Science. Lore. Ideas.

Here are tens of thousands of words about the things that interest me.
I can be contacted at joanmenefee@yahoo.com.



October 5, 2010


My summer book list (partial):

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten
Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft
David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Kazuo Ishiguru, When We Were Orphans
Robert Morgan, Boone
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze
Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

September 15, 2010



Five months! I read more blogs now. Yet I make fewer contributions to this, uh, festival myself.

The game of school is rejoined. I have been enjoying the twice daily bike commute very much.

April 21, 2010



A mere four-month absence. "Give the buried flower a dream," writes Frost. His dream in an early spring in northern Wisconsin is violet, viola, cherry blossoms starting, a host of bulbs, of course. We've had a string of bright, breezy days California might envy.

"Through the interstices of things ajar," come nightly bird songs, says Frost. The night-jars must have captivated him and made him prone to pun.

December 12, 2009

Because I don't think this won the contest I entered it in...

What Words Will Do

Foresight, candor, poise, tenacity, resilience, good humor in error, patience with the trivial, love for the mundane, attentiveness to all, or at least all that is physically noticeable.

Regret, prejudice, infirmity, compromise, repetitiveness, fatigue with everyone and everything, stupor.
There was a time long ago when pronunciation would have been the biggest problem with the words above . Since I was used to short words, I would have rushed to put emphasis somewhere quickly, like sitting down when “Baby Elephant Walk” stopped in a game of musical chairs. Until I got the hang of words, I became tangled in consonants, my tongue huge in my mouth as I failed to say the word as I’d heard it. There were silent letters, diphthongs and triphthongs, rules and exceptions to rules. I thought these traps led to the greatest tragedies of life. On the playground, in front of the rhododendrons I’d thrown up in when overcome by the stench of tar, I repeated failed words to myself—my elementary school mantras. Eventually, though, I was fluent in my first language. And I used this fluency to tell a girl in my class who had just attended her grandfather’s funeral that “people died and she should learn to accept that.” That was third grade.
Later I looked at lists like these and saw only prefixes and suffixes. “Fore” means “ahead” or “in front of”; “-or,’ “-ity,” “-ence,” “-ice,” and “-ness” are signs of abstraction; like lighthouses on a rocky coast, these -fixes signify masses solid yet invisible beneath fog, which itself, though dark and heavy, cannot be stored in a box. I liked the parts of words I could break off and stick to other things like I liked Tinker Toys and Legos and Lincoln Logs. The world was all orifices and surfaces, flavors and textures and occasional warnings to keep my hands to myself.
Only a short time after that, I caught anagram fever. In the pockets of “foresight,” there were “fig throes,” a “rose fight” and a “strife hog.” “Compromise” was “O! ice romps.” “Nice tape” was the bland forbearance of those who could speak but chose not to, a choice it would take me many years to understand. I was always the one who shouted out the answer if I knew it, who won the word find games so many times my fourth grade teacher had to silence me, raising his ruler if I dared open my dictionary. Anagrams were one of the few places where cheating was no temptation.
Words fueled a strange fire. I knew the meanings of words as soon dictionaries took up residence in my life. But some words, especially those deadly abstractions, eluded me. I was aware of the world’s complexities without being touched by them. I kept whittling kindling and learning the dimensions of things whose depth I could not guess. It became a parlor trick and then a profession.
I teach eighteen-year-olds to write. I offer them ways of understanding books and history. I pace the front of a room outfitted with a whiteboard and smelly pens, and I write words on that whiteboard, which I loudly proclaim, my chin jutting just as it did when I found a word in the dictionary before anyone else in my class.
“Regret” I still puzzle over, for its lack of adornment, its spare clean lines, and its resistance to anagrams. A word without handholds, it floats about me now.
“Patience” is dormancy, a sleep that allows space for surprises. At its root is the idea of suffering. When I learned this, I remember being satisfied. Sometimes I am pleased when a stranger admires my patience aloud. Sometimes this compliment enrages me.
It’s likely that as you read the lists above, you, too, have begun to think about what adults would do with them.
Wouldn’t we pile the words into a pyre, fitting them into cordwood stacks, lengthwise and cross-wise? Don’t we pause as the words reach eye level and we confront the fact that we are reaching upwards to make our pyre bigger, living on tip-toe and walking further and further away to gain any sense of what we are making?
We recognize that those traits which make us easy to live with or admirable in some way are also those which infuriate or bewilder our loved ones. In me, my slowness to anger is of a piece with my laziness. Sometimes, it’s just too much trouble to express anger and so much easier to seethe. And this, you see, looks an awful lot like patience.
Foresight and regret lock against one another, snug as bugs in a rug.
Please return to those words—candor, prejudice, poise, softness, and the rest—and turn the shapes you have been working on so long. I am a teacher, after all. I give busywork from time to time.
As you weigh the merits of my metaphor (“Are words really most comparable to wood? Or are they strands of thread or time-release pills or pitted fruits?”), I will hum another Henry Mancini song. With my students, I sing the “Jeopardy” theme. Such simple tunes free the mind to wander.
Think about the way you used to step anxiously around that circle of chairs as the music played, wondering if in the end you would have to shove your friend aside to plant yourself on a seat. Indications of who you were and who you might become emerged in that crude, silly, elegantly simple game. And the big people watched, perhaps even saw themselves in the boy who sat down in every chair he passed, just in case; or the girl who held up the line looking at each chair for long seconds, foresight, poise, repetitiveness, tenacity. Da-tada-da-ta-da-da-da-da.
Sometime in my early 30s, I began to make up words in everyday conversation. When you spend your whole life manipulating language, you sometimes backform words the way athletes stretch their hamstrings. I will say “verbify” instead of “to make a verb,” for example, because I know that “-ify” is a suffix that often accompanies a verb (as in “modify” or “codify” or “terrify”). Picasso famously said that mastery of a form is but the preamble to systematically breaking the form’s rules. I am impressionable enough to believe that the Spaniard was right.
However, this playfulness can be confusing for college students. Once, when I set a roomful of writing students on what some of them undoubtedly viewed as busywork, I urged them to “micro-groupify right quick,” which meant that I wanted them to divide themselves into groups of three or four. A fellow named Tyler, who has since gone on to teach grade school, turned his swivel chair to face me full on and raised his eyebrow. That tilt of the coin—poise or infirmity?—left him either wondering what correspondence course Ph.D. I had earned or feeling the texture of language as its splinters and burls caught on the soft pads of his fingers.
It is customary in my line of work to argue that something that appears simple is actually complex or that something complex is, in fact, simple. As you might imagine, this can be annoying. For one thing, it makes any statement fragile (“fragilifies” it, if you will). If I were to say that my relationship with words is cyclical, I can bet someone will reply that it is linear. If I were to hum the theme to “The Pink Panther,” someone will sigh and insist that I be serious. If I assert my right to foolishness, someone will point out that I am an awfully privileged and well-educated fool. And a whole chorus will probably want me to get to the damn point (which is located, by the way, in paragraph # 11). As I said, annoying.
Despite all those discouragingly predictable possibilities, I will claim this: through long years of playing with this giant invisible toy, which is also the seat of great seriousness and sorrow, I have learned to put less stock in its power. I no longer believe that I can increase my hold on the world by knowing more words, or by discovering their obscure uses, or even by teaching others how they work. Please don’t pity me my lost faith in language, though, for I believe that better knowledge of tools, including knowledge of a tool’s limitations, leads to sturdier structures. For me, at last, for now, a sturdy structure is a mighty lofty ambition.



