Monday, December 28, 2009

Only in the Past

Run away to the seashore it doesn't matter anymore
Doesn't matter anymore
Words dry up and fly away with the passing of the days
Eventually you just let the stone fall

I dreamed that I saw you you were down at the corner store
You were looking through magazines and you flew out the door
I was trying to wave to you but you wouldn't wave back
Now you know I understand you're with me only in the past
Only in the past

My palms are not open they're closed --- they're closed
My palms are not open they're closed --- they're closed

Colors streak the sky, we laugh and we cry
And we dance in the cool grass with the
And we dance in the cool grass -- sunset birds
Sweet, sweet music swallows our words
You set sail and you left this town
Run away, run away, you're so far from me now
So far from me now

("Only in the Past," The Be Good Tanyas)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dirty Laundry

Image courtesy of

The McKinleyville laundromat is superior in so many ways to the Sunny Brae one, that it makes up for the fact that there's no coffee shop in its parking lot.

1. There's music playing over a PA system.
In fact, at one point the song was (and I'm not making this up) "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley.

2. The washing machines do not smell as if something died in each of them.
In fact, the McK machines smell good and clean and soapy.

3. There is an attendant.
While I was there, she and her husband fixed two cool dryers and made them hot again.
She also taught me the trick of getting quarters out of the candy machine when you need less than a dollar's worth.
She was, however, hogging the folding tables.

4. There were cute guys there who were older than 20.
Of course, one was standing next to my dryer when one of my bras suddenly got stuck across the window like a frantic cat trying to get out. And when I swiftly stopped the dryer to remedy this, several pairs of panties escaped all over the floor. *

5. Making up for the lack of coffee shop, the parking lot sports a used book store.
In fact, the knowledgeable owner likes to talk such things as Scandinavian rhetorical structures. So just bring your own coffee, and you're good.

*yes, I know "delicates" aren't supposed to go in the dryer. I was in a hurry, ok?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Senses

These are scenes from my last trip to Old Town in Eureka. Things were looking beautiful to me that day. I post them here because I am psyching myself up for another foray into the great big world.

This time I doubt I will see anything that will pull my camera from my pocket.

Then again, maybe there is some beauty to be noticed at the laundromat, in line at the post office, or somewhere out there -- beauty of the stark, industrial kind. Shapely, poignant. The kind of beauty that loves black and white.

Too bad the camera can't capture the warm scent of the peppermint mocha I plan to fortify myself with.

Or the steady jingle of the Salvation Army donation collectors.

Or the strange balminess of the Humboldt winter air.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Night Campus

Teaching an evening class this semester, I have seen another side of the campus. From the pretty arched and paned window of the English Department office, I have seen amazing sunsets:
And walking out onto the darkened sidewalks after class, I've encountered the denizens of the night, the fat and brazen raccoons:
And I've discovered that creaky old Founders Hall, oldest building on campus, is not the least bit spooky after hours-- not a ghost in sight.

Instead, that pinnacle of the campus boasts incredible views -- of treetops, the distant sparkle of Arcata city lights and the sky reflected in the faraway bay.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obstacle Courses & Course Obstacles

Even though I gave myself 45 minutes to get to the university from my apartment, I was still late for the portfolio reading.

I didn't waste any time either; I stopped for a latte but didn't dawdle.

But unfortunately, arriving at the university I made the mistake of turning down Harpst Street, which has temporarily become a one-way road while construction is going on.

On such a busy morning, at such a busy time, the construction crew in its wisdom decided to back a semi down that road to unload something, effectively trapping the cars in place for a full 15 minutes.

How frustrating to attend and work at a university with so little regard for the business that is actually supposed to be taking place there -- learning and teaching!
  • They are constructing new dorms in the site where once there was parking, so now there is even less parking than ever.

  • New dorms, when freshman and transfer admissions have been capped early and low for the spring.

  • New construction when teachers and all employees have been required to furlough all semester.
Today must have been the most well-attended day in the semester because there was no parking anywhere. I drove around looking for something, to no avail. I finally had to park waaaay down on 14th Street and hike the long, long uphill distance to Founders Hall.

I wasn't even all the way up B Street when I heard the bell tolling the hour.

Legs aching, face red with exertion, breathing hard --- and late; that is how I arrived to the portfolio reading.

