Friday, June 24, 2016

7 Quick Takes 35: My Inner Chinchilla

1. It's been a hectic summer with family comings and goings, and I don't handle change well. One day, while in a spin about managing the fluctuating household, I remarked to my elder daughter how flustered I was by the constant change in routine, and she quipped, "You have an inner chinchilla." And, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

2. For a start, Chinchillas don't like changes in temperature. This made them about the worst pet to hit the British market back in the 80s. Bring a Peruvian animal thousands of miles to cold, damp houses. Great idea. I think they all caught colds and died. Me - I'm British, so I about die every Mississippi summer. I know when it's really heating up because I get lethargic for about two weeks, accompanied by a slow decline into depression. Honestly, there have been times when I got up, looked at the thermometer outside the kitchen door, and cried.
And apparently, chinchillas don't like high heat and humidity either, so they're with me on this.

3. In the wild, they hide in crevices in rocks and only socialize with other chinchillas.I completely empathize. Even a low-key, part time lecturing job got too stressful, so I'm working on building a home business that means I'll get to face people even more infrequently.

Go away. I'm a rock.

4. Chinchillas have a low stress level/ are highly strung. Absolutely me. For example, I have a phone phobia. I dread making calls of any kind. I can put off the simplest inquiry for weeks. I don't care what people say about email and texting making our communication impersonal - as far as I'm concerned, it's a godsend. If I have to think for more than five minutes about what to have for dinner, I start to panic. I feel sick just at the thought of flying. You get the idea.

5. Chinchillas are not recommended for young children. I feel that I'm pretty hopeless with young children. I can about handle my own, with lots of accompanying stress, because we breed little geeks, but ask me to help out at the church nursery, and I'd run the proverbial mile. I'm stumped by a preschooler who doesn't want to read Moby Dick , listen to Wordsworth, or do fraction problems.

"'I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er dale and hill...'
What? You want 'Mary had a little lamb'?
Sorry, don't know that one."

6. Chinchillas require gentle handling or they can bite. I'm sensitive, and one perceived negative comment  - to me or by me - can have me sleepless for nights. On the other hand, although I'm introverted and soft-spoken on the outside, inside I'm a seething mass of snark. This is probably what leads to #4.

7. And finally, most chinchillas are grey. I'm definitely getting there :)

Chinchillas of the world, unite. Actually, no. Go hide in your own crevice. But if you feel like popping out, check out This Ain't the Lyceum for more Seven Quick Takes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Off My Shelf: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

An occasional series where I share a review of a book I've had sitting on my shelf for a while and finally get around to reading/ rereading. I'm blackmailing myself to get through some of the backlog by posting about them!

Orlando is a re-read for me. I picked up a library copy several years ago, then bought a Folio Society edition last year. I should have started on one of my many unread books (Folio subscription addiction), but this one called to me, partly because it's short and my long reads keep getting interrupted at this time in life, but partly because the prose was playing in my head every time I glanced at the spine.

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West
Orlando is Virginia Woolf's attempt to turn biography on its head. It's fiction, but is presented as non fiction, even including an index. Orlando's life itself refuses to conform to the template for all standard biographies. His story begins as a sixteen year-old nobleman in the Elizabethan age, and when it ends, she is thirty-six, and the year is 1928 (Woolf's present day). No, that wasn't a typo - Orlando wakes up part way through the book to discover he has become a woman.

Perhaps the only convention that Woolf aims for - and she even achieves that unconventionally - is to evoke the spirit of each age Orlando lives through. She explores the question of  how much we are an individual, and how much we are shaped by the world around us. Only in the Victorian period does Orlando feel out of sync with her life, which she remedies by taking a few minutes to find a husband and embrace the conventionality of the age.

Like Orlando, Woolf and her circle, the Bloomsbury Group, tended to bend and transgress societal boundaries. Although she and her husband had a deep love for one another, her life was coloured by an intense Sapphic affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose family owned the Knole estate in Kent. Orlando, of course, is Vita, not even thinly disguised - several photographs of 'Orlando' included in the book are of Vita.

Orlando is described as Woolf's love letter to Vita Sackville-West. While this is indisputably true, I also read it as a love letter to England. The anchor in Orlando's life is the great oak tree on his estate, whose roots, he feels, are the ribs that help anchor it - and him - to the earth. Although a prevailing theme of the novel is literature, its symbol is Orlando's poem "The Oak Tree", four hundred years in the making. The Spirit of the Age is found not only in the literary lights, but in the very atmosphere of the country, from the bold weather of Elizabeth's reign to the fertile, damp miasma of the Victorian age. Poetry, literature, life, love - Orlando never finds the answers to these questions, that bend and twist with each new century. Only the land remains a constant one can trust.

