Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What a long, strange trip it's been

In tenure-file hell (thanks to Cath Gouge for the photo!)
A few days ago, Romantoes marked its four-year anniversary.  Our inaugural post focused on the end of our first semester here at West Virginia University, after Tom and I both ditched tenured jobs in Colorado to move back east.

Yesterday, I turned in my tenure crate.  Yes, crate.

Don't let appearances fool you--that's not just any plastic milk crate, but the College of Arts & Sciences "official container," as the e-mail from our Department admin described it.  And, indeed, it has stickers all over it identifying where it came from, and who it's to be returned to. 

Because I'd gotten tenure at my previous university, I figured it'd be no sweat to be untenured again.  To some degree, that was true: it was certainly less of a scramble to figure out how to juggle the teaching, research, and service parts of the job.  And I was largely unfazed by a lot of bureaucratic snafus that might otherwise have derailed me.

But in other ways, the experience of being untenured was much the same.  I've worried about making some huge mistake that would cost me my job.  I've been paranoid about whether people think that hiring me was a bad idea.  I've compared my own productivity unfavorably with pretty much everyone else on campus.

The tenure file itself, as you can see, is a monster.  We're required to include all of the materials that were in our past annual evaluation files, but they need to be disassembled, reorganized chronologically, and re-numbered and re-inventoried.  That part of the process nearly drove me mad, and I'm actually the kind of person who loves organizing stuff; I mean, one of the perks of this scheme was that it gave me an excuse to wander the aisles of Office Depot, debating the relative merits of reinforced hanging folders versus expandable ones.

At the end of last week, this is what my desk looked like.

Yes, I'd arranged everything into piles for each section that conveniently spelled out the word "PARTS":  "Preliminary" materials, "Administrative" materials, "Research," "Teaching," and "Service."  Clearly, I'd gone round the twist, as the Brits say.  I can't tell you how many people stopped in my doorway to laugh at me.  (This is one of the downsides of having an office located directly across from the first-floor women's restroom.)

But at any rate, I finally got everything printed out, numbered, inventoried, put in its correctly labeled folder, and transferred into the crate.  And then I hefted that bad boy down to the office and officially let it go. 

And you know what?  I knew I'd feel relieved, but I figured I'd just feel relieved in the same way you feel relieved when any big project is over.  After all, I'd gone through this before, right?  So it's not like it's a novel experience. 

But the thing is, turning that file in felt very different this time.  It felt not like an ending, but like a beginning.  In many ways, it felt like I was emerging from a four-year purgatory.  Seriously.  I don't think I comprehended just how tentative my position has felt for the past four years until I reviewed it, articulated it, packed it into that crate, and sent it off to someone else to evaluate.  All day today I've had a sense of placid liberation. 

I'm sure the anxiety will rear its ugly head again eventually, as I await the decision of the Chair and the faculty evaluation committee.  But anxiety is absolutely what I don't feel at the moment.  The word that springs to mind, oddly, is "sanctified," though for the life of me I don't think I could explain why. 

At Northern Colorado, after a couple of folks in our department got tenure, a colleague bought them a congratulatory cake that said "Greeley Forever."  Everyone laughed, and grimaced, and knew that inscription was half joke, half grim reality.  It was one of the many moments that led me to question the sacred cow that is tenure: why work so hard to get it if you assume it means you're stuck in a place and a job that you don't like?

Looking back on this blog's first entry from the vantage point of having just applied for tenure again, I'm happy to report that the sense of trepidation that comes through in that first post is gone, while the sense of wonder and pleasure about being here has only grown.  Here's to taking the leap.

Friday, December 2, 2011

At the Seneca Center

Today was the last day of school before "dead week," when we're not supposed to assign any real work, and when I came home from collecting papers in two classes today, Rose suggested we go out to the local antique mall in the Seneca Center, the former glasshouse down along the river.   It's a small antique mall--I think it may have only three or four dealers, and we figured we could easily get in and out in less than an hour.

But Rosemary, as she says, has one of those faces where sometimes people will just want to talk her ear off, and the woman behind the counter at the mall today certainly wanted to talk.  We browsed for a while, and eventually, I ended up snooping through some boxes of old valentines and postcards, while Rosemary got treated to a remarkable series of stories.

First, Rose was looking at some Irish Beleek porcelain cups and saucers, and she was asked if she'd ever drunk tea from a Beleek cup.  When Rose said she hadn't this woman said "Well--it's really amazing--it's just like...drinking tea from...a really thin china cup."  --which very nearly made me laugh out loud.

Then we got to hear about the woman's husband, and a strange story where he cut himself shaving, then went out to eat at the Elks Club with the whole family, where he ate all the food off their plates, then came home and said he hadn't eaten anything, only to realize with some mortification that he'd only shaven half his face (and then, for unknown reasons, he went to the neighbor's house).

