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November 2007 Archives

More of Grave than of Gravy

I think the term "dead tired" might apply best here, as my pleasant Thanksgiving holiday turned into an exhausting battle to get my exams graded, calculate my students trimester grades, and write comments on each student.  It's the same thing I've done every Thanksgiving since 1995, mind you, but it was even more exhausting than usual this time because I was most of the way through the process when I discovered I had left some assignments out of my calculations and had to go back and redo about a third of my grades.  Whee.

On the plus side, we saw John and Flane (Hi, John and Flane!) and the upcoming Tiny Bear, and I got to finish reading The Executioner's Song and start Terry Pratchett's newest book, Making Money, and I even got to take the dog on a long walk.

And of course, there was food.  Thing One always makes an enormous batch of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, while Thing Two prefers to cook pie.  Kelly handles the turkey and the stuffing and the green bean casserole.

My job?  Go to Food Lion.

Because the Fod Kitty (long story involving a burned-out "O" on the store in Carrboro) is the only grocery store in town, it has developed all the attributes that any follower of Teddy Roosevelt would expect to see in a monopolistic trust, with the main one being its utter indifference to customer service.  Opening an extra register when there are a lot of people hoping to check out is an idea whose time has not yet come to Orange, apparently, and that may explain why the store here is called the Food Line.  After years of dealing with this, Kelly has just about developed a neurosis about the place; she can barely bring herself to go in, and it's not as though the trip is out of her way--she has to drive right past it every time she drives into town to drop off the kids at school or to go to work.

But even if she could handle the Food Line on an ordinary day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is extraordinary.  It's the comestible version of Black Friday, except that people aren't shopping in search of bargains, but are simply desperate to get the ingredients they need.  I saw how things were going to be from the parking lot, when I realized I'd actually had to park several rows away from the store--something that just doesn't happen in Orange.  Sure enough, there were some trains of shopping carts that were tended by multiple generations of the same family, kind of like the legendary Gypsy caravans of old.  Needless to say, traffic in the aisles came to a standstill on a regular basis, and small children bounced off my cart on more than one occasion, even when I wasn't moving.  There were plenty of turkeys, and I surprised Kelly and myself by snagging a fresh bird instead of a frozen one, but I was barely in time to grab the last can of pumpkin in the place, a last-second recovery from what could have been a terrible mistake--I was, in apparent defiance of all logic, looking in the canned vegetable section.

I settled into a line that was surprisingly short considering the volume of shoppers--I think I was only the fourth person in it.  The cashier was reasonably cheerful, though I could tell he'd been slammed all day, and my cartful wasn't giving him any breathers.  But after an hour of fighting my way around grandmas and grandkids, I was ready to take the next phase of my holiday task: waiting for dinner.  Sure enough, by Thursday afternoon, I was nursing a headache and sacked out for a couple of hours until the feast began. 

After dinner, we made our annual thankful tree: a posterboard drawing of a leafless tree on which we tape paper leaves decorated with the names of things we appreciate having.  My usual leaves ( Family, Friends, Harlan, Books, The Great Outdoors) were joined by a few new ones ("Coffee," "Popular Music 1950-2007, Except Debby Boone"), but I'm frankly a little surprised that Kel didn't add one that said "I Didn't Have to Go to Food Lion on Wednesday."

And after that?  The other part of my Thanksgiving job: dishwashing.  Pyewacket, the restaurant where I cut my dish-dogging teeth, may be nothing more than a pleasant memory, but I can still rinse and load a dishwasher with the best of 'em.

But now I'm tired and sore and still have some planning to do for tomorrow's Literature Circles assignment, so I'll bid you good night.  Just remember: the aerosol-powered whipped cream is in the dairy case, and the pumpkin is somewhere on Aisle 5.





5:40 PM

Our internet connection seems fragile today, so this may be rather broken up and/or more bizarre than usual, but here's hoping the Web Fairies aren't taking the day off to hit Wal-Mart.

I've finished grading my speech classes' assignments and exams, so all I have to do is calculate their final grades and write comments about their performances.  Alas, they make up only 38% of my students, and I've still got all my English exams to grade, as well as a few outstanding papers, and then I have to calculate the grades and write the comments.  This is likely to take me a few days.

Luckily, the final grades & comments are not due until 3:00 on Monday.

I did have a very nice finish to the exam season, though: as I was sitting at my proctor's desk in the hallway, toward the end of the English exam period, a student came up to hand in his exam and told me "I feel like I understand twice as much about literature as I did before this trimester."

So.  That's something to be thankful for, isn't it?

12:15 PM


As I prepare to give my first exam today, I'm reminded of a rather odd encounter I had with a student about five years back.

One of my speech students asked me for help on his persuasive speech; I said sure (it IS my job, after all) and we met in my classroom for some consultation. His speech was about attending school here, but the first draft had confused me, and I'd given it a fairly low grade. As I told him, he seemed to be contradicting himself by saying, on the one hand, that attending this school was necessary for success, but on the other hand, that there was nothing to be gained from being at this school.

