Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 1941

When we think of December 1941 these days, we automatically think of the Pearl Harbor attack on the seventh, and the declaration of war.   To hear my parents talk about it, though, at the time most people in the U. S. had never heard of Pearl Harbor, and Hawaii seemed a long way away.

My Dad was a senior in high school at the time, and after he graduated the following June, he'd be drafted straight into the Army.  In December 1941, he wasn't thinking about any of that, though:  in his teenage techie geekdom, he was more concerned about recording a Christmas greeting to send to his older brother, who was doing his medical residency in Minnesota.

This was the result.

This was recorded on a paper disk with a thin plastic coating on it, made on a record-cutting machine that Dad borrowed from the Calhoun County High School.  Pretty remarkable that it's even held up for nearly seventy years, much less still be semi-listenable! 

My favorite line:  when Dad complains about his grandmother and sister's "backwardness" (i.e., shyness), saying, "Brother, I tell you:  this is a trial." 

From left to right:  my great-grandmother Sophie Hathaway, my aunt Virginia Hathaway Kirby (looking just as uncomfortable having her photo taken as she was being interviewed), Dad, and his mother, Eva Hathaway.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Things fall apart

After my last post about the Kindle and my wariness of e-texts, I have to follow up by saying that I more than understand the need to digitize older books.

Case in point, this relic of my childhood, The Cookie Book, which I got through the Scholastic Book Club at school when I was probably seven or eight (the publication date is 1973).

This was clearly not a book that was made to last:  printed on cheap pulp paper, it's literally falling apart:  the spine long ago broke, and the pages are loose, crumbling, and discolored by age and splattered cookie batter.

And yet, I can't bring myself to throw it away because I have such a sentimental attachment to it.  And what's more, I still use it:  I maintain that it has the best peanut-butter cookie recipe ever in it (even though it never worked well at high altitude in Colorado).

I could buy a "new" (used) copy--there appear to be plenty of them available for next-to-nothing on abebooks.  And the recipe isn't exactly complicated:  I could easily have typed it up in far less time than it took me to write this blog. 

But there's something important to me about seeing the recipe in its original form, with the kitschy 1970s illustrations and the over-detailed and vaguely patronizing instructions ("Use an 'eating' teaspoon.'").  What keeps it on the shelf is, in fact, its very falling-apartness, and the flour stains and the marginal annotations in my eight-year-old hand.  It's been well used and loved.  

I recently broke down and scanned the pages with the recipe, though I stopped short of scanning the whole book.  I still won't throw it away, but I've seen enough of what can happen to this kind of paper after decades to know that eventually it really will be nothing but a pile of brittle brown confetti.  Thank goodness for digitization, which allows us to shore up literal fragments against a book's inevitable ruin (apologies to T. S. Eliot). 

Will anyone hold onto an e-book for nearly forty years?  Or am I comparing apples to oranges?  Or just being a hopeless, old-fashioned, curmudgeonly twit?

Let me have a cookie and think it over.

(Pictured above is the dressed-up holiday version of the peanut-butter cookies:  baked in mini-muffin tins and decorated with a Hershey's kiss.  Click on the recipe image for a larger, more readable version if you want to try it out!)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

I know you're not supposed to.  But...

A couple months ago I was gifted with a Kindle for my work with an educational group on campus.  Ironically, not long before I got it, I'd had a conversation with my mom about e-readers, and when she asked if I thought I'd ever want one, I said no.

You'd never have guessed that had been my answer if you'd heard my squeals of girlish glee when I opened the box and saw the Kindle.  Apparently, I did want an e-reader!

I've been using the Kindle long enough now, though, that I think I'm ready to weigh in about it.  I nearly wrote that my verdict was "meh," but that's too negative. 

I really do like the thing.  It's especially great for taking to the rec center.  In the past, I've stuck to reading magazines while I'm on the elliptical machine, because they're easier to keep open than a book.  Short of breaking the spine or bringing something to clip or weigh down the sides, there's no way to get a book to lay flat, and holding it open is just a pain. 

 And I love the fact that you can download samples of books--generally, the first couple of chapters.  I've found this especially great for new young-adult books, which I often want to preview as possible texts for my YA lit class.  The samples give enough of a sense of the text to let me know if it's something I want to buy.  

But if I do buy those books, I buy hard copies, because I can't imagine using the electronic text in class, unless everyone was using that text.  At a recent book study group I attended at a local high school, several folks had read the book on their school-provided Nooks, and it was hard to pinpoint specific quotes or passages, since their versions didn't have page numbers.  

E-readers do offer some impressive advantages for course readings, since most allow you to bookmark or highlight text, add notes, and see what other readers have highlighted.  But not being able to get everyone on the same page, literally, is a serious disadvantage.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family got together at a cabin in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.  I'd brought the Kindle along, since I had a couple books on there that I'd downloaded, and wanted to have plenty of reading material.  When I went to grab it on the first night, thinking I'd read in bed, I couldn't find it.  After a prolonged search, I concluded that I must've left it at home after all.  In desperation, the next day I drove into the nearest town and bought a couple of books at WalMart.

I chose two that I ended up loving:  the latest in the Wimpy Kid series, and Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.  

The first, a sort of hybrid traditional/graphic YA novel, just seems like something that wouldn't work on the Kindle, given the importance of the juxtaposition of the pictures and the text.  The other, of course, would be perfectly adaptable to e-reading, but I loved the book so much that as soon as I got home I passed it along to a friend...something you simply can't do with an electronic book.  

And therein lies my big problem with the Kindle and other e-readers:  they strike me as being inherently undemocratic.  You can't pass books you read on them along to someone else.  And at the moment, most texts are in proprietary formats, so since I use the Kindle, I can't buy or download books from Borders, or the new Google Bookstore.

I've also had some technical problems with the Kindle.  One book I purchased (Scott Westerfeld's Pretties) was so badly formatted it was almost unreadable.  My suspicion, from the kinds of errors it had, was that it was created by scanning the actual printed text.  Nearly every page had some kind of weird glitch like “Urn” for “Um” (as in “Urn, kind of”); “Fm” for “I’m”; and missing periods and other punctuation problems, as in the line "I know that was an unpleasant experience Tally But it was necessary We needed to take our children back from the Smoke, and only you could help us.”

But there were other problems that were less due to formatting and more just, well, unbelievable in a book put out by a big publishing house like Simon & Schuster--to wit, "The icy water crushed her like a vice.”

If it had been a free download, fine.  But I'd paid $9 for it.  Fortunately, Amazon's Kindle site allows readers to report formatting problems with books, and removes them from the store until they're cleaned up.

The bigger problem developed a week or so ago, when a vertical white line appeared on the screen, running all the way from top to bottom.  Initially, I assumed this was a problem with the particular file I was reading, but it turned out to be ubiquitous.  I tried to read past it, but it was really annoying.  After trying the troubleshooting tips Amazon mentions on its site to no avail, I called, and customer service said I'd need to return it.

Again, to Amazon's credit, they were incredibly helpful and generous about it.  I received a new Kindle the very day after I called, and Amazon sent along a link to print a postage-paid return label to send back the defective unit. 

