Thursday, December 15, 2011

The semester is finally over

Heading out on break after this.

It's funny how I get really excited for break during the last few days of the semester and then exam week...and then once it's all over, I almost get a little melancholy. Don't get me wrong, I love my family and will be tremendously happy to see them, it's just...I don't like leaving my house unattended for long periods of time. And I miss my routine a little.

I think also I'm just kind of tired. A lot of times, towards the end of the semester, you're sort of running on adrenaline, and when it wears off, there's a big let down. I always feel tired the first couple days of break because of the change in the schedule - no getting out of bet at 5 am and being go! go! go! from that time until 9 pm or whenever I'm done for the day.

I think also you think about the changes over the past year. Right now, I'm kind of sad, because a long-time friend of the family (he was the husband of the couple that was the "designated guardians" for my brother and me, if anything had happened to my parents) died just a week or so ago. (It was cancer, that old bastard). I've sent a sympathy card and a "thinking of you at Christmas" card and will probably send a "thinking of you" card the end of January (these are folks that live far, far away from me now, so sending a card seems the best way to keep in touch).

And I have to admit: looking at the copy of his obituary that his widow sent - he was only a year older than my dad. That always gives me pause. We had several deaths in my congregation this fall but they were all people 85 or hits home harder when you think, "This is someone of my parents' generation" and I know there will come a day when I make the sad last trip "home" to bury one of them.

Which is why I'm so adamant about traveling over my breaks. I know some of my colleagues think it a bit odd that I take as much time to visit family as I do - but I'm far too aware (both because of things like the recent death of the family friend, and because of some of the health scares they've had in recent years) that I won't ALWAYS have my parents there, and I'm going to enjoy time with them as much as I can NOW, and try not to think about that future time.

My mom was also telling me about someone from the choir they belong to...this was a woman who had been estranged from her two sisters for years. She invited them to dinner every year near Christmas, and this year they finally said "yes." And apparently things are getting better between them.

So, a blessed Christmas to all of you. I hope you enjoy time with family and friends. I hope that if you have someone you've had difficulties with in the past, and there's some reason to reconcile, that you can. I hope the new year is better than previous years were....

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"The Waltons:

My cable system recently went through a bit of changes, and they adopted a few new channels. Some - there's one called YouToo? - I don't have much use for (It's apparently a channel devoted to people who want to get themselves on television. Meh.)

But now I get something called gmc, which a little Googling tells me is the Gospel Music Channel. Their tagline is "Uplifting Entertainment."

They show re-runs (among other things) of Judging Amy, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and The Waltons.

I've been watching some of the re-runs of The Waltons. I vaguely remember my family watching it when I was a kid (I was never a very absorbed television-watcher as a kid for some reason; I usually had my Fisher-Price toys or Lego bricks spread out on the floor and played with them and half-watched what was on).

You know, I'm struck now by what a *good* show it was. The characterizations are fairly complex (well, at least of the adults; I admit I still confuse Jim-Bob and Ben), the people face real moral dilemmas in the episodes (and don't always behave perfectly). It also seems to capture a time and a place - or at any rate, if it's not an accurate version of Depression-era Virginia, it certainly doesn't *feel* modern-day. And - what surprised me but should not - the family openly shows its faith. There are scenes set in a church and Jesus is mentioned. (It seems now, a lot of television shows want to skirt the fact that yes, in fact, some people in the United States believe in the existence of someone called Jesus.)

I'm sure the show was criticized for being overly-sentimental or for showing a Depression-era family as sort of noble despite their poverty. (Then again: my mother talks about growing up poor in rural Michigan, and how although they didn't have much, they always had decent food on the table (her brothers hunted, and her family had a garden), and that they didn't really "feel" poor because they had each other.)

But I love it. I suppose, as I said, it's been criticized for being somewhat idealistic - but you know what? I kind of WANT idealistic in at least some of my entertainment. I want to be shown people who have strong moral fiber and who face tough times with equanimity. I want to be shown people who behave better than I might given the circumstances - I want people in my "entertainment" that I can look up to.

