Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another MLA Story

I think the very first blog I posted here was my story about "Shoe-Love" from the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference in Chicago a couple of years ago. This year, when I went to the MLA, I wasn't expecting to have any blog-worthy experiences, but that just goes to show what I know.

Anyway, the MLA is a typical (even stereotypical) literature conference, but one where I kind of like to go, because there's always a good crowd of Anglo-Saxonist regulars. I went, gave my paper, ran into a few folks from WVU, and ran into more folks who knew WVU folks, so it was also a reminder that the academic world is a small one. Had a long discussion about the importance and significance of books in Anglo-Saxon studies with an old friend: neither of us seemed too worried that we hadn't actually read the books we were debating about. Somehow, I'm not too happy about that, in retrospect.

Ran into an old graduate school friend, Stacy, who's always fun to see, and we set up a plan to go out to dinner after my paper (which was at a 7:15 session). Gave my paper (about a new interpretation of three runes, believe it or not), and got some positive responses to it. Anyway, after things wound down, Stacy and I and the chair of the panel ended up looking for a place to get a moderately priced late dinner, and we asked the concierge at the conference hotel to help us out.

After a few moments of mystic consultation with his computer, he told us he could just fit us in at a table for three at a seafood/Italian restaurant a few blocks away at 9:30 (25 minutes later). He printed out an online menu for us, he gave us some walking directions, and we left the hotel feeling lucky he had found us a place--since with thousands of academics milling around, many restaurants were filled up. But when we got to the restaurant, it was practically empty, and Stacy and Shari both expressed some uncertainty. But I said, "Hey, it's Monday evening, between Christmas and New Years--no big deal if it's not full. Let's try it."

So we went in, and the waiter asked if we were "three for dinner" and we said yeah, and he didn't seem to care if we had a reservation or not; we all thought the concierge had been kind of a jerk for implying that our table for three was like the last table available in the place. So anyway, we sat there, ordered some drinks, and the waiter ran through a whole list of specials, etc.

And while he was talking, I saw something moving around on the floor out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer, and sure enough it was a little grey mouse, scurrying around here and there. As soon as the waiter stepped away, I mentioned it to the other two (whose backs were turned to the mouse area) and we all decided it was time to leave: empty restaurant, mouse running around--two strikes was all we needed.

So we left and went to the Irish Pub, where there was a small crowd, the food was fine, and--at the end of the evening--the owner's cat wandered by our table: no mice in there, I think.

We debated going back to the hotel to give the concierge a piece of our minds, but ultimately decided against it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Peace on earth, goodwill to all, blah blah blah

It's no secret that the last few months have been something of a train wreck here at Camp Romantoes. So it felt like a real blessing that today--a day when the tearing of metal and the grinding of gears seems finally to have quieted--dawned bright and clear and sunny.

I put on the Yaktrax I got and never had a chance to use last winter and made my usual trek over to White Park. In the two years I've been walking there, I've marked out a pretty standard route that I follow more or less every time. It allows me to be in the woods, and away from street sounds and distant houses, as long as possible. What I've grown to love about trodding the same path every time is the remarkable balance of consistency and change it provides: same path, same general scenery, and yet radically different sights every time, depending on the season and the weather and the time of day.

In the fall, it's awash with color from the maples and oaks and buckeyes in the woods; in the spring, I love to watch the gradual creeping in of green.

And in the winter, even the bleakness is somehow lovely. Especially when everything is blanketed by snow and the light and shadow are magnified by sun and blue skies. Today as I walked I thought about how it doesn't seem that long ago that I was hiking through here to see the fall color...and how, before too long, small signs of life will start to emerge. Goddamn circle of life.

Robert Frost said it best: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." Relentlessly, mercilessly sometimes. If you're lucky, patiently and gently. In the woods, thankfully, it feels more like the latter.

So, since we're supposed to be thinking about peace and all that good s**t at this time of year, I'll leave you with a little video of the waterfall in White Park. I hope you find it even a little bit as restorative online as I did in person this morning. A peaceful season to all, indeed--and our very sincere wishes for a happy new year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Digging out

We didn't get hammered here as badly as folks further south and east did, but we still had a good eight inches of snow between Friday night and Saturday. Since Tom and I were both buried under final papers and exams, we didn't even leave the house until today.

You might recall that Tom has a penchant for odd snow-removal devices. Well, today he decided that a snow shovel was the best thing to use to clear the snow off the car. And he was right. We also took a push broom to it after the first pass with the shovel, and managed to clear it most of the way off.

This is definitely the heaviest snow we've had in the two-plus years we've lived in Morgantown; too bad we've been so busy that we haven't had a chance to get out our snowshoes and hike over to White Park. Somehow, I have a feeling we'll have other chances this winter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Swinging Taps

I quote a lot of British poetry when I'm teaching the Brit Lit survey, and perhaps no lines get quoted more often than these lines from the beginning of Shakespeare's Sonnet 55: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme."

The irony, of course, is that the fragile paper on which the poem is written seems to have little chance of outlasting the marble and gold of a princely tomb. Blogs would seem to have even less enduring power.

Still, the blog seems the place, in some ways to tell a story or two about Dave Hathaway, who seemed to love to tell stories in his own way. So I'll tell a story about him and a story of his.

First, the story about him: I'll never forget when Rosemary and I first got engaged, Rose's folks were, I think, really delighted (so was I). They had always been very welcoming to me, and always made me feel like part of the family. But after we told them we'd gotten engaged, Dave made an effort to tell Rose and I how pleased he was, and finding us together that evening he said to us, "You two deserve each other." I knew what he meant, but I've always loved the memory, because that phrase seems so often to be used for exactly the opposite effect--it's something you say to people who are (as the Wife of Bath would phrase it) one another's purgatory here on earth.

For his story, I'll tell one I only heard him tell once, although I always meant to get him to tell it again. It was one of his stories from the war, which Rose says he never used to tell when he was younger. But anyway, though he was ultimately a radio operator during the war, before his unit got to Italy, he didn't have much radio work to do, and (in the army way) he either found something to do or was given something to do. Anyway, somehow he wrangled his musical background into being assigned as a bugler.

In northern Africa, apparently, being somehow dissatisfied with the bugle as he found it, he took a blowtorch to it, apparently thinking he could maybe reshape it somehow: of course, the solder joints just melted away, and he was left with a handful of unconnected pieces. When he took it to the quartermaster, he didn't have any real explanation for what happened, and he was understandably disappointed when the brass bugle was replaced by a plastic one. The sound quality was, apparently, not very good.

Still, on the night before the unit was supposed to head off to Italy, the captain, I guess, was away on business of some sort and Dave, when it came time to play taps, couldn't resist the temptation to "swing" it, and he did, and he never got in trouble for doing it, either.

But the story doesn't end there. Some forty years later, when he went to his first battalion reunion, he told the story of swinging taps, and another old soldier came up to him afterwards with a tear in his eye. He told Dave that he remembered hearing taps that night, and hearing it swing, and it made him feel a whole lot better about getting on the boat and going to Italy the next day.

If you ever doubted that music--or breaking the rules--could sometimes do real good, I can't think of a better example.

The last time I saw Dave Hathaway, he was listening to jazz, and I think it made him feel better, too.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Some black humor on the day

About fourteen years ago, after my parents' old cat Gretel died, my mom adopted a little calico kitten that she named Daisy. My dad grumbled about it, saying, "That cat's going to outlive me."

