Friday, December 17, 2010

The Academic Life: Perspective

I will now wax philosophical....

During my first year in the MA program, an undergraduate professor asked me to write an article on graduate school, to be read by students at my Alma mater who were considering applying themselves.  I can't remember exactly what I wrote, but I have the feeling that it was rather uninformed, and probably not very helpful.  A few months of graduate school hardly made me the best authority on the subject.

Recently, I have begun rewriting that article in my head, probably because I am almost done with graduate school, and I hope I have attained a slightly better and wiser understanding of the matter....although I can't be certain.

At any rate, I think that the single most important thing I have learned about the academic life is perspective.  Graduate school shunts you into a rather narrow paradigm, a mindset about academia that is propagated by mainstream culture as well as the academy itself.  This mindset can be broken down into the following ideas:

1) Being smart is the most important thing in the world.  There is the mindset, "We think big thoughts!  Big, important, but undervalued, thoughts!"  I remember feeling the pressure to think big thoughts - not for the sake of the thoughts or thinking or ideas, but to prove that I belonged, that I was academic material.  That I was important. 

2) Graduate school is necessarily competitive.  We must know who is the smartest!  Under certain situations, a classroom personality could emerge, a nasty, bullying personality.  Everyone trying to out-think everyone else, speaking English-ese and name-dropping obscure theorists. 

3) Graduate school is about a series of nearly impossible, soul-sucking tasks that must consume your every waking hour, as well as your dreams.  The program is set-up to try you.  The dreaded comprehensive exams.  The expectation is that in the face of such  an insurmountable obstacle, you must become a blithering zombie who gave up sleep and sanity long ago.  The dissertation is supposed to daily reduce you to tears of bitter frustration.

4)  The only point of going through this experience is to get a good job.  And, when we say good, we mean a tenured professor at a top, research university.  But, because the job market is abysmal, we will finish our work while alternating between nail-biting anxiety and spiraling despair.

There is another way.  This has not been my experience with graduate school, thank goodness.  And I don't mean this to be patronizing or otherwise self-aggrandizing.  Of course, graduate school is hard.  And, in a way, it should be - otherwise that fancy title you get at the end wouldn't mean much.  But, I think that we sometimes make things much harder than they have to be by believing the hype.

I believe that there are many, many important things in life.  The preceding list, however, doesn't make into the top ten.  I'm about to break out the Sunday School rhetoric, so get ready: God is the most important thing in life, and beyond.  How's that for perspective?  The God of the Universe, the Creator of all things, the One who save us, compared with comprehensive exams?  Puh-leaze.  Will my ability to make the smartest comment in class have eternal consequences?  Probably not.

And the amazing thing is, God gives us words and directions that help us to have perspective on things like graduate school.  He says things like, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat , or what ye shall drink ; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on . Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?"*  Isn't life more than your grades and your degree?  But that's not the only reason not to worry - what am I going to do if I can't get a job, what if I don't pass my exam, what if I don't finish my dissertation?  Paul writes, " But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus."**  I can relax because I know that I will be taken care of.  That doesn't mean that everything will work out according to my plan.  But whatever God wills has got to be better than anything I could have come up with.

Letting go of the hype is a very freeing experience.  It took me a while to get there, of course, and I am not now completely rid of the occasional round of worry.  But, I didn't lose any sleep over my exams.  I read some of everything on my list and actually enjoyed quite a bit of it (and what I didn't enjoy, I read as little as possible).  I am enjoying writing my dissertation.  I love my topic and I love the research and I love what I have written.  I believe that less stress actually makes you more productive.  If you say, in the long run, this doesn't really matter, you actually do pretty good work on it.  I don't work on weekends and I don't work in the evenings.  I go hiking.  I visit my family.  I read tons of good, absolutely non-academic books.  I teach a youth class, sing in the choir, and volunteer tutor.  I knit and crochet and draw and bake.  I have not had to compromise my real life for my academic life.  I recognize that this is a paradox - the best (most painless) way to succeed is to decide it doesn't matter.  This, however, does not mean that I take my work lightly.  On the contrary, I would like to think.  In fact, I consider it beyond just work, and something bordering more on craft.  But, that will have to be another post.

