Monday, October 30, 2006
Whew. Yesterday and today felt like one huge exhale. After an unusually busy week last week, we unexpectedly had a funeral to go to on Saturday. Yes, they are always unexpected, but this one was out past Chicago, like almost to Wisconsin, and I was already committed to work a performance on Saturday night and I couldn't get out of it. So, in a day that felt torn from a draft of Joyce, I woke up before sixi n the morning on Saturday, drove three hours to the church in the north west suburbs of Chicago, attended the service and watched a lot of people eat crackers and drink bad wine, then said some quick goodbyes and drove another three hours back, then went to this thing until around 9:30 on Saturday night. Oh, and on the way back from the service, I passed a brand new BMW that was on fire on the side of the highway. What the hell?

So yesterday, as you can imagine, I was a little useless. And boy, was I happy to get that extra hour of sleep. Today I feel better. Not great, but better. Whew.

Thursday, October 26, 2006
Just really very busy. Nothing more.

Monday, October 23, 2006
Every once in a while, something comes along that suggests we, as humans, are not really meant to eat meat. Sometimes it comes in the form of mad cow disease or bird flu, or sometimes it's the too-full feeling you get from eating a huge slab of ribs, or for some people, it's finding a bloody smudge of gristle on the raw chicken we're about to cook. Yesterday, for me, it came in the form of the horrifyingly raw 1949 short documentary Blood of the Beasts.

It was an extra on a DVD Paul had rented, and he watched most of it on Saturday. I think he started to get sick, but still he recommended it to me. So I watched it, and oh man, after it was over in 20 minutes, I felt cold. It's all shot in three or four slaughterhouses in Paris in the 1940s, which at first didn't sound so bad; I've seen slaughterhouse scenes in a few movies and on the news and stuff like that. But I forgot to consider that those are contemporary American slaughterhouses, and that in 1940s France, there was no FDA. (There is one here and now, and still look at all the snafus in the meat-handling industry. Anyway.) So I watched animals get brought in for slaughter. Sometimes they killed them first, like this one huge horse, which they stunned right between the eyes, and then its legs snapped in toward its body and it crashed to the ground; they quickly sliced a huge gash in its throat, and gallons of blood came steaming and gushing out like water from a broken faucet. It was awful. But sometimes they didn't kill the animal first. They just started cutting stuff off! Live animals! Oh god oh god oh god, it was so terrible. Like these sheep and veal calves -- they'd just toss them on the table by the legs, and some poor sap just cut their heads off to let the bodies bleed out. But there were still movements in the bodies, so the legs would continue to twitch. And then they'd cut the legs off, and the stumps would still twitch. I think I screamed a few times.

Maybe the worst part (yeah, it gets worse) was watching these men in the slaughterhouses work. They had no emotion whatsoever on their faces, first of all. And second of all, there was no sanitation! No protection! These men were doing all this bleeding and touching steaming raw animal flesh with bare hands! I didn't see a sink anywhere, and if their hands got bloody, they just kept on going! And they were smoking the whole time, long cigarettes dangling precariously from their lower lips, always ready to drop right onto or into a side of cattle. One guy was drinking coffee from a thermos as he worked. I don't know how he was able to stomach it.

All that said, though, I'm sort of glad, in a weird way, that I watched it. While it didn't make me as sick to my stomach as The Jungle, it was really right there in front of you to see, and it was really gruesome. But still, it kind of made me feel good about not eating too much meat, although I'm sure chicken production facilities are no better. It also made me glad that there are some safety precautions taken with food these days. I'm sure it's not great, but I like to think that the people who handle dead animal flesh are at least wearing gloves and head coverings and not standing nearby with a two inch ash about to fall. Ugh.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I've gotten into this bad reading habit lately. See, I like to read these really long contemporary novels. Hysterical realism, they call it, if you're interested in that kind of thing. In a way, I guess it's kind of like Victorian Lit in that the stories are really long and involved, but yeesh, Vic Lit puts me right to sleep, whereas these novels are just completely fascinating and full of all kinds of neat little factoids that make me feel smart just for having read them. But yeah, they're long. So I pick up one of these novels, and I get all involved in the story, which is pretty involved itself. But then other things come up, as they usually do, and I have to put the book down for a week or more, and then before I know it, several months have gone by and I'm still on the same book. But I still feel compelled to finish it because they're good, and because I have my pride, you know, and I just don't like leaving books unfinished, especially if they're good. But it takes me forever to read them. I hate that.