This day we were to read our own students' portfolios, and assign scores from 0 to 6, based on a strict rubric. We were "normed" ahead of time through reading sample portfolios representing each of those scores. This was to ensure we agreed on a standard of university-level writing.

It was awful at first, but then I found my groove and it became just a task, like any task.

As a new teacher, I struggled with self-doubt-- about my judgment, my objectivity and my fairness. This task was so very different from my usual work of encouraging developing writers to improve, revise, go deeper, try harder; this was simply passing judgment on a final product.

After several hours, I had fulfilled my task of reading the 21 portfolios from my students, filled out all the forms, dotted Is and crossed Ts.

Then I asked the composition director how many there would be for us (all) to read tomorrow, when all the composition faculty will gather for a long and grueling day of reading.

About 700, she said. 700?!

Wish us luck.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vistas & Venues

I've been waking up at the reasonable hour of 8:24 every day, as if there is a magical alarm clock in my body, set for that time. It's kind of nice actually, although I do miss the days when I was sure my bed was the warmest, coziest, most comfortable place in the world.

I spent the morning drinking coffee, tidying up my messy apartment and downloading music. Interesting turn the musical treasure hunt has taken: I've discovered an active country music scene in Scandinavia.
Image courtesy of

Which is kind of interesting when you think about it. Country & Western, like Hip-hop, is music that's culturally rooted in its history. So it is interesting when it springs up somewhere, free from all the emotional and political baggage. I imagine Jamaicans are equally surprised about the Reggae that pops up in the US.

Here is an example:

Translation: She is dreaming of Nashville, Tennessee.

After that, with my iPod all juiced up, I left to finish my rounds of newspaper delivery, feeling like I was in a movie with a cool soundtrack and great scenery.

Pacific Ocean
I can never take a picture to do justice to what my eyes see, especially while driving.

En route to Trinidad, I had that breathtaking experience I love, coming over the rise just north of the airport when the vista of the Pacific Ocean opens up before you. The sky was very blue today, so the sea was as well.

The Redwoods

Road to Fieldbrook, photo courtesy of Rambling Jack's Laboratory

I drove to Fieldbrook through the forests and saw more vistas, this time of jagged redwood-tops in hazy layers. I wondered, as I always do, why people in Northern California tend to secrete themselves away in these remote places.

It seems serene there in Fieldbrook, and I look around at the little houses for one-half a moment, then shake myself out of it. I want to travel, not settle.

Wild Mushrooms
These became an amazing pot of soup later...

I also delivered papers to this interesting little store on the Hammond Trail, Roger's Market at the end of School Road. On first glance, it's just a corner store, but in reality it's a little treasure house. All the unusual ingredients you might be searching for can be found there.

This time, there were all these beautiful knitted wool hats someone local had made. And best of all, two big flats of chanterelle mushrooms someone had gathered locally. I bought $3 worth, enough to make an amazing pot of soup for dinner.

Little Treasures

McKinleyville has lots of little treasures like that. People are out there dissing this town and writing it off as Hicksville or worse. I say, that's fine; it's fine with me if those people stay away.

When I moved here in 2008, I began an experiment to see how much of my business I could keep in McKinleyville. I rarely go anywhere else to buy anything, with a few exceptions. My eye doctor is still in Eureka, for example. And after awhile, you get tired of Mexican food and must venture out for sushi and the like.

There's a hardware store, auto parts store, a cool coffee shop, a well-stocked video store (with two whole shelves of Scandinavian films), and a bookstore that will order whatever you need including textbooks.

I've even heard there's a car wash, but I can't find it. And there's a farmer's market that lasts well into autumn.

The Senior Center

One Mack Town treasure I'd like to point out is the Senior Center. I won't even mention what a treasure it must be for lonely seniors, whose lives because of it are a hell of a lot more interesting than mine.

It's a shopping treasure for the rest of us. They have a gift shop there, where nice little old ladies have contributed their handiwork, proceeds from sales to go to the Center. Things are cheap! I bought a knitted hat and three really cute shopping bags to give to friends for Christmas.
I kept one of the really cute bags for myself and carried my lunch to work in it the next day.

While I browsed, I was soothed by listening to one little old lady telling a long oral history to two rapt cohorts. Memories are treasures too, lest we forget that right now -- while we're making our memories.

And, there is a new thrift store in town, a charity outfit for rescued animals. I bought a Woolrich sweater for $1.99. Having recently lost my favorite Woolrich sweater, and since local temps have recently dropped to freezing even on the coast, I know the value of that find.