As the years went on, the two of them became fast friends--no small feat, given that Daisy was a bit of a psycho, and wouldn't really let anyone pet her.

Daisy developed renal failure early this week, and had to be put to sleep yesterday morning. Dad passed away early this morning. I think he'd be amused to know that his prognostication turned out to be wrong. In the end, it was a photo finish.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dear T. F.

Here we are enduring a somewhat stressful holiday week at Rose's old homestead. I won't go into all the details now, partly because it's not really my story to tell. But as I told my own folks during this past week: when we moved to Morgantown, it was difficult, challenging, and stressful--because change is all of those things. But now we're being reminded that change that isn't planned and isn't voluntary can be even more difficult, challenging, and stressful.

But of course there's some good with the bad, in all sorts of ways, and we try to take the comfort from that that we can. There's been a lot of family togetherness, and many family reminiscences have been bouncing around in the air, and I thought I'd post one I found especially sweet, Rose's note to the tooth fairy (oh-so-familiarly addressed as "T. F."), from a time maybe only a few years before her dad's first round of cancer. Although it's hard to keep in mind, it's also hard not to be thankful that he's had what seems like a thirty-five year reprieve, including a happily busy retirement of around twenty years.

But let's focus, rather, on Rose's note, which I find thoroughly amusing, sweet, and charming, although I know that she thinks it makes her sound pushy and demanding ("PLEASE GIVE ME 25c!"). But to me it reads like a perfect little poem:

I lost my tooth while brushing it;
It went right down the drain.
And when I thought about it,
It gave me such a pain.
Please give me 25c.

In an old diary that Rosemary has from about the same period, she has an entry that reads something like this, "I had a bad day; I spilled a lot of things." And even now, spilling things is still a sign of a bad day for Rosemary, and I marvel to recall how much she must share with the little girl who wrote these things. And I also try to help her keep from spilling things as much as I can, although I'm not always successful. Who could be? And anyway, sometimes things spill all on their own, despite anything we can do.

And while I've never really fancied myself a poet, and it may just be the stress of recent events, I can't help but thinking, somehow, that many poems might be usefully ended with the simple honesty and directness of Rose's note to the tooth fairy: "Please give me 25c." Offhand, at least, I can't think of a single poem that it might not improve. I don't know if the tooth fairy came through with the quarter or not, but Rose's parents have kept the note for almost forty years: and this week, that seems like an otherworldly gift of far greater value.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Greatest Generation

This is one of my favorite photos of my dad. Taken on V-E Day, in his barracks, he looks impossibly young. He was twenty, and I'm sure he fancied himself a man of the world. When he left his county-seat hometown of Grantsville, West Virginia, he hadn't seen much of the world, though he'd listened to it on the radio in the old henhouse that he'd wired up to live in during high school.

After two years of combat in northern Italy, he'd become fluent in Italian, having befriended a local family with whom he still exchanges Christmas cards. After V-E Day, he and some of his army buddies who also had leave traveled to Rome to see the sites, inadvertently alarming his mother back home when she didn't hear from him for several weeks after the surrender.

Like many vets, he came home and immediately went to college on the G. I. Bill, and the stories he tells about his undergraduate days at West Virginia University are among my very favorites. He lived in the old Episcopal parish house, Trinity Hall. The building had actually been condemned, but was allowed to remain open for a few more years due to the housing shortage when the student population swelled with returning troops eager to get on with their lives.

The Trinity Hall group was a motley bunch--most were first-generation college students, sons of miners and laborers from a huge variety of ethnic backgrounds. Smart, ambitious, and happy the war was over, they studied hard and played harder, each trying to outdo the other with practical jokes.

(My personal favorite has to do with one resident who was notorious for coming home drunk and waking everyone else up. Fed up, the other guys moved all of his furniture out to the front lawn after he left the house one night, recreating the guy's room down to running an extension cord out to plug in the guy's table lamp. The drunk had the last laugh, though: when he came home, he simply climbed into the bed right there on the lawn and turned out the light.)

My father has often said that the men of that generation were anxious to put the war behind them, to get back to the plans they'd had beforehand. And it's true, he never talked much about his war experiences when I was growing up. Apparently, I asked him once (I don't remember this) whether he'd ever seen a dead person.

He didn't answer me then. But in the last fifteen years or so, he's been talking a lot more about those years of his life, both during the war and after. And he's been to several reunions of both his Army Division and of the Trinity Hall guys, who managed to track each other down recently.

In fact, the photo below was taken at his Division's last reunion in 2007, when they met in Washington, D. C. and were joined by members of the current Division. One of the current officers had seen the V-E Day photo above previously, and had brought along a copy of Stars and Stripes he'd found so that Dad could recreate the pose.

And he and my mother were down here in Morgantown the first week of October for another get-together with some of the Trinity Hall folks. Dad grumbled that they'd run out of things to say to each other, and that he didn't think they needed to keep meeting. But he still clearly enjoyed himself, and enjoyed recounting more stories of his days at WVU.

On the Friday night of their visit, Tom and Dad and I sat around visiting for awhile after mom went to bed. Suddenly, the fingers on Dad's left hand started trembling; a few seconds later, his whole hand was wagging back and forth, and then his left arm.

We all studiously tried to ignore it (that's the Hathaway way, I'm afraid), but in less than a minute Dad jumped up and said he was going to bed, too. I felt awful: was this something that I didn't know about, but that he'd been dealing with for awhile?

When it happened again the next night, I discovered that, in fact, the previous night's episode had been the first. And, in fact, he jumped up because he was so freaked out by it: "It's WEIRD!" he exclaimed.

Long story short: after a bunch of tests, he's been diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer, and had surgery last Thursday to remove the tumor.

Once a warrior, always a warrior: as soon as he woke up, Dad was cracking jokes and expressing his impatience with his slow recovery. He wanted to report to me immediately that his anesthesiologist was a graduate of WVU's med school. I learned from my mother yesterday that Dad discovered that one of the doctors who comes in to check on him is also fluent in Italian, so they've been chatting away in Italiano.

In many ways, his memories of his war and college years seem to be the ones that are sustaining him through all of this. We've heard a lot about those days on our visits to the hospital.

Funny how the things you try to get away from, put behind you, are the very ones that stick with you. And now, as in 1945, he just wants to get on with his life.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Rufus' story

One nice thing about small academic conferences is that they can meet in more out-of-the-way places...and the American Folklore Society has met, in the past, in wonderful small cities like Lafayette, Louisiana and Eugene, Oregon--and this year, in Boise, Idaho.

It's been over two years since I was west of...well, Chicago, since moving away from Colorado in the summer of 2007. There are many things I've missed since, mainly low humidity and good Mexican food. Boise delivered both, and then some.

The day before the conference officially began, I went on a day-long tour that took us to a Boise synagogue built in 1895 whose grounds are now host to a community garden used mostly by Somali Bantu emigres. Later we met and saw the beautiful work of two talented women who make stirrups, saddles, and rawhide riding accessories. After a great lunch of chile rellenos at Lalo's in Caldwell, ID, we made our final stop at a horse-training facility run by a crusty old guy who grew up, of all places, in Huntington, West Virginia.

(I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't make a note of and can't recall the trainer's name, but you'll see him in the video at the end.)

