June 2008


Moth on mint

Today marks the halfway point of my summer not-quite-break. This morning two online sections of College Composition officially began through SNHU Online, and tomorrow I’ll be driving back to New Hampshire to begin teaching a twice-weekly summer school lit class at Keene State. Three classes more or less constitute a full-time college teaching load even if those three classes are cobbled together from two separate institutions. It’s enough to keep the proverbial wolves from the door, and more than enough to keep me out of trouble.

Rainy rose

This kind of patchwork approach to summer employment isn’t new; in New Hampshire at least, a lot of people (not just academics) work an odd mishmash of seasonal jobs to keep themselves and their families fed. So there are no learning curves involved in this present juggling act. What’s new this time around, though, is the actual technology I’m using while I’m juggling. After five years of teaching for SNHU Online and about three years teaching online for Granite State College, this year both SNHU Online and GSC are upgrading their Blackboard servers. As of last week, SNHU Online switched to Blackboard version 8, and starting in July, GSC will upgrade to version 7.

Flowers and pollen-dusted leaves

I’m already somewhat familiar with Blackboard 7: that’s the version Keene State has been using for the past year or so, so I’m used to switching mental gears from Blackboard 6 (the version SNHU Online had been using) to the newer incarnation I use to supplement my face-to-face classes at Keene State. But SNHU Online’s current switch to Blackboard 8 has thrown me entirely for a loop. The differences between Blackboard 6 and 7 are mostly cosmetic: here and there, a few things look slightly different, but most of the tools operate roughly the same way. Blackboard 8, on the other hand, seems to represent a more major upgrade. Not only do the same old Discussion Boards I’ve been using for the past five years look different, the online gradebook I’ve grown to depend upon–an interface where students can view grades, read my feedback, and follow their term-to-date point totals online–has now been completely overhauled. The first time I clicked into my Bb8 “Grade Center,” I didn’t even recognize what it was: “Dude, where’s my gradebook?” was all I could muster.

Sunny spiderwort

I have no doubt that Blackboard 8 and it’s gradebook (er, “Grade Center”) will work great once I figure them out…but the “figuring them out” is what has me flummoxed. Last week, after I’d submitted grades for the three classes I’d taught on ol’ familiar Bb6, I clicked into my new Bb8 course-sites to prepare them for this week and had to re-teach myself how to do tasks that had been brain-numbingly simple (simply because they were familiar). Today, I’ve been answering questions from students who have never taken online classes before, a familiar first-day ritual: “When do we have to post our Discussion Board responses? How do we upload our papers? How does this whole online Discussion Board thing work, anyway?” It’s a routine I reiterate the first week or so of every new term: no matter how familiar the online drill is to me or to veteran online students, there are always at least a few students who are entirely new to the online format and are, subsequently, confused and overwhelmed.

“Don’t worry about asking stupid questions,” I’ll reassure in email and “Q&A” postings. “Everyone was confused the first time they took an online class, and everything will seem familiar and perfectly natural once you’ve done everything a few times. Give it a week, and you’ll feel like a veteran: I promise!” It’s a mantra I repeat every new term, except this time, I’m saying it to myself as well as to my students. In a week or so, after I’ve clicked through everything a time or two, even Blackboard 8 will seem familiar and entirely natural. I have, after all, an entire eight-week term to figure out how to use my new gradebook (er, Grade Center) before the next batch of grades is due. By then, I’ll feel like a veteran…I hope.

Mall from above

Last weekend, a bit bored and looking for something to do on a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, J and I went walking at the Natick Collection, the first time we’d ever gone to a mall together.

Mannequin with reflection

It had been some three years, J figured, since he’d been to a mall: J’s consumer tastes are simple, and when he needs things, he tends to shop online. I go to malls rarely and typically only to window-shop, shopping malls offering a conspicuous projection of our society and the things it holds dear. Malls, like stores of all kinds, are great places to go image-shopping for signs of abundance, so both J and I arrived at the Natick with point-and-shoot cameras discreetly hidden, photography being forbidden there.