We also got to hear about how this woman used to buy glassware seconds at the Seneca factory, when it was still open, and how drinking from real glass was superior to most other things, which led to a discussion of what sorts of gin and vodka she liked to drink, and it kind of went downhill from there.

But while all this was going on, I did pick out two postcards to buy, one of the remarkable looking gentleman at the top of this post, presumably someone from West Virginia.  I got another of a family in their horse-buggy, dated 1914 on the back.  For some reason, I've become a bit intrigued with these old "Real Photo Post Cards" which were often probably printed up in a dozen copies or less: they are often family pictures, really, just printed up as postcards. You can often see the silvery glare of the emulsion, and they are truly ephemeral.  And once in a while the image is just arresting.  And I have to admit, I grew even a bit more intrigued by old photographs recently, when I followed a chain of blog-links to the 'My Daguerreotype Boyfriend' site, which I think one or two readers of this blog might find interesting enough to check out.

I also found this cool piece of vintage string art, a little picture frame around this old photo of a young woman on the phone.  The string is wound with incredible precision and intricacy; the whole thing is only about three inches across.  And, as the woman at the checkout told us, her mother used to make these.  Naturally.

Lucky for me, these things are small, and they don't take up much space in the physical world.  Three more items for the flat file.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


This morning, we jumped in the car with every intention of going to Pittsburgh.  Since my cell phone needed to be recharged, I plugged the splitter into the cigarette lighter, and tried to connect both the car recharger and the Sirius satellite radio.

The radio promptly died. 

This happened when I tried the same trick just a few weeks ago, so I knew that we'd blown the fuse for the radio and the cigarette lighter.  Instead of heading for the Interstate, we drove around the block, parked the car, and changed the fuse.

By that time, my interest in going to Pittsburgh had evaporated.  But we did need to pick up some weatherstripping tape at Lowe's, and I needed to return something to the mall that's out that way, so we ran a few errands and--as usual--came back with more stuff from Lowe's than we'd set out to buy: the tape, and also a folding stepladder that I've been wanting for awhile, and some bulbs that were on clearance, and a package of shims...because, as I found myself saying, "You never know when you might need some shims."  Man, if ever there's a middle-aged pronouncement, that's it.

Anyway, we came home and used the weatherstripping tape to put the plexiglass in the front storm door (we've never been able to locate the actual sliding glass mechanism).  Then I decided to fix the fireplace screen, which has always been a rickety piece of s**t, but recently fell apart completely when the wood split around one of the dowels that holds it together.

Down to the basement to fix that up with some wood glue and a clamp.

And then I thought: that rug in the sunroom really needs to be cleaned.  So, I hauled it down to the basement, put it on some plastic sheeting, and went over it a few times with the Little Green Machine.

As long as we had the rug out of the sunroom, I wanted to sweep in there, and maybe rearrange the furniture.  It's been seeming very crowded to me lately.

This, of course, involved cleaning out a garage-sale credenza that was full of old New Yorkers (which went into a box for recycling), and then the credenza went out to the garage.

While we're in the garage, might as well get out the plastic to weatherproof the screen porch (though that did not happen today).

At some point, Tom said, "You're puttering today, aren't you?" 

And yes, I was.  My dad was a great putterer, and after he died my mom realized how much he accomplished in any seemingly agenda-less day. 

I clearly got the puttering gene, though unfortunately I didn't inherit his mechanical skills (or just didn't learn most of them). 

Still, I felt like I'd accomplished a lot today, including a task that honored Dad: I watered and cut back the leggy, overgrown geraniums that we put up in the attic a couple of weeks ago.  He grew them from starts, and loaded me up with a fresh batch every spring.  Though most of the trimmings went in the trash, I did save some blooms to add to my Dia de los Muertos altar.

At the end of the day, I actually felt like I'd earned a brief respite on the little red stool at the basement workbench.  It's the one that I always remember Dad perching on in his basement workshop, and now it graces mine.

Now, lest you think Tom was doing nothing all this time, he was making a fabulous dinner: homemade whole-wheat pasta with kale, white beans, and tomatoes.

It was yum.  And, with a big glass of red wine, a nice reward for a long day of this and that.

By the way, did I mention that it's Thanksgiving Break?  Nice to have a Sunday that really feels like a weekend for a change, instead of being a day for grading or course-prepping.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Griswold Corn Sticks

We love our vintage Griswold Corn Stick Pan.

Today, as we walked home from work, snow was in the air, and not too long after we got home, it was sticking to the ground, for the first time this fall. Winter is here. So we decided that we'd have chili for dinner and that we should make some cornbread to go along with it.

