Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dear Congress

Dear Congress, and by Congress, I include you, Senators McCain and Obama:

I can't sew.  I know -- that's just not what you're thinking about right now, is it? But maybe it should be.  You see, if we plunge to a Depression, like that crazy guy from MSNBC keeps saying, I won't be able to make my clothes, as they did in the 1930s, and then I'll have to spend a good part of my adult life naked. This actually would affect you, as I'm no spring chicken, and, as any good academic, am rather pale.  Not pleasant.

Speaking of chickens, I've recently discovered my parents/grandmother own a dilapidated farm in East Texas. I have decided if you can't pull yourself together, I'm going to have to give up my academic career, because colleges will surely be one of the first institutions to go, since they don't feed or clothe people.  That means I'll have to move to this farm and grow hens.  As every good farmer knows, you don't "grow" hens, you raise them, which tells you how much trouble this is going to be for me and my family.  Having grown up 10 miles from the Pilgrim's Pride plant, I have to say that farming would be unpleasant.  Congress, have you ever smelled a chicken farm?  I swear to you that if you screw up this economic bailout, as it appears you seem determined to do, I will find each and every one of you, bring you to my chicken farm, and rub your nose in the dirt.  Because that is basically what you've done to me.

Dear legislators, it's time for you to stop playing with me for your political gain. We all know that you, Republicans, rejected the bailout so that you could, upon running for reelection, say you rejected it.  But this is a cruel game. Perhaps the bailout wouldn't have worked; perhaps it was a terrible plan.  Anyone who's lent money to a gambler has their doubts about giving $700 billion to banks who clearly have bad decision-making skills.  But I'm not sure that's why you said "no," and that makes me angry.  Democrats, you're just as bad.  It may be a partisan issue for you, but it's a home loan for me. It's a car loan for my friend; it's a college loan for my students.  If I buy the paranoia, it could cost me my paycheck if my employer can't get the funding to meet payroll.  

And if I sound a little frantic, Congress -- if I sound needlessly worried -- that's because you've spent zero amount of time telling me just what this really means for me.  Just because you use the words "main street" doesn't mean you know what's happening here; and as a result, neither do we.  

In short, Congress, I'd like to slap you in the face.  Not figuratively -- I think you all need a good hard whack across the nose.  I would like to volunteer my services.  And when you've come to your senses, I'd like for you to reach across the aisle and figure out a plan that keeps our banks from failing completely.  Because I've got a gunny sack, but I've no idea what to do with it.  



Monday, September 29, 2008

Whatever's In the Cupboard Mac & Cheese

I got home after a long road trip -- I'm working on reunion posts -- and craved something that made me feel good; unfortunately, my fridge and cupboard only had a few leftover items here and there. I made this out of pantry staples and have since adapted it with whatever is on hand. Any small pasta will suffice, as will any cheese or vegetable (such as frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed, or chopped, bottled, roasted red peppers). Diced ham or turkey bacon would be a nice addition, too.

Whatever’s In the Cupboard Mac & Cheese

1 cup uncooked seashell pasta
4 oz low-fat cream cheese, cubed
½ cup shredded 2% sharp cheddar
¾ or 1 cup 2% evaporated milk, regular milk, cream, or 1/2 and 1/2
1/3 cup frozen green peas, thawed (run 'em under hot water)
1 egg, beaten
2 tbl Italian breadcrumbs
2 tbl grated parmesan cheese
½ tsp red pepper
½ tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt


Preheat oven to 350.

1. Boil pasta. Drain. Transfer to mixing bowl.

2. Stir in cream cheese, cheddar, milk, green peas, red pepper, black pepper, salt and beaten egg. Pour into 5-in square casserole dish sprayed with cooking spray. Top with shredded parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.

