Friday, February 25, 2011

So much for the Commonwealth

So, there I was, teaching Thomas More's Utopia today in my BritLit Survey--probably the longest work of the semester and a pretty tough sell to college students, unfortunately. But it's really a fascinating book in a lot of ways.

But anyhow, there I am wrapping up class, asking them all to think about how More claims that there can be no justice as long as there is private property, and how Utopia takes literally the notion that the best path to a true commonwealth is to make all the wealth common.

And I tie it all together by saying something like this: "More wants us to ask ourselves whether our self interest, our desire to own our own things, comes at the cost of impoverishing our fellow men, and at the cost of justice. He wants us to think about what we do for our own gain, and what we do for the good of us all. And I find that kind of philanthropic thought really wonderful--but I still like the things I own, and I don't want to have to switch houses every ten years by lottery. So I work for a salary--but I work cheap, and I try to do good work for the world by being a teacher."

I told them to go, packed up my bag, and headed for the door. In front of the door to the very next classroom, I saw a dollar lying on the ground. I picked it up, waved it around for a few seconds to see if anyone would claim it, and no one did. So I looked around one more time, shrugged my shoulders, and stuffed it in my pocket.

So much for the commonwealth.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who, us--"Stylish"?

That was my reaction when I discovered this morning that my friend Beth nominated Romantoes for the "Stylish Blogger Award."  As she notes, it's a chain-letter type of award:  you get nominated, you nominate others, they nominate others, and so on and so on and so on...

As Beth says, "Appreciation is best shared out loud," so I'll thank her for the nod, and pass the award on to those whose work I enjoy.  The meme asks you to list 15 blogs, or however many you think are deserving.

I read too many blogs (or more accurately, I subscribe to more than I can keep up with).  So for me, it's about the ones I can't delete, even when Google Reader tells me I have 300+ unread posts.  As for the others:  sorry.  Sometimes hitting that "Mark All As Read" button just feels too satisfying.

Many of these are listed in the Blogroll to your right, so I'll give a blanket award to them all.  But several of those deserve special mention, including Beth's beautiful and witty photo blog, The Daily Devil.  Beth also nominated another photo blog to which I'd award the Stylish Blogger crown, Spines' alt.tedium.* 

When I want thoughtful, insightful, and drop-dead gorgeous prose, I turn to two others on that list:  Christy's Neighborhood Watch and Jane's Leaf-Stitch-Word.

Christy is a friend of mine from way back (high school), and I loved her wit and brilliance then, and I appreciate those qualities even more now as she directs them toward questions of what makes a struggling urban neighborhood in Chicago work, and how to face its challenges.  Reading her work always makes me think more critically and sensitively about how I live in my own world.

Jane is a friend from college--well, from a very brief but troubled moment in my college history.  We lost touch and reconnected through Facebook a few years ago, and it's no exaggeration to say that the re-acquaintance has gone a long way toward healing some of the old scars from that experience. 

My memories of her had always been positive:  she was so smart, so funny, so level-headed, so curious and kind and unassuming.  And so she is in her writing, too.  It never fails to move me, and now she's added an additional blogging venture focused on her adventures with Type 1 diabetes at, so I get a double dose of her goodness.  Both Christy and Jane's work helps me take more risks with my own writing.  Thanks to you both!
Then there are the blogs that make me laugh--I never delete those.  Among them are Retro Recipe Attempts, which chronicles "Retrochef's" fearless preparation of such culinary delights as Jellied Bullion with Frankfurters and Veg-All Pie Plate Salad.

I also love Better Book Titles, in which people submit Photoshopped covers of well-known books with titles that more accurately reflect their content, such as this one for Robinson Crusoe, this one for Walden, or this one for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

In a similar vein, there's Awful Library Books, which features, well, awful library books that submitters--mostly public librarians--have found while weeding the stacks.  This "best (i.e., worst)-of 2010" post provides a taste of the blog's flavor.  But be warned:  this Burt Reynolds book is just plain unappetizing.

Random weirdness:  Scanwiches, which is just what it sounds like:  scanned images of sandwiches in cross-section.  And Running from Camera, which features a guy, well, running away from a camera, usually somewhere in the Netherlands.
Gotta give a nod to some of the work-related blogs that I read, too.  There are about 1.5 million young-adult literature blogs, but among the many that are must-reads for me are the following:
Lee Wind's I'm Here, I'm Queer...Now what the Hell Do I Read?
Pickled Bananas, written by a ten-year-old bibliophile
The Graphic Classroom, a blog that reviews graphic novels and passionately and persuasively argues for their inclusion in the K-12 curriculum
Guys' Lit Wire, which recommends books for those reading-resistant boys in your life.
I'm also gonna put in a plug here for my friend Erin McCahan's blog, Beach Notes.  Erin is a young-adult writer whose first book, I Now Pronounce You Someone Else (2010), was one of seven finalists for this year's Cybils, the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards.  Erin is a bit of a reluctant blogger, but I love to read her stuff, so let's urge her on, OK?
So...I'm up to fourteen now, right?  Let's see...what do those Hollywood types do when they're blanking out on names, and the orchestra strikes up the get-off-the-stage music?  Oh yeah:  they apologize for leaving anyone out, and reassure those they unintentionally overlooked that they're appreciated and loved just as much as those who were mentioned by name.

*I might note here that the title of Spines' blog was inspired by a running joke that a group of us had almost 20 years ago in grad school about what we'd call a Usenet newsgroup of our e-mail conversations.  We were old-school internet nerds, baby!

Monday, February 14, 2011

More Valentine's Day ephemera

A roundup of the new old Valentines we've added to our collection recently:

 Can't tell the exact vintage of these, but I'm guessing 1930s?