So I dug up Paul Prudhomme's cornbread recipe, which we always use: it's sweet in just the right way, though we only use about half of the recommended amount of sugar. We also never use the corn flour (because we never have any in the house, and frankly, have never seen it for sale anywhere), and we just substitute a 50-50 mix of regular corn meal and regular flour, and it works out fine. Our pan is plenty old, and it's pretty well 'cured' like cast iron should be, so it cooks just fine, even though it looks a little grungy.

The first time we used it, I wasn't very sure about the old pan: cornbread baked in an ear-of-corn pan just seemed a little corny, I guess. But the corn stick is actually the perfect shape for a piece of cornbread: the right size for a serving, with a lot of surface area to give the sticks a tasty crunch.

Half a recipe (including only half an egg) works perfectly to fill up the seven ears of the corn stick pan. No pictures of the sticks out of the pan, I'm afraid: I didn't grease the pan up quite enough this time, and they came out in chunks--but very tasty ones.

Vintage Griswold cast iron (made in Erie, PA) is always collectible, but there doesn't appear to be any shortage of these on eBay, where you might be able to pick one up for ten or twenty bucks. But when winter comes around, and you want cornbread, it's worth every penny.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


"Boo" to the month of October, that is, which has been stressful and busy in ways both expected and unexpected. One of those months that you'd want to end quickly except for all the stuff you have to get done before the 31st, and your anxiety about what lies ahead.

Still, we took some time to make holiday marshmallows, in our continuing tradition.

Bring on November!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Who's counting?

"I'm 18, and I don't know what I want" (far right)
Me, for one.  And human beings generally, since we're "gifted" with the twin powers to speak and to count.  (Sometimes being a "time-binding" animal is  just a curse.)

While we're on the subject of anniversaries, I thought I'd write about a couple of recent events that have put me in a tallying mood.

First, my friend Jane posted that she'd moved her oldest child to college.  How could it be possible that someone I met during my freshman year of college could be the parent of a college freshman?

Then I saw this video that WVU's publicity office created about freshman move-in day:

Perhaps I was seeing it through Jane's eyes as I watched, because even though I don't have children, I found myself identifying with the parents.  I'm certainly (by the numbers, anyway) more than old enough to have college-aged kids, but it took the reality of someone I knew in college taking her child to college for the full import of that to sink in.

As I've discussed here before, I had a rough freshman year.  Only in the last few weeks, however, have I come to appreciate that it was also rough for my parents.  I was the youngest of four, with fourteen years between me and the oldest.  How difficult it must have been for my parents to let me go after thirty-plus years of parenting.  How ridiculous that it's taken me 28 years to realize this.

That number seems to keep coming up, too.  Facebook recently reminded me that my niece's 28th birthday was approaching.  Twenty-eight?!  She was born, coincidentally, the fall of my freshman year of college.  I still think I am 28 most of the time, so it couldn't be possible that she's now that age.

When I turned 23, a friend told me that 23 was the number of chaos.  For sure, that year was pretty chaotic--I left the job I took after my college graduation to start graduate school, and my first real relationship disintegrated when he left for graduate school elsewhere.

A couple of days ago I turned twice 23.  Does that mean twice the chaos this year?  I hope not, though since I'm going up for tenure and Tom's going on the job market, there's bound to be some drama.  I will say, though, that I wouldn't be 23, or for that matter 28, again if I were given the chance.  I'm enjoying middle age, even if I'm astounded at the way time starts to warp and contract at this stage of life. 

They're all meaningless numbers, I know--useful only to provide perspective, in the way you're advised to keep your eyes on the horizon when you're on a boat to counteract the rocking, potentially sickening motion of the waves.   But they still count.  And more importantly, all those years count, too.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Slow but steady...keeps the neighbors from calling code enforcement

--not that I think there was any danger of that.  But as usual, some of the summer projects that seemed like they'd take no time at all ended up getting abandoned when the semester started. 

The major project that got set aside was getting the ivy out of the beds in front of the house and replacing it with something more interesting.  The really daunting part was over: Tom spent many sweaty hours pulling the ivy out and digging up its formidable roots.

--but once that happened, the beds sat barren for a long time, save the weeds that sprouted up in there.  Since the weather has been lovely this weekend, it seemed like a golden opportunity to try to finish.

Well, "finishing" didn't quite happen.  But then, I think about the (allegedly traditional) Japanese saying a friend told me once:  "House finished, life over." 

There's a lot more to do here, but we did manage to dig up a bunch of the ornamental grasses that have been taking over the border on the other side of the house and move them into the front beds.  Funny, these all looked small compared to their parent plants, but when we relocated them, suddenly they seemed pretty good sized!  And since they were just coming up as volunteers, they were destined to get pulled out anyway.  Let's just hope they take root and get established before the weather turns. 