Admittedly, Woolf is not for the casual reader. But if you are serious about literature, enjoy quirky novels, and a good dose of poetry - or you're an Anglophile or bibliophile - Orlando is worth a read.


Friday, June 10, 2016

7 Quick Takes 33: A Tale of the Pen and the Spirit

Or, a would-be novelist's tale of vanity and woe.

Or, why I'm changing my blog name.

1. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, in a neighbourhood where a single man in possession of a fortune - call him Ishmael - must be in want of a wife...

Rewind the purple prose.

That is to say, a long time ago, I had aspirations to write novels, inspired mainly by being homesick, bored, and unemployed in Mississippi. Because of the homesickness, I started writing very British themes, including a reimagining of an Arthurian legend. In the rounds and rounds of submissions (back in the days when you actually had to send letters), one got misdirected due to a printing error in a directory, and I got a call from England from a gentleman who had set up his own press to help small-time and local authors. He wanted to publish the novel, and was willing to put the money up front and have me pay back my own share from profits. It seemed like a good gamble.

In anticipation of literary fame, I bought web hosting and a domain name and decided to use it for a blog. I called it The Pen and the Spirit because I was going to write about writing and spiritual matters. Original, I know - but I'm terrible at titles. I found a stained-glass style picture of a man with a quill, which fitted nicely. I must have had lots of that stuff called time, because I ran it as two blogs that no one read.

2. Meanwhile, the novelist's career wasn't panning out. The publisher sent the book to the press before I'd finished the final edits - and it came back with a glaring typo on the back blurb. I wasn't sure enough of myself to demand he make the printer redo the run, so there it was. Friends and family bought it, and said some nice things, but the publicity promised turned out to be minimal. Gradually, I got rid of my author's copies, and just have one tucked at the back of my shelf. No, I'm not revealing the title. Surprisingly, it wasn't that catchy.

3. So, the blog lapsed. But I didn't give up writing. I joined an online critique group, and started submitting again. Eventually, a combination of rising enthusiasm and free blogs from Google enticed me to begin blogging anew. I called the new blog... The Pen and the Spirit because I couldn't think of a better name, even though it was only going to be about writing. To be precise, about neglected classics and releases from small presses and independent/self-publishers. I enjoyed researching and sharing about quirky reads and authors. I even got a handful of followers.

4. Then, I landed an agent who "loved" my medieval mystery. I signed a contract and got to tell everyone that I had a literary agent. Except she was the only one who turned out to love the book, because she didn't manage to sell it. We went back and forth on what to do next, and I started a twentieth century cozy mystery inspired by Edith Nesbit's characters, but I got stuck revising it.

5. My life was being consumed by an ambition - publishing - that never came to fruition. Eventually, sanity intervened. I decided to take a break, perhaps for good. Not writing for several months was cathartic. I was free of the stress I'd invented for myself. But then, a trip to Dorset and the home of Lawrence of Arabia set a story going in my head. I banged it out for a year. This time, I had a plan. I was going to edit it, try to get a local publisher, and if that didn't work, then self-publish. At least it would be out there...

6. ... but I got unexpectedly pregnant. For me, this means 24-hour nausea and vomiting for several months. I couldn't edit a word, and when I did start to feel better, I knew it was no use preparing a manuscript for publication when I'd have a baby and no time to promote it.

So, once my days no longer began with an intimate look at the toilet bowl, I set myself the small goal of blogging again, and linking to Seven Quick Takes twice a month. And I renamed the blog... The Pen and the Spirit, because I still couldn't come up with anything else. Did I mention I suck at titles?

7. Now, a little over a year later, and with a little wisdom gathered from reading other Seven Quick Takes linkups, our family came to the conclusion that everything had to go out of the window to save our sanity - even the job that actually paid money. I finally admitted to myself that what I'm actually best at doing is helping others to write better, one-on-one. I decided, once the aforementioned sanity is somewhat restored, to slowly build up a writing services business. But now I really needed a new name to convey me and my business and be a 'brand' across all 'platforms' (see, I've got the lingo). And... another thing that Seven Quick Takes has done for me is honed my titling (is that a verb?). After some vague meditation, inspiration struck: The Runcible Pen. It fits. It's quirky, a little old fashioned, but with a sense of dedication to the craft of writing. At least, that's what it said to me. I tried it out on my daughters, and they didn't quite say "meh", but almost. But I'm stubborn, so I paid for the domain name so that no one else could get rich off it. And here we are.

L--d! said my mother, what is this story all about?--
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick--And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.

For Quick Takes from people who probably have fewer novels under the bed, skip on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, May 27, 2016

7 Quick Takes 32: Geriatric Mother: One Year On

Apparently I have survived a year. At least, I know the baby's a year old. I have trouble remembering my exact age. A few reflections, a little rambling due to #6.

