Falls

This is my 33rd fall.

I am much older than 33, but I grew up in a climate where there are at least a dozen short seasons, not four that (notionally) last three months each, or the two that around here are Winter and Road Construction (or destruction). When I was young, the deciduous trees were generously accompanied by evergreens, both conifers and whatever the term is for trees with leaves that continually shed and re-grow. Fall did see some falling leaves, and leaf-piles to jump in and make crackle; my midwestern-born grandfather might have burned leaves sometimes. But the season was marked more by Back To School, Halloween, and Thanksgiving than by weather or other natural phenomena.

I remember very clearly a few minutes of a fall morning 33 years ago. My penny loafers rapped out a rhythm on a concrete sidewalk as I headed for a bus stop, on my way to a day of classes. I wore a red and black checked skirt my grandmother had made me, in a light woven cotton, over black tights; on top I had on a black silk button-front shirt and a black angora cardigan, and a black beret on my head. The day’s high was forecast to be around 55. There was frost on the grass and on car windshields. Where I came from, frost happened only rarely, in the depths of winter. Fisting my hands in my cotton pockets, I began to get a faint notion of what winter would be like in my new place. I had one wool dress, which I had worn once on a November trip to Chicago. I had a gabardine raincoat with a zip-in wool liner, which had not been warm enough in Chicago even when layered over the wool dress. I had a pair of fur-lined leather gloves given to me by the doctor I once worked for, who had grown up in Philadelphia.

Within a month I had acquired a parka rated to -15 degrees F, a pair of boots that could withstand snow, and a pleated wool skirt that I still have. I would also learn about flannel-lined jeans, waffle-weave long underwear, and properly insulated gloves. I’ve learned to cope. But I still find it hard to move from the season my body recognizes as winter to the sort of winter that afflicts the midwest. Fall seems to be coming late this year, and I hope that doesn’t mean that winter will be vicious when it hits.

The very local news

  • Basement Cat still fights getting pills, but the discussions over venison kibble that eventually lead to agreement to swallow are getting shorter and can be handled by a single human. This is progress.
  • Basement Cat’s health is definitely improving thanks to said pills.
  • Glendower would like to do some negotiating over venison kibble or baby food, and is a little sulky that he is not the only Poor Sick Cat around here.
  • Reina is doing fine. She likes to sit on my desk or my desk chair, and I have to move her to do any work.
  • Cardinals and mourning doves have visited the bird feeder.
  • Earlier this week, I dug more bellflower out of the front yard. Will this never end?
  • Five weeks into the semester, I still haven’t adjusted to getting up before dawn. Will I ever, or am I just going to be perpetually sleep-deprived for the next ten weeks?
  • While minding my own business, or rather Sir John’s (buying a birthday card for his brother), I bought a novel I would like to read. A week later, I still haven’t opened it.
  • We still have the TV coverage of the women’s Vuelta à España on the DVR.
  • I’m not sure what I have been doing that keeps me from reading or watching TV. Cooking, working on dead languages, and driving, probably.
  • Also grading and course prep. I’m teaching lower-level classes and find that students at that level need lots of accountability. Frequent short assignments keep them engaged, so there we are.
  • I have bought two new pair of shoes since the beginning of the semester. Abeo makes shoes that are comfortable for a person with very high arches. I like having both happy feet and cute shoes.

Teaching Statement

Bottom line: people like to make their own mistakes.

Academics probably know what I mean by my title phrase, but I’ll explain it for others: at intervals (applying for jobs, for tenure, for promotion), we have to write about our approaches to, and beliefs about, teaching. For external audiences, it’s useful to hit some buzz-phrases: student-centered, meeting students where they are, scaffolding assignments, bringing research into the classroom. (I have no objection to any of these ideas; depending on what and where you teach, they are all some combination of reasonable/ desirable / necessary. As Jonathan said awhile back, clichés are idiomatic and easily understood, and when writing for administrators, you want to make sure that they know you know what the currently important ideas and techniques are.)

I like teaching. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a significant part of my identity. Or rather, being a professor is significant. I enjoy talking with students about literature, and providing them with techniques for analyzing literature, so that they learn how to see what a writer is doing besides just stringing words together, so that they learn that discussion and writing for literature classes isn’t just a lot of hand-wavy bullshit. As I am a decent literary critic, so also I am a decent critic of other teachers. I don’t mean that I offer everyone feedback, but that I note in my head what people are doing well or ill. Yesterday I was at a dance workshop with a teacher who was an excellent dancer but lousy at conveying in words what he wanted people to do. His main technique was demonstration. I could tell he thought in patterns and movement, but had trouble translating that to language. For me, he was not a good teacher, because that is not how I think.

I have no ambitions to be a dance teacher, or to give instruction in any field other than the one I’m paid for. Sometimes I consider, as a retirement job, teaching English as a foreign language, or tutoring children in math. Such jobs would use the skills I have developed over the course of my professional career, rather than requiring me to pick up new skills. They would give me a place to go, people to talk to, when I am no longer at LRU. But I don’t feel that I need to teach, or that I have any special knowledge or wisdom to pass on. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of people who could teach the topics I do, and many of them would no doubt do it better. I tend to think up-side down, to start at the deep end and work back to the first principles, and most students want to start at the simple end and only gradually complicate matters.

As my grandfather got older, he became more and more taciturn. He figured younger people didn’t want to hear an old man bore on about how things used to be. He did, in fact, have a lot of useful specialized knowledge, some of which he may have passed on to my brothers, about working with wood and metal, about growing food and fixing things. None of this came to me, a girl; if he had any expectations here, it would have been that my grandmother would teach me to sew, knit, tat, embroider. That didn’t happen either. What did get passed on is his taciturnity, his tendency to talk only when asked a question. I consider the classroom a question: when I’m there, I’ll lecture or direct discussion, as necessary. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything special to convey to anyone. My life lessons are just that: mine, for me. Things change, the world moves on; what would have been good advice when I was 25 no longer applies to someone 30-some years younger than I am.