Things Change

Delivering papers is my excuse to get out and explore. Without an exigency to drive around, I will hole up in my apartment and study or worry about studying. And now that I'm finally getting the hang of it, my delivery days are over. Jack and Kim will be back from their honeymoon this week, and business will return to usual.

Or will it? How will it be for Jack to return to his daily grind after three straight weeks of romance, ancient ruins and passionate Italian culture and food? If he's in anything like the shape I was in on my return from Sweden, he will have a little cultural adjustment to make when he gets home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Outlaw Music

I have quite recently come to terms with my Southern roots and realized I have the power to filter out the bad country music and enjoy the good stuff.

However, I still think there should be two names, Country & Western for the crap that is impossibly stupid and something very cool for the stuff I like. "Alt Country" doesn't really describe it, since I don't like much of that either. Nor does Rockabilly quite cover it.

Maybe the division is in the term Country and Western. Maybe there's Country, where you sing about your tractor, and then there's Western where you sing (to strong bass) like an outlaw whose heart gets broken on a regular basis.

Whatever it's called in real life, I now have a playlist on my iPod.

It contains lots of Dwight Yoakam, and some Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Lee Rocker, Cracker, Cowboy Junkies, Lucinda Williams, Dixie Chicks, Whiskeytown, Maria McKee, Chris Isaak, the Judds, Hank Williams and Travis Tritt.

It also has Credence Clearwater Revival, The Jayhawks, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In addition, it contains country flavored songs from rock artists like Sheryl Crow, Neil Young, REM, and the Grateful Dead.

I love this playlist. It was the soundtrack for delivering the Press on this beautiful, bright, crisp day.

P.S. I found a whole treasure house of good music under the category "Bakersfield Sound." It all seems to have the sounds I'm looking for -- bass, dobro, steel pedal guitar, driving beats. Examples: Flying Burrito Brothers, the Desert Rose Band, the Mavericks, Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Academic Road

I must be one of those people who thrives on high energy, because things have gotten very interesting in my class lately as we near portfolio time.

Maybe it is because I have worked very hard up until now, and after this my students' success is in their own hands. All I can really do is let go and wish them well.

Maybe it is because I've set aside the thesis project to take up at a later date. In its absence, everything else is manageable.

Or maybe it is because I have finally risen above the clouds in the heartbreak that has been dragging at my heels for three straight months.
Whatever it is, life is better -- at last.

There is still so much to do, but I have a vague sense of having survived something.

I have never, ever experienced a more difficult semester, and let me just put it out there that all my semesters of grad school except the first one have been dogged by personal drama. Every semester that I've made it through has felt like a miracle -- and this one was worst of all.

OK bits of news:

The international program had a drop in enrollment and doesn't need me to teach for them in the spring after all. So now, I have to think about what to do for a living come January. The joys of job-hunting.

Today my students filled out evaluation forms about me. Those completed forms went to the department office where they will be compiled in some way and made available to me later. What will my students say about me?

And today, I realized I am going to miss them and how lucky I was that I got to work closely with them, to read their work and their thoughts and opinions, to help them on their academic road.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


While the boss is out of town on his honeymoon, the production of the newspaper is in the hands of the printing company. My job during this three-week period is just to deliver the papers to the various newspaper boxes and stores.

I made the drive out to the printer's yesterday morning, out to the stark, golden island of Samoa -- a place that's remote and empty except for the strikingly horrible industrial buildings and factories that rise up out of the grassy dunes and mar the horizon.

To illustrate, here are some photos I took of Samoa in 2008.
I was feeling glad to be out on a non-intellectual errand like paper delivery, something straightforward and finite accompanied by my choice of music and a warm beverage-- a nice break from teaching and research.

I was listening to "Little Sister" by Dwight Yoakam, feeling good, determined, and capable, when I pulled into the industrial "park" where the paper gets printed. I pulled up to the back loading dock to grab the stack of newspapers.

Only to find this screaming headline, above the fold in all caps: "SHERRIFF'S SEIZE 17 POUNDS OF POT."

My heart sank in disappointment. Aside from the obvious misspelled word and the apostrophe inserted in a plural, there is only one sheriff in this county, and his minions are called deputies. These are mistakes a monkey would not have made.

It was such a humiliating experience delivering these papers all over three towns, filling up machines with them, walking into stores carrying an armload of them.