And so, I try to catch the re-runs of the show when it's on. (And it's really not all sweetness and light - in the Christmas 2-parter with the British evacuee children, Elizabeth turns out to be pretty nasty to them...though she repents of it later.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Something I realized today

This is something I've probably "known" for a while, but the events of today made me explicitly realize it:

There is a point at which I have reached my limit of tolerance of being crowded in with other people, and I just need to go off and be alone.

Today was graduation. They always tell us "be present at 9:30 to line up," which I interpret as "You need to be there at 9:20" - I was always taught growing up that the given meeting time was the absolute last minute, and you should really be there five to ten minutes earlier. The problem is, they tell up "Be there at 9:30" because many of the faculty take that to mean "Walk in the door at 9:55."

So I spent a lot of time waiting in a small stuffy windowless room with other early bird faculty.

Then we were lined up out in a hall. Stood there for some 15 minutes waiting on latecomers.

Then we finally filed in. We aren't lined up by department (though I really think we SHOULD be; I think that would be neater). I did wind up next to a colleague of mine, and he wound up next to some guy he knew from History.

Who then proceeded to launch into a sotto voce airing of every grievance he had, with the university, with his students, with the American people, with the world in general. All through the graduation. (Well, okay...he was quiet during the invocation and the speech by the speaker. But once students started filing across the stage....)

I don't know. Maybe I'm being excessively old-school in this but I think one should not carry on an extended conversation at an event like that. I sat there trying not to listen as the guy rehashed the details of Cain's alleged affair (Look, dude: the guy's out of the race, he's probably damaged his marriage seriously and ruined a lot of his credibility, can you just leave him alone and stop snarking?)

Also, some of the faculty were playing with their smartphones during the ceremony. I expect we will receive an e-mail asking us not to do that in the future. And as much as I don't like the nannying administrative e-mails, really - I DO think it's rude to be playing on a smartphone during a graduation, especially down on the floor where people in the stands can see you. (We're required to be there, unless we have a good reason. I suppose playing with a smartphone is an act of rebellion of people somewhere they do not want to be, or something. I know I've seen some of my, shall we say, less-engaged students do it in class).

I don't know. Have we as a culture lost the ability to sit quietly and at least LOOK attentive even if we're not that interested? I did listen closely during my school's graduation, a lot of people I knew were going through, and even in the other schools, there were a few familiar names - kids I had had in my non-majors class, and one person who received a scholarship I served on the selection committee for.

And there were the predictable air horns. I really do not like air horns at an indoor graduation. They hurt my ears. I understand the idea of rejoicing and celebrating, but still, they hurt my ears.

Eventually the ceremony ended, we all filed out during the recessional. There's always a reception with finger foods afterward but at that point I realized I was just SO DONE with being around people. I felt like I could not face another minute of being in a darkish cramped room with lots of people and the din of their talking (one thing about my hearing - or about my listening, perhaps: I have a really hard time following the thread of a conversation if there are others going on around me, so I usually stand silent and confused in those kinds of situations, because I have a hard time tuning out the extraneous conversations).

My colleague looked at me: "Aren't you going to the reception?"

"No," I answered. "I have a slight headache." (It was true - between the constant barrage of whispered griping and the air horns, and having stood for some 30 minutes in an overheated cramped room that smelled of the dusty velvet and unwashed gabardine of the academic robes, I did). But really, at that minute, the thing I wanted the most in the whole world was to go home, put my car away, go in my house, lock he front door, and not talk to anyone (or have to listen to anyone) for the rest of the day.

I've noticed before that I get distressed when I have to be around crowds of people I don't know well for too long; this was just the most marked case of it I remember. I suppose this is related to my living alone: probably a lot of people who choose to live alone do so because they are like that, they need times when they can just lock out the rest of the world and be surrounded by quiet. Or maybe, living alone decreases our tolerance for human noise and crankiness and crowding, I don't know.

At any rate, I was really grateful to walk into my empty quiet house and close the door behind me this afternoon.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Pro tip

Though probably none of you reading this need it. But maybe you could pass it on to college-bound students of your acquaintance?