My other concern about e-readers has to do with privacy.  On the one hand, the sort of "plain brown wrapper" nature of the readers themselves allow folks to read whatever they like in public (for example, see this interesting New York Times article about the popularity of romance novels on e-readers).

On the other hand, Amazon knows exactly what I've downloaded, and when, and whether it's still on my Kindle or not.  And because I can only buy books from Amazon, they have comprehensive knowledge of my Kindle library.  

I don't mean to be paranoid about it, but this does make me a little nervous.  In 2002, the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver fought a police order to hand over a particular customer's purchasing history.  This person was wanted on drug charges, and the cops thought they could bolster their case by demonstrating how the books he'd bought at the Tattered Cover incriminated him.  The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bookstore, and the case is often held up as a precedent for later decisions that protect the privacy of patrons' library records in terrorism investigations.  

I'd like to say I believe that Amazon would be as vigilant about protecting its customers' right to privacy as the Tattered Cover was.  But I'm not sure I can.  (Ah, Tattered Cover!  How I miss you!)

But for all my trepidation, I still love the Kindle.  And the main thing it's shown me is that all the "e-reader revolution" rhetoric is overblown.  Will they change people's reading habits?  Sure.  Will they replace paper books?  Heck no.  Each format has its own particular functions and aesthetics, and I suspect that people will sort out for themselves which one works best for them in specific contexts.

After all, as devoted a computer user as I am, there are still some things I'll only write by hand:  thank-you notes, grocery lists, comments on student papers.  

And nothing, nothing will ever replace for me the pleasure of browsing through a bookstore--looking at covers, picking up things that look interesting and flipping through them, finding a used copy of an out-of-print mystery that I've been looking for for years.  

But you'd better believe that the next time I go on a long trip, I'll take an equal amount of pleasure in downloading weeks' worth of reading onto a slim device that only weighs a few ounces.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cartoon meme followup

So, in the last post I described the cartoon-character meme that swept Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the alleged  "purpose" of using a cartoon image as one's profile picture was to raise awareness about child abuse.  Specifically, the standard phrasing of the call to change one's profile picture, which people posted as their status after they changed their picture, went something like this:
Change your FB profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on FB until Monday, December 6th. Join the fight against child abuse...copy & paste this to your status to invite your friends to do the same.
Something about that last sentence, as I said, "set my folklore antennae a-wigglin'." 

Well, sure enough, yesterday Tom showed me a second "plea" that one of his former students had posted as her Facebook status later in the weekend (apologies for the dreadful grammar, but this is exactly as it appeared):

CHANGE YOUR PROFILE PICS BACK!!!! - This cartoon thing has been set up by a pedafile using a registered charities name to entice kids. apparently on the 6th dec you will be kicked off fb if u have cartoon pics. The more folk that put up cartoon pics the harder it is ...for the police to...catch .......these sickos!!!!! PLEASE RE-POST It was on this evenings news.

Classic!  The strange connection between cartoon characters and child abuse clearly struck some folks as suspicious, giving rise to this "explanation."  

The "it was on this evening's news" phrase is straight out of traditional urban legendry--the old "I know it's true because it was on TV/in the paper" truth claim.  And the threat at the end--"change your pic back or you'll get booted from Facebook"--echoes the trend in e-mailed legends to ensure that the recipient forwards them to others with a menacing guilt trip:  "If you care about the women in your life, you'll forward this to everyone you know!!!"  In this case, though, if you don't post this as your status, apparently it's your own damn fault if all your friends disappear from Facebook.

I know I'm a total geek, but I was delighted to see this.  More evidence that folklore is infinitely adaptable to new contexts.

And yes, it's on Snopes.  Grrr.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Penelope Pitstop revisited

This past weekend, Facebook was overtaken by a meme asking members to change their profile pictures to an image from their favorite childhood cartoon.  This was allegedly in an effort to spread awareness about child abuse--the kind of oddly illogical justification that always sets my folklore antenna a-wigglin'.

Regardless of the alleged purpose, it was fun to see what cartoons people chose...and how generationally defined they were.  Among the FB friends I know to be about my age, Bullwinkle, Underdog, Josie and the Pussycats, and Velma from Scooby Doo were especially popular. 

I myself went with Penelope Pitstop.  I have only vague memories of this cartoon, since--as I discovered from that veritable source, Wikipedia--it was only on for one year, in 1969, when I would barely have been four (the show was a spinoff from another Hanna Barbera cartoon, Wacky Races).  All I can figure is it must've been in reruns for awhile after that, because I certainly remember Penelope and her car, a pink roadster that doubled as a makeup compact.  I am embarrassed to say it, but I suspect I did some serious gender imprinting on Penelope.

That Hanna Barbera chose to give Penelope her own show seems apt given the 1969-1970 airdate.  However, Penelope is a dubious feminist "she-ro."  As the show's introduction explains, she's in "perpetual peril from her fortune-seeking guardian, Sylvester Sneakly, who--unknown to her--is really The Hooded Claw!"  And she depends on the help of her "ever-present protectors, the Anthill Mob," a troupe of seven little men who come to her rescue whenever The Hooded Claw ties her to the traintracks, or to a log floating toward a sawmill, or whatever. 

(Hadn't considered the Snow White connection with the seven dwarf rescuers, but it's clearly there.  Maybe that was part of the show's appeal for me?)

As unlikely a feminist role model as all of this makes Penelope out to be, there was nevertheless something deeply thrilling about her.  She raced cars (which my oldest brother also did, much to my admiration), and her car looked like a cat and was also a rolling makeup kit!  Plus, she wore awesome white go-go boots and jhodpurs.  However, she wasn't such a slave to fashion that she allowed style to cripple her, as the clip below illustrates:

As cool as the boots were, Penelope knew when to ditch them in order to save her own hide, and those of the Anthill Mob.  As she says here, she's going to "save the fellas, as well."

All things considered, there were a lot worse cartoon characters I might have imprinted on as a kid.  I'd pit Penelope against Disney's lame-o Princesses any day.  With those boots, she could kick any of their asses from one end of the Magic Kingdom to the other and then drive them all to the hospital in the Compact Pussycat.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Only in Morgantown, Part 1

It seems like every state has its "outlier outpost," the place about which everyone says, "Only in [fill in name of town here]."

In Colorado, this was always Boulder.  Everyone who didn't live in Boulder would hear of something happening there--and it could be anything from a bid to legalize pot to protesters trying to protect prairie dogs--and would shake their heads and say "Only in Boulder."

When we moved to West Virginia from Colorado, someone told us that Morgantown was the "Boulder of West Virginia."  Now, having spent quite a bit of time in Boulder, we had serious reservations about this claim. 

Morgantown is no Boulder.  There's only one microbrewery, and it's not that good, and while the mountains here are beautiful, they're not quite as sublime as the Flatirons, and the people aren't nearly as fit and happy as Boulderites.  Plus, while Morgantown may lean considerably further left than much of the state, it can in no way shape or form be considered a liberal outpost/hippie enclave in the way that Boulder can.  Sure, we have a head shop, but so does every college town (even Greeley did, for chrissakes).