Nevermind that on the masthead inside, my name is listed as assistant editor.

I can't help but wonder: what sort of business allows people who are semi-literate to have anything to do with the publication of the written word?

I had to give myself the following pep talk about 20 times:

It's newspaper; it's fleeting; mistakes happen and if no one gets hurt by them, you just look forward to doing better next time. And if someone does get hurt, you just apologize or print a retraction. You don't dwell on mistakes in the newspaper business because they happen and that's just the way it is.

But it was appalling.

I (almost) hated to blare my loud alt country lest I seem like an illiterate hick (I did it anyway).

On the bright side, at the end of my appointed rounds, I was fortunate enough to see this sunset.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

If Only, If Only

Tonight in McKinleyville

It's time to pick up the Bitten Apple again, along with many other things that have fallen by the wayside lately in pursuit of ridiculous unattainable things.

I have been saying that hope is the thing that has allowed me to live through the last two unbelievably turbulent years.

Now I'm not really sure what keeps me moving forward, but it isn't hope.

I'm going to try to just accept life the way it is and stop working so hard to make it better.

The fruitless labor has been taking a tremendous toll on my physical and emotional health. For example, I have had the flu twice this fall. And I never sleep anymore. I cry every day.

Here is what is true for me: I can't leave this place because I have people here who need me, yet I am all alone all the time.

It would be a lot easier if I could just be put in suspended animation, only to be activated once a week or once a month when someone needs me for something.

I am trying to lay my dreams to rest. There is no point in dreaming.

You are probably getting weary of the endless poetry. Me too.

Poetry is just a way to encode pain so we can imagine ourselves as less pathetic. It is a way of clothing the naked, unglamorous truth of our pain. Pain is ugly, poetry is pretty.

By quoting poetry, we attempt to turn our own pain into art the way these poets and songwriters seem to have.

By Digging Roots

He said, "I'm doing fine, but I'm lonely."
He said, "I laid on the line, but she don't love me."

I hear it all the time, "If only... if only."

With all the people living in this world
Why are we still living lonely?

She said, "He's always by my side, why am I so lonely?"
She said, "All these years we tried,
But he still don't know me."

She's got to get outside. "If only... if only."

In a world full of people, a world full of people
Why are we still living lonely?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Lips That Taste of Tears

By Dorothy Parker (1926)

Lilacs blossom just as sweet
Now my heart is shattered.

If I bowled it down the street,
Who's to say it mattered?

If there's one that rode away,
What would I be missing?

Lips that taste of tears, they say
Are the best for kissing.

Eyes that watch the morning star
Seem a little brighter.

Arms held out to darkness are
Usually a little whiter.

Shall I bar the strolling guest
Bind my brow with willow,
When, they say, the empty breast
Is the softer pillow?

That a heart falls tinkling down
Never think it ceases.

Every likely lad in town
Gathers up the pieces.

If there's one gone whistling by,
Would I let it grieve me?

Let him wonder if I lie.
Let him half believe me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Bird Forgot the Song

Little Miss Sorrow

She had those magic eyes you could see from miles around
She wore her summer dresses bright
Quite like the sky
She always came in colours
All smiles and daffodils
She let her hair down in the breeze

But every little thing has changed today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
The sunlight doesn't show
Although the colours go
Out through the window

She used to go out dancing
Cool silver fingernails
I used to watch her from the bar
Following her car
She always came in colours
She always kept control
She painted yesterday in gold

But every little thing turned grey today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
The sunlight doesn't show
All the colours go
Even the rainbow

Allow me to introduce myself
I'm just a local boy
She was my little Miss Joy
I want to call her name
My life won't be the same
Dear God

Every little thing has changed today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
Yes, every little thing turned grey today - little Miss Sorrow
The weakling plays the strong
The bird forgot the song

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


English majors -- you know what I mean?

A few select characteristics probably come instantly to mind to describe the average, ordinary English major: word person, a bookworm, big vocabulary, good at Scrabble, and so on.

But to those of us who majored in English at HSU there are three very distinct and easily recognizable subcategories. At HSU, the major is split into three pathways: Literary Studies, Creative Writing and Language Arts Instruction. We can tell one another apart from a mile away.

