Monday, July 30, 2007

Do you have a "signature" word?

"Everyone should have a signature word." That's what Ben Macintyre argues in this article. In it he also discusses Christopher Foyle's Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words, a book that I am going to have to put on my ever-growing wish list.* As someone who loves language, unusual words, and playing with language, I really enjoyed this piece--I only wish it were longer. Just yesterday I think I made up a word, although I bet lots of folks have used it before. A friend called me and asked what I was up to, and I said, "Syllabizing," as in, the act of working on my syllabi.

And now I am thinking about what my signature word is. I know I use "indeed" way more than I should in my academic writing. I also use "ought" way more than any normal 29 year-old American should. But those are not exactly the kinds of signature words Macintyre is talking about in this article. Well, I suppose I ought to give it some thought and maybe post an update if I think of one. Indeed.

Can any of you, my loyal if small group of readers, think of your signature word?

*For some reason, I can only find this book on's UK site. Perhaps because it is so new (only published in the UK on July 27).

Modernism and Architecture

I read a fun piece in Time about Philip Johnson's Glass House, which has recently opened for tours through the National Trust. I had never heard of this place before, but was really intrigued by it and would be very interested in visiting it. Here's the original article from Time. You can also browse through a photo essay here.

Let me paste the first paragraph of the article:

"WHEN COMPLETED IN 1949, THE HOUSE THAT Philip Johnson designed for himself in New Canaan, Conn., was the most resolute statement of Modernist principles ever set down in a leafy glade. An homage to the ideas of High Modernism developed in Europe between the wars, it consisted of floor-to-ceiling glass on all four sides, which was supported by eight steel piers on a brick platform. Not so much a house as the Platonic ideal of a house, it was also an affront to ordinary notions of domesticity and creaturely comfort, and this at a time when not many office buildings, much less country retreats, had adopted the glass-box look. Johnson's only concession to privacy was a tall brick cylinder set indoors that contained a bathroom. To avoid disturbing the immaculate planes of his design, during the day he didn't even allow a pillow on his bed."

More here--an interesting site about the Glass House, with information about Johnson, 3-d models of the house, and critics' takes on the site. And here, a link to the National Trust site.

Although I would hardly classify myself a fan of the modernist aesthetic Johnson demonstrates in the Glass House, I still find myself captivated by its beauty--the clean lines, the spareness, the pure functionality. To me, the house shows a sort of "practical/functional aesthetic" (I have no idea if that's a real term) that is very attractive. It's not so much that I am drawn to these designs in terms of architecture or decorating. Instead, I am more drawn to the kind of thinking that went into developing them. I am not sure if I am making much sense, so let me try again.

I feel like I try to live my life (and perhaps here I mean mostly my intellectual, professional, and/or academic life) in the spirit this house shows--I like things neat, clean, useful. Now I could never take it to the extreme that Johnson and his contemporaries demonstrated, but their ideas do warrant some reflection. In many ways, perhaps, they aren't all that different from Thoreau and his reminder in Walden: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." When things are simplified and made clear--when the mess and excess is stripped away--well, that can be a liberating feeling, even if you don't like what you see.

This fall, I'll be teaching Modernists and Post-Modernists for the first time in my American Literature Survey courses. I'm both excited and a bit intimidated by the prospect of introducing students to writers like T.S. Eliot, but might use the Glass House as a way of helping to explain Modernism to them. Sometimes visual aids like this do help. Of course, first I'll have to figure out how to explain the connection...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oscar, the death-predictin' feline...

Leave it to the Daily Mail to give us this awesome story--it's interesting, sweet, and just a wee bit creepy. In a nutshell, it's about Oscar, a cat who lives in a nursing home and has successfully "predicted" the deaths of at least twenty-five patients. If this story was written by a cat-hater, like say, my friend Tasha*, that writer might have suggested that Oscar needs to be investigated for his complicity.

Once you get over the creepiness, you might like this story for the same reason I do. It shows how crazy-intuitive animals can be. I've heard about them predicting natural disasters or seizures, and time and time again, I've been amazed at how my own animals seem to know when (based on my mood) I need them to be sweet or playful. (It's not foolproof, though. As I write this, Wesley has just brought me a toy mouse he's soaked in his water bowl--not sure sure what signal I've given off that tells him I need this...)

