Mustn’t grumble, but I do anyway

Probably just because it’s a gloomy damp day, and grumbling suits it.

Things are actually going well enough, just not to plan. I’ve done some teaching things . . . not the most urgent ones. I’ve done some research . . . on the long-term project, not this month’s main event. (That actually was the plan, for today; the trick will be going back to the main current thing tomorrow, instead of getting caught up in the old thing that now seems like the New Shiny, thanks to the break while I worked on other things.) I’ve been to the gym, though I left two hours later than I planned to. What I never account for, in planning a day at home, is the process that goes like this:

If it snows tomorrow, I can’t wear those boots. Unless I waterproofed them. That would be a great idea, actually. What did I do with the waterproofing stuff? Oh, look, it’s exactly where I thought it was, how very organized of me! Why doesn’t it have a nozzle? Oh, right, now I remember: the old cleaner was having a clumsy day, maybe a year ago (more?) and knocked the nozzle off a new can of bathroom cleaner, and I was a clever-boots and found that the nozzle from the waterproofing stuff fit the can of cleaning foam, and I told myself to remember to notice when we ran low on the foam and move the nozzle back to the waterproofing stuff. Predictably, I was not nearly clever enough to remember to do that. Now, what do I have that will fit the waterproofing can? Not that . . . look under a different sink . . . not that . . . try that one . . . well, that made a mess, and I don’t think it did anything for the boots . . . is there anywhere else to look? (Repeat process a couple of times.) Okay, that worked. Put back the nozzle that didn’t fit (why do household items have at least two different sizes of nozzle, anyway?). Put back the one that did fit. Leave the boots to dry. Get back to Plan A.

Sir John suggested that I toss out the nozzleless can and buy a new one. “Call it your contribution to economic stimulus.” I admit that he has a point, but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been able to do the boots today, or not unless I’d added another errand to the list of things to do today. It might have been quicker anyway, but then again, maybe not.

It’s this sort of thing that always derails me. That, and feeling that it is time for a cup of tea. If it were just the tea, it would be fine, but I always do something while the kettle boils and then, twenty minutes later, resume Plan A. It would be quicker just to stare out the window while the kettle boils.

At any rate, I was supposed to spend the afternoon decluttering, but I still have Urgent Teaching Things to do before tomorrow, and I think I can see how this is going to go. Once the UTT are done, it will be time to cook dinner, and afterward I will get ready for tomorrow’s departure at sunrise, and then I will do something to wind down before bed, and the clutter will be exactly where I left it.

But I will be able to wear my favorite boots even if there are snow showers. Win?

Refusing fear, finding joy

I’ve already lost enough years of my life to fearing nuclear war.

In my teens, I was undoubtedly disturbed in various ways, tormented by hormones, situational depression, anxiety, blah blah, but that was one of my big fears. It was probably much less likely in the 70s than it was for my brothers, half a generation earlier, but I was greatly influenced by their accounts of what they worried about, at my age. (Please note: those “kids these days think they have it so tough” lectures can backfire terribly, since “kids” practically by definition do not have brains as mature as those lecturing and may misapply the intended lesson.) I wanted to live to grow up. I was terribly jealous of, and furious at, adults who had already lived a good chunk of life, most especially those who were engaging in the political posturing that I found so frightening. They had already done the things I was hoping to get a chance to do (go to college, travel, get married); it was my entire life they were threatening. In my view. I mean, looking back, I can see things differently, but that was my lived experience, the fear and rage. I think I even got a letter to the editor published in some local paper, when I was particularly angry about something a columnist said. That just came back to me, as I write this. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I do remember that it felt better to write about my fears, that I was amazed when the letter was published, and that the columnist was still rather patronizing in his response. But at least someone heard me.

Now, that fear keeps cropping up, strangely familiar. I do think that it’s more likely than not that we’ll somehow muddle through, avoiding the ultimate disaster, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be various smaller yet still serious disasters along the way. And I am enraged by the fear. Enough to take action, in various small ways—sending e-mails, making phone calls—but also enough to be determined to refuse it. I will not live in fear again. I have, now, had the life I wanted to have. Not enough of it; I definitely hope to live as long as my father has, in equally good health and enjoyment of life. But I have reached my 50s, achieved college and graduate school and a highly rewarding job, traveled quite a lot, married a wonderful man. It’s been good.