He explained that there was nothing to be gained from being here.

I asked what he meant, then, by saying that students who want to be successful should come here.

He said that you don't learn anything here that will help you be successful, but being here will help you be successful.

I did the Socratic thing with him for a while longer and ascertained that his basic argument was that the experience of being here teaches you valuable skills that will help you be a success. Of course, he still insisted that the actual skills you learn here--geometry, say, or Latin, or public speaking--are useless.

So there I was, standing at the blackboard with a chart of his speech drawn behind me, chalk in hand, realizing that this kid had asked me to teach him how to persuade people that the things I teach him aren't worth learning.

To this day, I can't quite decide if that conversation was ironic, postmodern, or just stupid.

7:29 AM

The Creation Museum

John Scalzi blogs about his visit.


Anything else I could say would only distract you from the perfection of Scalzi's post.


I'm still laughing.

1:27 PM


*I think this may be my first LBJ post since I switched over to Movable Type.  I suppose I should open a bottle of champagne or something...

*I may not have written a best-seller, but at least I have now contributed to one:  The Daring Book for Girls, co-authored by Andrea Buchanan (Hi, Andi!) and Miriam Peskowitz, and currently #9 at  (It's been as high as #6 in the last week.)  I know Andi from (we were actually on a panel about the site at the Va. Festival of the Book a few years back) and when she asked me for a quick list of tips for beginning birdwatchers, I obliged with the list now appearing on page 176.  It's not going to make me rich, but I'm tickled to know that my name (and book title) will be seen by girls and their parents for years to come, even if they never bother to take up birding or investigate TV2B themselves.

*Bree Sharp's "David Duchovny" has got to be one of the catchiest damned tunes released in the last ten years.  And while lyrically it's a bit of an in-joke, if you've ever watched an episode of The X-Files, it's a scream.

*We got through the weekend of our annual Giant Bonfire/Game Against Our Archrival with minimal fuss and bother, and with only one alum whose obnoxious public drunkenness made me embarrassed for my employer.  Take your victories where you can, I say... especially since we lost the game, dammit...

*I've now watched the first two episodes of Heroes, and I must say I'm intrigued.  I'm not sure yet about the quality of the writing, which takes occasional turns into the mawkish, and several of the actors appear to have been hired because of their cheekbones rather than their thespian skills, but I'm at the very least curious to find out what the heck's going on with Niki and the mirror, as well as the rather macabre business of opening up people's skulls.

*My wife gives really, really good neck rubs.  Thank god.  My neck decided about two hours ago to start kicking up a fuss, which seems unfair on top of my recent battle with bronchitis.

*We begin auditions for this winter's black box play on Tuesday.  I'm leaning toward doing Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet, which seems to me an appropriate follow-up to the fall's mainstage production of Hamlet.  In a way, I think it's kind of funny.  In another way, hey, the student body will now at least know something about the play being mocked.

*Did I tell you I got my Yankee Flipper feeder replaced?  I got my Yankee Flipper feeder replaced.  It's up, it's drawing birds, and I'm sure it'll be flinging squirrels at the first opportunity.  So far I've seen it attract the local House Sparrows in great numbers, as well as the odd junco, chickadee, titmouse, and cardinal.  We're also getting the winter crowd of White-throated Sparrows feeding underneath it, and today I saw sitting upon it the first winter-plumage male Goldfinch I've seen so far.  The difficulty is that the construction site next door is continuing to scare away damn near everything but the tamest species, and the construction's going to continue going on for months.  I have some hope that by this spring, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak that hits the feeder around the first of April will be back, but if that damned cement truck is still backing up six months from now, he'll probably find someplace else to grab breakfast.

*Orange has a new restaurant!  San Marco, on Rte. 15 south of town, near the Enterprise Car Rental office.  Stop there and eat, please--our local cuisine needs the variety.   The red mole sauce is very nice, as are the fish tacos.  Enjoy.

*Fantasy football update: it appears that my teams will both make the playoffs of their respective leagues.  The Scrub Jays are all but assured of victory at this point in Week 10, which would make them 7-3, holding sole possession of third place in the league, one game out of first.  The Fighting Coelacanths, meanwhile, are clinging to a narrow lead in their Week 10 game against the league's most powerful team, the mighty Peace Corps Psychopomps.  Coming out of that game 7-3 would be enormously satisfying, even knowing that we beat them without their main offensive weapons, Tom Brady and Randy Moss, who are on their bye week just now.  If so, the Fish will be tied for the lead in their division, which will be all the more impressive given that they've done all this without their top three draft picks.  (I'm also more than a little concerned about the health of my stud running back, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who hurt his knee in today's game.  Updates as warranted...)

*Exams start Friday.  If I can just last a few more days, I can collapse into a heap without catching anyone under me when I fall...

