Thursday, November 30, 2006

Now what?

My students have a MAJOR paper due tomorrow. I had posted that if classes were cancelled, they could e-mail the paper to me and I'd count it as on-time.

But we have icy conditions here. (I went home at noon when my last class finished; I had research work I could do just as well safe at home - and maybe even better because I won't be compulsively checking or looking out the window and I can fix myself cups of tea).

One of my students called me all in a swivet.

He is not done with his paper and they have just closed the library. He also doesn't have e-mail at home, so there is no way he can e-mail it to me.

He was quite angry about it - "What are you going to do about this?" he demanded.

Look, dude. I didn't make the weather. And give me 30 seconds to absorb the situation before demanding I make it all better.

I capitulated and told him I'd accept papers Monday (I know for sure he and one other student will be late. And they will take any opportunity to be late. I know I'm not gettin' the paper tomorrow even if the sun comes out and it goes up to 50 degrees out there in the next hour.) This makes me angry as I will have to spend the week I would have been writing final exams grading student papers. I told him if I took the papers in Monday, they could not expect them back before the final. (I also have people who get upset about things like that - they come and knock on my door an hour after an exam to know if I have theirs graded.)

I feel kind of weak about this now. I mean, criminy - the assignment has been in existence and in the consciousness of the students since 1 September. He could have - even if he didn't have all the data - looked up the background information he needed and started writing it. (He called me yesterday afternoon wailing that he couldn't find any articles on his topic. As I spoke to him, I tried a few search terms in the campus article-searcher and turned up at least 7 that would work well).

I'm really unhappy about it - this is the "diNozzo" guy I wrote about earlier, the one who seems to slide through on a combination of charm and demandingness.

I had my weekend carefully scheduled to get the papers graded. So if I take them in on Monday, I'm stuck with my thumb up my butt for two days and I will be pressed for time later on (I SUPPOSE I could write most of the final exams, just leaving off the last week's material, but....I had plans. Plans to grade papers. Yeah, I know. I'm just like Raymond Babbitt in that way. But I think I'm allowed to have one or two personality quirks and my need to have settled plans is one of them.)

But I feel like if I gave this guy a free extension, I should give one to everyone else in the class - especially people who actually, you know, planned in advance.

I can't take points off for lateness because he has essentially bullied me into saying I wouldn't do it to him.

I also don't want to require everyone else - including people who probably have long drives - to absolutely hand their papers in tomorrow. But I don't know. I don't know what's fair in this case. (What isn't fair? Calling your teacher all angry because you procrastinated and now the bad weather is preventing you from doing the thing at the last minute and then demanding that your teacher fix it. Trust me, dude, if I were God, you'd probably have MORE problems than bad weather right now...)

It's hard to be fair sometimes. I like to be fair. I don't like dealing with people who are angry because "Joe called you and you told him he could turn his paper in Monday, so I'm doing that too!" (Gah. I should have told him not to tell everyone else that I told him that. Now he might pass it around and I really will be stuck with my thumb up my butt all weekend.)


Sheila did this a few days ago, so I guess I will too.

(I'm sitting in my office waiting for the bottom to drop out of our weather. I have only one class today, at 11 am. If they cancel classes before it [if it gets bad], I'm going home, otherwise, I'll go and see how few many of my students show up.)


1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was of the first things I ever remember reading. It wasn't great art at all but I remember vividly looking at it on the page of the book at age 4 or so and realizing I could read it - that I wasn't remembering it from having had it read to me, that I was actually reading.

It was a poem in a little paperbound book (more of a pamphlet, really - it was stapled on the spine) from Humpty Dumpty Magazine. (Does anyone else remember that magazine? My parents had a subscription to it for me when I was a child and some of my early reading experiences revolved around it).

I cannot remember the title or the author but it was about a rabbit who had a cart full of flowers. I can't remember if he was a rabbit florist (and sold them to make a living) but that is sort of the impression I retain. I remember there was a picture of it on the page - a semirealistic line drawing of a rabbit, on his hind legs, pushing a cart full of flowers next to the poem.

There were also lots of nursery rhymes, A. A. Milne, Dr. Seuss (yes, it is poetry! It rhymes! It has meter) in my childhood.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and........

I only remember the first line. It was something like "I wanted to see the self so I looked at the willow."

We also memorized some parts of Shakespeare plays. And in French class, we had to memorize poetry. I still remember a lot of Sous the pont Mirabeau, qui coule la Seine..."

Especially the refrain:
Vienne nuit, sonne l'heure, le jour s'en vont, je demeure..

I can still mostly recite the poem, and quite dramatically too. (Thank you Dr. Pryce, whereever you are.)

3. I read/don't read poetry because....

I read poetry because it is a distillation of experience. It captures a mood, a spirit, so perfectly. I tend to like the shorter poems - sonnets and the like. I like poems that are strongly atmospheric.

I read poetry because it shows me a little of how other people have thought and felt, and by the same token, it often puts words to things I am thinking and feeling, but in a way I would not come up with.

I also read poetry because I consider it part of being a well-rounded person. That there are certain poems you "just know" because they are part of Western Culture and there are things that refer to those poems.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is .......

Well, I'm fond of the French poem (Um...Apollinaire? I think that was the author) I posted about above.

But I also love Eliot's Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock partly because it sort encapsulates the feeling of someone who is uncertain of themselves, who has a lot of interior monologue going on, and I am one of those kinds of people. And also as a testament to the poseur high school student that I was, carrying around a little book of Eliot's poems in my pocket and pulling it out and reading (or pretending to read) in instances when I was bored.

And I also love Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

the last two lines just kill me every time. Isn't that totally how so many of us treat the people who love us?

I also listed a few Christmas poems I'm fond of (particularly the Robert Bridges) in an earlier post.

I also be able to recite most of Jabberwocky (another favorite) and In Flanders Fields. I think the fact that I went to the effort - on my own, not for school - to learn those shows some liking of them.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but...

I used to, most of it wasn't very good. I'd like to get into it again but as usual I think I lack talent and I feel like it's not worth doing if I'm not good at it.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature.....

I think it's more concentrated - the emotion is more distilled somehow. Also, practically speaking, I can pull one of my books of poetry off the shelf and read and digest a poem in an hour or less whereas with a novel it can take me weeks or months.

I also find that I "carry" poems with me - reciting bits of them in my head, thinking about what they mean and what they are saying - more than I do with other literature.

Poems are more portable somehow. Both literally and figuratively.

7. I find poetry.....

An important part of my life but one I don't talk about often. I guess it's because I just sort of assume that everyone who reads reads poetry but I know that's not true.

I also find it a solace when times are bad, something to keep my mind occupied when stuck in traffic (that's where memorizing comes in handy). I find it entertaining and thought provoking. And just generally in that class of things I label as "Good Stuff" and things that my life would be a lot poorer without.

8. The last time I heard poetry....

Um...I don't know. If you count song lyrics, last night, when I listened to my "crooners" Christmas album, ha ha. Other than that - it was possibly when I listened to a stage production of A Child's Christmas in Wales.

The "Poetry on Record" (famous poets reading their poems even including people like Tennyson that you wouldn't think still would have been AROUND when recording came on the scene) disk set is on my Christmas list.

I'm not real big on "amateur" poetry like at poetry slams because I've heard far too much bad amateur poetry (in my high school and college days) and I'm not really up for the sort of bald political posturing that a lot of people who call themselves poets these days go in for.

9. I think poetry is like....

I think good poetry is an intoxicant. But it is also something that becomes a part of you. It is like memories - you can have memories of experiences you never had "in the flesh" from a good poem. Poetry is like someone whispering in your ear. It is like people from other times and other places reaching across the time and space continuum to share their thoughts and dreams and impressions and emotions with you. Memorized poetry is like having a touchstone of sorts, or (if it's not disrespectful of Catholics for me to say this) a's something you can turn to in distressing times and it is a comfort.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Anne (Fortuna) has a post up about maiden aunt-hood. And the assumptions people sometimes make (the big one - and the one that gets under my skin so much - being that a life without romantic love is somehow a life not worth having been lived).

And I posted a long and embarrassingly personal comment on there:

As a single, unpaired woman who is not in a romantic relationship (and hasn't been, not for a long time), one thing that really pisses me off is that attitude that I'm a "poor thing" because I don't have a Significant Other.


Maybe I just have had too many friends with seriously dysfunctional relationships, but it does piss me off when people imply that my life is somehow less worthwhile because I'm not in the throes of passion on a regular basis...
And I hate the implication that any other kind of love - the love of friends, the love of family - is somehow a lesser kind of love, that Romantic Love is the only real and true kind of love and everything else is what people content themselves with when they can't get Romantic Love.

So I don't know. I think there are some people who are constitutionally better suited to being alone.

And hell, maybe I'll become a Crazy Cat Lady in another 20 years. But for now, please don't give me the pity-face* because I'm not joined at the hip with someone.

(*generalized "you" - going out to the world - not "you" the person writing the blog or the comments)

(I snipped some of the less relevant and more ranty parts).

And you know, after I posted that seeth-y quote, I got to thinking: why the hell does it annoy me so much when I see the stereotype of the "40 year old virgin" or the "poor maiden aunt with her rosary" or the "cat lady"?

And I think I figured out partially why. I'm responding defensively because it brings up bad associations. I have one relative - thankfully not in my immediate family so I can ignore this person for years at a time - who REFUSES to believe that I am happy or in any way a success with my life because I have not married. This person is actually in a competition with my mother to see who can marry their kids off faster (she has 3/4 of her kids married off; my mom has 1/2.) Now, my mom is an intelligent woman and she "don't play that" but my relative still insists on pulling that kind of thing. And giving me the "pity face" at family gatherings because of my single state.

