Friday, November 30, 2007

Christmas music

Considering that there's a month, tops, that I can play it without looking too much of a loon, I own an awful lot of Christmas music. So I'm going to talk about some of my favorite songs and "albums" (what do we call these now? Do we still call them "Albums" in the CD age? And yes, I realize that the fact that my music is in CD (or tape) form and not MP3 form puts me a bit behind the curve, but whatever).

Sacred music (hymns or songs explicitly mentioning Christ's birth):

Silent Night. This is my all time favorite. I love this song dearly, for two reasons: first, even someone who's a non-singer (like me) can sound fairly good singing it; it doesn't require too much vocal calisthenics and there are really no "not in this lifetime" high notes, even in the soprano part). I also love it for the legend of how it came about: a mouse had eaten part of the leather bellows of the pipe organ in the church Father Mohr served, and so he and Gruber composed a song that could be performed on guitar. (Some sources doubt the veracity of this legend). But whether or not the legend's true, I love this song. My two favorite versions are the Bing Crosby version (straightforward and traditional) and a more recent song by a group called the Thorns, about whom I know next to nothing, but their version of it was on a compilation album I have. And it is beautiful - three or four male voices, singing in harmony, with just an acoustic guitar accompanying. Pretty close, I guess to what Gruber and Mohr intended. It fills me with great peace to hear the song, particularly the Thorns version.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing - another old one I love. I like the melody (by Mendelssohn) but the words (by Charles Wesley) are the real treat here: the theme of reconciliation, of good news, of glad tiding. My favorite version, probably, is the one at the end of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" - a youth choir, it's not perfect (it goes a bit off key at the end), but to me that's the version of the song I first think of.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (link provided because it's a less-familiar carol). I love a lot of the "old" carols - the pre-1900s ones, the pre-Victorian-sentimentalization-of-Christmas ones. This particular carol is so old (I presume) Wikipedia provides no time period for it. It basically tells the story of Christ's life. Presumably it is Christ "narrating" the song. I love it for these lines:

"To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love"

I love it because of the image of dancing (which I spoke about once before); also the image of Christ calling us all his "true love."

Someone somewhere made the comment that this song takes the traditions of the ballads of troubadors - about courtly love and such - and adds the whole extra layer of faith on top of it - that it's no more about the sort of love that takes place in aristocratic courts, but now the sort of love of the Heavenly court.

The version of this I know best is on a CD (one of my favorite Christmas CDs) called "What Cheer" by the Gloria Dei Cantores. It's mostly Medieval and Renaissance carols, mostly a capella or with a little bit of accompaniment that would be appropriate to the time period.

I'm also fond of "Ding Dong Merrily on High." That's another fairly old carol (or at least the tune is; it apparently came from a dance tune). It's written in a self-consciously archaic style (until I looked up some information on it I thought the text was much older than it actually is), and you know? I like things that feel kind of archaic, that carry a tiny whisper of Christmas-in-the-manor or cold dark castles with choirs singing.

Another ancient-sounding carol: "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel." In my experience this is the typical first-Sunday-of-Advent carol - it is not yet time to rejoice over Christ's birth, and although this song alludes to it, it's also kind of minor-key and meditative and plaintive.

Another old, old carol I love - that's kind of in the plainsong mode - is Of the Father's love begotten. It's heartcrackingly beautiful when it's done the way it was one year at my church - a couple of men with good strong voices, standing up in the balcony, and singing it, a capella, in unison, as a sort of prelude. (It's another carol that you don't have to have a particularly broad range to be able to sing fairly well).

I'm also deeply fond of a lot of the traditional British carols, like the Sussex Carol. Part of it is that they were on albums I grew up listening to, but I also sometimes wonder if part of it is some kind of "genetic memory"? (Most of the ancestors on my Mother's side were British and Scots). I like the Sussex Carol, though, in part, because of its lilting tune. And because the words are joyful and true.

"Good King Wenceslaus" is another favorite, but it occupies an odd position: it's not really a Christmas hymn, as it doesn't really explicitly speak of Christ's birth (King Wenceslaus was, I guess, a Czech or Bohemian king who exemplified Christ's love and service). St. Stephen's day is the day after Christmas (Dec. 26), also known among the British as "boxing day" (the day gifts were given to servants). Again, it's a carol where I thought (when I was a kid, at least) that the text had to be incredibly old, but it's really just from the 19th century (the tune, though, is older). I like this one because I remember singing it and wondering at it as a child.

I think I'll save my commentary on my favorite "secular Christmas songs..." for later.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


It's been a nutso week (students almost crying in my office when they realize it's the end of the semester and all the work they've been slacking off is coming back to haunt them, people needing REALLY REALLY REALLY LIKE I MEAN I WILL GIVE YOU MY FIRSTBORN NEEDING to get into a class that's already over-full, the youth group kids being 100% insane last night [seriously - some comic once said that by adult standards, kids could be declared insane. I think he's wrong; most of the young kids I deal with seem pretty sane, it's the teenagers who are whacked out])

But this makes it a little better. The next season of "24," as brought to you by the good people from LOL-Industries, INC. ("Captioning cats for your enjoyment since 2006!")

I love the person who did this so much.

(Yeah, I know CTG had it first, but I also had to put it up here.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some days...

...all you can say at the end of them is, "Thank you, God, for getting me through this day in one piece."

It was one H of a day, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

cannot remain silent

Last week, the NYT online ran an article about the new "green crusaders" trying to make their mark on their family's Christmas celebrations. I read the article with some dismay.

I think one of the things that frustrates me about the modern world is how so many people have to make everything about themselves (she says as she writes on her blog).

When I was a kid growing up, it was kind of understood that at family gatherings, you didn't talk about politics, or religion (in my family we have Catholics, lapsed Catholics, Protestants of various stripes and degrees of devoutness, agnostics, people who would list their religious affiliation as "none" but who express a certain love and veneration for pop-religion figures like the Dalai Lama...). You tried to avoid subjects that would upset people.

Why? Because it was the holidays. Because it's nicer to spend time with people when there aren't hurt feelings or animosities. Oh, it can be hard. And there are people who sometimes violate the code and say whatever they damn well please. But the general unwritten rule in my family is: Thou shalt not make a pain of thyself.

So it bothers me that there are people who think it's perfectly okay to "reform" their families (or try to) by being somewhat unpleasant about it.

There was, for example, a person who was planning on giving each of their loved ones a CFL bulb (and, presumably, nothing else). She also comments about a relative who works in a field related to "nasty, old-style fossil fuel stuff." Nice. If her relative read the story, it should make for some interesting convo around the dinner table come Christmas.

Look, don't get me wrong: I'm in favor of conservation. I make an effort to limit my driving and to plan trips carefully, both to save money on gas and reduce the amount of pollution I generate. I turn off lights when I leave a room, and when I need to buy new appliances, the level of energy efficiency is part of my decision. It makes good fiscal sense to conserve energy and resources, and it does cut down on pollution.

I even recycle, at least items where it doesn't cost more energy to reprocess them than it would to produce new items "from scratch." (It's my understanding that plastic recycling at this point is not terribly efficient but that's neither here nor there because there's nowhere in my town to recycle plastics anyway. And I almost never drink pop or bottled water, so it's not like I'm a heavy producer of plastic waste).

But I draw the line when it comes to spewing my beliefs to other people. I don't walk around going, "You really should recycle that" or snapping off the lights in a room someone just left and glaring at them (I may snap off the lights anyway but try to do it in an unobtrusive way).

I guess I feel about conservation and such about the way I feel about my faith: if someone asks me what I believe, I'll share with them. Or I will try to quietly model the tenets of what I believe without talking about them. But I won't walk around telling everyone that they should do as I do, or telling them about the dire consequences they will face if they don't.

And I kind of view Christmas as a chance to relax things a bit. I eat things at Christmas I normally wouldn't eat (another thing I hate with a passion? All the news stories about "OMG everyone is going to gain 5 pounds this Christmas !!!11!!"). I do things I normally don't do.

I think perhaps in this country of plenty, we've forgotten the old meanings of "holidays" and "feasts." In the early days - in Medieval times and up to the 1800s, most of the year was kept as fasts or at least a time where not having all your desires fulfilled was the normal state of things. Christmas was a little foretaste of Heaven - where you were warm enough and had enough to eat and got to play a little and got to sing a little and maybe drank more than you should...