So my goal is to be one of Carolyn See’s “hedonists . . . too enchanted by [my own life] to get excited by Death descending,” to go on “making love, or napping, or fixing dinner,” to do the things I find meaningful and enjoyable. Teach my students, write my articles, brush my cats, tend my garden, eat raspberries and re-read my favorite books. If we muddle through, I don’t want to have lost these years (as I lost a chunk of my youth that could have been a lot more fun than it was). If we don’t, I want to enjoy the end of my life. I want to fill it with music, dance, art, beauty, pleasure, joy. I want to refuse the fear and instead appreciate every mundane moment, every bite of chocolate, every sun-shot afternoon, every meal I cook. This is my rebellion. This is the flag I will fly: love of life.

Golden Days

“On the whole, they say, people got what they expected. The generals and the military were very hard hit. A certain kind of women and children were devastated. . . . But, as in any catastrophe, there were the crackpots who hadn’t paid much attention; the ones who, in a sense, went on playing poker through the quake. They were the dumb ones, the sissies, the . . . hedonists who were too enchanted by their own lives to get excited by Death descending.

“The ones I know who lived were the ones who had been making love, or napping, or fixing dinner, when the End came, or the ones at the beach—who still talked about the great crystallization of the sand, the ones far out windsurfing who dove beneath the waves and felt the whole Pacific turn lukewarm, the ones whose boats were out on the far side of Catalina when it happened and hove to, sailing back out of pure curiosity. And, of course, all of the scrabbling canyon weirdos, who saw the whole global collapse as just another brush fire.”

Carolyn See (1934-2016), Golden Days (McGraw Hill, 1987), 192-193.

Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”

Owl/lark

Three hours after I went to bed last night, the bedroom smoke detector started chirping about its low battery.

Since Sir John was still up, I called him, and he came and replaced the battery. No one had to stumble groggily around the house, and only one of us had sleep disturbed by the incident.

It’s quite useful being on different schedules.

Random bullets of only-barely-coping

*I always think I’m prepared for things, or as prepared as I can be, and then the thing happens and I’m not prepared. I know this about myself. And the nature of the not-prepared always surprises me.

*I really want to stay home and not go out or talk to anyone and just work on jigsaw puzzles. It’s a psychological defense mechanism, creating order from chaos.

*My evil/eval documents are still overdue. Really must get them in today.

*I have already identified most of the heart-breaking types of students listed in this post. So far, the plain annoying types are hiding or non-existent. We’ll see.

*My wonky ankle is being really wonky again. Besides the obvious (strained it again), I think it also doesn’t like the chilly damp weather we’ve been having, and I think I may be getting some referred pain from further up the same leg. All this going on at once makes it hard to figure out what is best to do for it. I’m getting cranky from lack of vigorous exercise, but the ankle needs to be rested.

*Reina and Basement Cat remain at odds. Do we have to put everyone on Prozac?

*I know why I loaded myself with grading short assignments in the first two weeks of classes: to convince students that they can’t just coast and then pull an all-nighter to write an incoherent five-page paper in week 5 of the semester. I want them to learn decent work habits early on, and to stay engaged with the material via frequent assignments. OK, pedagogically sound, and look what a good teacher I am . . . only, couldn’t I have had some compassion for myself and care for my workload? What was I thinking? That I really am Minerva McGonagall and have a Time-Turner? Or that I’m the Dowager Duchess and have servants?

*It’s not going to get any earlier. Just get started. Suck Less. Choose the practice freely.

Not entirely unfortunate

Unfortunately, I did not get nearly enough sleep.

Fortunately, waking up early meant I got to campus in plenty of time to make copies for my first class, a process that (unfortunately) was more complicated than it used to be, thanks to unfortunate cost-cutting measures imposed by the Powers That Be.

Unfortunately, no deus ex machina prevented today’s main event.

Fortunately, I was teaching during it and was able to spend the morning communing with Great Minds from the past and thinking about topics I love, instead of being subjected to the news. I may spend a lot of time living far in the past, over the next few years, unless that deus shows up at some point.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t prepared my documents for annual evaluations. I spent the afternoon grading, instead, which might seem unfortunate except for the alternatives. I avoided the news successfully and felt like a wonderfully efficient and dedicated professor.

Fortunately, I have the weekend to do the damned evil documents. “Eval,” that should read, but thank you, autocorrect, that is a fortuitous correction.

Unfortunately, I have a considerable number of Life Stuff tasks that I would like to take care of this weekend, without facing up to what I have achieved in recent years. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and left undone those things I ought to have done, and there is no health in me—could I just write that in place of my scholarship report?