The question, "Is there anything I can do to improve my grade?" is not a bad question. If it is asked in, say, the third or fourth week of the semester, after the first exam turned out to be harder than expected, or the student earned a grade lower than what they had hoped for. In fact, "Is there anything I can do to improve my grade?" is a very GOOD question when asked early in the semester and coupled with a true desire to do the things to improve their grade.

Here are some things I would suggest:

1. Bring your class notes to me, let me look over them. I may be able to give pointers on how to take better or easier notes.

2. Attend class regularly if you have not been.

3. Read over your notes every day after class. If there are things you are unclear on, write down what they are. Come to my office hours and ask me about them, or ask me about them when I ask in class if anyone has any questions

4. Evaluate your study skills. If what you're doing is not working, try something different. For example: studying with friends is usually not as good an idea as it sounds. At least, it never was for me.

5. Find a tutor. You can do that through either official on-campus services, and also many of our TAs like to earn a little extra money on the side doing tutoring. There are also some online resources our campus recently adopted.

6. Read the textbook. At the end of every chapter, read the questions given there and be sure you can answer them. While I don't use those questions on my tests, they still cover the same topics.

...and so forth. So if you come to me early in the semester wanting to improve your grade, great, I have lots of ideas.

What is not so good? Calling me up after the last day of classes and asking if there is anything you can do to improve your grade. Because short of pulling a real Hail Mary on the final exam, the answer's no. And another pro-tip: I know I've said this before but: Don't piss off the person who will be grading you. And yes, it does kind of piss me off to field calls from ten different people all wanting to know the same thing. Even though it says in the syllabus NO EXTRA CREDIT NO WAY NO HOW NOT EVER DON'T EVEN ASK, I know that's really what you're asking with "Is there anything I can do to improve my grade?"

Because it just makes you look like a delusional and unrealistic person, frankly. Would you go to the IRS after doing your taxes and say, "Is there anything I can do to owe you less money?" Or to your credit-card company, and say, "Is there anything I can do to get my interest percent lowered?" Or to your boss to say, "Is there anything I can do to be able to work fewer hours in a week?"

What's almost worse than asking about "improving" your grade on the last day of school? Coming in and saying you want to get help, setting up a crapton of appointments to see me, and BREAKING EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

Yes, Mr. Football Hero, I'm looking at you. Yes, I know, football is hard. Coach expects a lot of you. But maybe you could make your freaking appointments with me during, I don't know, my MORNING office hours instead of asking me to stay after my office hours are officially over and then never showing, and then saying the next day in class, "Um, yeah, Coach called an extra practice."

(My rant about how campuses tend to exploit their athletes - another rant for another time).

I wound up taking my phone off the hook this afternoon so I could finish up some research I really needed to finish without being interrupted every five freaking minutes.

Thoughts of home

I was brushing my hair this morning, gearing up to come over campus. My hair has gotten a little bit long and shaggy, but since it's so close (like, just over a week) before I go visit my family for Christmas, I'm just going to have the woman who cuts my mom's hair do it for me - she's good, she charges a reasonable price, and it will be easier to do it when I'm on break than it will be now.

And then I thought about it.

I thought about going to the little barber shop (yes, it's an old traditional barber shop: neither my mom nor I have elaborate hairstyling needs) in their town. And walking down the little old main street with my mom...and going shopping in some of the little shops there...and seeing the Christmas decorations that are up.

And I said out loud to my reflection: "Over break, I'm going to go shopping with my mom. And I'm going to bake cookies. And I'm going to decorate the house with my parents. And I'm going to wrap presents. And I'm going to knit. And I'm going to read books. And I'm going to make candy."

I'm going to do all the things I like to do, but don't generally get to do, because of the responsibilities I have.

It's been kind of a brutal fall here...I taught a new prep for the first time in 10 years and had totally forgotten how much more work that is than just updating regular classes. And we had issues with an adjunct...luckily, not someone involved with any classes I'm in, but one of my colleagues is going to have to delay his travel to visit family because she couldn't get her labs graded in a timely fashion. (This, kids, is why I don't like the idea of going to a cadre of low-paid adjuncts: you can't get good people, because the good people can literally make more money waiting tables). I don't know what we're going to do next semester, I haven't heard if this person is fired or not but I'd not be surprised.

