Friday, August 29, 2014

Winding Down and Starting Up

Classes started this week, so of course things have suddenly gotten rather busy.

I've actually been meaning to blog since Monday night, because I had such a wonderful weekend and got things off to a good start on Monday morning.

I went to visit friends in Boston.  We talked food and ideas and ate lunch and had a nice walk.  I even finished quite a bit of knitting on the train.  So all in all, it was the perfect way to wind down the summer.

Which flew faster than a flying monkey, by the way.

On Monday, I discovered that, miracle of miracles, my garden is actually doing okay and the tomato plants have actually--dare I say it?--recovered from their earlier over-watering.

I couldn't believe it.  I still don't quite believe it.  But it seems to be true.

If there's one thing I've learned from gardening, it's that you have to hang tough and face facts, but never give up hope.  Because while I've been despairing over the tomatoes, the rest of the garden has flourished and now, lo and behold, even the things I've despaired about have regrouped.

I had given up on getting eggplants: they just weren't getting any bigger and it just didn't seem like it would be possible for them to do much.

They have buds and small eggplants.  And we're getting a bout of summer weather right now, which is pushing everything to do what it hasn't done for months, i.e., grow.

So Monday morning was marked by a little harvest, like so:


My friend got me hooked on lemon water with fresh mint.  (Gone are my days of shamefacedly admitting to doctors that I "probably don't drink enough water.")  Ergo, there was also a little Monday-morning mint harvest:


And then it turned out that a pesto-production was in order, because the fresh basil was ready and waiting:


Needless to say, in my little world, these are all perfect ways of heading into the start of another semester.  But first, I'm going to kick back and relax and enjoy the Labor Day weekend.  As I mentioned in a previous post long ago, I used to have terrible Labor Day weekends--they always seemed to be marked by bad luck brought on by some dude.

This year, that's not an issue.  Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Native Speaker"

I finally finished reading Chang-rae Lee's novel, Native Speaker (1995) and I'm definitely on the fence about it.

It took me forever to finish it.  Seriously.  I started reading it as part of a read-a-thon back in April.  I buzzed right through the first 100 pages.  I really enjoyed how the narrator, Henry Park, talked about his sense of alienation and how that manifested itself in his family life after the death of his son and his separation from his wife.

I also really liked the last 100 pages, and buzzed right through that.  I liked the narrative about the politician John Kwang's rise (and fall), and the way in which Park struggled to understand him through the lens of his own experience.

What bogged me down--in a BIG way--was the middle 150 pages.  Now that I've finished, I have to say that I think the novel would have been much stronger had it been much shorter.

The novel is a relatively quick read, in general, and well-written.  But for much of the middle portion of the novel, I found myself thinking "Okay, wrap it up and move on" or "Why am I reading this?"  I'd read 20-25 pages, and then feel, well, frankly, bored.

And so I kept setting it aside.

I think the issue for me was that I didn't find the narrator's separation from his wife all that convincing--initially, it was presented as a huge shock for Henry Park, a wake-up call about what mattered.  But then, his attempt to grapple with that just went on and on and on and on.

At least, that's the way it felt to me.

When I reached the point at which the reader learns about the death of his son (sorry for the slight spoiler), I thought, "Okay, this will re-energize this novel, because now I'll be seeing how his relationship with his wife is being shaped by this event."

Not really.  The separation from his wife kind of ... dithers and then trickles out, and next thing you know, they're back together and maybe they'll even have another baby.  Yes, Park has changed, but his wife doesn't seem to have changed at all, as a result of this major loss.  By the latter portion of the novel, she isn't even really mentioning their dead son anymore.

I just thought this sounded kind of... inauthentic, particularly given her level of devastation in the first third of the novel.  I felt like Lee had perhaps implemented this plot twist and then didn't really know what to do with it in the end.

I also felt that there was WAY too much time spent on the build-up to the final series of events involving the politician John Kwang.  This was another point at which I felt like, "Why am I reading this?"  I think eventually, the significance of his character came through, but I still found myself resenting the many pages of lead-in I had had to travel through to get to that point.

I also didn't quite understand why Henry's interaction with his psychiatrist figured so prominently for a portion of the novel, but then disappeared.  I mean, I get what happened and all, but I felt like it was a thread that was followed for longer than it needed to be, if it wasn't going to be more directly tied into the novel itself.

