New Year’s Eve

I’m enjoying a few days in the tropics with Queen Joan. We’re in the sort of place where most visitors suck up alcoholic drinks adorned with umbrellas, flowers, or fruit; get sunburned; and acquire a bunch of tourist tat to take home.

We’re doing things a bit differently. Neither of us can drink anymore, thanks to assorted health issues. Joan doesn’t do well in the sun, though she enjoys the warmth here. I’m a bit sturdier, but as the whitest of the white girls, I coat myself in #70 sunscreen before approaching a window, let alone going out. Also due to health issues, rather than eating out, we’re doing a lot of cooking.

We we both think back to our youth, and how different things were then. We met a little over 30 years ago. We could drink, and dance, and stay up all night. She went to India. I went to France. She visited me there on her way to Burkina Faso. In Paris, we cooked on a two-burner propane stove in my chambre de bonne, and she had a mattress on the floor, and that didn’t kill her back. We wouldn’t meet either of our husbands for some years yet, and while we had career ambitions, we didn’t know if they would be achievable. I’ve come much closer to achieving mine, though I said last night that I expected I’d do either much more or much less: I might not have got into grad school, or not finished, or not got a job, or not got tenure. Neither of us is quite sure how we wound up with the lives we have. Things happened, choices were made, and even when we got what we wanted, it turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.

But we are still here! We are alive, we are friends, we still travel together. We’re a long way from the mattress on the floor in Paris, and yet the spirit of that trip is with us. She drags me out of my stick-in-the-mud tendencies; I’ve had a lot of experiences, thanks to Joan, that I would not have had on my own (good ones).

So here’s to friendship, and survival, and continuing to have adventures even if they’re more low-key than they once were. We know what we were, and what we are, and there’s still some time for what we may yet be. I feel some trepidation about the year ahead, but in the meantime, there is this gentle tropical morning with the rustle of palm fronds sounding like rain. I wish you some of its peace and energy in the year to come.

Familles, je vous hais

So, more good news (not), this time from my side of the family: my oldest nephew and his wife are splitting up. These are my favorite people on my side, and I love their kids, and this was not a happy thing to hear on a Christmas where Sir John’s favorite relative isn’t speaking to him. I guess I can be glad mine are speaking to me, as well as grateful that Sir John and I are together, healthy, employed, and housed.

I’d tell 2016 not to let the door hit it on the way out, except that I expect in a few weeks, I’ll be begging 2016 to come back. It did, after all, contain half a sabbatical year, a trip to England, a couple of fun conferences, and the successful placement of the last chunk of the MMP. On the personal level, I’ve nothing much to complain of.

I also made Christmas calls to my other relations. Told one brother I’d had an essay accepted (not the journalist, who I knew would just talk about the number of articles he writes every day). Well. Bro #2 is a mucky-muck in his trade organization, so he writes and publishes an article every month in the trade publication. He has a tech writer or editor or something who puts together the framework, and then my brother re-writes so every sentence does what it should, because he is a better writer than the editor.

This is typical, and one of the reasons why I don’t see more of my family. I want to make it clear that I am not sneering at my brother for being in trade. He’s not only good at what he does, I can believe that he’s a better writer than the other person he’s dealing with. Writing and teaching are the family trades, at least in my branch, for a couple of generations now. What I mind is the complete lack of any attempt to understand the difference between what I do and what he does.

A few details on the MMP-1, since my brother didn’t ask: it contains over 14,000 words (a number that will grow when I revise further before publication) and 102 footnotes, it deals with multiple manuscript sources (one literary, at least five documentary), it involved extensive transcription from wills and other documents written in Latin and in secretary hand, it surveys critical literature in an area that is Not My Home Field, it included references to criticism read in a modern language not English, and the last round of readers’ reports included phrases such as “clear argument,” “very welcome,” “compelling” and “impressive.” Shoot, even its first rejection included the phrase “impressively well documented.”

Long ago, I decided that talking to most of my family was like teaching a pig to sing.* I suppose it’s only the sadness and uncertainty I feel about my nephew and his family that bring up all the rest of this nonsense. I should just let it go. Again. I have a partner, friends, and colleagues who get what I do and think it matters. That’s enough.

*It wastes your breath and annoys the pig.

