Monthly Archives: March 2008

Collum’s Song

I was listening to a rebroadcast NPR’s Mountain Stage this week, and heard Nellie McKay doing an absolutely wonderful version of a tiny little gem called “Collum’s Song.” (On NPR’s publicly available big whole-show MP3, it goes from 24:10 to 25:50: one minute and forty seconds of fine figurative language, nicely sung. I won’t put it up here, but the song alone makes for a very small 1.5 MB MP3 file that shouldn’t be too much trouble for most email clients.) My question, though: where is it from? I’m otherwise not much of a McKay fan, but I couldn’t find this on any of her albums, and the wordplay and imagery is rather a departure from what little I know of her usual fare. Anybody know it?

For Those Not About to Rock

I’ve never been a big fan of the CCCC Friday night rock ‘n’ roll dance: for me, there’s almost always been an better time to be had elsewhere, with other similar-minded composition folks.

This year, for those of us with geeky inclinations (of whom I am admittedly one), there is an additional significant and compelling reason to find oneself elsewhere at 10 PM on April 4.

So the question would then seem to be: OK, who’s got the spacious suite with the big TV?

Teaching Bartleby

In addition to Advanced Composition, I’m teaching Intro to American Literature this semester, and enjoying it. We’re into the nineteenth century now, short fiction, and I’m rediscovering pleasures I’d long neglected. “Bartleby the Scrivener,” as fundamental as it is, is one such long-neglected pleasure for a rhetoric and composition specialist.

I’ll confess: the first time I read it, as an undergrad, I didn’t get it. Didn’t understand any aspect of it. Wouldn’t engage it.

The second time, coming back to it, reading it for pleasure, I was delighted. It was in a secondhand book with “Benito Cereno” and “Billy Budd” and I’d been on a Pynchon paranoid fiction kick after Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow and my friend M. said there was more of that weird, freaky paranoid stuff going on in “Benito Cereno” and I ought to check it out, and I did, and then remembered that I’d wondered what the big deal was about “Bartleby,” and re-read it in a sitting, as well. As with Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter, I was perhaps more surprised than I should have been by how much more I got out of it on a second visit. This isn’t a terribly original or interesting observation, I guess: the first time I encountered it, as a student, it was an Important Text; the second time I encountered it, as a reader, it was something else, something different. So it’s nice to be teaching it, and nice to be spending two class days on it.

Today was the first, and I stole the idea for my lesson plan from a colleague, who’d used it to great success. Minor modifications on my part, but it went like this: for homework, I’d asked them to read the story in its entirety, and told them to be prepared to lead discussion in class today, and to come to class with notes on motivation and action in the story to help them do so.

I brought my laptop to class, which I’d never done before. (Each classroom has its own dedicated computer.) I set it up on my desk. In the seconds before class started, I said to them something like this: “You’ve just read a story in which someone, with a screen between him and the other characters, fails to do what they expect of him, and in violating the expectations customary to their relationship, causes disruption and concern.”

And that was All. I. Said.

Not a word more. Not a single word, for the rest of class.

I typed notes, fingers flying to keep up with copying what they said, and yes I sometimes grinned or couldn’t stop myself from nodding. And some of them got mad, or frustrated, and some of them disengaged, but a few of them got into it, and discussion ebbed and flowed without me speaking a single word for the entirety of the class period.

I posted the notes to the course site when class was over, and from the notes — five pages, single-spaced — it was clear that they came to the discussion remarkably well-prepared, and managed to talk out a lot of the tough points of the story. Sure, it was hard to keep quiet: immensely difficult, for them and for me, for one section more than another. Fun, too, though, and productive, once they got what was going on. But I asked them to lead, and they led. And we’ll use those notes as a starting point for the second class session.

I also have the luxury that they’re cadets, though; that they’re motivated and obedient, and I wonder how well that’d fly with Michelle’s students, or Joanna’s, or Collie’s. How does the line between expectation and compulsion shift from classroom to classroom, from one institution to another? Sure, I’m a boundary case, a marker, an outlier: are there other boundary cases? Where would or wouldn’t my Bartleby act fly — and why?