En route to the horse-training center, Deana Attebery, the master saddlemaker/rawhide braider (pictured above), got on the tour bus's PA system to explain that she herself was a student at the barn we were going to visit, and that the trainer would be riding a horse that used to belong to her son.

During her earlier demonstration, Deana had mentioned that her son, whom she'd been teaching to make saddles, had died several years ago, though she didn't explain how. During lunch, we sat together, and though she mentioned "the horse incident" a couple of times, I didn't press her for details.

Over the PA, she told us the harrowing tale. Her son, who was in his 20s and a lifelong rider, had been thrown from his horse, Rufus, and--as Deana said--"they both ended up in the river." The horse survived; her son didn't.

However, the horse only survived in body; Rufus was distraught and crazy-angry after the accident, a totally different horse than he'd been beforehand. No one could ride him; he bucked constantly when he was in his stall, and he was aggressive with Deana and her family.

I can only imagine how agonizing this must have been for Deana: Rufus was the only witness to her son's death, the only one who could explain what had spooked him and caused him to throw his passenger. The incident clearly haunted Rufus as much as it haunted Deana, but they couldn't talk about it. And they couldn't work through it. Eventually, Deana gave him to the horse trainer we were headed to see.

As Deana explained, under the trainer's care, Rufus was completely transformed. He went from being a manic, uncontrollable basket case to being the trainer's primary horse, the one he uses to train other reining horses. This is western-style riding we're talking about, so if you know rodeo, you'll understand what the trainer meant when he said that Rufus would make a good pickup horse--one that wouldn't be afraid to sidle up to a bucking bronc and have its rider jump on his back. That takes an exceptionally calm and "supple" horse, to use the trainer's term.

Check out Rufus now. That's an amazing horse. He could probably give us humans some training, too: how to overcome trauma, let go of guilt, and get a new lease on life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trick, or treat?

In an effort to hand out something seasonal, in addition to candy (knowing that kids would mutiny if they didn't get candy, too), we bought this bag of silly plastic rings at our local Big Lots. Spiders, pumpkins, bats...

But wait--what kind of rings are these?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"My! What Toast": Art that Makes us Happy

We sometimes shop the local antique malls and flea markets, where I am usually looking for one sort of thing and Rosemary is looking for something completely different. But once in a while we find something we both fall in love with, like this Kew-Bee Bread painting, with a guy who looks like the Monopoly millionaire.

My! What Toast! Sometimes I think that we should buy original art more often--we could use a few more things on the walls--but (frankly) I don't feel like I know anything about art. But this monocle-wearing guy is so delighted with his toast, and the colors are so bright and happy, that we knew right away that it would make us happy to see it hanging on our wall every day, and it only cost a couple days' salary-equivalent. It almost feels like the money can buy us a little happiness--or at least a happy feeling now and then.

I was especially happy to buy this painting because we already had two other examples of commercial art that we bought while we were in Colorado, two slightly earlier automobile advertising paintings, in awful 1970s avocado mattes that I haven't gotten around to replacing, because a decent frame will cost more than the paintings themselves.

I've always loved the Maxfield Parrish-esque look of the Buick painting, but the 1920 Eight-Cylinder King painting shows a group of women, including the driver, conquering the Rocky Mountains in their stylish frocks and bonnets. "Most Powerful Car in the World."

Just our luck, I guess, that all three paintings have wide, horizontal compositions, about three feet long in each case, which makes them a bit difficult to hang on the wall. But three makes a collection, I guess, and good things come in threes. And maybe these aren't real art, since they so clearly do come under the heading of commercial illustration. But they are real to us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dream hopping

As I think I've written here before, I don't think that I usually remember my dreams. But I've had to realize over the last few years, I think, that I have a recurring dream in which my primary mode of locomotion is hopping on one foot.

Undoubtedly, my other leg is asleep or something, and my dream is just my mind processing some sort of physical sleep phenomenon. But it's fascinating: it has taken me a surprisingly long time to realize that this is actually a dream, because every time it happens, I feel like the dream is actually real. So each time it happens again, I just feel like I'm experiencing a very familiar series of real events, in which hopping is just how I get around.

(Oh, and by the way, I hop around because my other leg is cramped up, or twisted up like a withered limb, and sometimes the bad leg actually hurts: it's these things that make me think that what's 'really' happening is just that my leg hurts in a non-dream way.)

But anyway, I just think in my dream “Oh, yeah, hopping: that's just how I do it,” and it seems real.

And anyway, sometimes when I'm not paying any attention to whatever the hell is happening in my waking life, I remember these dreams like real memories, and I think, in a kind of half-conscious way, “Wow, today I can get around fine without all that hopping. That really is a pain when it happens.” Then I stop myself, and I remind myself that I can't recall a single time in my waking life where I really did get around by hopping because my other leg was a withered limb. At least I don't think I can remember any—and I always feel a little uncertain, because the dreams seem so much like memories.

And even more: my hopping has some special dream properties: I can take some really long hops, where, really, I just float across the ground for eight feet, ten feet, twelve feet, maybe twenty or more, and then I can just kind of put my foot back on the ground and take another smooth, low long-jump hop. And I have the feeling that if I just didn't put my foot back down, I'd keep gliding along. I always hear that flying dreams are among the most common dreams, and maybe this is my kind of flying dream: low, slow, close to the ground, and requiring regular effort to keep moving along: it's probably the kind of flying dream I'd have, after all.

In some of the fantasy novels I've been known to read, dreams give one access to a kind of real alternate world, where unicorns get devoured by wolves and things like that. In my fantasy dream world, I get around by hop-floating. And in that world, it's totally normal. Somehow, I don't think there's a best selling fantasy novel in there. Too bad.

But for today, I guess I'm just as happy I'm not in a hopping dream, and I'm vaguely comforted that the next time I am, it will seem familiar, comfortable, and right.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I was working at the dining-room table this morning when the doorbell rang; it was the mail carrier, who needed me to sign for a package. He handed me the rest of the mail and I flipped casually through it--the usual bills, junk mail, magazine-subscription renewal forms, and then...one thin white envelope, addressed by hand.

I had a fleeting moment of sheer pleasure--a real hand-written letter!--until I saw the return address: the Colorado Department of Corrections.

It was from a former student of mine--one of my favorite students from the university I used to teach at, actually--with whom I'd kept in touch for over a decade. I'll call him M.

M. had been in the very first folklore class I taught at my previous job, and was one of those people who develops an instant passion for the subject. At that point, he was a naive enough undergrad to ask me quite seriously as we were about to start on the folklore collection project whether one needed a license to do fieldwork. He was so earnest I couldn't even laugh. But it endeared him to me forever.

Over the years and long after he graduated, we kept up a steady e-mail correspondence. M. is one of those people who seems to get every joke, urban legend, and chain letter sent to him, and he faithfully forwarded them on to me, since--ironically--I'm not one of those people. We'd often write back and forth about the context in which he'd heard a joke, or the differences between one variant of a legend and another.

About four years ago, M. decided to go back to school to get his master's degree in education and get certificated to teach high-school English. I wrote him a gushing recommendation letter, and our correspondence widened to include discussions about English education. Always tech-savvy, M. was interested in the remarkable facility students had for code-switching back and forth between text language and standard English, and we had lots of interesting discussions about ways that might be incorporated into the classroom.