Language Arts Instruction majors were tomorrow's middle school English teachers, down-to-earth, pragmatic and prescriptive, ready to enforce the "rules" of English.
Creative Writing majors were artsy, unstructured poets, as dramatic as invaders from the Drama Department, with more creativity and instinct than technical knowledge.
Literary Studies majors (of whom I am one) were either railing against the canon in favor of women's/cultural/ethnic/queer studies or alternately, they were lamenting the lost classical canon and reading Beowulf for fun.
I'm a variation on that theme: I began by lamenting the lost classical canon while still enjoying some of the marginalized voices we studied (for example, Sherman Alexieand Naguib Mahfouz), then began finally to recognize what we were doing as cultural studies, which as it turns out, I love.

But I continued to be turned off by things like post-structuralism's endless hair-splitting and annoyed by the emotionality of the politically-correct mob that ruled in some of my classes.

At least I can say with authority that I don't like George Eliot or Trollope, but that I do like Dickens and Melville. And happily, I never once took a Shakespeare class.
Midway through, I discovered Linguistics. It was like finding a life raft in the middle of the sea, because linguistics makes sense.

I began to minor in linguistics, while unofficially and secretly, I began to major in it -- as best I could considering such a major doesn't exist at HSU. I took sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, history of English, language analysis, and grammar. And I interned in each one so I could take it twice.

Even in grad school, I have continued my underground major --applied linguistics, viewing everything I learn through the lens of discourse analysis, bending everything I learn about composition theory toward my goal of teaching ESL.
And now that I'm in grad school, English grad students are once again divided into easily recognizable groups. You think you know English grad students? OK, yes, it's true, we are the ones using words like recursivity and genre in ordinary, non-academic conversations, for example, at the laundromat. Words like intertextuality and intersectional actually mean something to us.
But among us English grad students, there are two distinct types: Master's in Literature and Master's in Teaching Writing.

The MA Lits are drinking hard liquor and quoting poetry in public places right now.

And right now, the MATWs have in our satchels great stacks of freshmen composition papers we're doomed to read. We occupy a special level of hell where paperwork keeps multiplying no matter how late you stay up reading it. We are like Sisyphus if his boulder were made of reams of paper covered in type.

Among English grad students, we're the pragmatic ones, hungry for practical ideas for teaching writing.

We are kept from being utterly boring by our fascination with any combination of these major theorists: Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin or Kenneth Burke. Yet, it hurts our brains to float for long in the rarefied air of theory when we long for practical applications.

MA Lits, on the other hand, thrive in the airy realm of theory.

So people like Phyllis Schafly think they know English majors? It's not as simple as that.

Many thanks to all the sites I borrowed these illustrations from.

I Wish You Were Here

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

I finally got down to the business of actually writing my thesis today.

As opposed to seemingly endless research and reading. As opposed to sorting out my previous work, three different papers, under the headings of my thesis sections. And as opposed to crafting a comprehensive works cited section.

In other words I have done everything under the sun to get out of the process of actually writing.

But today, I finally worked: writing, creating, expressing the complexity of my ideas. Trying to lay them out in an orderly fashion without being too dry.

I didn't actually write all day, although I was a virtual prisoner in my apartment, held captive by the necessity to get something done.

All I have to show for it are 511 words that were harder to extract (from what seems like my very soul) than wisdom teeth.

When I look through my other writings on the same subject matter, I seem so fluent that I hardly recognize myself. Why can't I do that this time?

I think of all these American idioms to express difficulty, and they speak to me.

I am out of my depth and in over my head. I have bitten off more than I can chew.

But I can't escape the imperative to write this damn thing. I either write it or I fail. I'm between a rock and a hard place. I have no other choice except to get it done, but I don't feel like I can.

Then again, if it weren't difficult, if it weren't soul-wrenching, then I suppose it wouldn't mean much. And without this baptism of fire, I could never expect the academics to welcome me to their fold.

P.S. Is it any wonder I can't write when all I have to offer are bouquets of cliches?


Image of Spalding Butterfly Collection courtesy of mark6mauro
Bear with me while I mix metaphors recklessly as I try to pin my feelings down long enough to analyze them a little.

Pin them down -- as if my feelings were pretty butterflies, tragically pinned to a board in some collector's den, their lives of sunshine, flowers and flight cut short and sacrificed to knowledge that is, after all, pointless.

I've been criticized in the recent past for being too analytical, or perhaps it was for being analytical at the wrong time. Not everything requires analysis, so someone said to me.