It’s important to remember that J and I went to the Natick not because we were in the market to buy anything but because we were bored. Walking around a bustling mall after we’d weathered the usual parking lot traffic jams, I remembered why so many of my high school peers in Ohio frequented the malls there: on a humdrum Friday night or weekend afternoon, there wasn’t much else to do. Boston, of course, offers more social stimulus than Columbus ever did, but the suburbs around Boston aren’t necessarily any more exciting than those in the flatlands. On a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, we all were hanging out at the Natick, it seemed, for lack of anything better to do.

Sunglasses with self-portrait

I mention this because as J and I strolled without purpose, shooting surreptitious shots here and there, it occurred to me that malls are designed around the concept of consumer boredom. The goal of a mall, after all, is to display goods in an alluring fashion for people passing by; the goal of a mall is to sell you something you didn’t even know you needed. As I’ve noted before, “a well-designed shopping mall encourages consumers to see, desire, and ultimately possess an ever-alluring array of goods. How many times have you gone ‘window shopping’ and ended up buying something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it?” Entering a mall with the goal of buying a belt, you might leave with a belt, sweater, designer handbag, and pair of shoes. You weren’t aware, entering the place, that you needed or even wanted such things, but seeing them displayed in a bright and beckoning way in a setting that caters to consumer boredom, you bought them because they offered a momentary sensation of excitement and novelty: something different to brighten the predictable sameness you’d strode in with.

Atrium architecture

Is it sheer coincidence that both economies and persons suffer “depression,” and is it pure accident that shopping is seen by some as being a cure for both? I know full well the impulse toward retail therapy and have, on occasion, indulged in it myself. But unlike at least some of the folks we saw hanging out at the Natick Collection last weekend, I don’t carry credit card balances, my occasional bursts of “therapy” remaining within the bounds of what I can pay for without incurring debt. Considering buying as one way of escaping boredom, it occurred to me last weekend that the “economic stimulus” checks the IRS is currently sending to some American consumers have an intriguing double meaning. The financial pay-outs that were designed to provide stimulus to the American economy might also provide bored consumers with stimulation from the economy, the temporary thrill of indulging in several hundred dollars’ worth of government-financed retail therapy being an interesting way for some American consumers to spend an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon.

Ad, reflection, window

It’s suggestive that time and money are two things we spend: both time and money are precious, and both can be either wasted if poorly spent or invested toward future gain if spent well. On a boring Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to be prodigal with both money and time, spending without thinking that which you’d saved for a rainy day. Isn’t it interesting, then, that “interest” bears both emotional and economic meanings, referring simultaneously to the financial pay-off you receive for saving rather than spending and the novel allure that leads a bored consumer to buy things she doesn’t need? On an otherwise humdrum Sunday, a new sweater might seem “interesting,” and so on a humdrum Sunday, it might be difficult to save (with interest) rather than spend. But if you have enough interest in the things you already own, there’s little need for something new.

The road oft taken?

I’m long accustomed to the spirit of saving that gets me through my summer paucity of paychecks, and one secret I’ve discovered is the cultivation of an intentional interest in the things I already possess. During the fall, winter, and first half of spring, full-time teaching provides a regular income; in the summer, I cobble together the dribs and drabs of a living by teaching part-time here and there. Summer is when I notice others’ consumer habits because I, for the most part, am not one of their number; summer is when I make due with what I already have rather than shopping for something new, going to libraries instead of bookstores, for instance, or walking outside where the sights are free. I’ve written before about the spiritual benefits of boredom and the conscious cultivation of simple pleasures; it occurs to me that the intentional practice of “growing interest” in the same old things you consider precious has a financial benefit as well. Isn’t this “growing of interest,” after all, the essence of ordinary hoarding in both its literal and figurative sense?

