30 December 2007

Helllooo Nurse!

Sarah picked up a nasty bug on our way back from Texas. Okay, let's be blunt. Sarah's sister gave her some nasty bug which jumped on Sarah last Thursday. Since then, she's gone through almost every cold phase possible -- fever, chills, head congestion, runny nose, cough, and chest congestion (which is where she's at now). Not to mention an utter lack of energy. Sarah has passed some of that on to Eleanor, who has a runny nose, no appetite whatsoever, and has been running a fever. Fortunately, I have avoided all of it (knock on wood). This means I have been playing nurse these past few days for my wife and daughter. Sarah helps out with Eleanor as much as she can, and my dad came into town yesterday to bring our Christmas presents, so he's helping out a bunch as well. Dad's staying tonight, too. It's been a rough couple of days, but we are getting by, and I have gained increased respect for all of those folks who make running a household their primary responsibility.

28 December 2007

Oh, the burning!

Sarah, Eleanor, and I made it back from Texas on Wednesday. We had a wonderful time with Sarah's family, eating, exchanging gifts, watching Eleanor chase the cat, and playing Rivers, Roads, and Rails (I never win at that game, but I like it anyway). Our trip back was marked by a few delays, the longest one being at the Charlotte airport while waiting for our luggage. That was rather ridiculous, as it took probably 45 minutes for our stuff to make it around. It was also marked by a brief but pleasant visit with Nearly Normal Jimmy, who was connecting through Dallas. We were both delayed enough to see each other for a few minutes, which was cool.

We finally made it home about 8:30, then I promptly almost set the house on fire. I essentially turned off the furnace before we left, so it was 55 degrees inside when we got back home. I turned on the furnace, turned on the little space heater we have in Eleanor's room (she did wonderfully on the flight, but was about at the end of her rope by the time we made it back home), and lit our gas log fireplace to get the place warmed up faster. I went into the kitchen to talk with Sarah for a minute, and when I came back into the living room, thick black smoke was coming out of the fireplace! That's not supposed to happen. At first I thought our stockings has started to smolder, since they were hanging over the fireplace, but I quickly realized the smoke was coming from in the logs. Odd, considering the logs weren't supposed to burn. I told Sarah to grab Eleanor and hang out in her room away from the smoke. I turned off the gas, but something was still on fire in there. I yanked the ceramic logs out of the fireplace, then ran into the kitchen, grabbed my good grill tongs, then used those to pry out this ball of something that was on fire. I tossed it out the front door, then stomped on it to put out the flames. Crisis averted. At first, I thought a mouse or something had died in the fireplace, then had roasted when I lit the logs. But later, after telling this story to my dad, he recalled the last time he was here with his dog, loosing one of her toys, probably in the fireplace. Mystery solved, but problems remained. I had a house full of smoke. So I opened up all the windows and doors and turned on all the fans. That cleared things out fairly quickly, but didn't really do much for our heating situation. SO we closed the house back up, bundled everyone up in the car, then drove to Wendy's for some dollar menu chili. Eleanor didn't get to bed until almost 10:00, but was a trooper through it all.

So remember to check those gas logs for foreign objects before lighting them, folks!

23 December 2007

Things I Like About Texas

1. The sky. Friday here was beautiful, with a high about 75 and little while clouds strung across a light blue sky. The sky is big here, it lets you know you are in THE WEST. As the beautiful Friday faded, the sky turned a light yellow that gave way to a soft orange, almost a peach color, before the sun set. We witnessed this sunset on the way to dinner, which brings me to. . .

2. The food, specifically places like Babe's Chicken. Babe's is a family style restaurant, where they bring you big plates and bowls and you pass it around. The menu was simple -- fried chicken, roast chicken, chicken fingers, chicken fried steak, and fried catfish. They had three sides -- corn, green beans, and mashed potatoes -- that all got brought to the table. For $10 you got half a chicken and all the side dishes you can eat. There were biscuits, of course, which were incredible, and white gravy that I just wanted to eat by itself. The wait staff had attitude and stopped whatever they were doing to dance to the hokey pokey whenever it came on the jukebox. Oh, and it's BYOB, so Sarah's dad walked in with a brown paper bag stuffed with a few bottles of Shiner Bock and no one batted an eye.

3. The radio. I like radio, but most radio is really bad, especially the radio we have in Rock Hill. Dallas radio has lots of interesting options. The option we've been availing ourselves of the most is Lone Star. Their web site says they play "classic rock and roll, outlaw country, and alternative county." I've heard Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Charlie Robinson, Pat Green, the Allman Brothers, The Eagles, David Allen Coe (we were all singing along to the Perfect Country Song on the way home from church) and lots of others. They lean a bit to heavy on the Lynyrd Skynyrd for my tastes (I've heard "That Smell", "What's Your Name," "Gimme Three Steps," and, of course, "Sweet Home Alabama" since I've been here), but generally it's good stuff.