Nowadays, those of us in the Western world (or at least those of us in the middle-class and above) live as if every day is a feast day. And so we maybe don't know what to do when a holiday comes around. (Which may be why there's recently been a spate of advertisements for things like cars and diamond pendants as Christmas gifts: having to do more and more). And some people rebel against it, and see the time as a big time of wastefulness, and so appoint themselves as Saviors of the World (hrm...) and have to go around telling others to mend their wasteful ways.

I don't know. I live pretty frugally (by most North American standards) most of the time and I like being able to relax a little at Christmas - buy stuff for people that I know they will like, make cookies and cakes, spend more time socializing, put up strings of lights - all those things. And I don't like being told that what I'm doing is wrong and I should not do it.

Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with dialing back on materialism. I have to admit I'm a little nonplussed by the adverts that suggest buying a new car or a lavish vacation for your beloved for the holiday (or for the ads suggesting that risky, high-interest "payday loans" be used to shop). But there's a difference between a family deciding as a group, "This is what we are going to do" and then treating it as a foregone conclusion, and a person taking on the role of the proselytizer, where they have to constantly talk about it.

(Again, it reminds me of the Bible verse admonishing those who would fast against walking around looking sad and drawn and talking about how much they are fasting in front of other people. It's not just spiritual aggrandizement, it's also wicked annoying to the other people. It's kind of like the person in the department who's on a perma-diet and cannot shut up about it - who, every time there's birthday cake or cinnamon rolls or something, instead of just smiling and saying, "No, thank you" or avoiding the breakroom altogether, has to sit around and mope about their "terrible" diet and how they 'cannot eat those things' [or worse, say "I can't see how YOU can eat THAT"]).

I also think if one person is swimming against the tide of family tradition, it kind of behooves that person not to be unpleasant about it. If I were in the petroleum industry, and I had a "greenie" relative that I knew was going to harangue me at the dinner table, I'd probably make other plans for the holiday and explain to my other loved ones exactly why. Or if someone insisted on giving donations to causes in place of presents (which I have to admit I'm not totally on-board with but if someone asks me to do that for them instead of buying them a gift, I will), I'm not going to pretend to agree with them that "this is what we ALL should do next year."

I guess I still kind of am in "child mode" when it comes to Christmas: I want at least one of the gifts I receive to be "for fun" instead of "what I need." (Books count as "for fun," as do dvds or cds. Craft supplies count as "for fun." Stuff like nice tea or chocolate or nice soap or bath products count as "for fun") If gifts are too practical (socks and underwear, or "carbon credits" which I suspect are the new "socks and underwear"), then Christmas becomes little more than a festival of "I'll do your necessary shopping for you, and you do mine for me." And I'd rather pick out my own underwear, thanks.

(I bought different kinds of games - card games and board games and such - for a lot of my loved ones this year. A lot of the people I care about really enjoy playing games and I think I found a few new good ones. [And there's a slightly selfish motive: I will get to play the games, too, after Christmas.] I think games make a good gift. And also books, if the person likes to read.)

Maybe I'm wrong here, but I feel that all of the propaganda being put out - the "wrap your presents in old newspaper if you must wrap at all" or the "serve broccoli florets instead of pigs in blankets" or "give gifts of donations to good causes instead!" are as much of an attack on Christmas by those who would deny the holiday as are the (often inflated in the imagination of commentators) attacks coming from those who would deny the origin of the day - the One for whom the holiday is named.

I don't know. It seems to me there's so much bad news in the news that it's not necessary to go further to make people feel bad - laying on guilt for eating things that might not be 100% healthful during the holidays, or spending a little more than they might have planned, or using the "old" type of light bulbs instead of new "energy-efficient" bulbs, or whatever.

Leave Christmas alone, please, fearmongers in the media.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I can has extra credit?

Yup, it's that time of year.

Last two weeks of the semester, the people who have been in 'sleep' mode all semester long suddenly wake up and freak out.

I had a pile of e-mails either "explaining" (in some cases with a valid excuse, in others, not) why the person had been absent so much. Or asking for help. Or asking to hand stuff in late. I had one e-mail that was in all lower case with no punctuation and in sort of that stream-of-consciousness run-on style that I believe Burroughs perfected (and if you're not William Burroughs, you should probably not use). The writer was informing me he needed for me to accept his homework late, as he was in a car 'reck' and 'i couldnt get a ride but im trying' and that he would - if I interpreted the e-mail right, as my brain tends to shut down in the absence of punctuation - get it to me first thing tomorrow.

(An aside: this is a student who wrote a paper, and turned several of the homework questions around to, arguing the legalization of pot. Now, I'm generally for allowing people to do what they will provided it doesn't hurt others or themselves too much, but I get a feeling from some of the discussions I've had with him, the pot use I suspect he indulges in is probably hurting him.)

All of these e-mails came in while I was in my last class of the day. After that class, one of the young ladies wanted a little input on the paper that is due next week (she had a rough draft for me and I had read it so she wanted to discuss it). I walked into my office and saw all the e-mails with student addresses on them and kind of sighed something like, "Well, it's that time of year" (the student who was with me, while not an A student, is someone with a strong sense of personal responsibility). I made some comment about how probably half the e-mails would be asking for extra credit and she kind of laughed and said, "I'd just delete them and claim they never arrived. I don't think I'd be able to put up with that junk."

Well, I can't do that, but I do (politely) respond saying extra credit is not an option at this point. (I refrain from observing that there is copious REGULAR credit during the course of the semester for a person to do a C or better, even if they're not a rocket scientist, but that ship has kind of sailed at this point).

I'm reminded, though, of this exchange from my beloved SpongeBob SquarePants:

(Mrs. Puff, wanting SpongeBob out of her boating class forever, has tried to give him extra credit so he will pass by the skin of his teeth):

Mrs. Puff: (as I remember, laughing sub-manaically) "You pass! You pass!"
SpongeBob: "But, Mrs. Puff, I don't feel like I really did anything."
Mrs. Puff: "That's how extra credit is supposed to feel!"

On a happier note? I'm grading a batch of exams from my most difficult class and they're markedly better than the last set. I guess people actually woke up and studied after some people received 30% or below on the previous exam.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I'm back. I'm tired and kind of sick of traveling and still trying to adjust to alone-time. (It takes a couple of days. As much as I love living by myself, spending time around people I care about makes me a little lonely when I return).

Once again, traveling (and spending time in stores shopping with my mom, etc.) makes me wonder at people. Coming up on the train, it was kind of late, and I and one other woman were the last ones in to dinner, the diner car was empty at that point other than a few train employees taking their meal.

I have to say at that part I was just relieved: relieved the train finally got there, relieved I was on, relieved that there was still time for me to get a meal. But my dinner companion just wasn't happy: everyone on the train was rude. The meals weren't very good. It used to be better. Her car was too warm. Et cetera, et cetera.

I didn't really say anything. Because what do you say in that situation? At one point I think I managed, "Still, it beats flying?" (Which for me, it does - even with the delays, even with the long time spent on the train. The nearest airport to me is a nightmare to get to, and I'd have to change puddlejumpers mid-trip to fly directly to the town where my parents live, and then there's the whole "put your right foot in, put your right foot out, take off your shoes and turn all about" bit that flying has become today.)

The next day, the train was still late, and my lunch companions were out and out rude to the (overworked) car attendant - one of them claimed that he had purposely avoided us because we were a table of all women. (Maybe, but I didn't see evidence of more than "it's all hitting the fan at once and I'm being pulled in fifteen different directions"). I don't think being rude to someone in a situation like that helps at all. (Generally, being rude doesn't help at all in any situation, is what I've observed).

I also think I'm about ready to see more stores ban cell phone use outright. We went to several small stores - a gourmet shop and a bookstore - in the town where my parents live and both my mother and I were nearly knocked down by the "racers" - people with their Bluetooth firmly implanted in their ear, chattering away, with only the goal of the pound of coffee or the new Ken Follett in mind, and totally ignoring other people. It concerns me that a sizable minority of people seem not to SEE their fellow human beings - it's like there's a little bubble around them.

(I was also distressed to see the reports of minor fights and pushing and shoving before the stores opened on Friday. That kind of behavior is almost enough to make me eschew the more secular, gift-giving-aspects of Christmas, if that's how people behave about it. It's just STUFF, people. It's not worth shoving some stranger over. So your kid doesn't get a Wii for Christmas - or your hubby doesn't get a cheap big-screen tv. One of the lessons that can be learned is patient waiting or living with the little disappointments of life.)

