August 2005

Remembering the dead

Sometimes you need a tangible reminder to pull yourself out of self-absorbtion. Yesterday after needlessly fretting over my first day back to teaching, which of course went fine, I got such a tangible reminder in the form of eight pairs of combat boots, each commemorating the life of a New Hampshire serviceman killed in Iraq.

When I’d heard that the NH chapter of the American Friends Service Committee was staging a miniature version of the organization’s acclaimed Eyes Wide Open exhibit in Central Square here in Keene, I was initially surprised that there would be only eight pairs of boots. With the seemingly endless reports of U.S. casualties I hear in the news–and with the seemingly endless stream of New Hampshire troops going to and from Iraq–I’d expected there would have been more than eight New Hampshire natives who have died in the war. “Only eight?” asked the war-jaded voice in my head.

Too many dead

I immediately corrected myself. There is no “only” when it comes to human suffering. Each of these “only eight” left grieving friends and family; each was terribly too young to die, ranging in age from 20 to 45. If it’s your loved one who fails to come home from war–if it’s your children who ask every day after Daddy, your son who died before you–it doesn’t matter if seven or seventeen thousand other families share your grief. Grief cannot be calculated much less compared. Every grieving person–every grieving family–grieves alone, their individual loss neither shared nor minimized by other wounded souls.

These days, the news is filled with reports of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, testimony that seems to alternate between saying the storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been and the destruction is worse than expected. Without a working TV, I’ve been spared the most graphic visual proof of the aftermath, so I rely heavily upon such reports to understand the breadth of destruction: how bad was it, is it, really? Although it’s an understandable human impulse to want to understand disaster, to put suffering into some sort of quantitative category called “how much,” that impulse is patently absurd. Any suffering is untenable: too much. The heart staggers at the thought of lives lost in war and homes and hearts broken by natural disaster. Eight soldiers dead, two states swamped, and countless souls dead, injured, or homeless is enough: too much.

On the flip side of flying cars are, of course, dying cars. I snapped this picture of a backlot of woefully abandoned vehicles when I was in Findlay, Ohio earlier this summer, there being something irresistibly human about the sorry visage of a derelict car.

It’s my first day back to teaching, and raining…and I’m feeling a bit like a woefully creaky car myself, not sure if rusty pistons will fire at the appropriate moments. That all being said, everything is ready: my syllabi are copied, my Blackboard sites are live and populated with this semester’s rosters, my books are packed, and I have the requisite supply of first-day index cards. (Don’t question the index cards: one year I forgot to bring them, and I could barely function without my accustomed office-supply crutch.)

In my heart of hearts, I know that teaching is like riding a bike: you never forget how. Although right now in the dim light of a rainy morning it feels like I’ve lost my teaching “stuff” over the summer, having grown too rusty and overgrown during these several months of downtime, the rational side of me knows that when the rubber hits the road and I walk into that first classroom, I’ll be subsumed by the exhiliration of acceleration.

Right now, though, it’s nice to hear the sound of rain trickling from downspouts: a couple more moments of literal downtime.

This photo pretty much sums up how I feel this day before Back-to-School. Airborne, off-kilter, and sparking, it’s only a matter of time before I crash and burn–live!–in front of a glassy-eyed student audience.

Classes at Keene State started today, but since I don’t teach on Mondays, I’ve had an extra day for pre-semester prep…and panic. I’ve blogged before about the back-to-school jitters I experience every fall, and this year is no exception. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve taught writing and literature to sleepy-eyed students…the thought of a new crop of staring faces is enough to induce a sickening sensation that vaguely approximates the feeling of sliding and careening off an ice-slicked road. In other words, the thought of a new semester feels a lot like Imminent Disaster.

Considering I started my pre-semester panic on Saturday, when flocks of incoming freshmen descended upon their dorms with parents and piles of possessions in tow, it’s probably good that yesterday I got away from all that by driving down to North Adams, Massachusetts, where I visited Mass MoCA–the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art–with Leslee and Rachel. Although our favorite installation was Mark Dion’s serene Library for the Birds of Massachusetts, an indoor, walk-in aviary featuring a scattered library of natural history books, an assortment of ornithological paraphenalia, and a flock of lively African zebra finches, my most interesting photos came from Cai Guo-Qiang’s multiple-gallery installation, Inopportune, with its exploding cars and arrow-studded tigers.

I blogged about Mass MoCA last summer after I saw Ann Hamilton’s corpus in the Museum’s industrial-sized Building 5 gallery. This year, Cai Guo-Qiang’s ode to the chaotic and careening fills this same 300 foot-long gallery with the surprisingly balletic beauty of nine airborne cars, each emitting shafts of multicolored, pulsating sparks. The exhibit is a silent one, so you experience the dream-like sensation of walking through a suspended action scene. It’s the usual Hollywood car chase complete with exploding vehicles, but with a twist as flying vehicles hang in an oddly pregnant pause, almost ready to self-destruct.

