Friday, April 29, 2005


So I finally finished up final book revisions yesterday & shipped them off to the publisher. The FedEx receipt shows that the package weighed three pounds. It occurs to me that that's almost exactly what my brain would weigh. Now I can't help feeling a little lightheaded and goofy, just as if I'd scooped out all my brains, dumped them in an envelope and mailed them away.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Small change

Once in a while I get e-mails from well-meaning friends about how to avoid dark parking lots and suspicious vans and the various tricks and traps that evil serial killers presumably use to lure their victims to an ugly death. I appreciate these, and I think people should indeed use common sense to protect themselves in dark parking lots. But I can’t help thinking, come on, people, if instead of worrying about the serial killers you all simply used your turn signals and quit talking on your cell phones while you drive, you would make the world a measurably safer place. I’m a lot more likely to be killed by an inattentive driver than I am by a serial killer. It’s the small things that matter.

I feel the same way about Earth Day and our approach to the environment. Jo(e)’s wonderful post about her student protesters, and particularly the discussion in the comments about veganism, got me thinking about this as well. Culturally we tend to favor dramatic action when we make changes in our lives. Instead of making small changes in our eating habits, we go on Atkins or South Beach or some other extreme change that promises total transformation. Instead of lobbying for the more humane treatment of animals, we swear off all meat and leather and animal products. Or at least a few of us do, but that’s the only model for change we ever see. For the vast majority of us (and mad props to jo(e) and her students for being exceptions to this rule!), that sort of dramatic action is too difficult, so we think, Boy, in principle I think it’d be a good idea to be vegan, but I just can’t give up eggs and cheese, not completely and forever! I admire that woman who went to live in a treehouse in California to protest our abuse of the environment, and I love those totally environmentally responsible New Mexico desert house designs I saw on the TreeHugger Channel, but that’s just way beyond what I can realistically do with my life.

So instead, we make no changes at all.

But what if we tried a few small things that didn’t involve major sacrifice or transformation? Like using our turn signals when we drive? (I have a major obsession with people who don’t signal their turns. Are you saving yourselves some enormous effort and inconvenience in not having to move that little lever up and down? Really, it’s not that hard.) Do the same thing for the planet. What if we thought, I don’t have to give up all meat products, but maybe I could eat a little less meat, or buy free-range eggs instead of caged-chicken eggs. (That’s maybe thirty cents more you’d pay, to avoid a lot of animal suffering.) I could leave the windows open a few days longer before I turn on the air conditioning. I could water my lawn a little less frequently over the summer. I could recycle a little more. And so on. These actions probably won’t bring the rewarding sense of self-sacrifice and transformation that moving into a treehouse would, but face it, you’re just not likely to do the treehouse thing. So do what you can do, and see the powerful effect of small changes.

Happy Earth Day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


The first time I lived in Spain for an extended period of time, on a yearlong dissertation research trip, I was challenged and thrilled and exhausted by the constant stream of new things I had to learn. I had a fairly good handle on my dissertation topic, and I could speak Spanish well enough to get by (ah, that early na├»ve confidence!), but that didn’t prepare me for all the little differences of daily life. Want to go to the archive? Of course, that’s easy enough. But which bus goes there? Where do you buy a bus pass? (At the tobacco stands, of course; where else?) On the way home, need to shop for dinner. But you can’t just pick up tomatoes and drop them in a bag; you need to ask for a certain weight in kilos, and they choose the tomatoes for you. The nice tomato man asks, do you want tomatoes for salad or tomatoes for cooking? (Turns out Spaniards like their salad-tomatoes a little on the green side, so that’s really a question about whether you want them ripe or not.) And so on. All of these things are perfectly manageable, but for your first few weeks in another country, the most routine tasks involve a substantial learning curve, and you feel like a fool for not even knowing how to buy tomatoes.

But then there comes a day when you hop on the bus, say hi to the driver who recognizes you now, spend your day at your usual table in the archive, stop at the store on the way home, ask for half a kilo of cooking tomatoes, greet your neighbors, pause at your door and realize – hey, I just did all those things effortlessly and without thinking, those things that three weeks ago felt like walking through sand.

Where is this going, you ask? Well, this is for Rana (and for Scrivener who's just turned 34), because I promised several weeks ago I’d write about why I liked being 35. In the larger pattern of my life, being in my 30s feels like having been in Spain long enough to know how to buy tomatoes.

