July 2008

Wet day for pedestrians

The weather in New England was awful this week, forcing me to drive through blinding torrential rains to and from teaching in Keene. A sidewalk puddle looks pleasant enough–a mild mirror for the sky–but when you’re driving through pooled water on a poorly drained, tire-grooved highway, that mild mirror offers a perfect surface for hydroplaning.

Dig safe

Keene was spared the worst of last week’s wild weather, and all I have to show for several nerve-wracking commutes are the tense shoulders that come from white-knuckling a steering wheel. Arriving back home after Thursday afternoon’s rain-soaked commute, I felt like I wanted to curl up inside and not leave the house for a week or so. Heavy rain is awful in all senses of the word. On the one hand, it can be “extremely disagreeable or objectionable” to get drenched because you ventured across campus for a quick cup of coffee only to have the skies open along the way, as happened to a handful of students when I gave them a beverage break during class on Thursday; on the other hand, the blinding power of sheets of water falling from the sky and squirting up from other drivers’ tires can seem “exceedingly great” when you’re trying to squint your way through your own windshield and wipers. The thought that mere water can be so damn chilling, blinding, and skid-inducing is enough to “inspir[e] awe” if you’re prone to spots of reverence. Isn’t it remarkable how something as simple as a sudden cloudburst can radically change the direction of both your hydroplaning car and your life itself?

Office window with vine and rain

In keeping with my Thursday afternoon inclination, I’m not going much of anywhere this weekend. J is out of town visiting family, so I’m in charge of tending the menagerie, three dogs and nine cats giving me more than ample reason to stick close to home. A weekend alone with animals and plenty of papers to grade might be some folks’ idea of awful, and I suppose that depends upon your preferred definition of the word. As for me, a weekend alone with animals in a dry house seems more like awesome.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Awful.

Emergency phone / you are beautiful

In times of emergency, we can all use a reminder, even if the message is one we’ve already heard from a black-booted stranger.

Great vehicle, even greater bumper sticker

It’s a joke only a Buddhist would get, which made its placement on the bumper of a pickup truck parked this morning at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, RI all the more perfect.

Buddha's birthday, 2007

Mahayana” is the term used by Buddhists from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Tibet to refer to their particular flavor of practice: the so-called “Great Vehicle.” Calling your own way of spiritual practice “great” is, well, great…except that referring to the “Great Vehicle” of Mahayana Buddhism automatically implies a so-called “Lesser Vehicle”: Hinayana, the pejorative name used by (of course) Mahayana Buddhists to refer to the Theravadan traditions of Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, and Laotian Buddhism.

You can get away with joking about Great Vehicles among the Korean-influenced Zen Buddhists at the Providence Zen Center: we all know that the “Great Vehicle” also refers to the Bodhisattva way, which does not discriminate between “greaters” and “lessers” in its endeavor to save all beings from suffering. From a Zen perspective, there is no “great” vehicle, only the One Vehicle that is This Present Moment. Whether you take a pickup truck, car, plane, train, or boat–and whether you’re Thai, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, or American–the One Way that’s the High Way is the very moment you’re currently in: no “vehicle” necessary. The moment you wake up and remember you’re Right Here, Now, you’ve already arrived.

Coca Cola mural off Moody Street

What busy person hasn’t longed for the mystic power of bilocation: the ability to be in two places simultaneously? Last night, after taking a break from online teaching tasks to have dinner with friends, I received a call from my credit card company that briefly suggested I’d spontaneously mastered this elusive trick.

Beetle on day lily

Was it true, an American Express customer service representative wanted to know, that I’d charged nearly $2,000 worth of merchandise from Bloomingdales in New York yesterday, or a couple hundred dollars from another women’s clothing store I’d never heard of? Uh, no. I spent the day yesterday checking commas and semicolons in my online College Comp classes’ discussion boards. On Thursday night, it seems, I somehow managed to have dinner with a friend at an Irish pub in Jamaica Plain while “I” also paid for dinner at an Italian restaurant I’ve never heard of somewhere else in Massachusetts. Apparently, the “other half” of my bilocating self has been having quite a social life!

As much as I’d love to be able to go shopping while responding to discussion board posts or eat pasta in one restaurant while quaffing a pint in another, I don’t have such magical powers. As of last night, my compromised American Express account has been closed and I’ll spend the weekend waiting for its replacement to arrive. Somewhere in New York or elsewhere, my alter ego will have to stop her spending spree, at least with my credit card. My brief flirtation with bilocation, it seems, was only a case of mistaken buy-location. Whoever spent part of this week duly stimulating the economy is welcome to continue…but not on my dime.