Of course, you could also take the more cynical approach that one of the experts quoted in the article takes: "It is possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said." Welcome back to slightly-creepy land. (And doesn't that sound like something Bing would totally do?)

*For the record, Tasha was a big fan of Bing, especially when he was a kitten. I'll always remember her holding little baby Bing and exclaiming, "I hate this cat--because I love this cat!"

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dangerous Ideas

Take a look at some of the questions below, all of which come from this article by Steven Pinker, who teaches at Harvard:

"Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?"

"Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?"

"Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?"

"Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?"

"Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?"

"Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?"

"Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?"

"Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?"

"Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?"

"Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?"

When you read all of Pinker's article, you'll see that he's doing more here than just providing interesting questions to discuss on road-trips or at nerdy get-togethers. (Honestly, I can see my friends and I spending lots of time talking about these, but I am not sure how many of us would boldly debate them in a more academic setting). Instead, he wants us to think about why we respond to so-called "dangerous ideas" the way we do, and how we should respond to them.

I was particularly impressed by his comments about academia (towards the end). He points to the Harvard debacle over Larry Summer's simply raising a question about gender differences as a prime example of academics' close-mindedness towards ideas they find threatening or unpleasant.

"Tragically, there are few signs that the debates will happen in the place where we might most expect it: academia. Though academics owe the extraordinary perquisite of tenure to the ideal of encouraging free inquiry and the evaluation of unpopular ideas, all too often academics are the first to try to quash them. The most famous recent example is the outburst of fury and disinformation that resulted when Harvard president Lawrence Summers gave a measured analysis of the multiple causes of women's underrepresentation in science and math departments in elite universities and tentatively broached the possibility that discrimination and hidden barriers were not the only cause."

A really smart article--well worth reading.

Emerson Place

As an English teacher, I find myself wondering every once in a while what difference my work makes in the world. These are only temporary doubts, of course--I am a firm believer in the value of what I do, but it's nice to see results, no matter how unexpected. Today I got an email from one of my former Richmond students. I'll paste most of it below, although I've changed his name and taken out some of the cheesier parts:

"Dr. Hanrahan,

Hello! It's John Smith, one of your students who wishes you were still at Richmond. I just thought you might find it amusing that I'm interning for an advertising and marketing agency in Washington, DC, and we are doing all the brochures and signage for a community in Lebanon, NH called Emerson Place. Inspired, I proposed that the floorplans be named after his contemporaries and those who he influenced, which was approved. So now there are some two-bedroom, one and a half bath apartments in Lebanon called the Alcott, the Poe, the Melville, and the Thoreau.

Also, the art director incorporated a bit of Emerson into the brochures; the quote(s) "Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem to be confidences or sides hidden from all else and unmistakably meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profound thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart" are in an Emerson-looking font around the borders of each page.

I hope everything is going well for you where you have landed. If you have any additional reading recommendations in the vein of anything you had us read in the class (esp. American Gothic like Lippard) please do let me know. Keep up the good work and keep inspiring people!"

Okay, so I left in some of the cheese. Sue me. (This is the spot where my always hilarious mother would jump in and say, "What, did you give him an 'A'?" She says stuff like that any time I tell her anything nice my students say about me. It's so very funny.)

Seriously, though, how strange (and amusing) to think that someday the upwardly-mobile in New Hampshire will be living in rooms named after great nineteenth-century American writers--all because of a class I taught one semester at the University of Richmond. Not exactly my ideal idea of changing the world, but I'll take what I can get. Too bad they didn't take it a step further and name one "The Fanny Fern." I guess that's asking too much. And no, I have no idea what that (wonderful) quotation from Emerson has to do with apartment layouts. I suppose the art director thought it sounded nice and intelligent. Emerson is so very quotable, but lots of times the contexts seem strange.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Unfortunately Placed Ads

These cracked me up. You think someone in charge would have noticed at some point...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Amber Sparkles!