This analogy probably won’t work for non-academics, because it rests on the fact that my 20s were mostly spent in graduate school, postponing the kinds of things that most people associate with a real life – a spouse, an income-producing job, a house, a car. Instead, I had the constant learning curve of coursework, research, and prelims, in equal measures satisfying and exhausting, and all on close to a poverty-level income. When I got frustrated by my lack of a “real life,” I consoled myself (fairly successfully, because I’m incurably cheerful) by thinking, Yes, but I still have all those things to look forward to, and the reasonable expectation that they will indeed happen, just as I knew I’d eventually figure out that three tomatoes were about half a kilo. And I enjoyed the anticipation.

So here I am at 36, starting to get all those things I looked forward to for so long. And I think I’m enjoying them a hell of a lot more than I would have if I’d just been handed them all when I was 20. These aren’t big successes I’m talking about (except for that big fat trophy, heh); they’re not newsworthy or earth-shaking. All I’m doing is going through my ordinary life doing ordinary things, but I still get a little private sense of triumph from them - hey! I know how to find my way through the world now.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

In the mail today

Dear Dr. Pilgrim/Heretic,

I am delighted to inform you that the Board of Trustees has acted favorably on the recommendation from faculty peers and administrative colleagues that you be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor and that you be awarded tenure. This action recognizes your accomplishments in teaching, scholarship, and service to [this university] and the academy.

Congratulations on attaining these important benchmarks in your academic career, and thank you for your contributions to [this university].

Sincerely yours,
[Chancellor who bears an unsettling resemblance to John Malkovich]

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Organ Donation

We probably have more or less the same audience, but for what it's worth - I wanted to repeat Phantom Scribbler's message about Moreena's post on organ donation. She has an excellent and accurate explanation of the most important issues involved in organ donation, and how it is often misrepresented (particularly in a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy).

Please consider being organ donors, folks. It's a gift of life.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

One for the medievalists.

And now back to your regularly scheduled Nebraska poets! Here's one from Don Welch. I think New Kid might like this, for the ink images as well as the context. :)

The Marginalist

Before him are long tall margins of vellum
and on the page the characters sacredly drawn.
His pens sleep. Beside them the onyx eye
of the ink. And he looks at the table.
Then opening small vessels of folium,
of indigo and orpiment, white and red lead,
he offers his hands. The kermes, or carmine red,
weeps with Christ's blood, remembering.
And the ultramarine, elaborately prepared
by the Arabs and as precious as gold,
rests in its silver cask, on which are
peacock heads with eyes of lapis lazuli.
A door creaks. Brother Jasper slips out
for another night of the flesh. Down the hall
the old abbot himself falls dangerously into
his sleep, the other cells collapsing in darkness.
But in the marginalist's, verdigris is opened,
the extract of malachite. Outside, where
the dark muscles its way toward the coast
or plays the empty eyeholes of a Viking's mask,
there is dead weight. Inside there's oil light,
and a slim green line that begins its pilgrimage
across a maiden page.

They like me, they really like me!

So this is why Thursday was a Very Big Day. It's weird to write about this, because I am kind of bashful (and sleepy and dopey too, come to think of it), and I'm not comfortable drawing attention to myself... but I'm also really really excited about this. And what better way for a bashful person to celebrate herself than pseudonymously? So here goes. Thursday we had a big honors convocation on campus, as we do every spring, with faculty in full regalia and Board of Trustees folk all in the front row and a Big Gorilla speaker and recognition of Phi Beta Kappa inductees and such. And, in the middle of all this, they present an award to the Honors Professor of the Year, a faculty member chosen by the students each year to receive a hilariously large trophy and a rather substantial check. I've watched previous professors win this award, and they're always my favorite people on campus, and I find myself thinking "boy, if I really work at this, if I get good at what I do, maybe someday down the road, five or ten years, I can aspire to that." And then I feel presumptious for even having that thought.

Well, as you've probably guessed, that little fantasy moment became real about ten years earlier than I'd expected. (They're very careful to keep this a total surprise to the winner, and believe me, this winner was surprised.) They begin with a little speech describing the professor and the things students have said about him/her, and they slowly become more specific in the description so that everyone in the auditorium is trying to guess who it is. I figured it out (Holy Shit!) at exactly the same moment that one of my colleagues sitting just in front of me elbowed the guy next to him and whispered gleefully "Hey! It's Pilgrim!"

So there was that, and some photos and interviews, and lunch with the chancellor, and that was my Big Day on Thursday. :) I'm slowly getting the hang of this... my husband and I mock-squabble over things all the time, but since Thursday, every argument effectively ends with the statement "I have a big fat trophy. I can do whatever I want."

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Nebraska day

For Jo(e), whom I am now on a mission to convince that there is more than one interesting thing about Nebraska, two selections from another Nebraska poet, Ted Kooser:

A Birthday Poem

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.