And you know? I've seriously considered (given some of this relative's other attitudes) showing up to a family gathering with a Large Black Man and making sheep-eyes with him and even maybe doing a little controlled necking (if he were amenable to stage-acting) with him in front of her. You know, just to do a little shock and awe on this woman. Or if I really wanted to go somewhere dangerous, show up with another woman, refer to her as my "housemate" or "companion" or something and let my relative connect the nonexistent dots.

You know, just to give her something to chew on other than "poor ricki, she's still single"

I've also been patted on the head enough times by people doing the pity-face because I don't "have a man."

It's almost as if some of those folks believe I'm not a full-fledged member of the Grown-Up Club because I've not managed to forge a stable long-term relationship with someone.

And what gets me is this: it is the presumption. It is the assumption that what is good for them is good for all of humanity. It is the presumption that I go home at night and walk into my cold silent house, look at my answering machine, see no messages, sit down and cry, then defrost some sad little Lean Cuisine dinner for myself before sitting down in front of the TV to watch the Oprah show I taped earlier in the afternoon...

and the presumption that if I were married or living with someone, I'd bounce through the door and call out a cheerful "Hi honey!" and start cooking dinner for us, and then later on in the evening be involved in the throes of passion with my Significant Other.

And the assumption that Alternate Universe Paired-Up-Me is infinitely happier than Here and Now Universe Single Me.

And I don't think that's true. I'm pretty darn happy as it is right now. And from some of the relationships I've seen, I'm not convinced that the married people (or the cohabiting couples) are automatically happier.

And I think it is the PRESUMPTION that is what makes me so angry - the insistence that being part of a pair is always better than being single. And the presumption that they can get inside my head and know what I am thinking and feeling: "Oh,'re not really happy as a single. You just think you are."

(Another thing I hate? The "Non-family household" designation that the U.S. Census uses - and apparently it's not just for singles like me, it's also for gay couples, what used to be called POSSLQs, and people who are housemates without being sexually involved in any way. Again, it's the dismissal - that the conventional man-woman-having-sex-and-presumably-children pattern is seen as the only form of a "family." I wonder if they refer to households where a brother and sister live together - and I know cases of this, where one sibling moves in to care for a frail older sibling - as "non family households" as well. I will also admit in my bleaker and more pessimistic moods, I wonder if "non family household" as a term might be used as a wedge - as in "We can take this property for the new wal-mart; it's not like there's a FAMILY living there." Or use it in other ways to denigrate those who don't fit the "approved" definition of family.)

I had a friend in grad school who talked about how when she got older, she and a group of her childhood friends had a pact - everyone who was still single, they were going to buy a big house together, and live in it, and take care of each other (And I think also the married couples would be allowed to come and live there if they wanted). And it was sort of a beautiful idea - she talked about it as being like a "chosen family" - a group of brothers and sisters that self-selected and agreed to look after each other as they aged.

And I think one of the problems in our society - and perhaps it's tied in with what I was talking about yesterday - is that people see Marriage with a capital M as the main route to "happiness" in life, and if they don't get that, they can't possibly be happy. And so people try marriage maybe before they're ready, or maybe with the wrong person, or maybe when they're really not suited to marriage at all and might not necessarily be happier in a marriage. But they do it because of the relentless drumbeat of "People will think you're a freak" or "You're not totally grown up until you marry" or "The only way to be happy is to be part of a couple that regularly has sex!"

And you know? Feh. Don't tell me what I need in order to be happy. Don't impose your image of life on other people.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

reasonable person, or bitter and cynical?

I tend to be somewhat underwhelmed about all the "celebrity news" that's out there. You know: "Starlet births baby!" or "Pretty couple marries!"

Yeah, yeah, great. Like no one's ever popped a sprog before or no one's ever got hitched before.

The breathless tone is what gets me - like we should all bow down in wonder, because these are Our Betters. (Considering some of the "correspondence" that some of them have written, considering some of the things I've heard them say, not all celebrities are Our Betters in the brainpower department. Some of them, in fact, seem to be as dumb as the proverbial sack of hammers.)

(An aside: I love that phrase. I also love all of the various phrases to indicate someone's not all there:

a taco short of a combination platter
the elevator doesn't go all the way to the top
three fries short of a Happy Meal (that one is my all-time favorite. One of my father's grad students used to use it a lot)
a few skeins short of a sweater
not the sharpest knife in the drawer
not the sharpest stick in the bundle
not the sharpest tool in the shed)

Anyway. Like I said, I'm largely underwhelmed hearing about people who are pretty and surrounded by sycophantic yes-men and who have armies of make up people and hairdressers spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a wedding. Yawn, whatever. You got the money, go ahead and spend it. Just don't ask me to be excited by it.

But this morning - I got a little testy. Seems Kid Rock and Pam Anderson are divorcing. After having had no fewer than three wedding ceremonies (What? The first two didn't take? I guess the third one didn't, either).

You know, maybe I'm just a bitter spinster who has to buy her own damn towels but the first thought that crossed my mind was, "Wow. I hope they gave back all the wedding presents." Because they were married for, what, three months?

(And again: I just get a little sickened by the burgeoning attitude of "I'm getting hitched, now gimme!" that seems to be arising in our culture. I have no problem with giving a nice wedding gift, especially to a couple that's just newly starting out, but I've seen cases of people invited to MULTIPLE bridal showers. Or cases where the couple asks for "money but not gifts," or where your getting to eat at the reception is largely contingent on how much the couple figures you'll cough up on a gift or check for them. Or cases where people actually RENEW THEIR DANG VOWS and ask for gifts. And I'm kind of opposed to the idea of people who are combining households - people who have had their own places for a long time - begging for stuff. And yeah, that would apply to me if some dude were stupid enough to ask me to marry him and if I actually decided it was a decent idea. I wouldn't expect people to buy me a whole set of dinnerware and flatware and sheets and stuff like that.)

And you know? I wonder at the whole celebrity-marriage thing. There are a lot of "romances" that start on the sets of movies and things - some that lead to marriage and others that break them up. I'm sure it's hard in such an emotionally charged atmosphere, but still.

And I wonder why some celebs marry for like three months at a time - this is not like the Olden Days where the woman might get knocked up (there's reliable birth control now, and besides, there's no longer any real stigma to having a child "out of wedlock" as the ancient phrase goes). Do they really think "this is the one that will work"? Are they blinded by the idea of "this is a good PR move, it will get my name in the papers"? (I suppose divorces do the same thing). Or are they just so blinded by passion and infatuation and not-having-known-the-person very long to fool themselves into thinking it will work?

Or is it that a lot of Hollywood marriages fail because the parties are too used to having the sycophantic yes-men and when they find their spouse is a real, three-dimensional person with a mind of their own and conflicting desires and they can't send them home at the end of the day, they freak out and can't deal with someone in such close proximity?

I don't know. All my knowledge of marriage is as someone on the outside looking in. But I have noticed certain things that may or may not be true, but seem to be in my experience:

1. Marriages do not seem to work well when one or both parties are immature. Where I live, there are a lot of really young (like 19-years-old young) marriages. But there are also a lot of divorces and a lot of multiply divorced people - I know people under 40 who have three marriages and three divorces under their belts.

2. Marriage takes a lot of work. You have to be able to compromise. You have to sometimes do things you might otherwise not want to do because it will make the other party involved happy. (And I think over time, in successful marriages, the "making the other party involved happy" becomes a joy that far outweighs any resistance to doing the thing).

3. You need to know the person pretty well. Yeah, yeah, I've heard about arranged marriages. I had a friend in high school whose parents came together as a result of an arranged marriage in India and they seemed happy. But I've also seen an awful lot of cases of people meeting, marrying three months later, and then divorcing. "Marry in haste, repent at leisure" is a proverb for a reason.

4. Selfish people probably have a harder time in a marriage. (Or at least if both parties are selfish).

5. Feeling martyred is not a good way to keep a marriage going. I've had too many friends who used me as a dumping ground for their "poor me, my husband is such a slob/jerk/workaholic stories" and it always seems to me that focusing on the bad like that isn't the way to be happy in a marriage.

6. Probably some people are best off not married. I think I am. I tend to be resentful of what seem to me to be unreasonable impositions on my time. I can do lots of things for a person I love, but I expect to hear some thanks once in a while and I get resentful when I feel taken for granted. And I'm so busy. I do not know how I would change the shape of my days to fit a boyfriend, let alone husband, in. And I like my solitude. I am constitutionally well-suited to being alone. I don't get bored and I don't often get lonely.

And I think maybe some of the serial-divorcers are people who are just consititutionally better-suited to being alone. But they either won't believe that (because being a loner means you're weird and just one step away from being either the Crazy Cat Lady or that person whom everyone says about, "I can't imagine he was a serial killer; he was so quiet and kept to himself."). Or they get so caught up in the idea that you're "supposed" to be married that they force themselves into a mold that may not work for them. Or they're afraid of looking gay.

And you know? I deal with those issues every day of my life. I've had people look at me in outright horror when they learn I am over 30 and single. (Perhaps I should take that as a compliment; maybe they are thinking, "but you are so smart and such a good cook and so lovely a person, why hasn't a Quality Man plucked you up yet?"). I've been in cases where I was the only one in the room without a spouse and kids in the middle of a conversation about the Cute Things Our Hubbies and Kids Do and I've sat there and thought about how I'd rather be home reading a book, seeing as the conversation has no interest for me and there's nothing I can contribute. Or, yeah, I've dealt with the "so are you gay or something?" question both directly and indirectly. (The answer: no. The elaboration: why should you care? If I said "yes" does that mean you're legally allowed to club me to death or something? I mean, that's an awfully intrusive and personal question to ask a person.)

