Teaching

You know what else is great about my job? The fact that teaching actually teaches people stuff. It’s incredible! We’re at Day 15 in my pop music class and the students, who began the semester with basically zero knowledge of specific styles and cultural histories, are now hearing stuff and confidently being all “oh yeah that’s a classic R&B horn section but the horns are being played as percussive instruments, verily this must be funk” and “hmmm this sounds like honky tonk but with way better production values I wonder if these are white dudes from San Francisco who hate progressive rock” and “ah yes the classic Phil Spector ‘wall of sound,’ I surely would know it anywhere and would never mistake it for a Motown recording as I did in my youth 15 class days ago.” Discoursing upon the Great Migration and different urban blues styles. Asking smart questions about record label consolidation and marketing demographics. THEY LEARNED. I laugh with glee as I grade these damn quizzes! The last quiz I gave they pronounced “too easy.” Gonna have to bring my A game to the writing of the final. “NAME EVERY MEMBER OF SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE IN ORDER OF BIRTHDATE”

Similarly with grad students. To give somebody a reading list and then six months later they come see you all jazzed about how their topic has changed now that they’ve read everything on the list! When they begin they’re like “yeah, I think trombones are cool” and then a year later they’re all “branding” this and “immaterial labor” that and “as David Harvey demonstrates” this and “confidently quoting Bourdieu” that. It’s so cool that if you put your shoulder to it you can learn stuff. And the labor shall never cease but lo what a joy it is

I also am learning and enjoying it. The other day I read a book I’ve tried to read three times over the past several years, and this time it finally clicked, I had finally read enough and built enough of an intellectual scaffolding to understand it, and it all came clear to me and I was just like, oh yeah, duh, what a great argument. I always think of these moments the way math problems reveal themselves to Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind,” lighting up and rising into the air before his eyes. AHA!

It’s crazy that then you die and your brain just rots away and everything you learned just disappears

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some basics

I am sitting alone at a bar in the town adjacent to the giant school where I teach. The bar is filled with students. It is 8:15 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The bar is playing an odd mix of music I can’t quite nail down. Lorde, “Africa” by Toto, Postal Service, Depeche Mode, a song from a musical like maybe Sweeney Todd, Richard Hell, Frank Ocean, The Beatles, and something that sounded like some of that contemporary classical music those hipsters in Brooklyn are making these days. What Spotify playlist is this? I am pretty much in favor of it, I guess.

I am consuming an entire order of nachos and just finished preparing for a student’s oral exam tomorrow. At this point I am truly living the dream! Alone at a bar researching the Spanish roots of the chaconne, drinking a fine local IPA. What could be better? I can’t tell if I’m joking or not!

This kind of is what I set out to make my life become, ten years ago when I began this journey. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this journey, how crazy it is that I actually have the job that I set out to get in 2005, and that I decided to one day set out to get in 1996. 1996!!!! A lifetime ago. What was going through my mind, when I decided to become a professor? I no longer have access to that person; I can only assume she was kind of an idiot but I also respect her passion. And anyway here I am, grading papers just like I always dreamed.

It’s kind of sad that my life clearly seems very weird and boring to many people I know, and yet it is everything I always dreamed of AND MORE, and also it was INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO ATTAIN. Like, I had to strive for it. To the max, and with devotion and passion in my soul. And I’m still not very good at it and this haunts me and I strive harder each day to become even a tiny bit more good at it, and every little fragment of “more good at it” I become fills me with profound joy. And yet when I explain my daily life to people, many of them look at me with pity. I have decided to take pride in this fact. In an absurd world, only absurd actions are sane.

There are lots of things I dislike about teaching this huge gen-ed lecture class I teach every single semester, but one of the things I dislike is the fact that, because there are 200 students in the class and I barely see their faces, almost anyone I encounter in this town who is between the ages of 18-21 could be one of my students, and I wouldn’t know it. The person who sells me a used copy of House of Mirth I am for some reason buying could be my student. The guy who watched me trip and drop my keys as I crossed the street could be my student. A student could be staring at me right now as I shovel an entire order of nachos into my mouth and I would have no idea I was being evaluated in that way. One time I got a cavity filled and then went immediately to eat hot and sour soup in a local restaurant and halfway through my messy struggle to pour soup into my numb mouth I realized a fairly large group of my grad students was watching me. I am definitely getting more comfortable with being a lame freak of a middle aged weirdo but I will also say I am glad we consciously decided to live in a town 30 minutes away and full of farmers who don’t give a shit about this university.