Dave asked what place I considered to be home. Honestly, at this point, I think of where I live now as home - that's where I spend the vast majority of my life, it's where I work, it's where I've put down roots (as much as a single childless person puts down roots).

The town where my parents live now - while I said it was "familiar" - is not the town I grew up in; my father retired early some 20 years ago and took a new job in Illinois, so we moved away from Ohio where I grew up. I've actually not been back to the town where I grew up since then. (Interestingly enough - I talked with a man on the train at breakfast - a businessman originally from New Zealand but now based in Cleveland - and he knew the little town I lived in. He said the historic downtown was still much the same, but that there had been tremendous sprawl and that there were a lot of mini-mansions build up on the edges of town. Which actually sounds typical of some of the folks that lived there. I grew up there but outside of the church I belonged to, and to a lesser extent the private high school I attended, I never felt 100% at home in that town. It was very much a conspicuous-consumption town and my parents, while probably not any worse off than many of the families, did not believe in buying designer jeans or taking expensive ski or Bermuda vacations - so my brother and I were somewhat looked down upon as "poor kids" even though we weren't literally poor. I don't think I'd fit in there even now; I don't golf or carry a Bermuda bag (those were the big, big thing when I was about 14) or care much about clothing labels or particularly want to do the 'gracious living' thing if it means wearing uncomfortable clothes and not being able to leave the stack of books you're currently reading out on the end table or having to entertain a bunch of people from work who really actually kind of grate on your nerves).

So anyway. I feel welcome in the town where my parents live but it really doesn't feel that much like home, at least not in the way it did when I was living there during grad school. (It's also changing a lot - lots more building, the little downtown area is being torn down and replaced with pretentious new buildings that will probably sell things at pretentious prices, a lot of the old favorite restaurants have closed, the old favorite apple orchard closed down and was sold for a housing development).

I know, I know - stuff changes. But it's less disconcerting to see the changes in progress, as you live in the place. It's kind of unsettling to come back after a six months' absence and go "Can we go to Benny's Bakery and get some donuts?" and have my mom say, "Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you - Benny's was bought out by a Starbucks franchise" or something like that.

And people seem ruder on average up there. I don't know if it's a big city vs. small town thing (my parent's city is probably 100,000 people or more at this point; my town is about 14,000) or if it's a North vs. South thing, or if it's a socioeconomic thing (lots more Yuppies and old-money types in my parents' city). Or maybe it's a political thing, I don't know. (Political correctness is kind of rampant in the town where my folks live, and sometimes I think when that's carried to an extreme, people kind of forget to see other people as individuals with individuals likes and dislikes and worries and hopes, and see them as part of some label-able group)

This morning in church, several people remarked to me, "Welcome home!"

And you know? I think they're right. As much as I love my parents, as much as I love getting up there for visits, as much as I love there being a yarn shop and multiple bookstores and several quilt stores and some really good restaurants within a 10 minute drive of where they live, the place where I'm at right now is my real home.

It's where I've made friends on my own merits (without the friends coming "attached" as it were, as friends of my parents). It's where I earn my bread. It's where I have responsibilities and am seen as a good citizen. It's where people know me for me, primarily, and not me-as-the-daughter-of-my-parents. (My parents lived in the town for about 5 years before I moved back there for grad school, so a lot of the people I knew from church or from the university there knew my mom and dad first - and that carries a little baggage. It is kind of freeing to realize that the people who know me here know me not because of my mom and dad, but because of me.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanks (and Thanksgiving!)

Thanks everyone.

Cullen, the headphones are a good idea, but I think I'd find them hard to try to sleep in. I had several friends here tell me "Call the police nuisance line on them!" but my gut feeling on THAT is that it's solely to generate fodder for the "a cross section of calls to the police center" section for people to chuckle over in the newspaper - I've never known ANYONE here who filed a noise complaint that the cops actually checked into.

The good news? Dang dog started barking last night, but then it either quit, or its owners caught a clue and took it inside.

When it first started barking around 10 pm, I was lying in bed imagining whether I could track down someone I used to know who did work on large game animals and if he'd loan me a tranq gun and some kind of dog-safe tranquilizer darts. (Although that would probably cause more problems in the long run than it would solve in the short run.

Ultimately, someday, when I have the money and know someone who does decent work, I want to get the drafty old windows in my drafty old house replaced, and I think that might help cut noise, too. (The biggest hurdle is finding someone who won't punch out my old windows and then wander off to do another job for the next 3 weeks...I live in the land of ADHD contractors; their union motto is "We need to finish this.....let's ride bikes!")

At any rate, the dog can bark its brains out tonight for all I care; I will not be here. If all goes well, at 5:15 this afternoon I will be getting on a train, and midmorning tomorrow I will be in the town where my parents live (which is also the town where I went to grad school, so it's pretty familiar to me). I'm really, really looking forward to seeing them, and really, really looking forward to a few days off.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My night, last night

I was sitting at my desk this afternoon, really tired, when I remembered why.

This was my night last night:

Neighbor's dog: "bark. Bark. Bark-bark-bark. Bark. Barrrrrrrk. Whine."

then about 30 seconds of silence.

Then: Neighbor's dog: "bark. Bark. Bark-bark-bark. Bark. Barrrrrrrk. Whine."
Neighbor's dog: "bark. Bark. Bark-bark-bark. Bark. Barrrrrrrk. Whine."
Neighbor's dog: "bark. Bark. Bark-bark-bark. Bark. Barrrrrrrk. Whine."
Neighbor's dog: "bark. Bark. Bark-bark-bark. Bark. Barrrrrrrk. Whine."

(I could write a GOTO loop to basically give the full effect).

It's also been HOT here again - and that is WRONG. I had to get up and put the ceiling fan on.

And then I got up and dug out a set of the earplugs I bought for traveling. I hate using them at home because I'm always fearful that if my house catches fire, I won't hear the alarm in time. But sometimes you just have to balance the minute risk of being immolated against the pain of not sleeping.

They helped, but not as much as you'd think.

I don't know what to do about the dog. I am not 100% sure which neighbor it is - whether it's the one directly north of me (the cop and his family), or the renters across the street from them (they have a puppy they often stake out in the yard during the day) or Domestic Dispute Couple in the house behind me (I call them that because just about every time I've been out in my backyard this summer, they've been yelling and cursing at each other. If it's their dog, there's probably nothing I can do, because I suspect it's ill-advised to go over to a couple of people who have no problem with using the "m.f." word at each other (and the man using the "c." word to the woman) in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday and ask them if they'd consider taking their dog indoors because when it's out at night, the barking keeps me awake.)

I'm kind of to the point where I can't do much more - I am INSIDE my house, with the windows shut, with the ceiling fan running, with a white-noise machine running. And I can still hear the blasted thing. (I tried turning the white-noise machine up, but as soon as it's high enough to cover the barking, it's so loud I can't sleep).

I don't know. I hate to say it but if this sort of thing continues, my only solution may be to put my house on the market and buy a couple acres out in the country, build a house smackdab in the middle of my land, and hire a builder who knows well how to soundproof.

But why - WHY - are people so inconsiderate? If you can hear your dog, surely other people can hear it, too? (Yes, I know, maybe the people were out for the night and had to put the dog out in case it had to pee). But I'm such a bad sleeper to begin with that any kind of "irregular" noise (as opposed to something like a white-noise generator where the noise is steady) keeps me from sleeping - boom cars, people yelling outside, dogs.

I'm sure I'm not the only one. One summer I had to move into my guest bedroom because of loud neighbors on one side (I'd do that now, except my neighbors on that's two men and one of the guys' wives...have got a band started up. So far it sounds like the only thing they know how to play are the first seven chords of "Smoke on the Water" but what they lack in virtuosity they make up in volume and repetition).

I think this may be an extension of what I am now calling "Living-room Bubble" syndrome, where people think there's a huge bubble around them where ever they are, and whatever they do doesn't affect other people, or the effect it has on them doesn't matter - kind of like the loud cell-phone talkers with the TMI conversations.

People bug me sometimes.

Right way, wrong way

The other day I blogged about the guy who did a less-than-half-assed job on an assignment, and then wound up getting an extension. He represents the "wrong way" to get an extension:

1. Don't think about the assignment until right before the due date
2. Disregard the instructions
3. When you hit a wall, come and complain/ask the instructor to do the work for you
4. Get an extension because the instructor is fed up with your shenanigans but isn't feeling ballsy enough to throw you out of class.