And this is my overall impression of the novel: a lot of interesting threads, some longer than others, some--in my opinion--far too long, but only a couple of them seem to be tied together at the end.  That said, it may simply be that I haven't figured out how they connect, but I think for me, one of the major weaknesses of the novel is that I wasn't really all that interested in connecting them, in the end.

Sartre says that reading is a pact between a writer and a reader, and a writer has to know what s/he can ask of a reader.  I think Lee offers an interesting text, but a compelling one?  Not so much.

I think my disappointment is increased by the fact that, in Asian-American literature, Native Speaker is often treated as a seminal text:, as one of the best by one of the best 20th-century writers.  Personally, I found myself disappointed in much the same way as I was by the work of Gish Jen--I wanted to like it, but I just couldn't.  At this point, someone would have to spend a fair amount of time trying to convince me to read another novel by Gish Jen or Chang-rae Lee.

And I always feel like that's kind of a shame, when you end up feeling that way about a writer's work

So if you're asking me if you should read this novel, I think my answer would have to be, "Maybe."  It is a well-known work, and it is often referenced, and it does have quite a few interesting ideas and plot-lines.  It's not a difficult or challenging read, in terms of language and structure, and parts of it move quite quickly. 

But at the end of the day, I still can't really say that I "enjoyed" it.  Although I'm willing to admit that it may very well be the kind of work that someone else would find rich and resonant.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Looking Back

The past week has been a whirlwind.  So much so, that my cats have actually been letting me sleep in for the past couple of days. 

I think they've been reading the blog in their spare time.  Either that, or it's the somewhat later sunrise, but I suspect it's the blog.  People like to read my blog "in secret," so why not cats?

My best friend visited with her little guys last week, and this entailed a week of pizza and ice cream.  With a massive injection of Chinese food in there as well at one point.  And bowling, miniature golf, and mini race-car driving.  As well as a movie ("How to Train Your Dragon 2") and a trip to the bookstore.

And the beach.  Don't forget the beach.  With bags of salt-water taffy in hand when we left.  And a cookout.

Holy cow, it was fun.  I even had time to finish knitting a sock.  The only "bad" moment was when I discovered that the socks I made my friend's daughter wouldn't fit her: her feet appear to be growing quite quickly, since I made a pair of socks for her last spring that fit.

I thought the size would at least hold for the summer, but apparently, this is not the case.

But even that moment wasn't really "bad," because I simply realized that I need to turn them into fingerless mitts.  Which is what I'm currently doing, and it's going just fine.  I'll probably have enough for more than one pair, actually, which I don't think she'll be too upset about.

Yesterday, it was back to reality.  But in a way, a week of sheer, unadulterated play is never a bad thing, because it generally makes me willing to get back to work and not dither aimlessly.

So I got my courses set and ready to go.  Check.  And I did the last bit of file uploading I needed to do.  Check.  And I embarked on the very last phase of fine-tuning my promotion application, which is now due in less than a month.  Check.

I tried to get back on track on the fitness, but the pool was so full I couldn't swim.  When there are already 5 people in a lane, no one thanks you for jumping in.  At some point, it just becomes a bit pointless.

So I went for a bike ride instead.  That went well, except for the fact that I could feel the effects of the week's vacation and the pizza and the ice cream and the Chinese food.

I'll try for the pool again today.  But at this point, I'm set to enjoy my last "real" week of vacation.  It's always a wonderful and yet bittersweet moment when my friend comes to visit, because it is the highlight of the summer, but it is also the sign that summer has come to an end.  She stops in right before her kids have to go back to school, which means she stops in right before I have to go back to school.

But I'm looking forward to the fall, and looking back, it's been a godsend of a summer.  I couldn't have asked for a better one.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Looking Forward

They say if you have something you want done, give it to a busy person to do.  I say, get three cats who won't let you sleep much past 6 a.m.

The only down side is that your sense of time may be somewhat distorted as a result.  For example, you may find you've done a load of laundry and a bunch of reading for your classes, knit half a sock, taken a bike ride, eaten breakfast, made a batch of homemade mustard and written a blog post.  So naturally, you're assuming it's about 2-3 p.m.

But then you'll look at the clock and realize it's not yet noon.  That's an odd moment.

Ah well.  What can I say?  My kitties keep me on the straight and narrow.  And they have such funny little personalities, I don't even mind.