“Africa” by Toto is a truly great song

So I have been growing my hair out and I can’t tell if it looks normal or actually crazy, and no one will tell you something like that, the truth I mean, and my husband is useless when it comes to matters of appearance, because he always says I look fine, which just statistically speaking can’t possibly be the case, which means I can never trust his opinion. He’ll tell me there’s nothing in my teeth even when there is indeed lots of stuff in my teeth. I can’t tell if he (a) always finds me enticingly beautiful because he is blinded by his love for me or (b) he is trolling me. Or (c) he’s just not paying much attention. The other night I told him it triggers me when he says “maybe I could make a soup” at 8:00 p.m. when I am starving and there are no groceries in the house, so now he says it every night.

Anyway I am growing my hair out. I haven’t shampooed my hair in at least five years, but during that whole time I had very short hair. It turns out it’s a bit more complicated when your hair gets longer; you actually have to think about it and brush it and shit. I bought a nice brush and actually researched the no-shampoo method and we’ll see what happens. My fingernails are also long. I feel like I am turning into a monster. The repetition of my days is starting to get to me. Do you know what I mean? Every day the same routine, the same actions performed in the same order, in the same way. Open the medicine cabinet, get out the toothpaste, put the toothpaste back in. Cook the dinner, eat the dinner, shit out the dinner. Write “Nice work!” on the papers. Say “I don’t know” in the faculty meeting. “Another day, another dollar; another dollar, another damn day–where does it all end?” I keep telling my students they’re all going to die someday; they always laugh.

Our neighbors were so delighted by the bird feeder we put up that they bought us a set of beautiful crystal goblets and left them on our porch with a big card in the shape of a chickadee in which they’d written “thanks for being such great neighbors.” Word to the wise: if you want your neighbors to like you, stick a bird feeder by their kitchen window! Now we talk every day about all the cool-ass birds in the yard. “SAW A BLUEBIRD THIS MORNING” one of us will yell while pruning some sort of bush or hedge in the yard. I love all our neighbors. We live around mostly retired people and this guy Bob who has these beautiful huge mastiffs he’s always out in the yard with.

SNOW AND NEIGHBORS

In New England when it snows a lot there is this whole culture around it. I imagine it’s like this everywhere that it snows; I just haven’t experienced it because in Colorado we didn’t live in a neighborhood but rather out in the middle of nowhere where there was no culture and no neighbors to speak of. So, when it snows here, first of all you wake up in the wee hours of the morning because the snowplows are driving down your quiet residential street going literally 40 mph and it’s completely terrifying, yet the sound also fills you with excitement because maybe school is canceled!! Which it rarely is. If it’s a pretty big or a huge snow, then the whole next day people are outside dealing with it. I think this is surely partly a product of having mostly retired neighbors? Because it really is like a 5-7 hour pretty non-stop management situation, which I hear on snow days when I stay home. I work in my office all day and all day the snow blowers and the scraping of the shovels continues. When my old man and I shovel the area that is generally considered to be our responsibility it takes like 20 minutes and we do a shitty but passable job. The neighbors, on the other hand, are out there carving these like beautiful geometrically perfect sidewalks. They have so many different tools, all propped up waiting their usage. Several of them have actual snow blowers, which, if you have never seen one of these, it’s kind of like a lawn mower in terms of its general size and decibel level. You push it and it sucks up snow and shoots it off to the side in a huge arc. Obviously snow blowers are superior to shovels in a variety of ways, although much worse in the sense that they are loud and gasoline-powered. However, unlike their shitty cousin the leaf blower, they REALLY do the job!

The neighborhood culture regarding snow is very fun. When it snows, you go outside the next morning, and all the neighbors are outside shoveling and jawing about it. You stand around leaning on your shovels, chatting about the snow. “Heard they got 15 inches up in Brattleboro,” that kind of talk. There is a lot of congenial complaining about the city’s snowplow drivers, who are generally held to be “maniacs,” an assessment I totally agree with. “Well, better get back to it!” you say, and everyone says “oh yeah,” and then you all go back to shoveling. But then! Sometimes a little magical elf comes and helps you without saying anything! One time we came home and someone (clearly Bob) had just blasted all the snow in our driveway back into our backyard, doing us a huge solid. Several times I have been outside struggling to shovel the sidewalk, and then I come inside to take a break, only to realize that one of our neighbors has come over and is using his snow-blower on OUR sidewalk or driveway! It’s so goddamn neighborly, I can’t stand it, I always wish I had cookies to bring out, although of course I never do. We also shovel the steps and driveway of our very elderly neighbor, Al. It’s just a lot of good old fashioned helping each other out, in this great New England way where no one ever says anything about it.

