blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: November 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fun with Language, II

As a writing teacher and a lover of language, there are always things that are the earmarks of problematic writing.  Any writing educator will tell you that you cannot correct or even point out every single wrong in a paper or it would crush the already fragile confidence of a standard student.  Especially the community college student in an entry-level writing course.  These students have been told they can’t write for so long that they will write a two page essay explaining how they can’t write and be completely unaware of the irony of that.

So, we learn to address the bigger issues, target some of the smaller ones, and take it in small doses and move slower than the writer and perfectionist in us wants to move.  There are some big ticket items that I’m sure most (if not all) writing teachers will address, of course.  We would be remiss if we did not talk about thesis statements and transitions, for instance; additionally, many of us probably address sentence level things such as run-ons and fragments.  Beyond that, however, I would imagine that many of us have our ‘pet peeves’ – the things that fall under the more minor errors (in the big scheme of things) that we always seem to gravitate towards when working on feedback for a student.  Comma splices, dangling participles, passive voice, and the like are nails on a chalkboard and we hone in on them as if fixing this one small thing will open countless doors for students as they move deeper into the academic world.  And who knows, honestly...perhaps it will.

One of these items for me is the use of second person.  It’s my own personal crusade to rid student writing of inappropriate uses of the word ‘you’.  Note I say inappropriate – there are times when it’s a great writing device, but the problem is that students were taught to never, ever, under penalty of agony and pain, use ‘I’ in an academic paper.  So, where they would say “there is no greater joy than to hold my son” becomes “there is no greater joy than to hold your son.”  Now, as previously discussed in this blog, I don’t have children and, at this point in my life, I don’t plan to ever have them.  Now, it isn’t exactly insulting, but it’s not a very appropriate comment to make about someone whom you don’t know very well.  I am a fairly happy person and I’ve experienced heart-deep joy in my time – and it wasn’t with the child I don’t have.  Students do this all the time – one of the most telling moments for me was when a student wrote a paper arguing for stricter drunk driving laws and he told me how I would feel as a victim of such a driver – and he was wrong.  What he described did not fit my situation, and I had been there.  It only took the introduction for the student to alienate me and irritate me.  It was not my most comfortable grading moment.  Most uses of it are fairly innocuous, however, with students telling me what I expect when I read a story or what I see when I walk into their bedroom (Don’t panic – I’ve only seen this in a paper where they explore identity by describing a place).

For these more light-hearted uses, I’ve been known to write things in the margins like “I DO think that?  How do you know?!” or “Should I be worried that you can read my mind?” and I’m not sure that this is tremendously right of me to do, but my tendency towards sarcasm gets the better of me.  If it’s any consolation, though, I add a smiley afterwards.  And let’s be honest, my students expect sarcasm from me at this point...

There are also uses of it beyond the classroom and I tend to employ a healthy dose of sarcasm then, too.  It happens all the time in everyday speech.  Listen to those around you, and I’m sure you’ll find you’re doing all sorts of things of which you weren’t aware.  “When you walk into the store,” ”When you order at McDonald’s,” “If you hold your iPhone in a certain way, “You should get your first prostate exam when you are 40” and all sorts of fun things that, quite frankly, don’t apply to you.

Or is that me?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Introspective Volcanos


My home life is interesting of late.  Not in terms of relationships or family or anything of the sort; it is simply that our physical space has been uprooted in a way that I find to be more fundamentally unsettling than moving.  We are in the process of completely renovating our kitchen.  On Hallowe’en, friends and family gathered to help us remove all of the cupboards, the ceiling tiles, the plaster and lathe walls, the mice nests, the nails, and everything else that was in the way.  Then, on All Saint’s Day, the two of us chipped away at two layers of horrid flooring that was glued and brittle.  There is no better word than ‘chipped.’  We used ice choppers.

Before all that, however, there was an interesting rearrangement of the entire downstairs.  This shifting called into question something that we generally take for granted; for, when it comes to layouts of rooms, a certain number of conventions are generally followed whether we are aware of them or not.  We store our food and cooking implements in the kitchen, our fancy eating accoutrements in the dining room, the comfortable seating in the living room, and some odds-and-ends of welcoming in a foyer or vestibule.  This, in our house, is completely upside down and as a result, much of our sense of place is also turned upside down.

This is what we did.  We slid the fridge into the dining room and plugged it in.  Then we realized it was on a slight dip in the floor so we have to push the door hard to make sure it stays closed.  In front of the fridge is a large cardboard box filled with various food items.  There is no rhyme or reason – the box has everything from tea to oatmeal, from crackers to spices, from granola bars to peanut butter.  I don’t even know what’s on the bottom anymore. We just keep peeling things off the top to get by.  We also moved the stove into the dining room, which is making the somewhat small, burgundy colored space look a little cramped.  Especially with the food-preparation table, the toaster, the dishes, and another cardboard box.  The stove, which is gas, is not actually plugged in, so it’s being used as a dust collector and Holder of Things.  We also had the microwave in here, but it turns out that if we ran the microwave for more than 30 seconds, it blew a circuit because of the fridge.  So, the microwave, and the crock pot, are both on TV trays in the foyer.  It makes perfect sense – writing desk, lamp, globe, slow cooker, dust.

