Living the Dream–a view from last summer

Rob recently washed my car for me.  I’d been meaning to, but never got around to it, and he did it for me, understanding my main motivation.  He approached me with two stickers in his hand and announced that it was time.  When the car was clean, I could put on the stickers we got on our vacation this summer—one from Yosemite and one from Muir Woods.  Across from the Yellowstone sticker we got last summer, I look like quite the budding naturalist.  Or granola head.  Or, given the fact that my car is a hybrid, an environment-conscious human.  Guilty on all counts.  He smiled:  “Look at you.  Hybrid car, garden in the backyard–you’re living the dream, aren’t you?” 
I am!  My life right now tends dangerously toward perfect.  The garden has always been a dream, and we’ve tried several times, with mixed results.  The most success I think we had was the herb garden, where I grew seven or eight different herbs, all of which were intended for use in the kitchen.  I made a really terrific marinara once with entirely home grown herbs and tomatoes (the tomatoes had grown rogue, the result of a happy bird population, not our purposeful planting).  It was delicious.  It took way too much time.  I made it once—photographed it, otherwise documented it, and moved on.
This year’s garden is the result of many years of drought and of our increasing awareness of the value of water.  In the last few years, as water restrictions have tightened (and we tightened even more than the restrictions—we were VERY good Californians) all of our lawn has died, front and back.  We’ve decided to xeriscape the front, but for the back, we let the dog decide.  Ok, that’s not entirely true, but close.  When the kids were little, it was important that we had a grassy backyard for them to play in. 
Now that they’re mostly grown, they don’t play outside like they did.  But the dog….  A few months ago we got a Bassett Hound puppy.  The first time we walked him around the block, he couldn’t make it; we had to carry him home.  As he got stronger, he made it around the block by pausing now and again in people’s lawns for break—like he plops right down on a neighbor’s grass and expects you to wait a few minutes while he catches his breath.  Then he got stronger, and we started to suspect he just liked the feel of the cool grass.  

So we got some sod for the backyard.  For the dog.
The backyard is too big to fill the whole thing with lawn again, though, so we just made him a patch to sit on.  It’s more of a run, really, eight feet wide and about twenty feet long, and when we showed it to him, he was delighted.  It’s perfect.  And it doesn’t take much water for a lawn that small.  But the yard is twice that size.  So we planted a garden. 
Now my backyard is half grass and fruit trees and half garden.  Sunflowers, corn, cucumbers, zucchini and yellow summer squash.  For the past few weeks, we’ve been eating home grown food, and it has filled a happy little part of my heart.  It’s wonderful to feel self-sufficient (I’m not under any illusions I could survive off-grid, but eating my own zucchini is marvelous), and it’s wonderful to decorate with a garden.  

It reminds me of my mother who always proclaimed she decorated with books.  Talk about blending the functional and the beautiful.  Books on the walls, and greenery and flowers in the yard.  Add to that our pretty happy positions at work (Rob is teaching a bit less, to pursue other interests, and I am at a comfortable spot in my career, where I can take some time to learn Italian and call it research), our kids who are actually enjoying high school, and the burgeoning little community of our two cats, two dogs, and countless itinerant outside critters including birds, squirrels, skunks, lizards, butterflies, and bees (who are so pleased we planted sunflowers!), and he’s right:  I’m living the dream. In the world and of the world.  Physical abundance and mental contentment.  Watching my garden grow.

“I’m going on an adventure!”