I am sure we have had our last snow for the year. It was a weird 24 hour sleet that was disgusting.

Crossing our fingers for our apple tree to bloom this year. OH MY GOD. I am so excited/nervous.

My old man is walking around with a puffed out chest and a shit-eating grin on his face because several months ago he dumped a pile of brush in the yard in hopes a family of carolina wrens would make their home inside of it AND THEY DID

Other happenings:

It’s a long story but it turns out I’ve been accidentally overloaded on teaching for three years, and have technically been teaching a 4/3 instead of a 3/2 as stated in my contract. It’s actually terrible and I am really upset about it, but the upshot is that next year my teaching is being reduced and it’s going to make an enormous difference in my life. Just think, all this time that I’ve been panicking and saying “I don’t understand how people do this,” meaning write/publish while teaching full time, it turns out I’ve been teaching almost double what the other people in my college teach (the rest of our college has a 2/2). So I wasn’t just a piece of shit after all–it actually WAS too hard! I am intensely gratified by this. And also kind of proud, because I DID IT, I got used to it, and it was really hard but I did do it and also did get writing done also. And now next year will feel so amazing! Knock on wood. There is also talk of finally moving me into a real office, although tbh I will not count that chicken until it is not only hatched but grown up and thriving out in the yard.

I learned that restrictions on how university funds can be spent mean that although I am allowed to use my startup funds to buy a piano for my home, I have to have the piano delivered to campus, unloaded, checked off a piece of paper, and then a separate company has to come pick the piano up to take to my house. In conclusion: “I am not getting a piano.”

My old man got a book about how to build your own sauna. It’s full of pictures of naked Finns.

I put my rad sweater in the dryer and it shrank and I am going to mail it to my friend who is a small child in hopes it will fit him.

I am in one of these zones I get into periodically in which I dream vividly each night but only about extremely mundane things I already planned to do the next day. It makes me feel tired and confused. I will dream that I:
– graded all my papers
– emailed that student I’ve been meaning to check on
– tweeted a joke
– made coffee
– walked the dog

that sort of thing. Then the next day I have to continually confront stuff I thought I did already. What on earth

The other night my old man insisted on betting me that “Ned” is not a nickname for “Edward.” He obviously lost. We have been together fourteen years and I literally can not think of a time he has won a bet against me. This is NOT because I know everything but rather is a result of my betting style. “You are a very conservative bettor,” he agreed, chagrined at yet another victory on my part. I truly only bet when I know for a fact I’m right, which makes his insistence on continuing to bet against me either frightening or sweet depending on how you look at it. One time he bet me $150 that David Hyde Pierce was in the movie “The Ten.” He also bet me one time that there was an “s” in “Bobcat Goldthwaite.” I am making money hand over fist! Most personally lucrative marriage in history???

After losing this bet he challenged me to re-cast “Ghostbusters” using only actors named “Ed.” Here is my cast, I feel good about it:
– Venkman: Eddie Murphy
– Ray: Ed Asner
– Egon: Ed Begley Jr.
– Winston: Ed Harris
– Dana: Edward Norton
– Annie Potts: Ed Helms
– Lewis: Eddie Izzard
– Mayor: Edward James Olmos

OMG the bartender just yelled “THIS IS JESSE’S FUCKED UP PLAYLIST” and another bartender said “Oh no you can NEVER play Jesse’s playlist in here!” Everything makes sense now

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Bird Brained

My husband has gotten really into bird watching since he dropped out of his PhD program. In many ways once he dropped out he became again the man I fell in love with, the goofy ding dong singing and dancing in the kitchen, pulling pranks, identifying interests and pursuing them, all the things that, for whatever reason, working on the PhD had taken from him. (This is not to say I was not still in love with him while he was in grad school; just that he was very different at that time). Since bailing, he’s gotten back into sound recording and design, and bought a bunch of fancy microphones. He planned a camping trip in Vermont. He built a bench based on plans he found in this weird book about GARDEN IDEAS. He got really into this thing called “forest farming” which is when you farm in harmony with nature, meaning you don’t clearcut and plow. He keeps talking about planting paw paw trees under my office window and he says he’s going to encircle our home with hazelnut shrubs. All of this is A-OK by yours truly; as the old sexist saying goes, “happy wife / happy life,” or in this case “happy old man / good times enjoyed by all.”