*Matthew 6:25
**Philippians 4:19

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Seeing Snow

My family finally took our trip to Dollywood. We had gone back in September for my dad's company picnic, but had been rained out, so we went Saturday to redeem our rain-check tickets. It turned out to be a very cold day, and as we crossed the mountains at the NC/TN state line, we saw the snow that had fallen the night before. It was beautiful and strange, seeing snow on trees that still had their autumn leaves.

These pictures were taken from the backseat of a moving vehicle, so I am actually pleased that they turned out at all. Ironically, they are the only pictures I took that day. We were so bundled up at the park that it was too difficult to get the camera out anyway. The temperature hovered in the low 40s, and we were all wearing puffy coats and tobogans and gloves. The baby was the warmest of all of us - we kept checking and not even his nose got chilly. Jordan and my young cousin took off to ride the rollercoasters and other adventuresome rides, while the rest of us (my parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and I) wandered around, taking in the various shows and looking at the shops.

As I have mentioned before, Dollywood is just a bit tacky, but quite a lot of fun. This was the first day of their Christmas festival, so we enjoyed seeing all the lights and decorations. My favorite was a show called "Appalachian Christmas," a performance by the Smokey Mountain String Band of various blue-grass and mountain Christmas music. I am kicking myself now that I didn't buy the CD - it was fantastic.

We had a wonderful time, and, as my sister said, "It really gets you in the Christmas spirit." Not that she needs any help - I think she's been singing Christmas carols since Halloween!

Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 1, 2010


Each year, I get a little more ambitious with my pumpkins. This year, both patterns came from Martha Stewart and took far too long to complete. Oh well, they look pretty good though, right? One is a Celtic knot pattern, but I think next time I won't carve all the way through - it got a bit unstable. The other is a ginko vine pattern. Both pumpkins came from Kimrey farm and are beautiful specimins. I always feel bad that once you carve a pumpkin it immediately starts going bad. I always mean to save the seeds and do something with them, but I never do. Oh well. Any suggestions for next years pumpkins?
Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 22, 2010

Good Words

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. - Hebrews 4:14-16

Christ is our high priest - He connects us with the Father.  He knows our struggles and weaknesses and can sympathize because He is fully man as well as fully God.  Therefore we can confidently bring our problems and thoughts and fears to Him, and He will give us mercy and grace.  Prayer isn't something we have to do - it is a gift.


Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Bushel and a Peck

OK, really, just a peck.  But a peck of apples goes a long way.  Here is what I have made:

Apple Tart:
This is made with phyllo sheets and is yummy, a very crisp flaky bottom with sugar and cinnamon and walnuts.  This actually didn't use that many apples, but was still very good, especially with vanilla ice cream.  Gone in just a couple of hours.  The recipe came from the October issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Apple Chips:
I have bought appple chips from the store, but they are really expensive.  There weren't too hard to make, but there I didn't really end up with very many chips.  Basically, you slice the apples as thinly as possible, simmer them for a couple of minutes in sugar water, and then spread them out on a parchment-lined pan to dry in the oven at 250 degrees for a couple of hours.  I sprinkled them with cinnamon as well.  They were good, but too sweet, like candy.  They stuck to my teeth.  Next time, I think I will skip the sugar water simmer.

Apple Butter:
This was shockingly easy to make and tured out wonderful so I will share the recipe in full.