But anyway. The whole "marry and then discard" thing just seems kind of silly to me. I mean - it's not like we stigmatize premarital sex any more (it's not like anyone even KNOWS for sure unless you're out scrumping on the steps of the Capitol building or something - in which case you should be arrested, not for having relations before marriage but for being a public eyesore). So there's no point in marrying someone solely so you can bed them.

I don't know. Cynically, I am leaning towards the "marriage-go-round is a way of keeping oneself in the Public Eye." I mean, don't get me wrong: I'm sure that celebrity divorces lead to a lot of heartache and such for the parties involved (especially if there are children involved who wind up getting screwed over yet again). But I'm also a little cynical about people who seem to marry without much maturity or knowledge of the other person or who seem to do so just as their careers are lagging.

Monday, November 27, 2006

no freaking idea

I don't know if this is going to show up or not. Suddenly my whole blog has disappeared. I presume this is Blogger being an idiot - I didn't do anything differently, I wrote a long and rather thoughtful post and am able to view it in "edit" mode but the blog itself is blank. Ugh.

Christmas stories and poems

One of the things I love - one of the Good Familiar Things - about this season is the chance to revisit stories and poems that I love, that are friendly and well-known to me.

I have a number of books of Christmas stories or poems (several of them are mystery stories or ghost stories. I wonder how the custom of telling ghost stories at Christmastime got started, and why it died out. I love the Christmas ghost stories; they are generally not gory and not all that scary and some are wistful or poignant).

For a few years I read the full version of Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" on the weekend after Thanksgiving to get myself in the mood. And I keep going back to "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" which also has sort of the nostalgic country-British-Christmas theme to it.

(I wonder - is it possible to be nostalgic for a time and a place you never were? I find myself very drawn to the British upper-crust countryside of the between-the-wars period. But I've never even BEEN to Britain, and I was born more than 20 years after WWII ended).

There are a few poems I love. I hope I am not violating anyone's copyright by reproducing this one here but it's hard for me to find a good reliable link to it online.

Noel: Christmas Eve 1913", by Robert Bridges (1844-1930).

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.

Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marvelling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.

Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.

But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderley to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.

I LOVE that poem. I first heard (parts of it) on the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album (yes). It had been set to music and most of the more overtly religious (and more overtly British) parts of it expunged. But I managed to find the original poem - and you know, I tried reading it aloud to myself the other day, and it made me cry. Cry for "good country folk" of Bridges' day who rang the bells for Christ - they have all now gone on to their reward and I wonder if they would recognize the Britain of today. And cry a bit for the traditions that are lost - I wonder if people still get up in the cold dark night to ring bells at midnight on Christmas in the countryside. (Or if it will even be ALLOWED, a few years hence, for fear of offending non-Christian neighbors).

But the poem itself - it captures such a time, such a place. It is quiet and yet vivid at the same time - I can picture the man, walking staff in hand, pausing on a cold starlit hill to hear the bell-ringers in the town below. And it encapsulates all the romantic, Miss-Read-inspired longings for a quiet country Christmas without children around clamoring for video games or Bratz dolls or without car dealers and jewelers implying that if you really loved your spouse, you'd spend upwards of $20,000 on them for a Christmas gift.

Another vivid winter (not necessarily Christmas but still to us Northern Hemisphere folks, the early time of winter says Christmas) poem is of course by Shakespeare. Again, I love the imagery in the poem - milk coming home frozen in the pail, the shepherd blowing his nail (I presume that means blowing on his hands to warm them, or is there some Tudor-era phraseology there I don't know? Maybe some kind of rustic trumpet was called a "nail"?).

(It's funny - in some ways I am a rustic at heart, I love the imagery of countryside and farm. But I'd never go all Wendell Berry and sit in the dark and use an outhouse and such. I appreciate the farm and nature but by God am I thankful for modern comforts).

Another poem - with a slightly different mood - that I love is Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (you can read it here. A version of it - with the explicit Civil War reference removed and with the verses juggled a bit, still exists as a carol. But as someone who can easily come to doubt the capacity of the human race to be anything but selfish and do anything but harm to each other, these verses strike home:

And in despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
‘For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’

I remember thinking in November 2001 how a good "thoughtful" sort of political cartoon would be these two verses - surrounded with drawings of people rolling up their sleeves to give blood, and donating money, and bringing food to people involved in the recovery effort - the thousands of little kind acts that people did at that time, some of them I suppose hoping in their hearts that enough little kind acts could somehow cosmically balance the huge evil act that had taken place earlier that fall.

There are also "brighter" or more nostalgic poems, A Child's Christmas in Wales being the one that comes first to my mind. (I love his dichotomy of "useless" and "useful" presents).

There are also a lot of - for lack of a better word, glurgy - Christmas poems out there. I think you know what I mean - the treacly, oversentimental things that tend to view Christmas "through a child's eyes" but not really because few children think in such a saccharine way. Or there are poems designed to remind us of "the reason for the season" but do it in such a ham-fisted way that it almost makes you want to mock them, even though you wonder if maybe that's not something that makes baby Jesus cry. Or there are the falling-flat comic poems. Some of Phyllis McGinley's work is still somewhat amusing, but much of it bears the faint phosphorescence of a bygone era, when "the girls in the steno pool" got together with "the men in sales" for boozy Christmas parties.

Funny how poetry written less than 50 years ago seems far more dated to me than the Shakespeare piece. Or maybe it's not so funny.

And there's another category - I can't find any online readily, but my little book of Christmas poems has a bunch in a section called "Christmas Ironies" where the texts of the poems are designed (or so it seems to me) to make merrymakers feel guilty, or to remind us of the harshness and the reality of a world where there is war and hunger and oppression and all that.

And you know, intellectually, I understand that urge. And I do not discount that some of the poems are great art. But. I don't like people trying to make me feel guilty because I'm not shivering in the dark and living on beans because that's how many people in the world do. Yes, it's a tragedy. Yes, if I had a magic wand I could wave and eliminate hunger and (real) oppression and dictatorships and all that crap in the world, you can bet I'd do it.

But I don't, and I can't. And so - I ask, where is the harm in putting spangly things up in my house, or baking cookies to share, or getting gifts for the people I love? Buying a sweater for my father isn't going to kill an African child (at least not directly) and please don't preach at me like I'm some kind of horrible person because I like giving presents.

And for that matter- I'm pretty generous. Both with my time and my money. I'd dare say, on a "per capita" (as a chunk out of my income or a chunk out of my limited free time), I am as generous - if not more - than many of the people who nanny-goat at us about how we have "too much" and we shouldn't give gifts or decorate at Christmas because it "wastes the world's resources."

Well, you know? I've seen a few tv shows and movies and yes, even books, lately that I'd argue were as big if not a bigger waste of resources than my turning on my tiny fairy lights for an hour or two in the evening so I can sit and enjoy the peace and muse about the meaning of Christmas.

And you know - I think that's the crux of what bothers me about the nanny-goaters. It is as if they set themselves up as the arbiters of culture - they are the ones who are to say what is and is not worth the investment of time, money, resources, energy, whatever. And how are they to know? For me, being able to look at little lights, or being able to light a few little candles, or being able to buy some books for the people I love and wrap them up in shiny paper, may give me more joy in my life than a great many other things - I don't jet off on vacations, hell, I don't even DRIVE that much most days. So, I'd ask that the guilt-inducers would just leave me alone to enjoy my caramel turtle bars that I bake, and to have fun wrapping my presents (without telling me to use recycled paper or old Sunday comics for wrapping), because I'm happy to leave them alone to enjoy the Rosie O'Donnell show, or washing off tinfoil to reuse it, or chopping their own wood, or whatever it is they enjoy.

Let me alone for a little bit. Let me have the fantasy of Robert Bridges' quiet hillside, or Longfellow's restored hope, or my imagined version of the Fezziwig ball. Because thinking about those things makes my world a little brighter and a little happier and keeps me going through darker times. Don't try to wrest that from me with stories of the starving and the oppressed. I know they are there; I am doing what little I can; let me have a month's rest or so from the "bad news" of the world so I can revel in the "Good News."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Big things and little things

I was thinking this afternoon - after having seen my parents off on their return trip - about all the things I am thankful for.

I tried classifying it into "big things" and "little things," but you know? Some of my little things might be someone else's big things, and vice versa.

I do think there are a few Big Big Things I have to be thankful for:

Feeling the love of God in my life, my faith, which gives me strength and hope and pushes me to be a better person than I would otherwise.

My health

Family that understands me and loves me anyway. (My mom and I were watching one of those "slow news day" stories about happiness and they made the comment that married people are happier than single people. She looked at me and said, "I don't think that's always true...look at you, look at [family friend who also never married]. I think people need to know who they are and that's what makes them happy." It's a littler thing but I'm very very glad I don't have the kind of parents who ever did the "so, when are you going to get married" or "Are you seeing anyone?" kind of thing at family gatherings.)

Living in a free country where being an unattached woman doesn't mean I have to get a permission slip from my dad or my brother to go out and shop. The fact that I can own a house IN MY OWN NAME and ONLY in my own name.

The fact that I can worship as I choose (or not). That there's not some state-run version of God (regardless of what some say) that I have to believe in.

The fact that I can vote. And if I don't like what the government is doing, I can complain about it and try to get it changed.

I am thankful I have a good job - as much as I bitch about it some days, it IS a good job. I'm thankful I have something interesting to go and do when I get up in the morning and that on a good day I feel like I'm making other people's lives a little bit better.

I'm also thankful it pays well. I can afford the necessities of life and a lot of things that are luxuries to many people.

I am thankful that I get along well with my co-workers, that they are generally sane and kind and funny and make me laugh and shore me up when I'm doubting myself. Good co-workers can make a challenging job wonderful, just as bad ones can make even an otherwise good job unpleasant.