Experience Natick Collection

When I first started teaching, I felt deprived and poor during these lean and hungry summer months, but more recently, I’ve come to appreciate the thrift they inspire. There’s a difference, I think, between starving and fasting, the latter implying an intentionality of purpose that makes doing without seem dignified and even ennobling: its own kind of spiritual sustenance. One theory of weight loss argues that mindful eating is more helpful than deprivation-based dieting: once a person cultivates a mindset of appreciating every well-savored bite rather than dividing the edible world into healthful foods that “should” be eaten and guilty pleasures that “should” be shunned, that person will eat less and better food with greater and more lasting satisfaction. I suggest a parallel practice of “mindful ownership” might lead to a greater yield of high-interest living, the act of intentionally cherishing one’s possessions resulting in a robust reservoir of material satisfaction: a personal economy that doesn’t need the “stimulus” of retail novelty.

Falling leaves & birch trunks

Thoreau, who wasn’t much of a spender, talked a great deal about economy, seeing it as the heart of intentional living. Economy, after all, is nothing more than the keeping of one’s material household, and what in the world is there that’s more holy than housekeeping? The counting and care of things one holds dear is the essence of responsible stewardship, and careless living bears a fiscal as well as spiritual cost. When asked by newer practitioners how they might tell whether their meditation is “working,” I’m sometimes tempted to ask, “Are your financial affairs in order?” Although enlightenment bears no price tag, living carelessly or beyond one’s means is a surefire sign of spiritual malaise, for if you can’t manage your fiscal affairs right now, how will you manage the precious gift of ecstasy when it comes?

Faux shop windows

Last weekend, J and I spent nothing during time we spent strolling at the Natick Collection, taking with us nothing but the surreptitious pictures we’d shot. And yesterday, when my economic stimulus check arrived, I immediately endorsed it to deposit in the bank, where it will remain for a truly rainy day. Saving is what hoarders do, and in the personal accounting of what I hold dear, there is no need for economic stimulation.

Click here for the full photo set of illicit images I pilfered from the photography-free Natick Collection. Enjoy!

Devotion

This week’s Photo Friday theme is Religion, which gives me good reason to re-post one of my favorite photos from last summer’s Saint Anthony’s Feast in Boston’s North End.

Enshrined

I’m usually shy about taking (much less posting) pictures of strangers, but I love the look of adoration in this woman’s eyes as she hangs a dollar-pinned scapular on a statue of St. Anthony. That look, I originally noted, “says everything you need to know about the spirituality of Italian-American festivals,” and it also says a lot about religion in general. Religion is the act of holding out hope in the face of both doubt and the impossible, repeating the rituals of those who have walked before you, joining with others who share your devotion, and daring to stand by your beliefs regardless of who is watching. That combination of hope, practice, fellowship, and testimony lies at the heart of all religions and is a human impulse to be cherished: the good within us seeking the good outside.

Processing

“It’s easy,” I wrote last August, “to scoff at someone else’s beliefs, seeing another’s spirituality as nothing more than superstition: my favorite wry definition of the word ‘cult,’ in fact, is ‘The house of worship down the street from yours.'” Whether we see ourselves as “religious,” we all have things we individually adore, and we all (presumably) have had moments of sharing that adoration with other, like-minded folks. The emotions of excitement, camaraderie, and pride sports fans feel at a game are expressions of a secular religion, sport serving as a spectacle around which fervent fans from both sides gather to hail the virtues of athletic excellence, teamwork, and personal sacrifice. Whether you are inspired by athletes, musicians, artists, actors, or writers, you too have presumably experienced moments of transcendence when you’ve gathered with like-minded devotees to share simple wonder, the performance of a perfect poem, stunning symphony, or beautiful ballet being enough to transport you for an ecstatic moment in time.

You might not call these “religion” but simply “amazement.” But what else is religion but the shared experience of awe?

Trashy

One of the things I sometimes say about a particularly gorgeous woman is “She’d look great wearing a trash bag.” The implication, of course, is that most of us would look, well, trashy wearing a trash bag, but a woman of style and beauty would be able to pull off any outfit. In high school, it bothered me to no end that I was tagged “odd” and “awkward” because I often wore my older sisters’ hand-me-downs…but if one of the popular girls wore second-hand clothing bought at a “retro” boutique, she was hailed for being “hip” and “stylish.” The stylishness of an outfit, in other words, had more to do with who was wearing it than with what the outfit itself actually looked like.

