Friday, August 29, 2008

Stay safe, y'all

I don't know if any of my readers are in Gustav's path, but here's hoping for:

a. a quick weakening and downgrading of the storm
or, failing that

b. no flooding in NOLA
c. an orderly evacuation.

I don't live in a place that gets hurricane damage - true, once in a while we'll get heavy rains from the dying remnant of one. But...and not to preach at you too much, seeing as I don't know your circumstances - but if I lived where there were hurricanes, and one was heading my way, I'd have the family photos off the walls and carefully packed in boxes with bubblewrap, and my handmade quilts folded up and tucked into pillowcases, and a few other items that I would be kind of heartsick over losing carefully packed - and all of that either near my door, or already in my car (assuming I have a garage so no one would loot it at night).

And the minute a word is even breathed about "evacuation," I'd be gone. Probably on the way to my parents' house, or to any friend or family member out of danger who could put me up.

Because the house and the furniture isn't worth it. Even if it's a minor 'cane and looters come through (though looters after a disaster can most thoroughly FOAD, in Emily's parlance), it's not worth risking a life over.

(But I'd still take the pictures of my great grandparents if I at all could.)

So, I hope it misses you, if you're in the path. But if it's not gonna - get the heck out of there and stay safe.

Hurricanes are damn scary. I can't believe Katrina was three whole years ago.

more hopeful

A student just came in to discuss her project, and in the discussion, I got a distinct sense of the Tinkerer's Mentality I wrote about a year and a half ago.

Excellent. I'm glad to see people who are going, "Wait, I can figure this out" instead of "Waaaah! Dr. Ricki, do it FOR me!"

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ding, dong,

Smilin' Bob is dead.

(Well, not DEAD...the actor who played the toothy b*stard is surely still alive. But apparently the character is gone...seeing as the owner of the company that pushed that junk is being sent to prison for something that sounds distinctly like fraud to me).

I don't know about anyone else, but I found those to be the most cringe-making ads on television.

One good thing

I wonder if I have perhaps been sent a better class this fall, to make up for the troublesome class (the one with Entitlement Boy) over the summer.

It's the planning-stage time for their independent projects, and I've had more people come to me with good ideas this semester. (And fewer come in and throw up their hands and say, "I don't know what to do" and when I ask them what in ecology interests them, they shrug and say "I don't know...I can't think of anything.")

Some of the projects have been unusual. One person wants to do community surveys of shelf fungi in a couple different forests (I have never had anyone propose a fungus project before; most people at this level seem distinctly uninterested in fungi, unless you're talking about them as a pizza topping). Another one proposed a project that is probably too complex for the level of equipment and analysis we can do here (too bad, because it was a really good one) involving looking at a disjunct population of insects. And a couple other people have approached me with, "I've collected these data as sort of a side project on this other project I'm doing, could I analyze them and write them up for this class?" As long as they're not double-dipping (and in both cases this semester, they aren't), I'm happy to do that: they have a project already underway!

Also, they seem in general to have better attendance (though that might change; often as the semester rolls on attendance declines. I'm actually considering, next semester, doing a penalty of five points for every unexcused absence over, say, 4 absences. I hate doing it but I'm beginning to think I hate doing exam reviews to the six or seven students who are earning As anyway more. And I hate showing up on a Friday morning and finding only the high-dedication people there.) And they discuss more, and they seem to be better about answering my questions. (Though that may be only because I threatened to call on people randomly if no one answers.)

And I have a TA. He's actually IN the class, but that's no biggie, I don't have the TA grade anyway. And he's very responsible, so it's nice (for a change) to be able to give someone a list of "I'd like you to do these things to prep for lab" and then show up and find all the things ready to go. It's funny how important that is and yet how small it seems to write it out. It's very helpful to have a good lab-prep person.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CCFOAD part 1,000,000

I don't know the woman herself, but the daughter of some people I know has been re-diagnosed with cancer. (And it seems to have spread...there are masses now on her kidney and liver).

She is married and has two small children.

Cancer makes me both sad and angry.


I don't know that that's the most appropriate title, as I generally regard the place where I live now as "home," but I do feel kind of...I don't know, sad? Nostalgic? Lonely? for some of the places I used to live.

See, this is not my favorite time of year here. It's hot, it's horribly sticky, it's dry (though we might get rain later this week courtesy of Gustav). It's the time of year where it feels like nothing changes.

I want it to be fall. I want it to be fall quite badly.

I grew up - and until about 10 years ago, lived - in the Upper Midwest. Northeast Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. And there are some things about those places I miss: the fact that it's beginning to be harvest time there (my mom talked about buying some new-crop apples the last time I talked to her. In the grocery store nearest me, all they have are the tired old "lady" apples that have been flown in from Australia). It's cooling down there. People are beginning to get their fall clothes out.

I miss that. I miss the distinctness of the seasons. Where I live now, we have experienced temperatures in the upper 70s in December. I'm sorry, but that is Not Right. December should be cold. Uniformly cold. It should snow.

And late August should start feeling like fall, darn it. Not feel like summer is that guest, the one who stays long after everyone has left, the one who laughs a few seconds too long and too loudly at every joke, the partier who does the sad old trick of putting the lampshade on his head. Whatevs, summer, I'm done with you. Go and hibernate for another year. Sleep off your binge of heat and humidity and come back when I'm ready to welcome you again.

I kind of get a tiny hint - a tiny inkling of fall. Yesterday I had to walk (mostly) across campus - I had to get my allergy shot and thanks to the fact that there is construction on campus and EVERY SINGLE STUDENT who lives in the FREAKING DORMS has to have a car on campus - and has to park that car as close to the dorm they live in or the buildings they have class in - there are NO spots anywhere near to the student health services. (I really think - and I have told enough people this for it to be considered my "hobby horse" - that they need to designate a couple spots in the closest lot for the doctor and the nurse and the counselor, and they need to dedicate five or ten for people who are USING the health services. Because not all of us who come to health services are perfectly ambulatory people just coming for an allergy shot...)