There is also a right way to get an extension, and I didn't mention it:

One of my students - he's slightly older, I'd say he's at least 30 - came to my office before class on the due date. "I'm really sorry" he said. "I have an article but I don't have it written up in a good way yet. I'll understand if you don't accept it late, but let me explain: both my mother and my aunt were in the hospital this weekend and I honestly thought I could get the thing written while I was sitting around waiting."

I said I was sorry to hear he had relatives in the hospital. And I asked: "Could you have it done Wednesday?"

"Oh, certainly!" he said. "I'll understand if you need to take points off."
"No, that's okay" I responded - this is someone who's always been on time, always had the work done before, who comes to see me if there's something he doesn't understand.

He had it done today - typed, even (I didn't require that but it does help). He came to me before class to hand it in and thanked me again for the extension.

So that's just a lesson: right way, wrong way. Wrong way is to always be demanding and to do the bare minimum, then complain that you need more time. Right way is to have a generally good record, to explain the reason for the problem, be willing to accept consequences. And showing gratitude when you get what you need helps too.

I will refrain from commenting that wrong-way dude is probably 22 or under and right-way dude is, as I said, at least 30. (Well, actually, I just did make that comment...)

pre-Thanksgiving stupid spam

Yup, got one today:

"Bigger d*ck is not an illusion"

Oh, so many things one could say:

"It's all done with smoke and mirrors"
"Maybe, but Smilin' Bob's happy wife is"
"Even The Amazing Randi says so!"
"Things in mirror are closer than they appear" (Which is also one of my favorite Far Side gags ever)
"Paging David Copperfield" (That joke, I almost don't want to make)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hockey halftime show!

Nightfly, this one's for you:

Yeah, I know it's air hockey and not REAL hockey, but I think that's as close as LOLcats are ever going to get.

Monday, November 12, 2007

small vent

I am so )$#(*%$ sick and $_)(%$ tired of people thinking that they can do the crappy bare minimum of work and that should be enough to pass them and get them a decent job.

I require students in one of my classes to get scientific articles out of a journal, read them, summarize them, and critique certain points of them. I lay out pretty clearly what I want. I gave them several weeks to do it.

I had a few people come to me saying, "Can you help me search" and I did, of course, and most of them went away with an article they could use.

But this morning, I had one guy come up (they were due today) with a poorly-printed abstract and ask me "Where do I find [point A], [point B] and [point C] you asked us to write about?"

I took a deep breath and fought down the urge to say, "That was YOUR job. Not mine. You need to do it YOURSELF." I looked at the abstract- which is all it was - and said, "You can't find them because they're not in the abstract. You need to get the entire paper."

"But..." he said, "They asked for a login and password to see the paper in this journal."

(Note that this is all happening DURING class time. I do not know why but I have a couple people this semester with "boundary" issues in that, if they have a personal problem, they just walk up to the front of class as soon as they come in - even after I've already begun class - and demand my time)

"Then you need to find another article. There are a lot of articles you can get for free through the library databases on this topic. Take until Wednesday [yes, he won, if an extension was what he was looking for, but at this point he's failing, so it doesn't matter] and bring me another article."

"Well, if I can find a website that refers to this article and tells me points A, B, and C, can I just write them down from the website?"

"No." (because, I was thinking: he'll pull something out of his ass and claim it was off this mystery website) "I need to see a copy of the article. GO FIND ANOTHER ARTICLE."

So, I'm probably his bitch-of-the-week, but you know? I'm fed up with this. If I did work at the level people like this chap think they could get away with, I'd never have gotten tenure - hell, I'd never have gotten my contract renewed after the first year. And I continue to work over and above the call of duty. And, y'all? I'm TIRED. I could have been nicer to the guy but I'm just TIRED. Tired of being nice, tired of people assuming I will do things for them that they're supposed to do, tired of the attitude of "let's rush through this assignment so we can go out and fish."

Okay. And before anyone in some other profession says, "Then why don't you quit and do something else if you hate it so much?" I don't hate it. What I hate is the attitudes of a few, isolated individuals who seem to think that either the universe revolves around them, or that they have some special dispensation to slack off and still get grades equal to those of the majority of the students who do the work.

It's the bad apples that spoil the whole barrel, as the saying goes. It's the bad attitude people I tend to notice and need to complain about - because if I don't complain about it HERE, the bad feeling slops over into my other classes, and I don't want that to happen. So this is kind of a safety valve.

But I'm still ticked off at that guy. He had three friggin' weeks to find a suitable paper, and from what he had done, it looked like he probably tried to do it late last night.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I'm starting to get excited. Because of a rare convergence of events, I can take a week plus off at Thanksgiving this year (no classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus another surprise day off).

I am going to travel to visit my parents. Normally this is a big pain, as normally I'm in the immediately-pre-Thanksgiving crowd of people - and there are few things that can deflate my happiness faster than a cranky, immediately-pre-holiday crowd of people. But this year, I'm traveling a whole week before (and I have a compartment on the train, so even if there ARE cranky people, I get to avoid them). And I have enough time off that I don't have to turn around and go back just as the tiredness from traveling up has worn off.

I really like Thanksgiving. It's one of my favorite holidays. These days, it's kind of a "forgotten" holiday, a little speed bump between Hallowe'en and Christmas. (I would speculate that that is because they can't push a lot of "buy buy buy" for Thanksgiving, unless you're talking about food for the feasts - not many people really decorate a lot, and you don't give gifts, and there aren't costumes, and it seems there's less pressure - in my circle at least - to give a real, over-the-top party for the holiday).

Thanksgiving is fairly simple. Ideally, you get together with people you care a lot about, and you eat a big meal, and you talk about what you're grateful for, and maybe you watch a little football or "Miracle on 34th Street."

Even if you don't have a lot of good close people - or can't get to them - I think MOST people can conjure up thoughts of at least a few things they're thankful for. (Even if it's just a day off).

Oh, I know, in some families the day's probably fraught with drama. In my own family, my brother and his wife are a little conflicted because her mother REALLY REALLY WANTS (read: using guilt as a weapon) for them to come for the day. But they only get one day off - Turkey day itself - and it's just too far for them to travel reasonably. My parents are closer, but they're even kind of far for my brother and sister-in-law to come to (and besides, it would cause some bad feelings if her mom found out).

But at any rate: my immediate family is pretty sane and low-key about stuff (I know my mom's a little disappointed they can't come, but she understands), and so getting to see them is good. Getting to be with them is good.

I realize that cooking the big meal can be kind of a production. My mom's never complained about it - I do help, doing stuff like chopping vegetables and washing pots and pans as needed, but I leave the difficult stuff to her - she's better at making piecrust and rolls than I am, and I'm not sure I could stuff a turkey that well. And she's never complained, and when my dad offered to take us OUT for the dinner, she insisted that she didn't want that, that restaurant food was "not right" for Thanksgiving (and I have to admit, I silently agree. If she had wanted to go out, I wouldn't have said anything, but I'm happy she wants to cook.)

I guess I'm still in kind of the "kid" role, as I don't host the dinner - most of the big responsibilities are off my shoulders; I don't have to pick out the turkey or make the pies or really do much other than what I would have done when I was 10 or 12. And you know, I have to admit, I kind of like that sometimes. Being a responsible adult is very nice and is important to be, most of the time, but it's also nice to be taken care of a little bit sometimes. (And my mom is good at taking care of people.)

I have some pretty rigid ideas of what I "want" to do on Thanksgiving: get up early with my mom and help her start stuff, putting the chestnuts on to boil and such. Then watch the parade. I love the Macy's parade even though they've made two alterations in recent years I'm not so fond of: first, the insertion of scenes to "sell" Broadway plays to the folks watching at home who just MIGHT be traveling to NYC in the holiday season*

(*And I wonder what the stagehands' strike will do to that this year, if it's not worked out by then)

I don't care for it because it slows the parade down - and frankly, I cringe at the dancers out there in their tiny costumes. It's usually cold in NYC that time of year (and that early in the morning) and I wonder if anyone gets hurt from exerting in the cold. (I assume the singing is pre-recorded? I can't imagine someone who is in a show wanting to risk their voice singing in maybe 30 degree weather). And I don't have the kind of life where I can whisk off to New York to see a show during the "holidays," so it's kind of wasted on me.