As usual, this is going to be a multiple-trips-to-Lowes sort of project, since we need several more bags of topsoil and mulch, and then some kind of edging or stones to keep all the dirt from running onto the sidewalk.  (I'll say this for ivy:  it's a great bulwark against erosion.)

But still, we're happy with the result, and happy to finally be tackling the front yard, which we've sorely neglected ever since we moved in.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Teaching 9/11

Today I was down at the local high school for which I'm the faculty liaison to observe three of our student teachers.

About five minutes into the first class, around 9:35 or so, the PA came on and a student's voice said, "At 9:37 a.m. on September 11, 2001, a plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D. C.  At the same time, hijackers had taken over Flight 93 and turned around to head for Washington."  Similar announcements kept up throughout the period, recounting what was happening at that particular time on September 11th, and then asking for a moment of silence to remember the victims.

It was surreal to be sitting in a ninth-grade algebra class learning about the order of operations and then to periodically get these harrowing interruptions.

In the third class I observed, a ninth-grade below-level English class, the student teacher addressed the topic directly.  She grew up in New Jersey, and her school was directly across from the city, with a full view of the skyline and the Towers.  When the first plane hit, her teacher took all the kids outside to see it, telling them, "You're witnessing history right now."  And then the first Tower fell.  The student, who was twelve at the time, remembered that she was wearing a yellow shirt and jean shorts, and that she was standing next to a kid named Robert, and that she grabbed his arm when the Tower came down.

Immediately, the teacher whisked all the kids back into the school, where they spent the rest of the day scared and confused as the teachers debated whether to tell them what had happened or not, since so many of the kids had parents who worked in the city.

It was an incredibly moving story, and the students in the class--most of whom have some kind of intellectual or developmental disability--were totally tuned in.  What did she feel when she saw the Towers fall?  Did she cry?  Did she know anyone who died?

The student teacher followed up her presentation with a writing assignment, asking students to write ten sentences in response to several prompts she offered.  The last two were "Name something you're proud of about our country" and "Describe what you can do to show your patriotism."

I cringed.

I understand that she was close to the events.

I understand that she saw the Tower fall with her own, 12-year-old eyes.

I understand that this is an important anniversary, and probably even more so for her for reasons I can't fathom.

Is it, therefore, petty and selfish and insensitive of me to critique her lesson, or at the very least, the focus of the writing assignment that followed it?

We need to talk about, and teach 9/11.  But must we do so, even ten years on, in a way that romanticizes the events of that day, ignores all that has followed, and paints a portrait of national unity that frankly wasn't true even at the time?  She said, in her presentation, that 9/11 brought Americans closer together and created unity.  Not for everyone, everywhere.

I couldn't help but feel like I had just witnessed the way history gets flattened for K-12 consumption.

In my observation report, I focused on her interaction with students and said I was glad to hear her story.  And I suggested that if she were to teach the lesson again, she might want to consider other points of view--especially if she has students in the class who are Muslim, or of middle-eastern heritage.

It was all I could say without going crazy.  Unfortunately, she had a class the very next period, so all I could do was hand her the paperwork and tell her to e-mail me if she had questions or wanted to meet to discuss things more fully.

"Was it OK?" she asked, looking a little anxious.  She was only concerned with how the lesson had gone, whether she was going to be a good teacher.  I learned from the lead teacher later that this particular student has had some problems with asertiveness and self confidence.  I worried that the fact that I'd critiqued her lesson and then dumped the paperwork on her and ran from the room would do more harm than good.

I came home and wrote her an e-mail, which I'll probably never send.  She doesn't need to know all of this, but I need to say it, so you--my dear, long-suffering blog readers--get to be the audience for it.  So I'll apologize to you, too:

Hi [Student]--

I wanted to send a follow-up e-mail about the observation sheet...I wish we'd had time to discuss it in person, and I felt bad about just leaving it there with you without putting things in context.

The story about your own 9/11 experience was, as I wrote, riveting, and meant a lot to me and to those students to hear. I was living in Colorado at the time, so the events were still horrifying, but seemed distant in a way, too.  One of the things that's been interesting (and scary) about being back east is learning how much more directly people here were affected by the events. 

So--I don't want you to think that I had a problem with the topic or how you handled it.  I guess my concern had more to do with the issue of balance.  To be sure, we need to remember the victims (who were from 100+ different countries, as one of the FSHS announcements said!), and we need to honor the heroes.  But I think it's also important not to forget the ugliness and divisiveness that followed.  Muslims, and people who looked "Arabic" generally, were attacked in the streets.  People sent hate- and vengeance-filled e-mails.  Some people were rallying for war, others for peace.  Rather than using this experience to empathize with others in the world who live and have lived with terrorism on a much more regular basis, some people became insular and reactionary.