December 1, 2009



About you:
What one book would you recommend to the Stout community? Why?

Assuming that this member of the Stout community is willing to spend some time and really dig into a book, I would recommend John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, which was published way back in 1916, when the United States was trying to decide whether or not to become involved in World War I. The argument Dewey makes is reasonably simple: the quality of education in any nation has a direct impact on the quality of its government. Democratic education creates vibrant, just nations. The only catch is that democracy is a messy business, and including all of our citizens—working class and rural people, new immigrants, women—goes against the historical purpose of education, which according to Dewey was protecting the privileges of the rich rather than spreading the goodies around.

I would recommend this book to Stout students, staff, faculty and administrators because we work very hard at Stout to include the excluded, the people Dewey not only cared about, but whose integration with the rest of American society democracy depends on. What we do at Stout is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. John Dewey does a beautiful job of laying that argument out in Democracy and Education. However, you have to have patience to beaver through his discussion of European history, in order to see the point in all its elegance and depth.

Do you remember the first time you read this book? When was it? Did you initially like it?

I read it when I was researching my dissertation, about six years ago. I didn’t like it because the pace was kind of slow and Dewey is not the world’s punchiest writer. But the second time around I could better see the shape of his argument. He demonstrated such amazing breadth of knowledge and compassion for the downtrodden that I couldn’t help but respect and love the book.

How many times do you think you’ve read it? If you’ve read it multiple times, why?

I re-read specific sections for research projects. I read it three times when I was researching my dissertation. I think about it constantly because, as I mention above, it helps me understand my work as a teacher at a public university. I have no doubt that I will pick it up again before long.

How has your opinion of the book changed over time?

It was hard to read. I won’t soft-soap that fact. But it is a book that lives inside me. As I experience new things I measure them against Dewey’s theory about an ideal and just world. I haven’t found his theory lacking in scope, accuracy or insight yet. And I don’t expect to.

If I find you again in 10 years to ask you the same question, do you think you’ll still choose this book as your answer?

For the reasons mentioned in the question above, absolutely. This is a book that every American should read. If you have ever gone to school, worked alongside people different from you, or voted in an election, you should read this book. It will help you understand the massive gift and burden that democracy represents.



Other:
Is there anyone on campus that you’d like me to ask the same question to?

Dr. Charles Bomar. I bet he recommends A Sand County Almanac. If he doesn’t, I think that should also be on this list.




November 19, 2009


I watched the 2001 documentary "Children Underground" last night. Film-maker Edet Belzberg spent a year and change filming homeless children living in a subway station in Bucharest, Romania. She focuses on five of them-- Mihai, a twelve-year-old with bright, memorably crinkly eyes; Cristina, 16-year-old the group leader. who conceals her gender in puffy jackets and close shorn hair (also an anti-lice measure); Ana, a ten-year-old with what looks like a broken nose and a constant, roiling energy that surges and flows from giddiness to desolation in dozens of the film's sequences; Marian, Ana's eight-year-old brother, who seems least able to contend with life on the street; and Macarena, a fourteen-year-old product of Ceaucescu-era orphanages (as is Cristina, the rest of the children have runaway from families in cities outside Bucharest), most frequently seen sniffing a paint called Aurolac (though it is made clear that all of the children do this) so persistently that she no longer takes any measures to hide the rime of paint that edges her lips and nostrils.

In forty years of life in an affluent country, I have become aware that witnessing misery holds dangers for middle-class Americans. I could say that this is a good movie, and it is. I could say that I found it superlatively difficult to watch the children, exposed to danger and indifference, becoming caught in what looks from my remove like hopeless vicious cycles of abuse, poverty, agression, and disease; and it was. My fear, though, is that this film is just another commodity to me. I mean, obviously it is. I have no plans to travel to Romania and help stem this tide of horror. I don't even plan to work on this issue in Dunn or Eau Claire county. I can stretch certain ways: work on environmental sustainability, personal sacrifices small and large related to my values, the donation of money to causes that move me. But other work I cannot (and will not) do.

Therefore, to have watched such horror unfolding and to acknowledge its gravity is a small thing. I respect Belzberg very much for enmeshing her life with those of these children. I respect the Romanian social workers, for not only engaging in the work of getting these children through the month by attempting to provide them medical care, education, and food, but also for hugging them. As I watched one woman gather Ana to her-- and Ana collapse with closed eyes into that embrace-- I realized what strength some people have. Looking beyond lice, the smell of exhaust, feces, urine, rotten food in unbrushed teeth, paint fumes...is not easy.

I often quote Bruno Latour: "We have never been modern." We tell ourselves that we are the most enlightened humans ever to have walked this earth. The rhetoric of enlightenment often seems like more of a pep talk than a description to me. We certainly have ideas about how to build an ideal society, one in which the weak are protected and the strong check their own power automatically and frequently. But my reading of history tells me that we have not made as much progress on these accounts as many of us like to believe. I know that is not an original idea. Neither it is an idea that will inspire a generation to reach further.

When I see Mihai, Cristina, Ana, Marian and Macarena, I must see extrapolations of my world and not inexplicable anomalies. Their condition is intelligible only if I examine the system we have assembled in order to distribute goods and found families, communities, and nations. I cannot hug that wayward sometimes vicious and incomprehensible child. I am not sure if the ability to do so would mark some higher form of consciousness. However, if it were normal to embrace rather than ignore beings like those, none of those people who passed those children daily on the streets of Bucharest could have lived with themselves. According to Belzberg, however, those passersby only reacted to the children in relation to the camera. Angry with the film-maker, the citizens of Bucharest wanted to know why she was so determined to give the world a bad impression of Romania. I understand that impulse, though I disagree with it profoundly. What they were saying is that they were modern, too; they didn't like evidence to the contrary, they no longer saw the homeless children because they were so familiar, and since they had agreed not to see them, they resented others trying to pull them into focus for the wider world. Those visions (or omissions) that bolster our fragile sense of self are the first casualties of the truth. I do believe that Edet Belzberg worked hard to tell the truth. For that, those children who were not saved by her large, powerful eye, might be the smallest bit grateful, to Belzberg, if not to the rest of us.