Still, it's crucial to remember the second part of that statement: that Morgantown is the Boulder of West Virginia.  And therein lies the rub.

Now, I'm not entirely sure what it means to people in other parts of the state when they say "Only in Morgantown."  Most likely it's a critique of the ways in which the city is detached from the reality of the rest of the state, since it's a place where unemployment is low, property values are high, and good jobs mean more than work in the mining industry.  Last year, Morgantown got a lot of buzz for appearing to be recession-proof.  

And it may also have to do with the youthful, party-oriented nature of the town, fueled by the 30,000 students who call it home for nine months out of the year.

For me, though, it has to do with a series of seeming contradictions that nevertheless seem to coexist peacefully, even productively.  So, with this post, we're inaugurating what we hope will become a recurring feature here at Romantoes, spotlighting some of the things that make us say "Only in Morgantown."

Today's case in point?  The very existence of this store, which is on a well-traveled route leading from Morgantown to Point Marion, Pennsylvania. Since deer-hunting season started on Monday, this seems like an especially good example to start with.

Rumor has it that one of the main reasons the university closes for the whole week of Thanksgiving is because deer hunting traditionally begins on the fourth Monday of November.  Local high-school teachers tell me that they don't plan anything major for the Monday and Tuesday of this week when school is still in session because so many students will be out hunting.  Hell, even my endodontist told me that he was taking a day off this week just to go "be in the woods" with his buddies, even though he himself doesn't hunt. 

Guns and butter, I've heard of.  But guns and ice cream?  That's pure Morgantown.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dinner Service for Two--No Maid

West Virginia may now be known across the world as a coal producing state, stereotyped as a place of poverty and hillbillies, but one of this region's most important exports to the rest of the country was once--believe it or not--middle class aspirations.

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, this whole area (West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio) was the national hub for industries producing glassware, china, and pottery. These industries date back even a century or more earlier here: the region's plentiful supplies of coal and gas, sand and clay, as well as the easy access to rivers (and later railroads) for transporting the finished wares made this part of the country a perfect place for these businesses. Morgantown itself had a number of glass factories in the first half of the twentieth century.

But in the twenties and thirties, glass factories and pottery factories in West Virginia and Ohio actively pursued a new, direct marketing strategy, trying to sell their wares to housewives explicitly as the material supports of an aspirational middle class lifestyle. Not only were magazines barraged by advertisements, but many of these factories produced brochures and booklets as giveaways to potential customers, and I pick them up whenever I can, although they are pretty hard to find. They tell a story very different from what we might normally think abut both this part of the country and how middle class values were sold to the country both before and during the Great Depression.

One of my favorites, for its sheer Art Deco brilliance, is the 1928 New Little Book About Glassware published by the Fostoria Glass Company of Moundsville, WV. A 40-page revision of a similar 1925 booklet (the picture at the top, from which the title of this post derives, comes from the 1925 verison), the 1928 booklet's cover shows a woman few people, I suspect would associate with West Virginia in the 1920s, and the text includes remarkable passages like the following: "No longer is it surprising to have the soup course, the salad, or dessert, the after-dinner coffee appear in Fostoria dishes." Glass is presented as a novelty: the use of glass instead of china for the entire service was a fairly recent development: "At first a complete dinner service of glass sounded like a fairy tale or a glittering dream from Arabian Nights." But a Fostoria service is presented here as analogous to a silver service, a civilized necessity for any house or home. But its essential novelty meant that the idea itself needed to be sold, and these booklets are remarkable for how they mix the snob factor of aspirational class identification with the practical matters of housekeeping: the 1925 booklet shows how to set a table for two if you don't have a maid; the 1928 revision notes "the plates stack perfectly, a point much appreciated by the homemaker whose shelf space is limited."

Amazingly, the beginning of the Great Depression seems to have had remarkably little effect on this marketing strategy. The Roseville Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio, printed the booklet shown at the right in 1931, and the Futura line vases shown below in the picture are especially collectible today for their Art Deco designs. Cambridge Glass (of Cambridge, Ohio) put out a booklet called The Art of Making Fine Glassware in 1939, which begins by recounting the high esteem medieval Venice had for members of the glassworking guild. All of these booklets, in fact, take education as their primary mode: the Fostoria booklets educate the housewife on proper table service, even if she doesn't happen to have a maid to rely on; the Roseville and Cambridge booklets give brief histories of pottery and glass technologies and artistry in order to make recommendations for contemporary decorative uses or gift-giving. The ancient and honorable traditions of glassware and pottery are clearly held up as markers of refinement, tradition, and class. The 1925 Fostoria booklet, for example, comments upon "the conservative aristocracy of hand-blown crystal."

Glass is still being made in West Virginia, but more as a studio enterprise than a matter of factories turning out dinner plates, cups, saucers, and goblets by the thousand. These booklets--secondary products of these glass and pottery factories--seem to be rarely collected by libraries (WorldCat turns up fewer than ten copies for any of these booklets), but they tell a story of a key moment in the marketing of middle class material practices as a matter of aspirational class identity. And it's a continual surprise to me that a lot of that came from here in West Virginia.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

Ever since living in Colorado, I've been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos, which seems like a much healthier way to ritualize death at this time of year than the usual Halloween celebration. 

This is the first year, though, that I've been motivated to actually put together an altar.  Given my dad's death last November, and the fact that next Saturday we'll be going to Grantsville, WV, for a memorial service as his ashes are finally laid to rest in the cemetery there, this seemed like the year to construct one.

Mine isn't traditional, but then, I'm a gringa and a lapsed Protestant borrowing this ritual (and I hope it's borrowing, and not co-opting or abusing).  On the other hand, if the Smithsonian can have a Dia de los Muertos Festival in Second Life, I guess "traditional" is a target that's moving even faster than I'd imagined.

There are a few traditional elements, though, namely the sugar skull, which I bought last year at, of all places, the Appalachian Gallery a few blocks away.   Ironically (or fittingly), I bought it the weekend that my parents were visiting, when my dad first started having symptoms from his brain tumor.

The beautiful hanging behind the altar is a piece created by Rita Flores de Wallace, a Mexican-American folk artist from Denver who was a good friend of the Greeley museum's folklorist, Georgia Wier.  This is the first time I've actually hung it up since we got it just before moving back east.  I wish you could see the whole thing--the bottom half is obscured by the altar.  But it is whimsical and colorful and full of amazing detail.

So, on this Day of the Dead, I honor and remember my dad, especially (and hope his spirit enjoys those wasabi peanuts and red-pepper flakes, and plays his harmonica and pitch pipe).

But there are also photos and mementos here of others who are on my mind today and often:  my late brother-in-law Terry (some garlic there for him); Tom's grad-school advisor, Nick Howe;  and of course, my friend Jay.  On the other side are photos and tributes to our old cat Lucy and to my sister's dear old dog Cecil.