Meanwhile, I have company coming for a week of fun, fun, fun, and thanks to my kitties, the house is ready and I'm rarin' to go!  Catch you later...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Random and Dreaming

Last night, I dreamed that I was doing yard work with Brad Pitt.

That isn't a euphemism for anything.  I was actually doing yard work, and Brad Pitt was my co-worker.  We worked for a landscaping service together.  And the woman running it was kind of mean, actually--she yelled at me about something, but then Brad Pitt came over and helped me, so I think it worked out okay for me.

I know where the bit about "yard work" and "landscaping" came from, because I have a chunk of it to do.  I'm not sure how Brad Pitt got involved in all of it, or why exactly he and I had a long conversation about whether or not I'd ever change my name and the pros and cons of changing one's name in general.

In a different dream sequence, I apparently married royalty, although I never actually met my husband the king.  (Apparently, I have a great deal of social mobility in my dream world, because I go from working-class to "Her Majesty" with little or no problem.)  For some reason, I was also flying coach while I was married to royalty, and the flight was delayed (you'd think we'd have our own plane, right?  Apparently not.)

I'm pretty sure I know where this dream bit came from: I spent the last week reading Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams (Yale UP, 2014) by Margery Heffron.  It's about John Quincy Adams' wife.  She was a very interesting person, needless to say: she had 9 miscarriages, a stillbirth, and 4 children.  (One child died as a toddler, one died in his 20's of an apparent suicide, and one died in his 30's of alcoholism.)

Louisa Adams was an extremely adept hostess and diplomat.  Her husband served as Secretary of State as well as ambassador to St. Petersburg and London, before becoming President of the United States.  Although she was given very little credit for years and years by (male) historians, in recent years, scholars have come to realize that in many ways, John Quincy Adams owes what (little) popularity he enjoyed to her.

She was definitely the preferred spouse.  When she died in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned for the remainder of the day as a tribute to her--this, despite the fact that she wasn't actually born in the United States and she never held political office.

At one point, in September of 1822, Louisa Adams goes to Bordentown, NJ and visits--of all people--the exiled King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

That's right, Napoleon's brother moved to NJ.  Of all places.

So this is something that I read right before I fell asleep the other night, and I'm pretty sure that's where the "royalty" angle of my dream came in.  Because I kind of wished that I could spend a month visiting exiled royalty on their estate in Bordentown, but such has not been my lot in life, apparently.

I also had an interesting conversation with my neighbor's daughters a couple of weeks ago. (This is not part of the "dreaming," this is the "random" part of the post).  They explained to me the use of the phrase "no homo"--that men say it to another man if they've said something that might appear to have a "homosexual" intent.

As in, "Wow, dude, I really like that shirt.  No homo."  That kind of thing.

We rolled our collective eyes over this, of course, because really... how stupid.  It's like you're still back in 1982 or something--ooo, be careful, if a man compliments another man, maybe he's... gay

Give me a break.

On a side note, I don't think women ever really worry about this kind of thing.  I mean, I can go up and say to another woman, "Oh my god, you looking amazing tonight--I love that dress on you" and she'll say "Wow, hey, thank you!" and we will in no way feel compelled to clarify our sexual preferences to one another.

It's called a compliment, guys.  That's all.  And not every compliment means someone wants to have sex with you.  (At least, not when they're being offered by mature individuals with fully-functioning brains.)

Anyway, I digress.  After explaining the phrase, my friend told me that in fact, she'd come up with a better one. 

"No psycho."

Now this is one that women can use.  So, for example, I say to a friend, "Yeah, so when I drove by his house on the way home from work today, there was a car I didn't recognize in the driveway.  I think he's seeing someone new.  No psycho."

I really like this.  Because it's a phrase that speaks to a level of self-awareness, all the while acknowledging the emotional realities that are swirling inside of and around you.

This is key, because if you've ever had to deal with a psycho, you know that they tend to lack self-awareness and an ability to accurately process reality, in its myriad forms. 

"No psycho" suggests, yes, I know I'm coming close to a line here, but I'm aware of where that line is, and no, I'm not going to cross it.  It tells the other person, yes, I know I'm going to need to pull back a bit from this situation emotionally, but in the meantime, I'm just sayin.'

Because if you say to me, "I went on Facebook and left her a string of comments saying how he loves me, not her, and then I Googled her and called her office and told her to f*** off," you can't really follow that up with "No psycho." 