Belzberg, by the way, was criticized upon the documentary's release, for running tape rather than finding help when many of the most awful events recorded took place. She felt she could do a longer term good by showing what was happening, since to avert the weekly disasters was to pretend that they hadn't been happening for the years prior to her arrival in the children's lives. This was a hard choice she had to make. And there is a scene in the film which suggests that during at least one occasion she and her crew did call for assistance. Overall, though, I think she made an ethically consistent choice. She did not position herself as savior. She showed that she believed in the power of film, and in the power of transparency, to improve political and social conditions for society's most vulnerable members. I will do a bit more research about Romania's child protection laws in the past decade and see if her confidence was warranted. I hope to find progress.

October 19, 2009

Perhaps the only consistent strain in this blog is my bi-annual report of what we found during the highway clean up. Here is the list for this fall:

Love letter (to Joe) "I falling for you..."
Photograph of a young man with a Harley Davidson t-shirt
underwear
garbage can lid
yellow rimmed coffee cup
koozy from a metal company
purple marble packet
packing peanuts
asphalt roof tiles
tarpaper
beer cans
cookie wrappers
plastic milk jugs

October 6, 2009


Ah, algae! Not so very surprisingly, the New York Times reports today that algae bounced back from the fall out of a major asteroid event in less than 100 years.

In my perpetual campaign to keep my mind on the very small, this article is a good spur. The smoke that stalled photosynthesis made it hard for the algae to nourish themselves. I imagine the organisms slow and thick in dormancy, protecting some kernel that could re-ignite when the sun once again was available to the earth's surface. Then the slow ticking of eating and growing began again.

September 23, 2009


I am finally reading the second half of Janet Browne's biography of Charles Darwin. Far too little time spent discussing his eating club. I was amused to learn that it was an owl that ended the practice of eating animals and discussing these gustatory experiences.

Summer is over. Drought continues.

I have been back to school for a few weeks now, and I feel fairly comfortable with my new schedule. I am auditing a Biology course (no lab, sadly) called "Science, Society, and Environment." It is interesting both to get an orderly view of material I have been seeking haphazardly for years now and also interesting to be in the room with another teacher, one who is very engaging and occasionally odd.

It is very very hard to convince students that "Might makes right" is not a system that actually benefits them. It is so easy to believe such a theory if you are never in a position to test it.

September 1, 2009


An item resurrected from the "one word" site:

the tacky thing that loves the world more than staples and glue and thread.

the french kiss of plastic.

the dense tongue of spelunkers.

the length of life hugging itself, like a disease, like a shiny attribute.



June 2, 2009


Composing and decomposing are on my mind. Complementary processes? Jim Crace sits heavy on my shoulder.

I keep having the cutaway house vision. There is a lyrical, breathy discourse about godliness and novel writing at the back of my throat. Some part of me is still so amazed at simultaneity. I think this is because I am a bit of a literalist. Just as I really only believe in barrier methods of contraception, I believe that if something happens I should feel it, and I should know its size by whatever feeling it gives me.

This leads me back to my old belief that only bad people die.

And that if I do things right, all will be well.

Should I write a book about animal shelters, or a book about children's drawings, or a book about beehives. Or perhaps in my great mania for synthesis I should draw a picture of a beehive in an animal shelter and cease reading for a year, then write about that.

Or maybe not write at all. "No ball at all" pace David Duncan.

This is a surprisingly enticing prospect. The only hitch is that I keep having Waterclockian ideas. So I don't quite see giving that up yet.

May 6, 2009


Another highway clean up gone by. We found:

a turkey target (two shots quite close to the center of the target)
some school photographs
a condom wrapper
an infant's playsuit ("Baby Cookie Monster")
packing peanuts
asphalt roof shingles
cardboard
Busch beer cans
some memos (get password!!)
many receipts
plastic ribbon and bags

Two of the Greensense Highway cleaners were wearing flip-flops or flats without socks. An oddball development in outdoor recreational philanthropy. But they're their feet.

March 25, 2009

See my post of December 21, 2008 to understand why this song moves me.

It also merits mention that I retain my irrational affection despite the fact that I have been at odds with PK since the democratic primaries. An unabashed Hilary-man, he let pass very few opportunities to sow doubts about an Obama presidency. Nonetheless, I find him lucid and irritiable, two traits I value highly.

And one more thing: I am pretty sure that Jake Desantis is missing the point, based on the resignation letter he made public today.

He says himself he has "benefited more than most during the economic boom" and "saved enough that [his] family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree."

His retention bonus amount? $742,006.40, after taxes....

The cri de coeur of a person who locked himself into a lifestyle dependent in some keen sense on making more than ten times what I do (along with many other invisible social and environmental costs) simply serves to annoy me. Presumably, Desantis made the deal with AIG after the first wave of the credit swap fallout not out of philanthropic urge, but because that was the decision that made the most sense for him and his family at that moment. Establishing a new set of contacts and learning new corporate rituals can surely be monetized in some sense; no one forced him to take the honorarium for this period of restricted financial expectation.

Now that the gamble looks rougher than it did in 2008, Desantis wants to cast the screeching politicians as the true villains in this piece.

Well, I say, as is often the case, there is plenty of blame to go around. While I do not condone the threats of violence that have occurred, I will not shift my sympathy to these financial industry folks who, as Desantis himself affirms, have done quite well in the last ten years. Given how little money it really takes to sustain a comfortable and meaningful life, it pains me to hear how aggrieved this man sounds about the flak he has been getting.


March 11, 2009

My heroine!


There is an upside to the stricken feeling I have when I know I have wasted an object or resource; it's the satisfaction I experience in finding a use for a stubbornly unre-usable object. Upcycling is a wonderful word. When I hear or read it, I see a bicycle doing a wheelie. There is spinning and torque and no small amount of pleasure. I don't know if it is a word that will ever find its way into a pop song, but I do hope it does.

February 17, 2009


I thought for some reason about writing novels. Silly me. But, really, why did I want to do it in the first place?
I think it had something to do with this:
house-cutaway-wood-furnace_med.jpg
tiny cutaway house


I always loved looking into houses and seeing things going on at the same time. I think it gave me a feeling of power. Omniscience is quite a drug. I also always wanted a dollhouse. Same reasons, I think. I wanted to make everything go together and to see everything at once.