I'm also sad that they have to practically ground the balloons now. Oh, I know - it's for safety's sake (so much of the loss of good things of my youth seems to be "for safety's sake" these days). Yes, I know, there was a bad freak accident a few years ago, and they have to protect the people watching (and their assets). But it's not the same as it was when I was a kid. (And if it's real windy, there may be no balloons at all. And really, the balloons are WHY I watch the parade.)

So anyway. I still watch the parade even though I kind of go into eye-rolly bored teenager mode when the show-pieces come on, or when the hosts go through their litany of excruciating puns. (I like puns as much as the next person, but here's a clue: puns are funny when they are unexpected. When they're tortured into being, they're just painful and embarrassing to watch).

And if either "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Miracle on 34th Street" (the 1947 version, and preferably un-colorized) is on after that, I generally want to watch that, too.

Because part of my love of Thanksgiving is that I see it as the Gateway to Christmas. (Oh, yes, I know - those of us who are practicing Christians have that strange split-personality this time of year - in church we celebrate Advent, which is in some ways Lent Lite, where we search our souls and prepare for what is to happen. But in our "outside," secular, social lives, there's a whirl of parties and gift-obtaining and decorating and things that are rather un-Advent-like. But I enjoy both, and I hope my love of putting up decorations and baking cookies isn't biting too much into my contemplation of the Divine).

When I was a kid, the day after Thanksgiving was the day decorations went up. Not just in the stores - on the town square in the little town where we lived. The fire department's bucket trucks would be out, putting up the lights on the spruce trees and putting the big mouse on the clocktower (one of the famous and memorable holiday decorations in my hometown was that a large mouse - a re-enactment, I guess, of Hickory Dickory Dock - was placed on the clocktower at Christmas. Funny, how somehow nursery rhymes and fairy tales seem to be brought out at Christmas...I never thought about that before).

Now, of course, it's a lot earlier (it's a real mental disconnect to walk into a Hobby Lobby on a 101* day in August and see Christmas trees up), but I'm able to kind of ignore the decorations and stuff - I'm not one of those people who complains about being "sick of Christmas" when it comes. (It helps that I'm usually so busy between early October and Thanksgiving that I don't really do much shopping). But at Thanksgiving, I let myself start thinking about Christmas, noticing the decorations, pulling out my (many, many) CDs of Christmas music and listening to them.

At any rate - Thanksgiving is, in my mind, partly the doorway into a lot of good things.

But Thanksgiving is good in and of itself. I think it's important for us in modern-day America to set aside a day when we think about all the good things we have, all the things we should be thankful for. I tend to think that gratitude and a sense of entitledness are mutually incompatible - that if you feel one, you're not going to feel the other. And I do think we need more stopping-and-thinking-and-feeling-grateful in our culture.

So many things. So much to be grateful for.

I think I recounted the story before of how once, in a Thanksgiving get-together with a group of friends, we were going around and listing things we were thankful for. And I said "indoor plumbing" and everyone laughed. But it's true - have you tried living without it? It is such a great blessing to be able to turn on a tap and have clean, safe water - and, for that matter, water heated to a desirable temperature if you're going to bathe.

Really - indoor plumbing is one of the things I'm most grateful for. I'm serious about that.

And then there's the meal. My family is very traditional; we have the same menu (pretty much) that we've had my entire life: turkey. New England-style bread and chestnut stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy from the turkey (not giblet gravy; I think my dad's the only one who likes giblets and my brother and I actively detest them). Sweet potatoes and/or corn. Brussels sprouts, for those who like them (the sweet potatoes and/or corn are for those who don't). Homemade dinner rolls. Cranberry sauce. Pie, either pumpkin, apple, mince, or two of those three. Tea after dinner (milk or water with dinner - or, if we're dining apart from a very temperance-minded friend who we have been inviting in recent years, wine, for those who want it).

And it is something I look forward to every year. I am not one of those foodies who wants something innovative - innovation is fine at other times, but Thanksgiving is when I want what I've been having for years. And don't talk to me about the calories or fat content - it is just one day out of the year. (Yes - the little mailer from my health-insurance plan came the other day, and one of the "feature stories" was "OMG do you know how many calories are in Thanksgiving dinner OMG!" Thanks, Captain Bringdown. [Though I would argue their portion quantities are off - I NEVER eat 6 whole ounces of turkey; I'd think I consume closer to 3. And a half cup of potatoes rather than a full cup. For me, the point is to have enough room to enjoy EVERYTHING and I know the limits of my appetite] But still - we hear the tired old drumbeat of "calories bad, carbs bad, fat bad, food bad" every day of our lives - can we have at least ONE day off where the idea is "just enjoy; this is only one day out of the year"?)

At any rate - it will be a good break. A break I really feel like I need. So I'm counting the (few!) days down to this Thursday, when I get to go to see my family.

And, oh, there is SO much I have to be thankful for this year.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Lunch out

In my department, we have get-togethers over lunch from time to time. Part of this is that there aren't a lot of good and not-madly-busy-at-lunch restaurants close to campus, and part of it is it's just easier for everyone to get to eat - some people have class at noon but are free at 11, some people are free at noon but are in class right up to that time, etc.

So, we are having a pre-Thanksgiving "feast" next week. No one had signed up for the main dish so I offered to buy and have a turkey smoked. (It costs money for the smoker to do it, but it's easier than me having to babysit the thing for the 7 hours or whatever it would take to cook a turkey the size we'd need. And I'm not getting up at 4 am to put a turkey in the oven. And I know enough about bacteria to not want to put it in overnight on 250* or whatever it was that one of my friends' mothers did).

So I went out at noon today and bought the turkey (and it was a good thing I did - they're already getting picked over. The local grocery stores are strange - they restock ONLY at set times, and if a shelf runs out of something, they just shrug and go "we're out" even though they have it in their storeroom).

I ran it down to one of the local smoker/barbecue places. The lady knew exactly what was needed; the turkey will be done Wednesday (it was frozen and she kindly offered to thaw it in the restaurant's huge fridge; I would not have room for it at home).

After I filled out the information she needed (contact information and such), I spied that a booth was open. So I decided it was a sign I was supposed to grab lunch there - this is a restaurant that NEVER has a booth open over the lunch hour. So I told her I was going to get lunch and she said she'd send a server out.

I ordered my usual - the half order of ribs, with a side of beans and a root beer. It came quickly. The restaurant isn't fancy - the ribs are served sitting on Wonder bread in one of those oval plastic basket things, and the beans come in a little Styrofoam cup. But the food is reasonably priced and good.

I don't eat out often for lunch any more. When I first moved down here I did nearly every week - part of it was that my apartment kitchen was so small, dark, and depressing that I cooked as little as I could manage. And part of it was I was still kind of sad and shell-shocked from having moved nearly a thousand miles away from everyone and everything I knew. And it was a little bit of comfort, that weekly lunch out.

Over time, I sort of dropped that tradition - partly because I had a couple hellacious semesters where I barely had time to EAT lunch, let along go out somewhere. And I got more adjusted to living here, happier. And I own a house now that has a nice enough kitchen - if I'm going off campus for lunch, I usually go home and throw together a salad or make scrambled eggs or heat up last night's leftovers. It's cheaper and probably better for me on a regular basis.

But once in a while, it's nice to just go out for lunch. Today it looked like a real fall day - overcast, gray, the leaves have begun to turn. It's not chilly out but you could imagine that it was, looking out a window from indoors, because of the gray sky.

And I like the little restaurant I was in - it's one of my favorite places, as much for the way it feels as for the food. It's an odd little place - a single-wide trailer that's been modded so that it's a restaurant interior. Knotty pine paneling is on all the walls and the rather low sloping ceiling. The benches are built of the same stuff. There are perhaps a dozen or fifteen booths, plus a little cart that has additional condiments (jalapenos, chopped onions, extra sauce) in case you want them. It's kind of like what a restaurant would be if a submarine designer was on the design team.

I'm sure some more sophisticated types would think it was a truly awful place, but it makes me happy.

And so I sat there in my booth (it was the last booth up against the back wall of the building, and I was sitting with my back against the back wall, so I could see the whole restaurant). And I looked around.