There is plenty of other stuff, like the fact that some movie theater here in Dallas is showing Labyrinth this weekend at it's midnight show. You can beat young Jennifer Connelly, muppets, and David Bowie in tights on the big screen.

21 December 2007

The Center of the Big D

I am sitting in the main branch of the Dallas Public Library, looking out thirty foot high glass windows at Dallas City Hall. Three pairs of (presumably) homeless men sit on the benches beyond these windows, between the library on the street. Everyone seems to be smoking. A yong black man with a laptop case approaches one of the pairs -- two older black me who appear to be sharing some powdered doughnuts -- and gives them some sort of flier. The young man, who I now see has big, black, thick glasses, makes the rounds to each of the pairs of men sitting on those stone benches, giving everyone that same flier. Most seem to nod politely, then fold the flyer and put it in their pockets when the man walks away.

I am in downtown Dallas because I rode to work with Sarah's father. Roger is putting in a half day at his legal aid office, then we're headed to Half Price Books' flagship store (if a small chain of used bookstores can be said to have a flagship store). Sarah, Eleanor, Leanna, and Marilyn are doing some shopping this morning; we'll all rendezvous sometime this afternoon and then go for a big dinner out.

Sarah and I arrived here Wednesday; we'll be in Dallas until the day after Christmas. We flew, deciding against driving after figuring out how long it would probably take us and after finding $255 flights on American. I was a little concerned about how Eleanor would do on the airplane, but she did great. She napped on Sarah for takeoff and about 30 minutes after, then wanted to see everyone and everything, so Sarah walked up and down the aisle with her for awhile.

I'll keep you posted on the happenings in the big D.

17 December 2007

How to Save a Life

The answer, according to Tim O'Brien, is to write stories. "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help clarify and explain." (The Things They Carried, 179-180).

I just finished this memoir/novel, and what impressed me the most about it was O'Brien's meta-commentary on writing, or rather, on storytelling. The book repeatedly makes a note of itself as fiction -- it's underneath the title, it's in an epigram, O'Brien keeps telling us he's making stuff up. Yet it certainly reads like a memoir, like O'Brien trying to tell us these Vietnam stories that, we think, he just can't be making up. When he writes about the smell and slop of that field of shit where he and his platoon set up camp, where he lost his best friend in a mortar attack, and where he revisits 30 years later with his daughter, we say to ourselves "He can't be making this up. It's too real, too important, too personal."

Yet that's the point. Sometimes, in order to get at Truth, you have to make stuff up that did not actually happen. Truth is occasionally independent of fact. At least in the realm of story (this makes a dangerous political ideology, though).

O'Brien is trying to save himself (and us, too) with these stories. Save both in the sense of rescue and preserve. Maybe those are the same. Because when we rescue ourselves, aren't we just trying to preserve ourselves as we were when we were free, happy, and innocent. The final line of the book reads: "I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap in the air and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."

Two other semi-random notes about The Things They Carried: First, it reminds me of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a bit, minus the snark and plus, well Vietnam. Second, I first heard about this book when working at Barnes and Noble. It was on some high school reading lists, so we carried a bunch of copies. I think it's cool this is taught in high school, but I wonder how it gets done -- just as a Vietnam memoir, or does the meta-narrative aspects of the work come into play?

I am going to look for a new book for our Christmas travels this afternoon. I've also polished off Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs, which I will comment on soon.

13 December 2007

Thoughts on high and popular art from John Updike

I am finished with all my grading and everything is turned in. We have graduate commencement tonight, which I plan to attend to see some of my students from 600 walk. Then, my immediate obligations for the semester will be finished. That just means, however, that my thoughts will return to research and preparing my pre-tenure review, due in February.

Some of those research thoughts are on the difference between fine and popular art and what that difference means for education. A few weeks ago, I checked out Odd Jobs from the library. It's a collection of essays from John Updike. I've never read much Updike and still haven't gotten to Rabbit, Run, but I enjoyed the essays in this collection. I certainly haven't read them all, but one essay in particular struck me. Indeed, the essay called "High Art Versus Popular Culture" is the main reason I checked out Odd Jobs.

In that essay, Updike says "High art, we might say, is art which presumes knowledge of other art; popular culture is prepared to deal with the untutored."