You may remember last year (if you actually read this site on a semi-regular basis) that I was reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a 1000-plus page romp through tennis and drug addiction in the not-too-distant future. It was about the best and most intelligent thing I've ever read, and it took me six months to get through. Six months! That is just shameful. So I stopped reading those long novels for a while and moved on to shorter things. Short, 200-page deals, and graphics novels, and essays. Things that would not take me six months to get through. For an English major, that's just embarrassing.

But this past summer (we're talking July here), I thought I'd give it another go. I had had Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet on my bookshelf since it came out. I had read an earlier Rushdie book -- Shame, not the infamous, fatwa-inducing Satanic Verses -- and really enjoyed his whole post-modern history-rewriting schtick, and when The Ground Beneath Her Feet came out, everyone kept saying how it was a rewrite of 20th Century rock history, and that really appealed to me. Who wouldn't it appeal to? Anyway, I bought it, and I've had it for over five years. So I took a deep breath and picked it up.

Let me tell you: if you're not so offended by Rushdie's storyline that you want his head rotting on a stick in the middle of your town square (and there's really none of that in this novel, Rushdie perhaps having learned his lesson and chosen to stay far, far, far away from the fierce iconoclastic explosion that comes from even thinking about discussing the origins of Islam), you will want to give him medals, awards, monuments, honorary PhDs, all kinds of swag, and a subscription to the dessert of the month club for his totally fucking brilliant imagination and writing. This guy's good.

The story is, as I was promised, a rewrite of the history of American rock and roll of the past half century. Rushdie is Indian (as in, from India), and he writes his version of history with a Bombay native at the forefront of popular music. He mixes reality with kind of supernatural-ish worlds, and I am told that this is called magical realism. What is magical realism? Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Did you read that? It's also good!

I am told that Rushdie's story is really a rewrite of the Orpheus and Eurydice, and while I think I get that part, I'm not familiar enough with the original story to place it. But see, I learned about it through Rushdie, kind of like I learned about the New Testament from reading Dostoevsky. I probably shouldn't admit that, but there it is. Anyway, I started reading this book in July, as previously mentioned, and I loved it and loved it, but things came up as they always do, and long story short, I just finished it yesterday. I am a disgrace to the entire book-appreciating community. But nonetheless, it was a really fabulous book, and if you are at all interested in the history of rock and roll (and who isn't?) and can fit a dense 570-page epic into your tight schedule, I would highly recommend it.

Monday, October 16, 2006
We thought we'd do a little fall getaway, so this past weekend, Paul and I headed up to Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park to see the lakeshore in all its autumnal splendor. Or so we thought. As you may have heard, this past weekend, across the northern tier of our country, it was completely and unbelievably freezing! Not freezing as in let's go build an igloo (or even a snowman), but for the middle of October, it was pretty goddamn cold. We knew it was coming, but I think that first blast of winter air is hard to take. Fucking brrrr. Take that unseasonal chill and add to it the cold winds off the lake, and it was really cold. And because it was on the lake, all the snow that was falling inland was more like freezing rain. Sleet. So instead of walking through the snow, which actually sounds kind of nice now that I think about it, we were laboring through frozen rain and shielding our faces from the little pellets of ice that were drilling themselves into our cheeks. Fall color, my ass. This was brutal.

Okay, it wasn't that bad. Aside from one poorly-judged walk on the beach in the driving wind and sleet, we had a good time. We checked the weather ahead of time and brought our scarves and hats and mittens, and we were walking the trails a good bit, so that warmed us up. Yesterday even cleared up, and it was sunny and around 50. We climbed the big dune climb, and while it was still really windy at the top, the sun felt good. (Although, the wind had some effect: When I washed my hair this morning, I was surprised to find a thin layer of sand near the shower drain. All that sand blew into my hair and stayed there!) And it was nice to be in a big touristy area and not be surrounded by tourists.

We also stayed in a pretty good rental instead of a hotel room. We had a fireplace and free firewood, which we totally used, and there were lots of trees, so it really felt like we were in a cabin in the woods. On Saturday night, we even saw a fox outside our door. All in all, a good weekend.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
It's a little embarrassing to be an English teacher in this state right now. A nearby county in Michigan needs to reprint 170,000 ballots before election day because no one noticed that the headline for one of the ballot initiatives was missing an "L." Maybe an "L" isn't a big deal, but when it's missing from the word "public," it's a big deal. Go ahead and laugh, because yeah, it's funny. But as you're getting your laughs, remember that reprinting ballots is not free. In fact, not by a long shot. How much are my taxes now, Mr. State Politician Man? I'll bet your name isn't misspelled on the ballot.