3. Bake 30 minutes or until the dish is set and slightly pulled away from the sides of the pan.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When the Big-Top Came To Town: The Ole Miss Presidential Debate

I work in the town hosting the first and probably most significant debate of the 2008 Presidential Election year, and I have to say, it's been interesting. While I can't give you the perspective of someone who lives there, dealing with traffic and media on a day-to-day basis, I can tell you a little about Oxford in the days preceding the circus that is the Obama/McCain media extravaganza.

First of all, I just have to say that Oxford is letting its "crazy" show.  On my way into town just a few days ago, I noticed at least 8 new billboards and yard signs that gave me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.  The first was a gigantic sign that you have to pass to enter the town that has a very, very lengthy bible verse printed on it in bubble letters. The sign is so full that its message is obscured, but not completely:  we get it -- the South loves God, as evidenced by exhibit A's giant, unreadable sign. Check.  As you continue through the town, the same people sponsoring the first sign have constructed others.  One particularly enigmatic one says "If our universities would lead, our kids could read."  I wasn't aware that the university taught the fundamental principles of phonics; please don't let NBC (or the Daily Show) get a close-up of that one.

The yard signs are lined up row upon row as you take the primary road to the "Square," the town's main attraction, which boasts shops, restaurants, and bars.  Each sign has a small white cross on it and one word: Pray.  What does this mean? The election choices are so bad either way that all we can do is "pray"?  That Oxford thinks its president-elects should pray?  That prayer should be integrated into this government process? That you should pray before voting? What?  The South loves religion; ah yes, I had forgotten the gigantic illegible bible verse on my way in, and now I am reminded. Check check. 

For those of you who don't know me well, I happen to be a practicing, believing Christian. But I get really peeved when people use my spiritual belief system as a tactic for winning a government race. I am strongly for the separation of church and state, and I have the feeling that if the government adopted a different religion than the majority (Judaism, anyone? Islam? Hinduism?) then everyone else would be, too.  I believe as soon as the Church enters the state, one corrupts the other. (Heck I might be Quaker; they believe the church's bureaucracy makes it corrupted and argue instead that everyone carries the "inner light" of God in the body's sanctuary, making everyone a church!)  But I digress.

You might wonder if I'll be attending the debates. The answer is no -- but not because I don't want to.  You see, I'm not invited, nor is 3/4 of the University.  The debate organizers fear an unstable audience will cause a ruckus, so if you wanted to be part of this monumental event, you had to write an essay that fit their version of patriotism, and then you get the golden ticket to go inside. There is one group who'll be present, golden ticket or no: the KKK.  They said they're coming plain-clothed to recruit.  The best part?  They'll be there, they said, not because Obama is black, but because his middle name is Hussein.  I have officially decided to change my middle name to BinLaden, just to mess with people who use this ridiculous argument; the internal combustion that will surely happen as people try to compute my white face with my "eastern" name will be all too entertaining to watch. I love fireworks.

In its defense, Ole Miss is greeting the KKK with an art exhibit where a photographer has replaced the bodies of tortured African-Americans with KKK clansmen in gruesome lynching photos.  There are "white knights" being hooked, tarred, and skinned alive; the photos are so graphic that they are constantly guarded by armed officers. That's a pretty strong response, UM; way to go.

When you watch the debates this weekend, when the news will certainly find that one lunatic who laments the days of slavery and can only babble incoherently about terrorism, I'll be in Texas at my 10-year high school reunion, far away from the madding crowd.  But you can bet I'll be watching. Even if I'm not invited there, it's just too important to miss.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Reflection on Beale Street and Smushmellows

This weekend was long overdue. With deadlines looming, paperwork to be completed, and our entire future up-in-the-air, it was time for a little dancing and celebration.