Perhaps this explains why I’ve never been a slave to fashion. Even in high school, I suspected that it didn’t matter what I wore: I’d never be as “hip” and “stylish” as the popular girls, so I might as well not even try. So while my slightly-more-trendy friends tried to keep up, sartorially, with the popular Joneses, I recognized a doomed endeavor when I saw one and wore whatever was available. Growing up in a frugal family with four daughters, “whatever was available” was usually whatever my sisters had outgrown, grown tired of, or otherwise castoff: in other words, not the most trendy or (currently) stylish stuff.

Through the cracks

Perhaps this also explains why Christ’s parable about the “lilies of the field” was always one of my favorite Bible stories (and perhaps the fact that I had a favorite Bible story helps explain why I wasn’t a popular teenager). Christ’s admonition to “consider the lilies of the field,” after all, is simultaneously an exhortation to avoid anxiety and a reassurance that some parts of creation look perfectly fine in their natural state. If wild daisies and sunflowers were better dressed than King Solomon in all his glory, why then did my high school peers spend so much time fixing, fussing, and fiddling over their hair, clothing, and makeup? If birds, flowers, and other natural beings looked just fine how they were born–and if, furthermore, guys looked perfectly fine in T-shirts, jeans, ball-caps, and no makeup–why did teenage girls have to pour so much time, money, and effort into dressing, coiffing, and painting themselves?

I still opt for a lazy-woman’s approach to personal grooming: I wear what’s comfortable, pull back my hair and shield my eyes with a baseball cap, don’t wear makeup, and don’t color my hair. I don’t have philosophical objections against women who choose to take the time to do these things; I just don’t see the point in my spending time that way. Perhaps if I were taller, thinner, blonder, or bustier–perhaps if I came closer, in other words, to what a well-dressed, properly made-up woman is “supposed to” look like, judging from fashion magazines and Barbie dolls–I’d see merit in the effort. But given the “lilies” that God granted me, I don’t see how its worth my worry trying to fix, fuss, or fiddle myself into something I’m not. Given that I don’t have a thing to wear that would morph me into one of the popular girls, I’ll content myself with being an odd, awkward, and ultimately natural wallflower.

The other side of the fence

Got glasses?

Here’s the latest in my ongoing series of lost and found objects: this time, a pair glasses dropped and then recovered along Beacon Street. Unless, of course, the fences have eyes just as the walls have ears.

Celtics win

“So, are you guys going to the game tonight?” This was the question the barista at our local Starbucks asked on Tuesday after seeing the Celtics ball-cap I was wearing when J and I walked into town for an afternoon caffeine break.

Ray Allen heavily guarded

“No such luck!” I responded. Although J and I went to a total of four Celtics home games this season, we didn’t even try to score any much-coveted tickets to the post-season games. In response to our admitting that we’d be watching Tuesday night’s NBA finals game between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers at home on TV, first one barista and then another helped compile a list of reasons why watching a championship game at home can be better being there. At home, you don’t have to fight claustrophobia-inducing throngs of fans. At home, you don’t have to stand in line to buy overpriced food and drink. At home, if someone spills beer on you, it’s your beer, not that of the person seated next to you. At home, there’s no chance the person seated next to you might be an obnoxious Lakers fan, and at home, you can go directly to bed right after the game is over.

Ray Allen in action

This collaboratively-composed list of reasons why it’s good to watch basketball games from home was inspired by the mere sight of the cap I was wearing when J and I walked into our local Starbucks. If you want a sure-fire way to generate conversation with anonymous strangers in sports-crazy Boston, simply wear a cap for whatever team is currently playing, especially if said team is in the midst of a championship run. Over the past month or so that the Celtics have been inching their way toward the NBA championship they won on Tuesday night, I’ve been deluged with basketball-related commentary from strangers on the T, bag-boys and cashiers at several grocery stores, and one rabid librarian at the Newton Free Library who gave me a high-five the day after Game 1 of Celtics/Lakers series, the game when Paul Pierce suffered what looked to be a season-ending knee injury only to return, all-but-miraculously healed, less than a quarter later.