Anyway, I parked at some distance and walked the half-mile or so to the campus health service (you thought I was exaggerating the bad parking situation, no? It's spaces that were legal for me to park in within a half mile of the place).

The light is beginning to get that yellow tone it does in fall - it's not the hard, white-hot light we get in summer any more - the light that feels like a kleig light, that feels like it's trying to x-ray you or something. Fall light is a lot softer, more mellow.

Walking across campus was pleasant enough (it's still a little hot for my perfect happiness though). The late afternoon light slanting across the lawns, the plantings in full flower. Signs up advertising fraternity and sorority rush. It was fairly quiet...not too many people about (the fact that it was after 4 may have had something to do with that). It makes me long for "real" fall, though. When the leaves turn (well, as much as they ever do down here), and there's that hint of chill in the air that makes you glad you have a jacket in the car. And being able to think about making soup again, or going somewhere to get a hot chocolate.

I miss fall. I miss cooler weather. This time of year makes me feel almost like they will never come back - as if summer will last forever, in some kind of horrible inversion of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," where the evil queen wants it to always be summer and never be...I don't know, never be Halloween or something like that. And where you feel like you're going to melt walking down the street, and you know you SHOULD work on your garden but the heat index is over 95 when you get home, so you don't, even though you fear your "Martha Stewart" neighbor is reporting you to the Nuisance Plant Bureau.

So I'm ready for the season to change. I wish it would come.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Trying to think of a nice way word a sign that could be interpreted as snarky.

Folks, the political posters have already started to go up on campus. And they've already started to be defaced (for both R and D, I hasten to point out).

I have no stomach for the level of political discourse that happens on campus. In fact, these days, I have very little stomach for politics in general - the whole circus that the conventions will be, the whole mess with the protesters (the group wanting to bring back 1968? I find that kind of distasteful. Wasn't 1968 kind of marked by violence?)

So what I really, really want to do is declare my office on campus a politics-free zone. A haven where I don't have to listen to the snark and the back-and-forth-backbiting that happens. Where I can concentrate on my WORK. Where I can prep for teaching and work on my research without having to constantly tell CERTAIN PEOPLE, "I am sorry but I am busy, I really need to get this done" when they come down wanting to share the latest discouraging bon mots they have come up with.

Because I'm tired of it now. I'm tired of the snark. I'm tired of the ad hominem attacks. Oh, I've done it myself. But I think I'm going to stop now. I want people to care about the issues. And it seems most of the political discussion on campus is very thin on issues, and very thick on "If you don't agree with me, you are a pinhead/evil/full of crap." And you know? I disagree with a lot of people. But I still want to hear WHY I disagree with them- where there ideas and experience are different. I don't want to immediately shut down someone as "wrong," just as I don't want to immediately be shut down as "wrong." But it seems that's the tone too many are taking.

And I'm just tired of the snarkiness (I know, I said that before.) I'm tired of the bad old jokes about Cheney or McCain or whomever. I don't want to hear it. Oh, I don't mind someone explaining why they won't vote for McCain, issues-wise, but I don't want to here "tired old man four more years of Bush evil corporations bla bla bla." Because it is OLD. And I don't want to hear anyone saying they won't vote for Obama because he's black. Or because he has big ears. Or because of one isolated thing he said - oh, I think if you look at patterns, if you pay attention to positions, it's fine. But picking one thing and hanging your whole decision on that, and playing that ONE DAMN THING over like a broken record...I'm done with it.

Can't we have the election tomorrow, please? I just want to get this over with. I know it's gonna get ugly here this fall and I can't play my internet radio loud enough to drown out the arguments in the hall.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


My former student DID call around lunchtime - she'd been out of town for work earlier that week, was having to re-pack for a trip she was going on this coming week, and "things were just crazy."

So she came in late in the day and did the stuff we needed to have done.

Because she didn't HAVE to do this for us, and because she drove her own vehicle some 50 miles (each way) to do so, I insisted on taking her out for dinner.

And we got to talking. And eventually the conversation came around to the classes I teach, one of which she had taken. And I told her about entitled-boy from this summer, the one who claimed the others were cheating, and so he deserved a higher grade. (I didn't name names but it wouldn't have mattered anyway; she doesn't know anyone attending the college right now).

She agreed it was a fishy strategy to try. And then we got to talking about cheating and plagiarism. And I talked about how much I hated the knowledge that some students were cheating but I couldn't catch it or prove it. (I do come down hard on people who plagiarize or who blatantly cheat on tests. They get a 0 for whatever it is, with no option for a re-do. And if they do it more than once - no one ever has - I plan to haul them up in front of the Student Affairs Committee. And their butts would very likely be bounced out).

Anyway, I talked about how much I hated it, and about how I felt like it hurt the honest students - like, if someone could get a B.S. degree having cheated their way through, didn't that take away from the effort of a person who came by that same degree by honest work?

And she told me a couple of things that made me think about it differently.

First, she asked me: did people cheat when you were in college? Yeah, I said, I suppose they did, though I never really paid any attention to it; I was so focused on doing my work that I didn't really care too much about what other people were doing.

Well, she asked, do you feel like your degree is any less because some of those people cheated? Do you feel like your accomplishments are any less?

No, of course not.

And she observed: she knew people in her graduating class at high school who were terrible cheaters. The guy who was slated to be valedictorian was not allowed to be after having been caught plagiarizing.

And she said: I didn't do that hot in high school. But I always knew that whatever grades I got, good or bad, were grades I earned. That I got it on my own merits and not by cheating. That even if I was a failure and a loser, at least I was an honest failure and loser.

(This is not someone who turned out to be a failure and a loser, trust me. She has a good career and she's quite brilliant at it.)

