Monday, October 31, 2016

Nearly November

It's hard to believe that, in about 60 days, we'll be wrapping up 2016.

I enjoyed the Read-A-Thon this year. In a lot of ways, it was just what I needed--to sit and read until my brains fell out. I finished re-reading Morrison's Beloved, and actually came up with an idea for an article.

So this week I spent a little time researching and jotting down ideas for that. It's not like I have, oh, say, 3 other articles backlogged in various states of near-completion.

Seriously. I need to get on that. Right now, the reading (and other things) are going well, but the writing (sort of) continues at a bit of a snail's pace.

And because the reading has been going so well, there's this. I'm back working on the squares for the blanket.


That project has picked up a bit because last weekend, I learned a new skill: how to knit two-handed, two-stranded colorwork.

Although it sounds complicated--and sort of is--it's not something I'd ever suggest a beginning knitter contemplate, much less attempt--if you're a seasoned knitter, it's not so nutty.

When you knit colorwork, you have two colors of yarn (obviously). You knit stitches with one, carry the other behind the knitting and then knit stitches with the other when you want to include the second or contrasting (as opposed to the "main" color).

So, in the photo above, the really dark blue is actually the main color, and the lighter blues and green are the contrasting colors.

Normally, you knit either right-handed (English or American style--often called "throwing") or you knit left-handed (European or Continental style--often called "picking"). The difference between the two lies in the hand that holds the yarn.

Word on the street is, Continental style is faster, and that's probably true, although experts disagree about whether "faster" knitting necessarily produces more knitted items. Some studies (yes, they do studies about knitters and knitting) have shown that the most productive knitters aren't necessarily the fastest, they simply knit a lot. So every spare moment they have, they knit a bit. (I suspect I'm beginning to fall dangerously close to landing in this category.)

With two-handed, two-stranded colorwork, you knit both right and left handed, simultaneously. So, you hold one color yarn in your right hand, and one color yarn in your left hand, and you knit right handed when you need to knit stitches with the right-handed color, and you knit left-handed when you need to knit stitches with the left-handed color.

It makes colorwork a LOT faster. It's a slow and slightly cumbersome process when you first learn, but for a seasoned knitter like myself, it's actually sort of interesting to practice. I practiced a little with the colorwork square pictured above and I also just practiced knitting continental style separately, so I could get used to that.

You just need to develop muscle memory in your hands for the new knitting technique, and that will necessarily take a little time and patience.

So I simply set aside about an hour a day to practice, and if it got too annoying, I'd quit after an hour, but if it was going "okay" I'd keep going after an hour, until it... got too annoying. And then I'd just go knit something in my old, right-handed way, and be happy and relaxed.

In the meantime, after five months, I finished my first lace-knitting project-- a shawl.

As I commented to friends, I'm not really sure when I'm going to wear such a thing, since I have to keep it from the kitty cats (my Freya likes to chew wool, which is not a great habit to have in a knitter's home).

And I'm an introvert, so the whole glamorous night--on-the-town idea leaves me blinking and staring in slight bewilderment at the people who suggest such things, but as I told them, "I suppose I could give it a try."

In all seriousness, though, I do have a couple of nice summer dresses, and there's no reason I couldn't throw this on as a fancy kind of "jacket." I'll just have to adjust to the idea that I'm not wearing an actual jacket, and I'll be good to go.

So why did I make the blessed thing, if I don't wear shawls? Really, your question should be, why am I going to embark on making another one, if I don't wear shawls?

Because I like the way they look. Because they're cool and challenging, and sometimes a knitter likes a challenge, for no real reason at all.

And because in my mind's eye, I really can picture myself sitting out on my patio on a spring or autumn evening, reading a book and sipping a little tea with this wrapped around my shoulders.

And that, to me, is a little slice of heaven.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon (2016)

I'm late to the sign up for the biannual Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, but I discovered that it is fact today (starting in an hour) and I do in fact have a lot of reading to do this weekend, as well as a need to stay on-task with my blog so... here goes!

I'm in the thick of things with school right now, so I need to finish rereading Toni Morrison's Beloved. So that's first up on the list.

Several weeks ago, I started reading Rebecca Skloot's non-fiction work, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I'm just shy of half-way through it, and I'm really enjoying it, so I think I might be able to finish it, if I read the way a Readathoner should.

Last night, I started a semi non-fictional work by Georgina Kleege, Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. Kleege is blind herself, and her work engages with the figure of--you guessed it-- Helen Keller in order to think about the representation (and idealization) of people with disabilities.

It's a mix of biographical information about Keller's life, coupled with Kleege's reflections on what we both know and don't know about Keller's own reaction to the events of her life. I'm also really enjoying this one, so I think I've good a good set-up for an enjoyable start to the Readathon.