Similarly: "I hacked his password and read his emails to other women for months after we broke up."  No way that's "No psycho."

If you described your actions to someone else and viewed them through another person's eyes, you'd maybe see that. 

And you might come to realize that, if you're always acting this way, other people will never see you the way that you see "You."  And this might be a problem later on down the road when you really want to pass for something other than "psycho."

Self-awareness and a recognition of life's realities, good and bad.  No psycho.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pride Goeth

Last week was kinda nutty.

But it's over.  That's the good thing.

It just wasn't the kind of week that makes you feel good about the world in general.  By Thursday, I had a splitting headache that lasted all day long.  But then the weekend came, and life was good, and I recovered.  I knit some socks and took a couple of nice walks.

Last week started out simply enough.  I had some home maintenance to get done, so fine, that happened.

But then, I went to Home Depot and my credit card was denied.

See, about two months ago, my credit card company decided that after 20-plus years of just not giving a damn, they were going to implement a new "Fraud Protection Service."

This apparently means that, at any random moment in time, for no rhyme or reason, my credit card can--and will-- be (suddenly, inexplicably) denied.  Right there in front of a big ole line of people.

The first time it happened, I was lucky enough that I had the cash to cover the charge.  So I kind of redeemed myself, because it didn't matter if I had no credit--did I mention that I only have the ONE credit card?--because I could still pay for the merchandise and be on my way.  Seething with fury and embarrassment, of course, but on my way.

Last week when this happened, I didn't have the cash.

And the thing that made it all really sting is, after it happened the first time, I got a lovely little text message from the credit bastards saying, "Hey, did you just try to charge something on your card?  If so, let us know... we're afraid someone stole it."

Yeah.  And they're suddenly using it to buy $30. worth of potted geraniums five miles from my home.  At the same store I shopped at earlier in the week, where I bought $20 worth of potted petunias.

So I let them know, and then they sent a text saying, "If you want to opt out of this service, text "STOP.""

I texted "STOP," believe you me.

Turns out, that just means I opted out of getting a text message when my card is denied.  That was the "this service" that they were referring to there--the texting, not the "protecting."

Because last week it was denied, again, and this time I had to wade my way through a series of electronic phone messages.  "Select 1 to hear the message in English."  "Select 1 if you are the actual cardholder."  "Select 1 if you just tried to make a purchase."  "Select 1 if the purchase was for ... [insert electronic voice here] dollars and [voice] cents at [location] in [city]."

When I finally finished doing all of that, I used the card and made the purchase.  And then I went out to the car, rolled up the windows, called customer service and YELLED. 

I don't like to yell at customer service.  I think they have kind of a crappy job, and I'm sure they get yelled at a lot, and it just wouldn't be much fun to have a job where you have to get up in the morning knowing that you're going to go to work and total strangers will yell at you about things that really aren't your fault.  You just needed the job, so here you are.

I feel particularly bad about doing it when I strongly suspect that you're probably living in a small town somewhere in India and working for a huge multinational conglomerate for pennies an hour. And here I am being all Entitled-American-Asshole about my credit card, of all things.

Plus, I've been yelled at in a language other than my native tongue, and it just isn't fun.  You feel very vulnerable, because you know there's little or nothing you can do.  Like, you're pretty sure you're being called some things that you don't want to be called, but you can't say, "HEY.  HOLD on there a minute, dude, that is totally uncalled for..." because you don't know the Portuguese word for "dude" or the Japanese equivalent of "hey" or how to say "uncalled for" in Swahili.

All you can say is something that, translated into English, would be the equivalent of saying, "Let us delay a moment here while now we consider these items and their topics."  And you know that is going to gain you absolutely NO respect with anyone anywhere, ever.

So here I was, yelling at non-native speakers of English.  I really feel like, as an English professor, that is a total abuse of my power.  And I really try to use my powers for good.   Honestly I do.

I didn't cuss--at least I can say that.  I used words like "embarrassing" and "ridiculous" and "absurd."  But they stonewalled me, and that made me even angrier.

Finally, I got a $10. credit from someone who said, "I know that I'm sorry really doesn't do much to help," and a promise that a "note" had been put "on my account" so it wouldn't happen again.

The thing that really chapped my ... skin... was that they started this whole, "Don't you want your account PROTECTED, ma'am?  We apologize for the inconvenience, but this is a SERVICE for you."