I am thankful to have the love, respect, and friendship of the people I go to church with, the way they have enfolded me like a sort of second family, since I am so far away from my biological family.

I'm thankful I live in a safe place. I don't have to worry about making sure I have a loaded pistol in my nightstand drawer to ward off potential home invaders. I don't have to worry about getting someone to walk me to my car if I have an evening meeting or if I choose to go to an evening concert or art-school thing up on campus.

I'm thankful that there are police and firefighters out there who will risk their lives to protect the citizens of my town, my state, my country.

I am thankful there are men and women who are willing to put their lives on hold, undergo grueling training, go far away from family, and face a very real risk of death, to protect people they've never met (like me) from harm and to maintain the freedom that we all take for granted so often. Or who liberate nations from dictators. Or who assist in the recovery effort after natural disasters. And who often endure rude or harsh words from those who may disagree with their mission, and who confuse the mission with those who carry it out.

I am thankful I have a house - that I can return to it at the end of the day, lock the door behind me, and be protected from the wind and weather and from other people I might not want to deal with. I have a place to keep my stuff. I have a place that is my "castle" and my "keep," where I have say over what goes.

I'm thankful that, despite the occasional black mood or fit of crankiness, I'm a generally happy person, that I'm usually capable (or more than capable) of enjoying the little things of life.

Some of the (maybe) smaller things, in no particular order:

I'm thankful I have a sewing room in my house. My mom looked a little envious when she saw the room and commented that it had nice natural light in it for working.

I'm thankful for indoor plumbing. I know several people - not even people who are all that old - who grew up without it, and hearing their stories makes me very glad when I wake up with a full bladder at night and I know I just need to shuffle down the hall to take care of that need. And I say a little prayer of thanks whenever I turn on the shower and feel warm water coming out. The water is warm - and even more than that, it's clean - and it's so reliable that most people take it for granted (That was not always true in some of the former Soviet republics, or so I have read).

I'm thankful for electricity, and for electricity that is so consistent that it's a surprise when you flip the switch and lights DON'T come on.

I'm thankful for little bedside lamps that make reading in bed easy and pleasant.

I'm thankful for whole-house air conditioning, that makes the world so much more pleasant in the summer.

Likewise, in the winter, I'm thankful for central heating.

I'm thankful I know how to read, that I read well, and that reading is to me a major form of entertainment. I'm thankful my mom and dad took time when I was a little kid to read to me, and that they also bought me books for my birthday and Christmas. I love books today because they did when I was a child.

I'm thankful my mom and grandmas taught me how to sew, to knit, to crochet, to embroider...all of that crafty stuff. It's a constant source of delight and solace to me - delight to find a new pattern I want to try, delight when I finish something and it's just as good as I hoped, delight when I wear something I made and someone says, "Oh, that's so pretty...I bet you made that" meaning that it's nicer than what's available in the stores here. And it's a source of solace when a day has gone badly - I can sit down and pick up the project I'm currently working on and have something that goes well, something that I feel competent (or better) at when I feel incompetent at other things.

I'm thankful for my sense of smell and taste, because without them a lot of pleasures of life - flowers, good soap, baking bread, chocolate, tea, a cold glass of orange juice first thing in the morning - would not be nearly as enjoyable.

I'm thankful for the pretty hardwood floors in my house.

I'm thankful for my bed at night. What a wonderful idea - a soft, springy platform raised up enough off the ground so it's easy to get into and out of, with clean crisp sheets on it and a warm quilt in the winter. So much nicer than the piles of straw that my ancestors doubtless slept on.

I'm thankful for all the clever people who write good books, funny television shows, moving films - all of the people whose work entertains me or uplifts me or diverts me.

I'm thankful that I live in a part of the country unlikely to be badly affected by hurricanes or earthquakes.

I'm thankful for the infinite variety of tea, and that I can find good tea pretty easily. It is one of the great pleasures of my life and I take a lot of joy in choosing the exact tea whose flavor appeals to me at the moment, or in trying a new tea I've never tried before.

I'm thankful for well-stocked grocery stores, where I can walk in and buy bread and cheese and fruit and vegetables and meat and milk and chocolate and crackers and cookies and even frozen, pre-prepared meals without having to wait in line for hours, or have the right kind of ration stamps, or bribe someone. A minister I knew years ago talked about a man who had got permission to emigrate to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. He broke down crying the first time he saw a U.S. grocery store because he didn't believe that people could have so much choice of different food. That story always humbles me, because the variety and quality of food we have available is something I often take for granted, and in fact, I complain when the grocery doesn't carry the exact type of cheese I want or if the citrus seems a bit pricey.

I'm thankful for the Internet - I have contact with people I'd never have otherwise met. I can research things on the spur of the moment, like "what was the name of that guy who played that character in that movie?" I can let all of my pent-up blather out in a blog. I can order all kinds of stuff. Amazon is a wonder. All of the online craft-suppliers are a wonder. Vermont Country Store, Stahmann's Pecans, Adagio Tea...I can have almost everything I want delivered to my door. It doesn't matter so much that I live in a small rural area with only a wal-mart as my grocery/shopping option, because if there's something I particularly want, I can find it online somewhere.

I'm thankful for holidays - a chance to have a bit of a change, to relive old traditions, to generate new happy memories.

I'm thankful for students who come back after taking my class to tell me that what I taught them is useful in their job or graduate work. I'm thankful for people who give me useful input, either in the form of positive feedback or constructive criticism that I can actually use to improve.

I'm thankful for magazines with their glossy pretty pictures and their short, easily-read stories to divert me when I'm too tired for a book and television just seems stultifying.

I'm thankful my father taught me to be frugal, so I have a good cushion of money in my savings account. I had a Car Emergency earlier this summer that took several thousand dollars to fix, but I was simply able to dip into my savings (which I have mostly already replenished) to take care of it. I'm also thankful he taught me to put aside money for my retirement rather than depending on the government or my state pension. I may still get those, but I don't have to depend on them.

I'm thankful for cartoons. They make me laugh, some of the "educational" ones like Veggie Tales are actually kind of uplifting, they are a better escape for me than soap operas or reality shows.

Even though I have serious doubts about my "looks," I'm still thankful that I'm basically normal in appearence - two eyes that work, two ears that are evenly spaced, hair, a nose in the right place, teeth....I'm glad I didn't have to undergo lots of surgeries to be functional or to be someone who didn't get stared at in horror on the street.

I'm thankful for free time. For the ability to pursue my hobbies, or read, or keep up my house. I'm glad I don't work two or three jobs, or have a long commute like some people do. I'm glad that most days I can eke out at least an hour to myself.

...and I'm sure there are things I have forgotten, and will slap my forehead over later.

personal ad

Sheila has got an entry on the self-deprecating personal ads in the LRB.

As I am all about the self-deprecation, here is one if I were writing one:

"Convey social acceptability on me!

Thirty-something (closer to forty than to thirty if you must know the truth) very independent-minded spinster, unsure why she NEEDS a man save for the fact that she lives in the "family friendly" capital of the U.S. and therefore is viewed with pity, befuddlement, or even outright suspicion when others find she is "still single," seeks gentleman companion.

He should be a non-smoker, non-drug-taker, not given to political rants or conspiracy theory. It would be a plus if he appreciates good classical music but different musical preferences are not a deal-breaker unless he is involved with the rap or country "industries."

Arrogant, overly-sure-of-themselves men, especially those who mistreat waiters and shopgirls, will summarily be shown the door.

Hypochondriacs may apply only if they are of the amusing sort who can be coddled into an appearence of health with applications of homemade chicken soup and other sorts of fussing over. One thing I am good at is fussing over people, so if you are someone in need of fussing over, I may be your woman.

I am intelligent, perhaps too educated for my own good, bookish. I have my own comfortable income and would in fact be willing to provide some (not much) financial support for an artistic or literary type. I am a better-than-adequate cook and keep an adequately clean house save for exam week, when you are on your own, bucko. I am creative and a good conversationalist, however, I am also obsessed and consumed by several hobbies, including reading, antiquing, quiltmaking, knitting, crochet, embroidery, gardening (seasonally). It would be beneficial if the prospective gentleman had an all-consuming hobby himself, that he can pursue alone, for those times when I am in the middle of a creative storm and do not want to be bothered.

He must also be prepared to share a small house with approximately 6500 books. And he must be prepared NOT to make cracks when more books come to join the ones already in existence. The books are not negotiable. The books were here long before him and if things do not go as planned, the books will be here after he is gone

He should also be able to tolerate occassional black moods, instances of crankiness not directly traceable to organic cause, and miasmas of self-doubt on my part. He should be equipped to tell me - truthfully - that I am a good teacher, that my research is meaningful, that I am not wasting my life. He should also be able to tolerate periods of childlike glee, usually over something most adults would deem "stupid" (i.e., "There is a Harry Potter movie marathon on television this weekend and I have nothing else I have to be doing! I'm so there!").

In short: he must be even-tempered, temperate, meek, and not given to periods of anger. However, he must be able to tolerate and even embrace moodiness in all forms, strong opinion, and periods when I "don't feel like talking about it."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I can hear one of the groundskeepers (alas, we do not have any bizarre/comic folk working as groundskeepers a la Groundskeeper Willie) raking up leaves in the front yard of my building. It is a skritchy sort of sound. It's kind of sad, in a way - the realization that fall is over and it's time to get the leaves out of the way. It's a metallic sound, too - he must be using a metal rake.

The local public schools are out, and although none of them are over here today, yesterday the guy who has the office below me had his two young sons and the woman down the hall from me had her teenaged grandson in her office. In the afternoon it got a bit annoying - the grandson's voice is changing and he was talking LOUDLY about the video game he was playing. And sifting up from below me, the sound of quacking. Apparently the little boys of my other colleague had some kind of duck toy that made noise. The quacking wasn't so bad, though - just a little surreal.