I also have several (ha!) books stacked off to the side that I'd like to get to. I'm working on creating a course on gender and (dis)ability in literature, so I've got tons of works that fall into that category--from short plays like William Gibson's The Miracle Worker and Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man and Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God-- to a memoir about a black woman's experience of depression, Meri Nana-Ama Danquar's Willow Weep for Me.

I also started a novel months ago (I last remember reading it on the beach, actually, so it's been a while), M. G. Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I need to finish it.

If none of these hold my attention (although I'm optimistic about getting through several of the plays, actually), I'll crack open Edwidge Danticat's The Farming of Bones, or a two-part memoir by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not.

Full disclosure: I also need to run some errands and do some yard work, so I'll be taking a couple of breaks along the way.

But right now, a day immersed in books and relatively disconnected from social media--with the exception of the occasional blog-post update here--sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Blank Page

A couple of weeks ago, I set aside the "serious" academic reading to read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000).

I don't usually read books about writing, despite the fact that I'm an English teacher, because I don't usually find them all that interesting or useful. (Please don't tell me that Strunk & White's Elements of Style is an exception. Yes, I've read it. I bought it years ago. I've never once used it.)

And I don't usually read Stephen King's work because I just can't handle horror.

When I say that, people look at me in shock and surprise--like, "You admit you're a wimp?"--but I would like to point out that I do read non-fiction accounts of Auschwitz survivors and victims of apartheid and former Gulag inmates. So no, not a wimp. Just not into the horror genre.   

But I give King all kinds of kudos for being a very interesting and imaginative storyteller, and someone who can obviously turn a story into the kind of writing that people want to read. (I put him in the same category as Edgar Allan Poe, actually.)

And that, in my opinion, is one of the definitions of a "good" writer.

So I was not at all disappointed with King's memoir. It is both well-told and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. He's a great storyteller, across the board, and a thoughtful writer. For critics who envision him simply churning out one thoughtless text after another, for profit: you're wrong.

King's observations about writing were interesting and insightful. In particular, he argues that writing is not something that can be approached "lightly":
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. (105-106)
I think this assertion is a point well-taken. Often, people think that they "like to write" or "wanna write" and so they simply sit down and start writing. While there's nothing wrong with this as a feel-good enterprise or hobby, it does not make someone a writer, much less a "good" writer.

I think people who approach writing in this way assume that, whatever thought they manage to express is by definition "good," because they feel they've been "inspired" to write.

You can have inspiration out the wazoo but suck as a writer.  There, I said it.

Thinking is one thing. Writing is another. This blog is a good example of that. I've had all kinds of thoughts this year, and yet, I've been more than a little remiss when it comes to sitting down and writing them.

As Dorothy Parker once said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat."  Too true, Dottie, too true.

I particularly like King's overarching advice about vocabulary and sentence structure: keep it simple.

King notes that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones" (117). Instead, King advocates "us[ing] the first word that comes to ... mind, if it is appropriate and colorful" (118).

I would agree. If nothing else, stick the word you had in mind in there and move on. You can always highlight it with a note to yourself that you might like to find a better one later on. But go with the initial impulse, because you want that initial impulse documented and you don't want to slow your roll when it comes to writing.

Figuring out a new word for an idea you've expressed is a "revision" activity, not a "writing" activity.

The same holds true for sentence structure or style. As King points out, "simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric" (121).

As a writer and academic, I see this particular episode of "Lost" on a regular basis. People--myself included--will often write long sentences and claim that they "need" to "say it that way" because the idea is "so complex."

But really, we do it because we want to sound "smart."

And sometimes we do. But more often, we just sound frightened and confused.

A long, meandering sentence suggests that the writer has an idea--a small one, perhaps. They think it could be a larger idea, but they aren't sure of that yet and they aren't sure how that's going to happen (if it's going to happen), so they just write and write and keep writing, even when they realize that they don't know what they're even writing anymore, much less why.

They craft a long, rhetorically twisted sentence to suggest that their idea has length and breadth when all they had was a short idea with all kinds of potential depth and possibility.

Stretching that out in a long sentence creates the equivalent of a taffy-pull. When you pull taffy, you're adding air bubbles. You want to do that with taffy, because it makes the candy lighter and chewier. 

When you pull sentences like taffy, you're also adding air. Your reader may have more to chew on, but the idea is now light and airy too.

As King points out "Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation" (128). Let go of the fear that you won't sound "smart enough" and let go of the affectation in your vocabulary, and your writing will improve because your ideas will be succinct and substantial.

Not surprisingly, King is also an advocate of extensive reading: "You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so" (147). In fact, King argues, "if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that" (147).

I would agree. There's not much more I can add to that assertion. If you like to write, you should like to read because reading is spending time thinking about ideas and writing.

If you only like to write, but can never "find time" to read, you're kind of implicitly saying that you only like to read your own writing, and while that may be understandable, it's just not going to help you improve as a writer.