We lost touch for a year or two around the end of my time in Colorado and my move to West Virginia. Then a year or so ago a student here e-mailed me a legend that reminded me of one M. had sent me years ago, but with an interesting twist. I dug out M.'s e-mail address and forwarded it to him. I figured by this time, he'd have settled into a full-time teaching job somewhere, so I asked him how things were going and said that I had no doubt he was doing well, since he had so much promise as a teacher.

The message I got back left me stunned. The previous spring, a student on the cross-country team he coached accused him of sexual assault. He'd been summarily fired and brought up on criminal charges. It didn't look good, he told me.

I had no doubt then, and no doubt now, that M. did not commit the crime he was accused of. I know him well, and it is just out of the question. I wrote a letter to the judge in his case to vouch for M.'s charaacter, and to plead for leniency.

Over the last few months, I've heard from M. occasionally, and he steadfastly skirted the issue of how things were going. I know he was trying to protect others from his misery, but I felt anxious for him.

So. The letter today was from him. In it, he explained that his lawyer told him he'd be better off making a plea agreement than going to trial. Instead of granting leniency, the judge handed down the maximum sentence: 12 years in prison. Though he's eligible to be in a minimum-security facility, overcrowding in those places got him sent to a medium-security institution over three hours from Denver, so he has very few visitors. He's hoping his case will be reconsidered. He told me he plans to study prison lore as a way to stay focused.

I wanted to throw up when I finished reading. But I had to go in to work in the advising office, where a mopey-looking student told me he was sad because his favorite NFL team lost yesterday. I wanted to slap him upside the head. At least he could walk out the door into the blue brightness of a beautiful October afternoon. At least he'd been rejected from WVU's teacher-education program, so he'll never have to worry about his life being derailed, and his freedoms taken away, for something he didn't do.

Since the letter was addressed to Tom, too, I left it on the table. When I got home, Tom greeted me with the same look of shock and horror I'm sure was on my face after I read M.'s letter. We talked about how scary it is that everything can be taken away from you so suddenly, how quickly life can devolve into a total nightmare, and a lot of other things that will all sound too banal if I try to put them into words.

But I'll tell you: I feel sobered and cynical in a way I never thought possible--and I'm here on the outside.

Monday, September 28, 2009

First Thoughts about the Hoard

Last evening, as I was sharing digital images of the Staffordshire Hoard with Rosemary, she said “It's too bad Nick didn't live to see this.” I agreed, and as I've thought about the hoard further today, I agree all the more. In this brief and informal essay, I hope to explore some of what the hoard may end up meaning for our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon past and of Beowulf in particular.

[For those who make it this far into this entry, but who still haven't heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, please check out this site, where the pictures are beautiful and brand new. The hoard was discovered in July 2009 and announced last week; it is the single largest discovering of Anglo-Saxon gold treasure of the modern era, with about eleven pounds of gold alone.]

Staffordshire hoard excavation from Dan Pett on Vimeo.

Nick Howe, of course, knew as well as anyone how problematic the date of Beowulf has been for Anglo-Saxon scholars, and how important: it was from Nick that I first heard the argument that the controversies over dating and historicizing the poem are perhaps our most productive strategy for making meaning from it. And as is well, known, Beowulf is a poem whose narrator seems fairly obsessed with golden treasure: the descriptions of treasure in the poem are frequnet, lovingly detailed, and thorough. What the Staffordshire Hoard tells us, if nothing else, is that hoards of (primarily) golden treasure were, in fact, possible in at least one seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and one at least partially accommodated to Christian monotheism, and at least in this case associated with war.

Elizabeth Tyler's wonderful discussion of treasure words in Old English poetry makes part of my point here beautifully: in her discussion of The Battle of Maldon (about a battle fought in 991), Tyler notes that Maldon uses a highly conventional vocabulary of treasure, in which references to gold far outweigh references to silver. Significantly, exactly the opposite situation obtained in reality at the time: when the Danes were bought off in 991 and succeeding years, the payoff was in silver, and the coinage of the time is exclusively silver, with little gold in evidence anywhere.

If Beowulf is as late as its manuscript, of course, then it too simply uses a conventional vocabulary for treasure, in which gold is far more prominent than silver, except when the two are linked in formulas like “silver and gold.” But it's the details of the Staffordshire Hoard that then stand out: the gold literally outweighs the silver, by a four-to-one ration. Further, the assemblage of materials seems clearly to have been made in the context of war: the prominence (and sheer number) of sword-fittings makes any other context seem unlikely. And sure enough, we see warriors stripped of their gear in the poem. Likewise, when Beowulf's troop arrives at Heorot, their spears are foregrounded, but when Weohstan kills Onela's nephew Eanmund, he takes the sword to Onela and is given it as a reward—the uncle rewarding the slayer of his nephew because of a family feud. Hrothgar's hilt, of course, is the sign of Grendel's mother's death (far more so than the head of Grendel), and we see in the Staffordshire hoard some 80 gold pommel mounts, stripped, it seems, from sword hilts.

And there are hoards in Beowulf: the dragon guards a hoard, and when Beowulf kills it, he believes that the hoard will be a treasure to buy his people's future safety: a doomed hope, as it turns out, but a clear claim is made about what a hoard might be thought to do. The dragon hoard, of course, has been laid in the ground by the “last survivor” the final living member of a now-long-gone tribe, the hoard a kind of national treasury, useless to an individual. Likewise, the hoard of the dragon slain by Sigemund provides an opportunity for a discussion of good and bad kingship: hoards are to be used by lords who are gold-friends to their thanes—a source of wealth to be shared.

When all we had of Anglo-Saxon treasure hoards was the Sutton Hoo burial (and other burials), we could look at Sutton Hoo as deeply continental in contents and significance and ultimately too poor to reflect the poem's gold obsession. But the Staffordshire material—some 1500 items, even if most of them are small—seems Saxon to the bone, and it's big, big, big. When Sutton Hoo is the only treasure on the horizon, we can look at the poem's depictions of gold, swords, and hoards as a highly fictionalized depiction of a golden age, a long-ago time in which gold was thick on the ground and heros could find monsters worthy of a battle. But the Staffordshire materials seem to open up a completely different perspective: as late as the seventh century real Anglo-Saxon kings (or as near to it as can be determined from stuff dug up in a field) really did or could collect remarkable hoards of gold, and presumably they usually spent them as wise gold-friends would. That is, the social economy depicted in the poem may be far more like a real, historical Anglo-Saxon social economy than has ever been realized.

When I teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I always point out the the historical King Arthur must have lived some eight or nine centuries before the poem, and that the poet freely anachronizes, dressing his characters in the armor, clothing, foodways, and social mores of the fourteenth century. What the Staffordshire Hoard may well suggest is that Beowulf might engage in an exactly parallel strategy: depicting a hero from centuries earlier, but dressed in gold, armor, and attitudes from very near the poet's present. It's a line of argument that Sutton Hoo does not make possible, I think: but the Staffordshire Hoard may well make it possible—the poem may get a surprisingly strong new argument for an early date: I'll go with the eighth century, putting the Hoard, perhaps, in the poet's grandfather's memory. Because what seems clear is that the conventional language of treasure may have been mobilized by the Maldon poet, but the practices (and the sheer wealth) that led to the Staffordshire Hoard seem so closely paralleled in Beowulf that it's hard to imagine that so many details are merely literary convention. The Beowulf poet's well known attention to gold may be its most remarkable point of historical accuracy. But the accuracy is not in how the fifth-century Beowulf and Hrothgar saw the world, but in how the seventh-century—and perhaps the eighth as well—saw and thought about war, treasure, and gold.

