really wouldn't be doing the RIGHT thing, a lot of these "kids" need to grow up and realize that the world doesn't revolve around them - at least be pleasant or as pleasant as possible. But I do think there's some kind of repayment, I guess, for how you treat people. I'd walk through fire if it meant helping the guy who lost his mom - I've had him in several classes and he's been unfailingly responsible and polite and cheerful and helpful to the other students. But I have other students who sit in class, lumpen and surly and who either roll their eyes at their classmates or try to mooch notes off of them. And them, I'm not so willing to walk through fire for. And I don't know whether to feel guilty over that, or whether to shrug and say, "that's how the world works - if you're nice to me I go out of my way for you; if you're hostile to me you will get help but no extra."


I'm the kind of person who reads multiple books at a time. Currently, I have bookmarks in (which means I'm more or less "actively" reading; books may be set aside for weeks to months)

Founding Brothers (Joseph Ellis)

Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein; this is the book my book club chose for this month)

One of Ngaio Marsh's mysteries (I can never remember titles; it's the one with actors on a train and the leading-lady's husband gets iced)

A book of Madeline L'Engle's essays on faith

The American Senator (Anthony Trollope, who is probably my favorite novelist).

I also have plans to read all of the "Dark is Rising" sequence, in order, in a short enough span of time that I can remember details from the books I read earlier in the sequence. So far I've re-read the first book ("Over Sea, Under Stone") and just started the second ("The Dark is Rising")

I switch out books as I feel moved to, or as I feel the need. Because sometimes, I don't FEEL like reading a particular thing.

I'd most actively been reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" because it's getting close to the end of the month and I'm expecting our Fearless Leader to send out the e-mail calling us all to someone's house to discuss (or not discuss, as the case may be.) But you know - the book tires me out a little. I know, I know, it's a great masterpiece of 20th century literature and it's one of the best examples of science fiction, but the book just still tires me out. I feel like there's stuff I should be knowing, I should be recognizing. I feel like Jubal Harshaw is a thinly-veiled-someone-from-late-50s-or-early-60s-America that I should know and recognize (And that he's not Hugh Hefner, no matter how much I get that vibe). I feel like the "Foster" in the Fosterites should be traceable to someone.

I feel like it's a roman a clef, and I don't have the "clef."

And here's where I think I'm probably excessively girly for the book: the parts that interest me the most, that I want more detail on, is how people live - there are vague references made to 'real' versus 'syntho' food. And Caxton, early on in the book - he has a lawn in his living room. Specially engineered grass that grows indoors! And I find myself getting impatient during the geopolitical parts, the stuff where they're meeting with Douglas and all that. (I'm at the part now where Valentine and Jill have quite literally run away and joined the circus - except they just got fired).

I don't know. I can see how some people are bowled over by this book, how it can affect their worldview - and yet, I am totally immune to that. I am actually mainly frustrated by it right now. (I expect Valentine will die at some point - or rather, "discorporate." I don't know why - I just get that foreshadowing feeling that things are going to break very bad for him at some point.)

So, last night, I picked up "Founding Brothers" instead. I like to have a non-fiction book going at all times. I find non-fiction calming - yes, calming, even war stories. Sometimes, fiction actually gets to be too much for me - there's too much emotion, too many people running around having problems. And then, I turn to history (the main non-fiction I read is history). There is something, as I said, calming about it - I don't know if it's because it's OVER, or if it's because it's REAL, or if it's because it's generally presented without too much drama. But there's something about it that calms me down when I feel like the novel I'm reading is getting overwrought.

I do not claim to be anywhere away from "normal" on the so-called "autistic spectrum" but one way in which I am somewhat like Rain Man is that I cannot stand it when there's too much emotion, when there's too much drama. I want to withdraw, to go somewhere quiet and spare, and not deal with these messy people who are angry or upset or running around waving their arms. And history seems like a good place to do that. (Yes, ha ha, I know history has its share of drama and more, and yet - the way it's generally written, there's an inevitability about it that somehow organizes the drama and makes it meaningful.)