So birding is one of the new things he’s gotten into since quitting academia brought an unimaginable amount of free time back into his life. He listens to birdcall records and looks at bird flashcards and reads about birds and donates to the Cornell Ornithology Lab and listens to a podcast called “Talkin’ Birds” and subscribes to a magazine called “Living Bird” that is full of advertisements for places you can go on vacation where there are lots of neat birds. He got a bird bath and put it in the yard and for months we would sit in the living room and watch birds taking baths and we would laugh and laugh, because birds are very funny when they bathe. They really kick up a ruckus! They wade right in and start throwing water all over and fluffing up their feathers! Then they fly up into the overhanging shrubbery and preen themselves and flap around. One time I looked outside and a giant bright red cardinal was just sitting in the very middle of the bath. Not washing or fluffing, just sitting. He looked like a guy taking a relaxing break in a hot tub. It was truly so funny and I’m not sure why. Big red blob in the bath.

One of the newer bird-related accoutrements in our yard is this elaborate bird feeder that is designed to ward off squirrels. For a long time we have had little stick-on window feeders that are basically just trays with suction cups; you put them on the window, fill them up with seeds, and presto, the birds come a’flockin’ and you can see them right up close. We mostly see: chickadee, tufted titmouse, finch, house sparrow, song sparrow, junco, nuthatch, and carolina wren. The nuthatch is my favorite because he is very fat and has a very long thin beak and you want to squeeze him, also he walks down tree branches upside-down looking for bugs. The nuthatch is cool as hell if you ask me. Anyway, it’s hard to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder because it turns out squirrels are not only greedy fucking pigs but incredibly dexterous, agile, and unbelievably intelligent to boot. I literally would never have imagined how smart a squirrel could be until this whole bird feeder situation forced my to confront it. The squirrels first were using our garden hose to strategically leap up the wall of the house and into the feeder, and it didn’t matter how high up we put the feeder, they’d make it. So then you’d come out of the bedroom of a morning, yawning, ready to greet yet another bright fresh day bestowed by our benevolent lord, and instead of a dainty finch or chickadee you’d see a giant shitty squirrel, sitting IN the feeder, eating all the seeds with his hands like a person or raccoon, his fur all squished up against the window, his rat-feet gripping horribly upon the plastic of the feeder’s edge. No thank you!

So my old man went and got a truly badass bird feeder that you stick on a huge iron spike in the middle of the ground, and it hangs off a hook. The seeds are encased in a tube long enough that a squirrel can’t reach the openings at the bottom even if he hangs off the top of the feeder with his feet like a bat (which I can now assure you is something squirrels do constantly). Furthermore, the little ledge surrounding the bottom of the feeder is just sturdy enough to hold little birdies while they eat daintily; if a squirrel tries to sit on it it tumps him off into the snow. So far so good, right? WRONG

The first day it was up we sat and watched squirrels try and fail to get into it for hours and we laughed and laughed and yelled things like “fuck you” and “not today son” at the squirrels. The squirrels tried everything! They leapt, they climbed, they flung themselves into space with nary a thought for their own safety or the safety of others. One squirrel kept trying to shimmy up the pole, and then he’d slide all the way back down it, like a fireman’s pole! It was truly hilarious. “We have solved the problem with our human ingenuity,” we congratulated ourselves. Alas, we all know how the deadly sin of hubris is rewarded—-with an iceberg collision in the dead of night that turns you immediately into the world’s greatest metaphor for hubris! And our hubris was about to be punished in just such a tragic way…

I got up this morning and the first thing I saw when I went into the kitchen was a squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. How did he do this? I am about to tell you the truth: these damn squirrels actually retrofitted the bush next to the feeder! It took them several days but they figured out which branch of this bush would enable them to shimmy out to the end and then make it to the correct height—-as the branch bent down under their weight—-to reach out and grab the rim of the feeder, where the seeds are held. They literally stripped this one branch of all its auxiliary twigs (there’s a pile of twigs on the ground underneath) to make it smoother shimmying. They performed fairly complex physics calculations involving arc and weight and bend and honed the branch until it would meet their needs. As I watched, the squirrel in fact fine-tuned the branch, biting off the end of it as it was getting caught on the rim of the feeder. He took it out of his mouth using his paw, and tossed it negligently to the ground. Then he shimmied the rest of the way, waited for the branch to bend all the way down, realigned his position, then dropped upside-down, hanging by his feet, and calmly ate seeds while I screamed.

It was truly horrible

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