Friday, we went to Beale Street (shirking the local home game's debut on ESPN! The huge-manatee!)  and went dancing at Alfred's and I was reminded how much I like it there.  It was a warm night, and the streets were stuffed with people dancing, twirling, and drinking margaritas from Wet Willie's. Beale Street is an odd combination of Memphis blues and New Orleans charm. It smells of pork barbecue, red beans and rice, and spilled beer.  Strong men line up in the street to perform acrobatic feats for money.  And there's always this one guy who sits on a throne on the sidewalk, pulled up to a standalone table.  He doesn't offer anything -- doesn't tell fortunes, doesn't perform magic -- he just seems to want to talk to people.  If you go to BB King's, you'll hear the best blues in the South (short of Clarksdale, I hear), where some of the most soulful music I've ever heard causes people to sway drunkenly on the smoky dance floor.  We went to Alfred's, which was stuffed with bachelorette parties of veiled reeling brides wearing flashing lights around their waists and necks.  One drunk guy spun aimlessly around the floor in a pink shirt, dancing with his own shoes at times, stopping occasionally to stand  still for several minutes while holding his middle finger in the air. I'm still not sure who was (or was not?) involved in the insult. 

While the night was undeniably odd, Beale Street's music is so toe-tapping, the dance floor so entertaining, the bands so glad to be there, and the food so delectable that I found myself just glad to be alive and out under the warm night sky.

The next night was also outside but in a very different setting.  We went to the lake to enjoy a campfire, smores, and early autumn lightning.  I walked a dog around the site's loop and enjoyed the absolute darkness, interrupted only here and there by the twinkling lights of a plastic palm tree or Christmas lights someone had erected in their camper's "front yard."  The world smelled like cut grass and ozone before a storm, thrown in with the happy smell of slightly dirty children who have played outside all day long, barefoot.  Campers played oldies and grilled hamburgers on rusty charcoal grills.  I was unable to get melted marshmallows (or smushmellows as one friend's child calls them) off of my hands, and that was OK.  

It reminded me of growing up in East Texas in a town with no restaurants or stores, with nothing open past 9.  I spent hours outside on the front lawn drawing pictures with the stars, which were bright and unhampered by any lights from any city, the closest one being an hour away.  My friends and I told ghost stories on my trampoline, letting the wind from the dark woods behind us send shivers down our backs, between our shoulder blades.  The smoke from the campfire would tangle in my long hair and stay there.  

While I can't buy the founding fathers' suggestion that a rural life is a virtuous one, I have noticed that spending a little time with the open sky reminds me of how small I am, how small my problems are.  And who doesn't need that little reminder, every now and then?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Palin/Clinton SNL Genius

A little humor in the midst of recent insanity

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

MLA, the JIL, and other Acrimonious Acronyms

This Friday is a day to turn the stomach of any up-and-coming literary academic: the day the Modern Language Association (MLA) posts its job list.  That's right. While everyone else is enjoying happy-hour with coworkers, going out on a date for a little escapist moviegoing, or just taking the time to relax after a long week, Andrew and I will be picking our new lives out a catalogue.

For the uninitiated, people who work in higher ed English departments don't usually get to just call up the place they want to live and apply for a job there, like all other good young job-seekers get to do.   They have to go to the MLA convention, which is always either in San Francisco or Philadelphia, and it's always a couple of days after Christmas. Yep. Christmas Day. You can think of it as the nation's biggest English job fair, only it's (relatively?) mandatory for anyone seeking a tenure-track job.  (These generalizations don't apply to academic superstars -- there is TOO such a thing, although outside their own circles they generally feel pretty lost -- and people who are fine with instructorships/adjunct work, which is always temporary.)  

Once the MLA posts the jobs you can apply for, you have to select the jobs that appeal to you and then send each school a phenomenal amount of yourself on paper. Not only do they want a resume (or vita, in our case) but they want a teaching philosophy (aka a stilted version of everything you believe about the classroom in one page), a dissertation abstract (aka everything you've devoted your life to studying and writing about for 200 pages crammed into 1,000 or so words), and a writing sample. IF they like you enough on paper, you get "the phone call."  