Oh, it is so NOT, dudes.  Don't give me that.  Because by law, if someone hacks my card, I'm not responsible for the charges.  That's on YOUR watch, and meanwhile, if I have a line of CREDIT with you, it means I should be able to implement said line of credit when I NEED it, not have it randomly revoked for no reason at all.

So, you get a sense of how that went.  I was mad about that for 36 hours.  I went around muttering, "Tell ME it's a SERVICE, you douchebag card-deniers and yes, I'm sorry I yelled at people who don't speak English really well, but I don't know what you expect me to do if you keep humiliating me at the Home Depot and at least I didn't actually call anyone a douchebag," and on and on and on.

(My cats were very sympathetic.) 

The credit card people also tried to tell me it was because the charges were outside my home area, and this got my dander up, because they WEREN'T, actually, that's what made it all so stupid.  Like someone is going to steal my card and go use it at the same place I used it at two days previously, to coincidentally buy another one of what I bought that Sunday?  Because that's what was happening there last week.

Plus, HELLO?  People sometimes use a credit card when they, you know, TRAVEL.  What's the point of having the thing?

The fact is, they've got an out-of-control algorithm in place there at the credit card headquarters, and no one knows how to stop it.

It's Terminator, all over again.  The machines are coming to consciousness, and I'm Sarah Connor, barefoot and screaming and confined to my pj's on the psych ward.

Okay, so that got settled and meanwhile, I regretted photographing my tomato plants and bragging about them on this here blog.

I knew I shouldn't do it.  Because pride goeth before a fall, and man, nothing fells a garden like over-watering your tomato plants.

Nearest I can figure, I took them to the brink, and then two days of rain put them over the edge. 

I spent the weekend before last staring at them in horror, and then last week was spent pruning and keeping my fingers crossed that they would recover.

And then, the hornworms hit.

If you've never seen a tomato hornworm, I'm not posting a picture.  They're horrifyingly disgusting-looking.  They make meal-moth larva look downright cute.

Ugh.  I hate those things.  I've had nightmares about tomato hornworms over the years--they're that bad.  UGH.  Yuck. Uggghhhhhh.... (shivering at the skeevy things).

They will decimate a garden in a matter of hours.  They just get bigger and bigger, and they are not easy to spot, although I would swear I can hear them chewing, sometimes.  The bastards hide on the underside of the leaves or along a stem, and you only find them once you're missing a whole lotta leaves and realize you need to start looking.  And listening.  "Munch, munch, munch...".

There are tobacco hornworms as well, so if you don't know what these things look like, you should rent the movie Sommersby, with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.  (I mean Richard Gere and Jodie Foster are in the movie itself, not that you should rent it with them.  Although, if you could rent it with them, I'd say, go for it.  They seem like very nice people.)

In that movie, Bill Pullman throws a bucket of hornworms at Jodie Foster, and says things like "Corruption!  Pestilence!  Evil!" because he's all pissed off that she's sleeping with Richard Gere, even though she knows he's probably not actually her husband.

I say, who can blame her?  I mean, you survive the Civil War and your Richard-Gere-Lookalike-Husband returns, only now he's nice to you and doesn't drink and smack you around?  Your husband ended up in prison with his doppelganger?  What are the odds?

I would tell any of my women friends faced with such a situation that they totally did the right thing, because they just can't be held responsible for all kinds of confusing crap all the time.  I mean, how could you know?  And even if you did kinda know, you know, a little bit, after like the first time you slept with him or whatever, well, there was a tobacco crop to put in--and we're talking acres of it-- and a house to be repaired and you have a small child and you're facing the whole post-war recovery thing and it's just not like you could spend all day worrying about something like "Oh, is he my husband or isn't he?  I'd better not sleep with him until I know for sure...".  That would just be silly.

And I also say, any dude who throws a bucket of hornworms at my feet and shouts things like "Corruption!" and "Damnation!" at me... well, it is just OVER and we are so not getting together, it isn't even funny.

Anyway, as far as the hornworms in my garden, I think I got them all out of there.  UGH.  Have I mentioned that they're disgusting and ugly?  UGH.

But they are gone, and there's a note on my credit card file and last week is over, and I think I'm going to be able to finish the article on Zola.  I wanted to get it done in 3 weeks, but I think it will be 4.  But I think I can do it.

Then again, pride goeth before a fall, so I'd better just shut up.