This spring I’m on sabbatical. It’s my second, and I continue to have mixed feelings about it.  Especially during finals week, when my charming students are their most charming, fussing mildly about whether or not I’ll be at graduation.  This sort of thing compounds my regret.  That, and I really miss teaching.
But I’m going on an adventure.  It’s not a literal journey–that was last weekend, when I dragged everyone out of bed at 5:00 on a Saturday to drive three hours in to the desert to see the Superbloom at Anza-Borrego State Park. I’m often kicking my family into that sort of adventure.  Let’s drive a thousand miles to Yellowstone! Let’s take a train to Seattle! They’re lucky this weekend was only a day trip.  But it was beautiful. We took lots of pictures, and we took a long look at what happens when the best circumstances happen in the least likely of places.
My sabbatical will not be that kind of adventure, though.  I’m not going to London to work in the British Library or to Paris to look at Unicorn tapestries, or even on a journey to the Lonely Mountain, like Bilbo Baggins, whose quote I stole for my title.  I’m going on an entirely mental adventure; the farthest I’m planning on is a café with wifi and good tea, and maybe a library or two.
I’m starting by giving myself the gift of reading some books I’ve been putting off.  It is the eternal plight of the English major never to have enough time to read what we want to.  I do have the enviable position of assigning books I want to read for class, but that does take away a little bit of the self-indulgent delight of reading something just because it’s cool. On my bookshelf next to the comfy chair, there is a modest pile that will prime the pump, as it were, and put me in the mood for writing my own fiction.
Then the real adventure begins.  I have great plans.  Finish one book, write supplementary teaching materials and a book proposal, and start the reading and drafting for the next one. It’s a good time to start a new project, what with the world waking up and showing its most brilliant colors and tempting us to believe things can be more beautiful than ever we thought.  I hope it inspires you to do something brave too!  Happy Spring!

My Happy Hobby

I think it’s important to have a hobby—maybe not for absolutely everyone, but for almost everyone. Even those of us who love our jobs (and I do—I really do) need something else to do with our heads and  our hands. Maybe those of us who have no physical product in our jobs need one most of all. I certainly felt that. As the child of an architect, I often toured buildings my dad worked on. He worked for the state, so some of the buildings he worked on were prisons, which was less interesting to a preteen and teenager, but there were plenty of city buildings he worked on too, especially since we lived in the state capitol, so frequently as we drove around town, he would point out the window and say “That’s one of ours.” If he weren’t the lead architect, he was still involved, consulted, and proud. And he used to say how wonderful a thing a building was, because everyone from the architect to the bricklayers to the electricians could all point at it and say, “That’s mine. I did that.” 
When I went in to teaching, there was much less opportunity for such a proclamation. About halfway through grad school–knee deep in research, student teaching, and still taking my own classes–I thought about needing a hobby. I couldn’t really point to anything and say “I made that.” Students are much more complex than their education, and no matter how life-changing I like to think an English class can be, I was under no illusion that I “made” anything really.  Intellectual work has little physical product. Even if one writes a book, pointing at the book doesn’t really point at the product in the same way a potter points at a pot or an artist points at a sculpture or a cook points at a pastry. I started seeking out hobbies to fill that need.
I tried a lot of hobbies. My husband watched, amused, as I tried on sewing, jewelry-making, pottery, oil painting, needlepoint, and others. I still have vestiges in my closets of failed hobbies, and they occasionally come in useful, proving the hoarder’s worst nightmare—as soon as you throw something away, you’ll need it. Some of these hobbies, I just wasn’t any good at.  Sewing felt too much like work and involved too much math, actually (which is just an excuse—math isn’t an impediment unless I don’t actually enjoy what I’m doing. Then it’s an extra excuse to drop it.) For a variety of reasons from the silly (my mother did it: that’s her hobby) to the practical (it does take a long time to make an article of clothing), I gave up on sewing and all these others. Pottery stuck the longest; I really enjoyed wheel-throwing, and the useful, pretty (sometimes) things I could make, but when we moved 2000 miles away from my pottery instructor and I had babies and toddlers to tend and tenure to work toward, that fell by the wayside too. 

It wasn’t until my toddlers stopped being toddlers and were safely ensconced in school, and I had tenure and could relax a little, that I found the hobby that stuck. I was invited to a stamping party by the mom of one of my daughter’s friends, and we made a greeting card and a bookmark. Papercrafting. Yes.
For a bookish person, paper was a natural medium, and for the incurable happy-ass that I am, something sweet and cute that you can send to people was perfect. Also, part of me resists technology and values hand-crafted-ness, so the idea of making my own Christmas cards was a delight. And it was practical (HA!)—buying stamps was an investment and I could stop buying cards and tags. (I laugh because this actually is true: I haven’t bought a greeting card in over six years, but the amount of money I have spent on paper and ink and pretty stamps and cute ribbon… has very likely FAR surpassed what I might have spent on Hallmark. Still, not all hobbies have a return on investment like that, so I use it to rationalize pretty readily.)  Finally, the time required to do something meaningful was much less; I could squeeze in making a card or a bookmark in a few minutes if I needed to. It was a perfect hobby for this working mommy. My kids were growing up and were less reliant on me for every little thing, and my husband was great at encouraging me to take more than ten minutes to enjoy my hobby, but still, one of the appeals was that it wasn’t a time sink. 