After Years

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.

Friday, April 08, 2005

I'm so charmed by everyone else's poems these days! I have several favorites that I'd like to hunt down, but this has been a week of craziness (and yesterday turned out to be a Very Big Day!... more on that later when the craziness subsides). So in the meantime I'll fill in with some Bill Kloefkorn, in honor of the broad horizons of my home state.

Some Directions for the December Touring of Westcentral Nebraska

Turn right at the Standard Station
And head due west. Do not
Eat at the Hungry Indian
In Ogallala or stop for

Free tea at the Big Farmer
In Oshkosh--By Gosh. My
Advice, Sir: go cold and
Hungry over these wintered ranges

Where only on a cloudless night
Can the sky outstrip the land.
Join the tumbleweed. Huddle
With herefords against leeward

Walls. Walk barefoot over
Steaming dung along the
Dormant seeded rows of
Next year's yield. Forget

The motels at North Platte,
Tune out all noisy Teepees:
The notes of rusting cultivators

And watch with the hawk
for mice and rabbits and
Scott's once-in-a-lifetime bluff.
Inhale. Go dizzy with the

Windmill. Stretch even the
Fingertips against sand-coated hills.
You can get there from here,
Sir. But you must go

Cold and hungry. That route is best.
Just forget your Pontiac, then
Turn right at the Standard Station
and drive due west.

William Kloefkorn, from Uncertain the Final Run to Winter


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Look what happens

Joining all the folks who've posted poems for National Poetry Month (and what a lovely idea!), I share one from Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the fourteenth century:


All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Some hope amidst the exhaustion

Sorry I've let the bar get so cobwebby - it's been (and continues to be) a week of craziness. I don't have a lot of committee work overall, but the whole year's worth of tasks allotted to me somehow has concentrated itself in this single week. This in turn has driven away any hope of posting or commenting with any sort of cleverness or even sense.

Looking on the bright side, though, as I am wont to do (one friend used to describe me as "gratingly cheerful" for my abuse of this technique), one of my tasks today was to coordinate the formal presentations made by students who are completing research projects for departmental honors in a variety of subjects. Some were confident and polished, some were shaky and nervous, some a little arrogant, some shy, but all of them had at least one moment during their brief presentations where their sheer joy in what they were doing showed through. Two of them in particular impressed me, partly because they were in fields (biology and accounting) both far from my own and difficult to communicate well to a general audience. Chatting with me afterwards, they both had moments where in the middle of describing the enormous amount of work and thought and time they'd put into these projects, and the corresponding dead ends and frustrations they found along the way, they'd crack a huge grin and say "And it's been so much fun!" Not in the way of students who want to suck up, but in the totally genuine way of students who have really engaged in the process of research, know that they've accomplished something unique and valuable, and discovered how genuinely fun that can be. (I've never seen anyone light up that much about the fun of accounting, and so contagiously!)

Many of my students are lazy and unmotivated, and operate with a powerful sense of entitlement that the world will simply hand them whatever they require. I worry a little bit about our future when I think of them. But these kids I worked with today? They can definitely run the world when I'm old, every one of them.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Freaking the mundanes

Next week one of my tasks is to preside over a series of student senior presentations, so I scheduled some rehearsal time today for students who wanted to check out the room, make sure they were comfortable with the AV equipment, etc. Several came at the beginning of the rehearsal time, but for the last hour or so I was on my own in the business school's fancy conference room. What's fun about this is that some parts of our campus are intensely territorial - the business people and the media people for some reason hate it when we raggedy long-haired humanities folks wander over in our Birkenstocks to invade their pinched, business-suited space. As part of the AV setup I had tested the sound system (quite nice), and once it looked like I'd have some time to sit and wait between students, I decided I'd might as well be comfortable. So I grabbed a Coke from the machine in the hall, plugged in my favorite mix of Steely Dan/Jackson Browne/Crowded House, propped my feet up on a chair and got comfortable to grade a few papers. Stern business-suited people kept doing startled double-takes as they passed by the conference room doors, and the secretary of whatever department was across the hall kept shooting me glances that were clearly meant to cast some sort of long-lasting evil hex on my ass.

After a while I got bored with grading and decided to do a quick browse of the blogosphere, since I had the laptop hooked up for the student presentations (and Steely Dan). I visited all the usual suspects, chuckling, pondering, basking in the warm glow of bloggy companionship. And then, in the middle of reading the comments about oral sex over on Phantom's blog, I realized that the room's overhead projector was still on, casting a full-color ten-foot tall image of phrases like "I kept wanting to slap him and say, Get over yourself, little white guy!"

It seemed oddly appropriate.