I'm midway through the chapter on Washington - "The Farewell." And you know, it gave me a feeling of "the more things change..." They were talking about how some - even Tom Paine - vilified Washington in the press, and in part, his decision to leave (which was a good one, I think - he did not want to seem an American monarch, which he would have had he kept going up for re-election until he died in office - and I think the precedent of two-terms-and-out is a good one) was precipitated by that vilification. And you know, it's funny - in a way, it's reassuring to know that even back then, people talked smack about their leaders. And yet, it's also distressing - even in what I've been taught to see as a "Golden Age" of American statesmanship, there were people who thought the leadership was wrong or flawed or unworthy. (In a way, it's like reading Paul's letters - a lot of the crud that went on in the early Church is still going on today, and that is both reassuring: maybe we've not got so much worse, and distressing: almost 2000 years now and we've STILL not figured it out?).

But one of the things I like about history is that for me, it's a slower read. I slow down when I read it - because I don't want to miss information. (Too many years in school; I still feel like I'm going to be tested on factual stuff). Sometimes when I'm reading a novel, I read too fast - especially, for some strange reason, first-person-narrator novels. And then I almost get a sort of reader's indigestion. Or maybe, rather, a hangover from reading - where I find myself phrasing things in my mind in the same way that the author of the book I just tore through phrased them, or I find myself looking at the world more through the eyes of one of the characters than through my own eyes. And it's a little disconcerting - which is why I turn to history or other non-fiction to clear out my brain at times like that.

Monday, September 25, 2006


(There may be a few more posts than usual over the next few days, then it will probably settle down. I have a number of things I've been thinking about.)

Anyway. In the denomination I belong to, last Sunday was "Reconciliation Sunday." Having to do with reconciliation of groups that were hostile or unwelcoming in the past. In particular, the races.

Now, you must understand, I live in the South. Very traditional attitude South.

We had a special speaker - a young African-American woman. That day, she and her friend were the only people of color in the congregation. (Once in a while a member of my youth group visits and he is African American, but he was not there).

And she talked about welcoming and being welcomed and also that sometimes people can convince THEMSELVES that they will not be welcomed...

She talked about the town here. About how she felt isolated as a college student here, because campus was the only place she felt "welcome."

And I remember a comment made by a (now-former) colleague of mine when I moved here - something offhand, like "Movies like "The Preacher's Wife" only come and play here for a few days." It was sort of code for, "people of different races don't seem very welcome here." (Now - for the record, and I think I said this already: I am Northern European. Not the exact precise ethnic background - which seems to be Scots-Irish - of this part of the world, but I'm close enough). And I will admit, I felt a bit leery.

Well, you know - when I listened to this woman speak, I wanted to go up and hug her. And I'm not a hugging type. I wanted to say, "If I had been here when you had been a student, I would have welcomed you."

Because, you know, on a much smaller and lesser scale, I went through what she went through.

I moved here from the Upper Midwest. Ohio born and bred, Michigan educated. Citified, more or less - I had never had to even own a car before because everything I wanted was within walking distance of me.

Then I came here. Very different. Very, very different. I had people stop me when they heard me talking and say, "You're not from around here, are you?"

And no matter how kindly, how "I want to learn more about you" attitude that it's said with, it's hard to interpret that phrase as anything but a little hostile.

I also had people - PEOPLE I WENT TO CHURCH WITH - refer to me as "the Yankee."

(Now, a digression: where I come from, I am not a Yankee. Where I come from, a Yankee is a resident of New England, especially rural farming New England.)

But to them, I was "the Yankee."

I remember one person once making a comment in Sunday School about "that ugly Northern accent." He must have seen my face - I tend to wear my feelings quite prominently - and he started backpedaling immediately. But the damage was done.

My first year and a half here I was consumed with getting away. I applied for many other jobs. I even contemplated going back to school. My first batch of faculty evaluations were miserable - again, I think it was that the students knew I was an outsider and took out a certain amount of hostility on me. My department chair at the time had to 'talk me down' after I read them. I remember that was the only time I ever cried in front of colleauges - after reading those evaluations.

I definitely felt unwelcome. Sometimes even at church, which for me, was miserable. Because growing up? Church and home were sometimes the only place I felt remotely normal. And I was far from home (which really means, "family") and I felt a bit rejected by some of my fellow congregants.