None of them forgotten on this holiday, or ever.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

It gets better

Me and Jay in a window of our high school, 1982.
In the wake of the recent spate of suicides by gay teens and young adults who'd been bullied, harassed, and tormented because of their sexual identities, advice-columnist Dan Savage has started a YouTube project called "It Gets Better."

The project's goal is to help LGBT teens know that however bad things are at the moment, that isn't going to be a permanent state...they can and should live to see a time in their lives when they can be themselves, and be accepted for who they are.

James Black has written very cogently about the irony of Dan Savage taking up this cause, since Savage apparently has some bullying tendencies himself.

The point that James touches on, and that I hope isn't lost in the movement, is that it's not always kids doing the bullying. 

One of my best friends all through school growing up came out after we started college.  That wasn't much of a surprise to anybody, but of course that doesn't make it any easier for someone to come out.  And for years he had been bullied, harassed, and tormented about being gay...but importantly, not ever, to my knowledge, by his peers.

In many ways I think he'd escaped that kind of treatment by other kids because he was just so damned charming and funny.  I mean, he was truly the funniest person I have ever known.  He was witty, punny, and could stage some of the best practical jokes imaginable with the straightest of faces.  He was also incredibly smart, musically gifted, and genuinely gregarious.  I really credit him for making my own time in high school as easy as it was--somehow, he single-handedly made it cool to be a nerd.

So who was doing the bullying?  Teachers.

I remember sitting in chemistry class my junior year when suddenly the door flew open and Coach Click came in, rolling Jay in front of him in a ball cage from the gym.  He'd apparently stuffed Jay in the empty cage, locked it, put it on the service elevator to the third floor, and proceeded to wheel Jay around from room to room.  (I should mention that Jay was a pretty small guy--probably only about 5' 3" in shoes, and very slight.  Hence, his ability to fit into a 3 x 3 ball cage.)  Jay characteristically laughed it off, I'm sure because he knew that not to would open the floodgates for others to pounce.

The year before that, Jay and I were in the same gym class.  The teacher, whom I've written about here before, was a nasty, sexist piece of work.  During the winter, he often closed the partition wall between the two halves of the gym and put the girls on one side and the boys on the other to play half-court basketball.  Needless to say, he generally stayed on the boys' side and ignored the girls altogether (which was fine with most of us, who weren't that enthused about basketball to begin with).

On one of those days, several minutes after pulling the dividing wall into place, the little door in the partition opened, and Mr. Speciale thrust Jay through, telling him to "Go play with the girls."

Even writing about that now, I find myself breathing faster, my muscles tensing up for a fight.

We need to remember that it's not always kids who are the bullies.  Adults--teachers--can be bullies, too.  And when they're doing the bullying, kids are even more powerless.  After all, aren't your teachers, your coaches, supposed to be the ones looking out for you?  When those alleged allies become the enemy, is it any wonder that kids despair?

Jay didn't kill himself.  At least, not directly.  But he did die of complications of AIDS three years after we graduated.  He died the summer before he was supposed to start his senior year at Cornell, a couple months after he'd returned from a semester abroad in Florence, where he was studying art history.

It's hard for me, even now--some twenty-four years after his death--not to blame it, on some level, on adult bullies like the "coach" and the "teacher."

Realistically, I know that Jay struggled with his sexual identity throughout high school, and couldn't be open about it for a whole lot of reasons that went far beyond the fear of proving those two right, or of inviting more harassment.  And I've resigned myself to the sad fact that it was just pure dumb-ass luck that Jay was becoming sexually active right at the moment when HIV was spreading like wildfire and there was no known treatment for it.

But still, part of me has always, always wondered:  if we'd lived in a world where it was OK for LGBT teens to be honest with themselves and others, would he have died?  Did he get infected because he had to seek out the answers to his questions surreptitiously, with strangers?

The hell of it is that Jay knew it got better.  It was better.  He loved his life, and had loved it all along.  But that life was still cut tragically short because of the stigma attached to his sexual identity.
The last picture of us together, taken about six months before Jay died.

I still miss him like crazy.  And I'd still like to kick Coach Click and Mr. Speciale in the teeth for what they did to him, and moreover for the message they sent to their colleagues and to students that it's all right for adults to behave in those ways.  Cool, funny even.

When the pre-service teachers in my classes start complaining about how kids don't respect teachers these days, and how much better it used to be in the "good old days" when teachers' authority was unquestioned, I remind them that a lot of teachers abused that authority in heinous ways, and were very seldom called on their abuse.  It astonishes me now to think about it, but at the time neither Jay nor any of us thought to report those incidents to another teacher, or to the principal, or to our parents.  That shit just happened.

So, that's my addendum to the anti-bullying campaign:  Bear in mind that bullies come in many forms, and some of them are full-grown monsters.  They're the ones who most deserve to be called on the carpet.  Don't be afraid to tell someone if it's an adult who's bullying you.  And if the first person you tell doesn't do anything to help, go to someone else and keep talking until someone does help.  Someone eventually will. And it does get better. 

Jay as I will always remember him best:  laughing his @$$ off.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

When History Begins

So I was cruising around the local antique mall a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn't help but notice the "oldies" music that was playing: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "Get a Job," and others of that sort. Engaged in conversation by one of the regular workers there, I noted how quickly I thought I'd find the music selection irritating, but then (perhaps putting my foot a bit in my mouth), I observed that the songs that were playing were oldies when I was growing up, while for many of my students, music of the 1980s now has the status of "oldies."

It got me thinking about just when I really remember first paying real attention to music, which I think must have been around 1978 or 1979: Blondie's "Heart of Glass"; Heart's "Crazy on You," and The Police's "Roxanne." I remember asking my older brother once, just what kind of music was it that they were calling "Heavy Metal," and he said "Nazareth," but whether he meant "Hair of the Dog," or "Love Hurts," or both, I was still a little unsure.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, teaching the Science Fiction and Fantasy class, I had a similar experience: one week I was teaching Joe Haldeman's classic The Forever War, and the next we were viewing Ridley Scott's Alien. For me, one of these was, essentially, an "oldie": Haldeman's novel, even though it was published in 1974, is one of those things that was already a classic when I started really paying attention, and even though I didn't actually watch Alien until the late 1980s, I remember when it came out in 1979 very clearly: In space, no one can hear you scream (though, as I pointed out to my students, apparently you can hear ships exploding).

But anyway, that's my argument in this post: for me, history begins in about 1979.

Oddly, it seems to be true whichever direction I think about it. From my perspective now, stuff between 1979 and 2010 is mine: I lived it and I know it, and the artifacts and texts from these years take their place in my own personal chronology in more or less straightforward ways. Stuff before about 1979, I can only place through a much more active effort of historical understanding and imagination. History, the real past (as opposed to the present), starts in 1979 and extends right on back.

At the same time, I feel like my internal sense of chronology for things from about 1979 to now gives me an intuitive feel for this era that I feel compelled to label as historical. In contrast, things from before 1979 exist in a kind of undifferentiated mass of oldies: I have no idea if "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" came before or after "Get a Job," and I'll never know unless I look it up. Only the stuff that fits in my chronology has a real history for me, in the sense of having a context that gives it meaning, and everything else has just always been there, lurking in the background of my history, a history of the imagination.