And this is one of the things I love about small town restaurants: the mix of people who eat there. There was a group of students from the local high school with one of their teachers (I'm guessing it was a club having a noon meeting; they seemed to be discussing plans for something). There was a local dentist and his wife. There was a group of construction workers and their wives. There were a couple banker-looking types. And there was me. Everyone eats in the same place. There's no separation of black, white, Hispanic, native American. There's less separation by socioeconomic class. It's a real cross-section. And everyone was pretty happy and polite; the waitresses walked around making sure everyone had "plenty" (that's their question: they ask you if you have "plenty") and refilling drinks.

The food there is good. Oh, it's probably not the best barbecue ever and probably isn't the best I've ever had. But it has the virtue of being good and being close. And their beans are unusually good - unlike the way most of the people in my family make beans (baked beans with lots of sugar and molasses and junk), these are JUST beans - pinto beans with a little onion and a little ham or maybe salt pork in them. And they're cooked just right - they're not hard but not mushy. I have to say I prefer the Southern way of cooking dry beans (which is more like this method) to the traditional Northern way of making baked beans (again - all that sugar. I just don't like my vegetables to be sweet, unless they're naturally sweet like winter squash).

So I ate my half order of ribs and my beans and I drank my root beer. I looked at the desserts on the menu (fried pies, cobbler, ice cream) but decided I was too full to eat anything more.

I paid and the lady up front told me she'd see me again next week (when I pick up the turkey).

It was a nice small treat. Just what I needed today.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Real ID" can eff off

So. My driver's license expires in February. I am thinking about this NOW, because of the "we want to be really, really sure you're not a terrorist, or if you are, that you're good at faking documents" act.

Yet another way of generating headaches for the law-abiding U.S. citizen, and something that people who aren't supposed to be here will probably have some way of circumventing.

What I need to renew my license is this:

1. The old license
2. My birth certificate (Which I will be picking up from my parents when I visit at Thanksgiving)
3. Proof of Social Security number
4. Documentation of where I live ("Such as a utility bill")
5. Proof of lawful entry/residency (the Hell? I was born here. Does this not apply to me? Please say that this does not apply to me. I have no way to prove my 'right' to be here, outside of my birth certificate, my tax returns, and my property tax bills)

#3 is going to be a problem. I cannot find my SS card. No, it's not a "I think an illegal alien has it" issue; it's a "It's buried deep in one of the approximately 1582 file folders I have stashed in my home office or it's in my safety deposit box and if it's not in my safety deposit box there is no way on God's green Earth I am digging through every-damn-one of those folders until I find it."

Has anyone got their card replaced? The government website makes it sound laughably easy - fill out a form and bring clear proof of who you are. But that makes me suspicious - it is probably laughably easy for some people, but if I walked in there I'd be willing to bet they'd give me the 3rd degree and then deny me.

I don't know whether to begin searching for the dang card and hope I find it, or to take my chances reapplying (I don't even KNOW where the nearest local SS office is.)

I might be able to track down that thing the government sends me every year that tells me how much money is purportedly in that (non-existent) "lockbox" for me. I wonder if that would count. Or if I could get a notarized statement from my HR department with the number on it and a verification that "Yes, this woman is who she claims to be."

I just feel like - I should NOT have to be doing this, not at this stage of the game. It especially irks me that I know there are going to be criminals - people flying under the radar - who will have faked documents or will pay off the right functionary and breeze right through, while I waste spend an entire Saturday afternoon searching for a 1.5" by 2.5" piece of cardstock with some blue ink on it because it's supposedly necessary for me to renew the license I've had for 20-some years.


(Oh, and incidentally? To actually get that list of stuff, know where I had to go? The Snopes site! I cannot easily find a .gov page that lists it! All the other links that come up are either government sites justifying how this is Necessary and Important and Really Not That Big A Hassle At All, or conspiracy-theorist sites that are saying, "This is the first step! Next step is that they ear-tag us all like cattle!"

But do you know how much it IRRITATES me that I have to go to an urban-legends site for IMPORTANT information that I NEED to have because of something the GOVERNMENT is changing?)

Oh - and they were reporting on it on the local news, but I missed that story because that was the VERY MOMENT my youth group co-leader called up to let me know that there's no one signed up to provide food for the kids for dinner tonight. Sigh. So I guess it's ricki-foots-the-bill-for-pizza again.

a realization

For the longest time, I have been bugged when people "flaunt" their green-ness. I mean, the people who walk around being kind of ostentatious about saving energy or not using resources or stuff like that.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm all for conservation. There's a lot of stuff I do myself. But I did not buy a canvas sack emblazoned "This Is Not A Plastic Bag" and take it to the grocery and insist that the sacker put all my groceries in there, as I wave it around casually for other people to see.

And it hit me this morning why that behavior bugs me.

It's a parallel, in my mind at least, of this:

"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

It's also like the comment about "when you fast, don't go around all longfaced about how horrible you feel, that's just showing off" that is made elsewhere in the New Testament.

The people I deal with who are selfconsciously green, though, tend to brag about it, rather than walking around all sad-faced. It's like "Gee, I don't even MISS using hot water!" or stuff like that. And I kind of roll my eyes and go, whatever.

I mean - when I was a kid, my dad was hollering at us (this was during the energy crisis of the 70s) to turn off lights in rooms when we left them, and to turn off the water while we were brushing our teeth, stuff like that - a lot of the little ingrained habits that came out of my dad's frugality are stuff that some people tout as "the new green."

And it does kind of bug me when people play "who drives the fewest miles" poker. It's not useful or helpful and it does kind of create irritation in others.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

annual review

We have to do these "development plans" every year that explain what we did in the last year. And then we have to go in and talk it over with our department chairs (and, if we disagree on the 'ratings,' argue it out.)

There are four rating categories at my university, which are oddly like the pre-letter-grade grades my elementary school used to give out:

needs improvement

So I went in today. My department chair asked me what I thought I deserved. (In another instance, I might hate that tactic, but I know she figures we know our own abilities better than she does). I reminded her that I presented a paper at an international conference this summer - so that rates an "outstanding" in scholarship (well, it does. That's the established standard). She agreed with me and wrote that down. And I remarked that I had been a committee-chair in a state organization this past year, and she agreed that that deserved Commendable.

What about teaching? she asked me. I began. I really haven't being doing anything innovative or wonderful or special (and remember, I'm still hurting from those bad tests). I guess a 'satisfactory' I said, and started to explain more why.

She stopped me.

No, she said. You deserve a "commendable." I'm giving you a "commendable."

I like that my department chair has more faith in me than I have in myself.

I think I've said before that I tend to be hyperactively self-critical - I can see all the areas where I've screwed up generally before I see the areas where I did okay (or better than okay.) Sometimes it helps to have someone go, "No, ricki, you're better than you think you are."

I also like my department chair. She's very low-key, she doesn't believe in berating people to do BETTER or do MORE or to have to resort to Powerpoints of dancing ducks and explosions to get student interest. She's more concerned about good scholarship and good standards than she is about flash and surface stuff.


Thanks, Cullen. I know it's not my fault but one of the longstanding edumacational paradigms is that if a student fails, you first look to blame the teacher.

The fact is, looking back over the exams - most of the students in the class scored respectably (70s and 80s, and this is not an easy class). It was just the bad-attitude guys that really bombed.

Still, since I gave them the "left back at Howard Johnson's" lecture that MY stats teacher gave me - basically, he used the metaphor of a family trip where someone who had been sleeping in the car goes to the restroom and gets left behind because they didn't tell anyone they were going to the restroom - I'm going to take a day and review the stuff that was missed. Or at least the stuff that was badly missed.

What aggravates me is that I have been really up-front about "do you need me to go over this again?" or "Do you want me to work another example?" and none of them ever ask for one. (Once in a while one of the other students will say, "I didn't quite get that, can you go over it again?" and I do. Or they come to my office hours.)

So, whatever.

It does sort of frustrate me that it seems that people are choosing leisure over responsibility because in the coming month, the run-up to Christmas, I'd love to take piles of time and bake cookies and make candy and sew up homemade decorations and all that crazy Martha Stewart stuff. But I don't - or rather, I set aside one Saturday to bake cookies and that's it - because I know I need to spend my time on other things.

I think that's actually the main lesson of adulthood: Sometimes what you need to do and what you want to do do not coincide, and you should usually choose doing what you need to do.

And I think it's again this stuck-in-adolescence problem - so many kids, their parents bail them out at the first sign of trouble. Or their parents go, "Oh, that's okay, you can do your chores later..." because they want to be their kid's friend.