And we've had some administrative shake-ups on campus that leave a lot of us wondering what's coming next.

And just what's going on in the world is frustrating and sad-making. I really have given up watching more than a minute or two of news at a time. I wish I could find a source of news that wasn't given to all the crazy WHARRGARRBLLL MUST CREATE OUTRAGE or that spins stuff so sickeningly. Even the local news is awful; they run poverty-porn a lot of days, or have poorly-reported health stories on how everything we thought was good for us isn't.

So I watch a lot of cartoons now. Even if every "Phineas and Ferb" episode has pretty much the same plot. Even if I think "The Adventures of Gumball" is kind of stupid. Even if some aspects of "Adventure Time" creeps me out and makes me sad.

And I watch cooking shows. Paula Deen throwing a stick of butter in a pan is more interesting to me than hearing about the latest missing housewife.

So what I'm looking forward to over break is trying to leave all the local crap - the irresponsible people, the snowflakey students, the meddling administrators - behind. And also ignore what's going on in the world to the extent I can. And hang onto the things that make me me, that the stupid geopolitical situation can't affect.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

sweet Schadenfreude

Okay, I admit it.

After hearing that Rod Blagojevich was being sent to prison for 14 years, my first reaction was to say (to the image of him on the television), "Watch out for yer cornhole, bud" like Lawrence in "Office Space."

This makes how many former Illinois governors in prison? Two that I know of....

Monday, December 05, 2011

Childhood Christmas classics

One of my favorite Christmas specials when I was a kid was "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Part of it was that I just liked the whole "animagic" stop-motion way of doing things (more recent updates - there's one of the Heat Miser and Cold Miser - that are CGI or some computer technique - don't have the same "homemade" feel and the same heart to them, I think).

And yeah, if you think of it, Rudolph's story is basically Dumbo's story (or maybe that's the other way around; Rudolph may have come first? I think he was invented in 1939 and Dumbo was a few years later?).

And yeah, I know a lot of people who are really uncomfortable with Santa not accepting Rudolph - I mean, of all the North Pole residents, you'd think Santa would be the one smart enough to see through the teasing of the other reindeer and see Rudolph's true worth. But you know? I realize now that I even accepted that as a child - because I had seen adults that I might otherwise look up to (like teachers at school) who could be short-sighted and not understand and sometimes even listen to the "mean" kids and take their side. And while it feels wrong, it's still something that has to be dealt with: sometimes grown-ups just aren't very, you know, grown up.

But there's some guy out there apparently who Rudolph is a bad influence. Because, I guess, the bullying reindeer weren't sent to Reindeer Juvie, and their coach (Comet? I think he was the coach) wasn't sent to endless HR seminars on Being More Tolerant NOW!

But you know? Even though Rudolph's story was hard and at times painful (especially for an unpopular kid like me: I could relate), ultimately, he did a couple of very good things:

1. He found friends. Hermie, the weird elf who wants to be a dentist, meets up with Rudolph and they decide that since they've both decided to be independent, they might as well be independent together. (Grown-up me, watching the special for the umpteenth time this year, giggled at the absurdity of that remark. But whatever). Hermie and Rudolph become friends.

Oh, and for that matter, Clarice: Clarice is better and smarter than any of those idiot young bucks. She likes Rudolph, she thinks he's cute, and she even prefers him after he gets rid of the fake nose he was wearing. Clarice can see the real Rudolph. True, she's perhaps not THAT much help in rescuing him....but I expect that she and Rudolph "kept company" and maybe even raised a few fawns in the future years, after the time when the special was set came to an end. And I'm betting Fireball and those other bucks who teased Rudolph were hanging out in the North Pole Singles Bar and Karaoke Lounge when Rudolph was happily at home with Clarice.

And then finally, Yukon Cornelius befriends the misfits. I'm not sure if that's because he's a misfit himself, or if that's just because he's Yukon Freaking Cornelius and he's cool that way.