It's a strange way of looking at things, I suppose, for someone whose professional work often focuses on things more than a thousand years old. But that moment when I first started paying attention to things, that moment when I guess I stopped seeing the world as a kid, really seems to have been a kind of watershed moment, and 1979 is when history begins for me.

Friday, September 24, 2010

You dropped a bomb on me

I recently posted here about the eye inflammation I've been experiencing in conjunction with my Behcet's Syndrome. As I mentioned, I'd been seeing a very kind, if wacky Groucho-Marx lookalike opthamologist for treatment. Well, on a followup visit in late August, he discovered the inflammation was back, and admitted to being stymied. He suggested I go see another opthamologist at the Eye Institute, a guy who's allegedly an expert in autoimmune and inflammatory eye problems.

As soon as Doctor #2 (an apt name, as you'll see) walked in the room, I recognized him as the first opthamologist I'd seen there three years ago, when my rheumatologist wanted me to get a baseline checkup. In the words of my great-grandfather, the man's an idiot--one of those pompous doctors who talks past you, to his resident, the entire time he's in the room with you.

As he'd done the first time I saw him, he immediately started spouting about how much experience he'd had with Behcet's, and how I wasn't the typical patient. He asked if I'd ever had a genetic test for HLA-B51, a genetic abnormality that some people with Behcet's have that indicates a predisposition to the disease. I had, and it was negative.

Dr. #2 sneered. "How about HLA-B27? Did they test for that?"

I wasn't sure, I replied.

"I don't think you have Behcet's at all. I think you've been misdiagnosed, and what you really have is Reiter's Syndrome. I'm going to have you get tested for HLA-B27, because that would indicate Reiter's instead."*

(Bear in mind that he's really addressing all of this to his resident, who's clearly supposed to be impressed by Dr. #2's brilliance.)

So, he has the resident fill out the order for the bloodwork, and tells him to add a couple of other tests that he tells the resident (not me) are "standard."

Here's where I made mistake #1: I should have asked exactly what those tests were. I did ask if he would call me with the results, and he said he would if they turned out to be positive; otherwise, I wouldn't hear from him.

Had the bloodwork done. Ten days or so went by and I hadn't heard anything, so I figured everything turned out fine.

Then last Tuesday I got home from work and saw that there was a voice-mail message. When I retrieved it, the first message was from someone (not Dr. #2--maybe his resident) at the Eye Institute telling me to call him immediately, and giving me his pager number, but giving me no indication about what the issue was. That call came in at 8:30 a.m.

The second message, which had come in around 4:30 p.m., was from my primary-care physician, who left an even more mysterious and alarming message, saying, "I'm sure you're concerned about this and have lots of questions, so please feel free to call me at home this evening."

Now I'm worried. I called her home number and got the machine, so I left a message saying I don't know what she's referring to because nobody's told me why they're trying to contact me, and that I'm freaking out a little.

Around 8:30, she called me back, and as I sat there on the couch next to Tom, she lobbed a bomb right into the center of my life: apparently, one of the tests Dr. #2 had ordered came back showing that I'd tested positive for syphilis.

"They want you to be admitted to the hospital right away, and you'll probably have to be there for two weeks, because the treatment is an IV antibiotic drip that needs to be administered every four hours. I also think you should know that the county health department is probably going to come around to ask you a lot of very personal questions."

My head is reeling. Is this some kind of sick joke? I was looking to the left in case a car came around the corner, and meanwhile a semi-truck blasted in from the right and flattened me.

"What? What? Are you kidding?" I don't think I've ever been less articulate in my life. "Two weeks? How?"

She says she can call and have them get a bed ready for me right now, and talks me through the lumbar puncture procedure that she says they'll probably do first. It's like she's talking to me from the other end of a long, echo-y tunnel. The impression I get is that if I don't voluntarily go to the hospital, the county health officials will come and drag me there.

Here's where I did one of the only sensible things I did: I told her that I needed some time to make arrangements, and would check into the hospital the following morning.

Then I have to get off the phone and turn to my husband of thirteen years and tell him I've tested positive for syphilis. And that by the way, I'll be in the hospital for the next two weeks. And of course, he'll have to be treated, too.

Let me just say that Tom was, as always, a rock, and thank god, because other relationships might have been (and have been) destroyed by this news.

But I didn't get any sleep that night.

Sensible things #2 and #3: I called my sister, who talked me off the ledge, told me about a friend of hers who'd had a false-positive syphilis test, looked up stuff online and found out that false positives are pretty common for folks with autoimmune disease, and even got me to laugh by telling me what a great excuse it would be for any crazy behavior: "Sorry I got all syphilitic on you!"

I also e-mailed my former rheumatologist in Denver and asked her if I'd ever had the test under her care, figuring that if there was an older, negative result on record, that might help out.

The next morning, the hospital called me bright and early, saying they had a bed ready for me, so come on down. In the meantime, I'd put in a call to my rheumatologist here, and when I explained to the nurse who answered that I'd been told I had to be admitted to the hospital that morning, I was relieved when she said she'd pass the message on right away.

Within about ten minutes, the phone rang, and it was my rheumatologist. She's a no-nonsense kind of person, and talking to her felt strangely like I imagine it feels to talk to your lawyer when you've been arrested. Finally, someone who wasn't panicking (and making me panic). She was 99.9% sure it was a false positive, and didn't understand why the additional testing needed to be done in the hospital. I'd still need to check in, but she said, "Just pack as if you were going to a hotel for a couple of days. Bring your own pillow. I'll see you over there."

The relief was tremendous. Not complete, for sure, but why hadn't she been the one to give me the news in the first place? What was all the overreacting about? Hadn't any of these people talked to each other?

Around 10 a.m. I checked in to the hospital and went up to the 8th floor, where they put me in a private room and told me to have a seat. And there I sat, for 45 minutes, before anyone came by.

Finally, the nurse came in. At that very moment, my cell phone rang.

It was my rheumatologist: "OK, I talked to the head of infectious disease, and he's sure this is a false positive. So you don't have to check into the hotel."

"Well, I'm already in the hotel room."

"Hmm. Well, let me talk to him again and see what he wants to do. But for the moment, let's just assume that we're going to do the confirmatory tests on an outpatient basis. I'll call you back."

I hung up and explained this to the nurse, just as her pager went off and she got a message to the same effect. So she left the room to go make a call from the nursing station to find out what's going on.

A couple minutes later, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum--aka the floor resident and his med-student flunkie--walk in. "Ms. Hathaway, we're here to take some information from you and to get your vitals and everything. So, what's going on?"

"Well, technically, I'm not actually a patient," I say, explaining that it looks like I'm going to be discharged. And frankly, I just don't want to tell this story again to these guys.

But the resident persists. "Well, until we know for sure, let me just take some information from you."