She also listed a whole bunch of names - kids I had had in my classes. All of them people who had gone to college with her. All of whom had gone on to good careers (or who are working on Ph.D.s now) in their field. And she pointed out: all of these are people you've continued to hear from and hear about. They're the ones presenting at the state Academy of Science meetings. They're the ones with publications. They're the ones winning awards. And they're all students I knew who would rather have ripped their right arms off than have cheated on something.

And then she said (without naming names this time) that there were students that were known (either to both faculty and students, or in some cases just to other students) to have been cheaters and plagiarists. And you don't hear anything about them now! They're not working in their field.

And while that's not always the case (she shared some hair-raising stories about a few old high-school classmates who were caught in major acts of cheating, one of whom is now a fairly high mucky-muck in a school system), in a lot of cases cheating either catches up with the person - because they don't have the chops to make it in their field. Or the person lacks the drive and motivation to do something with their life; that cheating is just a symptom, rather than the cause, of their problems.

So I don't know. Part of me, as I've said before, just kind of wants to throw up its hands and go, "It's THEIR souls," meaning, if someone decides to cheat it is not my fault and though I should try to catch and punish the blatant examples, I cannot stop someone from doing something that is wrong. But on the other hand, I do wish I could stop all cheating - or rather, I wish I could get the kids to LOVE the subject so much, to care about it, to have the necessary ethical feelings, that they don't WANT to cheat.

And realistically, that will never happen. I can't reach 100% of them...some of them won't be inspired because of my personality/their personality type issues. Some of them just won't be inspired because they're in the wrong field. Some of them may still be too immature. Some of them may be too far gone.

I used to have a little 3 x 5 card pinned up on the wall behind my computer, where only I could see it, when I was in grad school. It said, very simply, "You can't fix everything." Meaning, I could keep beating my head against the injustices of this world, against the Wrong Things that I'd like to fix, until I was totally done in, but not everything would get fixed. Not everything is fixable.

But there are some people I can reach. (I count this young woman - the one I met with yesterday - as one in the Win column. I think I was one of the first profs she had when she came back to school after a long absence, and she's told me about how she was unsure and insecure and didn't know if she had the ability to get her degree. And I saw that she did have that ability, and I guess some of the things I did and said helped encourage her, helped build her confidence). I just wish I were better at focusing on the people who go in the Win column - the people I managed to help, the people that I encouraged, the people I offered research to, the people I pushed to apply to grad school. And not worrying too much about the people in the Not-Win column - the ones who cheat, the ones who seem to show no enthusiasm, the complainers, the ones who take their degree but then go on to do little with it.

I'm not sure how to do that, unfortunately. I really DO wish I could "fix everything" or "fix everyone." But I know I can't.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

One thing that frustrates me

I do not like being at the mercy of someone else's schedule. I especially dislike it when, for whatever reason, that schedule is not shared with me. I am the person you do not want to be sitting next to in the airport when the boarding of the flight is mysteriously delayed and all the counter people suddenly disappear or avow "I know nothing, nothing!"

Perhaps this is just a me-thing, but I tend to regard it as a bit rude when someone wants to meet with me but does not set a time. Or they set a time, don't show, and then don't call or e-mail or anything to let me know why they're running late. I have had far too many experiences with students who did that - I remember famously one instance where a student swore that 7:30 am was the only time he had free during the WHOLE DAY to meet with me - this on a day when I didn't have to be on campus before 11. But I was a TA, I was new, I was eager to please, so I said, fine, I'd be there by 7:30.

I got there at 7 am. And sat down. And waited. And waited all the way until my class at 11. No show.

I saw the student later that week in lab and asked him if something had happened.

"Oh," he said laughing apologetically. "I didn't feel like getting up that morning."

Yeah. And of course, I always feel like altering my schedule for other people.

I also really hate it when people are late. There is one person I know who, unless you physically go and retrieve him from where ever he is, will be 1/2 hour to 45 minutes late for anything.

I grit my teeth and tell myself that he's just easily distracted and gets absorbed by whatever he is working on. But I've also known chronic late-sters who used it as a power play - either consciously or subconsciously, they were all happy that they could make other people wait on them. It fed their egos.

And I consider being late just because you can pretty rude. We are all allotted limited time on this Earth. We all have the same number of hours in a day. We all have things we must do, and things we would like to do. It seems very selfish to "steal" people's time - even if it's just 15 minutes - because you like to preen your importance.

Anyway. I have one of those schedule-under-someone-else's-control situations today. Someone is supposed to come and help with a technical thing. I need to be on campus to let her in. She was supposed to call me. She has both my phone numbers and my e-mail address. I even called her Thursday (she was not in but I left a message) to plead that I would like to know her ETA, so I could plan my day around it.

No call, no e-mail.

Actually, in this case I'm a small bit worried because this is very atypical of this person. I've called my voice mail at home multiple times (to see if she called there) and no message. I hope nothing happened to her.

But on the other hand, I hate feeling "trapped" in my office - I have done what I intended to do for today already this morning, and while there are always things I COULD do, I'd also like a little free time. So I don't know. I'm going to go home for lunch, I've decided that, and if she calls, fine. I may come back for a bit after lunch, but I'm not going to stay in here all day, surfing and stewing and picking away at different things.

I'm going to see if by any chance one of my other colleagues who has contact with her has come in - and if he's heard anything. I'm almost to the point of assuming something came up and she WON'T be here, seeing as I have heard nothing from someone who is normally pretty diligent.

Friday, August 22, 2008


I think I scared the daylights out of one of my students today.

I had one guy walk into class maybe 5 minutes late. Because it's still early days, and I don't know everyone's name yet, I am taking roll. (I hope I can get to the point where I can do a quick scan and see who's not there).

Anyway, this guy comes walking (well, running, rather), in.