Fortunately, I have one truly awesome comment from a student evaluation of my teaching, which I can report on the teaching form: one of the most discerning and intelligent students it has ever been my pleasure to teach compared me to Minerva McGonagall. That made my day, week, and month. A small thing, but a definite consolation.

Preparing for class

No matter how many students there are, I have to prepare myself for these types:

The student who annoys me by passive-aggressive techniques (I don’t understand; I couldn’t find your office; I didn’t think to ask anyone . . . )

The student who thinks he (usually he) will annoy me with open insolence (much less annoying than the first type).

The one with ADD who tries hard but cannot get it together.

The one who is deeply distracted by family problems.

The first-generation student who has just transferred from a small community college, mid-year, and is completely overwhelmed by the size of LRU’s campus and bureaucracy.

The one who suffers from anxiety and/or depression.

The one who blows everyone else out of the water . . . how to keep this one engaged and energized without depressing or antagonizing the others?

The one who is super-smart and tragically under-prepared for college-level work.

The one who conscientiously does everything by the book, without ever showing any spark of creativity or insight, and gets frustrated because A’s are elusive.

The student who thinks it will be possible to get good grades by talking intelligently in class, and turns in half (at best) of the written work that actually gets graded.

The one who doesn’t have money for books and is reading outdated editions online, on an old phone that has a cracked screen or other problem.

On the whole, I’d rather deal with the annoying ones, because so many of the others are heart-breaking. Sometimes I know how their stories come out, though. One of the smart/underprepared ones I had a few years ago just graduated, for instance. There is hope.

Fluctuations

I know there are good reasons for students to add classes shortly before the semester starts, finances being one. Nonetheless, I really wish they’d pick classes near the start of the registration period and then just not tinker with their schedules, because numbers make a big difference to my planning.

If I just lectured and gave exams, sure, I wouldn’t care: I can lecture to ten people, or forty, or a hundred. The exam dates wouldn’t change, though format might, if I had to do all the grading myself, or with a TA who had to be trained in how to score essay answers.

But that’s not what I do. I’m an English professor; I teach skills. The classroom is already flipped. We practice reading closely, we test interpretations, we puzzle out what a poet means, what motivates a character, how a writer creates atmosphere and why that matters. We talk, or we work in groups and then talk. We write, and then read each other’s writing. I collect that writing and look it over and make comments. Students write more or less complex essays, with more or fewer required assignments preparing for those essays, depending on how much time I have for grading, which depends on how many students I have.

This semester, I would like to meet individually with my students to go over at least one of their papers, preferably the first one. I’m always willing to do this if anyone wants to, but mainly students don’t come to office hours. I’ve written before about the many differences between LRU and the “typical” residential campus that many people imagine when they think about “college.” I have a lot of returning students, and even those of traditional age often have jobs and family commitments that mean they’re on campus for classes and little else. They need to relieve the babysitter or interpret for Dad or take Grandma to the doctor. The library is a luxury and going to office hours isn’t even on the radar, which is why I want to see if I can get it there. That, and my own experience working in person with the translation team, last summer: the comments on my work, which it is always uncomfortable to read (I worked so hard and they don’t think it’s brilliant!), sound so different when delivered in a real live voice coming from a person I like and respect.

The more students I have, though, the harder it will be to fit their visits into holes in their and my schedule, and the more class time I would need to cut into in order to provide conference time for those who really can’t meet outside of class. It’s a good thing for the bean-counters, for the financial health of LRU, and for my stats as a teacher that the numbers are going up. But one of my classes has nearly doubled in size since the start of December, and that definitely affects my plans. What I can do with fifteen students is very different from what I can do with 30. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Another class is still within tolerance for the kind of fun but professorial-labor-intensive research paper I’d like to have them do. But if I get five more students, I won’t be able to teach these particular skills, because they need a lot of one-on-one. A third class has been cancelled. In theory, of course, that means more time for the others, except that (a) since I got a research release in its place, I’m supposed to be writing, and (b) it does make a difference whether students are distributed across multiple classes (or sections) or all in a single class. Just because I’m now free at a certain time of day doesn’t mean my students are.

And if I had another week to go, I’d wait and see what happens. But I have to turn in syllabuses at the end of the day, and they’re supposed to give students a good, reliable outline of what we’ll be doing, and so I have to make some decisions, based on the current numbers, and then stick to them. Shall I gamble that a few people will drop the larger course? Or that there will be a few more adds between now and Wednesday morning?