February 12, 2009




Charles_Darwin_aged_51.jpg448px-Alfred_Russel_Wallace_%2824%29.jpg


Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace

Darwin clearly feared the bother his ideas would cause. And, sure, it took him over twenty years to work up the courage to say what he thought. But he did it. He did it.

And Alfred Russell Wallace did it, too. But Wallace felt remorse about the dismantling of the religious architecture of the world that Darwin didn't really appear to. Somehow, that detail makes a difference to me.

February 6, 2009

What follows a story of petty theft and petty redemption best? Let's see here what I have among my grubby beauties of the week.

The ice has begun to melt here, at least for now.
The sky is such a shade of blue. I cannot but believe my heart beats faster just taking it in, like cold water being poured in my mouth so fast most of it falls past my ears.
Watching my husband put line on a fishing rod the other night, I flipped through a poetry book and found this:

The Ingenuities of Debt

These I assume were words so deeply meant
They cut themselves in stone for permanent
Like trouble in the brow above the eyes:
TAKE CARE TO SELL YOUR HORSE BEFORE HE DIES
THE ART OF LIFE IS PASSING LOSSES ON.
The city saying it was Ctesiphon [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ctesiphon],
Which may a little while by war and trade
have kept from being caught with the decayed,
Infirm, worn-out, and broken on its hands;
But judging from what little of it stands,
Not even the ingenuities of debt
Could save it from losses being met.
Sand has been thrusting in the square of door
Across the tessellation of the floor,
And only rests, a serpent on its chin,
Content with contemplating, taking in,
Till it can muster breath inside a hall
To rear against the inscription on the wall.

by Robert Frost (1947)

"The art of life is passing losses on...." Who becomes schooled in that art rules the world. Who pretends to it part-time plants at least one foot in the middle class.

January 25, 2009

Yesterday I received a note from the Russell House at Wesleyan University. The writer apologized for the tardiness of the note, informed me that the tapes I had sent would be digitized and the originals would rejoin the collection. She closed with the phrase, "Better late than never."

In 1991, as I packed my belongings at the end of my senior year of college I thought about what I would miss and what would continue to hold meaning for me throughout my life. I rightly guessed that I would not (or rarely, anyway) return to Middletown, Connecticut. So I walked upstairs from my basement apartment to the first floor reception rooms, found my way to the collection of recordings of poetry readings and took two of them, readings by Charles Wright that had taken place during my career at the University.

The Russell House played host to several readings a year. I worked as an assistant, serving dinner to the poets and novelists who visited campus, setting up the chairs for the readings, making sure coffee and cookies were available afterwards. I was also responsible for recording each reading, which meant setting up a cassette tape recorder on a stool about ten inches from the reading room podium, turning it on at the beginning of the reading, turning the tape over as it ran out, and making sure the tape got filed in a plastic box in the same modified closet where we kept the sherry. (All writers were offered sherry at some point during their Russell House experience.) In exchange, I boarded for free in the basement of the House, which doubled as the Philosophy Department. I deeply enjoyed walking up to the Neoclassical facade and lying among the mature trees in the back lawn that led to the Center for the Humanities. The apartment, however, was dingy and dark, with a tiny kitchen. I memorably started an oil fire in that room the winter I lived in the apartment. I grew hyacinth bulbs on the window sill. My room-mate and I kept a tape player on a shelf above the kitchen table and music poured out of that machine whenever I did not have the television switched on.

I correctly guessed that no one would miss the tapes. I am also sure that there were other tapes in that collection whose absence would have been more quickly discovered. I was so little interested in history that I didn't even check.
My theft was purely sentimental in origin. I wanted a tangible piece of the life that I had led for four years and that was best symbolized in Charles Wright's reading on campus.

The sentiments must have dissipated because the tapes sat in a plastic box in my mother's basement for almost twenty years. I don't think I even played them once after I stole them. Perhaps because I stole them.

December 21, 2008


I have crushes on two men besides my mate: Daniel Craig and Paul Krugman. Here is one reason I swoon for the little nobel-prize winning economist that could: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/20/huxley-wept/

I don't think the Daniel Craig choice requires any form of justification.

December 2, 2008


What the world believes of Venice, Venice knows about the world.


http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/world/europe/03venice.html?_r=1&hp

November 7, 2008



Here is one thing Barack Obama said today during his first post-election press conference.
"This is a major issue, I think it's generated more interest on our website than just about anything," he said. He added that his 10 year-old daughter Malia is allergic, so the family would have to adopt a "hypoallergenic" pooch. But in the spirit of charity, the Obamas hope to take in a dog from a shelter, potentially posing a conflict.
"A lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me," he said to laughs. "Whether we are going to be able to balance those things is a pressing issue in the Obama household."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/07/barack-obama-economy-press-conference

As a biracial person, I recognize the attraction of this language of mutts and shelter. I can also imagine how the image must jar others, for it seems so flippant and self-effacing.

October 9, 2008



The man and the woman enter the room and begin to talk. There is an envelope lying on top of a dresser to their left. The man gestures toward the window, which is closed. The woman fingers the envelope, which has not been opened.

There have been fifty-eight sweaters stored in the dresser. The room was not always this big. But they were not the ones to enlarge it.

Machines began sealing envelopes when they were in their teens. There is a misting wand that sends a pift of moisture toward the top flap of each envelope. Then the paper slip slides into a narrow gap and becomes sealed as it goes tumbling downward. The envelopes collect in a great plastic bin, besides which a worker (a man on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; a woman on Mondays and Fridays) stands, watchful, masked, and silent. Shift after shift starts with a new pair of latex gloves. One out of twelve new workers gets transferred because he or she is allergic to latex or develops sciatica or gets promoted to a job nearer the sealer, nearer the center of power.

October 8, 2008



After an inch and two thimbles full of rain that fell from late morning to evening, I woke up to a green, breathing landscape this morning.

And this is what I thought: Is it clear to people that the temperature alone does not determine a beautiful day in a hilly, forested region? A beautiful day is the product of rain soaking into the ground and greening up the grass. A beautiful day is sometimes marked by the smell of balsam after a stand of mature and healthy pine trees have been tossed by a storm. A beautiful day in the desert or the plains or the coast combines a different group of time-based factors. A beautiful day is changefulness. It's thirty five at 5 am and sixty at 2 in the afternoon. It's the fog hovering over a lake. It's the dew on the trees evaporating drop by drop.

Eighty degrees in a vacuum or in a dessicated, limp forest is not beautiful at all.

That would have been true for me had global warming not become the defining condition of my life.