"Ralphie?!" I said (name changed to protect the innocent). I guess I said it kind of sharply - I was mid sentence when he walked in and it startled me - he immediately apologized, and explained he had a class all the way across campus (I understand, it's a long trek from there) right before this one.

I said it was OK and I moved on.

At the end of class he came up - kind of shaky like - and apologized to me again and explained again. I was all "Dude, dude, it's OK. I only said your name because I was taking roll and I was guessing that it was you. I'm not mad at you or anything."

It's always hard when you have latecomers - if there's more than one of each gender - if you don't know names. Either you have to ask them their name or guess, and I'm not sure which is more embarrassing to me. I wish I were one of those people who learned who people were the moment they were introduced to them, but I'm not, and no matter what I've tried, I can't change that.

I just hope I didn't scare "Ralphie" too badly today.

The Self-Absorbed Celebrity Song!

Ken started it.

Oddly enough, I didn't need to make too many changes. Spooky.

And no, I'm not really targeting any one person, whether they are a true celebrity or someone who thinks they are such. It's just hard to get things to scan sometimes. What is it they say? "Any resemblance to celebrities living or dead is purely a coincidence"?

Every crap I take
Every law I break
Every tear I fake
Every risk I take
You'll be watching me.

Every single day
Every word I say
Every yes, every nay,
At home you'll stay
You'll be watching me

Oh, can't you see
You belong to me
How my ego grows
With every ET! show....

Every phrase I state
All I do is great!
Every time I date
All my baby's traits
You'll be watching me

I really should run a political race
I have lots of thoughts to spiff up this place
Lots of laws I think I could replace
Lots of changes, hope, and grace
People would love me, love me, yeah....

Oh, can't you see
You belong to me
Your boring life to escape
You watch me on TV....

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Amazon, I love you!

Seriously. If you were a guy I would totally marry you.

I ordered a book a long time ago - well, actually, PRE-ordered. It was a craft book that was originally published in the UK and was set to have an edition available here sometime in October. (I know - I could have ordered from Amazon UK and had it shipped here, but meh. I could wait and didn't want to pay the overseas shipping).

I was waiting for it, thinking how nice it would be when it becomes available.

Well, I got an e-mail "update" from Amazon this morning: it's available earlier than expected and will arrive in a week or so.

Thank you, Amazon, you are so thoughtful. You didn't have to let me know - heck, you didn't have to ship it right as soon as it came in - but you did.

I call that good customer service. I know there are people who have issues with Amazon (some pickier and more eye-rolly for me than others), but I really have to say they have some of the best customer service I've seen in a company.

And I still say Amazon Prime is one of the most happiness-enhancing investments I've ever made. I can order a book from them and have it in my hands - shipped FREE - often before I can find time to drive to the next city over where there's a bookstore.

My Christmas card this year?

Okay, so maybe it's perhaps a tiny bit of a sacrilege, but I thought it was awfully cute.

And maybe a companion-cat would have been more useful to Christ in His early days than that myrrh would have been....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

odd little question

Has anyone ever seen/had a dog that was striped? (I don't mean BRINDLED, I mean actually identifiably striped).

There are lots of spotted dogs. And cats can be either spotted or striped (and striping is very common on some breeds of cats). But I cannot remember ever seeing a dog that was truly striped. I've seen brindled dogs that looked kind of stripey, but never a really-truly striped dog.

I wonder if it has something to do with genetics. I know dogs are a lot more genetically flexible than cats when it comes to body size and proportions, but I guess the coat-color/coat-patterning genes must be different.

long days

My aunt's funeral is this morning at 11. (I found that out last night, so even if I had been able to manage to go, I probably wouldn't have been able to - getting to the town where she lived is kind of a travel nightmare. I'd probably have had to fly into Milwaukee and then either take a bus or rent a car and drive the remaining 5 or so hours. And I'm not even sure there are direct flights to Milwaukee from the nearest airport (which is not at all close to where I am) or if I'd wind up being routed through Tucson or some damn thing.)

This week has felt loooooooooong. And it's only Wednesday. Early on Wednesday. I'm sure that part of it is all the underlayment of bad crap I've dealt with this summer coming to a head. But part of it is that I've been "on call" to do some computer-related stuff for one of the classes I teach. Monday I was on campus for very nearly 13 hours. (That's ON CAMPUS. That does not count the fact that I was up two and a half hours before I even got to campus and that I did an hour's workout in that time). Yesterday I was on campus for 10 hours, but had been planning on coming back when the person with data showed in the evening. (Fortunately, she called to let us know she couldn't be there because there was a glitch in the data she was preparing).

I kind of hate the long packed days because they do screw with my sleep at night. I have weird dreams. (I won't subject you to them unless people specifically ask). It's like my brain is frantically trying to process and file or dump everything I've experienced during the day, so weird little things crop up again. (Like the gastric brooding frog, which I saw a picture of in passing in a magazine).

I slept a lot better on break when there were fewer things competing for real estate in my brain.

I don't know that there's any solution to that. Maybe I need to take up yoga again to see if that has any mind-clearing benefits. Or maybe I need to sit in a dark room and do nothing when I come home from work. Argh.

Monday, August 18, 2008

don't know what to say.

So last night my folks called me. (They had been out of town at a reunion for my dad's high school class).

My mom said: "there's some sad news."

Oh Lord no.

My aunt - the one I referred to in an earlier post, the one who had been in the hospital but had seemed to be doing better, has died.

She was my mom's sister. My mom's last surviving sibling. (Oddly, it was the oldest child - my aunt, who was nearly 20 years older than my mom, and the youngest - my mom - who were "left standing" for many years after the deaths of the others).

My mom seems to be holding it together OK. Perhaps you reach a point in life where losses come less hard, because you've experienced enough loss? I don't know.