I don't know where I'm going with this. I do think there's a tie-in to the whole loss of adulthood thing.

I'm just still gobsmacked at the guy who thought he could claim he "read the date wrong" that it was due, after I announced it three times in class and had it in big bold letters on top of the exam.

Monday, November 05, 2007


You've been warned.

I gave a take-home exam in my stats class last week. The students had 10 DAYS to complete that mother, including 2 entire weekends. I collected the exams today.

I had two come to me late - even though, on the top, it said in big huge letters the time and date it was due. I had one person claim to have "misread" the due-in time.

Whatever, bro.

But what is making me angry - and sad - and angry again - is that people have left whole entire sections BLANK. They didn't even try. I give a few pity-points if people at least calculate the mean and standard deviation on something even if they can't do the test. And I know it wasn't an impossible test because I have people who successfully completed it.

I don't know whether:
a. I can't teach the people who are bombing


b. They just don't give a $#)(*%.

(Upon reflection: most of them are people who were absent for more than one day. And I have emphasized to no end how important attendance is - I work through all the examples of the tests they need to know, I take questions, I go over the homework - I even do all the calculations that were in the homework I hand back on the board, so if people messed up, they should be able to figure out the issue).

Part of it, I suspect, is that it's hunting season here. The people who are bombing are the big hunters in my class. So I suppose it might be that they couldn't be arsed to take a couple hours on a weekend because they were out in the deer woods.

And you know, I support people's right to hunt and all, but - you are a college student. You are trying to get a degree. This class is required for graduation with the degree you want. You are, to put it bluntly, effing up. And you know you are effing up - you have done poorly on previous homework.

I have 10 hours of office hours a week.

There is no excuse for you not getting help: you know you are having trouble. I have asked for questions in class. I have made it abundantly clear (I hope) that I expect people to come in on my office hours if they have difficulty - there is no official lab time for this class, so I consider people coming in for one-on-one help to take the place of a lab.

The thing is, I know I'm going to be met with this wall of resentment when I hand the tests back Wednesday: "You made the test too hard. You never explained this to us. It wasn't in the book. It wasn't in my notes. This class should be easier." blah, blah, blah.

You know what? There are a HELLA lot of things I'd rather be doing than grading homework/tests/writing class prep/trying to figure out new and different ways to explain things/write homework/write and grade "remedial" homework for the stuff you effed up before. But it is my RESPONSIBILITY to teach you. So I put off doing things I want to do (even things I need to do, like laundry) to take that RESPONSIBILITY.

Don't hand in a half-blank test and whine that you didn't have enough time to complete it, and that I never taught that stuff anyhow. Neither of those statements is true.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

"At their level"

I had meetings to travel to earlier this week. On the way, I flipped through the various radio stations (most of the stations around here, like the lady at the honky-tonk in The Blues Brothers, make the proud claim that "We play BOTH kinds of music! Country AND Western!").

I hit on a talk station, which was preferable to some of the things.

And an ad came on that made me think - and I'm still thinking about it. It was apparently one of those megachurches, where they have a group for everyone and a wide range of social activities. And one of the things the announcer said kind of bugged me. He made a comment along the lines of, "And we have groups for youth, too - we meet them on their own level with exciting, drama-based lessons and video game stations."

First of all: what kind of video games? Do they just have ordinary but maybe "family friendly" games like Tetris and Guitar Hero, or do they have special Youth Group video games, like "David's Target Practice" or "Spot the Pharisee"?

And second - this raises an issue that frankly bugs me. Not just about churches, but also about education and society at large.

Yes, I understand that sometimes you need to meet youth or the unchurched or students or whomever where they are. But you damn well better not LEAVE them there! I wonder about the kind of faith a kid might develop if he is only ever exposed to fun song-and-dance type lessons, or video games, or all that kind of entertainment-oriented stuff. What happens when he hits a difficult point in his life? (I guess what I'm thinking here: don't coddle them - just like you don't water your lawn a little bit every day in a dry climate, because it then never develops the deep roots that can sustain it when there's a period when you can't or are not permitted to water it, you don't always do the happy-clappy stuff so that when the person hits the inevitable pain in life, they don't recoil from the church and think it is a place that cannot help them, because "it's just for happy people.")

As the saying goes: we need to do the hard things.

And I am concerned about that. It seems so much any more there's a push to shield people - especially young people and students - so they are kept as long as possible from having to do the hard things. And you know what? Just as a muscle becomes soft and weak by not being exercised, I think a person's moral capacity can become soft and weak when they are kept from the normal difficulties in life (or, worse, when they are shielded from the consequences of their actions).

I hear this a lot from educators: "Make it fun!" or "Have a student-centered classroom!" (which usually actually means: show movies, allow discussion extraneous to the topic at hand, throw softball test questions at them). And you know what?

I am not here to make the students like me, my subject, or the class. I am here to help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to be productive and well-rounded citizens.

Especially in the majors classes - I do not think I should have to "sell" the subject. If a student majoring in Biology doesn't love biology, thinks it's too hard or stupid or boring or not worthwhile or feels they shouldn't have to work for their degree, they need to be in another major. Not in mine.

I do try to make the subjects interesting - I bring in real-world examples, if I can come up with a funny anecdote to illustrate my point, I use it. Or I do activities appropriate to the topic. (I work very hard to choose lab activities that reinforce and mesh with what they're learning in lecture).

Now, don't get me wrong - not everyone loves every subject in their field equally well. That's why people specialize. But I've had a few students who hated ALL of their classes - who griped about all their professors, about all the projects they were doing. They just seemed miserable - there was no spark of enjoyment there, no sense of "This is something I want to be doing."

Either they need some kind of intervention (chemical or talk-therapy, because they are suffering from depression), or they need to look for a new career. I find it hard to deal with people who are ALWAYS sour and are ALWAYS bored with everything.

And I refuse to dumb down my classes - to take out some of the much-complained-about math in my Ecology class, or stop teaching certain topics in general biology, or not do "all that chemistry" in Soils. Because that is stuff a person who has had a class in that field needs to know! I do not want graduates to go out from our department with our name on their diplomas, and then have the employers later go, "Man, it was a mistake hiring someone from THAT school. Let's never do that again."

I don't know. I wonder at people who look at every challenge they are faced with and automatically shut down - automatically go "this is too hard" and don't even try. Or worse, who go running to someone to try to intervene for them and get a stop put to the hard thing.

Actually, the most satisfying things I've ever done in my life have been the hardest. Dealing with essentially being asked to leave the first graduate program I was in (I was partly sabotaged by a particular faculty member, but I didn't find that out until later - it was the first time I had "failed" at a big thing in my life and it took a lot of soul-searching to deal with it). Doing the research for and writing my dissertation. Moving a thousand miles away from family to a town I'd never heard of before I sent the job application in and starting to teach from scratch in my first real job ever. Revitalizing a youth group after a congregational split, when I had never worked with anyone under 18. Heading a campus committee where there was a lot of in-fighting and a lot of things done that really weren't with the students' best interests at heart, and really pushing the group to consider the students' best interests. (And I think I succeeded on that last one. I saw one of my former committee members a few weeks ago - normally we never have contact as we're in different schools, let alone different departments, and he commented on my leadership of the committee and how he appreciated that "you always put what was best for the students first, even if it wasn't popular with everyone." And that committee chairmanship was one of the hardest things I've done, because I HATE conflict and would much rather just not say anything, compromise, allow people to run over me. But there are some things that are just NOT right, and in that case, I guess I can find the guts to step up and say, "No, that is not right. We need to do it this way.")

And you know? I look back on all the hard things and I go, "You know? I'm stronger than I think I am." And I think that's an important lesson. Now when I face something difficult, I can say to myself, "You survived these things in the past, you can survive this."

It's by doing the hard things that I know I can do them. I know that sounds kind of silly and tautological, but it's easy to get stuck in the loop of "this is too HARD. I can't DO THIS." and never move out of it.

And it's the same way with faith. I am not satisfied that my youth group kids can merely parrot the Ten Commandments back to me; what I want is for them to be able to explain why they are important, why THAT ten, and how the commandments apply to their everyday lives.

And you know what? When you expect a lot of people, sometimes they rise to that. Oh, there are weeks when I'm met by blank stares or by responses that show they didn't "get" the question. But other times they really have good insights, and they ask good pointed questions about things. Or they share things that happened during the week and once and a while I get the feeling of "Yes! Some of this IS sinking in!"