You can't handle the Truth!

“I thought Paul Pierce was done for when they carried him off the floor,” the librarian explained. “And when he came back in the game, everyone at the Garden jumped up and started yelling, and so did I, in my living room at home!”

And so that’s exactly where J and I watched Tuesday night’s finale to the NBA finals: on the couch at home, in front of J’s wide-screen, high-definition TV. And although we, unlike fans at the Garden, had the luxury of going to bed right after the Celtics finished their complete annihilation of the Lakers (final score, 131-92), we didn’t. We had to stay up for at least part of the post-game coverage, staying glued to the screen until we saw all the necessary elements of a properly happy ending for our favorite basketball team.

Somebody stop Chauncey!

Tuesday night, I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Kevin Garnett hug my all-time favorite Celtic, eleven-time NBA championship winner and basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell. I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Celtics coach Doc Rivers actually–finally!–hold the shiny gold trophy he’d refused to touch until his team had officially won the right. I couldn’t go to bed until I’d seen Ray Allen, the perfect picture of mental focus as he’d nailed an astonishing number of three-point shots in Tuesday night’s game after having lost a weekend’s worth of sleep at his young son’s hospital bedside, hold that same son before cameras and thronging fans. And on Tuesday night, there was no way I was going to bed until I’d seen Paul Pierce claim the series MVP trophy he so rightfully deserves for his ongoing commitment to his team (injured knees be damned!) throughout this series, this season, and the past ten years.

Nobody can guard KG

An NBA championship game is only partially about basketball, championships, and bubbling bottles of champagne. An NBA championship game is also about endings: happy endings for the winning team, bittersweet endings for the losers. If you’ve ever stayed up past your bedtime with a good book because you had to see how it would end–and if you’ve ever felt a bit sad when you’d finished a good book because you know “The End” means saying goodbye to your favorite characters–then you know how J and I felt on Tuesday night. The Celtics’ victory over the Lakers was the perfect ending to storybook season, with a team we’d rooted for even when they ranked at the bottom of the league last year crawling back into playoff contention and ultimately winning it all. “Now there’s no more basketball,” J noted glumly after Tuesday night’s game. Now it’s time to say goodbye, for now, to the the cast of characters we’ve spent so many evenings cheering from the couch: Doc on the sidelines, Rondo zipping around the legs of giants, Big Baby or Powe coming off the bench to get physical on defense, Perkins looking mad and mean in the face of any opponent.

Where team unity happens

It’s entirely silly to grow attached to a group of guys you’ve watched grow together as a team for an entire season, and it’s even sillier to continue rooting for a team that hasn’t won a championship since the ’80s, before I’d moved to Boston and began cheering for the Celtics. But it’s entirely silly, too, to lose your heart to the imaginary characters in books, and it’s even sillier to hold your breath, excited and expectant, as you await the promised sequel in your favorite fictional series.

As social animals, we humans love stories about other humans, and as physical beings, at least part of us thrills at the sight of the physical mastery of a polished and poised dancer, an adroitly agile acrobat, or a well-conditioned athlete. As an admitted admirer of any well-told story, on Tuesday night I had to stay awake until a story I’ve watched for over a decade came to its fitting and well-earned end. Today in Boston, the Celtics held an amphibious rolling rally to celebrate their 17th NBA championship, but I decided not to fight the claustrophobia-inducing throngs of celebrating fans. Tuesday night’s happy ending to this present saga was good enough for me, and I’ll be back on the couch in October, ready to enjoy next season’s sequel as the Celtics try for another banner year.

Smokey rafters with banners

Since J and I watched Tuesday’s game from home, today’s photos are recycled from the four regular season games we went to this year. Now that the Celtics are champions again, we realize it will be much harder to get tickets to home games. But that’s okay: our couch is really quite comfortable.

Not exactly full disclosure

The Cambridge police department will gladly share crime alerts with you if you can figure out where to sign up for them.

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