October 7, 2008



Here I am agreeing with D. Brooks and appreciating his prose style, all in one fell swoop:

"This is more than a mortgage problem. We live in a world in which trillions of dollars can move instantly, but they are in the hands of human beings who are, by nature, limited in knowledge, and subject to self-deceptions and social contagions. By one count, financial crises are twice as prevalent now as they were 100 years ago.This is more than a mortgage problem. We live in a world in which trillions of dollars can move instantly, but they are in the hands of human beings who are, by nature, limited in knowledge, and subject to self-deceptions and social contagions. By one count, financial crises are twice as prevalent now as they were 100 years ago."

And here's the column from which this mordant observation was yanked: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/opinion/07brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&oref=slogin

I'm reminded of the Laurie Anderson song from the 80s, "Language is a Virus." I believe she sometimes had that old beat dude, William, what's his name?, Burroughs, yes that's it, onstage with her as she played a blue electric violin and trilled paeans to our quizzical fragility. We are good at self-deception, folks. That's the millenial memo. In my secret heart, I know how the nugget of truth applies to me. How it hurts and heals at the same time.

September 5, 2008


Wednesday, I made way to the Dunn County Justice Center, where, by the way, I got married three years ago under the benevolent eye of Judge Smeltzer. The night before I had called the Jury Hotline and learned that Juror #29, a.k.a., me, was slated to appear for duty. Oh, the dismay. September 3 also happened to be the first day of school. I had a few pity parties, sent a few emails to the students I had not yet met, and set the alarm for 6:30. Now, I live less than a mile from the courthouse and my appearance was not scheduled until 8:30. Nonetheless, I was nervous. I know, I know. It's not like I was on trial or anything. But to understand my relationship with authority you have to know this:

When I was in first grade, there was a boy named Larry who was in third grade. Larry took a shine to me, I guess. Larry was a black kid who was getting bussed across town to my elementary school and instead of this awful dislocation making him withdrawn as it did Marcela and Michael (the two other african-american east side kids enduring this purgatory), it made him boisterous and outgoing. So Larry would demand that I come see him when we were out for recess on the backfield. This is obviously a very complicated story, but for me at seven, it was a very simple story. I did not like strange, older boys making demands on me. So I told my mother. And my mother called the principal's office. And one day, I got called out of class and led by a secretary to the principal's office. She pointed to a big wooden chair (shiny maple, I believe) and I sat on it, unaware of the telephone calls and uncomfortable at being singled out of my normally placid school life. I remember the door to the principal's office to my right. It was pebbled glass. Also maple. The carpet was a strange pinkish-purple. My feet did not touch the ground. I heard a man yelling. I saw the shadows of two kids, boys I assumed. The yelling continued. I became short of breath. Then the sobs came. The secretary popped from behind her desk and asked me what was wrong. But I was so consumed with sobbing that I couldn't speak. I was apparently loud too. The yelling inside the principal's office stopped and the principal, Mr. Turville, came out and began trying to comfort me. No one could convince me that I hadn't done anything wrong.

I remember little else about that day, and recalling it since has been painful indeed; I feel certain that Larry was not dangerous or bad. He was just trying to figure his world out. And I, after all, was one of the other three brown kids on the back field. I cringe at the idea of his being reprimanded for singling me out. I wonder if he has worked out his feelings about segregation and desegregation in the thirty years that have passed since this incident occurred. Especially in light of Obama's image being hung in effigy at George Fox College this fall, all of this seems so very complicated and sad.

So, as you see, I am somewhat ambivalent about the prospects of justice in our world and I cower before maple benches.

I did not end up serving on a jury this month. I only visited the courthouse twice. One case concerned an accident; the other kidnapping and custody.

I am uncharacteristically hopeful about the election today. Ask me tomorrow, and you may well get a different answer.

August 26, 2008


As if you need any more urging, do not make crows angry with you. They remember faces!

tp:www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin


August 19, 2008


Anyone who doubts that politics influences the social fabric of the nation which in turn influences the physical environment need only look to the deregulation of the airlines in the early 1980s. By the time I was near the end of high school, these regulatory changes had trickled down to the open market and plane ticket prices were falling. When it came time to think about the future, it seemed natural that I should try to travel far from my home state of Oregon for my post-secondary schooling. So I applied to schools in Iowa, Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts and California. I refused to file an application to the state universities of Oregon or, for that matter, to any private university in the state. Why? Because that seemed beneath my prospects.

I got into the Iowa, Ohio and, eventually (i.e., off the waitlist) Connecticut schools, to the mild dismay of my mother, who was proud of me but better able to understand what these admissions meant. She was dismayed both from a financial perspective and from an emotional perspective. She stuffed down her fear of detachment, however, because as she very logically pointed out, she had been shipped east on a train for college and had also attended boarding school in California from the age of fourteen onwards.

Her financial butterflies were stilled by airline deregulation. As if from heaven, coupons came raining down on our household. Hundred dollar round-trip tickets with grocery purchases. I think my first six tickets back and forth from Connecticut were financed in this way. Flying was so cheap, in fact, that she came east three times and during my spring breaks we travelled to Frederiksted, Bermuda, St. Croix, Virgin Islands and Cancun, Mexico. Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that anybody could have traveled as we did during those years. (Tally it up: I was flying back and forth from Portland, Oregon twice a year plus making a plan journey of approximately 500 miles east or south.) We were not wealthy, though. We were (and are) middle class. It was a decision about allocation of available funds that many in my social circle could have made. And it was the wrong one from an environmental perspective. Flat wrong.

And so I became accustomed to travel, never thinking about the pounds of carbon being released into the atmosphere as the sometimes empty planes made their way to La Guardia via Chicago or Denver. My senior quote, prescient and aspiring, was a line from "Don't Let Go the Coat" on the Who's 1984 album "Face Dances": "So I'll spend my life tearning down the runway/ Sure to get the hang of hanging in there someday."

After university, I traveled to Europe, again taking for granted the necessity of long-distance airplane travel. The middle class, of which I am but one member, was remaking itself in the image of the wealthy: flying west, east, north and south, discovering for itself what its poor, benighted ancestors could only read about in books. Our experiences were changing us in ways both bad and good. It's true enough that I became aware of political systems other than my own, that I viewed difference in a more subtle if not perfect way as a result of living among people culturally other to me, that I became adaptable and open-minded in ways that I might not otherwise have done. But the idea that was never challenged was that "away" was where growing up happened and the further away you went the more grown up and sophisticated you became.

What I have learned in the years after my European experience is that there is much to see and be captivated by everywhere. But I, having grown up awash in media so intent on telling me that glamor and valor and status and authenticity lay in a hazy, farflung elsewhere, could only learn that once I was able to begin a sentence at a cocktail party, "When I lived in Prague...." So who am I to begrudge the twenty-year-olds of today what I had? Of course, I have no right.