I can usually hear the soft thunk of doors opening and closing through out the building as people go into the restrooms, close their office doors, come through the Fire Door Do Not Prop Open! doors that are at the end of the hallways and that lead onto the stairwell. I can also hear people clopping up and down the stairs, and if a woman is wearing clogs or high heeled shoes, I can hear her coming down the hall. (I hate it in the summer when those Dr. Scholl's slides are popular - the thunk-slap, thunk-slap sound of women walking around in them. I often have to close my office door if I need to concentrate.

I went over to get a flu shot this morning; they were offering them in the student union. Waiting there was a small knot of students passing around a loud iPod that sounded like it had music from cartoons on it. I think they were theater students, judging from their discussion. I'm not crazy about sharing my personal space with someone else's music but this wasn't as bad as it sometimes is. (What I really hate is when you get the duelling iPods where two or three people are listening to different things and they keep turning it up louder and louder to drown out the others). I do think I will find out the name of a leading hearing-aid company and invest in them; I see a big boom in the next 30 years of people needing hearing aids from iPod and Walkman induced deafness.

I can also hear, when it's quiet here, the soft churning sound of...I think it's my computer? I guess there's a fan in there that runs quietly, that seems to be where the sound comes from. Sometimes the fluorescent lights buzz a little but they aren't today. And the clicking of the keys as I type. Sometimes I can get into a rhythm, especially when I enter data 10-key style. I remember when I was a grad student I was amused to find that the rhythm I was tapping out on the keypad as I entered data reminded me of the old early-American hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

(Most of the songs I know well, and have nearly instant recognition of, are old hymns).

And now I hear someone turning on the water fountain down the hall, the sort of soft "clank" of the bar being pushed in to turn the water on.

More movement in the hall now - it's approaching class time for the 10 am classes and so I can hear the shuffle and plod of students slouching down the hall to class.

Something's buzzing now - I don't know if that's the heating system (which isn't really on yet) or what.

And more feet in the hall, and the scraping grind of the shredder doing away with something...probably one of the faculty disposing of the draft of an exam.

And now - now I will not hear any of these soft sounds, because the dreaded leaf blower has come out and I can hear its staticy hum - not unlike a distant hair dryer - coming through my window.

Sometimes it is pleasant to just sit and receive the sounds - to note each one, to catalog where it comes from, to be aware of them.

Monday, November 20, 2006


I did more complex cooking this week than I normally do. I made a casserole for my department's annual Thanksgiving potluck. And I baked a cake and made cranberries for a church get-together. (My normal cooking is fairly simple: salads and eggs cooked various ways, maybe some pasta sauce...)

And you know? I like cooking. I especially like cooking for other people. I take a certain pride in that I make things from scratch - I could have used a box mix for the cake, I could have opened a can for the cranberries, but I didn't.

(Funny story: one of the high muckety-mucks where I work goes to my church. His wife came up to me after the dinner to ask me for the "wonderful recipe" I used for the cranberries. I kind of gawked at her for a moment - this is a grown-up lady and she doesn't know how to fix cranberries? and then I was like, "'s the recipe on the back of the bag." Which it is.)

But I like cooking. I guess part of it is because not everyone bothers to cook from scratch any more. I do it as an artisanal thing, as a "I have mad skillz!" thing. That I have a bit of knowledge that is apparently arcane to some. And I do just enjoy it - I like chopping up vegetables, I like the quiet alchemy of cornstarch thickening gravy, I'm endlessly excited by the fact that leaveners work to raise cakes and breads.

(One of my friends who is a health freak cooks - even though she acts as though it is a Major Burden - because she says she doesn't want her family to fall prey to the fast-food culture. Yeah, whatever. Just don't come being a martyr to me about it, and don't also be all high-horsey and "I'm so much better than those Bad Moms who pick up Arby's on the way home")

I suppose I'd feel differently if I lived in a house full of greedy grabby people who sat down at table, inhaled what I had prepared, burped, and scrammed, without thanking me or offering to do the dishes. I can see how it'd become a burden then. (But I can also see how you could subtly train your family, by, say, feeding them on paper plates until someone twigged to the fact you wanted help). And kids can learn to cook - that's partly where I developed my love of it, my mom "let" me help her in the kitchen, shelling peas and husking corn and measuring stuff for her. I'm sure that at some times my "help" slowed her down more than her working alone, but as I got older and more skillful and was able to take over whole big sections of tasks - like chopping the vegetables for stew - it probably paid off.

I have tons of cookbooks. I like to sit and flip through them, often while I'm eating. I especially like the ones where the author makes small comments at the head of recipes, either about their history or their origin or their particular memories of it. If I had not been in freak-out mode the first week of this month, I would have made Election Cake for the 7th. I love the IDEA of Election Cake. I love the history of it. Someday, dammit, I am going to make Election Cake (which is actually like a fruited yeast bread) for Election Day and bring it into my department and tell people about it - because, again, I live in the South and Election Cake is apparently and old-timey New England thing. But I think people need to know about Election Cake. It's an idea that makes me smile, and in a way, it encapsulates a little bit of how people used to feel about elections - that they were an event, they were something to be celebrated.

The whole sensory experience of cooking is a big part of why I love it - you can see and taste and smell and feel and even HEAR (something sizzling in a pan, the sound boiling water makes when it's just right to put the eggs in). I am, in some respects, a very material person: I enjoy stuff, I enjoy being able to work with stuff, learn its properties, work with those properties to create something. I guess you'd say I'm a hands-on learner.

But I also can appreciate that recipes carry a certain baggage with them - lots of them have a history to them, lots of them are very specific to a particular time and place. Who hasn't had the experience of tasting a cookie that's just like the cookies their grandma made? I make a lot of "southern" dishes even though I am a "Yankee," because I feel like by eating the cuisine, I can absorb a little - and understand a little - of the culture. But I still make my "Yankee" dishes, I still make the old German recipes and the old Scots baked-goods that recipes got passed down for in my family.

There's a satisfaction in cooking - it's a tiny bit of control over a tiny portion of the world. I don't bake bread often (I wish I could force myself to take the time to though), but when I do, there's this sense of mastery, of being able to do something very REAL and very devoted to the process of keeping one's self alive. As opposed to the more intangible and evanescent world of teaching and research, where it would be hard for me to lay my hands on someTHING and be able to say, "I made this."

I once read an essayist who commented that people in academe need some kind of a creative (literally creative; as in making stuff) hobby as a balance for what they do during the day. At the risk of using an already overused (and misused) phrase, for me it "keeps it real." It keeps me grounded in the material world. And it also gives me a series of predictable things - cooking, for me, is more predictable and reliable than the slippery world of human relations, where you deal with so many unknowns, where the response you get may be totally unrelated to your inputs. Somehow, it's comforting to come home at the end of the day and make roesti potatoes or to fry up a steak - food behaves mostly how you expect it to; if you change the inputs, the outputs change. Not so in dealing with people, as I've found to my dismay.

So I was a little saddened to think, after catching part of the CBS Sunday morning show where they talked about how the old-line, hard-line feminists rejected cooking, rejected cookbooks. As I said, I suppose that if you lived with a boorish husband and lumpen children (but isn't that lumpenness partly your fault?) who never praised your cooking, never thanked you, never offered a day off, you could come to feel abused. Or if you lived with a little Napoleon who had to micromanage every calorie or every therm of cooking heat used, you'd come to resent the whole task.

But, barring the unpleasant human relations (and isn't it funny how so many of the things I complain about come down to that?), cooking is a joy. It's nuturing and creative and even if it's "just you" you're cooking for, it can be a pleasant, even sensual, experience. And I guess it makes me sad to see people politicize something so much that they suck the possible joy out of it for themselves. Because there IS a joy, in standing alone in a quiet clean kitchen, late in the evening, carefully and concentratedly stirring a pot of boiling water to make just the right kind of vortex so that the white of the egg you want to poach will wrap properly around the yolk, swaddling it, making a complex mass, while bread toasts (or sits already toasted and buttered in preparation). And there's a joy in knowing that a fresh egg will swirl just right but a slightly aged one can be encouraged to swirl by a shot of white vinegar in the water....and the pleasure of anticipating the perfectly cooked egg, with its firm but yielding white, and its still-liquid (health-alert nannies be darned) yellow yolk.

For me, cooking is taking a moment out of time - it is taking a small chunk of my day to take care of MYSELF - where I am not having to listen to the calls and demands of job or volunteer work. Where I can concentrate on one thing and one thing only, and drink in all the enjoyment of working with stuff - stuff I know well, stuff I have mastery over. Stuff that is pleasant to look at and to smell and to taste.

And I know, there are people who hate cooking, who see it as drudge work. And I have to admit some missionary zeal on my part there - I'd love to drag them into my kitchen and convince them, show them the joy I feel creating food, the little miracle of combining ingredients, and maybe evangelize them into loving cooking, loving good food, like I do.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I finished my Christmas shopping yesterday.

(Yes, I know. I know, there was a whole chunk of the traditional Friday f-off thread at Emily's place devoted to the retailers promoting the prematurity of the Christmas season. But. My parents, who host the traditional family Christmas gathering, are coming to visit me for Thanksgiving next week, and if I can hand off all the gifts I've bought to them, I will neither have to ship them [and trust USPS or UPS not to lose them or steal them] nor will I have to try to find room in my suitcase for them when I travel at Christmas).

Anyway. There's another reason I shop early, and it's not because I secretly refer to Black Friday as "Amateur's Night" (the way some drinking folks refer to either New Year's Eve or St. Patrick's Day).

It's because I loathe crowds. And I loathe Christmas crowds most of all.

I have two hypotheses about shoppers.