As I wrote, I know this is an important anniversary and that you may never have the opportunity (or desire!) to teach it again, which is why I hesitated to say anything about it.  But in a larger sense, I do feel like--as educators--we're especially obligated to present all sides of an issue, especially one that's so potentially controversial and divisive.

Did you see the audio stories that WVU posted for the anniversary?  The one at the very bottom, by a student from Pakistan who was in Morgantown on 9/11, is especially moving, and gives a different side of the story.

Anyway, I apologize for harping on this.  I guess, on some level, I'm trying to make sense of what the anniversary means, too.  I had to teach on the afternoon of 9/11, and I remember struggling to know how to handle the situation. In the end, I went into class and just asked the students what they wanted to do:  talk about it, or just press on with the lesson for that day?  Overwhelmingly, they said to press on--so I did.  I guess I've spent the last decade trying to figure out whether I did the right thing, and where my own reaction to such an event ends and my responsibilities as a teacher begin. 

Again, I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk about this in person.  And I apologize if this seems like I'm unloading on you--I don't mean to; I just wanted to to explain why my comments may have seemed weird or cryptic!  The lesson itself was fine, and you did a great job of drawing the students in and then helping them individually with their work.

Don't you wish you'd been teaching Algebra today, too???  :)

Sigh.  I guess this proves one of the maxims of WVU's teacher-education program, which is that "the teacher is a self-reflective practitioner."   What it doesn't say is how uncomfortable and complicated being self-reflective is.

One of the ways I myself have taught 9/11 over the years is with the "e-lore" that I collected at the time and archived.  I often have students in my folklore classes look at the archive so we can talk about how folklore has adapted for electronic transmission.  But it also provides a disturbing insight into the informal ways that people were channeling the fear and uncertainty they felt at the time.

Today, I thought:  thank god I kept that stuff, because otherwise, maybe no one would believe that's part of the history, too.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

At the Antiques Roadshow in Pittsburgh

When we heard that PBS' Antiques Roadshow would be taping a series of episodes in Pittsburgh this summer, we knew we had to enter the lottery for tickets.

Who knew it was so hard to get them?  Tom and I entered, as did my mom, sister, and brother.  On the day the lottery winners were announced, I checked the website and discovered I didn't get them.  Via e-mail, my sister and brother confirmed that they hadn't, either.  Then we heard from Mom:  she was a winner!  So she and her chosen guest would each be allowed to take two items for appraisal.

There was some dithering about who would get to go with her.  Among the siblings, we decided that Tom was actually probably the best choice, since he's the real antiques guy in the family.  And he had a couple of things he'd been wanting to find out more about:  a Dürer print that had belonged to his great-aunt Esther Mary, and a pewter tea caddy engraved the the date 1774 that he'd picked up at an auction in May.

Tom was also the person who suggested what my mom might take--an "archive," of sorts, of the couple of years she spent working as a hostess on the C&O Railroad after she graduated from college, between 1948 and 1950.  She still had her uniform (well, actually, it's been on display at the C&O Railroad Museum in Hinton, WV for many years), and she also had a set of publicity photos that were taken on a promotional run to the Railroad Fair in Chicago in 1948, showing her in the uniform.  She also had one of the original coloring books that the hostesses handed out to kids on the train, and a couple of other documents.

As her second item, she took along two Victorian scrapbooks that my sister found in the attic of a house she lived in about thirty years ago in Columbus.  Apparently, the original owners of the house had been a pair of sisters who were Ziegfeld girls in the early 20th century.

Waiting in the entry hall for the general appraisal.
The guy in front of us brought this giant Buddha statue.

The Roadshow organizers have the whole process down to a science, and the whole thing ran as smooth as silk.  The tickets specified an arrival time (10:00, in our case), and these were staggered every hour so that there wasn't a crush of people all at once.

After waiting in the initial line, we were assigned to the general appraisal tables, where people looked at what we'd brought and gave us tickets for specific areas (in Mom's case, "Rugs & Textiles" for the C&O uniform and "Collectibles" for the scrapbooks; in my case, "Prints and Posters" for the Dürer and "Silver" for the tea caddy).

Then it was into the convention hall, where volunteers escorted us to our first lines and explained the process:  you get in the line for your ticketed area, and then wait when you get to the front of the line to have your ticket punched and to be taken to your appraisal table.

The setup was much like a pinwheel:  the appraisal tables were inside a sort of tent in the center of the hall, and the lines kind of snaked out of gaps in the tent.  What this meant was that you really couldn't see any of the set or the "celebrity" appraisers until you got inside the middle, although there was a smaller taping setup outside the pinwheel, too.  (See a photo on the show's website here for a visual.)