In grad school, I had a professor who would lament the popularity of Microsoft Word and word processing software on a weekly basis. His complaint, which I've come to respect and ultimately share, is that Word makes your writing look finished before it actually is. I think that extends to all printing: if it's typed or printed, it must be good, right? Obviously, that is not the case. But I think this highlights a bigger problem, which I try to emphasize to my college writing students. It's this: you can spell check all day and all night, but if you type the wrong word and spell it correctly, that little red line that flags all of your typos won't appear, and even though you spent a lot of money on software to ensure proper spelling, you've still made a mistake. But surely, you may be thinking, surely, if they can land a man on the moon, surely they can write a program to flag poor word choice. Surely? No. I'm sorry. No aspect of Microsoft Word is going to replace careful proofreading. (And frankly, that whole man-on-the-moon deal has plenty of nay-sayers, so there you go.) Sometimes the wrong word costs you a higher grade, or sometimes, like this time, it costs $40,000 of tax-payer money. Somehow, the lower grade isn't looking so bad right now. (And as an aside to my local policy-makers, should any be reading: for a reasonable and negotiable rate, I will proofread your official documents so you do not look like an ass to your constituents. Get in touch, and we'll work something out.)

Monday, October 9, 2006
Michigan is one of the top fruit-producing states in the country, and this time of year is fall harvest time. This mostly means apples, but it also means grapes. There are a surprising number of wineries in the state, and you know that Welch's concord grape jelly that more or less defined your childhood lunches? They make that here. Grapes, I'm told, are not easy to grow. I'm not sure what they need, but at my last apartment, the grapevine in the backyard never gave me anything but dry leaves and shriveled buds. Maybe it wanted a friend. I'll never know, but what I do know that is that I really like concord grapes, and unlike just about every other fruit, they're not available for most of the year.

But yesterday, we got some. One of Paul's siblings lives next to a smallish vineyard, and it is my understanding that the owners of said vineyard allow them to eat some of the grapes from the row that is up against their property. And that means if we are over, we can eat some. And apparently it also means that we can have some to take home. Free grapes! I put a few pounds of freshly-picked grapes in a bag, and we took them home and washed them, and now, holy crap, I can't stop eating them. Seriously, these are so much better than your run-of-the-mill red or green grapes from the grocery store. These are sweet and tangy and intense and taste like grape juice concentrate, but without the artificial sugary aftertaste. Like, you know how when you eat a red or green grape, and you think, this tastes nothing like grape-flavored candy? And then you wonder why grape-flavored candy has that flavor? It's because grape-flavored candy tastes like concord grapes. Or rather, concord grapes taste like candy. Whatever it is, I had to stop myself from eating them earlier because I was afraid I'd get mouth sores.

Eating them is tricky, too. They're not seedless, so you can't just mindlessly pop them into your mouth as you're reading a magazine or doing housework. It takes concentration to eat a concord grape, plus a little patience and some good tongue-teeth coordination. First, you put the grape in your mouth. Maybe you pull it off the bunch with your fingers, or maybe you just pluck it off with your teeth. Then you carefully bite down just off center; the center is where the seeds are, and crunching down on a grape seed, while supposedly healthy, is really most unpleasant. The juice bursts into your mouth and it tastes really good. Then you start to go at the gummy stuff around the seeds. You have to be careful here. You want to bite down on it, because that's where all the good concentrated flavor is, but again, there are seeds in there. So you bite down carefully, and if you do it right, you don't get a seed between your incisors. Then, with your tongue, you force the two or three seeds out of that center mass (much harder than you might think) and either remove them with your fingers and place them in the small dish you have set aside for grape seeds, or, if you are outside, you spit them as far as you can. Then you immediately want another. And another. My god, they're good.

Sunday, October 8, 2006
I re-initialized my computer, and suddenly I lost five days. Anyway, it was a good baseball weekend. The Mets won, the Yankees lost, and everyone around here is all worked up about the Tigers. Things are looking up.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006
While I have not been looking forward to the end of summer, I have most definitely been looking forward to the season premiere of Lost! And, since I am the kind of person who reads the last page of a novel first, I looked up the plot summary for the first episode. It seems they premiered it in Hawaii (where they shoot the show) last week, and some people who were in attendance wrote a synopsis of it, and holy crap, now I can't wait to see it. If you want to read the spoiler, click here. But be warned that it basically gives the whole plot away. Me, I don't like surprises. But if you're the type who likes surprises, you might want to wait until nine tomorrow night.