But what I now know (and what those twenty-year-olds should know) is that jet fuel burned for the satisfaction of curiosity and a sense of cultural inadequacy is killing the planet by filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Sadly, I suspect that even if I had known that at twenty it would have been hard to get me to stop travelling. My sense of inadequacy was deep and my resources were great enough to allow me to redress the wrong of myself in whatever way seemed logical.

The other interesting by-product of all this is that I, along with a large number of the friends I made in grade and high school, now live far from their parents and their native land. Here's my state, province, and country tally: California, Colorado, New York, Vermont, British Columbia, New South Wales. I readily acknowledge that in this nation it was ever thus. We are a bright and restless bunch. Future generations, it seems, will pay for our brightness and restlessness, as they will pay for our romanticization of foreign landscapes.


July 29, 2008


An addendum to my July 17 post: I think many of us look too often to knowledge for comfort when comfort may not be available.

Less and less do I think it a good thing that I have been engaged most of my life in self exploration and the pursuit of happiness.

More and more do I think that this is part of what has led us to the global warming impasse.

I have heard too many times in the last decade that we will succeed in solving our energy and emissions problems because we must. This statement is both illogical and dangerous.

I was relieved when I learned that not everyone in the world considers seriousness a character flaw. Even my own mother, whom I adore and who says many things more plainly and forcefully than I do, has conceded that the seriousness in me she once decried was worth holding onto.

And yet the worst thing in the world seems to be opening oneself up to the label of "downer."

But what do you do when you have an abundance of evidence that suggests that the problem is very serious and the answers, so far, are trivial and insufficient?

What do I do?

July 17, 2008


For some reason I am remembering once again a parable I heard in a college sociology class. It is the parable of the poisoned fish. It is notable because it is an example of the oral tradition coexisting comfortably with modern social science. Though I don't remember how the topic emerged, I can imagine Hubert O'Gorman telling the story in response to a student question about how depressing sociology was and how hopeless it made her feel. The tale is simple: a couple buys a house with a pond in the back yard. Into it, they put a pair of fish. Less than a week later, they awaken to discover one of the fish floating dead on the surface of the pond and the other still placidly circling below. They call someone to help them figure out what has happened. The person can only test the water to determine whether it is toxic. So he does so. He tells the couple that the water is horribly toxic, filled with substances that shut down the dead fish's organs systematically, almost as if the water were programmed to do so. The couple asks, quite logically, "How is it that the other fish still lives?" The researcher shrugs. "All I can tell you," he says, "is that the water is poison."

I have made plenty of jokes in the last eighteen years about being the poisoned fish who is still swimming. They are jokes laced with bitterness and bewilderment.

I believe Professor O'Gorman died of cancer. I wrote a poem about him my senior year of college. I know he found me a thoroughly average student. My B- in the course told me so. I respected him, though, and tried to get smarter partly in response to what he laid before me.

July 8, 2008


Surveying the basement, I note that little has changed down here since May 2007, when there were three inches of water on the floor and D. and I found ourselves dragging a drenched beige carpet up the stairs. My plan is to move some boxes around so that there is more space. However, this will also entail sweeping and, no doubt, the discovery of things I would rather not know about. I like to think there are whole ecosystems about which I am ignorant and blissfully so. But innocence always undergoes the cave in known as experience. So I will begin stalking this damp cavern looking for trouble.

Also: just a word to confirm that I did indeed watch the Federer-Nadal men's singles final at Wimbledon and what an amazing and at times breath-taking match it was. Why is it so compelling to watch two very evenly matched athletes spend themselves before my very eyes? It's akin to Greek myth, I think. I imagine the tearing down of mountains, the thunderous all-consuming noise of physical work. Down to a teary John McEnroe thanking the players for their whirlwind I enjoyed the whole dang thing.

June 27, 2008


Writing work has taken me to "Hamlet," an occasion which found me telling again the story of "This above all to thine own self be true" and puzzling over the meaning of Polonius' character in this play.

It all started when my husband and I began discussing "Gilligan's Island." D. remembered enjoying an episode where a theatre producer is marooned on the island and the castaways decided to mount a musical production of the Dane's dilemma. He then sang a snatch from one of the musical selections: "NEIther a BORrower or a LENDer BE." I snapped to attention because this is the advice I have one character give another in Waterclocks and I had failed to recall that this adage appears in the play.

"Who says it?" I demanded.

"It's part of a speech Polonius gives Laertes," he said. "The same one where he says 'This above all...' etc..."

For years and years, my mother wore a bangle that had that phrase printed on it. Though she wore little jewelry, and wears even less now, she sported this proudly. A credo. A cri de coeur//. A means for a twice-divorced woman underway in a hard-to-explain middle age to explain all with little.

And because I read it on my mother's wrist and because it seemed like such a simple and lovely piece of advice, I embraced the dictum.

Never mind that I was unsure what self I should be true to, my sense of what I was and how I worked being so flexible and new, like the seed leaves on a plant, which often look nothing like the true leaves.

I used to look at the bracelet, examining the modified black letter and subtle wear and tarnish, pushing it against the bones at the top of my wrist, thinking, perhaps, about how small my wrist seemed.

All of this thinking and touching was far at the back of my brain's messiest drawer when I started high school. I was enrolled in Sarah Van Harlingen's English course, which met second period, after PE. It was an accelerated English course for kids who scored well in English but whose parents had not requested any special program for their children. My mother, until recently, was not big on talking with teachers and so figured whatever was on the regular institutional menu was fine for me. The school, through byzantine administrative channels my recent experience has only recently allowed me to appreciate the depth of, had other ideas. So there I was in the second row of the freestanding desks nearest the window looking at a short woman with gray, thick hair that she wore down to her shoulders, small green or gray eyes, dangling earrings, lots of turtlenecks and a low, clear lecturing voice that seemed serious yet kindly. That term we read "Macbeth," A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre and "Hamlet."

And when we got to Polonius' fatherly advice, I was excited to see the text of my mother's bracelet. I felt somehow that the wisdom and enduring value of the sentiment was confirmed by its presence in this old, old text. Mrs. Van Harlingen's response to my praise of the idea was elegant in its economy of language.

"But Polonius is a fool."

I was non-plussed, not quite understanding what she meant, but feeling that she was directing me to reverse course. Therefore, the sentiment was wrong, useless, dangerous.

Polonius is more than a fool. That was Mrs. Van Harlingen's politeness, her unwillingness to shoot down a 14-year-old's ideas completely. Polonius was a blowhard and a suck-up. He would say anything the powerful wanted and perhaps it was why he often said nothing, particularly to his own children, whom he wished to use to gain more power.