Perhaps in a year, or two, or twenty, I'll see more clearly than I do now if or how the Staffordshire Hoard changes our understanding of the poem. But right now, caught up in the excitement of the newness of discovery, it looks to me like Beowulf will never be the same. Because now we know just what an Anglo-Saxon could hoard (as opposed to bury in a grave, or lose, or throw away), and it's surprisingly like what the poem tells us. Who could have believed that the hoarding, of all things, was where the poem was telling us the truth?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

That class

It recently occurred to me that this month, I'm marking 20 years of college-level teaching, if you start counting in fall 1989, when I began work on my M.A. at Ohio State and teaching freshman comp. And I've been in a tenure-track or tenured job for a decade this fall.

I can't even begin to tell you how freaky I find all of that, since much of the time I still feel like I don't have a clue what I'm doing, and wonder when someone is going to call me out on it.

That feeling isn't helped this semester by having a class that's That Class. Those of you who teach know the kind I mean: the soul-sucking, lethargic, amoeba-like organism that starts as a gelatinous mass and gradually calcifies until it is utterly impenetrable. At first, I thought they were just quiet. Confused, maybe. In need of some more examples. But no: none of those things seem to be the problem.

It makes for a long 75 minutes, especially in a class (introduction to folklore) where I rely heavily on them contributing personal experiences and examples to illustrate some of the more abstract concepts and to help them begin coming up with topics for their fieldwork projects.

In those moments, 20 years of experience doesn't do me the slightest bit of good; I still feel like a panicky grad student who's run out of material halfway through class.

I suppose, though, that the benefit of experience is that I know (but have a hard time believing) that to a large degree, it's not about me. It's about a combination of bad place (room with chairs bolted to the floor), bad time (mid-afternoon), and bad karma. I taught the same course last semester, using the same texts, and the students had lots to say, asked lots of great questions, and generated that amazing kind of reciprocal energy exchange that makes a class work.

Still, it's discouraging. I ran into a colleague at the rec center this morning who's in a similar predicament with one of his classes. We agreed that just one section of That Class has the potential to unmoor you.

I read this recent editorial by Maureen Dowd with interest, since That Class has been getting me so down. The problem, as Dowd sees it? That women "tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work."

Well, yeah. I've been working on those issues for years. Longer than I've been teaching probably.

Easier said than done, especially when you feel like you've humiliated yourself in front of a class, doing just about everything but swinging from a trapeze to get some kind of response. And believe me, I haven't ruled that option out.

In case you missed the story about the zombie-alert sign earlier this year, above, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

More from Washington

In a recent post, Rose shared some of the vintage cookbooks she found at the Washington Antiques Fair the other weekend; we found quite a lot of interesting stuff there, I'm afraid, and I thought I'd share a bit more of it here, just because I feel like it. And because of the whole weirdness of serendipity and collecting: part of what makes collecting old stuff worthwhile.

So besides the vintage cookbooks and the handful of magic lantern slides that were kind of mutual purchases on both our parts (perhaps we'll manage to put together a magic lantern slide post sometime, if we can figure out how to get good images), I also was looking at all the old handwritten stuff I could find. I did find a big batch of old papers from Gabriel Raymond, onetime resident and mill operator from Lenox, New York. The papers date from about 1819 into the 1860s, mostly dealing with the mill, and with lots 66 and 67 of the Oneida Creek Tract, which Raymond seems to have owned. All sorts of interesting stuff, including papers relating to lawsuits (including two old Utica, New York folded letters with early 1830 stamped postmarks--long before postage stamps themselves existed) and a fascinating duplicate copy of a $1200.00 settlement receipt from the Erie Canal commissioners to Nathan Raymond, "damages which the appraisers on the Erie Canal have awarded to me for the injury which I have sustained in consequence of the use and occupancy by said canal of the waters of the Cowaston [sic?] Creek, whereby the saw mill located on said creek + below said canal is deprived of its accustomed supply of water."

But also, I ran across a "zip-lock" bag full of old envelopes (fifty-one envelopes, I think, most from 1870s and 1880s) complete with stamps, etc, for only $5.00. I doubt there are any rare stamps here (stamps were probably the first thing I ever collected, and my parents once tried to get all three of us kids hooked on collecting US stamps, and I still have all of my old collection). But the envelopes (the letters are gone from almost all of them) tell a story in their own unique way: most are addressed to one Jennie B Wallace, with some of the oldest (in the 1870s) addressed to Wellesley, Mass.

This woman must have collected these envelopes over some span of time; others are addressed to her at Pennsylvania Female College in Pittsburgh (later to become Chatham, I believe). I found these two especially fascinating for the addresses:

Remarkably, however, one of the envelopes addressed to the man who must have been Jennie's father was actually sent to Greeley, Colorado, our previous hometown:
That's "Care Mr James Ewing," (and the postmark is either "83" or "88") if any sharp-eyed readers wish to look him up in Greeley archives.

Most interesting of all to me in this batch of stuff, though was the long letter from one "Cousin Aleck" to "Bell" entirely undated and without an envelope, but I think ultimately from Jennie B's father, Rev. A. G. Wallace, D. D., to her mother, Bell, probably before their marriage. (And if I've got the genealogy wrong here, it's a shame, because the story is such a nice one.) But the letter starts out by quoting Shakespeare and then goes on, "I just now see why it is that the spirit of chivalry has died + love has languished so much in this boasted of 19 century. We are impatient; nothing satisfies us but railroads and telegraphs."

The second page of the letter especially caught my eye, as I'd always heard about letters written in both directions, but this is the first one I've ever had a chance to buy:

The second text is written in red or pink ink, to make reading the two parts of the letter easier, I suppose. But for those interested in the personal musings of those long dead (especially if you can make out the brown-ink text), here's a transcription of the pink: "Permit me to add another line. I intended to write merely a note but so long as there is any room I must write. Just as I was about to go to the Post Office Father and Mother came home. Both in good health. I had almost resolved to quit smoking, but Mother brought me some good cigars and so as I write the smoke curls gracefully around my head. Smoking is favorable to revery + my reveries at present are very pleasant for Clark has been praising your likeness as perfection. Last night I slept but 3 hours, am unwell, and now it is eleven P. M. so I am forced to close this letter already too long. Goodbye."

When one can find things like this, who would not be a collector?

Friday, September 4, 2009

When swine flew

--that would've been my response if you'd asked me how often Tom has canceled classes and stayed home when he's been sick. He's one of those cranky, stubborn sick people who stoically go to work, then come home, lie on the couch, and moan. (Needless to say, I'm the same way.)

But now that WVU has two confirmed cases of H1N1 and the President of the United States has not just given people permission to stay home when they're sick, but ordered them to, it's another story. Tom's been fevery and stuffy for a couple of days, so he's couch bound today.

And if you won't listen to the President, maybe you'll take the advice of the "Notorious F.L.U.":

Monday, August 31, 2009

"If you have a husband who likes to cook..."