Hypothesis one: in any public grouping of people, 5% will indulge in moderately annoying behavior, and another 5% will indulge in extremely annoying behavior.

So, if I go to a store and find that there are only 20 people shopping there, the law of averages says one will be the moderately annoying type and one will be the very annoying type. And they will be easy enough to ignore.

But, once you get to a store that has 200 shoppers crammed in it, you get 10 of the moderately annoying ones and 10 of the very annoying ones.

And that brings me to hypothesis two: when people witness bad behavior in public, they are more likely to indulge in it themselves. I do not know if it's a "hey, he's getting away with it, so anything goes!" or a "I am going to get mean too, in self defense, so I don't get trampled" or a "he's making me mad and so I'm just going to treat everyone else as badly as he does" reaction. But it seems that if you drop one rude person down in an otherwise well-behaved crowd, the whole crowd gets meaner.

But anyway. I saw a fair enough amount of bad behavior yesterday to make me thankful that I am done with the malls now until perhaps February.

One particular incident: I wanted to buy a pair of gloves for my mother as part of her present. I found the right pair of gloves, on sale, picked out the color I thought she would want, and went to get in line. And I got behind this woman. She had about $400 of random stuff (and this was an "upscale discount" type department store, if that makes sense). And she had coupons, which apparently come out of a paper I do not get. And she kept ordering the poor girl working the cash register what items went with what coupon. But - she was TOTALLY WRONG. She didn't really know what coupons were valid on her items. I don't know if she was just one of those people who lives in an alternate universe, or if she was deliberately trying to snow the cashier, but the young lady working the cash register kept saying, "No, ma'am, I'm sorry. That item is already marked down 50% and I am not permitted to take your 15% off coupon for it." And so on. And the woman kept getting all huffy, and at one point stomped off to find the sign from one of the departments where she had picked something up to bring it back to "prove" that her fantasy about the coupons was right.

(Apparently she never found it because she came back empty handed and grumbled as the checkout person rang up the rest of her order).

And I stood there, with like a $12 pair of gloves in my hands, and thought how nice it must be to feel so entitled because you are spending so very much money that you can order someone around. Not that I would, my mom raised me too well to act like that. But if i were offered some perks now and then, I'd say "thank you" and take them. Like for example, I would have appreciated it if the checkout girl had rung up my $12 gloves while the fuming woman was off looking for her sign. I didn't say anything because I could tell that the checkout girl was already having a bad day - after the woman paid and left I made some remark about the coupons, and she kind of rolled her eyes and said, "That's why I read the advertisements thoroughly every morning before I come on the floor, so I know what coupons work for what things."

I also saw a grandma and grandson walking into the target. Grandson was probably 7 or 8 and almost perfectly round. Grandma was walking at a snail's pace with him - I mean, a slow amble for me was about four times as fast as they were going - and as I passed them, I heard her say, "Honey, I am walking as slowly as I possibly can! I cannot go any slower!" Now, barring some kind of health problem (and if he had one that bad, he should have been in a wheelchair or something), probably the correct response to such a kid would be "No, you need to move faster. You are young; pick up the pace."

Later I saw them in the toy section; he was standing in the cart. (I think my mom made me stop riding in the cart at the store when I was about 4.) And he was begging for a toy.

Now, call me old-fashioned or mean, but - it's like a month until Christmas. If my brother or I had even thought to beg for a toy at this time, our parents would have reminded us of Santa (or, when we were older, of all the gifts we were going to get from family) and that we should be happy with what we have now.

I also saw another family with a small girl having a complete meltdown because she was not getting a toy.

I do not remember such behavior as being so common when I was a child. And had I indulged in it, I would have been (a) forcibly removed from the store by my parent and (b) subject to fairly unpleasant punishment when I got home.

But anyway. I wonder at people's public behavior - the woman throwing a fit over the fact that the ugly purse she is buying that is already marked down to $20 will not be marked down a further $5 for her because it doesn't fit the established Rule of Coupons, the little boy who practically sits down in the middle of a parking lot because his grandma isn't walking slow enough for him, the kid throwing a tantrum in the middle of the Target - and I kind of ask myself if the little boy in the parking lot or the little girl in the Target maybe grow up to be people like the purse lady? And what their parents could do to stop that from happening? I suppose some of it would fall into the "get over needing to have your CHILD see you as a 'friend' rather than a PARENT" concept.

And another reason why I don't like shopping during the "true" Christmas season is that lots of miserable human behavior comes out that sucks away my enthusiasm for the season. The person who complains loudly about "having" to buy a gift for a relative they really don't like. The person who is buying some useless and ugly but expensive and therefore "impressive" gift for someone for whom Christmas has become a feast of competition and one-upmanship rather than a feast of love. The people who try to game the coupon/discount/sale system, resorting to shady tactics, so they can get a gift that was originally marginally more expensive than what they might have otherwise bought. The kids who sit down in the toy aisle and wail because it's another two whole weeks until Christmas and they can't see why they can't have the toy they want NOW.

All of that kind of behavior makes me feel kind of ill. And it kind of makes me see the point of the people - and these are people from all ends of the spectrum, from real lefties to deeply religiously conservative types - who say we should not give gifts at Christmas. Or that we should only give things we can make ourselves (although that puts people who don't have a lot of skills in sewing or woodworking or writing or photography in a difficult situation). Or that we should give money to charity and instead give a description of what we gave money for to the people we love. Because I hate seeing getting gifts for people reduced to some hateful chore, to money that is spent grudgingly, to a competition to impress people.

Or, heck, I don't know - that we take all the money as a family or group of friends or whatever we'd spend, and pool it, and go rent a ski cabin somewhere and spend Christmas week on the slopes. I don't ski but that sounds preferable to me to spending the month of December listening to people bitch about their relatives when you KNOW they will meet them at the door with big fake smiles come Dec. 24.

I know I'm being hopelessly idealistic about this, but I tend to think about it this way - if you really hate being involved in a gift exchange, don't do it. Don't give a gift. If you're really as uncomfortable with this unpleasant person as you claim, just take the risk of them cutting ties with you. Just tell them you're cutting back. Or you feel like you have enough stuff. Or intimate that you're having money trouble (if your relatives are really as catty as all that, they will enjoy spreading what is probably false gossip about you as much as any pair of Isotoner gloves or "executive gold-plated golf tees")

For that matter, if you have to get SOMETHING, get a gift card. Go to Best Buy or Macy's or some restaurant and plunk down $20 or $50 or whatever, and get a little card. Yeah, they're kind of cold and sterile and not that much fun at the time, but it sure beats trolling through the mall complaining about how you can't STAND Aunt Jane and you don't see WHY you keep buying her a gift year after year, and making all the people around you - the people who actually LOVE their relatives and want to find a gift for them they will enjoy (as opposed to merely being impressed by) - miserable.

Or, go on a cruise. Just give in to all the selfishness you've stuffed down deep in your soul. Yes, I know. You resent buying gifts because people NEVER appreciate them (or you) enough. You'd like to have all that money back at the end of Christmas day, when your nephews have already declared that the game you gave them is "boring," and your uncle already has the book you bought him, and your sister in law reminds you that jewelry with "even a trace of nickel" in it gives her rashes. So just cut your losses - spend all that money on yourself. Sure, it will make your family angry, and you might feel guilty. But it's sure a lot better than ruining the Christmas season for the rest of us, with your heavy sighs and your eye-rolling, and your baleful conversation at work about how few days there are left until the holiday and how you're just NEVER find anything for your mother because she is so picky.

I don't know. A lot of the "simplicity" articles in magazines talk about destressing the holidays by only doing the things you really like. So - if you really hate the gift thing that much, don't do it. Oh, it will probably mean some unhappy people this year, and probably fewer gifts for you next year (and if you aren't a total hypocrite, you will accept this with resignation). But if it's so horrible for you that all you can do is complain about it, give the rest of us a rest.

Me? I like Christmas. I like getting presents for my family. True, I don't have any real nutcases in my family - or at least in my immediate family, and the more distant difficult people are easily enough plied with a big box from some kind of gourmet-food mailorder company. And so, it irritates me to hear people go on and on about how they "hate" shopping for such-and-such a relative. Again, I say: gift cards. Yeah, they're ugly and they say "I spent NO time on you this year" but at least it's over fast, and I don't have to hear you dither about what item to buy.

My problem is that I tend to keep finding things I'd like to buy for my family; I've had to resort to doing all my in-person Christmas shopping on a cash-only basis so I don't wind up buying 18 things for each person.

Friday, November 17, 2006

trying not to feel guilty...

First off: Apparently Bo Schembechler is dead of a heart attack.

I was a student at Michigan during the "Schembechler years." I regarded him as one of the good things about the school (there were a lot of bad things, including the size, the incredible crushing fees, the lines, and the stupid political posturings of so many of the students). Bo was cool. Bo kicked ass. Bo was immediately recognizable.

So it makes me a little sad to see another figure from my callow youth gone.

RIP, Bo. (If this is even true. The radio says he is dead but yahoo news has no updates.)

But the real point of this post is: I took a partial sick-day today. I'm trying not to feel guilty about it even though I was genuinely sick.

I woke up this morning a little headachy. Nothing unusual for winter, especially with a low-pressure-system on the way. Went to school.

One of the things about my building that I hate with a white-hot passion is the stupid wonky heating and a/c system. It was badly designed, poorly installed, and the company that did the shoddy work refuses to admit that they made any mistakes.

Physical plant also disclaims any possibility of it being true that the building might be uncomfortable to be in, although they never come over there to CHECK.

The first floor - where I teach my night class - is roasting most of the year. My co-teacher and I even get negative comments on our evaluations about the temperature of the room, even though the students know we have no control of it.