King made me laugh (with embarrassment) when he identified several of his personal pet peeves when it comes to writing:
I have my own dislikes--I believe that anyone using the phrase "That's so cool" should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases "at this point in time" and "at the end of the day" should be sent to bed without supper (or writing-paper, for that matter). (121)
Oh, boy. Well, at least I never wrote "That's so cool." (I think.) (God, I hope...) But those last two phrases?  I confess, I've used 'em quite a bit. Particularly on the blog.

Okay, so... note to self. Some people hate that.

Another item that sets King's teeth on edge is the use of adverbs.

For King, "Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind" (124). He argues that "they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day... fifty the day after that..." (124).

I'm generally opposed to hard-and-fast rules about whether a particular grammatical feature is "good" or "bad," so I can't get on board with King's anti-adverb stance (at least, not totally and completely) (see what I did there?), but I was glad for the jolt of sudden self-awareness.

Adverbs are terribly addictive. You can totally start out using them for one reason and generally, they'll be okay, but eventually--ultimately--you'll find yourself overusing them constantly. Unthinkingly.

So I like King's warning: "The adverb is not your friend."

Because this statement reminds me that, before I invite adverbs to the house-party that is my sentence (or paragraph), I need to think about whether I want them there. Do I have to invite them? They seem to have a habit of ending up in a drunken sprawl, barfing all over the furniture and ruining what might otherwise have been a pleasant evening. So perhaps not.

This is why reading is good for your writing. Because even if you don't agree with what you read in a fellow-writer's writing, you can learn from it.

I now pay more attention to my adverbs and, much to my surprise, I find I have to agree with King more than I thought I would. Adverbs are often a mark of timidity (rather than precision or clarification) or they serve as a kind of rhetorical flourish (i.e., affectation).

I'm still wrestling with what to do about his other pet peeve. At this point in time, I've recognized that I resort to such phrases when I'm trying to "wind down" a blog post, and I can't quite figure out how to do that.

I feel like I'm going to be pushing my reader off a small cliff when I end a post without any grand sense of wrap-it-all-up resolution, so I try to gently slide them to the edge of said cliff, in the hopes that they won't then notice the sudden drop. And yes, I now realize that, at the end of the day, this is ridiculous.

Clearly, I need to come up with a better solution.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Unexpected

I did not expect to find myself this far into October with only one blog post written. 2016 is definitely going to go down in my personal history as the year that the blog did not go as expected.

I did not expect to come down a cold for 2 of the 4 days of Fall Break.  This was so unexpected, in fact, that I spent a full 12 hours or so in denial--"darn allergies!" "whew, I'm tired--must be all the fresh air!" that kind of thing.

I did not expect that I would make the radical decision to keep a garden in the fall.  This means... well, let me just show you what this means:

If you have no idea what you're looking at, you're looking at the frames for low tunnels.

They're actually quite easy to make: you drive 18" rebars into the ground, and then you arc 10 ft. lengths of 1/2" PVC pipe over them.

And then, eventually, you put Agribon fabric over the hoops, and voila, you have low tunnels.

During the day, the sun warms the soil, but as temps cool in the fall and early winter, all of that "radiant heat" is lost at nighttime. By constructing low tunnels, you're trapping the daytime heat in the soil so it won't simply... float away... at night.

If the soil stays warmer, the plants will be happier, obviously, and continue to grow.

That said, however, you can't just grow any old thing--tomato season is done, people. Nor can there be cucumbers.

But some plants actually do better in spring and fall, when temps are cooler, and some plants are somewhat hardy and can hold out through early winter.  So I'm attempting to grow some of those plants, and see what happens.

I've got beets (red and golden), brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli (an unlikely prospect, I know, but I'm giving it a whirl), leeks and lettuce.  So far, things are doing pretty well.  I've started putting the fabric over the tunnels and closing them (more or less) at night. 

I did it last night, and unless I'm losing my marbles (and I may very well be), it looked like the plants were happier for it in the morning. The true test will be tomorrow night, though, when it's supposed to be much cooler--not frost or freeze warning cool, but... much cooler than it's been.

I'm working on it bit by bit, because getting the fabric in place is a bit of a chore. It would be easier if I had an extra pair of hands, but I don't, so I have to just work at it bit by bit, and I figured that would be better to do if it wasn't a race against the clock to beat a freeze warning.

This way, the thinking goes, it will be easy-peasy to close up the tunnels when the nights (and days) are truly much cooler than they are now.

I've also been working on some knitting. Specifically, I'm working on finishing up a bunch of projects that I started ... well, last spring, probably. Some dragged on through the summer, but some just got set aside.  I do that a lot.  And then October rolls around and I'm finishing up a tank-top.

What I've promised myself, though, is that this time around, I'll finish these summery things up and then go right to a more winter-based project. So that I can actually wear a newly-finished project because it's seasonally appropriate.