"Pamper him! Encourage him! You are lucky indeed, even though you find yourself only a fetch-and-carry handmaiden while his genius glows."

So says the cookbook Dishes Men Like, which we found on an excursion to the Washington Antiques Fair yesterday. Publication date: 1952. Surprised? I thought not.

The text continues:

"But men are wise, not one in a thousand really wants to take over the job....So, what do we do? It goes without saying that most women choose dishes men like. And men have quite definite likes and dislikes about food. For instance, they like Lea & Perrins, the Original Worcestershire Sauce."

Yes, this fabulous little tome features 52 pages of recipes, all of which use Worcestershire Sauce in some way, from the basic--"Deviled Crackers," in which you cream a half cup of butter with a teaspoon of Worcestershire, spread it on some saltines, and bake the for five minutes--to the fancy, like "Chicken Livers and Mushrooms on Toast."

Speaking of mushrooms, we also picked up this cookbook, put out by the makers of B in B mushrooms, the cover of which would seem to suggest that mushrooms are cannibalistic. "Turkey Wiggle," anyone?

Personally, I think both the men and the mushrooms should clear out of the kitchen and make way for the adorable penguin chef who not only cooks, but serves.

The corporate cookbooks from the 50s and 60s stand in stark contrast to this final one we found, published by the West Penn Power Company in 1943, that extols the virtues of growing and preserving your own food. This one folds out and the whole center spread explains the proper canning methods for fruit, tomatoes, "non-acidic vegetables," and meat.

That's been on my mind lately, since every so often I'll make a giant batch of tomato sauce and can it. Several of the jars I put up last time went bad, though they seemed to be sealed. When I made some a few weeks ago, I just decided to freeze it instead (yo, penguin: a little help here!). But now that I have what looks to be a fairly definitive (if 76-year-old) guide, maybe I can figure out what went wrong.

Not bad for a dollar.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Play ball

Though I would never call myself a big sports fan, somehow summer never seems complete without taking in a baseball game. I love the sheer languor of the game, which seems perfectly matched to the season.

We went to our first Pittsburgh Pirates game on Friday night, after talking about it for two years. PNC Park is one of those new-old-fashioned ballparks, and it works, in much the way Coors Field in Denver does. Like Coors Field, it makes the most of its setting: the ballpark is on the North Shore of downtown, right on the Allegheny River, and the view of the skyline and the Roberto Clemente Bridge is spectacular, especially as night settles in and the skyscrapers light up.

To be honest, I couldn't care less about the game itself. For me, the appeal lies in the experience: being in the stands on a hot summer afternoon or (in this case) on a balmy evening, drinking a ridiculously expensive, generally awful beer from a can or a plastic cup. And what I really enjoy are all the weird rituals of the game.

There are the universal ones: the "group sings" of the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the traditional taunts, the wave, the seventh-inning stretch, the cries of the vendors as they hock their wares through the stands: "Ice-cold BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEER here." Or, at PNC Park, "Yingling here!" (Spelled "Yuengling," but pronounced locally like the first and last syllable rhyme.)

The most interesting local tradition in Pittsburgh, though, is the Great Pierogi Race between the fifth and sixth innings. Sponsored by Mrs. T's, the race features four people dressed in oversized pierogi costumes who race each other around the periphery of the outfield. Lest you think that all pierogies are alike, making it impossible to tell which one won, these are distinguished by flavor and attire: Cheese Chester, Oliver Onion, Sauerkraut Saul, and Jalapeno Hannah.

The Onion won on Friday night, as did the Pirates, 5-2 over the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates hit two home runs and rookie Andrew McCutchen had an impressive hit that looked like it was also going to go all the way but was caught after bouncing off the outfielder's glove, but nevertheless got McCutchen a triple.

Perhaps because their record this year is pretty dismal, the Pirates are waxing nostalgic about the 30th anniversary of their championship 1979 season. So all night the scoreboard would occasionally light up with clips from TV shows of the era, and the loudspeakers featured snippets of memorable tunes from that year: "Le Freak," "September," "Rock Lobster," "Shake Your Groove Thing." Nostalgia piled on nostalgia: just what a baseball game should be. And it was Dollar Dog night, so we didn't even feel completely bankrupt by the end of the evening.

Really, what more could a person ask for on a beautiful Friday night in August, the last weekend before the semester starts? It was the perfect way to cap off the summer. So when classes start tomorrow, I feel somewhat more ready to say "Play ball!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's in the house

Last night, about 11:30, I was asleep, or nearly so, while Rose was reading in "Big Blue," the comfy chair, and suddenly she says (loud enough to wake me up), "There's a bat in the house!"

I leapt from the bed, and we hustled over to the door where Rose slipped out of the room and I tried to figure out what to do next. All the while, the bat is circling, circling in the erratic way bats have. First, I opened the window screen, hoping maybe it would just fly back out. No luck. My next idea was to strip a pillowcase off one of my pillows and run around the room, leaping into the air to try to catch the thing whenever it came close. (Leaping was necessary: our ceilings are high, even on the second floor; Rose certainly heard the sound of me leaping, although there was no japing.) Amazingly, on the dozenth or two-dozenth try, the bat was inside and I quickly scrunched up the opening to keep it there.

Now what? I hesitated, then decided just to take it downstairs, go outside and let it go. No problem, only I had to kind of shake it out of the pillowcase. But then it plopped out and (as I told Rose later) "flew away, just like Dracula."

Back to sleep, until about 5:15, when it all happens again. Rose--out the door, door closed. But this time, I'm much sleepier, and I again moved the screen: but this time, the screen tried to fall out, so I just pulled it into the room. And when the bat came my way, I used the screen to "bat" it right out, for a home run. But no going back to sleep this time.

Amazingly, when Rose looked at the Bat Conservation website, a pillowcase was actually recommended as a capturing method. But so was rabies testing recommended--which we skipped. It never occurred to us not to let it go.

One tends to think of a house as a place to keep things in ("A place for my stuff," as George Carlin put it), but I guess I need the reminder now and then that a house is even better for keeping things out. Let's hope that's the last of the bats.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Necessity is the mother of...a big (but tasty) mess

This morning I was flipping through the current issue of Better Homes and Gardens, and saw this recipe for Spiced Beef Kabobs with Mashed Carrots .

It sounded good, and also like a good way to use up some of the yellow squash and zucchini we have lying around. Frankly, those get old fast. And we skipped the mashed carrots, since those don't sound good any time of year, but especially not on a hot August day.

While I was out running errands this afternoon, I stopped by the Giant Eagle and picked up some beef, some mushrooms, and some grape tomatoes, and went home and spent an hour or so making the marinade, cutting up the beef, and chopping vegetables.

A couple hours later, I returned to the kitchen planning to start soaking the wooden skewers so they wouldn't burn up on the grill. I looked in the drawer where I thought they were. Nothing there. I rooted through a few other drawers and cabinets. No skewers anywhere.

Suddenly, I had one of those post-move realizations I figured we were done with after two years: they were in that drawer in Greeley, but they didn't make the move to Morgantown.

Not that you can't find shish-kabob skewers in Morgantown. But I really didn't want to go out to the grocery store again (you have to drive, and it's a guaranteed half hour out of your life even to just pick up one thing). And I was mad at myself for not checking before I went to the grocery store earlier. What was I thinking?! Why did I just assume that I still had them?!