Although I’ve never flipped a car, I’ve experienced winter’s fish-tailing “fun” enough times to remember (vividly) the weightlessness you feel when your vehicle’s speed and spin make it clear you have lost your grip on pavement. Not being a big fan of spinning and twirling carnival rides, I understandably don’t like it when my car turns into an implement of whirling nausea. Even so, walking amid and around flying cars, I found myself enthralled by the sheer beauty of it all. Hurling without drivers in a room where time has stopped, these nine cars aren’t careening toward disaster or mayhem. Instead, they are dancers caught in the joy of soundless music, hanging aloft and multicolored, as fun as fireworks. Could it be that even in that split second when a driver loses control and realizes her or his car is going to fly, flip, and explode, there is a moment before the awakening of panic when adrenaline’s natural (and necessarily amoral) response is an ironically joyful yee-haw?

In my own case, I have a hard time relaxing into panic; instead of letting myself get swept away by a surge of adrenaline, I go rigid and wide-eyed. After all these years facing the same old back-to-school panic, you’d think I would have learned how to ease into that feeling, letting it permeate my being rather than fighting it. Theoretically, I believe panic is a wave that can be smoothly ridden if you allow yourself to roll with it…but instead of surfing I almost instinctively slam on the brakes, screaming, while cranking the steering wheel wildly this way and that. Wanting to control everything at all times, I can’t stomach the flowing sensation of being fluid and afloat.

As New Orleans hangs in the dizzying suspension of waiting for Hurricane Katrina to pass, I feel more than a bit silly for panicking about my job. Even if things go poorly tomorrow–and logically, I know they won’t–one wrecked class is never the end of the world. Instead of fighting my fear, I should embrace it, recognizing the sparks of anxiety as being another sort of energy, the psychological combustion that pushes my internal pistons. After lying awake in bed last night planning my Freshman Comp class in my head, I woke this morning and wrote my last-minute syllabus in a relative flash: a whole summer’s worth of scheming finally on paper, printed and ready for student consideration.

For even my careful, seatbelt-wearing self sometimes takes risks, inspired perhaps by the poetry of careening cars. Although it’s a small leap to completely re-design a 15-week course the day before it begins, it’s a leap nevertheless. This year I’ve scrapped the textbook I’ve used for years and sent my tried-and-true assignments to the recycle bin: starting tomorrow, my freshmen and I will be facing a new book with fresh eyes and renewed curiosity.

At least that’s what I tell myself now in the adrenaline-laced excitement of it all. Deep down, I know that despite the novelty of a new approach that excites me, the time will come when my students become (alas) bored with me, my syllabus, and my best-laid pedagogical plans, dismissing them all with a cooler-than-cool yawn. There is, after all, something worse than Crashing and Burning with a disastrously wretched class. The worst fate that can befall a professor is the inevitable tragedy of being shot through repeatedly with the cruel arrows of a bored student’s disinterested stare.

    Be sure to check out Leslee’s account of our Mass MoCA trip, including cool links to more pictures of Cai Guo-Qiang’s flying cars and perforated tigers.

In the still-itchy aftermath of Friday’s yellow-jacket incident, it’s understandable that I gave an unusually wide berth to this basketball-sized hornets’ nest, which I spotted during yesterday’s dog-walk at Beaver Brook Falls. Baldfaced hornets, I read, “will usually attack if someone approaches within 3 feet of the nest.” Yikes. It seems nowhere is safe these days, with either yellow-jackets or hornets everywhere I look. Needless to say, I stayed more than 3 feet away from the above-pictured nest, relying on my camera’s zoom lens to capture an image from a safe distance.

That the Wild Outside is full of creatures that sting and bite should come as no surprise, given Nature’s reputation for being red in tooth and claw. At Beaver Brook Falls, there’s even a handy sign to warn visitors that whatever might happen here is their own responsibility, not something they can sue the City of Keene over. Given our increasingly litigious society, I guess it should come as no surprise that Nature herself merits a warning label, given Lawyers’ reputation for being even redder than Nature in tooth and claw. It’s a wild world out there, so watch your step. And if something should ever happen to you at Beaver Brook Falls, keep in mind that you were duly warned. This is Nature, people. Use it at your own risk.

Yellowjacket on lilac leaves

I first posted this picture in May, 2004…back when I’d first discovered my camera’s Macro setting, and back when I still liked yellow-jackets. After yesterday, though, I’m starting to re-think that last part.

Yep, yesterday I had a run-in with a yellow-jacket…and let me tell you, one of the most painful and inconvenient places you can be stung by one is on the bottom of your foot. I was walking to campus when it happened; I stepped down and felt what I initially thought was a rock in my sandals, only it stung worse than any rock I’ve ever stepped on. Luckily, I killed Mr. Yellow-Jacket when I stepped on him, because unlike honey bees, yellow jackets are wasps which can (and do) sting repeatedly.