The birthday boy already knows how to take selfies.
Not the best photo, but it shows nicely the chaos
 that went into baking a handful of cupcakes.

1. Most people kindly said, "It'll give you a new lease of life." Only one friend at church, who started having children at thirty-nine, said, "Don't believe them. I was exhausted." And... she was right. You out there in your early thirties, with several small children. Think you're exhausted? You're frisking about like Bambi. Me, I'm more like Bambi's father. 'Nuff said.

Young parents: your life is like you fart butterflies. (I didn't say that out loud, did I?)

2. What having children late does do is slow down time. The cliche that the years go by faster and faster was getting more and more true - but now, it seems a lifetime ago that I was counting down the half dozen years to an empty nest and plotting what to do with my future. Instead of years, I now count my hours playing, strolling, rocking; instead of huddling in my own little bubble, I watch the universe unfold through a baby's eyes. That, and plotting how to use pension funds to pay for his college :)

3. I don't have to waste time reading child care manuals. We just follow the baby's lead and trust we'll recall enough to get by. My mantra is "Out eldest is studying Mathematics at MIT; I must know how to bring up children." Or create mentally scarred mathematicians. But many of the best mathematicians are mentally unstable, so.. ahem, on to the next one.

4. One thing I have learned without cracking open a book is that there is a reason "boys" rhymes with "noise". His love of noise is incredible. When our contractors were running a compressor for their nail gun, he yelled along. Getting out the vacuum cleaner is party time. He shouts randomly just for the fun of it.

5. Less is more. Apart from socks and a couple of books, I've bought no new clothes or toys, but, thanks to the cats, our home is full of enriching activities like anatomy (whatever half-eaten animal the cats leave on the rug) or a second language (from meowing to hairball coughing, the baby's cat is fluent), and adventures in nutrition (hello, cat food).

6. I know what full-blown mastitis is. Got it the day after he turned one this past weekend - it went from pain to fever and chills in about 30 minutes. Luckily, I nipped the worst of it it in the bud, but I've still had to spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa. And just when I was going to spend the week tackling all the chicken coop/yard jobs I'd left undone for months. Oh, darn.

7. You can still achieve your lifelong ambitions. I've had a copy of Moby Dick sitting on my shelf for about twenty-five years because I know I ought to read it, but it's about whaling and I'm a vegetarian. Enter... Cozy Classics. Classic books with felted illustrations, in twelve words. Who needs hundreds of pages describing the whaling industry when you can have:

Come to think of it, that's pretty much a metaphor for the past year.

My husband says he's still having trouble following the twelve-word plot of Jane Eyre, though.

For more quick takes, hop on over like Thumper to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, May 13, 2016

7 Quick Takes 31: Things I Wish I'd Told My Students

Because it's over! Not just finals, but the job. Time to regroup, reclaim our family life, and then on to pastures new. And a few reflections on things I ought to have said in class: the good, the bad, and the ugly...

1. I know I look pretty old standing up here (because, unlike most of your mothers, I don't dye my hair and wear make up), but I really remember being your age, and I really, really feel compassion for you. It's just, I have to be your teacher, not your friend.

Me in class on a good day...

2. I get much more excited about the student who struggles his way from a D to a C (or even B!) than the know-it-all who breezes through with his A. OK, I try to say this on occasion, but I doubt they believe it.

3. Just hand me the exams and let's all go home. There are usually two types who stay for the whole university-appointed three hours: the over diligent who already have a solid A, and the desperate who aren't going to pull their grade up at the eleventh hour. The air conditioning's been going full blast and I'm freezing, I've read exams until my brain has given out, I've scrolled through Facebook ten times, I'm dying for a cup of tea. It's painful to watch you scribbling against the clock - let's take pity on one another and call it a day.

4. Please cover up that cleavage. Here's a poncho I have just for the purpose. I never had any problem telling guys to hitch up their trousers and not flash everyone their underwear, but there's all this baggage attached to requesting that girls have a certain minimum dress code: you're suggesting they're asking to be assaulted, that they can be labelled for what they wear, that their body isn't their own, that it's always the other person's problem if they cause distraction, and so on, and so on.  No, I just want a level of attire that shows both respect for everyone in class and suggests you are learning how to dress and act for the occasion. That, incidentally, is why I also ban swearing and blasphemy - and told a student not to wear a baseball camp with "f**k Trump" written on it.

Now that creates a proper learning environment.

5. I'll say this only once. I never dared say anything less than three times - and maybe that wasn't enough for some. Maybe saying it once would have trained them better.

