the Mammal Chronicles: September 2007

when it comes right down to it, ya lactate or ya don't.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


click to play

Hallelujah, praise be to Jeebus, my students can write. I just received the first batch of 29 reading response papers from my entering freshfolk, and much to my surprise, most of them were not painful. Instead, I'd say that a majority of the papers were exceedingly well-written. I was able to focus my comments on substantive content-related suggestions instead of simply breaking down run-on sentences or correcting spelling errors. This is a marked improvement from what I've received in previous courses, including honors sections (which this is not).

What can the difference be attributed to? Is this year's crop of college freshfolk more prepared than in previous years? I'm guessing they're not. Instead, I'd guess that we've succeeded in our effort to stamp out the tendency of previous students to promote us by telling their peers there are "no tests." The "no tests" label has drawn the wrong students to us for the wrong reason, and word seems to be getting out that we're about hard, but interesting work that will truly engage them. In fact, on the first day when I asked why they had signed up, not a single student said (or at least admitted) that it was because there would be no tests.

This is going to be a good quarter.

Click that sound file again, will ya?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Let's talk about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room...

Or rather the very dead cow in the middle of my living room.

Since we moved into this house in 2003, we have been patiently enduring the lack of comfort inherent in the $300 sofa we bought, literally, in the impulse aisle at Ikea (we almost left without a couch when we saw them stacked five high not far from the cash registers). Our friends, notably Sporks and Teresa, have not been so patient, and in fact have been fairly vocal about the lack of comfort, despite the 42" plasma that made the room an otherwise enticing space. The couch in question had also suffered from sun damage and the night attacks of our cat Emma. I'd patched the frayed surfaces fairly creatively with appliqued leaves, but let's face it, the couch was tired from day one.

The dilemma, once we had the money to spend on a decent couch, was what sort of upholstery would stand up to Emma (and our occasionally food-flinging toddler). It was one thing to have your cat destroy a cheap piece of Ikea furniture that you never really expected to last, but it was another when you invested a fair amount of money in it. What we kept coming back to was leather -- Emma never paid the slightest bit of interest in the leather chair from my mother's house that we had in the back room.

But here's the catch: I'm vegetarian. I have been for about 20 years now. It's an ethical choice, not a health-motivated choice. I do wear leather shoes because when I've spent money on shoes certified by the vegan society or some such (they were embossed with a cute little flower logo to prove it), they fell apart almost immediately, so I found myself wavering on the sofa decision for the same reasons. Except a sofa is HUGE -- at least one full cow. I've been rationalizing that the decision makes sense: that unlike a fabric couch that will do the environment more harm because it won't last as long and will end up in a landfill, I'll have this sofa for another 20 years (my optional warranty says so). Heck, even my little shoes (ok, size 8 1/2, but little in the grand scheme of things -- probably less than a cow leg in terms of hide consumed) won't last that long. But I know that it's really a rationalization:
when it comes down to it, I'm kinda cheap. If I'm going to spend money, I want good stuff that lasts.

Catch number 2: Emma attacked the couch on almost the very first night. We've since decided that we will close the doors to the living room when we go to bed, but does make you wonder if the universe is conspiring with your cat to confront you on your tendency to waffle on your own ethics.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On letting go...

I have been searching for it, on and off, since we moved into this place. It was what I considered my best drawing: I'd done it years ago during a colored pencil workshop. It depicted a bird of paradise in which the petals were made up of colored pencils jutting up from the stem. It had once been framed, but during one move or another the frame shattered and I couldn't remember what I had done with it. Fast forward to last week when, as I was rummaging through the garage cleaning out drawers, I found it rolled in a protective paper tube. The only problem was that the mice in the garage hadn't realized the tube was meant to be protective and had eaten right through it, effectively decimating the drawing.

What do you do in circumstances like this? You let your shoulders slump for a moment and a sigh escape your mouth, then you let it go.

My husband says it wasn't my best drawing; that it looked like what it was, something done in an art class. I suppose it was that it was technically good: when you don't believe in your own prowess as an artist, examples of technical proficiency bolster your belief that perhaps you are capable, given the time and patience, to create something that doesn't look like "outsider" art. But I think I have to let go of that conceit as well -- my art is what it is.

Lately I've been painting teacups on 4x4" canvases. The subject matter is a return to doodles I used to do constantly during graduate school seminars. I'm not sure why I draw them -- then or now. Sure, I like coffee, in all its forms and all the rituals, mundane and fantastic, that it is a part of. I like the mystique of coffee and tea. But mostly I think it is that teacups are easy to draw, and the small canvases give me something I can complete in a short amount of time in the breaks I give myself amidst an increasingly busy work schedule. Looking at the finished paintings is a window into slower moments, holding a coffee cup between my hands as I start the morning in the quiet hours before anyone else is awake.

For a moment, as I sip my morning coffee, I hold on. Hold on to tranquility, quiet, stillness, and peace. Then I let it go.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Some friends thought my husband and I needed a weekend away, so they gave us a coupon for a weekend in Laughlin that they won in a raffle. Laughlin is known as a low-rent Vegas, but I was still surprised that the hotel didn't offer room service. So it was that early one morning I found myself sitting at a table in "Carnegie's Dining Car" -- the 24 hour coffee shop of this vaguely train-themed casino hotel -- waiting for my to-go breakfast order while staring at the refrigerated dessert case as it spun hypnotically round: Carrot cake, layer cake, coconut cream pie. Eclair, cream puff, repeat.

Service was fairly slow, and after a while the spinning sweets put my pre-diabetic consciousness into a sort of coma. There were oldies piped in over the clang of slot machines and Stevie Wonder sang:

What happened to the world we knew
When we would dream and scheme
And while the time away
Yesterme, yesteryou, yesterday...

The scenario that popped into my head was somehow in the future and the past at the same time. What would I say, I wondered, if my daughter ever asked me "Do you have any regrets?" I'm not sure... do I?

I talk a lot about paths not taken: ie, what if I had followed this career path instead of that one? But when I thought about it, I didn't really regret the path I'd taken only because one path would not have mattered any more than another. In the end, careers don't really matter. At least they don't to me. Eventually they are all just ways to pay the bills.

There is, for example, a criterion I am required to fulfill for tenure: "The candidate will have identified her strengths and passions in teaching." Strengths, sure, I have those, but passions? I don't think you can require someone to have passions, but they did, so on paper at least I have them. But making them a criterion? A requirement? That's the surest way to deaden passion. And that's really what most jobs do -- they may start out as passions but when they become requirements that goes out the window. That's why I stopped being all sorts of jobs that sound fabulous and fun.

So I don't have passions when it comes to work. I cycle through them, I try new things now and again, I leave them and come back again when I can run far enough away from their association with responsibilities and expectations. And I've really tried just about everything I thought was fun, so I can't regret not trying, and if there are things I haven't, there is still time.

Do I have regrets in life? Not really, except, I realized, in one area: I regret when I have not treated people well. Jobs come and go and don't matter. Opportunities not taken can be taken up later. But when you don't treat people well, as I have on so many occasions, you can't ever take it back. Not really. You can apologize (if you are wise you will), they can forgive you or not, but what's done is done. There are times when I have not been a good friend, sometimes simply through neglect, and I wish I could say otherwise.

I can, however, try to do differently in the future: I can treat myself well. I can treat my friends and family (and my friends that are family) better. I can not forget. Eclair, cream puff, repeat.


Addendum: after one night we abandoned the vaguely train-themed hotel in Laughlin for a vaguely egyptian-themed one in Vegas. It has room service and a spa.