Yellow-jackets also (I read) emit a distress pheromone when they sting, and this scent alerts the rest of the wasp colony to come and attack whatever seems to be causing the trouble. So in retrospect, I’m lucky that I got stung-by-stepping-on only one of the buggers since late August is when they are most active.

The irony of it all is that I don’t typically dislike bees and wasps. Back in high school and college when I volunteered for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I worked every year at the ODNR’s prairie exhibit at the Ohio State Fair, where a rectangular plot of soil had been planted with a variety of native tall-grass prairie wildflowers. Whenever visitors approached and saw all the bees that these flowers attracted, they’d shy away…but we’d hasten to point out that with so many flowers to tend to, the bees were too busy to bother with humans.

In all those years I stood surrounded by flowers and bees, I was never stung, and I never saw a visitor get stung, either: the age-old philosophy of “they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them” seemed to work. But after 35 years of sting-free living, within the past year I’ve been stung for no good reason twice: once while sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Galveston, Texas last November, and yesterday while minding my own business here in Keene.

Perhaps the yellow-jackets have it out for me. Could it be they don’t appreciate my paparazzi ways?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any reflective photos, but this shot seemed a good pick for today’s Photo Friday theme of Chaos. (Click on the image for an enlarged version.)

I snapped this shot last July during a visit to Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. This particular installation featured all the litter gathered from a particular location, each bit of detritus meticulously tagged, mapped, and catalogued. (I believe the matter in this shiny glass case is a clump of shredded newspaper, displayed as if it were a biological specimen, which I suppose it is: the effluvia of suburban life.)

Although I never blogged this shot when I first took it, it being a bit too weird for me to know what to do with it, I’ve kept it filed away for over a year, it being just too interesting to trash. What I like best about the shot isn’t my own image in it…although I’m surprised that my image turned out clear and unclouded, reflective photography with its odd angles and perspectives being such an inexact art. Instead, what I like best about this picture is the crystal clear shot of the camera’s lens–the watching Eye–right at the image’s focal point…and the accidental shot of a random watching stranger (another Museum visitor who was either behind me or standing on the other side of the glass) whose image appears just above and to the right of that objective Eye.

As fate would have it, that last visit to Mass MoCA happened only days before my ex-husband and I would separate: a very chaotic point in my personal life. At the time, I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw my ex-husband’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece; at the time, I didn’t know what the next few days (much less the next year) would have in store. At the time, I wasn’t focused on my future or my past…at the time, I was simply focused on trying to take one reflective shot, my surprisingly clear and concentrated visage not showing a trace of the tangled chaos that hid within.

    This weekend I’ve plans to return to Mass MoCA with Rachel and Leslee, so we’ll see what sorts of odd photographic opportunities present themselves this time around.

You have to love a Universe that sends you flowers Just Because time is flying.

And time is flying, the summer quickly waning, whether you’ve noticed or not. Classes at Keene State start next week–next week!–so that means I’m doing one last mad push to complete all the things I should have done months ago. There are classes to plan, syllabi to prepare, assignments to design. Yesterday I went to an all-day faculty meeting, and now my head is buzzing with even more ideas about how to make this year better than last year: every instructor’s perpetually elusive goal.

As if I needed more evidence that tempus fugit, last night when I crawled into bed, I was cold, even with a sheet and blanket. Wasn’t it only weeks ago that I was hot with only a sheet? As I stumbled to the dresser and pulled out an extra blanket, I wondered: how long until I change my summer sheets for flannels, the official Last Nail in summer’s coffin?

If the evidence of late summer wildflowers, the back-to-school rush, and extra bedding isn’t enough to convince you that time is flying, consider Exhibit D. Yesterday afternoon after that all-day faculty meeting, I collected Reggie and we went to walk on the wild side of the Ashuelot River here in the heart of Keene. (If you want a flashback of what the wild side looks like in October, click here.) If you’re a long-time Hoarded Ordinaries reader with an exceptionally fine memory, the gnarled giant on the right might look a bit familiar since I first posted his picture less than two years ago.

If you take a moment to compare those two images–then in April, 2004, and now in August, 2005–you’ll notice something definitely different on the wild side of the Ashuelot River. The invasive buckthorn that grows there has run amok, growing higher than my head (and threatening to swallow the unmanicured paths) in the year or so since work crews cleared the electrical right-of-way on the wild side of the Ashuelot. Back then, I noted the angry bitterness of an older woman who obviously didn’t approve of such vegetative clearing…and yet, less than two years later, yesterday I found myself wishing those work crews would return to trim back the buckthorn, tidy up the trails Reggie and I wander along the river, and reveal (again) the base of that still-standing gnarled giant.

But yesterday there was no sign of work crews on the wild side of the Ashuelot, and I have work of my own to do here at home. Time is flying, and things change. The path out of bitterness is to accept the fact that sometimes the things and situations you love change whether you like it or not, just because.

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