But at any rate - rather than continuing to hang around the kids who abuse him, rather than continuing to be a victim, Rudolph goes out into the world to seek his fortune.

2. And then at the end, after everyone's rescued, and Hermie has shown his true bad-assery by removing the teeth of the Bumble that is threatening everybody, Rudolph totally saves the day! In fact, liabilities turn into assets: Hermie's crazy dream to become a dentist saves the entire reindeer family, and Rudolph's nose allows for delivery of the presents despite a giant fogbank.

Oh, I'm sure there are those who are rallying for the continued viewing of Rudolph As Victim would say "They're just EXPLOITING him!" but I prefer to think of it as "he showed them...they learned how wrong they were about him." I admit as a kid part of the reason I loved this story and loved Dumbo was at the end the put-upon protagonists triumphed...they showed up all their bullies, they proved how talented and cool they were to everyone. And, I assumed, they'd have a much better life after that - oh, maybe the bullies wouldn't want to be their friends (but hell, I didn't want to be friends with the kids who had bullied me) but at least they'd be mostly left alone. And at any rate, in the kid world, I suspect Rudolph is the best-known and best-loved of the reindeer. (And among kids who have seen the particular special, Hermie is probably among the favorite elves....though Buddy the Elf from the recent movie also offers some strong points there).

But here's the thing: I don't see Rudolph as a victim. I didn't, not even as a little kid. Because instead of going crying to someone in authority who would listen to him and then squash those other reindeer like bugs, Rudolph decided to go off and do his own thing - he went off and had adventures. And along the way, he found friends. Granted, his friends were maybe a little weird, but honestly? The friends I had in grade school were all kids who were a little weird and were outcasts from the "populars" clique.

Personally, I think showing someone being bullied, but ultimately overcoming it (And not overcoming it by going ape and shooting up the North Pole or something...which is another stereotype of the bullied kid) is preferable to turning the bullied kid into a total victim, who has to bring the force of law down on the bullies to make them shut up - to essentially say, "We will have a dictatorial system where there will be NO BULLYING." Because I don't think that's possible or realistic: better to teach the kids to cope with the everyday sort of bullying, and reserve the punishment for the bullies who are unusually cruel or who are physically violent.

Apparently a therapist-sort has re-written the story somehow. I hope it's not pretending that Rudolph never was bullied: pretending that the uglier parts of life don't exist doesn't seem very helpful to kids. Nor, would I think, having Rudolph run to, I don't know, the Burl Ives Snowman Guy and tattle on the bullies seems very helpful.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Characters from literature you can't stand

Once in a while, you read a book, and there's a character who just gets on your last nerve. Either they're poorly-written (the author's fault, in that case), or the characterization the author has given them makes them SO annoying.

Right now I'm reading Bleak House. I'm probably 2/3 of the way through. But I get slowed down because I keep running into that damned Harold Skimpole. He's the guy who portrays himself as "a child, just a child" and who says he has "no sense of money" and "no sense of time."

(I suppose a modern apologist for Skimpole would diagnose him with some kind of disorder...well, fine, whatever. But he's thoroughly annoying. I admit my main reaction to him is a desire to kick him in the butt and tell him to grow up and pull his weight).

He is almost had up on the charge of not being able to pay his debts - so he winds up taking all the money that Esther Summerson and Richard Carstairs have in the world, to pay off his debtors. He sponges off EVERYBODY. Some people inexplicably find him "refreshing" and "entertaining" but I think most readers of the book (at least, the few people I know who have read it and whom I have asked) find him awful and annoying and someone you'd back away from if you knew him in real life. In some ways he comes off as perhaps a bit of a sociopath - the only person who exists for him, the only person who matters to him, is Harold Skimpole. He apparently feels NO SHAME at extracting 24 pounds (an enormous sum of money in those days) from two orphans.

Actually, when you think about him, he's actually kind of frightening - there's not really a conscience there, there's just this ego that says he deserves what he gets, he deserves his food and his lodging and he deserves not to work, simply because he does not really WANT to.