We were first escorted to the Textiles line to have mom's uniform appraised.  It seemed an odd choice, since she also had photos and other C&O memorabilia that accompanied it, and sure enough, the appraiser, Steven Porterfield, admired the suit and fawned over the photos but ultimately filled out a little referral card and sent us over to Collectibles.  (The beauty of the referral system is that you don't have to leave the inner sanctum and get back in line, but can go straight to the appraisal table.)

The guy there, Philip Weiss, was more interested in the uniform as a piece of railroadiana (yes, that's the real term), and said it'd be worth a lot more if it had a patch or something else that marked it more clearly as a C&O item.  Unfortunately, when the C&O cut the hostesses' jobs, mom was required to turn in her pins and patches...which she dutifully did, though after the appraisal she said she wished she hadn't been so ethical!  Weiss said the collection was probably worth somewhere in the $300 range to a railroad buff, but added that it was probably of more value as a piece of family history.

Publicity shot of Mom in her hostess garb, taken en route to the 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago

Baby getting tired of posing; Mom looking nervous (as she said, "I didn't know from babies then!")

And honestly, that's what I found most astonishing about the whole experience--how gracious the appraisers were, even when they were telling you that your stuff was worthless, and even after they'd been being gracious for hours.  I have a feeling that's one of the requirements for being a successful Roadshow appraiser.  Another must be having a nose for a good narrative, because (as anyone who watches the show regularly knows), the thrill is as much about the story behind the items as it is about the items themselves.

For example, when I went through the silver line to get the tea caddy appraised, the appraiser, Reid Dunavant, asked how I'd come by it.  As I explained that Tom had bought it at an auction just a couple months ago, I felt like a total poser:  the tea caddy itself might be interesting enough, but my story was a real dog.  I mean, who cares about an item someone bought recently with the explicit idea that it might be worth something?

(Unless, of course, it's an 18th-century chair that you picked up for two bucks at a yard sale en route to the show, as in one infamous segment.)

The Dürer print, on the other hand, did have a good story:  purchased by Tom's great-aunt Esther Mary on a trip through Europe en route to Turkey in the 1930s, it spent a good decade or two stored in Tom's grandfather's barn until his parents found it and hung it on the wall.

A similar print had been appraised on the show several years ago for $40,000.  Since it's hard for a non-expert to tell whether it's an early printing or a modern one, it was the #1 item Tom wanted to get more information about.  And what more perfect marriage of great backstory and value if the piece turned out to be worth something?

Well, to make a long line story short, it wasn't.  When I got up to the appraisal table, I told the story to Nicholas Lowry*--known to viewers for his wild suits and cowboy boots--and he said, quite gallantly, "Ah.  One of my favorite images."

Then he whipped out his jeweler's loupe and looked at I-don't-know-what details in the print and told me, with great gentleness, "Well, it's not an original print.  But it's still a lovely decorative piece...worth fifteen, twenty dollars."

Yes, that's right:  I stood in line for two hours to find out that mouse-eaten thing was worth one Andrew Jackson at best.

Still, there were pluses to spending that much time in line.  I got to see a lot of other people's stuff, and hear more about how the show is made:  for example, they planned to shoot about 55 segments over the course of the day, around 50 of which will be aired on the three episodes from Pittsburgh next season.

And once inside the appraisal "big top," I got to see several segments being taped, or getting set up to tape.  A woman in line told me that she tried to talk to a guy who was seated on a makeshift set waiting to shoot the official TV appraisal of his item, and he waved her off, saying that he'd been forbidden to talk to anyone while he waited.  So mysterious!

Bottom line:  no one's quitting their day job, and no one's going to be on TV.  But there was a glimmer of fame to come out of it:  a photo of mom showed up in the "behind-the-scenes" slideshow for the Pittsburgh taping!

I'm not sure I'd go again, but if I did (and if you do), here are some tips:
  • Don't take a print, poster, or painting unless you're ready for a long, long wait.  Bring a paperback or your Kindle if you're not the chatty type (no cell phones/texting are allowed in the appraisal hall).
  • The shortest lines seemed to be for textiles, silver, Asian arts, and antiquities...but that might have just been when we were there.
  • This should go without saying, but wear comfortable shoes.  I did see a few insane women in heels, presumably in anticipation of being on TV.
  • Take snacks!  There was a concessions booth in the entry hall, but my understanding was that if you went back out there, you wouldn't be allowed back into the appraisal hall.  The woman in front of me in the prints and posters line hadn't even had breakfast and was about to pass out from hunger when the woman in front of her whipped a selection of stuff out of her purse:  a Hershey bar, a bag of Cheetos, and a package of cookies.  The hungry woman referred to her as "my angel" for the rest of our slow trip up the line.
Can't wait to see the actual shows when the new season begins.