8:32 PM

So I had dinner with P.J. O'Rourke last night.

He was visiting our school to give a speech at last night's assembly--he's a friend of the father of one of our seniors, and he was visiting over the weekend--and because our faculty member in charge of getting speakers is also deeply uncomfortable in the spotlight, he asked me to a) introduce P.J., b) meet him upon arrival and give him a campus tour, and c) have him sit at my table for dinner.

This was a pretty cool gig for me, having been a fan of P.J.'s writing since I first stumbled across the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook parody back in my misspent youth. I've always loved reading O'Rourke's work even when I've strongly disagreed with its conclusions; he's too good a writer to ignore, even if I end up rejecting what he's telling me. (It probably helps that we're both on the libertarian ends of our respective parties.)

His arrival, though, was startling. First, his face was obviously cut and scarred, and recently so. (Turns out he'd fallen off a horse and made what he called a "one-point landing" on his nose.) Second, he was much shorter than I'd expected; I'd always assumed he would be about six-three, but he was only about five-seven--noticeably shorter than I am, which was completely out of the blue. And third, with his stature, his slight build, his piercing blue eyes, his craggy (and possibly craggier than normal) features, his slightly throaty voice, and his lightly slicked hair, he reminded me powerfully of my grandfather, Joseph L. Cashwell, who died in 1990.

Not the vibe I expected from the guy who invented Maria Teresa Spermatazoa and "Wing-Ding" Weisenheimer.

But as it turned out, he was in fact downright avuncular. He delighted in my lame (and hurried, owing to a fast-closing sunset) tour of the campus, noting that his three-year-old son might be looking for a boarding school someday, laughed at my attempted bon mots, and sat next to Kelly at dinner and allowed himself to be charmed. When the time came to introduce him to the auditorium, I extemporized a short bit about how I was somewhat amused by introducing to my students a writer whose work I had carefully concealed from the prying eyes of my own high-school teachers, a writer whose new book (always, always plug the new book) was titled On the Wealth of Nations (a contemporary look at Adam Smith's masterpiece), and most important, a writer whose books I'd enjoyed even when I didn't agree with them because they usually made me think and always made me laugh.  Then I brought him on.

He slayed them.

I have never seen the student body respond so positively to a speaker. It wasn't just that they were on his side politically (which the majority of them are, much more than the faculty)--it was that he clearly remembered the thing that so few speakers (and so few writers) remember: that the audience could easily be doing something else. He made it his goal to be worth the time and attention given him. He also fielded a couple of questions at the end, all of which were served up as softballs by students hoping to hear something O'Reillyesque. (P.J. was pointedly dismissive of O'Reilly and his ilk, by the by.)

"What do you think of the war on drugs?"

"I think we lost." (Huge laugh.) "The only question now is whether to surrender or try for a negotiated settlement."

The final question was "What do you think about abortion?" and I think about 75% of the room cringed. To the questioner's surprise, I'm sure, P.J. offered a very nuanced reply, to the effect that while he was personally opposed to it, he recognized that any attempt to legally define the beginning of life (like any attempt to legally define its end) was to some degree arbitrary, and that current law, in its trimester-based system, recognized that fact. I honestly think it was one of the best answers these guys could have heard: one that staked out a personal position, but also explored the difference between personal and political solutions, and dignified the opposition's viewpoint at the same time.

My grandfather was one of nine kids born to a tobacco farmer in North Carolina's poorest county. When the Depression hit, he marched in some May Day parades before he left for Cleveland in search of work. He found a job at a gas station there, graduated from Western Reserve, and met my grandmother. After my dad and aunt were born, he served in the Pacific in WWII, then returned to work as a teacher, principal, and officer of the state Board of Education. He was a bundle of contradictions, Daddy Joe was--a somewhat northernized Southerner, a liberal in a conservative state, an educator from an undereducated county--but he was a gentleman to his fingertips, and lord knows he had a sense of humor.

And if there's a writer on earth who deserves to look like him, it's P.J. O'Rourke.

7:56 PM

Sick again...

Feh.  I'm not feeling that bad, in the grand scheme of things, but I can't seem to shake this cough (or the rattly breathing that accompanies it on a nightly basis).  Having spent last fall fighting antibiotic-resistant bugs in my sinuses, I'm starting to feel I may be dealing with a similar infection this year--but thank god it's not hitting me as hard as last year's.

Fall is preparing to turn to winter in the most meaningful but least climatological sense: I'm beginning the last week of my fall coaching commitment, the Rapidan outdoor program, where I help students learn and appreciate rock climbing, hiking, nature study and kayaking.  Starting the week of Nov. 12th, I turn into the director of our winter Black Box play, which means auditions and getting scripts ordered and typing and scanning and set design and such, but at least being a bit out of breath shouldn't slow me down.

But I think I may call my doctor for a follow-up.  I think these little buggers--the bacteria, not my students--might need a little pharmacological abuse before they agree to leave me alone.


10:08 AM


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