Legend has it that "the phone call" can come all the way up to Christmas Eve, or not at all; if Santa comes early, this phone call results in an MLA job interview, which is like speed dating with nausea.  Exhausted professors not very good at talking to people anyway push multiple interviewees a day into a cramped hotel room, trying to find someone to invite for an on-campus interview.  I hear that the smell of coffee and alcohol is enough to turn anybody's stomach; there are tales of people vomiting in the stairways and elevators, and everyone I've talked to seems to remember the stink of failed deodorant, evidence of the anxiety on both interviewer and interviewee's account.  

The combination of nerves, alcohol, caffeine, long days, and exhaustion makes for some pretty terrifying stories. One I've recently read, but shouldn't have, began with a guy sitting down for his interview and being told this:  "I find your scholarship totally irrelevant. Would you like to comment?"  Others have recounted how people on the hiring committees would slide out of their chairs to hide under the table, never to come out again.  Another said she watched one man, a pretty high-up muckety-muck, fall asleep in front of her, drooling on her CV.  

But the truth is, I want to be there. I want to have my chance. If you pass this particularly grueling test, you might get invited to a campus interview, where you teach a class, discuss your dissertation, talk to the provost, and generally try to convince people they want to work with you.

So as this Friday rolls around, stop a minute and think of our family and all of our friends who are going through this process too.  If you're a praying person, we really wouldn't mind if you'd remember us in your weekly laundry list of people who have concerns. If you're not, whatever you normally do for well-wishing would also be appreciated.  If you happen to see me puffy eyed, a little on edge, distracted, unable to eat, and generally more insane than usual, just keep in mind -- the MLA posted its job list this Friday. And that could change everything.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How to Fight a Wild Animal in your House, and Win

It all started while we were watching a recorded version of John McCain's speech. It was late. We were folding laundry and hurling insults at the TV.

"*I'M* for change," McCain insisted.
"Idiot!" I ranted. "No you're not! Stop lying to people."
"I'm a war vet and that means you should vote for me," he continued. I'm paraphrasing but whatever.
"No it doesn't!" I throw a pair of socks at the television screen. "It just means you would be really good at Survivor."

This goes on for some time and, meanwhile, in the floor, Wormwood is knocking things off of tables, as usual. He skitters into the next room, chasing a cat toy with a bell in it. I hear what sounds like a marker rolling around on the floor and think to myself that I'll have to dig it out from under something dusty later and roll my eyes. My mind vaguely registers the familiar sounds of the house at night -- Worm destroying something, the ancient air conditioner wheezing in its struggle to cool our old house, the creak of the wooden floorboards, and a cat crunching her dry food. I pay very little attention to any of this.

The speech ends and Andrew and I exchange our exasperations. While the marker-rolling, air-wheezing, and floor-creaking have all stopped, the catfood-crunching has escalated to a noise level I've never heard before. There's now an added bag-rustling which suggests one of my animals is about to get into trouble. No cat has ever eaten out of the cat-food bag. I head to the kitchen.

Allie is standing in front of the washing room with not one hair out of place. She looks at me calmly and raises an eyebrow. I see a big furry body submerged in the supersized bag of cat food and I at first assume that Chloe has finally lost all self control and is eating her weight in Purina. Allie's look contributes to my assumption; I swear if she could talk, she'd say, "Well, we finally lost her." But on a second glance, she could also be saying, "So I see you've brought ANOTHER animal into the house and told it that it could live in the food bag. How like you."

Because it's not a cat in the Purina -- it's a possum. And it's making a lot of noise.

I utter a string of curses I rarely invoke and the little weasel pokes his eyes up out of the bag, his cheeks puffed out with food, and stops chewing. "Oh hey," he seems to say. "Didn't think you were up."

He reluctantly pulls himself out of the cat food and hides behind the washer (as he's doing in this picture). He cannot get back into the hole he has come in through; it's high on the wall, and he seems to have fallen out of it. We are at a stalemate.