Mistake #2: I should have just told him to f#@k off. I mean, he was perfectly nice and all, but really--he didn't need to know, at least not right then. But I went ahead and explained the whole story, which was actually beginning to seem a little funny, and when I got to the point where I said, "And so they think I have syphilis," he turned to the med student and in a pseudo-sympathetic stage whisper, says, "I think you'd better shut the door."

Fast forward through about half a dozen more cell phone calls, pager alerts, and mixed messages, and they finally give me a lab order and send me off to have blood taken for the second round of tests. And I'm out of the hospital two hours after I was admitted, twelve hours after being told I'd be there for two weeks.


I mean really: W. T. F.?

The two additional tests they ran both came back negative, as my rheumatologist expected they would. I got an e-mail back from my former rhuematologist in Denver expressing shock that anyone's first reaction was to admit me to the hospital before consulting with an infectious-disease specialist and running further tests. The most basic Google search instantly turns up information explaining the prevalence of false-positive syphilis tests not only in people with autoimmune disorders, but with lots of other conditions, as well.

Why on earth had everyone jumped to the worst possible conclusions, and immediately proposed the most dramatic and extreme treatment?  I mean, the one upside of managed care is that it usually insists on starting with the cheapest, most basic intervention possible before hauling out the big guns.  Here we went straight from border skirmish to nuclear winter.

The Health Sciences Campus here at WVU has come under a lot of fire for its lack of coordination and communication, and its incessant territory wars. I guess it all seemed like the usual petty academic squabbling until I got caught in the middle of it.

And I know that this situation isn't unique to WVU, either: this was my first experience with the scary machine that is health care these days. Once you get caught in its gears, you feel pretty much powerless to extract yourself. I remember my bitter sense of betrayal after my dad's brain surgery last fall, when we didn't learn until afterward that he wouldn't be allowed to go home once he'd recovered, but would have to be admitted to a rehab center. And once there, being told that if he couldn't meet certain benchmarks, he'd have to go into a nursing home.

It's amazing how quickly one's body becomes public property in these situations...and my situation was certainly far, far less dire. But it still felt like I'd been sentenced to prison without a trial.

I've learned the hard way that even when you're panicking and the voice of Medical Authority is booming orders at you, you still need to advocate for yourself. I should've done it the day I saw Dr. #2. But at least I had another doctor who was willing to go to bat for me when it mattered most.

Still, I lay it all at the feet of Dr. #2.  Why didn't he call me to deliver the news himself?  And in the eight hours between his resident's message and the one from my primary-care physician, why didn't anyone think to include my rheumatologist in the conversation?  Or do some basic research to find out what the real liklihood of the test results being accurate was?

I'm glad that it now seems mostly like a funny story, if a maddening one.   For sure, I'll never go back to Dr. #2's office again, and if I ever see him around town, look out:  I might go all syphilitic on him.

*Turns out that Reiter's Syndrome isn't even considered accurate terminology for that disorder anymore.  More evidence of Dr. #2's so-called "expertise." 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Clunkers, junkers, and beaters--oh my.

Last weekend Tom and I traveled to his parents' house near Newark, Ohio, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  In honor of the occasion, Tom's dad wanted to drive his restored 1953 Studebaker to the Granville Inn, where the celebratory dinner was being held, since it was the car that he drove to his wedding in 1960.  Or, at least, parts of it are the same car.  He also has a 1955 Studebaker he's been working on, so Tom's older brother George volunteered to drive it, too, especially since it was International Drive Your Studebaker Day.  A nice bit of karma, that.

Just the weekend before, Tom and his Dad drove the '53 and '55 cars to the 18th Annual Studebaker/Packard Show in Tallmadge, Ohio, and George drove his '63 Studebaker Lark down from Michigan.  It was a hot weekend, and needless to say, none of these cars have air-conditioning...or power steering...or a radio or comfortable seats.  When Tom got home on Sunday, the first thing he said when he walked in the door was that our 1997 Honda Accord drives like a dream compared to the '55 Studebaker.

Now, that's saying a lot, since the Honda is teetering on the brink of officially being a beater.  I'm not enough of a motorhead to describe the precise distinction between a "clunker," a "junker," and a "beater," but I'm fairly sure that of the three categories, what we have is a beater:  it's still in pretty good shape, both mechanically and cosmetically, but it's not the kind of car you want to put a whole lot of money into anymore.  It works, it makes some unhappy noises--though none that are alarming or that wake the neighbors--and no one is ever going to steal it.  Beater.

As the above photo of the dash indicates, it's got a lot of miles on it.  165, 295 to be exact.  When we bought it used in 1999 (a story in  itself, which I'll save for another time), it only had about 20,000 miles on it.  So we've racked up a lot in the eleven years we've owned it.

And as you can see, the check engine light is on.  The check engine light has probably been on more than off in the history of this car.  In fact, the '97 Accord was recalled a number of years ago for its problems with false "check engine" alerts, but whatever they did to it at the dealership didn't solve the problem.

As with the boy who cried wolf one too many times, we no longer pay the slightest attention to the check engine light.  Maybe it'll go out on its own eventually, maybe we'll take it to an auto parts store and have them reset it, maybe we'll just ignore it until one day we end up on the side of a lonely road as a plume of steam shoots heavenward from under the hood.  Like the aches and pains of middle age, the check engine light may mean nothing or everything.  Either way, it's not worth shelling out $80 to the local Honda dealership to get a diagnosis.

Tough love:  that's what you give a beater.  My brother Phillip, a Honda mechanic, is of the firm belief that you don't need to fix stuff until it's really broken.  (But he does preach the importance of routine maintenance, like oil changes, tire rotation, and belt replacements.)

Phillip also says that the greenest car is the one you keep on the road--that junking a perfectly serviceable, low-emission car for a brand-new hybrid is a zero-sum game in terms of the environment.  Sure, you may have taken a less fuel-efficient car off the road, but you've also just added to the landfill and acquired a new vehicle that presumably took a lot of energy to manufacture.

These were among my many thoughts as Tom and I drove behind the two Studebakers on Saturday afternoon.  Especially as we struggled to keep up with them.  Let me tell you, those two nearly sixty-year old cars, with their V8 engines, kicked our Honda's sad little @$$.

The poor Honda really struggles with steep hills these days, which is a hazard when you live in West Virginia.  Every time I'm chugging uphill with some giant SUV barreling up behind me, I'm torn between wanting to apologize and wishing I had one of those "Don't laugh--it's paid for!" bumper stickers.

And there's the sad proof that you're driving a beater:  when you actually understand why people put those bumper stickers on their cars.

But:  we haven't had a car payment in seven or eight years, and I don't relish the idea of having one and being out that three- or four-hundred dollars a month.  And we don't have a garage, so the idea of buying a brand-new car just to park it on the street full time seems a little ridiculous.

Nevertheless, I do feel a pang every time I see one of these babies tooling around town.  Someday the Honda will pass from "beater" to "junker," and when that day comes, Ms. Mini:  you will be mine, all mine.

With thanks to Jane for reminding me of those lyrics.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The telephone is ringing--is that my mother on the phone?*

This morning I had another one of those moments that makes me feel middle aged...and glad of it.