Tom gallantly offered to go to the store with me to buy some. (You'll note that he didn't just volunteer to go himself. This still meant getting in the car and making a second trip to the store, this time with the guy whose chief pleasure in going to the grocery is ogling the potato chips and donuts.)

We started looking around for possible skewer substitutes. One pair of wooden chopsticks in the drawer--that'll work.

Twizzlers? Nah.

Then Tom remembered: how about cutting some of the longer branches off our rosemary plant and using those? Great! Unfortunately, the longest stems on our scraggly bush are only about five inches long.

Still looking around, I came across a package of rice noodles.

"Hey, if this works, would you be embarrased to put your name to it and send it in for the Cook's Illustrated tips page?" I asked.

If you're not familiar with the magazine, each month Cook's Illustrated has a two-page spread of tips sent in by readers. While most of them are useful, there's always one that's either so obvious or so weirdly compulsive that you have to wonder if it wasn't planted there as a joke.

As an example: the current issue includes the following tip for "Sponge on a Rope": "1) Poke a small hole in the sponge. 2) Thread a string through the hole and loop the sponge over the neck of a spray bottle filled with vinegar and water or any cleaning solution."

How, I can hear you asking yourself, did you ever keep your kitchen clean before?

But no matter how dumb the tip, each reader who has one accepted gets a year's subscription free, which is no small deal, since the regular rate is $25.

Well, long story short: we don't recommend using rice noodles in place of shish-kabob skewers. Back to the drawing board.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Commerical jingles you won't hear on TV these days

So, awhile back I'd dried some sheets on the line in the basement, and asked Tom to come help me fold them, if he had the time.

As he came down the basement stairs, he was singing "If you've got the time, We've got the beer... Miller Beer."

For some reason that touched off a whole nostalgia fest about bad beer and wine jingles we remembered from our 1970s childhoods:

"Here's to good friends, tonight is kinda special.... Tonight, let it be Lowenbrau."

"Head for the mountains, Head for Busch Beer."

...and of course,

"Riunite on ice, Reunite--that's nice. Riunite, Riunite, on ice!"

and the immortal slogan, "We will sell no wine before its time." Sadly, an entire generation only knew Orson Welles from those Paul Masson wine ads. It was kind of a shock to see the handsome young version of him in movies later on.

Which leads us to wonder: thirty years or so from now, will the kids of today be folding sheets and singing "Viva, Viagra"?

It came from Columbus...sorta.

We just got back from a quick trip to Washington, D. C. Tom was there to read grant applications for the NEH, so I got to spend all day Tuesday exploring the Mall. We realized that we hadn't been to DC for at least ten years (we were very happy to realize we'd never set foot in the place during all of W's tenure in the White House).

The last time we were there, we saw this Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, "House I," on the Mall, but the the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, where the piece is now located, was just then under construction. It's completed now and it's a beautiful space to wander around. And "wandering" is definitely needed to appreciate the weird trompe l'oeil effect of this piece!

I also saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum titled "1934: A New Deal for Artists." It's a collection of just a handful of the 10,000+ works of art created in 1934 for the short-lived Public Works of Art Project.

I've been totally fascinated by the WPA arts projects for several years now, but had never heard of this particular initiative...but fell in love with a number of the paintings on display.

This particular painting by Douglass Crockwell, titled "Paper Workers," interested me because of the weird Lego-like human figures...and because Crockwell apparently was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1904.

Lichtenstein attended Ohio State University and received both his B.A. and MFA in fine arts there in the late 1940s/early 1950s, and his late sculpture "Brushstrokes in Flight" is one of the first things you see upon landing at the Columbus airport.

After years of being warehoused outside in a niche between the parking garage and the airport itself, the local powers-that-be finally wised up and moved it inside. Any wonder these artists left Columbus?

To see a slide show of all the works in the 1934 exhibit, click here. Starting in late January 2010, it'll be touring the U. S., with stops in Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Montgomery, Muskegon, and Portland. I highly recommend seeing it if it's showing near you!

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Y'know, Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos COMES order.'"*

Yeah, OK, Nietzsche--if you say so. But you forgot about entropy. Order inevitably trends back toward chaos.

This has been on my mind a lot lately as I've been painting the upstairs rooms in our house, something I've wanted to do ever since we moved in two years ago. But the chaos of the move was exhausting enough, and the walls were an inoffensive (if muddy) off-white, so the painting got delayed.

Of course, now there's two years' worth of accumulated crap (and dust) that had to be moved out of the way to paint. The prospect of clearing enough space to get a ladder around was way more daunting than the actual painting.

As Jane recently wrote, painting is a bore. I painted houses (interior and exterior) one summer when I was in grad school, and while I'm grateful for the experience--I certainly use the skills I learned there more than those I learned in a lot of other short-term jobs--I was very glad to go back to class in the fall.

It was avocado paint that finally broke me. I was painting an ugly, recycled vanity with some hideous 1970s avocado-green high-gloss lacquer one morning, and just burst into tears. I'd broken up with a long-term boyfriend recently, and suddenly the magnitude of my misery hit me. What was the point of this work? The ugly vanity couldn't be improved with a couple of hideous coats of paint. It should've been kicked to the curb, just like my ex. Needless to say, that was my last day on that job.

Still, I remember the deep satisfaction of other projects, like when a coworker and I spent a week scraping, sanding, cleaning, and priming an old wood-sided bungalow in Clintonville, and the day finally came when we could put the color (pink--yes, pink) on. We did old-school brushwork--no sprayers--so it was slow-going. At the end of the day, we'd gotten about 3/4 of the way through, and decided to finish the rest the following morning.

We'd parked up the street, so had to drive back past the house on the way out. From a distance, we finally got a look at what we'd accomplished--there was only a tiny bit of white primer left exposed in a sea of pink. We whooped in unison.

I get some of that feeling when I paint now. Seeing the transformation in the upstairs rooms has been satisfying, but it's a much briefer feeling, since I then start thinking about how I need to clean before I put the furniture back in place, and retrieve all the things I've stuffed into closets, and do all the other cleaning and organizing I've neglected while I've been painting.

And cynic (or realist?) that I am, I also think about how eventually I'll have to dust the baseboards again, and touch up the paint, and...you get the idea. Entropy.

* Immortal wisdom courtesy of Blazing Saddles.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Just for fun

The children's and YA literature blog 100 Scope Notes recently featured instructions for a meme to create a cover for your debut young-adult novel.

Pictured is mine, the screwball tale of a teenage lion-tamer whose dreams of a career as a Broadway hoofer nearly get derailed when she finds herself caught up in a madcap swirl of lies.

Here are the instructions (those of you who did the "create your album cover" meme that circulated on Facebook" will find these familiar):


1 – Go to “Fake Name Generator” or click http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/

The name that appears is your author name.

2 – Go to “Random Word Generator” or click http://www.websitestyle.com/parser/randomword.shtml

The word listed under “Random Verb” is your title.

3 – Go to “FlickrCC” or click http://flickrcc.bluemountains.net/index.php

Type your title into the search box. The first photo that contains a person is your cover.

4 – Use Photoshop, Picnik, or similar to put it all together. Be sure to crop and/or zoom in.