But I soldiered on. I figured I had no choice unless the job offers came in and I could go to Wisconsin, Minnesota - anywhere. Anywhere where it was cool and damp and had four seasons. (My first fall here was also an unusual heatwave).

And somehow, things changed. Maybe I changed, maybe the people around me changed. Most likely, we both changed. But somehow, I got absorbed. Assimilated. Welcomed.

I don't get called "the Yankee" any more. And I've noticed that I've picked up "y'all" and "fixin' to" in my vocabulary, and I've been known to pronounce "soil" more as "soul" and "nine" more as "nahn."

But I also think it was that I, despite my natural shyness (or, maybe, partly because of it) managed to worm my way into people's hearts. I think it's kind of hard to dislike someone who's willing to take on the thankless jobs - I remember not very long into my membership at this church, that I went into the kitchen after a dinner and helped wash dishes. (That won the ladies over). And politeness goes a long way (that won a lot of the men over. That, and the fact that they probably came to see a bit of their daughters and granddaughters in me - that I was no brazen citified Northern hussy).

But I also think that there was perhaps a testing period involved, a "we're not quite comfortable with you yet, and we sense you're not quite comfortable with us."

And I know I said things - in private, or to my family over the phone - about this place and these people, in those first days, that I'd regret and hang my head over now. But culture shock is powerfully disorienting, and sometimes you lash out when you don't understand. (One of the unsettling things to me was the monument to "our fallen Confederate soldiers" on the square. It just reminded me that I was in a very different place now). And there were little things - not being able to find a radio station that I liked. No bookstore right in town. (There are a couple, but they're a half-hour drive away. There's a small "paperback exchange" in town but I'm kind of a booksnob - I don't like romances or Westerns. And there's the campus bookstore, but they're so small, all they carry are textbooks and "faculty author" books.)
Not being able to find familiar brands. (I almost wept when I was up visiting my folks, and went grocery shopping for my mom, and saw the familiar green-and-yellow package of Creamette macaroni. It's not available here).

And yet - you learn to replace things. You forget what some things are like, you find other new things to like. (I've become a connaisseur of chili and also barbecue during my time here). And things where you came from change, and you're reminded that not only can you not really go home again, but the definition of "home" has changed - for me, now, "home" is a small cottage located midway between the downtown and my university, rather than the house my parents live in.

And so, welcoming - and being willing to BE welcomed - is a process that takes time. The town I live in is growing and changing - like lots of people I've groused over the bad traffic, and I admit I wait in hope whenever the local news announces "new business coming to town" (I've been known to cross my fingers and squinch my eyes shut and mutter "please please please please let it be a bookstore").

I just hope when new folks come - whether they come from East, West, farther South, or North - that people are willing to welcome them and make them feel at home perhaps a bit faster than I did. (And that I remember my own feelings of loneliness and discombobulation and step out of my shell to smile or shake hands or say "welcome" to someone). And I hope they're willing to BE welcomed - and not come all over hostile. Because I think part of my limitation - part of the reason it took me several years to become comfortable here - was that I was looking for insult, I was looking to be shut out. Rather than looking to be welcomed and just trying to bash through the walls that people set up with a goofy friendliness.

I do think what she said was important - I just hope everyone had ears to hear. And that they will remember that it's not just their effort to do the welcoming, but people's willingness to be welcomed that is necessary - that in order to shake hands, both parties have to reach out.

some more ground rules

1. I don't know how often I'll post here. Maybe daily, maybe weekly. Depends on when something either delights me or gets under my skin.

2. Right now I'm not requiring people who comment to be "registered" (I presume that means with Blogger). But I do have the word verification feature turned on. I may change things as I get spam or rude-n-lewd comments.

3. I don't know how political I will get here. I don't tend to follow politics THAT much despite my offhand comments on others' blogs; frankly I'm pretty dense about the whole thing. But I will do social commentary here.

4. Yeah, yeah. I know, I don't have an e-mail link up there. Until I decide to set something up in gmail or Yahoo or some other email set up that allows semianonymity, because both my current email addresses have some permutation of my name in them.

REAL first post

So, it is fall again.