I took the PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) over to the Evansdale campus for a meeting.  For those unfamiliar with the PRT, it's a sort of monorail system with unmanned cars that shuttle to and from five different stations around Morgantown.  They hold about 12 people total, and are usually populated by undergrads going back and forth from classes on the downtown campus and the dorms on the Evansdale campus.

It's always interesting to ride the PRT early in fall semester, since the vast majority of dorm-dwellers at WVU are freshmen, and thus most of the PRT riders are freshmen as well.

One of the many things WVU freshmen have to get acculturated to is the etiquette of the PRT:  sit or stand?  Are you allowed to interject into someone else's conversation, since you're standing six inches away from them, or are you supposed to pretend you're not listening?  And can you talk on your cell phone or not?  Even students who might have had some kind of big-city subway experience aren't sure whether the standard subway-rider etiquette applies, since your fellow riders aren't necessarily complete strangers, even if they are at the moment.

This morning, as the lone non-student in the car**, I noted that most of my very young-looking fellow riders still seemed a little uncomfortable.  It was a quiet ride, though in a few weeks I'll undoubtedly be overhearing the usual conversations about annoying roommates and neighbors, amusing drunken exploits, and football football football.

What I really noticed, though, was that to a person, every student had a cell phone clutched in one hand, except for the lone guy who was eating a snow cone.  At 9:30 in the morning.  I love that guy.

It being week two, no one was using their cell phone during the trip.  But despite the fact that they all had backpacks or pockets where they could stow said phones, they held on to them as if letting go would somehow disconnect them from the life force itself.  It reminded me of the way my nephew clings to the TV remote:  try to wrest it from him when he's asleep and he'll wake up instantly and look at you as if he'd caught you preparing to murder him.

As I looked on this scene, I wondered where my own cell phone was.  In the outside pocket of my bookbag, where it sometimes lives?  No, I thought:  it's at home, in my purse, turned off.  And my iPod Touch is on the nightstand, recharging.

I was unplugged, and not only was I OK with that, I prefer being unreachable much of the time.

Of course, I'm not accustomed to being plugged in 24/7 like this generation of students is.  I've often thought that my own freshman year might have been a lot less traumatic if e-mail, the web, and cell phones were available then.

After my experience with the helicopter dad last week, a number of friends on Facebook shared their experiences detaching from their parents when they left for college, most of which fell along the lines of Lynn and Heather's experiences:
"My parents said goodbye, hugged me, and then I got on the plane."
"I left for college on a train with a suitcase, a small trunk, and an airline carry-on containing a small terrarium with a lizard.  I did not suffer unduly."
For me, the scariest thing when my parents left me at college was knowing that I had no way of getting ahold of them for days:  they were driving back to Ohio, and of course they didn't have a cell phone, or phone numbers for places they'd be staying. And aside from the pay phone in the dorm, I didn't have a phone, either.   I suppose if I did, I'd probably have been clutching it like my life depended on it, too.

The irony is that the potential to be in immediate, constant contact doesn't seem to have diminished either students' or parents' anxieties.  In fact, the New York Times recently featured a story about colleges that have instituted formal "parting ceremonies" to ease the transition.

I don't have kids.  I won't presume to understand what it must be like when they leave the nest.  But I will say that I do wonder whether that acculturation process would be quicker, and healthier, if students were a little more unplugged from their past, and a little more plugged into the present. 

But then again, one of the great personal challenges of college is figuring out how to link your past with your present, and eventually with your future.  It takes a long time to discover, as my friend Becky wrote in a song lyric once, that "who you are now will depend on the people you've been."

In the end, though, I guess I'm glad I went to college during the technological stone age.  Yeah, all those tools might have made things easier at the time, but then I would never have all the letters from that time, all the evidence of the person I was then.  After all, I still depend on her now.   No cell-phone call record could capture her essence so well.

* If you know the song whose lyrics inspired the title of this post, then you went to college during the stone age, too.

** Which is pretty typical:  faculty and staff seem to be even less willing to rely on public transportation than the students.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Suffering fools? Gladly!

There's a family story among the Hathaways about my Dad's grandfather, a physician who also owned and ran a pharmacy in Grantsville, West Virginia.  As a kid, my dad used to hang out there after school sometimes, and one day some old timer came into the store and started yammering on about psoriasis.  "It comes from the bones, y'know!" he insisted, suggesting that the disease somehow leaked out of the bones and rose up through the skin, where it manifested itself.

"Dr. Dye" (as my great-grandfather is invariably called) just nodded and grunted in a neutral way, neither agreeing or disagreeing, but allowing the guy to have his say.  Eventually, the old-timer exhausted his theory and left.

My dad immediately said, "Grandpa, you know that's not what causes psoriasis!  Why'd you let that guy go on and on like that when you knew he was wrong?'

Dr. Dye replied, "The man's an idiot."

Now, that phrase gets bantered around with some frequency in my family--it is, in fact, one of several examples I'll often use to explain the concept of the kernel story to my folklore students:  the "punch line" of a story that's so well known in a small group that they almost never retell the whole story--they just use the phrase.

"The man's an idiot" functions in more or less the same way as the proverbial saying "Never argue with a pig. It just frustrates you and annoys the pig."  Only, I guess, it's a little more harsh.  But that, apparently, was Dr. Dye.

I've always found the story, and the phrase, both funny and perplexing.  It reflects my family's tendency to avoid conflict whenever possible, though it contradicts another less-than-charming drive that most of us share:  the need to be right.

The phrase came to mind last week when I had an advising appointment with an incoming transfer student...and her helicopter parents.  Her father, in particular, was in a complete dither, going on and on about which of her credits counted in which ways, and badgering me about getting her two English courses to count so that she could have more elective hours available, because he wanted her to take education classes on the side.

Meanwhile, it was the end of the first day of classes and this young woman hadn't yet registered for a single class, or paid her tuition.  It seemed to me there were other, more urgent things to deal with--the transfer credit issue could wait, and certainly the question of taking education classes could, especially since every time he brought it up, the student rolled her eyes and yelled, "But Dad, I don't want to be a teacher!"

Long story short:  what was scheduled to be a fifteen-minute appointment took over an hour.  And I let it happen.  Why?

Well, my therapist would (and did) say that I needed to recognize how their emotions overwhelmed me sooner, so I could step into my authority and exercise "empathic assertiveness," acknowledging everyone's stress and then getting down to brass tacks.  And of course, she's right.

She was also right, though, when she suggested that part of what happened was that the situation engaged my curiosity:  What's up with these people?  Just how freaked out are they?  Is this guy as much of a psycho helicopter parent as he seems to be?

I suspect that's what was going on with Dr. Dye, too:  Just how nutty is this idiot's theory?  How long will he go on spouting it before he runs out of steam?

And sure, it can be perversely entertaining to let people spin themselves out.  But it's a real problem when they actually need your help, and you've lost complete control of the situation.  And then there's always the nagging worry about not wanting to be a doormat, or to have people think that you suffer fools gladly.

 But you have to pick your battles, too. 