6. Whine all you like. I've given in my notice and got an exit letter of recommendation from my department head - and he's retiring and moving to Wyoming. Burn. A very small, naughty part of me longed for a student to make a complaint so I could say this :)

7. And finally, I really, really wish I had said this:

For more life lessons in seven digestible bites, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Book Review: Rethinking Women's Health: A Guide for Wellness

When I first moved to Starkville, MS, there wasn't much here. A handful of restaurants, three grocery stores, none large. Certainly no health foods - I had to join a cooperative that bought from a business in the Ozarks. Slowly, resources for health and wellness are growing: a large health food and bulk section in Kroger, a summer farmer's market, a CSA buying club - and Alison Buehler.

Alison lives a couple of miles down the road from me, in the Homestead Education Center, where she and her family have founded a way of life they share with others. As well as offering classes in health and homesteading, she's worked hard to attract nationally-known figures such as Sandor Katz and Glennon Melton (of Momastery fame) to Starkvegas (local joke).  I don't get out to her programs as often as I would like, so, when I saw in her newsletter that she was offering a year's membership for those who pre-ordered her book, I thought I had nothing to lose and might just give myself the nudge I needed to take advantage of what's on offer almost on my doorstep. So any bribery involved in this review is by me to myself ;)

The book is divided into three main sections: maiden, mother, and wise elder. Each is part manifesto, part resource, and part memoir of Alison and her family's journey into health. Alison begins by setting out her passionate vision for how we as a society might better manage each stage of life. She then moves into a survey of current options for health issues related to these stages, with an extensive bibliography for further reading. Alison is trained as a qualitative researcher (among many talents!), and applies it to women's health, looking for places where data, stories, and observations point to the same solutions. Not only has she trawled the latest information to bring solutions to women's health problems, but she models a research process that everyone can use in their own health plan. All this aside, I find Alison's voice at her best when she is sharing her personal story, illustrating her belief that stories themselves have the power to heal.

Published by Mississippi press, Sartoris, the book has a regional feel, speaking to a state that badly needs to focus on health issues. [Side bar: as I found out when I was pregnant, there isn't a single birthing center in Mississippi.] Yet the message is national. If you're looking for resources, inspiration, or affirmation that you are not alone in your struggle to achieve wellness, Rethinking Women's Health is for you.

Looking for more? Connect with Alison on her site The Healing Wall or the Homestead Education Center.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Seven Quick Takes 30: Life of my Time

1. In the interests of truth, I begin with apologies to J.G. Ballard for shamelessly hijacking his sci fi short story title, "Time of Passage". My plagiarism was inspired by the fact that I'm living on two time planes right now - real life and Seven Quick Takes life, which is several weeks behind after taking time out to go to Boston and Cambridge (I'm getting good at not conflating the two places into Boston). Hence the random news in attempt to catch up.

2. After getting back from his gourmet breakfasts at the Bed and Breakfast in Cambridge (which for him meant as much cheese as he could get away with eating), the baby tried going on hunger strike when faced with the usual boring oat cereal and scrambled eggs. This consists of turning his head away and laying his face down on the high chair tray so there is no way anyone can sneak that evil, poisonous food into his mouth.

3. In sympathy with the baby, my students apparently went on study strike while I was gone. Foolishly, I gave them an extra week for their research essays and class prep instead of demanding they hand it in before I leave. The result was that almost no one managed to turn in an essay that met the minimum page requirement, and no one at all had read the assigned stories. How did I find out? I asked a simple reading comprehension question about Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and no one could answer.

Apparently even watching the video version was too much

4. My husband regularly reads the blog to find out what he's up to, in his words. After the previous entry he announced, "You make our family sound freakish." Freakish? Coming from a mathematician? A pure mathematician at that? All I can say is, pots and kettles...

5. Whether or not we're freakish, there's certainly evidence that we're reclusive. Packing for the holiday, I realized that the baby only had two pairs of decent trousers.  Plenty to see us between washes. Otherwise, he spends his time at home in baggy, stained sweatpants so he can a) wear cloth diapers (most baby clothes are made to fit disposables) and b)  I don't have to worry about his his clothes while he climbs in the dishwasher/ eats cat food/ chews computer cords.
And hey, the semester is nearly over, so I can enjoy getting out even less.

And to finish up with two totally unrelated points...

6. In the midst of all our insanity, an interlibrary loan arrived, but I was too busy to read it. The title? Breaking Busy: how to find peace and purpose in a world of crazy.

7. We've been working on getting our middle daughter to curb her snarkiness, but it's hard when it's in your DNA. For example, so many people have been remarking how the baby looks just like his sister that I'm starting to have to fight the urge to reply sweetly, "Yes. Except for the penis."

Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes...

Looking for more snark? Visit the other link ups at This Ain't the Lyceum.