You've got to check out Amber's blog. It's Canadian flavored! Seriously--it's worth checking out. My very good friend and former roommate has started a chronicle of her adventures living in Canada. She's a funny and smart person, so you know her blog will be a good read. Plus, she is just about the only one who comments on this blog and for that, I think she deserves some PR. Of course, she might very well be one of the only people who READS this blog, so this effort might be a bit circular...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Home Sweet Home

The move went well and the boys and I are all settled in Martinsburg, WV. We moved on Friday, using Always Reliable Moving. I highly recommend them--very friendly, fast, and affordable. It took me a bit longer to get unpacked than it has in the past, but things are finally done (for now). I promised some folks I would post pictures of the new place, so here they are. Indulge me as I lead you on a virtual tour! Oh--and to make it even more fun, you can play "Spot Bing and Wesley!" They managed to work their way into several pictures.

Here's the outside view. The apartment is a duplex, with the kitchen, living room, dining area and a half bath downstairs, and two bedrooms and a full bath upstairs.

Here's the view looking in from the front door. To your immediate left is the kitchen. In front of you on the right are the doors that lead to where the washer and dryer are. Ahead on your left is a door to a large storage area under the stairs. Ahead just a bit more on your left is the door to the half bath. Directly in front of you is the dining area and living room.

If you walk in the front door and turn to your right, this the view of the kitchen you would see. The cabinet space is pretty spacious and user friendly.

Another view of the kitchen, this time from the dining area. You can see that the kitchen has a kind of unusual "L" shape, but it works just fine.

A view of the dining room, from the living room looking in. The closet you can see in front of you is a coat closet, where I've also stashed the vacuum.

From the dining room, looking into the living room. You can see the door that open to the back patio. My living room here is a bit smaller than in my two previous apartments. The biggest drawback is that my very comfy chair has to be next to the TV (as you'll see below), which means no TV watching from the big chair.

Turning to your left a bit, another view of the living room. (Notice the comfy chair's position).

A final view of the living room. This is the wall opposite the TV and comfy chair.

This is the back patio. I've still got some things to hang up out here (plant hooks, windchimes), but it's a nice little space.

View from the patio looking out on a pretty tree where I'll hang my bird feeder.

Heading back inside, on our way upstairs. Here's a view from the living room looking towards the hallway. Again, you can see the coat closet right in front of you, the half bath and the storage closet on your right.

Here's a view looking up the stairs. Can I just tell you tell you how much Bing and Wesley and love having stairs? They chase each other up and down them and then do laps around the kitchen.

At the top of the stairs, standing in the office doorway. Ahead is the linen closet. To your right is the bathroom and straight ahead is the bedroom.

The first view of the office (sorry about the lighting). The office is a nice space, with two windows and a spacious closet.

If you are standing in the office against the wall with the windows, this would be the view in front of you. Yes, I still have that old $30 K-mart desk and $5 UNCG surplus chair. Now that I am settled, I will begin to shop in earnest for a real desk!

Another view of the office. My office has become my catch-all room, filled with various knick-knacks and kitschy things. That makes it fun, in my opinion.

A final view of the office. In front of you is the door to the closet.

A shot of the bathroom, which feels just a bit inappropriate to me. Oh well.

The bedroom. This would be looking to your right after you walk in the room. The closet is on your right.

The bedroom, the view opposite the bed.

One last view of the bedroom, standing in the doorway looking straight ahead.

Here endeth our tour. Hope you enjoyed it.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Since I finally got around to returning it to the public library today, I thought I'd post about Gilead, a novel I "read" earlier this summer and enjoyed immensely--possibly more than anything else I've encountered in some time. (I am using quotation marks around "read" because, in fact, I listened to the book on CD, a habit I picked up about eight months ago to get me through several long and solitary car trips.)

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a beautiful book, told from the perspective of Reverend John Ames, who is writing a long letter to his young son. Ames, who became a father very late in life, has learned his heart will soon fail him, and so feels compelled to leave whatever advice and guidance he can for his son. Sounds corny, but it really isn't. It is a book about vocation, religion, life, family--all the important things. It's a book about a man of simple means with a relatively simple life looking back over it and realizing the beauty in it. Of course, I am simplifying it a bit, but I did find myself quite moved by it again and again.

I've copied down some of my favorite passages into my journal and I'll share some of them here, without any specific commentary. I'll let them speak for themselves.*

“I’m thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish that I could have written ‘The sun just shone and the tree just glistened and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed.’ When it’s used that way, it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness. At any rate, something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree, so it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified in that word, ‘just,’ that proper language won’t acknowledge.”