If a man says this to his children, then, isn't he covertly telling them that he will look out for himself before he looks out for them? And that he expects no less (or more) from them?

This was not the line of reasoning I followed at fourteen. Then, I thought, "Confusing. English teachers sure are confident in their reading. Maybe I need to read more carefully. Nah, I think I'll look out the window instead."

I never reported Mrs. Van Harlingen's estimation of the self-help bromide to my mother. Neither did I adopt a settled position on the question.

And as you, dear reader, can see, I still haven't.

I think, however, that the speech has further information to provide on the subjects of advice and family. Beyond that, I am not willing to venture, or if I am it will be in the realm of metaphor and speculation, where I feel safer and less fearful of appearing cocksure.

The resurgence of all this in the context of Gilligan's Island seems right to me. It undercuts any sense of self-importance or profundity I might hatch. Also, it was a tv show about islands, about being surrounded by water and by inventive, yet ultimately useless, people. Comically so, of course.

May 20, 2008


We are two days past the 28th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, easily one of the most significant events in my mental development. I was 11 when it occurred and there are only a few things I remember clearly and can be sure are my own memory. The red sunsets among Douglas firs that hadn't yet been cut down, the rime of ash that coated everything-- the deck surrounding the swimming pool, the steps of the swimming pool, the grass, the metal of car bodies. It made everything slick and dull.
18_mai_1980_-_%C3%89ruption_du_Mont_Saint-H%C3%A9l%C3%A8ne_USA.jpg411px-MSH80_st_helens_eruption_plume_07-22-80.jpg
There were a lot of events that I ignored when I was in grade school. The solar eclipse comes to my mind when I sort through the category that might be called "natural phenomena I regret having missed." The volcano, however, was so powerful and pervasive that it was difficult to ignore it. What wasn't darkening the sky was moving stuff. I realized that year, though I don't remember even consciously thinking about it, that things moved in this world-- big things. I remember listening and watching the stories of the people who stayed on the mountain, how they were praised and pitied for their stubbornness. I remember listening over and over to the audio footage of the graduate student who was parked on a ridge due east of the mountain when it erupted. He saw it more perfectly than anyone and then it swept him and his car away.

For me, it comes back to that darkening of the sky.

Since then, I pay attention to volcanoes. When I learned that our global warming problems had been, in some sense, delayed by Mt Pinatubo's smoke and ash filling the sky and essentially counteracting the layer of CO2 by physically blocking some of the sun's rays, I was fascinated. For years now, I have tried to keep my own eye on the tiny because I see its power to alter experience. These particles of silicate were the example par excellence of that.

I sometimes point out to students an idea I must have gotten from somewhere else, though the source is now obscure to me. Here it is: isn't it interesting that as our models for government changed from hierarchies with very pointy and distant apexes to networks of mutual influence wherein everyone has a right (or perhaps even a duty!) to speak, our models of the physical world likewise shifted from the Great Chain of Being to an ecological web where one tug on a strand, no matter how small, exacts influence on everything else connected to the jointed line of thread?

Maybe because I am not a big person, physically or otherwise, I have become invested in the idea of having an influence no matter where I am situated or how great my wingspan. Or maybe it's just the truth of the matter. It's sort of a cliche to discuss the butterfly wingbeat in Chile causing the hurricane in Spain. It may be more to the point to discuss how sub-cellular changes trigger disease in humans, how bacteria alight on nourishing surfaces and wait and grow and find hosts capacious enough to enable their bodies' plans. I see volcanoes in a speck of ash, but also in the sharp carpets of a'a, named onamatopoetically for the ejaculations of pain crossing them with bare feet caused; in the smooth ribbons of tangerine that terminate in dark gray hardened shells that admit of their liquid cousins; in the great pyroclastic blast, like a sneeze long held, that took out the east side of Mt. St. Helens and shaved the sides of elk with hot steam. I remember being told there was something building, but even just 28 years ago, scientists had only provisional ideas of what was cooking inside that rock edifice and how it might reach the surface. The governor of Washington was about to let all the people who had been evacuated back in for a day to get some more of their belongings when the east side went kerplooey. Churchy folk praised the existence of Sunday for the saving of all those lives, for that was the day Mt. St. Helens erupted, the day before the ban was to be lifted. Sunday or Monday, Thursday or Friday, our calendars are nothing but stacks of paper attesting our deep wish that we could control this planet we're clinging to.

May 18 is also my grandfather's birthday. He would have been 102 last Sunday.He was already very ill with prostate cancer by the time I came around with my wiggles and my wails. He held me in his arms not more than half a dozen times before he died. I don't know if he thought much about volcanoes. I know he liked horses and old-fashioneds and walking on the beach. I know he didn't particularly like talking about the past. He died nine years before St. Helen's erupted, though he must have heard about Mt. Mazama; at some point, around a campfire perhaps, someone told him how Crater Lake was formed. He must have tried to imagine, as I have a few times, the force and immensity of that long ago eruption. But it's hard to imagine something so terrible in the old sense, so awesome in the old sense, so beyond our small bodies' experience in myriad ways.

May 6, 2008


Intelligence as an evolutionary disadvantage? Do you think? Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead and Idiocracy fame, will be properly vindicated.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/06/science/06dumb.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin

I am about brain dead. Finals Week starts Thursday. Perhaps this means my kind will survive after all. Oh no, on second thought, probably not.

I accompanied the Greensense posse on its annual highway clean up last night. I had three woodticks in my hair after I cleaned up and we found:

one dog skeleton (collar still in the place you would expect to find the collar)
a pregnancy test box
a hubcap
a headlight
a curly, platinum blond or gray wig (hard to tell after 4 months of snow burial)
a bubble wand
some play money (1000s and 2000s, perhaps from Harare?)
linoleum
styrofoam
candy wrappers
a photograph of Russell, Anne(?) and Jacinda dressed in matching clown costumes circa 1972
plastic bags galore
soggy cardboard
30 or 40 aluminum cans
10 glass bottles

In all, 6 bags of garbage and 4 bags of recyclables in a quarter mile stretch. We peeked at a dark underbelly, but at least we did it together and some of us for extra credit.

April 25, 2008


"Blue, blue window behind the stars..." Neil Young's "Helpless" has been in my thoughts all day long thanks to Sarah Polley's "Away from Her," a film adapted from an Alice Munro short story called "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1999/12/27/1999_12_27_110_TNY_LIBRY_000019900) Polley chose to close the film with the kd lang version of the song. Known by some of my acquaintances as the Alzheimer's movie, it's better known in my house as the movie where I realized that Julie Christie has marvelous genes.
jcaway.jpg
Julie Christie in "Away from Her"


The movie's strengths: a dense, plausible and emotionally-taut plot (thanks in part to Munro's characters and set up), opportunities for science and literature to press up against each other, a palpable and forthright Canadian-ness, including a snowfilled landscape and a stone cottage on the edge of a lake.