All of this gardening and knitting, though, means that I'm not doing as much writing or reading as I'd like, so right now, it's about balancing the unexpected while keeping on track with the things I need to be doing.

And I need to master this balance within the next 24 hours, I think, because I'm getting my first batch of grading... tomorrow.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back On Track

I really think 2016 is going to go down as the year that simply didn't have enough days in it. Because it really and truly can't be October 1st already. 

I don't know how that could have happened.

The good news is, this morning I finally finished the article I've been working on for months and months. I thought I'd be disappointed that it took so long (because truly, it did) but the fact of the matter is, I'm just so happy it's submitted and off my desk that I can't even bring myself to feel the slightest hint of disappointment.

It's gone.  It's outta my hair.  Hallelujah. I think the article itself is either "good" or "okay," depending. I definitely don't think it's "bad," and in the life of a writer, that's about the best you're going to hope for.

Because sometimes, you think something is "good" and then you read it the next day and realize that you were delusional. And sometimes, you think something is "bad" and you read it a year later (because when you think it's "bad" you really can't face it any sooner than that), and you realize it "isn't so terrible after all."

So the best I'm going to say is that I think the article is "okay" or "pretty good" (see, I've already begun to qualify it a bit, because less than 10 lines ago, I was calling it "good"--this is what I mean).

A friend on Facebook shared an article yesterday that was, in essence, the perfect rainy September Friday afternoon article to share with a fellow academic on Facebook.  It's called "How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe," by Carl Cederstrom and Michael Marinetto, and it's been on my mind for the past 24 hours or so.

Cederstrom and Marinetto argue that there are basically 4 ways to avoid the anxiety that comes with being a professor and/or working in academia: 1) kill your institutional aspirations, 2) identify yourself as an amateur, 3) stop writing badly, and 4) start teaching well.

I have to say, I'm coming up on my 20-year teaching anniversary at my current job, and I think Cederstrom and Marinetto are right on the money.

If you want to be a "presence" in an academic institution--the person that everyone counts on to meet the needs of the institution--your intellectual aspirations will suffer.

It's just that simple. There are only so many hours in the day, and no one can think deep thoughts or read intellectually engaging material if they've spent too many of those hours attending meetings and filling out forms and discussing all of the various goals and drives and initiatives and what-not that are strewn along the highways and byways of academia.

I would argue that those who do so--or who simply try to do so--often end up angry and bitter because they've dedicated their lives to advancing an institution only to realize that institutions are entities that can't really care about anyone very deeply or for very long.  They're businesses, although in many ways, they possess some advantages that businesses perhaps don't possess, because they can look like communities, but... they're not.

Cederstrom and Marinetto suggest that, to be a less anxious academic, you need to "cultivate an indifference and apathy towards institutional demands." In short, care less about whether or not that report or assessment gets done, and whether or not someone besides you ends up doing it.

Their point is, once you've done this, you have more time to focus on the things that actually make you happy and productive: good writing, good teaching, and a love of knowledge.

I think it's interesting that Cederstrom and Marinetto embrace the spirit of "the amateur" because in academia, "amateur" is typically synonymous with "anathema."

No one wants to be an "amateur" because everyone wants to be a specialist, no matter how obscure or arcane the specialty might be.

But when you think about it, cultivating this kind of hyper-specialization means that you cultivate your own eventual obsolescence. In plain English, you ensure that you will become out-of-touch and incapable of communicating with others about matters of interest or importance (whether those matters are interesting or important to you or to others).

As a result, you will write badly--if at all--and you will (in my humble opinion) teach even worse.

If you're an amateur, however, you acknowledge that you love ideas and you love to move among ideas, teaching and testing and tempering them with the new knowledge that you constantly acquire.

Instead of drilling down into the depths of a specialty, you ride the currents of your intellectual interests, and go where they take you--this, at least, is my sense of Cederstrom and Marinetto's advocacy of amateurism.

This doesn't mean that you become a dabbler or a dilettante; amateurs take their interests and their ideas seriously and they pursue them with passion. 

They simply don't lose sight of the big picture, and because they are always thinking about this larger context for their ideas and interests, they realize that a single-minded focus on a singular interest isn't necessarily the way to enhance one's intellectual capabilities.

My only concern with Cederstrom and Marinetto's argument is with its claim that this will enable one to live "less anxiously" in academia. I think that's only true if a person makes his or her peace with the fact that, by making the four choices they describe, a person will relegate him or herself to positions of minimal prestige within an academic institution.

If power and glory are your thing--if you figuratively want your name in lights at the institution where you work-- the advice that Cederstrom and Marinetto offer will not give you what you seek.

It will, however, give you a sense of personal purpose and fulfillment. And if this is what you seek, then you will, ultimately, live less anxiously in academe.