The second floor - where most of the classrooms are - is usually freezing in the winder. The person who designed the "public spaces" of the building went with these high swoopy ceilings. Well, high swoopy ceilings may look nice, but they're a bitch to heat.

Also - our weather has been so changeable here, that it's 50 one day and 80 the next, so the boilers have not been turned on. So the classroom building is fricking freezing.

So I went to give the exam in my early class. And sitting in the chilly room, I started to feel worse. My head began to throb on one side. After the exam, I scuttled back to my office and choked down a couple ibuprofin (I gave my last Excedrin Migraine to a student who was suffering one day and I haven't thought to replace my office-bottle). I tried to grade the exam but my head got worse.

I knew it was because of the hot-cold issue. I went to tell the secretary: "I know you have no say in this but if we're making up a complaint list as to why we don't like the way the heating system works, you can add 'causes migraines in ricki' to the list."

I also realized at that point that all the scents around me - the secretary's perfume, the usual moldy fug of the building - were unusually intense. Which is the second migraine symptom. Then I got the light sensitivity. Then I started to get an upset stomach.

Finally, I decided that there was no way in heck I could teach my next-hour's class. I felt like I was going to puke and my head was throbbing. So I asked the secretary to dismiss class for me (she had to do the class evaluations anyway) and I went home.

I just barely got in the door and I realized I was going to throw up. This is usually the end of a migraine for me. (Ironically, it makes me feel better). And yeah, I did.

And then I felt better. Not super-stellar better, but not like I was going to die either.

And I realized: I'd be marginally good enough to go back and teach. (It was 15 minutes until class time; I live about 7 minutes from campus).

In the end, I decided to bag it: this means I have sufficient material for Monday so I don't have to let them go early (I do not like to contribute to "vacation creep" by going, 'ah, well, we're at a good stopping point so let's leave early today' because then the students come to expect it). And the building will still be temperaturely challenged, and that might bring the migraine back. (I've had that happen - thought I was over the thing, overdid it, and got sick again).

I do need to clean house as my parents are coming to visit on Tuesday, and Friday afternoon feels like a good time to clean (I was going to come home after my last class of the day - the 11:00 - and clean anyway).

But I still feel hella guilty. I COULD have gone back and taught. Why didn't I? I might not have been so hot at it today, I might have made some mistakes (I get almost dyslexic or dysgraphic when my head hurts). But I could have done it.

Why do I feel so guilty canceling a class more-or-less legitimately (migraine, and I did vomit), and yet there are hundreds - maybe thousands - of people who think nothing of ditching three days of responsibilities (whatever they may be) to wait on line to by a Playstation? How do I check into a little bit of that guilt-free attitude?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

bath and a book

It's finally turned cold here. I think about one of my friends from graduate school who used to talk about getting "winter stomach" when it got cold (meaning the real or imagined increase in appetite). I don't get winter stomach, but instead I get...I'm not quite sure what to call it? winter bedhead maybe?

Several times over the past couple of days I have been seized with an ardent desire - briefly, but it is a strong feeling - to be at home, in bed, reading a book.

Or, last night, as the youth group kids started running around the Fellowship Hall for the fifth time after I told them, "If you're going to run, you need to go OUTSIDE," I was seized with the desire to be at home, in a hot bath, with a book.

To me, a hot bath and a good book - preferably a good mystery novel - is one of the most pleasant things in the world. Part of it is the lack-of-reachability: if the phone rings, I just let it ring. If someone "needed" me for something, I say, "Oh, sorry, I was in the bath."

But part of it is the slightly naughty feeling of taking a book in the tub - what if you drop it in the water? - which is why I mainly read cheap paperback mysteries in there. I feel like, if I drop the book or get it wet, it's no great loss and it can be replaced.

I have a deep fondness for mystery novels. I have since - well, I guess since college. I was never one of those girls who spent seventh and eighth grade reading Agatha Christie (there was a minor fad at my junior high - the "bad" girls read V.C. Andrews, the "good-but-popular" girls read Christie.). I am not a huge fan of Christie even now - I like her Poirot books but that's mainly because I liked the television series with David Suchet and I can envision him in the stories. (I saw an older version of Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney as Poirot - it seemed jarring and wrong to me, this man with his shoulders hunched up to his hears, screaming adenoidally. It was almost like Poirot playing Hitler as played by Charlie Chaplin...)

Anyway. I didn't start reading mysteries until college. One day, I was in a large bookstore near campus, wandering through the sections, and I saw a paperback mystery with an orchid on the cover. And suddenly, I was transported.

I remembered, as a kid, in the late 70s, watching a television series that featured a fat-man detective, who had a passion for orchids, and lived in a New York Brownstone. I had forgotten it for years (and apparently had forgotten much of the detail; recently when TV Land ran the old Nero Wolfe series it was all but unrecognizable to me). I know the "serious" Wolfe fans despise that series (some of the "serious" fans even despise the wonderful A and E movies made of several of the books back around 2002).

But anyway - it felt like a piece of my childhood rediscovered, so I bought the book. And I read it. And I was hooked.

First on Nero Wolfe. I think part of the reason I love Wolfe is the sheer wish-fulfillment quality of his life: he never leaves the house on business. He sets aside several hours a day to read, and several more for his hobby (orchids). He has long leisurely meals where business is forbidden from being discussed. He has people at his beck and call. He even has a live-in chef.

To me - who often eats her lunch hunched up at her desk, trying not to drip apple juice on the papers I am grading, that seems like a wonderful dream.

But Wolfe was just a gateway drug - I began seeking out other mysteries to read, including the Christie I had spurned before. I've read P.D. James, and Van Dine, and some of the Charlie Chan mysteries, and the Van der Valk books, the Peter McGarr mysteries, and most recently, my love has been Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries.

I think I like the genre for several reasons: first, intelligence is celebrated. Most all of the detectives have some kind of intellectual skill - either an outstanding memory, or a great ability to put information together, or (like Alleyn) a keen understanding of human psychology and an ability to put people at ease and get them to talk. (Although I have to admit? My real love of the Marsh novels is not the aristocratic Alleyn but the working-class Fox [who, oddly, never seems to have his first name given in the books]. Fox, who blushes easily, who has a particular skill at talking with domestics, who bumbles a bit and tries to improve himself).

In a society where intelligence is sometimes viewed as suspect or the gateway to nerdiness (and therefore unacceptability), it's nice to see a book where intelligence is celebrated. And where it's used for good.

I also enjoy the characters. Most mystery novels I've read are series - meaning you get to re-meet characters again and again. I like that. I like the constancy of it. (However, I do not like it when the author kills off their detective. Oh, I know, it's realism. But there is one particular Christie mystery I will never read, and the first Van der Valk book I read - disappointingly - was the one where he got killed off). But in the "ongoing" series - you see the same characters again and again. Maybe somewhere through the series the lead gets married, or has a child, or something. But it's kind of comforting, sort of like looking in on old neighbors and seeing that they are still the same as they ever were.

The main reason though, I think, is that the novels present the possibility of a world righted. By that, I mean this: a crime is committed and someone is killed. However, through the actions of a Good Man (or, less frequently in my reading, a Good Woman), the offender is found out and punished. The world is put right again (Well, except for the family of the victim, but most Golden Age mysteries - which are my favorites - don't dwell overmuch on that fact). In the "real" world, criminals are so often NOT caught - they so often get away with what they did. There often seems to be chaos. And so, I find in comforting to read novels where that chaos is resolved into a pattern, the flaw in the pattern (the murderer) found, and the flaw corrected. And most of the Golden Age mysteries end - the Nero Wolfe mysteries are typical of this - with some kind of humorous or mildly touching denouement, where you can sit back and sigh and feel like the world had been put right again.

I think mystery novels, for me, feed a psychological need that I have. I joke about having some "Rain Man" tendencies, and the jokes are kind of true. I hate change. Loathe, despise change. Especially change that feels unnecessary. I don't like having my plans interrupted. And so, mystery novels - by their very nature - show plans interrupted, but then the one causing the interruption being caught and punished, and the world going back largely to how it was Before. (Again - there's that glossing over of how the victim's family copes. But these are fantasies, not true-crime novels.)

So anyway - a hot bath, with either bubbles or nice aromatic bath salts, a good mystery novel, and I'm happy. Sometimes, it doesn't take much to please me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

not sure if it's silly or stupid...

Labelman aims to educate about obesity.

Yeah - the FDA is coming out with another exhortation to get people to eat less or eat healthier or whatever the hell.

(This will look like a digression but it isn't:) The first stats class I ever took was a business-stats class. I didn't learn a whole lot that's directly applicable to my life now (but I did learn Simpson's paradox). The class also covered Deming's principles. Now, as a non-business-type, I'm frankly agnostic on Deming (neither pro nor con), but one thing the prof said stuck with me:

"Exhorting people to do things doesn't work."

(Or, as the website I linked to puts it:

eliminate practices that undermine workers' self / mutual respect and motivation (production quotas, sloganeering, sexist / racist expressions, favoritism / nepotism).

Because, you know? People hate being told what to do. They especially hate being told what to do when it's something that's not really fun, or is presented in a way to make it seem not fun. I mean - if someone offered you a nice slab of pizza-with-everything or a piece of plain broiled fish with no salt, just lemon, which would you take? Or if the choice for dessert was cake or no dessert, which would you take?

All of these "eat healthy" stories have at least a faint whiff of the punitive about them - I guess since we're no longer scourging ourselves for our sexual sins, we have to do it for some other sin of the flesh. (What's next? People who sleep for one minute more than the approved 8 hours per day are the next villains?)