*Interesting coincidences:  Lowry is a 1990 Cornell alum (Tom graduated in 1986), and has worked as an English teacher. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The bats of August

It began as a slight fluttering at the edges of my consciousness.  At 3 a.m., I was in a deep sleep and the sound filtered in vaguely at best.  The blinds rattling in the breeze?  A mourning dove settling on the windowsill?

Then the pieces fell together and I sat bolt upright in bed.  "BAT!"

The sound alone was enough for me to jump up and head for the door.  En route, all I saw was a shadow circling around the ceiling.

From my refuge in the hallway, I could hear Tom crashing around and saying, periodically, "Bat.  Come on, bat" in a flat tone of voice.  He couldn't seem to persuade it to leave, but eventually it lit on the curtains and he was able to whack it out the window.

This morning, we remarked about how it seemed to be around the same time of year when we last had bats coming into the house--and in fact, the last time we blogged about this was on August 20, 2009.  I think we may have had some last August, too.

So, we're looking for some answers:  why do bats only seem to want to get inside in the late summer?  And is it possible to keep the windows open at night and keep the bats out?  A friend suggested that those noise-emitting devices that keep mice away work for bats, too, so we'd be interested to know if anyone's had luck with that, or any other technique. 

In the meantime, we'll consider training them, as Neil Gaiman apparently does:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Writing

All summer long, I've had this bit of proverbial wisdom swirling around in my head: "It's better to break the spine of a man than of a book." Thanks to Google, I'm guessing that I heard Dan Simmons say it at some point when I went to one of his many readings in Colorado, as Google, surprisingly, does not turn it up as a proverb at all.

But anyway, as I've been toiling away at writing my own book this summer (progress report: two chapters of four written; one tough one and one easy one still to go, with a December deadline--uh oh), I've found myself quoting Simmons in my head as I've been writing in books as well as writing on them.

I was always raised not to write in books, and it's taken a long time to get to the point where I feel comfortable writing in books that I own: but the copy of the Norton anthology that I teach from now has writing in several colors of ink as well as pencil, and the notes I make are very useful indeed for finding my way through the dense pages of Norton prose, especially. So I thought I'd blog a little about books that are written in.

First, I want to note that the practice of writing in books is as old as books themselves, and medievalists often treasure the writing in old books as one of the clearest kinds of signs left by early readers. The image at the top of this post, from a 1559 printed book, shows how delightful early readers' comments can sometimes be: the small picture shows a manicule (a 'little hand') pointing out a key passage alongside a highly traditional "Nota bene" cipher: both forms of notation have their roots firmly in the middle ages. The second page from the same book (at the right) shows that this annotator is also interested in adding purley decorative touches his book: I especially like the little face inside the capital "O" half-way down the page (you'll probably need to click on the image to see it).

In recent years, I've marked up some of my own books almost to the same degree as this fellow: below is a page showing part of one of the Chronicle poems from my edition of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: these notes surely have significance only for me, and I despair of any future scholar being able to make heads or tails of my notes. So far, I can still follow them though, at least for the time being.
To my own surprise, this summer, I've even found myself on occasion writing in a library book (a line I once thought I would never, ever cross), and even more shockingly in a book owned by a friend. I try to keep marks in these kinds of books as minimal as possible: a tiny star in the margin, a single vertical line alongside a key passage. But I couldn't keep myself from writing "Hah!" in the margin of this passage from Derrida's Dissemination:

Finally, as a last example, I bought the following book when we were on vacation in Virginia last month: we stopped overnight in Charlottesville, and made out way to a couple of used bookstores. Another Colorado author, John Dunning, has a bookseller character say, at one point, "No one should ever write in a book except the author." But in this book, the author has written in it and the booksellers did as well, and I'm glad they did: I'd have no idea at all who the "Donald" of the inscription is, though I would have guessed that the "John" was indeed John C. Pope, author of The Rhythm of Beowulf.

I couldn't read the bookseller's note, though, but I asked at the desk when I bought the book. The old guy behind the desk pulled out a magnifying glass and took a look at the pencilled note. "E. D. Hirsch" he said. I'll never erase that bookseller's note: it's as important, in its own way, as Pope's notes to Hirsch.

Pope's Rhythm of Beowulf is a book I've wanted to have a copy of for a long time: it's a key book in my field that I might need to refer to once in a while. But Pope's note to Hirsch (and the bookseller's note that identifies it) makes this book interesting in a different kind of way: a record of the reading of one of the most controversial advocates of reading and education in our time. I don't have many illusions that the marks I put into my books (or others' books) will ever be equally significant: but neither do I feel like I need to feel guilty about them.

Write away, I say.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

This one time, at band camp...

The Bexley High School Marching Band, Fall 1979
I opened the door to the screen porch one morning last week and one thought struck me:  band camp.