When I think of the butterfly analogy, I realize there might be some truth to that.

I realize how tenuous attraction is -- a fragile and delicate thing that it can't really bear up under the collector's scrutiny. Pinned down, it is likely to crumble into fine dust and blow away on the slightest wind.
The biggest mystery I have ever known is my own heart. The closer I look, the more unknowable it is. With a heart this unknowable, it's a wonder I get anything done at all.

The only solid thing I have ever discovered there is the love for my children.

Outside of that, however, everything is a contradiction. I want to be safe at the same time I want to be free. I am fiercely independent but also lonely. I am always walking away even while I'm approaching.
Attraction is fragile, oh-so fragile, maybe nothing more than a trick of the light, as it turns out.

All it takes is the slightest shift in perspective, and your precious dreams, built up over the course of a year, vanish -- dusty smudges on your hand after you try to catch butterflies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gathering Flowers

You know, I always say the reason I'm a journalist (and now an academic) is I don't have the stamina (or the attention span) for long, sustained writing.

I like small things-- news articles, press releases, 5-page literary analyses, etc. -- things you can finish in short order. I work very intensely for awhile, then move on and forget about it.

I am struggling to manage my thesis, which in the grand scheme of things isn't even that long, really: approximately 50 pages when it's done. But I am lost in it and overwhelmed by it.

I have these novelist friends, who think nothing of 40,000 words, who have to limit themselves to a single volume. I look at them in wonder; they're sort of alien beings to me, creatures who have been blessed by both inspiration and tenacity.

I could never do that.

And then I think of the Bitten Apple. OK, so it's an anthology, which by the way comes from the Greek anthologia "flower-gathering-- a collection of smaller works. But there are 217 of them, counting this one.

I am encouraged. Apparently I can do this if I break it into mini-tasks, each section of my thesis like a mini-paper all in itself. Intro, Lit Review, Definitions, Apprenticeship, Transparency, ESL Research, Textbooks, and Conclusion.

I just have to write each one like a small paper, then gather them like flowers, and arrange them elegantly into a thing called a Master's Thesis.

I like this analogy better than Frank.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Building the Big Love

And I know what love can do.
Yes I know what hearts can do.
The big love -- is taking the wheel,
The big love -- goes head over heels,
The big lust-- bring it into the small world,
The bigger, the better-- Big love

Waiting to catch the big one,
Head over heels, the big one
Bring it into the small world.
I'm building the big big love,
I'm building the big big love.

It has to be a big thing.
It's bringing me to my knees.
Has to be a big thing, big thing,
ya know what I'm saying...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Visual Rhetoric

My master's thesis (or master's project, depending on who you ask and on what day):
Image courtesy of

Constructed from three different papers I've written, it is roughly pasted together connections built from reading, research and classroom experiences.

It will probably walk funny, question its origins and perhaps even try to kill me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Further in You Go

Photo courtesy of
It's like that opening scene from The Grinch (2000), when the camera heads toward a snowflake then inside, deeper and deeper to a whole universe and a little planet and a little town, Whoville, and the little house of Cindy Lou Who.

That's what research is like.

You think you've gotten down to the essence of a subject, but when you look closely you see there are whole worlds inside that; look a little more closely, even more worlds.

"''It's certainly,' Smoky said, remembering the guidebook, 'en extensive estate.'
'The further in you go, the bigger it gets,' said Hannah Noon."
--John Crowley,
Little, Big (1981)

"'I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until at the center point, it is infinite. Or at least very, very large.' He took a sip of water.'"
-- John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

"'Of course, Daughter of Eve,' said the Faun. 'The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.'"
--C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle (1956)

I despair of ever being finished. Every time I work, I discover something new.

Today, I discovered systemic functional linguistics, in which M.A. K Halliday articulates and justifies everything I was struggling, without the proper language, to say.

Exciting to discover a new area of research (old, actually, 1989), like finding lost treasure. But disturbing too: Does this mean what I am struggling to say has been said before, so why bother?

Is my purpose to say something new or to learn and get out of grad school and go teach?

And why didn't the linguists who have read my drafts not mention systemic functional linguistics? Why did they let me struggle with awkward, ill-defined terms like "sociolinguistic approach" (or is that the same thing and now I've finally stumbled on the right body of research?) and "socioliteracy."

Of course, I am juxtaposing Halliday's writing against several other more modern things, perhaps in a fresh new way. I just don't know.