On the one hand, the death isn't unexpected - my aunt was nearly 90, she had been in poor health for a while (she's had treatment for congestive heart failure for a number of years, plus she had colon cancer five or so years ago, plus she has battled psoriasis most of her adult life, plus some other stuff). I guess her body just wore out.

And I have to say I'm somewhat comforted by a few facts - one of them being that most of her children (and I guess some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren) were at her side; she didn't die alone. And her daughter told my mom it was a peaceful death; she wasn't in pain at the end, she wasn't fighting to breathe or anything like that.

And my cousin - the same daughter - thanked my mom for all the calls she made. My mom called my aunt twice a week (sometimes more frequently) for years - I think she started doing it back in 1989 after my grandmother passed away, because my aunt had been a major caretaker for my grandmother, and I think my mom was concerned about my aunt feeling a little alone and isolated. My cousin told my mother that those calls meant a lot to my aunt, that it was something she looked forward to (especially when she was in the nursing home).

I talked to her some - not often - and I hadn't seen her for a few years.

But I am comforted by knowing the last thing I ever said to her was "I love you." My aunt had the habit of, instead of saying "goodbye" at the end of a phone conversation (either when you were going to hang up or when you were going to pass the phone on to the next family member) of closing the conversation with "I love you." And the expected response was "I love you." So those are the last words I ever said to her, and I'm glad that they were that.

I'm doing OK this morning. Last night, not so much. If I'm going to have a hard time of it emotionally, it tends to be at night - when it's quiet and I'm alone and I don't have things to occupy my mind or my time. (When I get in bed it's worst. It took me a very long time to fall asleep last night because I got to thinking about my aunt).

One thing I thought about...I hope she found out that those people who told her what they believed about suicides and the afterlife were wrong. One of my aunt's sons took his life several years ago, and even though he had been a person of faith, some of the people around my aunt apparently told her that people who committed suicide didn't get in to Heaven. And my aunt was a woman of deep faith, and that troubled her a lot. I remember her asking my mom and dad what they thought about it, and her talking it over with the pastor of her church. And while all of them did their best to reassure her, I think she was troubled by it.

So one of the things that popped into my head: I hope she met Tom again and found out that he was OK after all.

And I kept hearing her voice in my head...she had a very distinctive voice, I would best describe it as being something like Julia Child's but without the New Englandy accent. And she had a distinctive laugh - it started out hearty and kind of ended in a giggle, and it was always gratifying to tell her something funny and to hear her laugh.

She was a very sweet person. I'm sad I didn't get a chance to see her recently. And I'm kind of sad I won't be able to get to the funeral (it's not been planned yet but it's over 1000 miles away from me, and it's in a remote area that's not served by an airport or train station - I'd have to fly into an airport a state or two away, and then rent a car or take the bus and it would take a day to a day and a half for me to get there. And at the start of the semester - I just can't afford that.

My mom said she knew my aunt would understand, and I think she's right. My aunt was one of those people who talked about how "brave" I was to go off so far away from everyone and everything I knew to make my way in the world. And while there are good things about having done that, there are also bad things - a very big one being that you can't get to the people you love fast enough sometimes).

Rest in peace, Auntie. I hope you're seeing your mom, and your son Tom, and your brothers and sisters who went before you, and each of the husbands that you lost too soon....

Friday, August 15, 2008


I'm betting that Nightfly at least will appreciate this:

the Periodic Table of Awesomeness. (Except, no, it doesn't have hockey on it. But then again, it has not only Chuck Norris and Mr. T., but Christopher Walken as well, so that's pretty awesome.)

I love the creativity of people.

Boutiqueville ahoy!

Yup, I'm going.

It's cooled down considerably since last month (and it's rained some, and it may be raining tomorrow - if it's crazy-ass storms I won't go, but if it's just raining, I will. Because rain will keep the annoying people away).

I went to the bank and cashed a check. (Um. A check from my parents. My dad asked me what it cost me to take the train up to visit them and even though I insisted that I could easily afford it, that I was doing it as part of my meeting-trip, and he didn't HAVE to, he insisted on writing me a check for the cost of my tickets. Which was very nice but as I said he doesn't HAVE to do that. So anyway - I deposited 2/3 of the check but kept the remaining portion out as "fun money." Because I really wasn't counting on him writing me the check - so, see, it's like "found" money, right?)

Anyway. I've got cash in hand, I haven't used the credit card I use for such things much in the past month (I have a "life necessities" credit card for gas and groceries and medication and I have a "fun" credit card for ordering stuff online and "fun" shopping - that way I can keep track of the bills better, and I can know to scale back on the "fun" shopping if the "life necessities" have been higher in the past months.)

So I'm going.

And I'm glad I'm going.

Boutiqueville - I'm using a pseudonym like I do for everything on here to protect my privacy, but probably most of you reading this know of a "Boutiqueville." It's a smallish city with an historic downtown where there is a large mass of small shops. It's a place where it's easy to park and then walk the blocks around the area where the shops are - which is nice for me, I don't like the park - n - drive - n - shop - n - drive set up that some places have. I like to just leave my car and spend the day walking around.

It has several small restaurants - tea room type places - where a person can get a decent lunch. And it has antique shops. And two quilt shops. And a number of "gift" type shops, the kind of places where you can buy fancy soap or a drinking glass with the Eiffel Tower etched on to it.

It's a "ladies" sort of place. You see some men there, and I guess there are shops that cater to more typically manly interests (there's a old-building salvage place, and a rare book store), but most of the people there are women, most of the stuff for sale is girly type stuff - soap and candles and hats and jewelry and craft supplies and things that are pink or silver or pale turquoise. Even the restaurants are fairly "girly."

It's the kind of place I love. Good as a trip to the spa for me. It is, for me, not unlike Holly Golightly's description of Tiffany's - it feels as if nothing bad could happen to you there.

The kind of place, as one of my friends from grad school used to say, that sells stuff you don't need.