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I am about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. The twinkling of an eye—that is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life—that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them or the humor of it. The light of the eyes rejoices the heart. That’s a fact.”

“…There is nothing more astonishing than a human face…it has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”

“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with any one at all, it is as if a question is being put to you, so you must think, ‘What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?’…If you think, as it were, ‘This is an emissary sent from the Lord and some benefit is intended for me, first of all, the occasion is to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do, in some small way, participate in the grace that saved me’…you are free to act by your own lights. You are freed, at the same time, from the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit and his, but that is the perfection of the disguise—his own ignorance of it.”

“[John] Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me because it makes us artists of our own behavior and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic, rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it?...I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child, even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.”

“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”

“Love is holy because it is like grace; the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”

“There is no justice in love—no proportion in it, and there need not be because in any specific instance, it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal, so how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”

[Okay--I guess I lied about not commenting. These last quotations are even cooler because Ames wants us to see these observations about love in a good way--as a positive thing. I just love that idea.]

Robinson is probably best-known for Housekeeping, a novel I read several years ago but don't remember all the well. After reading Gilead, I might want to give Housekeeping another read-through.

*I should also note that my quotations might not match the published text exactly. I was copying them down based on the CDs, so I am sure there are differences in punctuation, etc.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Dangers of Revealing Yourself to be a Blogger

Vogel: “Blogging is Heidi’s new pastime. That and depression.” With friends like this…blah, blah, blah.

Sister Water

About a month ago, I ran across an article on teaching that caught my attention. Called “The Fortune of Cookies,” (found in the November 1998 issue of College English), the author describes a practice she has of gently removing the fortunes from cookies and replacing them with lines from her students' poems. She then hands the cookies out in class. It’s a really cool idea for so many reasons, so I sent it onto my friend Vogel (technically, her name is Liz Vogel, but all I ever call her is “Vogel”).

Before she even read it, Vogel called to tell me, “Just so you know, Nancy Willard is one of my favorite writers.” I had no idea what she was talking about—I didn’t even notice the writer’s name when I sent the article. As we talked more, though, Vogel told me about Sister Water, Willard’s novel. “You’ll love it,” she said. “The characters have red hair [a trait we both share] and it’s full of magical realism and great ideas about stories and families.” She added, “And it’s all about Michigan!” This last bit didn’t impress me as much as it impressed my friend, a proud Michigan alum, but it made me laugh. I trust Vogel’s recommendations, so I tracked down a super-cheap copy online and gave Sister Water a whirl.

It really is an amazing book. Willard is a versatile writer, having published fiction, children’s literature, and poetry. This might be an oversimplification, but I’ve found you can always tell when a writer has done both—a poet’s fiction is just so lyrical, and Willard’s is no exception. Consider just these words from the opening paragraph: “On the twenty-first of June, 1930, in Drowning Bear, Wisconsin, Jessie Nelson saw what she did not wish to meet in this world and did not wish to forget in the next. She was fifteen years old. She wanted her red hair to grow so long she could sit on it, and she wanted to fall in love and travel and have her heart broken…” Tell me that doesn’t draw you in.

Sister Water isn’t a very long book—my edition is less than 250 pages—but it does so much in a small space. I really loved Willard’s characters, especially Jessie, Ellen, and Sam. In fact, my affection for Sam Theopolis, the sort of hippie-Buddhist care-giver for the elderly Jessie, actually surprised me the most. But how can you not love him? Consider what he says about his cat, whom he has hilariously named “The Everpresent Fullness” and language (two of my favorite topics): “‘…keeping a cat clears the brain…Some very important ideas only come to you when you’re speaking to cats in their own language. There are so many things you can’t say in English.’” Sam is also the speaker of the passage I’ve quoted below (the one accompanied by that awesome picture of Bing). He also makes another lovely point in a conversation with Ellen: “‘We aren’t made of atoms, Ellen. We’re made of stories.’” How true!* I mentioned to Vogel that I finished the book and wished there was a sequel because I loved the characters so much.

Finally, I’ll end with this observation from the novel’s closing pages, a sentiment that give me some comfort with all the changes and uncertainties in my life: “Your greatest obstacle is fear of the unknown. Remember that many men, and women too, have faced the unknown and come through. What they did, you too can do.”