A little peace and quiet

The run-up to Christmas can get strained around here (and how does that make us different from anyone else who celebrates Christmas?). Sir John’s family has birthdays and stuff to celebrate, so there are multiple gatherings. For me, Christmas week is flanked by the anniversaries of two significant deaths, so, in the years since those happened, I tend to want to stay home and be quiet. This year I’ve been better; I even had stirrings of celebratory feelings, such that the Christmas cards we received got lined up on the mantel, and I sent a few of my own.

But just when I’m more cheerful than usual, Sir John’s family suffers a spate of weirdness and re-shuffles itself. Usually the whole clan gets together for all the events. This year, due to Stuff, I thought we were going to have separate gatherings, with the Plain Speakers on one side and the Socially Correct At All Costs on the other. Instead, the Plain Speaker With Feels seceded from all the rest of us, and since Sir John didn’t feel like losing his whole family, we spent Christmas Eve with the Socially Correct chunk of the family. It was much quieter than usual, but at least we didn’t have to talk about feelings.

It was especially quiet for a moment after my mother-in-law mentioned that she’d be spending Christmas afternoon with the one With Feels. We thought that one wanted a year without any of the rest of us, just immediate descendants . . . I’m pretty sure you could have seen the exclamation points hovering over my head and Sir John’s. But we changed the subject and moved on.

So today will at least be normal, since we always spend Christmas quietly at home with the cats, recovering from the week’s uproar. I’ll go to the gym. Sometime after Sir John wakes up, there will be presents. I’ve done stockings from Sandy Claws. I will cook. We’ll read Christmas presents or watch some TV.

I hope that by next year either things will be back to normal or we can go visit my family, who have young ones. It’s more fun wrapping for children than for teenagers, who mainly want gift cards or money. I realized when wrapping our presents that I spent years stockpiling bags for odd-shaped presents, and now I don’t really need them any more!

If you need some peace and quiet today, I hope you get it. And if you’re enjoying a whirlwind of presents and family, more power to you.

Tempest-uous Spring Planning

I will be teaching The Tempest in the spring. I thought I had taught it sometime, maybe ten years back, and had some assignments to draw on. But as I search my files, it appears that I haven’t taught it since I was in graduate school.

Oh-kay. Well. I’m sure it will be fine. Advice would nonetheless be welcome. Even more welcome would be suggestions of one or more short stories with which I could pair the play: stories with thematic connections, or in which characters refer to The Tempest, or are acting in it, or reading it at school, something like that. My idea, if I can get a suitable story, is to read it first, in order to generate questions about its allusions that could be solved by reading the play itself. Thus, I’m not picky about genre. A story that belongs to the SF/fantasy genre, or aims at a YA audience, would be fine. Even fan-fic, so long as it’s tolerably literate and has a recognizable story structure.

Ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

Productive procrastination, or Working when Stupid

I’ve been sleeping poorly, again, which makes it difficult to focus during the day.

I know what’s wrong. My wonky ankle has been acting up, so I’m resting it, which means I’m not working out, which means I don’t sleep so well. This will pass. The ankle will improve, and I will work back up to a decent level of cardiovascular exercise, and all shall be well. In the meantime I try to do more yoga and other relaxing things before bed.

Anyway: what to do on a work day when I have stacks of (well, three) articles to revise, and I don’t feel like I can grasp my own arguments, let alone anyone else’s? Answer: write syllabi and plan spring classes. Tired and fuzzy-headed (or, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid) is the perfect state to work on these tasks. When I’m alert and intelligent, I get over-optimistic about wildly creative, innovative ideas that require lots of energy and a clear head to put into practice in the classroom, and I forget that I may not have those attributes on the future days when I will need them. When I’m tired, I recognize that bad days happen, and that it would be a good idea to re-use old assignments (tweaking as appropriate); to omit or re-schedule that reading that always needs Extra Energy and Enthusiasm!!!; and to leave some flex days on which I can either experiment with a new innovative assignment as a low-stakes, in-class activity so that I can work out potential problems with it, or else, if the flex day is a low-energy day, show a relevant movie or You-Tube clips with discussion of same.