Our living room has nothing living in it because, along with the layer of dust, it is filled with approximately 18 cabinets in various stages of not-put-togetherness.  Tall ones, fat ones, drawers, parts, toe-kicks, cardboard corner-protectors, squishy foam protective wraps, shrink wrap, directions, dust.  When I look at it, the thing that runs first and foremost in my mind is gratitude that it is not me who has to make sense of it.

We also ripped out a closet (which, ironically, was not a very good closet even before all of this happened) and now have a back hall that is as empty as the kitchen.  But at least it is not filled with inadequate closet any longer.

So, what does it all mean? Our foyer is a squalid apartment kitchen, our dining room is a studio apartment kitchen with a bad landlord, our living room is a self storage area for disorganized people and, until recently, our kitchen looked like an attached shed.  It has upgraded now, with drywall, but it still has a ways to go.  As I paint and watch cabinets go in, I’m sure my ideas will change.  For now, however, I’m mystified by how unsettling it can be to put one’s house into a contractor’s snow globe and then wait for the drywall snow to settle.  It feels a little like the dust is but ashes and our living space is but a smaller version of Mt. Vesuvius.

All of this said, however, I must side with the optimists.  They say that the kitchen is the heart of any home, and what I’m learning during this process is that it keeps beating even when you gut it completely and coat it with a fine layer of white dust.

But, still, I long to bake cookies.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Happy Birthday, Bimmie

Today is my brother’s birthday.  This is for him.

A month ago, I wrote about the relationship I had with my sister and how special it was to me.  What I have with my brother is no less important to me and has had no less influence on who I am today.  But that influence is very, very different.

I made mention in that blog of how I spent more of my time with him and as I think back to those years, it amazes me to think about how much of who I am I owe to him.  I’m not sure I can entirely blame the tomboy part of myself on him, but he certainly had a big hand in it.  I don’t know if he ever really thinks about it, but I am who I am because of him. I read fantasy novels and mysteries, I’m a gamer, I love computers and technology.  All of these are such an integral part of who I am and they all came from him in some way or another.

I may have been socially awkward, but when I borrowed books from my brother, I could get lost in Pern or Xanth or Middle Earth.  I don’t have a conscious memory of wanting to read those books because he did – I don’t recall looking up to him that actively.  It may have simply been a case of there not being any other books around that looked interesting to me.   But, it didn’t matter.  What mattered is that I started reading them and was hooked.  Fast forward a couple of decades and I wrote doctoral field exams on contemporary fantasy fiction and wrote a dissertation on Harry Potter.    Those moments in my career had their seeds in him.

I may have had no idea how to keep white clothes even remotely clean, but I could explore the world of computer games pretty well.  I remember sitting in a brown comfy chair that my brother had in his room and playing Nethack on a monochrome monitor in the times I had when he was at school and I was not.  I remember playing Gauntlet on a split screen as we sat side by side in his room.  I would drag my desk chair into his room and we played for hours.  I may have gotten yelled at for not being very good at them, but in those hours together a gamer was born and from those roots as a gamer, a love of technology was born.  Fast forward a couple of decades and find me firmly established as the Humanities professor whose niche is technology:  I sit on technology committees, I use technology in my classrooms, I go to conferences centered on its use.  I married a gamer whom I met in a game, some of my friends are gamers, I still play games.  These moments in my life and career had their seeds in him.

In short, when I say I am proud to be a geek -- it's because my brother helped make me one.

There are so many little things we shared growing up – from the nickname he gave me to Monty Python and Sherlock Holmes.  My brother was no less socially awkward than I was, but we had such fun times regardless of that.  We hung out and watched movies, listened to music, played games.  We worked together, even, when we got older.  We used to go to the mall all the time, and it was a very different trip than with my sister.  In fact, I can’t even remember anything we did there – I just remember walking around relatively quickly and having a great time.  We went to concerts, too.  We used to go see REO Speedwagon every year, including the year I was in the hospital until just a few days before the concert.  I always felt safe with him, despite the noise and the crowds.

Even when I went away to college, he would come up and spend the weekend in my dorm room and we’d do all the same kinds of things.  He joined a group of us who went up to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera.  I think he drove entirely around Lake Ontario that weekend.  When I went on to my Masters and my Doctorate, he’d do the same thing.  We may not have talked much on the phone or wrote letters, but we got together often enough that it didn’t matter.   A perfect example of this kind of unspoken relationship we have happened in the early days of electronic communication.  It was birthday season in my family and, being a college student, I was running low on cash.  I wrote to my brother and asked him if he could help out -- just a little something to help me get by.  My parents were coming up that weekend and they brought with them some new CDs that I had ordered through his CD club (back when Columbia House was cool).  It wasn’t until after mom and dad left and I was opening the CDs that I noticed one of them was slit along the side.  When I opened it the rest of the way, there was a $20 bill inside.   This is the kind of thing he does – he may not be demonstrative of his affection for his little sisters, but it’s always there.

I owe a good portion of who I am to the influence my brother had on me growing up -- he is goofy and fun and weird and a little crazy.  I can’t even really express how ecstatic I am that he has found someone who loves him for who he is and makes him happy.  He deserves it; though, I will admit that sometimes I miss the dedicated time we used to have to hang out at the mall, eat fast food and stay up too late playing games before I crashed on his couch.  I love my brother and I admire the personal strength he has had to get through the tough times and I’m so proud of where he is now.  He will always be my big brother and I will always treasure the memories we have made and the ones I’m sure we will keep making.

So, big brother, want to go to the mall?