1.  Core and chop 10 to 12 apples.  Some recipes say to peel the apples, but I left the skin on since that is the most nutritious part.  Put chopped apples in crock-pot.  Add 1/2 cup water.
2.  Add one cup honey (I used sour wood, which is very sweet) and 3/4 cup white sugar.
3.  Add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice to taste (I added lots of cinnamon and smaller amounts of the others)
4.  Cook on high approximately 4 hours.  Remove cover and cook on high another 4 hours (removing the cover allows the liquid to escape as steam and the apples cook down).  Stir occaisonally.
5.  Puree in blender and pour into canning jars.  I made 3 pints.

Apple butter is delicious on toast or biscuits.  And your whole house will smell wonderful while it is cooking.  I've still got a few apples left.  Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Living Deliberately

Here is what I have been doing:

Hanging out in Tennessee:

My dad's annual company picnic is in Pigeon Forge every year, and so my family rents a cabin and heads up there for the weekend.  This was our first year with three generations since my nephew came as well.  The picnic (at Dollywood, yee-haw!) was rained out (we have rain checks to go back later this year) but we still had a good time.  Actually my favorite part was sitting on the porch at night watching the lightning that came with the rain.  Jordan and I drove separately because we had an adventure to attend to on the way back and didn't want to force everyone else along.  We went to Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend, TN.  They were amazing.  Caverns are fascinating - the formations, the way your eyes play tricks on you, the way perspective gets skewed.  This one had a river flowing through and a double waterfall.  The "Big Room" has proportions bigger than any room in Mammoth Cave, KY.  We drove back through the Smokey Mountain National Park (stopping to hike to a waterfall, we couldn't help it, we are waterfall addicts), and drove through Cherokee, which never fails to both enrage me and give me hope (yay, they have the Cherokee language on all their street signs, boo, they have tipis and "real live Indians" that you can have your picture made with - oh, the exploitation). 


This is the vest I am making.  It has been put on hold for a while, since the other project needs to be done by December, but I am enthusiastic about it.  I am calling it the Villette Vest, since it has kind of a Victorian corset vibe, and also because the color reminds me of Lucy's gown of "purple-gray - the color...of dun mist, lying on a moor in bloom."

I am making a shawl/scarf/wrap at the request of my choir director, who wants to give it to her friend as a Christmas present.  The pattern is ridiculously easy - it's just a huge rectangle of garter stitch, but I am painfully slow at knitting, so it is taking much longer than I would like.  I like the color and material.  It is cotton but has a nice shiney glow to it.

Apple Picking: Jordan and I were back in the mountains for his grandmother's wedding (which deserves as whole post (if not an entire book) all to itself), and we went apple picking on the Blue Ridge Parkway as well.  There is an old apple orchard at Altapass where you can pick the apples off the trees yourself.  They were also having a special blue-grass concert and people were there clogging and two-stepping.  So much fun.  And I didn't have my camera.  Aggh.

We picked a whole peck of apples.  Mostly Jonagold and Winesap-Staymans, but also Golden Delicious and Virginia Beauties and Sweet Saylors and King Lucious.  I will be eating and cooking apples for weeks to deal with all these, but that's OK.  Apple pies, apple dumplings, apple crisp...

Picnicing on the Parkway: 
Every September my extended family goes to Linville to picnic and celebrate the September and October birthdays.  We arrive early in the morning when it is still chilly and make breakfast with eggs and bacon and coffee, muffins and turnovers.  We hang out all day, some of us hiking, some sitting around talking, reading, etc.  Then we have lunch.  This time we had burgers, hotdogs, barbeque, pimento cheese sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, mmmm.  A few of us hiked to Linville falls, including the nephew - his first ever hiking trip.  He's three months now.  I can't believe my parents took me hiking for the first time when I was six days old.  I don't think I had any choice about whether I would like the outdoors or not!

If you have never been to Linville Falls, definitely make the trip.  I've been approximately a hundred times in my life, but they never get old.