I love fall. No, I adore fall. Fall feels like me waking up from a long sweaty nightmare.

I'm very northern European in my heritage (Irish, Scots, German, maybe some bastard Breton in there as well), so I burn easily. And I don't tolerate the heat. And I'm a fattish sort of chick so I sweat my way through each summer in a hazy misery of allergies, perspiration, taking two showers a day, and wearing the tiniest lightest cotton dresses that I feel I dare wear. (again: I'm a fattish sort of chick.)

But now it is fall. Fall brings so many good things for me. So many happy memories.

For me, the biggest memory of fall is back-to-school. Now, when I was a kid, back to school was at a sane time of year - after Labor day. And this was in Ohio. So by then, it was starting to get cool, the nights were starting to get longer. (Not like here. We start school - both the local public schools and the university where I teach - in mid August. It's simply miserable. The first year I taught, one day in my office I looked at the calendar - and realized it was weeks still until Labor Day - and it would be even longer until cool weather - and I closed my door, put my head on my desk, and wept.)

Back to school was a big deal when I was a kid. You got new clothes because you usually had grown out of what you had the fall before. And growing out of clothes was kind of a time of rejoicing, because it meant you were getting taller and more mature. (Not like now, when "growing out of" clothes as an adult means you need to hit the treadmill more and the fridge less). And there were the new shoes - stiff, leather, lace-up shoes. SERIOUS shoes for going to school in. (Sneakers were not done when I was a kid. I don't know if it was a general not-done, if it wasn't the fashion yet, or if it was specific to my family. I had very flat, very bad feet as a child and I could see my doctor telling my parents I needed shoes with "support.")

I remember getting saddle shoes or other kind of serious lace-ups. I wore saddle shoes quite late, actually - I think I wore them in 8th grade, long after they had ceased to be cool. (Sadly, the dorky-cool movement developed after I was out of school. I would have been totally down with the geeky-cool look. I could have done that. I could have pulled that off).

There was also the need for new school supplies. This fell into two categories: regular school supplies. (Lined paper, and I remember several years, it was specified that it NOT be "college ruled," which of course made the kids WANT "college ruled" paper, which is just plain old lined paper with narrower lines. Like many things dealing with growing up, it's a disappointment when you actually get to have it.) Regular school supplies also meant pencils. I learned at an early age to be a pencil connaisseur. (or should that be "connaisseuse?" I can feel the ghost of my 7th grade French teacher breathing down my neck). To this day, I will only buy and use Dixon Ticonderoga pencils; all others are inferior. I remember one year - I cannot remember what off-brand pencil my price-conscious dad tried to foist on us, but they were the kind where the lead would break UP IN the pencil and fall out in bits. And so you had to sharpen those things down to NUBS if you wanted to write.

And pens. Again, it was a big deal to be allowed to use a ballpoint pen. A mark of growing up. (I suspect all that kind of stuff has been done away with in the schools now; I can imagine angry parents who didn't read the school-supply lists calling the principal and DEMANDING that Tiffany or Amber or Jeoffrey be allowed to use a ballpoint, because they are "special" and they were promised that they could.)

And then there were the art supplies. Big box for all of them (One year I found an old metal tackle box my mom had used for her own art supplies and got permission to take it; again, I felt cool even if no one else agreed). Crayons. Markers. Blunt scissors. School glue. (Again: NOT Elmer's glue. Elmer's glue was for the junior high kids. It was something to look forward to.). And best of all, some years: colored pencils. My favorite drawing and coloring implement.

And the excitement of getting all this swag, just to go back to school. (I grew up in a family that didn't believe in overindulging the children).

And then the big scary first day, the meet-the-teacher, the see-who's-in-your-class. I rarely had class with my friends; that is perhaps why in part my "best" friend grew away from me (that, and she got invited to eat at the "popular" table in 7th grade). So I don't have a BFF; that new show called "Classmates" or whatever the hell it is that has the tagline that your first friends are your best friends does nothing for me. I don't have any of my first-friends any more; most of them either betrayed me or drifted away. But anyhow. The first day of school. New books. Writing your name inside the front cover, seeing if the kids who had the books before you were the older brothers or sisters of any of your friends. The smell of chalkdust and mimeograph ink new in the room.