And the thing is: I've seen modern-day Skimpoles. I've read about them. People who seem to believe that they should be cared for, either by the government (a/k/a, the taxpayers) or by someone else, because they're entitled to it. Or they won't take a job they're offered because it seems below them, or because it requires getting up early in the morning. Or they won't take certain classes that they really need to graduate - and try to find ways around taking those classes - because they have heard those classes are "hard," or involve a lot of math, or something. They're the people complaining that their credit card debts should be discharged or their student loans forgiven, well, just BECAUSE. Because they want it and feel somehow they deserve it.

I think a big part of my disgust with Skimpole in the book is that the real-life Skimpoles annoy me so much...the people who tell me that I'm "good at" some thankless volunteer task, and so I should do it along with everything else I already do, while they do not lift a finger to do anything. The kind of person who, as I'm carrying sixty pounds of equipment down the hall to the lab, follows me and yammers at me about something I "need" to do, while I'm totally focused on not dropping the equipment or straining my muscles any more than they already are.

The Little Red Hen (a childhood hero of mine) would want to scratch out Skimpole's eyes.

I think my frustration with Skimpole is that it seems to me right now the world is full of his descendants, and there are every day people deciding that they should be more like him. And I recognize it's unreasonable and somewhat petty of me, but yes, I get extremely annoyed when I see people shirking responsibilities. I know its partly a sour-grapes thing on my part - there have been far too many days this fall when I've arrived on campus at 7 am, gone home with a stack of work at 5 pm, and either finished, or put up what I could do the next day, at 9 pm. And then to have people saying to me, "You need to..." while they seem to be doing little.

I'm actually kind of surprised at how visceral my reaction to the character is - I don't generally detest book characters. But I do detest Skimpole, and there's some other emotion there as well - almost, but not quite, a fear - a sense that he's such a creature of ego that a real-life Skimpole would not stop at ruining someone's life or even harming someone to get what he wanted.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Another little thought on leadership...

A long time back, I wrote about strong leaders (willing to stand behind decisions but also willing to admit when they were wrong) and weak leaders (want to push the blame onto others). I also think there are the "promotion" type of leaders and the "director" type of leaders. (This is based on something I heard being discussed on the radio early this morning.)

Some political leaders (sadly, increasingly few in our country, it seems) want to promote what is good for the country and the people - but then step back and let the people do their thing. There are laws, of course, but there aren't BAZILLIONS of laws designed to micro-manage everything. Natural consequences, in some cases, are allowed to happen: rather than being forbidden from doing something that might not be good for them, people simply have to decide whether they accept whatever the consequences may be. (For example: drinking lots of sugary soda is not good for you. However, rather than rationing how much sugary soda an individual could by, a promotion-type leader would allow the publication of research showing that lots of sugary soda isn't that good for you, and assume the people are smart enough to decide if they want to drink it or not, and how much).

Other leaders are the directorial type of leader, who want to tell people what to do, in detail. These are the micromanagey types. The ones who don't want anyone to be hurt or offended or feel like stuff is "unfair." So they straitjacket everyone with regulations so that people will be "safe."

You can probably guess what type of leader I prefer, and what type annoys me.

But it occurs to me - this is what the radio commentator was talking about - there are a lot of people who WANT a director-type leader. They WANT to be told what to do. They want the responsibility for their choices to be taken out of their hands.

And you know, I see that among a lot of the young people I teach. Rather than thinking for themselves, they want me to plan a project for them - or tell them the next step to do in lab - or warn them of every damn thing that could go wrong. (I shouldn't really have to tell someone, should I, that a lab hotplate gets hot when it's turned on?) And I wonder if there are just enough people who want to sink down and be mommied or daddied and be told what to do, that we wind up getting leaders who think it's a dandy idea to set draconian limits on the salt that can be in restaurant food, or tell us what kind of light bulbs we can buy, or, perhaps, in the future, tell us how much electricity we may use.

I dunno. I guess if a critical mass of people want that, fine. Become like the people in Wall-E who are coddled and cared for. I'll take early retirement from my job as soon as I can, go build a cabin somewhere in the mountains, live off the grid as much as possible, and do my best to ignore the dictates of people who think they have more horse sense than I do.