This back of this one is dated February 14, 1942.  How many Valentines are you likely to find these days with verbs like "compel" and "dispense"?

This (and the two at the top) have moveable parts--here, when you move the tab on the right up, the "Do Not Disturb" sign and the boyfriend appear.  I love the flapper-ish look of the girl here (a Betty Boop prototype, or perhaps knockoff?)

And another mechanical Valentine.  I just love the detail on this one, with the portrait of the adoring girl gazing down at her football hero.

And here's another Valentine's item that's going to be even more ephemeral:  peppermint-flavored, heart-shaped marshmallows.  Marshmallow-making seems to be turning into a Valentine's weekend tradition around here.  (Which is not to say that we haven't made, or consumed, other batches since last February...urp.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

You'll definitely surprise that special someone with these Valentine's Day treats...

Thinking about making a cake for your sweetie for Valentine's Day?  Here's a new product (well, new circa 1949) that might make that task simpler:

Recently, the fearless chef over at Retro Recipe Attempts tried to make cupcakes in actual coffee cups from a vintage recipe, with questionable I suppose Swan's Down Instant Cake Mix was a big improvement over baking from scratch for some folks.

What interests me is that the mix seems to only come in one flavor; the back of this brochure explains how you can doctor it to make chocolate cake, spice cake, lemon cake, and so forth.  Hard to imagine, now that you can buy cake mixes in every imaginable flavor (and some unimaginable, like confetti).  But given Retrochef's experience, even a basic box mix might have saved many a baker.

As might have this product, which appears to be liquid Crisco.  Mmmmm!

Is it just me, or does this look exactly like a 1970s Wacky Pack?  (And speaking of Wacky Packs, did you know that Art Speigelman was one of the original artists who created them?)  The parody version of this would, of course, have to be called "Hurl."  As for the text at the bottom: "The first and only CHUNKY GREEN SHORTENING that you HURL!"

If you're planning a full-on party, but don't want to work too hard in the kitchen, I have just the solution for you.  Or rather, Martha Logan, chief Home Economist for Swift does:

The introduction speaks for itself (click on the picture to enlarge).  Poor Martha--hopelessly trying to sound hip while urging young hostesses that their parties must lead to Fun for Everybody™.  Just because you're chief Home Economist for Swift doesn't mean you get all the plum assignments.

There are hot-dog themed party ideas for every conceivable occasion in this 24-page beauty, but most appropos for our purposes is the "Valentine Dance," with its "Franks in Hearts-and-Arrows" sandwiches and clever games:

And of course, there's always room for Jell-O.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, and as Martha Logan says, "Don't spare the eatables!"

Friday, February 4, 2011


I'm used to virtual strangers telling me their sad tales.  I just have "one of those faces," for good or ill, that makes people (especially crazy, lonely, or troubled people) feel safe.  Most of the time I try to think of this as a good thing, particularly in the classroom.  But for some reason this semester I've been hearing way too much, and in way more detail than I need, from some of my students.

It's the end of week 4, and so far I've heard about
  • One student's diagnosis with stage 2 cervical cancer and the surgery to remove her cervix;
  • Another student's aunt's brain tumor, and the surgery to remove it;
  • Another's HIV test scare;
  • Another's cramps, and how they kept her from participating in class discussion.
There was at least one other person with a family member having surgery, and another who told me she'd be missing class because of some sort of medical emergency.  Frankly, I appreciated the vagary of those two excuses.

And it's not just in person.  Here's an excerpt from a recent student e-mail:
I was the girl that had the busted eardrum. Anyways, I just got back from the emergency room because my ear started bleeding out again. I'm concerning you with this because I have to go to the ENT's (Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctors) tomorrow at 9:30am, so they can figure out what the next step is to do with this because this isn't supposed to happen. I was there last Friday for it and they gave me the antibiotics and ear drops to heal the infection in my eardrum and behind it, because when my eardrum actually busted they didn't catch it at Student Health. So, by the time I made it to the ENT's after that the first time my eardrum had already healed, BUT with the infection still in my eardrum and behind it. Therefore, I _might_ miss your class tomorrow.

Why, oh why, can't students use that specificity of detail in their papers?

And just this morning, a student came to drop off her paper and to let me know that she wouldn't be in class because she's got bronchitis.  Suddenly she started taking off her jacket and rolling up her sleeve, saying, "Look where they put the IV!  Why would they use that vein?" 

Now, I'm used to hearing such things occasionally throughout a semester.  And I know that some students worry that if they don't tell you the gory details of their illness, you may not believe they were actually sick.  But this semester, I've heard something like this literally Every.  Single.  Day.

Here's my theory about what's going on:  gray hair.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I've been coloring my hair for years.  Last summer I decided to try to grow the color out, partly because it was starting to feel dishonest, partly because it was damaging my hair, and partly because I was just curious as to how much gray there was.  It seemed like a good time to do it, since I wasn't teaching in the fall, and wouldn't have an audience for the really awkward two-tone phase.

So, this is the first time I've ever been in the classroom as a gray-haired, middle-aged woman, who's visibly the age of my students' mothers.  I honestly think that this sudden surge of confessional stuff, especially around health issues, is due to the fact that I look like I care.  Or like I have to care, because I'm the right age, the right sex, the right hair shade.

I'm half tempted to dye it again just to stem the tide of TMI. 

But then I might miss the occasional gem, like the student who told me that she'd missed class because she'd been taking Nyquil for a cold and didn't know that it would make her sleepy.   She just couldn't figure out why she was so tired all the time until someone explained to her that, well, you're only supposed to take Nyquil at night.