I love fall.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fire in my Kitchen, Lightning in the Air

I can't believe I have waited this long to share this, but here goes: I set my kitchen on fire last week.  OK, so not the whole kitchen, just one of the burners on the stove, but it was still pretty traumatic.  I should explain that I have a deep and abiding fear of fire, that goes well beyond normal common-sense caution of flammability.  I trace it back to when I was eight and my dad, the ardent outdoorsman, tried to teach me how to light a campfire.  It was years before I could even watch a match being struck, and I still won't do the striking myself. I was close to ten before I would use the iron or toaster and very close to teenager years before I would use the stove or oven.  I still refuse to deep-fry anything, not only for health reasons, but because popping grease scares me.

Last Thursday night I was stressed and headachey after teaching, trying to throw stuff together so we could hit the road toward Marion.  I started a quick supper, stir fry, and put a pot of water on to boil the rice.  I noticed the burner was smoking, due probably to crumbs below the coil, but I didn't think anything about it until I heard a gentle whoosh and noticed that there were flames licking the bottom of the pot.  I attempted to blow them out (having done this once before several years ago), but they didn't go out.  They got higher.  Suddenly they were up above the top of the pot of water.  I am comforted to realize that I didn't fall apart then.  Instead, I went into process mode.  Here is a transcript of my thoughts:

-That's a real fire.
-I should turn the burner off.
-Blowing didn't work.
-OK, is it a grease fire?  No, OK, so water is alright.
-I need a vessel [yes, I thought the word vessel].  This bowl is too big, I will use this cup.
-It's OK, the hiss just means that the fire is out.
-Open the windows and door.
-That's the smoke detector, run and fan it vigorously before the fire department comes and the sprinklers turn on and ruin all of our possessions.
-OK, now you may fall apart.

I then fell apart very quietly, manifested mostly by shaking and the intense ramping up of my migraine.  Jordan came home shortly thereafter, and found that the stir fry was ready (sans rice) and a large puddle of water was dripping off our stove-top.  We managed to pack and get on the road.  We had only made it a mile from the apartment (not even to the interstate yet) and since I had asked Jordan approximately five times in the course of that mile if he was sure the stove was off, he turned the car around and we went back.  I went in the apartment and pulled the offending burning out.  I then touched every knob on the stove, tracing with my finger the indention that was pointed to "Off."  Then, I touched every burner with my hand to reassure myself that they were all cool to the touch.  Seriously, if anything like this happens to me again, I will be on an intervention show on A&E.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Pleasant than Productive...

I had a wonderful Labor Day weekend.  I did no work.  I didn't think about teaching or my dissertation, although goodness knows I could have worked on both.  Instead, I went to the Farmer's Market.  I went to the park.  I went to visit my sister and brother-in-law and nephew.  Like I said, more pleasant than productive.

The park was lovely.  They have a greenway that criss-crosses through woods and over a lake, following the path of an old rail-road.  The bridge was rusty iron and worn boards that made a wonderful loud rumbling noise.

The park also has a borrow-a-bike program.  They are basic single-speed, reverse-pedal-braking, and not really suited to the hills that rise along the greenway path, but I managed.  I think I did about seven miles, standing up in the seat and huffing and puffing on the hills until I realized that I should just admit when I am beat and get off and push.

In addition to the lake, there were small ponds, like this one covered in lilly pads.

I almost fell in getting this picture, which would have been entirely unpleasant.  Ponds are pretty to look at, but not something I would want to be submerged in.

I liked the deep, tunnelly woods.  Although there were many other people enjoying the greenway, there were also lots of times when I had it all to myself.  A nice green-gold solitude.

After my legs had been reduced to mush, I retrieved my quilt, lunch and books from the car and spread out in the dappled light under a huge tree.  It was amazing.  Love it, love it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

For the Beauty of the Earth

I have been loving early mornings.  I have been assigned to teach at 8am this semester, and I fretted all summer long, knowing that it would mean dragging myself out of bed at an unearthly hour - one of the down-sides of a longish commute and a commitment to hygeine.  And even though I am only teaching two days a week, I know that if I allow myself to sleep in on non-teaching days, I will hate myself on the mornings I can't sleep in.  So I have seen 5:30am every day for a week.  And I have to say, it is beautiful.