5 – Post it to your site along with this text.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon-Landing Memories

Just two, and I'll try to keep them short. One: I (very vaguely) remember the moon landing: we were at the neighbors' house, where there was some kind of major remodeling going on and my dad was helping. The tv was outside, and we all got called over to watch it, with the ubiquitous: watch this, and you'll remember it all your life. But I remember being told more than I remember what I was seeing on the screen. I was five.

Two: at the Neil Armstrong parade in Wapakoneta, afterwards. There was a plane (or jet?) flyover of some sort, and they dropped commemorative balloons on the crowd before the parade actually got going. With some urging or prompting from my parents, I ran out in the street to pick one up, like the kids went after candy in the 4th of July parade I went to a few weeks ago. Can't say I recall anything else about the parade; my folks may still have the balloons, as they certainly have other souvenirs.

Drove (or was driven) past the distinctive Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapak on family trips many times, but I don't remember ever being inside.

Though we didn't know it (or each other) at the time, Rosemary and I both owned and read You Will Go to the Moon when we were children. I have very clear memories of the torus-shaped space station and the fact that the space travelers in the station were watching a western film projected on a screen.

Haven't been to the moon.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Medieval Mysteries' Sins of Omission

Teaching science fiction and fantasy over the last couple of years, I've come to the conclusion that history is often depicted as a mystery to be solved: what really happened in the past? It's a way of thinking about the past that I can live with in the rest of my working life, too.

Recently, I've had the chance to read a couple of medieval mystery novels—not written in the middle ages, of course, but set during the period. One, Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, features a female doctor from Salerno, visiting England in the 1170s; the other, A Plague on Both Your Houses, by Susanna Gregory, is set in Cambridge in (as you might guess) 1348, and its protagonist is also a physician, teaching in one of the Cambridge colleges.

Strikingly, both main characters are presented more or less as models of good medical sense—from a modern perspective. The Cambridge doctor, for example, doesn't believe in the efficacy of bleeding patients with leeches, while the Salerno doctor sterilizes things in alcohol. Perhaps relatedly, both show little religious feeling, and the female doctor is decidedly atheistic. It seems clear that both doctors are supposed to serve as protagonists that modern readers can identify with or relate to—they are our tour guides, more or less like us, modern and atheist (or only superficially religious), and they show us around a kind of simplified medieval world.

It's that simplicity of the medieval world depicted that irritates me about these books. In both (perhaps with a single counter-example in each case), religious figures like monks, nuns, and priests are generally depicted as venial, corrupt, hypocritical, and bigoted. The main characters, of course, are models of tolerance: in the Franklin book, the narrative focus begins on a collaborative group of detective figures: single female doctor, married Jewish man, single Muslim eunuch--that's a set of traveling companions you don't see every day, but is it intended to suggest that the book will counter our prevailing assumptions and stereotypes of the medieval world? If so, narrative tolerance is not equally extended to the medieval Christians, I think. In the end, I think the tour guides are too much like us, and the world they show us around is little more than a caricature, with surprisingly little in the way of telling historical detail.

In the end, I can't help comparing these books to Ellis Peters's Cadfael series, where the protagonist was also medically oriented—but his Christianity and his faith was really an essential and defining aspect of his character, even as he broke the rules of the monastery at times. Maybe that's how I can best put my finger on what I'm getting at: Cadfael knows he sins sometimes, but that doesn't make him a hypocrite in the books, it only makes him human. And Cadfael sees others--even the guilty--through that kind of lens as well. These more recent medieval mysteries might have been better off, I think, if they could depict human sinfulness more as medieval folks probably thought about it and see that all-too-human middle ground between sinlessness and hypocrisy. But our tour guides don't seem to see things that way at all in these books.

And maybe that's why I didn't find the mystery in either book compelling: the crimes (and too many of the characters) just don't seem medieval to me, and the motives of the guilty parties just didn't seem historically relevant. These are mysteries set in the exotic locale of the middle ages, but I'm not sure they're really medieval mysteries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kids in the kitchen

As Tom has written here before, we watch way too much Gordon Ramsay on BBC America. On The F Word (the "F" stands for food), Ramsay has been mounting a campaign to "get women back in the kitchen." Not out of any sexist belief that they should be there, but because he believes that cooking doesn't have to be complicated, time-consuming, or mysterious to be good.

I, however, am beginning to think that what we really need is a campaign to get kids into the kitchen. Tom and I laughed about this article that claims that three-quarters of children in the UK don't know how to boil an egg, since I boil eggs so rarely that when I do, I have to get out the Joy of Cooking to remind myself whether you put the eggs in the water before the water boils or after, and how long it takes to hard-boil them. But the article makes a good point: lots of kids these days grow up with no experience in the kitchen at all.

I've had firsthand experience with this truth in the last few weeks, as we've had houseguests with kids and visited relatives with kids. The friends who stayed with us have two daughters, ages three and six. We made pizza one night while they were here, and invited the six-year-old to make her own pizza. She looked a little worried until she opined that it was like making the "Lunchables" that are like little pizzas. Later, it came out that she'd never made herself a peanut-butter sandwich. A week later, this scene was repeated as we made pizza with my six-year-old nephew.

After the second experience, I asked Tom how old he was when he started cooking. He said he couldn't remember a time when he didn't help in the kitchen, and that he probably started cooking for himself as soon as he was big enough to reach the stove.

Now, his situation was a little unusual, since his mother has had rheumatoid arthritis since he and his brothers were very young, so the three of them were called upon to help out with household chores early because their mother had a lot of physical difficulty doing them.

But even though I had a very able-bodied mother, I also couldn't remember a time when I couldn't make myself a peanut-butter sandwich, and have clear memories of making simple, cooked dishes like scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs by the time I was in first or second grade.

By fourth or fifth grade, I was doing a lot of cooking and baking, as you can see from this well-worn copy of The Cookie Book, which I got through the Scholastic Book Club. (I still maintain it has the world's best peanut-butter cookie recipe, which is why I've held on to it.)

This is not to say that our parents put us in front of the stove and toddled off, cocktails in hand, to play bridge. There was definitely supervision and guidance. When I was probably four or five, I put a plastic pot from my kitchen play set on the stove and turned it on, which resulted not in the delicious dish I'd hoped for, but a stinky pile of melted goo and a stern reprimand. But that experiment was also followed up with instruction about why you have to use real pots and pans on the stove, and an explanation of how the stove worked.

My sister recalled my mother calling home when she had to work late to say "Don't cook!" I suppose Mom feared coming home to a charred shell. But my siblings could all slap something together out of the fridge if they got hungry, and when a parent was home, they could cook.

Consequently, I was a little stunned at how anxious the mere idea of putting sauce and cheese on pizza dough seemed to make these two six-year-olds. And I say this not to cast blame anywhere, but just to raise a question about the state of kids' "culinary literacy" these days. As trendy as organic food, farmers' markets, CSAs, and "slow food" generally are these days, it seems like kids are generally left out of the equation...except in terms of how adults can control their intake of junk food, and improve the quality of school lunches.

But I think the real way to make long-term change is to get kids into the kitchen, and to teach them how to cook! Talk about empowerment: kids who know how to choose ingredients, follow a recipe, and experiment in the kitchen will grow up to be adults who don't have to rely on the processed-food chain.

You say you want a revolution? It starts at the stove.

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Photo of my sister Pam at the sink of the apartment she and my brother Phillip came home to here in Morgantown, circa 1954.