At 6:30 a.m., it was already 74 degrees and humid, and I could hear crickets chirping contentedly.  It was the crickets, really, that put me over the edge:  I'd forgotten that they were about the only other creatures up and making music so early on an August morning.

Unlike the flute player from American Pie, however, I have very few happy memories of band camp.  She obviously went to one of these new-fangled "camps" they have at colleges, where you stay in a dorm, with air conditioning and television.

No, the Bexley High School band camp, at least my freshman year, was about as far at the opposite end of that spectrum as possible:  latrines, cold-water-only showers in a cement-block building with no roof, and a hog farm across the road from the practice field, so that when we weren't playing, you could hear the sound of squealing pigs in the distance.  All very Lord of the Flies-esque.

I will say that we got a new band director that year who promptly moved the camp to another location, with far less rustic cabins that had indoor plumbing and hot water.  Let me tell you, that made our sophomore year at camp seem like a week at the spa, comparatively.

Despite the material improvements, however, the basic routine was still the same:  up at 6 for breakfast at 7 to be out on the field by 7:30.  Several hours of marching followed by lunch, more marching, section practice, maybe an hour or two off, then dinner, more marching, and whatever "entertainment" was scheduled for the evening.

What really strikes me now is that pretty much all the stuff that constituted "entertainment" would probably fit the legal definition of hazing.  The first night of our freshman year we were all, of course, "initiated," which meant performing some kind of humiliating task at the whims of upperclassmen.  I somehow managed to fly under the radar and must've been let off easy, since I don't remember (or have blocked out) what I had to do.  But my friends Christina and Kristin were given the charming task of cleaning the floor of the dining hall with sanitary pads. 

Thursday night, every year, was invariably "kangaroo court" night, where the rising seniors called out everyone else on whatever indiscretions they'd committed during the week:  being too mouthy, being too funny, not being funny enough, you name it.

At the camp before my junior year, my friend Jay was "initiated," since somehow he'd managed to miss band camp the first two years of high school and was attending for the first time.  He was slathered in shaving cream, and I remember having to lead him to the showers to rinse it all off because he couldn't see.  I also have a vivid memory from that year's kangaroo court of another guy in my class, a drummer, being "sentenced" to stand in a trash barrel full of slop--all the food scraps and leftovers from the previous three days.

I quit band at the end of my junior year, and missed the last year of band camp.  Crazy, right?  Because of course, your last year is when you finally get to be the abuser rather than the abused.

I'd like to say I quit on moral principle, that I didn't want to participate in such a system anymore.  But the truth was, I wanted to sing in the show choir the next year, and my senior-year schedule was too full for band.

Living only a block away from Morgantown High School, we're regularly treated to the marching band practicing its parade formation up and down our street.  And I have to say, despite my less-than-stellar memories of band camp, my memories of marching band itself are sweet enough that I still get a thrill when I hear the shrill, short blasts of a whistle that indicate the musicians are about to play. 

And even 25+ years later, not having to go to band camp makes August mornings like this one--when I can sit on my screen porch with a cup of coffee, listen to the crickets, and know that I can retreat from the heat and humidity whenever I choose--still feel like a luxury.

MHS band on Simpson Street, Fall 2010.  "Watch your files," indeed!  Those lines are pretty sloppy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Life is just a bowl (or, more precisely, an 11-quart stockpot) of cherries

When we lived in Colorado, some neighbors of ours (who were also good friends) had a sour-cherry tree in their backyard that Tom coveted.  One year, we happened to be catsitting for them while they were out of town, and the cherries were just about to be fully ripe.  "Pick as many as you want," they said, "because by the time we get home, it'll be too late."

Tom has fond memories of canning cherries from his childhood.  I regularly hear the story about his grandfather swinging through the kitchen at the height of the process, grabbing a few out of the bowl, and saying, "I'll can some of those right now," as he popped them in his mouth.

So, the summer of the free (and plentiful) sour cherries remains a very fond memory for Tom.  But we haven't been able to find anyplace to get them since we moved to West Virginia.

This year, my sister discovered that her CSA could hook her up with sour cherries, but you had to buy them in quantity--half a bushel, minimum.

So, since we were all coming to Columbus for my nephew's wedding this weekend, Pam picked up the fruit and brought it down, we brought our cherry pitter from Morgantown, and Tom spent five hours pitting them yesterday afternoon and evening, with just a short break for dinner.

The result?  Literally, an 11-quart stockpot full of cherries, which yielded seven overstuffed quart bags to put in the freezer, about a pint of sour cherry juice (I feel some good cocktails coming on), and another five cups left over to make a pie this evening.

It's been bloody hot everywhere this week, but this kind of bounty is a reminder of what summer is good for.  And when we thaw out some of those cherries to make another pie (or cobbler, or crisp, or turnovers) in the middle of next winter, it will be a welcome taste of a different season.