I have started running a bit earlier, and Monday morning was so beautiful.  There was a fog lying low over the fields, and the sun came up molten red-gold.  This morning I wanted to try to get pictures, but alas, no fog.  There were other pretty things to see, however.

Lillies heavy with dew.

Over-grown fence-posts.

Morning glories.  I know these are kind of considered a weed and a nuisance, but I am fond of them.  In junior high, our beloved band director nicknamed us according to...I don't know, some kind of word association that occured to him.  I was Morning Glory Hallelujah, Glory for short.  And that is what I was called for three years.  I think he would call me that today.

Red berries.

I think these are nasturtiums?  I'm not sure, but I like this picture with the fiery flowers and the hazy white house in the background.

It's September, one of my favorite months.  I love the change of summer into fall.  Everything begins to look burnished and ripe.  Mornings get a bit cooler and I think of camping.  Geese will begin flying like arrows.  I don't think it's hard to understand that God loves us when we see what He created for us.  So many good things - the promise of salvation, the relationships with our family and friends, and golden, late-summer fields, covered over with orange and pink flowers.

For the beauty of the earth
For the Glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:

'Lord of all, to Thee we raise
this our grateful hymn of praise
                                   -Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1864

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Conversations on Video Games

Jordan just got a new video game.  I should state now, in his defense, that he does not play that often.  He does have, I think, every Nintendo console ever built (with the exception of the Wii) plus a Play Station 2.  We also have, carefully stacked in clear plastic boxes in our closet, a myriad of games for each of those consoles.

His new game is callled Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance.  I asked him what it was about.  He said, "You hit people, get points, then buy things to hit more people with."  A strong narrative arc, as you can see.

Today he said, "We should go get a second controller, so you can play with me."
I said, "Ok, but I think we should also take turns reading Anne of Green Gables out loud to each other."
He said, "Mmmmm."

Right now, he is playing, making the little guy run around and, what else, hit people.  Every once in a while he gets tired of just having the guy run, so he does a few jumps.  The little guy swings both arms, and grunts loudly.  I think Jordan shouldn't make him work so hard.

He's not just hitting people any more.  Right now it is strange creatures that walk upright but have fur.  I asked, "What's that you're fighting?"  He said, "I dunno," as he blasted another with his shiny sword.

Anne of Green Gables may not have a lot of action in it, but at least all the figures are identifiable.Baldur's Gate: Dark AllianceAnne of Green Gables Boxed Set, Vol. 1 (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Today was a good day at the library...

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wisenberg

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rising Slowly

I love making bread.  I made my first loaf over a year ago.  It is a complicated and time-consuming process, and that is probably why it is so comforting.  That, and the smell.  Despite the fact that I love to do it, I have not had great success in making bread.  There always seems to be some problem.  Sometimes the crust comes out hard and chewy.  Sometimes it is dense and bland.  I want it to have as much whole wheat flour in it as possible, but that doesn't always improve the taste.  I have a bread machine, and like it for quick jobs, but baking it in the machine doesn't always provide for enough control, and besides, I like kneading the dough myself.  I got the recipe for my latest attempt from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads.  Reinhart is a proponent of slow-rise bread making.  According to the recipe, I made two different doughs first.  On the left is the biga, which is bread flour, yeast, and water, and on the left is the soaker, containing the whole wheat flour, salt, and milk.  I left these in the refrigerator for a couple of days, and then kneaded them together, adding more yeast, honey, and flour.

This rises once in the bowl (above) and then again in the pan (proofing it).  It baked up quite nicely.  It is soft and "damp-crumbed" and tastes pretty good.  The main problem I had this time is that middle of the loaf is a bit unstable - like Yeats said, "the center can not hold, things fall apart." :)  So when you slice it, the middle tends to crumble away and you get jelly slipping through your toast.  More research needed, I suppose.  I kind of think I let it rise too much when it was proofing, but I don't know if that is the source of the problem.