So I dove in. Not only do I make all the greeting cards we use, I make enough to give packs of cards as gifts. I make all our gift tags and most of our gift bags and boxes. We still buy brown craft paper to wrap, but that’s just about it. I decorate the paper, make my own gift bags or decorate plain store-bought ones, and keep us in bookmarks, despite the puppy’s best efforts to seek out and destroy them all. It is a happy hobby because it revolves around gift giving, and that makes other people happy. It makes me happy too—to make something pretty and useful, and honestly just to MAKE something. The act of creating something fills some need very deep and ancient for me. I’m not making artistic masterpieces, but I am making things we use, and I’m making cards that require us to handwrite a note to people we love, and that makes me happy too in this age of emails and texts and Facebook reminders to wish someone a Happy Birthday. So in addition to making a card, I’m making a personal connection. I like that, probably, most of all.

Reading · Teaching

Text and Image, the “What Do You See When You Read?” edition

I had the most wonderful conversation in my Senior Symposium today.  Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium always intimidates students, but always precipitates the most animated and thoughtful discussions.  We were talking about his plea for visibility in texts.
I always take this occasion to ask students how they think.  I ask them to think of something—a cloud, say, or a dragon—and then I ask them if, in their heads, they saw images or words. (Or if I asked for coffee, would they see the plant, the word, or the word spelled out in beans?) Do they think, in short, in images or words?  Today’s tally was six wordy folk and 30 picture people. Over the last decade, my students have become decidedly more visual in their thinking.
The implications of that sent us reeling.  First, I discovered many of them write creatively, and when they do, some see mental movies, and then composition is just describing what they saw in their heads.  Calvino admits to starting with an image for three of his novels, but doesn’t claim it for all his works.  It begs the question, where do those images or movies come from that they see in their minds and try to convey.  Mostly they feel like they are spawned by their personal experiences and stories they know. They don’t believe as much in inspiration, but in compilation.
Calvino worried (I find it adorable) in 1985, that we were becoming overwhelmed with images—that we see so many images, we are saturated, and he frets about people in the 21st century being able to make original images.  I think he needn’t have worried.  It has only gotten worse (if you think image-saturation is a bad thing), and we have continued to create more and more.  In fact, visual texts are increasingly popular, and there is no sign of slowing down. In an era of memes, graphic novels, television, and film, the visual arts are still thriving, although perhaps in a more self-consciously derivative way.
Ultimately, I don’t think his fear was founded.  Just as stories can be told and retold, images can be made and remade, and just as for centuries we’ve been bemoaning the fact that no one can read everything in print, now no one can see everything either.  (I can’t even be counted on to watch a television show regularly).  That means there will always be the possibility of finding something new to you.
Perhaps the most delightful discovery we made today was the variety of ways in which different people can think and read.  One confessed she doesn’t see images as she reads; she goes from words on the page to words in her mind and only at the end takes a moment to conjure an image of what happened.  One associates feelings with colors, so reads as if through rose or crimson or charcoal colored glasses. One said ideas and stories come to him in static images, and he has to write them down to be free of them (as good a student of Calvino as there ever was).  I see words in my head as people talk to me and am constantly shifting parts of words to figure out roots and etymologies, but I have a hard time holding images in my head, and I can’t manipulate them (I am an English major, not an engineer.)  But having this discussion opened all our minds a little, just to know the sheer range of ways to process words and images.

There is much work to be done in cognitive science in terms of imagining and reading, if my class is any indicator.  Meanwhile, Calvino’s fear of over-saturation was borne out when wordy people claimed they remember distinctive images and visual people remember slogans and words more readily, as they stand out against the flood of images.  The upshot is that we all move pretty fluidly from text to image and back again.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but one word can trigger countless images too.