*(Yikes, the entry is kind of corny. I must be in a sappy mood).

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Packing is fun! (If you are a cat...)

As much as I hate posting two cat items in a row, I couldn't resist this picture of Wesley which sums up a big part of my life right now. With the move coming up and packing in full swing, I've already come across this sight quite a few times, although sometimes it's Bing in the box--or both.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A bit of (understandable?) heresy...

"Is there such a word as feliogony, the belief that God is a cat?"
-From Nancy Willard's novel, Sister Water, a book my friend Vogel recommended to me.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Most Famous Man in America

I’ve recently finished reading Debby Applegate’s The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. I first heard about the book when it came out and received really excellent reviews. So I picked up a gently used copy online (actually, I don’t think it had even been read!) and it sat on my night stand for about eight months. This summer, though, I’ve started work on an essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s* Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the SAMLA conference in Atlanta in November. There isn’t all that much out there specifically and explicitly connecting Hawthorne and Stowe, so I found myself doing more general reading on both and looking for interesting connections there. This led to me to another excellent biography, Joan D. Hedrick’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. After reading Hedrick’s book and learning just a bit more about the fascinating Beecher clan, I couldn’t resist diving into Applegate’s text.

And I am so glad I did. When this book first came out, I remember people making a lot out of what was probably the most sensational part of Beecher’s life: his very public trial for adultery. (See here and here). It was, to use a cliché, a trial of the century, with all the bells and whistles: sex, religion, secrets, scandals…no murders, so maybe it wouldn’t find its way into a Law and Order: 19th Century America series, but you get my point. The trial business was incredibly interesting, but the book as a whole is quite good. It has a less academic voice than most biographies I read these days, but honestly, I found that just a bit refreshing.

Simply put, Beecher is a fascinating man: smart, compassionate, passionate, deeply flawed, but (and I think I can say I really believe this) a good man who ultimately wanted to do good work in the world. I found myself very interested in Beecher’s own religious struggles. Raised by Lyman Beecher, the last of the great New England Calvinist preachers, he inwardly struggled with and eventually rejected Calvinism, embracing instead an explicitly evangelical religion that stressed Christ’s loving redemption of men—as well as man’s potential to do and be good. The sections in which Applegate addresses Beecher’s agony over perfectionism are especially moving, I think. (Hedrick, incidentally, also discusses Stowe’s battle with perfectionism with equal skill). It makes sense, of course, that great minds of the nineteenth-century—people like Beecher, Stowe, Hawthorne, Emerson—would lose sleep over their spiritual states. Nineteenth-century America was a place of great promise and trouble—a nation growing and changing, but also marked by great national sins (the way I describe it to my students): slavery, unequal rights for women, and the continuing genocide of the Native Americans. Beyond the scope of the nineteenth-century, though, Beecher’s spiritual journey still resonates today for Christians who wonder about the big questions: what is the nature of man? What is my role in this world? How should I live my life as a Christian? What role should evangelism play in my everyday life?

Anyway, Applegate’s book gives great insights on nineteenth-century America and the amazing Beecher clan. It also reinforces a point that continues to impress me the more I learn about this time period—how very connected all the big names were. For instance, Walt Whitman admired Beecher very much, as did Twain*. I am reminded of a moment in researching my dissertation when I discovered that Sarah Winnemucca had possibly met Henry James on one of her trips east. It’s hard to think of two figures in nineteenth-century American less alike than these two (both of whom figure into my dissertation), yet even they seem to have crossed paths.

Next on my list of pseudo-fun reading: Reinventing The Peabody Sisters, a collection of essays on these amazing women. Well, I suppose that’s more “work” reading than fun, but I do need to get to this book, which I’ve had since January. Maybe I ought to pick up this one for fun…

*I've linked to both the Harriet Beecher Stowe House and the Mark Twain House in part because I have very nice memories of visiting both homes during a snowstorm a few years ago while visiting my sister in Hartford, CT. She lived right behind the Twain house, which is right next to the Stowe House. Don't ask her about it though--she'll just talk about how all we did in Stowe's house was visit the gift shop. "Some scholar of women's writing you are," she laughed. In my defense, the snow was really coming down by the time we got there! Plus I didn't even know the Stowe House was there until we saw it, which says a lot about her reputation these days versus Twains'.