For me, the family story is a better clue to the real problem, and the possible solution.  Yeah, thinking guys like the psoriasis expert or the helicopter dad are idiots makes it easy to dismiss them, but it doesn't get anyone anywhere.  I need an addendum to the phrase--something like, "The man's an idiot, and I need to figure out whether he's the kind of idiot I need to A) Humor;  B) Confront; or C) Get the hell away from as quickly as possible."

In the meantime, there's always Dr. Dye's other famous saying to fall back on:  "Grandson, if you don't amount to a hill of beans in your life, have a kind word for every man and always tip your hat to the ladies."

Photo of Dr. Dye on the front porch of his home in Grantsville, taken by my Dad circa 1941.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two and a half jokes.

So I was standing in line at the Morgantown post office today (where you always have to stand in line, because that's the way it is). Anyway, while I was waiting, one of the postal clerks behind the desk is having a chat with the old geezer standing in front of him. Suddenly, the clerk gets this gleam in his eye.

"Did you hear that FedEx and UPS are going to merge?" he asked.

"No, I didn't," said the geezer.

"Yeah, they're going to call the company FedUp!"

Smiles all around, if not outright laughter.

Anyway, as you might imagine, first thing I did when I got home was to wait around for my opportunity to work this joke into the casual conversation at the old homestead. Which I did. And Rose responded with "At least they're not shooting each other down there!" Which makes it two postal worker jokes in one day. Or at least one and a half.

Back to work on Monday.

Which reminds me of another old joke: So, once upon a time, a guy was sentenced to an eternity in Hell, and he was being given a tour of the place by Satan himself, who showed him from one room to another, and told him he could take his pick of places to stay and punishments to endure for the rest of time. In the first room, he saw a bunch of people standing on their heads on a solid wood floor, while a host of devil's crafty minions stood around making sure no one was slacking off. It looked painful and uncomfortable both.

So the devil showed him to the next room, where an even larger number of people (and a corresponding number of minions) were standing on their heads on a solid concrete floor. Even worse.

So, finally, the devil took him into the next room, where an even greater number of people were standing around, knee-deep in manure, sipping coffee out of china cups and chatting with the minions. "This is the room for me," says the guy, and the devil says, "All right, follow me: we just need to clear up some paperwork." And as they walk out the door, the guy hears the chief of the devil's minions shout out "All right, coffee break's over! Back on your heads!"

And so that's probably what I'll be thinking about when I go back to work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I'm stealing this meme from YA author, friend, and fellow blogger Erin McCahan
My Week in 7 Words:
--repeat until SFD* of article is completed.

Success!  7,000-some words of academic writing, another 4,500 of personal writing (which were easier to churn out than the academic stuff...hmmm).  Either way, lots of words for one week, so, short post.  More soon, though, chiefly about my reignited hatred of Jimmy Buffett.

*Sh!##y first draft.  Thank you, Anne Lamott.  

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tile and Error

After three years in the house, we finally decided to do something about the upstairs bath, which had been remodeled on the cheap by a previous owner, and was a weird mashup of 50s-era tile and 80s fixtures.

We had a pretty complete plan: install new lighting, a new vanity, and new low-flow toilet; pull the old tile off the walls and put up put up bead-board wainscoting; pull two strata of linoleum off the floor and put down new tile.

I really liked the look of some tile we'd seen at Lowe's:  long, rectangular porcelain tiles designed to look like hardwood.  Since we'd never installed a tile floor before, though, we figured we'd better hire a professional to do that part of the work.

We talked to some folks at a local kitchen and bath place, who were very nice, but didn't know anything about the tile we'd picked out, and who gave us an estimate for materials and installation that neared the four-digit mark.

I've done a tiny bit of tile installation before, and the bathroom is only about 6 x 7 feet. How hard could it be? And my old grad school pal Jim Brown encouraged us to do it ourselves: his suggestion was to read a book about how to do it, which sounded like advice only an English professor would give.  So, we special-ordered the original tile we'd liked from Lowe's.

We ordered the tile about a month ago, and were told it would take about ten days for delivery. Sure enough, ten days later, we got a phone call from Lowe's: the tile had arrived, but it was all "busted up" and Lowe's had refused delivery. They reordered. In the meantime, Rose had gotten online and ordered us a new light fixture for the ceiling, a new faucet, and a new toilet. We also special-ordered a couple other things from Lowe's--a vanity and a medicine cabinet.

Well, several weeks after I knocked the tile off the wall, almost all of those things have arrived, and are now sitting in various places in the house: the new toilet is up in Rose's office; the new vanity is in the garage. The ceiling light is already installed.

Part two of the Lowe's saga began with a call yesterday, saying that our special order had arrived. We didn't know if it was the tile or the medicine cabinet, since we were waiting on that, too, so I called them up to ask. Here's what the conversation sounded like from my end:
Me: So I got a call yesterday that a special order had come in. Could you tell me what it is?
Clerk: Is it tall?
Me: Tall?  I'm not sure.
Clerk: Tall, you know: T-I-L-E.
Oh, yeah, we're in West Virginia, already.

So, we drove over today to pick up the tile, excited that the real remodeling work could begin, since the floor will have to go in before anything else can.

We waited about fifteen minutes for them to bring the tile out for us to load in the car...four little boxes that hardly looked like enough to cover the floor. So I pulled a piece out of one of the boxes, looked at it for a moment, and then said to Rosemary, "Hey, didn't we order the tile that was six inches wide? This is only four inches."

Sure enough, what we ordered was not what had turned up at our store. Since we'd already had to sign for it, we then had to take it back into the store, return it, and re-order the right stuff. At least the tile guy gave us a ten percent discount for our trouble.  

But on the upside, twenty minutes after we got home, Lowe's called us again to tell us the medicine cabinet was in.

And we thought we'd get it all done before school started up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I was rooting for the Big Bad Wolf

In a previous post, I mentioned how much I loathed Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red, a contemporary retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, featuring two sisters who become werewolf hunters after their grandmother is attacked and killed by one.

I suggested I might blog about it eventually, but I couldn't really say it any better than the Book Smugglers did in their recent review.

I wanted to like this novel.  Really, I did.  It had some clever twists:  the address of the apartment building the characters live in is "333," a reference to LRRH's tale-type number (AT 333), and the werewolves are called the fenris, from the Old Norse word for wolf.  Plus, I get that LRRH has always been either implicitly or explicitly sexual.  Just do a Google search for LRRH images to see how adult and tarty LRRH often appears, or read this version of the tale.

But does that mean the LRRH figure actually has to dress up like a hooker and go out deliberately trying to draw wolves to her?

Thanks, but I prefer my "girl power" a little less girly.  And a whole lot less creepy.

Sisters Red is book I almost put down (nay, almost threw across the room) several times.  I haven't had that feeling about a book in a long time.

Unfortunately, I'm one of those people who sort of feels compelled to finish a book once I've gotten through a significant chunk of it.  I'm curious:  do you all share that feeling, or are you perfectly OK with never finishing a book that you've decided you don't like...even if you've gotten more than halfway through it?

Artwork:  WPA poster by Kenneth Whitley (1939)