I am pretty happy with the result.  I think I read somewhere that even the worst homemade loaf of bread is going to be better than the best store-bought.  I don't know if I entirely agree with this, but I am enjoying putting it to the test.

Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer Days, Drifting Away...

Another summer is almost over.  Classes begin again next week, and it will be a flurry of lesson plans, grading, and meetings.  But until then, I want to focus on the things that make summer summer.  Like:

1) Peaches.  Pictured above with Greek yogurt, honey, and blueberry granola.  Yummy.  I love the colors of a peach and this one was especially pretty, all sunset colors - orange and red and yellow and pink.

2)  Hanging out at the pool.  Our apartment complex has a nice pool that is never crowded when it first opens in the morning.  I've enjoyed having friends with kids over to swim - I have never met a kid who didn't think swimming was the acme of human bliss.

3)  Fun reading.  I haven't had as much of this as I would like, what with the dissertation and all, but there has been some.  I had an especially fun evening, curled up with Robin McKinley's Chalice while it stormed distantly outside.  For me, reading is always enhanced by atmosphere.

4) Stargazing.  I realize that I am not outside enough at night.  Like most people, I get home, I flop down, I turn on the TV and forget that there are things like sunsets and stars and moons out there.  Jordan and I did turn out for the Pleiades meteor shower the other night.  We took the car around to the local landing strip where it was marginally darker than at our apartment.  We sat on the trunk, leaning back against the back windshield and watched.  We saw one really amazing meteor and then watched as clouds rolled in, with lightning flickering inside them.  It was pretty cool.

5)  Baseball.  I am not a sports fan.  But I kind of am.  Our church has "Family Fun Night" every third Sunday.  We have our business meeting and then do  This summer, that has meant ice cream and a softball game.  It is kind of amazing to watch the grown ups and the little kids all playing on teams together, people on the opposite teams sharing gloves as they switch places from infield to outfield, other members sitting on the sidelines cheering.  It is not "church softball" in the sense that it is organized or practiced.  It is a pick-up game in a field.  It is fun.  We also had fun taking our youth group to a minor league game the other night.  It was quintessential summer to sit in the stands, hearing the crack of a bat.  I can't believe I'm waxing sentimental over a ballgame, but there you go.

6)  Watermelon.  And blueberries, corn on the cob, tomatoes, squash, lettuce.  How can I live the long winter without them?  Our church is really amazing.  Almost every Sunday, someone brings us a bag of cucumbers or some tomatoes.  Usually there is a heap of produce sharing space with bulletins and brochures on the table in the foyer, free to anyone who cares to cart them away.  Often there are also farm fresh eggs.  I love our little country church!

OK, now some things that I haven't gotten to do this summer:
1) Go to the beach - we did go to England so I am not in any way complaining about not seeing the beach this summer.  But it is the summer thing. 

2) Go camping.  I love camping; and camping in the fall is pretty spectacular too, but that rarely works out.  Jordan and I have plenty of camping equipment that we never use, because a camping trip requires planning and somehow we just never plan it.  I want to go camping!  Camp fires, marshmallows, stars, lanterns, the earthy-nylon smell of a tent; I never sleep better than I do curled in a flannel-lined sleeping bag in chilly mountain night air.

And, some transitional-type things:

1) Back to school shopping.  My needs are few at this point: a new legal pad (white instead of yellow, this time) and my new bag, but I enjoyed buying things to donate for our school supplies drive at church.  Pencils and notebooks, yay!

2) Knitting.  Working with wool in summer seems kind of pointless, but with fall around the corner I'm in the knitting mood again.  Right now I am working on a corset-style vest in a beautiful amethyst-colored yarn - pictures to follow, of course!