So Andrew sets up a mousetrap-like maze in the kitchen with boxes, baby gates, and laundry baskets, all the while shouting all the diseases these demons carry. He stands on the washing machine with a baseball bat and a broom, and I stand on the stove island with the same tools. When it comes time to act -- no one wants to touch it, and both of us are only halfway convinced that they don't jump or fly -- Andrew shoves it out from behind the washer with a broom. I expect it to hiss and try to frighten me, but it just shuffles out, as if exasperated, and pauses next to the food and kind of looks up at Andrew, like, "Can I just pause for a bite? Just a small one?" The answer is of course, no, and I push him in the backside with my broom toward the back door.

I don't like touching him at all but he follows the maze of boxes and baskets well enough and out the door, which has been propped open for him. We wearily construct a hack-job of patchwork over the hole behind the washing machine (this "hole" is really where the pipes enter the house) using leftover boards from crown molding construction projects and duct tape. We sink into bed about 1 AM and wonder, how do these things happen to us?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

You Ain't Nobody unless you are F-R-U-M Somewhere

Labor Day weekend, Andrew and I drove for four days (total) to Ft Worth, Texas, to visit my brother and sister-in-law and to see their beautiful (did I mention gigantic?) new home.  We were fortunate to see my parents as well, and between audiobooks, while making the 18-hour roundtrip, I started thinking about Texas, which is home.

I'm coming up on the point in my career when I need to start thinking about where to go next.  There are a lot of reasons not to return to Texas. Gun-toting NRA supporters.  People who call eating chicken instead of steak one day a week  "environmental conservation."  Unnerving prejudice against all Spanish-speakers or "furriners" as my friend Sabahat jokingly called herself. A kind of pride in an unwillingness to change.  

But despite the deficiencies, there's something about home that gets in my blood and stays there. In that ironic voice that would become her calling card, Flannery O'Connor once said, "You ain't nobody unless you are FRUM somewhere."  And I'm "frum" Texas, but what does that mean? 

The answer to that is tied to family but since I'm removed from them, it's tied to food my family made for me.  When I first moved away, my first night in this big empty house I wanted to make enchiladas. My version incorporated jalepeno cream cheese, but when I went to the store shelves to find it, it wasn't there. Of course it wasn't there. I was in the Deep South, not the Southwest, and then it hit me how far away from home I was.  I sobbed right there in front of the shredded cheese. No one noticed.

Home is also in that dark, earthy spice cumin, and in the rich warmth of chili powder, which my mother used to dust over cheese toast.  Anything topped with cilantro makes my heart hurt a little.  When I feed friends in my new home, I serve them what I know. Homemade salsa spiked with lime, hot with chipotle peppers.  Avocados mashed with garlic and cilantro and sweet chopped red onions.  Pitchers of tart, cool margaritas.  Some approve and teach me about their own regional fare.  Some, though, poke the avocados, saying, "Ew. It's green. I don't eat green mashed food."  Some say -- "This food is hot.  I do NOT eat hot food."  I cannot fathom what heat they're talking about, and this is not some weird, faked, food-bravado if there is such a thing.  I cannot explain to anyone why this is like insulting my mother and father, but it is.  (Upon reflection, then, D.W., I apologize for any disparaging remarks about pork barbecue, which I have grown to love.) 

Texas is about more than spices, of course, though that's enough for me really.  The air is different, for one.  While my current home smells overly sweet, especially during the summer when the magnolias vie with the honeysuckle, my birthplace smells like linen and hot pine needles.  Even the ground is different, the dirt a dark red clay.  My friend used to tell me that if you dug up clay and shaped it into quarters, you could set out the discs in the sun to dry, and they would turn to gold.  We tried it one night at a catfish fry near Club Lake, laying out rows upon rows of rust-colored earth, dreaming of what we'd do with our riches the next day. 

There are a dozen other distinctions as well, though you may think none of them remarkable.  While I still live in the South, the twang in Texas is different.  East Texas words are flat but not long like here.  Central Texas has big hair but clipped speech and no trees.  The sky seems bigger.  

But no one can say if we will call it home again. Academics don't pick their careers, not really. Even if we return there, I'm not sure people can ever return to the place they remember.