And I think because I make it challenging - I make the lessons more intellectual or more scriptural than what a lot of my friends who lead youth groups do - I think the kids respond to that. I do think young people want challenges...or at least they want them until they hit a point where they've been so coddled for so long that their ability to work hard or think hard has atrophied.

I think the other thing is that there's an awful fear of failure, and a strong desire to protect kids from it.

Now, don't get me wrong: I HATE failing at stuff. Hate it tremendously. When I do screw up and something I try fails, I either go home and cry about it for a day or two (if it's a big thing) or stomp around and cuss for an hour or two (if it's a little thing). But at the end of that time, I kind of square my shoulders and go, "Okay. THAT didn't work. Now what do I try?" And I try again.

Failure sucks but it can also be useful, in the sense of that you know one way that doesn't work.

And sometimes failure plays a more corrective role. It teaches us not to do that thing again.

(Though I guess not everyone learns. We had to become much more anal-retentive about kids wearing their safety glasses in lab because a girl in one class [not my class] broke a pipette and got glass in her eye [doctors were able to remove it without any damage]. But you know what? The prof whose class she was in when it happened - and whose class she is in again this semester - says that of all the people in the class, she is the one she has to harp on the most to wear her safety goggles. That blows my mind, that she wouldn't be the FIRST one in the class to have them on every day.)

So, it worries me when people talk about "you need to meet them at their level" or "you need to interact with them at their level" or, worst, "you need to bring it down to their level." Okay, maybe sometimes you need to start where people are - but you also need to bring them up to another level. You need to install some aspiration in people. It's because of people's aspirations - because of people saying "Where we are now is not good enough" that we have things like antibiotics and the polio vaccine and electricity and computers and clean water and all the blessings of the modern's why we're not still living in the trees and having to spend 15 hours a day hunting and gathering food.

And you know? Having aspirations and not just saying, "oh, well, where we are now isn't great but it's too much trouble to try for more, and anyway we might fail" has worked awfully well for us in the past. I'd hate to see "let's just meet people where they are and not take them out of their comfort zone, because that might hurt their feelings" become the new paradigm of life.

dancing cat

hahahaha. This one reminds me of one of the first LOLcat pictures I ever saw:

What makes me laugh about that one is that I used to think I was the only person who remembered the Merrie Melodies cartoon that it referenced. One of the things I love about the Internet is that just about any weird little fact you know - or any odd little thing you cherish - there is someone else out there who knows it or cherishes it, too, and the Internet gives you a chance to find them.

(I loved those old, old Merrie Melodies when I was a kid. They seemed so distant somehow - they made references to movie stars or singers or current events I had only read about in history books. The "I like to sing-a" bit is from one with a little owl in it ("Owl Jolson"?) who wants to sing jazz, but his Old-Country parents want him to sing "Drink to me only with thine eyes" for the school talent show.

It's funny, when I think about it, but a lot of what I know about attitudes and pop culture of the 30s and 40s came FROM watching the old Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. I learned what a war bond was after seeing Bugs Bunny exhort people to buy them in some old cartoon.

I wonder what people in 2070 will learn [or think they have learned] about today's culture from watching the cartoons made now. I have to say I think they will learn more from shows like "South Park" than they will from the cartoons made for kids - many of which seem to have as their main frame of reference, "Collect all the toys made as tie-ins for this show.")

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Halowe'en wrap-up

I didn't get many trick or treaters last night. I think it was partly because I was (grr) the ONLY HOUSE ON MY BLOCK handing out candy. (People? It's one night a year. Can you make an effort?)

I did get to see some cute and funny costumes though.

Best costume, older-kid division: a girl dressed up (apparently a homemade costume) as a S'more. (I had to ask her what she was). She was in a white sweatsuit, with a brown pillow strapped to her front (as the chocolate) and then sandwich-board-style cardboard pieces with lines and dots on them to represent the graham crackers.

There were also a lot of tweens dressed as, I guess, popstars (One of my friends who has kids says a popstar character named Hannah Montana is big this year, but I don't know who that is, so the girls could have been her and I didn't realize it). Big big sunglasses and bell-bottomed jeans. (Maybe they were going as Hippies. I don't know).

There were also a lot of - for lack of a better term - glamour witches. I don't mean "sexy" witches - I will say I didn't see a single inappropriate costume (at least, inappropriate in that way) last night. No, these girls had glitter on their pointy hats and makeup on and their witches dresses either had glitter or lacy edges on the sleeves and hem or both. It was sort of a cute look.

Best costumes, tiny kid division:

one little boy, I think he was about 3, dressed up as a wee tiny ninja. It was so funny. I think he was the best, but the tiny little boy (so small his mom had to help him up my front steps) dressed as a skeleton (in a very detailed costume: the "bones" were actually 3-d molded rubber instead of just painted on the bodysuit, and then he had white make-up on to make the skull) was a close second.

There were also a couple of tiny Disney Princesses. Or maybe a Princess and a Tinkerbell. I couldn't tell too well with the tinier girl what she was.

There was also a little girl dressed as a princess (her brother was a little Jack Sparrow) who had their dog with them - a little French bulldog - and he was wearing a skeleton suit! That made me laugh, too.

There were a few gory costumes - or sort of half-hearted gory costumes, where the kids had sort of runny makeup and splashed a little fake blood on a t-shirt. I personally find those less amusing than the all-out costumes, like the little kids who wanted to be a perfect princess or a perfect pirate or something.

No Harry Potter costumes this year. For the past few years I got at least one or two.

Also no college-kids trick-or-treating for canned goods for the local food pantry. Usually that happens too, and I was prepared for it.

I have to say

Something I am very tired of in our culture is the apparent increasing need to air one's dirty laundry in public.

This morning, I stayed home a little later than usual - I don't teach on Thursday, and with the new "designated faculty parking" I don't have to get in at the crack of 7 am in order to be able to park within a half-mile of my building any more. And I had to do some packing for some meetings I'm going to this weekend.

I had had the local NBC affiliate morning news (which is marginally less stupid than the local CBS affiliate's; the NBC folks have one of the "morning mouths" from one of the local radio stations in regularly to vent his poorly-formed opinions or make drooling comments about the hottie-of-the-moment, but the CBS affiliate devotes an inordinate about of time to the "Pathologically Worried Mom's Corner" or to the "Relationship Advice that if you Don't Know it Already, You Probably Don't Deserve to Be In a Relationship." And they tend to have fewer actual, you know, NEWS stories).

Anyway...the network morning show (ummmmm...Today? Is that the NBC one? I'm usually at my desk by 7 am so I kind of forget) was on, and Paul McCartney's most recent ex was all over the screen - I heard a soundbite about how she was apparently being vilified in the press and really really wanted it to stop.

And you know? I do not care. I am not interested. Okay, maybe the press IS being unfair to her - but I have no grounds to evaluate it as I do not live in Britain and do not read their newspapers. And if she is being vilified as bitchy or unpleasant or a gold-digger, wouldn't it be best to kind of fade from sight, and let the press latch on to the next convenient target? Or something?

I mean, it's kind of like Larry Craig in a way: he got caught very possibly doing something he should not have been doing. But instead of starting off issuing a simple denial and then refusing to comment, he's just been all over the place. It's become a joke.

I was raised to believe that the best thing to do when you're in trouble is to quietly fess up, fix what can be fixed, and then shut up about it.

People seem to have forgotten the shut up part.

and the "quietly" part.

and the "fix" part, at least a lot of the time.

But I don't know...If I were married to some famous guy and we decided it wasn't working out, I'd probably ask for a settlement big enough to buy a very small house far, far out in the country (if I didn't have enough money of my own, and if there was some reasonable reason for me to ask for a settlement - like I put my own career and earning-potential on hold to help him, or something) and go there and just hang out until the next flavor of the month came along.

That said: why do there even have to be flavors-of-the-month on what is ostensibly "serious" or "semi-serious" news? Don't we have an "E" network that's devoted to this stuff? And three- yes, three- of the local affiliates here run "Entertainment Tonight" during that break between early-local news and prime time. So it's not like we're starved of our celebutainment.

But I look at all of the stories about Britney, about Craig, about what's-her-butt-McCartney's-ex and I wonder if it's kind of a bread-and-circuses thing - something we're being fed to keep us distracted from what's really going on in the world.