Except, I think I kind of DO. It's not a "need" in the way that water or nutritious food or shelter is a need, but it does an awful lot to help my outlook on life and my general well-being to, first, be able to get out a couple times a year, spend a day totally on MYSELF and spend a day looking at pretty shiny things. And buy some of those pretty shiny things. And second, it is very good for my psyche to have nice soap to wash my face with at the end of the day - or a cunning mug to drink my tea out of - or a few more nice old books to read.

(As Calvin might say, it's both the getting and the having.)

A big part of the restfulness of going to Boutiqueville for me is that it IS a day out - a day away. If I stay in town, people can find me. They can call me at home (yes, I know, I can unhook the phone, but I never do). They can come to my house. They can catch me in my office if I choose to go in.

But when I go to Boutiqueville - I turn off my cell phone. I leave the little sphere where people know me and can find me and can ask me to do stuff or tell me their life stories (I had a student in just today with the need to 'share' all the medical procedures he's been through this summer).

And while I TRY to be compassionate, while I TRY to look at people as children of God and see them as individuals with hopes and dreams and fears and loves...I have to admit sometimes when I spend too much time around people I get kind of worn down, the life stories start to sound kind of sad and tawdry and dingy and I almost feel like Claire in that scene from "Scrooged" (the part with the imagined future time for Bill Murray's character) where I decide I need to just "scrape 'em off."

And I don't like feeling that way.

So I do take a day and PRETEND I'm "scrapin' 'em off" by going out and sort of floating around the stores, smelling scented candles, graciously accepting the free samples that are offered, drinking an iced chai or lemonade in the early afternoon when I'm starting to tire - and spending time and money on myself.

And I know some people would be horrified by that - heck, as an ecologist I am supposed to loathe the idea of using even more of the Earth's resources to satisfy my petty wants - but you know? I feel a whole lot better after taking a day and going and buying some new quilt fabric or some lavender drawer sachets or a vintage toothpick holder. And sometimes I think a person's well-being, a person's sense of comfort and happiness and rightness-with-the-world, is worth a little use of resources, as I am unfortunately not the type who can be brought back into balance by going out and planting trees or chanting things in front of burning incense.

I would make a rather poor ascetic.

(And besides- I am really not much of a shopper, normally. Clothes are something I buy when the clothes I have now wear out. Many of the things I spend money on are "vintage" or antique, meaning, I suppose, I could argue I'm providing a market that keeps old things out of the landfill. Whatever. I prefer not to think about it.)

So tomorrow morning (provided, as I said, it's not crazy-ass storms), I'm off to Boutiqueville for the day. I don't know what I will find there - that's part of the fun (I HATE the kind of shopping where you go, "I must replace my worn out khakis" and then you slog through fifteen stores trying to find a pair that is in your size, in your price range, doesn't look ugly, and isn't crappily made). I have nothing I HAVE to buy, no pulls on my time.

It's rare, which is partly why it's so wonderful.

reason 4632 why I am glad to be in academia...

...there is no one I work with who thinks a cake like this would be a good idea.

Well, a "good" idea in the non-ironic sense any how.

Of course, some years back, when a student in the 'remedial' class did a model of the solar system using cakes, and offered them to her class and then to the department as a snack afterward, we did have a lot of fun with the fact that the "Uranus" cake was the one that seemed to have the most cake LEFT from it...


It's meeting-time here, meaning that you get to hear the admini-speak of all the new administrators. It seems to me that admini-speak has two functions:

1. Obscure the "bad stuff" by cloaking it in mush-mouth words so people are either lulled into complacency or have zoned out by the time you get to the bit about their being no pay raises or that there is no budget for repairing equipment that breaks.

2. Take up the maximum amount of people's time by using eight words to do the job of one.

Oh, and I'm not entirely sure (because I tend to zone out when "verbed nouns" get used heavily) but I THINK one of the speeches used the word "actioning." Ugh.

Also, they're instituting a new "wellness initiative" here which makes me twitch a wee bit because all so often these are strictly tied to BMI and seem to have the goal of bullying people with bigger BMIs into diet plans or some kind of sanctioned exercise I do exercise, but it's on my own time first thing in the morning and I'll be damned if I'm going to change the exercise schedule I've had since 19-freaking-94 just so I can "walk on a track" under the supervision of some health-nanny. I just hope they don't jack up my health insurance premium because I'm fat - they just have to look at the fact that it takes me until AUGUST of each year to use up my deductible (and only then because I get immunotherapy for allergies) to realize I'm not a drain on their system.

And I'll be got-darned if I'll go on a diet. I know what food is healthy. I eat my vegetables. But I'm not going to count damn points or eat some prepackaged crap from Jenny Craig or cut out carbohydrates or some stupid thing. Been there, done that, I'm too old for it and life is too short.

Ironic, considering the news out this week that it's apparently sedentariness, more than body size, that leads to "poor metabolic health." Of course it will take 15 years for that realization to trickle down to the people who like to bully those with larger than a 28" waist....

Thursday, August 14, 2008

something I've learned...

I was listening to one of those radio call-in shows where the hosts have a topic and they get the opinions of their audience (and sometimes tell the audience member why they disagree with them). The topic was related to some new comedy coming out where a character - apparently, kind of a sleazy character - talks about "retards."

And there are groups set to protest this movie. They want the use of the words "retarded" or "retard" banned (or so say the radio hosts; I have not heard the original story so I don't know for sure).

And the hosts made an interesting point, one I realized I had come to realize myself but had not really articulated:

When people use "offensive" words in that kind of a situation, they're actually telling you more about THEMSELVES than the person about whom they are talking. One of the hosts pointed out that the movie character using the offensive word comes off as a 'stupid sleazebag' and that you dislike him all the more for the use of the word. In other words - that the movie is not specifically being demeaning to the mentally challenged; rather, it is showing the insensitivity of a particular character.