There are some interesting things about Updike's statement. First (one I just noticed as I typed it in) is his terms of distinction -- high art and popular culture. Is he trying to avoid using the phrase "popular art", and, thus, somehow acknowledging that art can be popular? Given what he says in the rest of the essay and the fact that he writes "literary" fiction that is usually pretty popular, I don't think that's where he is going, but it's an interesting way of phrasing that distinction.

There is something that seems right about Updike's statement. Impressionism wasn't just about making pretty blurry paintings, it was about interrogating the conventions of painting itself. Matisse makes the most sense when seen against an artistic and historical backdrop, within and beyond certain conventions of art. It's even easier to say this about literary art, like, say, "The Waste Land" which is packed with allusions and references.

I wonder, though, if this approach doesn't give to much power to the artist and too little to the spectator/viewer/reader, whathaveyou. The high/popular distinction rests in the object and is placed there by the artist. What role does the reader (we'll go with that one) have here? If I bring a copious knowledge of high art to an unabashedly piece of popular art (like, say, comic books) and am thus able to see parallels to myth, poetry, and even impressionism, does the comic then become high art, even if the writer and artists just wanted to tell a fun story and have it look cool?

Seems like I am still stuck in the author intent/reader response dichotomy, when there has to be more here. I do, however, like the way that Updike puts it -- popular art deals with the untutored. Updike doesn't see that as a negative thing.

What do you folks think about Updike's distinction?

11 December 2007

Up to . . .

My neck in grades and grading, as it's finals time here at Winthrop. My students have a final project that they present on exam day. All the presentations are done and two sections are graded. So I just have one more section to grade and then the final averages to compute. Then, I will be able to relax a little.

09 December 2007

Christmas Thoughts

At Mass this morning (which had guitar -- arrgh -- more on that later), there was "The Christmas Pledge" for the 2nd Sunday of Advent in a bulletin insert. It reads:

"Believing in the true spirit of Christmas, I commit myself to:

Remember those people who truly need my gifts
Express my love in more direct ways than gifts
Examine my holiday activities in the light of my deepest values
Be a peacemaker within my circle of family and friends
Rededicate myself to my spiritual growth


That's good stuff, and follows many of the things Sarah and I have been talking about already. I'd really just like a Christmas where I can spend time with the people I care about. More on our plans to make that happen later.

06 December 2007

Eleanor's Place


I've added a link to Eleanor's Blog in the sidebar. Check it out! She's waving now!

03 December 2007

Conversation at a Gas Station

Yesterday, Sarah, Eleanor and I left the house to get a bite to eat and pick up a few things at Target. We drove the Subaru, which needed gas, so we stopped at the Flying J Travel Plaza down the road from our house, just off I-77 at exit 73. We pulled up to the pumps next to a brand new candy apple red Corvette that was being gassed up. The driver of the Vette and I proceeded to have a conversation while fueling our vehicles that went something like this.

Corvette Guy (CG): "She could have pulled up a little further, couldn't she?"

Sarah was driving, and had parked where I had to open my door carefully or risk hitting the grey metal posts that prevent wayward automobiles from crashing into gas pumps).

Me (a bit puzzled by being taken up in conversation by a guy at a gas station): "Um, yeah. I had to kinda squeeze outa there." I then proceed to answer the 12 questions from the gas pump to dispense my fuel. No I am not a loyalty customer. Yes, I want a receipt. No I do not want a car wash.

CG: "Ya'll from around here?"

Me: "Yessir. Rock Hill. You?"

CG: "Yep. Not to far down the road. Great Falls."

I get a better look at Corvette Guy now that I have answered the riddles of the gas pump. He's short, maybe 5'6" or so. He has on cheap looking dark glasses, even though it's cloudy. His denim shirt is unbuttoned three or four buttons down, displaying four necklaces -- two silver, two gold. His jeans are tight and his boots are worn.

Me: "Taking the Corvette out for a Sunday drive?"

CG: "Just getting some lunch. A buddy of mine told me the KFC in Richburg has an all you can eat lunch buffet. All you want for only about seven dollars. Chicken, livers, gizzards, all the fixins. Good stuff."

Me: "Yeah, we're going to get some lunch ourselves."

CG: "You should get you sum! You can feed the whole family for under twenty dollars!"

Me: "Well, it's kinda far."

CG: "It ain't that far. Just down the road a piece."

Here, I may have offended CG by inadvertently rebuffing his suggestion of KFC. I went to get the nozzle out of my gas tank and, when I turned around, he had headed inside.

I was flustered by the whole exchange. I left the gas cap on top of the car and the gas door open. We noticed the cap when it flew off as we drove up the ramp to 77. I had to get out and grab it from the middle of the road.

Sundays in Rock Hill.