The perspective in the film seemed confusing toward the end, but the shifts in time were pretty seamless.

April 15, 3008


Eight gallons and counting. The trees ran more than 70 gallons in under 24 hours. That's a lot of sap.


April 6, 2008


No less vital information could there be. And yet. Gene Wilder is not dead. Two people informed me with great certainty that he had died, but he lives still, in Connecticut, with his wife Karen, perhaps under the illusion of existence.

What does it mean when people tout your demise as if it were old news?

Also not dead: Henry Petroski, History of Science and Engineering expert and general question-asker spoke on campus last Friday. His comments were sometimes predictable, sometimes pointed, often reflective of the lofty distance from the hardscrabble matters of the world some historians seem to keep. I didn't ask two questions because public question-asking is such a fraught enterprise. Here they are:

1. What is the most interesting instance you can think of when technological innovation did NOT take place because of cultural habits and perceptions?

2. Please speak about the overlap between innovation and marketing? When, for example, things look ergonomically streamlined but are not?

I could try to answer these questions in another posting, but we'll see if I do.

April 1, 2008


There's nothing quite like being in sync with the editors of the Science Times and with Natalie Angier no less. Change blindness, thy name is Joan.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/01/science/01angi.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin

When my friend Laura S. was pregnant with her first child, a baby shower was held in her honor. Late in the party, (on her deck in the afternoon sunshine) she came out and served us some pastry (scones, cheesecake, tarts-- dunno, but knowing Laura's baking skills as I do, I know it was quite tasty.) Then the guests were given pen and paper and asked to note what was odd about Laura's outfit as she served dessert. I couldn't remember a blessed thing, so change blind am I. I was too busy thinking about that sugar melting on my tongue and how nice the red or purple of the berries would look perched on my fork.

William James was alert to these issues, too. He chalked the blindness to habits of seeing that blocked as much as they absorbed, and necessarily so. My partner is much less change blind than I am and he finds it difficult to make decisions sometimes precisely because he is acutely aware of multitudinous variables. This is an example of intelligence as curse and there are others.

It makes it easy for me to remember how to spell words; I rarely weigh alternatives.
I take about ten minutes to buy shoes and simply resign myself to cursing how harshly those shoes sometimes wear on my feet.
I lose things confident in the fact that eventually I will forget that I lost them.

I suppose all of this is a form of detachment from the world and not to be celebrated much. My change blindness makes day-to-day living easier than it might otherwise be.

The other news story to catch my attention this week was about a predecessor to the phonograph, the phonautograph. It's a recording made in 1860 by a French fellow named Edouard-Leon Scott . Essentially, instead of cutting grooves in wax, he used a piece of paper covered in smoke (many layers!) from an oil lamp. The NY Times section has a recording of the song, all 11 seconds of it. Here's a picture of the apparatus that recorded this snippet of Victorian history. 642Earliest_Recording_sff_standalone_prod_affiliate_5.jpg

March 28, 2008


On Intelligence and Wisdom

Every now and then I catch myself upholding intelligence as the only measure of character worth paying attention to. It's a knee-jerk reaction that is almost impossible for a college teacher to resist, for intelligence seems to be the coin of our realm. When I become aware of this tunnel vision in myself, I tend to say something like, "Intelligence is only a power of memory and an ability to see connections that other people see." Intelligence, for me, is a pre-condition of wisdom. But is that really true? And can it be proven?

The feeling of wisdom is elusive. It's like looking up at the sky from the bottom of a pond. Settled in the muck of things, in the muck of one's own errors, one feels a sense that she's come across an immutable fact of existence. I feel wise when I realize what I should have done with an essay assignment I have just finished grading (or, explained repeatedly to fifteen individual students). I feel wise when I see why the pyrex pan exploded in the oven or why the hyacinth bloomed right at the top of its bulb like a brown egg sprouting a fluted, pale yellow yolk. I feel wise when I see almost simultaneously what I did and what I should have done. I feel large with two paths side by side within me. This knowledge does not necessarily help me make other decisions, but I do like feeling sure for a moment.

Intelligence also makes me feel certainty. But it's a more darting kind of certainty, like the hiss of a match beginning to burn or an electrical impulse arcing from plug to outlet. Intelligence, I guess, is a kind of energy. I feel like I make a lot of decisions in any given day (5-10-20?), most of them based on connecting a few facts that need very much to be seen in concert. But I don't always see the other possible solutions to the problems I confront daily (who to call and who to email, is that a good quiz question, how formal do I need to be. how much time should I spend re-reading an essay I have lectured about half a dozen times?). In fact, seeing other options can be an obstacle to decision.

I guess it's like striking matches in the dark, this working of my mind. As long as I have the ability to strike two ideas against one another, I can have that spark and see my way forward by that small light. And while it is wrong to suppose there is a true relationship of opposition here between intelligence and wisdom, I still want to see that wisdom is a form of peace-keeping with darkness, a contentment with distant and intermittent light.

When I was a child of maybe seven or eight I used to dare myself to walk the sidewalk near my house as long as I could with my eyes closed. I never had the courage to go very far, though I must have understood that I couldn't make it into the street without knowing it. Still I didn't want to go so far as to have traced a crooked or yawling path; I wanted to have walked in a straight line. I wanted to have arrived somewhere in particular at the moment I opened my eyes. I never did and I eventually I walked less or grew old enough to fear even beginning such an odd exercise.

I spend my life trying to believe that there are things beside intelligence that matter, but my attempts to pay lip service to such beliefs are probably pretty patronizing. This intelligence thing is what I have staked my life upon. I keep making small connections and hoping my memory continues to serve me. I keep refining little things based on what I remember about my failures and what I think I know about my successes.

.

March 26, 2008


What should be happening but isn't (also 6 words!)
800px-Maple_syrup_bucket.jpg

This image is from wikimedia. The spout on the tree looks like it's made by the Dominion and Grimm company: a lucky spout. Thanks to Oven Fresh, the kind person who made this image available for public use.



March 25, 2008



Inspired by Smith Magazine's six-word memoir project (http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords/archive.php?featured=1), a memoir: What was easier eventually becomes harder.

Winter 2007-2008: http://waterclocks.wikispaces.com/Winter+2007-2008

Fall 2007: http://waterclocks.wikispaces.com/Fall+2007

Summer: [[summer|http://waterclocks.wikispaces.com/summer]