Parking by permit only

I took this photo two weekends ago, during a morning stroll before going to the Cambridge Zen Center to give Sunday morning consulting interviews. I give consulting interviews–a chance for Zen practitioners to ask one-on-one questions of a Senior Dharma Teacher–about once a month, and I always try to arrive in Cambridge early so I can take a quick walk before ending up at the Zen Center. It’s a chance to clear my head before sitting down to Clear My Head, and it’s a chance for me to take pictures in a place I lived before I had either a blog or a camera.

Wall with ladder

I’ve often noted the conundrum of adjunct teaching. During semesters when you’re under-employed, you have plenty of time but little money. During semesters when you’re teaching a full- or over-load at several different institutions, you have plenty of money but little time. Finding just the right balance of the two precious resources called “money” and “time” seems as impossible as determining both the position and velocity of sub-atomic particles, with some sort of uncertainty principle decreeing you’ll never simultaneously have enough of both.

This summer, I’m in the “plenty of money, not enough time” category. Although I’m never exactly rolling in cash, this summer the institutions where I teach had no problem enrolling my classes–apparently in this tight economy, lots of folks are heading back to school–so I’ve found myself teaching more summer classes than I’d planned on: a full-load of three classes during both summer terms rather than the two classes per term I’d planned on. The result is a summer spiral where it feels like I’m spending my so-called vacation continually moving between classes: one moment teaching in Keene, the next teaching online, the next prepping to teach in Keene again, etc.

Permit only

A surprise influx of fecundity is nothing to complain about: I’ve had more than my share of hungry summers where under-enrolled classes have been canceled and I’ve watched with alarm as months of few or no paychecks have nibbled away my summer savings. Still, I sometimes wish I lived in a more temperate temporal clime where I had world enough and time to enjoy modest windfalls when they come. Instead, I’ll continue to clear my head when and where I can, knowing that while money can be saved, time cannot. In the face of a summer influx of activity, I know hungry months will come, and even in the face of a full summer load, it’s possible to find moments of Enough-ness when a short Sunday walk yields a brimming bushel of the ephemeral world. Given such lovely lushness, I’ll imbibe as I can.

Butterfly on sunflower

Lately I’ve been experimenting with what I call “zoom-macros”: up-close, macro-like shots taken from a distance with my point-and-shoot digicam’s zoom. The first time I took a zoom-macro, I was too lazy to crouch down and stick my camera right in the face of some short flower; another time, I zoomed to take up-close shots of the frost feathers in an overhead tree. When height, unstable terrain, or other challenges prevent you from sticking your camera right up close to what you’re shooting–or when crouching would insert your own shadow between the sun and the very flower you’re trying to photograph–standing back and relying upon your digicam’s zoom is a workable alternative.


The most useful use of a zoom-macro, I’ve found, is in shooting insects, which tend to fly away (or, in the case of bees, sting you) if you stick a digicam in their face. When I bought my new Panasonic Lumix digicam last Christmas, one of the features I coveted was its 10x optical zoom, several steps up from the 6x optical zoom on my previous Lumix. Although I wanted a more powerful zoom primarily for shooting pictures at hockey and basketball games where J and I tend to have almost-nosebleed seats, I was intrigued to see my new camera’s manual recommend the zoom for the other sorts of shots I’d experimented with, advising that photographers employ what they called “tele-macro” for taking up-close shots of insects or wary animals. Here I thought I’d invented (and named) the technique simply because I’d never heard of anyone else doing it!

When it comes to photography, like anything, there’s nothing new under the sun: I’m sure folks have been using zoom lenses to take extreme closeups since those lenses were invented. Still, since I’m not one to actually read a camera manual, I’m still learning (through trial and error) how to use my “new” Lumix more than six months after I bought it. Now that I’ve almost perfected the art of the zoom-macro, I now have a bigger challenge. How do you get a pair of flower-distracted bumblebees to look at you so you can snap their taken-from-a-distance picture?

Bees on purple coneflower

Universal Mother with Lively Child

I’ve walked right under David Moodie’s “Universal Mother with Lively Child” countless times during the almost-seven years I’ve taught at Keene State, and I noticed only this week that the “lively child” has a face: a white-painted eye peering from the center of the multi-colored spiral swaddled in the embracing swirl of a cloud-like and protective “mother.”

Universal Mother with Lively Child

This week, it feels like time has spiraled out of control, Friday arriving right on the heels of Monday. Two days a week, my schedule is pretty much subsumed by the commute to and from Keene from Newton, with a summer school class safely nested between my coming and going. Smack dab in the middle of the week, I’ve been teaching a meditation class at the Zen Center, which requires its own kind of in-the-moment preparation, and in the moments I’m not teaching in Keene or Cambridge, my online classes always seem to require attention.