And I think unfortunately that's a shade of meaning that's often lost in today's world. (The hosts blamed it on people giving words more "power" than they actually have and people letting themselves feel like they're defined by what other people say).

Predictably, they got people calling in all incensed that they even dared SAY that the word shouldn't be banned outright - kind of proving their point, the people were very huffy and hurt and one of them pulled out the "but I have a mentally challenged child" credentials.

And you know, I sympathize. I know people who have children with various challenges. It's hard, and it's sometimes frustrating, and it can be exhausting to care for someone who has more needs than a typical child, and who may never grow up to be independent.

But the problem is, we cannot - nor should we try to - legislate other people's behavior by banning certain words. (Because once you start, where do you stop?)

But I thought about this, and my own experience - and one of the blessings of some level of maturity is that I am a lot less sensitive to what people may say to me when they're trying to insult me.

A simple example: take the word "bitch."

Originally meant as a simple descriptor for a female dog, now it has all kinds of shades of meaning - from a manipulative woman, to a screechy one, to one who is just mean.

I've also seen the word used when someone didn't get something they wanted, something they thought they were entitled to, from a woman.

Heck, I've been CALLED it by students who thought I should give them something (like extra credit) that I was either not empowered to do or that would conflict with my ethical principles if I did.

But the thing is - I know who I am. I am NOT a "bitch." I try very hard to be a nice person, a compassionate and kind person. If I have to be tough with someone, I am kind of apologetic about it, I kind of take the tack of, "I am sorry but I cannot do what you are asking and here are the reasons why."

So if a student uses that word to refer to me, I can kind of shrug and go, "Well, they're angry right now and that's why they're saying it." Or I can think, "Wow, it's kind of unwise for them to use that term with a professor." But I'm not really offended, because as I said, I know who I am and I know that word doesn't define me, and I've come to realize that there are times when people say something they might not really mean - or might regret when they think more coolly about it - because they're upset.

If someone were to use even harsher language (not that I've ever had it happen to me), my first thought would probably be, "Wow, that's really impolite of them" or "Gee, they must not be very well brought up to think it's appropriate to use a word like that in this context" rather than getting offended. (If someone were being truly abusive to my face, I'd probably see if I could politely send them away and ask them to come back when they could be civil.)

One thing the hosts talked about was the idea of giving the word power beyond what it has. I think my comment about not letting someone else "define" you fits in with that.

Another thought - my father has a saying he likes, that goes something like, "Freedom of speech is great in part because the a-holes self-identify." That is, because people aren't constrained by some rule about what words they can and cannot use, you can kind of hear who the real person is. So someone who uses rude slang terms to refer to members of certain groups - you kind of know where they're coming from. Someone who speaks disrespectfully of the people who work with them - you know where their head's at.

I do think when someone uses rude language to talk about people - like this mythical movie "retard" example - you learn more about the person that is saying the words, than about the person about whom they are talking.

For example - up above, I used the word "mentally challenged." I admit, I don't particularly like the phrase, it seems kind of mushy to me and it's long to type out. But the people I know who have kids with that condition, that's what they prefer people around them use. So that's what I use, out of respect for them. (And I don't know anything that's better and polite). I think a big part of it is learning to treat people as individuals rather than as groups - I know people who prefer to be called "Black," where there are others I know who want to be called "African-American." And I even once knew a man who said he thought "colored" was fine, because, "After all, that's what my skin is!"

Yeah, it took a little remembering to know what term (if one had to be used) was the preferred term for different people, but it wasn't a big deal. And I figured it did a little bit towards being kind to people, to respecting them. (Another thing I've learned - if someone is Native, you need to know what tribe or tribes they have affiliation with. I kind of knew that already but I've known a few people to use the wrong name and then shrug and go "whatever" when someone corrected them. I think that would be something like telling someone you were from New Hampshire and they kept saying you were from New York, and shrugging and going "whatever" when you corrected them - but even more so, when you're talking about someone's heritage).

I do think it's a fair and respectful thing to make an effort to use respectful language with other people. (And that includes not cursing around someone you know will be offended by it - despite my occasional f-bomb on the FFOT, I almost NEVER use harsh language in real life, preferring to err on the side of being too proper).

But I do think people are too quick to take offense - usually people who use "offensive" language are one of three things: either they are ignorant (in which case an explanation may help; I know when I've said something out of ignorance that offended someone, I was mortified to find out and would apologize them and promise to change in the future), or they don't really care, or they are deliberately trying to cause upset.

And there's not a lot you can do about someone who doesn't care. I've dealt with people like that; they think rather than bending themselves a bit to fit in with society, society should just part like a stream around them and let them do their thing. And that's fine, if you like people avoiding you.

But the people who are deliberately trying to cause upset - why give them that power? Why not just shrug and go, "They're badly brought up" or "They think they know how to insult me" and then ignore them - because if we can ignore the rude words, the person uttering them as a weapon loses. If we can avoid rising to the bait, we win.

Another example from my life: when I was a child, I was teased pretty harshly. Not as bad, I guess, as happens today, with text messaging and teenagers leaving malicious messages on answering machines (like, pretending to be a pregnancy clinic and leaving "positive" test results for the daughter of the household on an answering machine her parents would listen to). But I was treated harshly enough.

In a way, it was probably a valuable (if painful) education; first, I learned to be more compassionate. And second, I began to learn the lesson that sometimes people say unkind things that are not true.

I remember coming home from first grade (I think it was) in tears one day. Why? A group of the kids thought it was clever to start calling me "Retard" in the halls. (A common joke for them - yell out "Hey retard!" [or whatever insulting term] behind the target, and if the target turns around to see who is yelling, go "You know your name!" and laugh.)

And okay - when you are six, it does hurt. It hurts a hell of a lot.