And Saturdays were different in the fall; in the summer, you hung around, watching television in your pj's as long as possible.

When I was a 'tween, for several years, we had season tickets for football at the university where my dad taught. And you know, I'm not a huge football fan. I never fully understood the game. But I loved going. I loved the feeling of ritual. I loved going out on a chilly Saturday with a thermos of hot chocolate and a bag of homemade cookies, and sitting in the stands with my parents and my brother and a family that was friends of ours, and cheering when the team did well, and groaning when they did poorly. And I loved the halftime show, with the marching band. I loved the sound of all those crazy songs - from Louie, Louie, to the odd classical piece - arranged for a marching band. (To this day, I still love crazy arrangements of things. And I love Sousa marches). When I hear my own university's marching band rehearsing, it makes me happy. Even if I don't have season tickets and really have no interest in giving up my Saturdays to sit (very likely alone) in the stands and watch students - some of whom are in my classes - some of whom are FAILING my classes - play football. The marching band reminds me of those fall Saturdays.

Even better than that, when I was a tiny child, my parents used to hike, and they took me along.

And I remember that well - or as well as you remember anything from when you were four and five and six. Walking through the big woods, on a path, looking at the big mossy rocks. Looking at the leaves changing color. And being between my mom and my dad, each of them holding one of my hands. My brother - once he had made the scene - asleep in a Snugly on my mom's chest or in a baby-backpack on my dad's back. And I'd hold on to each of their hands, reaching way up. And I'd listen to them talking over my head - often grown-up stuff - and laughing with each other over shared jokes. And it made me feel good. Feel good in a way that I can only appreciate now as a grown-up.

When I was a child, that was the time I felt most safe. No, scratch that. It was the time when I felt totally safe. When the concept of insecurity did not exist for me - I could not fathom anything bad happening because my mom and my dad were there and between them they could take care of anything and everything. And I trusted them totally, trusted in a way I cannot as an adult no matter how hard I try.

And, you know - that I think is really what was meant when Jesus said that we need to become as little children. To have that sense of trust so great and so strong that we cannot fathom badness happening, that we cannot fathom anything separating us from our loved ones - from our Father (or, if you prefer, our Mother).

And so, for me, fall carries all that wrapped up in it - that and more. And it's those memories of the good things of the past that make me love fall, in part, but also the feeling of hope and new beginnings (as a new school year gets underway), the quickening in the blood as the temperature cools.

Some cultures used to start the new year at harvest-time; well they should.

Okay, damn.

Okay, so I'm not going to be able to get rid of that messed up, all-link first post. Oh well. Live and learn. The learning curve on this mess is fairly steep I guess.

Sheila made me do it.

Sheila O'Malley, that is.

I'd post comments on her blog, or on other blogs, and someone would say, "ricki, when are you going to get your own blog?" And frankly, I never knew for sure if it was a case of "we like your writing, we'd like to see what you do in a longer form" or a case of politely saying, "shut up already on our blog."

But well, here goes. This is my own little home for my own little rants and rambles. I'm going to try to keep it at least semi-anonymous; there are things I'd like to complain about that I don't want the complainees to be able to pinpoint me for. And I'm going to pseudonymize anyone I talk about on here - other than, I guess, the other bloggers I link to.

So, as the first lungfish said as it crawled out of the primordial ooze to begin evolving as a land critter, here goes nothing.

Sheila made me do it.

Sheila O'Malley, that is.

I'd post comments on her blog, or on other blogs, and someone would say, "ricki, when are you going to get your own blog?" And frankly, I never knew for sure if it was a case of "we like your writing, we'd like to see what you do in a longer form" or a case of politely saying, "shut up already on our blog."

But well, here goes. This is my own little home for my own little rants and rambles. I'm going to try to keep it at least semi-anonymous; there are things I'd like to complain about that I don't want the complainees to be able to pinpoint me for. And I'm going to pseudonymize anyone I talk about on here - other than, I guess, the other bloggers I link to.

So, as the first lungfish said as it crawled out of the primordial ooze to begin evolving as a land critter, here goes nothing.