Also, in case you missed the crazy anticipation of the Lost Experience this past summer, you will probably want to catch up on the Rachel Blake videos, but you will definitely want to watch these: the Hanso Sri Lanka video and the Alvar Hanso in Norway video. So clever! So interesting! So unbelievably creepy! I totally can't wait for tomorrow night.

Monday, October 2, 2006
So today is Yom Kippur. If you are not Jewish, this means nothing to you. If you are Jewish, today is it: the big one, the mother of all days, the holiest of the holy, the atone until you pass out fest that is our annual day of repentence. Can you feel the love? I sure can. Or maybe that's hunger. You're not supposed to eat on Yom Kippur. Not until sundown, anyway. And it's been my experience that love and hunger feel about the same: low in the gut, slightly uncomfortable, but somehow reassuring. Anyway.

In New York where I grew up, there were a lot of us Jews around, and so Yom Kippur was a big deal. Big pre-fast meals were prepared with love and guilt by all or most of the Jewish mothers, and stores stocked up on kosher chickens and cuts of brisket in anticipation of the big feast. And schools were closed. Public schools! Not in official recognition of the day, per se, but because there were so many of us Jews who would not be sent to school on Yom Kippur and would have to learn all of the lessons the next day anyway that they just cancelled classes altogether. This was even true at the large New York state university I attended: lots of Jews means a lot of absences when it comes to holiday time. It also meant that the cafeterias had to stock matzo during Passover, but we'll talk more about that in the spring.

As you might imagine, Yom Kippur and its traditions are not much of a big deal here in Kalamazoo. In fact, most people don't know what it is, much less that it is today. So usually I just have a normal day. But I talked to my mom yesterday, and she made some comment like, well, YOU won't be fasting tomorrow, will you? And I laughed it off. But after I got off the phone, I was like, yeah, I can go a day without food. I'll show her! I'm not eating tomorrow!

This was easier thought than executed, but I thought I could do it for most of the day. I teach at 6 on Mondays, and I have to be at office hours by 5, which means I eat dinner at 4:30 on Mondays. Technically, you're supposed to fast until sundown, but I wasn't going to teach a three-hour basic writing on an empty stomach. So I figured I'd fast until just before I had to leave for office hours. Yeah, I could do that. I planned it well, too. I gorged myself last night at dinner (I should mention that it was all homemade by me and all very traditional, right down to the kasha varnishkes) and had dessert for good measure. This morning, I felt good. I didn't need to eat. In fact, I was still kind of full from last night. I did have tea, even though you're not supposed to have liquids either, because I didn't want to be dehydrated, but I didn't eat and went to work and felt fine. I came home for lunch and didn't eat and still felt okay. This is easy, I thought. Maybe I'll do this every Monday. Just because I can.

After I got done for a little while at around 2, I started to prepare for my class tonight and found that I couldn't concentrate. And then that started to piss me off. And then everything started to piss me off! All of a sudden, I felt like I had the worst PMS in the world (and I'm a few days off for that). Holy crap, I was irritable. Not hungry, not thirsty, not uncomfortable or anything like that, but just really pissed off at anything and everything. And I was like, I cannot function with no calories. And then, even though I wasn't hungry, I started craving carbs. Like big fat slices of bread, bowls of pasta, a small mountain of rice. And then I realized that if I wanted to adequately prepare for the class I had to teach in a few hours and have a halfway normal level of brain activity, I had to get some. Quickly.

Yes, I am slightly ashamed to say, I didn't make it until 4:30. At around 3:30, I put a big bowl of leftover kasha (which is just buckwheat cooked like rice, if you weren't sure) topped with leftover chicken gravy (mmmmm gravy, just like mom never made!) in the microwave and ate the whole thing with a spoon that was just a little too big for my mouth, but I didn't care. Then I watched some mindless tv for 20 minutes, and then I felt better. And I prepared for class, and it went well, and none of my students could tell how pissed off I was just a few hours earlier.

But you know, I think I could have made it if I didn't have to teach tonight. Like, if I had not had to work today and had spent the day in temple atoning for my sins like I was supposed to, I probably could have made it to sundown. Maybe next year.

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