Some more alert and intelligent Future Self will have to look over today’s plans to make sure I haven’t done anything really stupid, like putting all the wrong dates on the syllabus or scheduling two separate sets of readings for the same weeks. Even so, today I’ll get something useful done, and my Future Self will be glad to have a chunk of the work at least drafted.

Eight things plus plans, today

Today I have

talked for over 2 hours with a grad school friend whom I have known for 28 years

skipped a yoga class so we could go on talking

eaten lots of carrot muffins

cooked scrambled eggs with spinach, green beans, and tomatoes for brunch

gone for a short walk (it is very cold here, and the sun was very bright and the sky very blue)

attended a Christmas concert

waved the Fevver Toy for Reina

put together dinner.

And now Reina has dragged the Fevver Toy into the kitchen, so I am going to go wave it around some more. She is addicted to that toy. It no longer has any feathers; I think Basement Cat destroyed them when he was her age. It does have tempting, taunting leather strings, however, and she will chase it till she is panting.

I will probably also read some more of my Spanish novel, and possibly do a bit more coloring.

10 things today

Today I did these things:

went to a yoga class

bought a Christmas present

talked on the phone with a friend I haven’t seen since May

made a phone date with another friend

baked carrot muffins

made vegetable curry

sat with Reina on my lap

sat with Basement Cat on my lap

colored in the Secret Garden coloring book

talked with Sir John about math puzzles



Here we are, my lovelies! Champagne all around! Chin-chin! There is also a chocolate fountain (calorie-free!) for those who prefer it, or want to combine their indulgences, and if you’re not a wine-drinker, I’m sure we can find some celebratory beer or other drinks for you! Because chez Hull, we are celebrating the placement of the final piece of the Massive Macedonian Marginalia Project!

The MMP-1 has found a home. I have to do some revisions, and I still have to finish the revisions for the MMP-3. The MMP-2 and a companion-piece are already in print. (A different set of revisions has taken up my writing time, lately.) But! This means I am finally done (bar revisions) with the Project That Ate My Life for the last seven years, a project that initially seemed simple and then turned into three separate articles plus a companion-piece spin-off, a project that was supposed to be ancillary to a book project that has been sidelined while I work on the other book that cropped up in the meantime. (Generating ideas is not a problem I have. Finishing things, yes, guilty as charged.)

I am so relieved, and so happy. I had started to wonder if I had wasted large swathes of my life working on something that was never going to be news. But it’s okay. The whole thing will, I hope, see the light of day in 2017.

(If you haven’t been following along for years, search the blog for “MMP” and you will find six pages of posts referring to it).

Drink up, darlings! There’s plenty more where that came from! Blog-champers won’t give you a hangover, so have a glass while you grade, or wrap presents, or whatever is on your plate today.


What is poetry good for?

Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?


I play one on TV

I’m not literally a foreign language teacher, and certainly was not trained in FL pedagogy. But since I teach Middle English literature, and since many of my students find Middle English baffling, I often feel like I’m teaching a foreign language, though I am without portfolio (so to speak). Usually it’s the native-born monolinguals who have the hardest time; immigrants, heritage speakers, and students who have minors or majors in a FL pick up ME just fine. They’re used to code-switching, they have a better grasp of grammar, they have a sort of mental flexibility about language and its oddities. I’ve done a lot of reading about FL pedagogy, trying to figure out how to bring those techniques into what is supposed to be a traditional literature course.

Despite my efforts, there are two areas where my current (soon-to-be former) students are really struggling: verb endings (especially second and third-person singulars, thou goest and he goeth, for example), and clauses involving relative pronouns, especially when combined with inverted syntax of a sort common in poetry and even more common in ME (“Ask I you that listen that I say . . .” where the second that, in ME, translates to that which or what: “I ask you who listen to what I say . . . “). Not getting these points means that while my students can get the gist of their reading, they’re often shaky on who does what to whom. Because I’m really teaching literature rather than language, this is a problem. If you’re just trying to order in a restaurant, you can say “Querer un cafe” and the server will probably work out that you mean “quiero.” But if you’re analyzing poetry, you need to understand the forms of words and how they interact.

It’s possible that having a small class, this term, is distorting results: if I had this many students having these problems among a group of 70-odd, I wouldn’t worry about it. In a group of <20, however, the percentage of problems stands out.

If I have any readers who really are FL teachers (Z?), do you have any suggestions?