So this post seemed very foreign to me, though I can certainly understand the urge to Do All The Things (and look, I got a whole post of my own out of thinking about it). “I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years . . . and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach . . .” It’s certainly useful to be able to break down processes and think how to do them efficiently, correctly, well. But this observation, from the same post, is more where I sit: “she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes.”

Even if they are the same mistakes, they will be new to her. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and part of building a life. I may well have made some of the same mistakes made by my parents, and my grandparents too. But my reactions to them were mine, and my fixes were made in different circumstances, so it wouldn’t have done any good to have been warned.

To be totally consistent, I would now erase this post. Go do your own thing; there’s no point to reading my meanderings.

The mirror crack’d

The strange thing about my recent trip to my home state was that it didn’t feel like home.

It was beautiful, it was comfortable, if things shake out such that I live there again, that would be fine, but I did not feel the fierce pull of longing that has afflicted me for most of my adult life. I feel like now I can make a rational choice about where I want to live, rather than feeling like I need to get back there.

For years, I felt that I was living in exile (see here, here, and here, for example; I guess now I really mean what I said here). The place I live (where my job is, where Sir John is from) was too flat, too bland, too cold (in winter), too hot and humid (in summer), and too lacking in the kind of flora that I like best. But on this trip back, many of the roads were too narrow and alarmingly twisty, so it seems I’ve adjusted to flat, although the climate and flora were lovely. Some of the people I saw said they could never live with the kind of winter weather I grumble about, and I felt a certain pride that despite my grumbling, I can and do live with it.

Have I spent too long away, and so snapped the thread that stretched back there? Have I finally hardened off to the midwestern climate? I feel free, but this is very strange.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Still summer

At least, by the calendar.

August has always been the month that feels most transitional to me, the month in which I am aware of the planet turning, the stars shifting toward the winter layout of constellations, the trees displaying the deeper green that presages autumnal colors. Even when the weather is still hot and humid, I can feel the year sliding toward the equinox and shorter days. The light shifts; though the days are still long, dawn comes later, sunset earlier. I have one more quick trip to make before classes start. Then, in some sense, summer really will be over, although often weather in the first few weeks of school is so hot that it feels like summer is in extra innings.

I have not been so present on the blog, this summer, as I intended to be. I thought I’d do a lot more Six on Saturday posts, to mark the time I’ve spent on the garden, and more writing inspiration posts, to cheer myself on with various projects. The list of other things I’d hoped to do this summer likewise still has various items unchecked. The house has not sold; we will not be moving yet. A new course I will teach next spring remains only very sketchily planned, whereas I had hoped to get it more fully developed. A revise-and-resubmit continues to hang on my computer like an albatross.

On the other hand, I have finished final edits on the Huge Honking Translation, written a conference paper, planned fall classes fairly thoroughly, done a lot of gardening, watched the all of the Tour de France as well as the Tour of California, read all of a scholarly book I’ve wanted to read for a couple of years, read quite a lot of light fiction, and drunk a respectable amount of wine. I’ve visited family, traveled to a place new to me, and am about to spend a few nights in my native soil (like one of nicoleandmaggie’s partners, I need that every so often to keep from withering away). By objective standards, it’s been a good summer. I may manage to hack off that albatross soon, and I can keep chipping away at the new-course planning. The house, well, maybe it’s time to bury St Joseph in the front yard.

As for the year’s turning and growing darker, this is probably the moment to plan a trip next December or January, while I’m aware that I will need it, but before I start feeling that I just want to hibernate and it’s too much like work to organize travel.

My Man McPhee

I knew eventually all those New Yorker articles would become a book, but I missed its initial appearance. However, Alison Wright pictured it here, so now I know that it came out in 2018, and can either get Draft 4 for myself, or maybe put it on my Xmas list (since after all I saved and pored over the individual essays, and often have trouble thinking of things I’d like to receive in mid-winter, besides tickets to Somewhere Warm).

That were a no

I think I may have assimilated to the Midwest.

As in, learned how to do Midwestern Nice.

I’m stunned, because I still think of myself as a blunt westerner, with an overlay of New England taciturnity, for whom “No” is a complete sentence.

However, I just got an e-mail from an e-bay seller offering me a similar item to one I had purchased earlier, and my quickly-typed response went something like “Thanks for thinking of me but I avoid white because I am such a stain magnet. It’s so nice of you to offer, though!”

I’d sent it before I realized that nothing in my reply said, clearly, “No, I don’t want it,” or “No, thank you,” or “Thanks but no, thanks!”

And now the end of Cold Comfort Farm is playing in my head, where Flora gently turns down Reuben’s offer of marriage and he says, “That were a no, were it?”

Spam au chocolat

Ganching: I commented on Saturday the 13th, and it showed up right away, then disappeared.

However, all seems to be well (w/r/t commenting) chez Carolbaby—hope you’re feeling better by now!

Everybody else: sorry I haven’t been around these parts. I traveled to see family, came back shortly before the Tour de France started, and have been trying to do all the work I didn’t do in June while keeping up with cycling events. I keep missing Six on Saturday because I get confused about what day it is. I took pictures in my sister-in-law’s garden; now I’m back, I ought to take some of my own. The day lilies are doing well, and sweet peas are out. Two shrubs are dying off branch by branch, and I’m not sure what their problem is, but it worries me when I’m not totally preoccupied with the Huge Honking Translation or a conference paper possibly related to The Book.

That’s the summary version!