But my mom reminded me of something (by way of trying to make me feel better) - that the kids were just yelling the word because it was a rude and hurtful word. She pointed out that first, it wasn't even true, because I was in the most advanced reading AND math groups in my class. And second - more importantly - that that was a rude word, a cruel word, and kind-hearted, polite people didn't use it, even if they were really referring to someone who had mental retardation.

And that kind of thing continued. I remember a bit later my mom looking the word "slut" up in all her dictionaries - because some kids on the bus had started calling me that. She wanted to know if there was some secondary meaning she was unaware of, because in her mind, her shy innocent nine-year-old (who had yet to even so much as hold hands with a boy) could in no way fit that description.

Her final conclusion - which she explained to me - was that the kids probably heard an older sibling using that term, they knew it was a rude thing to say, and so they used it without knowing its meaning. (I have no idea if that bit is actually true, but as I said - I had not even held hands with a boy at that point. Oh, I had boys who were FRIENDS, but not boy-friends, not in that way yet.)

And so I guess I kind of had a baptism by fire into the world of dealing with unkind people when I was a child. Perhaps it's made me stronger as an adult, and perhaps those many lessons (that other people's rude words don't define you, that people sometimes say things they don't really mean, that often people say nasty stuff because they think it makes them look better or feel better) have finally begun to sink in as an adult.

I admit I don't always do this "water off a duck's back" thing perfectly well - not getting offended or, more commonly for me, hurt, when someone says something nasty and untrue. But I'm getting better at it as time goes on.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the end of the "summer of suck"

...Or so I hope.

(Dave, I'm OK - I was just out of town visiting family and attending meetings. But thanks for the concern).

This has been a pretty dreadful summer in a lot of ways - lots of bad stuff happening to people around me, a few things happening to me, specifically.

I'm hoping that the new semester will make things better but sometimes it just seems that a period of time has lots of "sucky" occurrences - things that seem to test your faith or your equanimity or something.

One last thing I found out about in The Summer of Suck was when I went home to visit my parents. My mom informed me - probably because there was a chance they were going to be my "ride" home from the train station after my meetings - that my sister-in-law was having some problems.

Her parents have decided to split up.

It's a complicated and unfortunate situation but I guess in a nutshell, it's this: her mother has suffered off and on from what may be depression, or what may be bipolar disorder. (My brother, who has had some psychology classes as part of his minister's training, says it sounds like bipolar to him, but "who am I to know?")

She's on medications now. The medications seem to have improved her mood a lot, to the detriment of people around her, because they seem to have the side effect of removing her "social filter" - that thing that makes us not say things we MIGHT think, but realize are tactless or unhelpful to the other person.

Apparently she has become very hard to live with. Her husband regretfully took an apartment (in the same town) but informed her that he could not share a house with her any more unless she got counselling and looked into changing her meds.

(At one point, when she was visiting my brother and sis-in-law, she actually got my sister in law in TEARS - not an easy thing to do - claiming she thought my sister in law was a "failure." Now, my sister-in-law is a woman who:
1. Has a good and happy marriage (and has made my brother's life a happier one)
2. Has an active faith life
3. Has an interesting job that pays well and is of service to society
4. Has a number of good friends right around where she lives
5. Has a lot of hobbies and free time activities she enjoys (she is an avid gardener and does scrapbooking and reads a lot and takes part in "game nights" she and my brother have for their friends where they play board games or cards)
6. Has a family of in-laws who think she's a wonderful person and who love her a lot.

I'd kind of define that as being an ANTI-failure in my book, but whatever.)

So, C. (my sister-in-law) is now thrown into the situation of playing mediator, along with her younger brother (who is himself recently married and has two babies at home, one of whom is not in good health). Her older brother doesn't seem to want any part of the situation and is very angry at both his parents.

So this is really something C. doesn't need, and I'm kind of angry at the Universe on her behalf. (I know she'll come through it fine; my brother is very supportive as is her younger brother, and my parents are close enough in proximity to take a part in helping out if necessary).


Another item that could have been More Suck, but wasn't so much: when I was at my meetings, my mom called me Wednesday night. Her sister (my aunt), who is way up in years and has had a number of health problems (including successfully beating colon cancer) was in the hospital.

My mother sounded worried, and my mom generally isn't the worrier type.

So all the way home, I alternately prayed for my aunt and contemplated whether I would be able to arrange to return "home home" (to my house and the town where I live) a few days later if a funeral necessitated that.

Well, when I got off the train in my parents' town (turns out that my brother and sister in law didn't have to pick me up after all), my mom told me that my aunt was doing better. Part of it was that she had gotten severely dehydrated (her children are now looking for a different nursing home to move her to; she had not felt well for a while and apparently no one was sufficiently monitoring whether she was drinking enough water or not). My mom said she told her son, "It's so nice here [the hospital]. I wish I could just STAY here." That may be partly because they had her on a saline drip (and on oxygen) and she was feeling better; it might also be because the hospital is a lot closer to the town where she used to live and more people have been able to drop in to visit her and she's not so lonely.

(I hope when it gets to that point - if it gets to that point - my parents DON'T have to go into a nursing home; at least not one far from all the people they know. It must be kind of discouraging after having been an active person all your life to be stuck in what's essentially God's waiting room, especially if you're isolated and far away and don't get visitors often.)

At any rate, I'm glad to be HOME home - part of it is being back somewhere where I have a certain amount of control over things, part of it is not having to look forward to more travel. I like visiting my family, I like being new places, but I kind of abhor traveling to get there. Going by train is better than most methods (for me at least) but it's still kind of awful when things go wrong and you're stuck waiting somewhere and you don't know what's going to happen and you're tied to someone else's schedule. I think traveling ALONE is also probably worse than traveling with someone; there's no one to watch your suitcases if you have to go and pee, and there's no one you know well to talk to in the waiting rooms or on whatever conveyance you're on. I read a lot of mystery novels on the trip up to and back from my meetings.