Bad Day at the Shelter

So of the sixty-odd cats at the shelter, Ebony and Mr. Pokey have been fighting, to the point where they can’t come out of their cages at the same time. Nobody knows why.

Other shelter things continue apace: Willie, with his enlarged esophagus, still has trouble keeping food down, as does Clark. We lost hypothyroid Agatha a couple weeks ago, after she was down to three pounds. Laverne and cross-eyed Shirley lost their cage to two very tentative unnamed new arrivals. Maine Coon Sean is still the alpha male trying to take Joey’s place, Jezebel’s temper has improved, Rocky is as stolid and affectionate as ever, and Buster needs lots and lots of attention, and digs in his cage if he doesn’t get it.

Agatha was a blow, because we all knew it was coming. She was spoiled, and we made a big deal out of her. But at some point: a three-pound cat. You know what’s going to happen.

That’s the thing about shelter work, I guess. You start to love the ones who you know won’t get adopted. They’re the ones you come back to every week: the sick ones, the spastic, the angry, the timid, the fearful.

So K. and I are cleaning out cages this morning, and Mr. Pokey’s got his eye on Ebony. Mr. Pokey’s one of those water cats, always wanting to play with the stream of water in the sink or the tub when we’re cleaning up, and always wanting to wait by the door to the dog room. Only today he’s prowling around, growling up at Ebony in her cage, and she growling back down at him, until they’re totally locked into each others’ attention and we don’t even realize it, and K. is doing the cages on that side and I’m on the other side, and she tries to shoo him, and in so doing comes between him and Ebony, and that’s it: he’s all of a sudden wrapped around K.’s wrist and arm, teeth and claws, and he’s hurting her, and she doesn’t want to hurt him and can’t get him off.

She gets him off once and then he’s on her ankle and I take way too long grabbing the big padded gloves and stuffing him into the nearest empty cage.

It was bad. Like, bad bad. He drew some blood, tooth and claw both, deep, and we got K. out to the quiet part of the dog room, and L. patched her up. She went home early.

Cats are fighting, you don’t get between them. I guess that’s one lesson. There’s another one, but I don’t know how much I feel like thinking about it.

My Friday

I wake up to the 0600 NPR weather forecast, and sleepily mishear the announcer’s “four to eight inches” into “forty-eight inches.” Holy shit, I think, blearily, shaving, showering. It’s the blizzard of the new millennium. Student conferences at 0745, and I need to buy fruit juice and cat food before the deluge.

A cup of coffee and a post-shower second forecast listen help. It’s not the apocalypse. It’s four to eight inches. Student conferences go as well as they can, and I have to give a lunchtime presentation, and I’m maintaining the whole day through with aspirin and antitussives and decongestants, with as bad a case of the creeping crud as I’ve had in a long time; a case that my conferees tell me is sweeping through the corps, as well. Chest and throat cough; loss of voice; body aches like I’ve been stuffed in a bag and beaten with a stick. We get good things done, me and the cadets: they figure out smart things to do with their essays, and I do my best not to breathe on them. Regular application of hand sanitizer.

I come home and lie down on the couch. Coat’s a blanket, and that’s about all I have energy for. Church bells ring at 1800, and Tink and Zeugma know that means it’s time for dinner. They get fed, and I go back to bed, until I hear odd cat vocalizations. Tink and Zeugma, up on their hind legs, looking out one of the front windows at the snow coming down on the porch and front yard and sidewalk.

OK, I figure. I’ll indulge them. The front porch has only two exits — steps down to the front yard, and door back into the house — and I can easily herd my two indoor kitties back inside should they get too ambitious in their engagement with the big white snowy world.

I let them out onto the porch, and Tink is well-behaved, sniffing the bounds, examining the perimeters, making sure everything’s safe.

And Zeugma takes a blind leaping header out into the snow, four feet below.

She gambols and frolics up the side yard, intent on the bush where the birds she watches from the kitchen window rest, and it’s all I can do to eventually herd her back up in the front door, and that’ll be the last of her outdoor activities. The girl is far too bold for out of doors.