I’m no Universal Mother, but as a teacher, I can imagine what it’s like to be pulled in multiple directions as various “children” voice their needs and concerns. There’s always someone with a question, or something that needs tending, or a situation that requires attention. When I was a child, I was told that teachers (like mothers?) have eyes in the back of their heads so they can continually watch their charges, but I never imagined that teachers (like mothers?) might sometimes feel the need to keep one eye always open, just in case there’s something going wrong somewhere.

Universal Mother with Lively Child

I guess I like the fact that Moodie’s “lively child” never sleeps, keeping a constant watch over the comings and goings at Keene State College. With her “lively child” on the lookout, maybe the “universal mother” can get a moment or two of shut-eye (or at least enjoy just “hanging out”) knowing her “baby” will let her know as soon as he spots anything amiss in the world below their spiraling embrace.

In keeping with the theme of “time spiraling out of control,” this is my contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Spiral. I tell myself that if I just keep spinning time’s spiral, eventually a “week late” will seem like “right on time.”

Out of the closet, but still inside the box

It looks like Ken’s come out of the closet, but he’s still thinking inside the box.

You look fabulous!

It’s not uncommon for my teaching colleagues at Keene State to leave boxes of graded papers and projects outside their offices for students to pick up after the semester’s over. It’s a little bit less common, though, for instructors to leave cross-dressing Ken dolls alongside piles of graded papers, but to each her or his own.

Several of the instructors whose offices neighbor mine teach in the Women’s Studies program, so a cross-dressing Ken doll decked out in faded jeans, a girly camisole, and a fabulous beaded handbag might very well represent some student’s final project on gender roles, children’s toys, and popular culture. Or, maybe one of my teaching colleagues simply likes to play with cross-dressing Ken dolls. At Keene State, we tolerate a diversity of toy preferences, so there’s nothing wrong with that.

I do feel a bit sorry for Ken, though. Now that it’s summer, he should be vacationing in Provincetown with the guys at Romeo’s Holiday rather than being stuck in a box in Keene.

Brain Power

Oh, if only it were that easy! I had to laugh when I saw a sign at Whole Foods this weekend promising “Brain Power” by the bottle, as if smarts were so easy to supplement. Maybe only the mentally deficient would be gullible enough to believe that brains can be bought?

Artistic License

Right now I think I could use an industrial-sized container of Mega-Brain as I continue to face the online teaching learning curve I described last week. On Saturday afternoon, it took me about 45 minutes to figure out how to post to Blackboard version 8 a quiz that would have taken me about 5 minutes to post on Blackboard version 6. Why in the name of industrial-sized bottles of Brain Power would the developers who “upgraded” Blackboard think the proper default availability for tests should be “unavailable,” especially in a repeat course in which quizzes had already been created and deployed? Today I’ve experienced deja vu all over again as I tried to accomplish the simple task of downloading student papers from my two sections of College Composition. In Blackboard 6, that would have involved going into my online grade-book, clicking on each student’s ungraded assignment, saving the accompanying file attachment, and being done. Downloading an entire class worth of assignments would take 5-10 minutes, tops.

Standpipe with apple

This afternoon, it took me another 45 minutes or so simply to find the portion of the Blackboard manual devoted to “Assignment download,” which is, astonishingly, not mentioned in the manual’s Table of Contents. Judging from the Table of Contents, instructors “Create” assignments and then “Input grades,” but they never actually download the papers that students submit. One bit of Manual copy helpfully noted that assignments submitted by students via assignment links are accessible to instructors via the “Grade Center”…but there was no indication of how instructors might “access” these file attachments within the mystifying Grade Center, nor any link to the portion of the Manual that actually explains that part of the process. I guess if I had enough Brain Power, I’d be able to grade student papers without reading them, or I’d be able to know telepathically where in the mighty Manual an answer to a perfectly reasonable question might be found.

Nice people here

Only after searching for the term “Assignment” did I find a hidden page telling me how to download assignments from my Grade Center, which is easy enough to do once you know how to do it (although I would have never intuitively “guessed” the process). Happily, this version of Blackboard makes it easy for instructors to download multiple assignments all at once; unhappily, these assignments are saved with default names that do not make it easy to list files alphabetically in their target directory (unless, of course, you set up your grade-book to alphabetize students by first name…and who does that?)

So now that I’ve spent at least an hour and a half this weekend and today pounding my head against the mental wall called “teaching an old dog new tricks,” I think I might need a bottle or two of Brain Power. At least, though, I still have the intellectual acumen to realize the importance of proofreading (or at least spell-checking) a flyer advertising one’s handyman services, especially if red-letter highlighting will only draw attention to your slips in spelling.

Proofread much?

The last tailgater

Apparently New Hampshire’s fiercely independent can-do spirit extends to both shotgun vigilantism and do-it-yourself truck painting.

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