Then again, I was told to define discourse, which seemed like an odd request at the time, like being asked to define academia. Maybe I was being subtly pointed in the right direction? This is all so esoteric. Like feeling around in the dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Insomnia & Fairy Tales

Image from the film, Photographing Fairies, courtesy of
I used to be the most luxurious sleeper. I was like the character, Sophie, in my favorite book, Little, Big (John Crowley)/ (Read Chapter One here, if you're interested.)

Sophie was a dreamy person who luxuriated in sleep, spent more time asleep than awake, was forever falling asleep or catnapping, and dreaming interesting dreams.
"Ophelia" by John William Waterhouse, image courtesy of
I was like that. I had a rich dream life. I loved to sleep.

Sophie slept so hard that faeries were able to sneak into her room one night and steal her baby, Lilac, leaving a changeling in its place. After that, of course, Sophie's sleep was stolen also.

I feel my sleep has been stolen as well.

I write this to you at 2 o'clock in the morning, after unsuccessful tries at falling asleep. My bed is comfortable and welcoming, but all the down comforters and feather pillows in the world will not quiet my mind.

So instead I will tell you about Little, Big, a book I judged by its cover, which in 1987 looked like this, green and sort of psychedelic and intriguing:
I reread Little, Big more than once during a magical part of my own life. It's impossible now to sort out the impressions of my Bohemian life in Santa Cruz from the things I read in Little, Big, impossible to tell which came first.

If you buy it from bookstores now, it looks like this:
It's about this family that lives on the threshold between worlds. Quite by accident, their house is a doorway between faerieland and our ordinary world.
The book follows several generations of family members who interact with the faeries in different ways. The children play with them, the teenagers seek their advice, the young adults strike treacherous bargains with them.

One man writes children's stories about them, another spends his time trying to capture them on film, while an old woman reads messages from them in a deck of special cards.

I am not a particular fan of faeries, or Elementals as they are obliquely called in the book. What entranced me about Little, Big are the images Crowley paints with his artful language.

Image courtesy of
The images in Little, Big are both familiar and mythical at the same time. The author describes a marbled-cover notebook, a roadmap ("confetti-colored"), a peacock wicker chair, a brown cigarette and a swan-shaped boat--as if everything is an archetype. The City, for example. The Tale, for another.

Great-aunt Cloud's peacock chair, image courtesy of
Image courtesy of
Unexpected words pop up in descriptions of ordinary things:
"The gregarious weeds that frequent roadsides, dusty, thick and blowsy, friend to man and traffic, nodded from fence and ditch by the way."

"The kitchen was papered with baskets of impossibly luscious fruit, blue grapes and russet apples and cleft peaches that protruded like bottoms from the harvest."

The house the family lives in, Edgewood, is intriguing to say the least. There is, for example, an Imaginary Bedroom and a Back Front.
"Hidden Cities" by Peter Milton who illustrated a fancy recent edition of Little, Big. Image courtesy of

The Cathedral Bathroom always captured my imagination: a bathroom with great stained glass windows, where rays of colored sunlight would cast themselves on steam rising from a hot bath.
This guy Ricky Boscarino has a similar idea with his Luna Parc bathrooms, image courtesy of

I love the way Crowley writes, although I never have found the same satisfaction in any of his other books, which are a little vague and indistinct (except Engine Summer, out of print now, is pretty damn wonderful. I'll tell you all about it sometime).
Crowley, as a writer, infuses ordinariness with richness in a way I don't know how to describe or emulate. Now that I have studied language analysis, I need to read Little, Big again, so I can read it like a writer and discover exactly what it is he does to produce this effect.
In one section of the book, the whole household of Edgewood is asleep and we, the readers, get to peek into their dreams:
"While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers.

"Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart.

"Dr. Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: 'There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.' This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn't be able to remember a word of it, try as he might.

"Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn't in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said 'Years.'"
If there were ever a book I wish to see turned to film it's this one. I want to see these things, these characters, these places, come to life.

But now that I've talk about them, envisioned them in my imagination, and now that it's coming on 3 in the morning, maybe I can go to sleep and dream of Daily Alice and Smoky, Auberon and Sylvie, Lilac, Violet and Cloud.
"A Fairy Tale" by Arthur Wardle , image courtesy of

Other covers
Little, Big has had over the years. Which one would draw you in?