I'm also dreading the War On Obesity gear-up for the "holiday" season. The whole old (false) trope about how people gain five pounds (it is actually more like 1.5), how many horrible calories there are in eggnog or candy canes or turkey or God knows what other seasonal treat. You know what, anti-obesity-nannies? You can go off in a corner and gnaw on a celery stick, I'll take the shrimp cocktail and the cheese bites. And don't try to tell me the celery tastes just as good as hot crab puffs. That's just peeing on my leg and trying to make me believe it's raining.

Also - please, let's not go to the "Oh, wow, HEALTHY treats!!!" thing where the cookies have been modified (using prune puree and powdered fake eggs and tofu and who knows what else) into unrecognizability, and yet be told, "And they're JUST AS GOOD as your old, fatty recipe!" No. They are not. Again: pee, leg, raining.

Look: I understand moderation. Maybe some people do not. But I'd rather have one really good butter cookie -with REAL butter and REAL sugar - than some plate of syntho-Victory-cookies that are made out of some kind of snot extracted from algae and Splenda. (Because Splenda gives me the trots, yo.).

But: for the love of all that's good, just leave me alone. Look, if I have arteries clogged with yummy delicious butter and I keel over at 50, what business is it of yours? After all - and I'm speaking to the gub'mint here, the purveyors of Labelman and other things to do with telling us what we should and should not put in our mouths - if I keel over at 50, you won't have to pay me "back" that Social Security you claim you are putting in a "lock box" for me. In fact, you can go out and profligately spend it on the Baby Boomers for all I care.

So, how is "labelman" going to get people to eat healthier? What is the target for this thing, anyway?

If it's tiny children - shouldn't their parents be teaching them nutrition? I mean - is it really in such a sad state that the government can do a better job than Mom or Dad or Grandma or Mom's 'friend' or whomever pushing the vegetables and fruits? And you know? I'm ready to go all survival of the fittest on this. If you and your family want to never eat vegetables, if you want to eat whatever you want, fine. Just don't try to sue the food companies out of existence when something happens. There's plenty of nutrition info out there that people don't follow now. (And don't give me the sob story about "vegetables are really expensive." So is cable. So are cell phones. And I don't see people demanding that all the poor be given free cable.)

If it's teens - well, Labelman's dead in the water. Not cool. Kind of like rapping the periodic table - the dorky kids who care about the thing might find it amusing, but the target audience will be turned off. (Like Hank Hill once said about Christian rock, it made both church and rock worse).

If it's adults - then I guess the infantalization of the American public has advanced to the point where they need a talking nutrition label to tell them about healthful and not-so-healthful foods (The news story I linked also talks about "Thermy" and "Bac," which I have seen on the packages of steak and such I buy. I roll my eyes at them and cook the steaks the way my mama taught me. I've never contracted salmonella or whatever they're trying to scare you off of yet.)

I don't know. I'm getting really tired of the landslide of obesity/food/diet related stories. And I'm tired of the head-scratching over "why is this happening?" as if there is some Fat Virus that has infected the world, or if people have gotten stupid from cosmic rays, and stupidity causes fat.

You know what, war-on-obesity folks? I can tell you why we're getting fatter. Two simple facts:

1. We have labor saving devices now. You can bet your sweet bippy no American (except maybe the lunatic fringe of environmentalists) are going to go back to using a washtub, beater, and washboard on their clothes, when you can toss them in a machine and let it work. My grandma rejoiced when my parents gave her a "real" washing machine so she no longer had to wash things the old-fashioned way. Likewise - most of us drive instead of walking, because, see, Wal-Marts like to build really large, and they like to build on the outskirts of town.

And yeah, some of us spend part of our precious precious free time to work out to make up for the calories we're not burning because we're not clubbing bunnies for dinner or washing our linens in a stream. But I'd still rather have the labor saving devices and give my pound of flesh on the treadmill each day.

2. Fattening food tastes better than non-fattening food. We ecologists have a term for it: optimal foraging. Our ancestors, back in the bad old days of famine, learned that if they ate the fatty part of the animal, or if they could scrounge enough honey or sweet fruit, they were more likely to live through the winter than their counterparts who ate leaves. It got bred into us, and we can't get rid of it.

And besides all that: life is pretty short. (And it may be even shorter than we all expected, given that Iran apparently has enriched uranium). I refuse to spend my days chewing rice cakes and choking down bitter greens as the bulk of my diet. Don't get me wrong - I like salad, salad has a place in meals. But. Don't tell me to eat a double helping of salad instead of enjoying some bread and butter with it. Or instead of my nice piece of steak.

Actually, I think it's kind of ironic that "Labelman" was trotted out the day after the finding was released that eating chocolate may be as good for you as taking the daily aspirin. (But of course, everyone is quick on the draw to point out that "only a tiny bit" of chocolate is healthy, and to remind people to eat chocolate with as little sugar or added milk as possible. Eh.)

Actually, you know? I think I answered my question. I'm gonna go with "stupid."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

not done!

Okay, scrounging the specimins was TOTALLY worth it. People were actually interested (or at least a reasonable simulacrum) in class today. They actually had stuff to say. I suppose it could be that animals are just inherently more interesting to people than population growth. Or it could have been the specimins. Or it could have been that last week's bad class was a fluke and there were a lot of sicky people in the class who didn't look sick but needed to leave anyway. Or whatever.

Or maybe today was the fluke, but I'm going to be optimistic and say that las week was.

This of course inspires me to go and find more stuff for the class later this week - I'm going to see if we still have that big old tapeworm in a jar we used to have. And maybe I'll steal some of the leftover clams and sea stars from the class that dissects them and bring them in.

See? Classes are a two-way street. Reward me with respect and attention and I reward you with more fun stuff.

hard sell

I've just concluded that the non-majors introductory biology class I teach is a hard sell. That anyone - the most exciting teacher in the world, the person who's an amalgam of Bill Nye and the Mythbusters guys and Dr. Ruth Westheimer and a little Carmen Elektra thrown in for sex appeal, probably couldn't elicit interest out of certain people.

That doesn't mean I am stopping trying. God forgive me, I cannot do otherwise. And you know, I still harbor, deep down, the belief that if I hit on the magic combination of words, just the right class activity, things will unlock for those who don't seem to be interested. And I let myself feel like a failure because I'm not finding that magical combination this semester.

Today is animal day. The characteristics of the different major animal groups with a segue into human physiology (the last section of the course and I should have been there 2 weeks ago, but I always get behind).

So I spent the morning running around the department, begging preserved animal specimins off of people. I have some of the "junkier" specimins - even though I value the class and all, I'm not going to drag the rare and fragile things out for a group that includes students who simply get up and leave when they decide they've had enough. I have a pigeon and a polecat and some fish and part of the extensive insect collection here. I wish we had some jellyfish and other stuff like that, but we don't teach a marine class (landlocked) and I guess those things are hard to preserve.

I've got all my "neat animal stories" loaded up (these are stories that illustrate some of the unique characteristics of each phylum, like the starfish tendency to regenerate arms when arms are lost). I've got tons of pictures.

And you know? If people seem bored or walk out today, I'm done. If animals can't pique some of the students' interest, that's it. I'm just so through with the post-adolescent "Must never show interest in anything because interest is uncool" directive.

Oh, don't get me wrong - there are probably at least 6 in that class (out of 28) who give a damn and who care and who look interested. But as much as I talk a good game about "teach to the ones who give a shit," I really can't. I let myself get too dragged down by the ones who don't. I guess I take too much personal responsibility - I wind up beating myself up, going "if you were cooler or more interesting or a better teacher, they'd be eating out of the palm of your hand. They'd care if you were any good." Intellectually I know that's not true - that there are some people you cannot reach no matter what you try - but I don't know when to stop trying. Or what to try next. Or when just to say "The six that care are the important ones and they will appreciate the goofy little mnemonics I make up to help them learn, they will like that I brought specimins in today."

See how I go back and forth? On one hand I'm blasting the people who sit there and mentally check out, or who leave class when they feel like there's not going to be anything worthy of their time going on, and on the other hand I'm frantically striving to find that magic thing that will make them decide it is worth their time.

it's exhausting. I had a dream a few nights ago where one of my students in class was turned around, talking, with the people behind him as I was doing a demonstration. Finally I snapped. (I only ever snap in my dreams, at least this far into the game. I hope that the dreams aren't portents of what is to come). I walked up to him, grabbed him by his shoulders, turned him to face front again. And then I started shaking him. Hard. I started telling him that he was failing the class, he needed to make some effort at paying attention, that I was fed up with people like him thinking that I'm just some kind of tv up there at the front of the class that he can tune out if he doesn't like the program. And as I was shaking him (my dreams are exhaustingly complex sometimes) I realized I was thinking "He's going to totally get me busted for assault. I'm probably going to go to jail for this and lose my job." And then I was like "Hell, damage done already" and I kept shaking him and yelling at him.

Then I woke up.

The sort of spooky thing is that the person is exactly someone from my class - not some random person, not Ethan Hawke or Keifer Sutherland or anyone else like that. And not an amalgam of more than one person. It was very clearly exactly someone from my class, and someone who's not paid attention in the past, someone who got a 35% on the last exam, someone who gets up and leaves early when he's done.

So I don't know.

I'm seriously considering asking my department chair to cycle me out of the non-majors class. Every semester I go in thinking "This will be fun! I have so many neat activities and demonstrations! The 'kids'* will love me!" And every time this semester I feel like I'm banging my head on a brick wall.

(* I call them "kids" even though some of them may be close to me in age if they're non-traditional students. However, the freshmen are half my age, so I think I'm justified in calling them kids. And act like a child, you get called a child.)

All my colleagues tell me, "It's not you, it's them. Kids today are horrible, they all expect to be entertained, only 10% or so know or care what it's like to work in college." And yet - I still feel like if I could just push a little harder, just be a little cheerfuller, maybe I'd unstick some of them and get them to care.

God help me, I cannot do otherwise.