closing time

As my few loyal carrots readers have probably noticed, I haven’t been updating as of late. While this is due, in part, to the general chaos of my life right now — moving boxes everywhere! — I have, in fact, decided to bring running with carrots to a close.

I’ve been updating this blog (on various sites) for at least eight years now — whoa — through Danny’s deployment in Iraq, six years of graduate school, two years of lecturing, and too many rounds on the job market. But now that I’m heading off, in a few weeks, for a new job in a new state, I think it’s time to bring things here to a close.

Thanks for reading, readers! In the words of Semisonic, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

in which a trip to the apple orchard takes a sinister turn

My current route to campus passes a local elementary school, and last week as I drove by mid-morning I noticed a line of school buses idling on the curb next to a line of third graders idling on the sidewalk. The crumpled brown bag lunches, the parent volunteers herding the rabble, the vibrating energy of the scene: Oh yes, people. It was field trip day.

I love field trip day.

As most do, I suppose. During a recent job interview dinner, the conversation led to a sort of one-upmanship in field tripping stories. Those who had lived in the more exotic corners of the States had, of course, far superior stories. Florida allows a certain degree of contact with gators, apparently. Image

My own stories are of a tamer variety. The wildlife I encountered in my days exploring the suburban landscapes of Cary, Illinois and Franklin, Tennessee offered few opportunities to encounter wildlife outside the common spectrum of squirrels, deer, and roadkill. My most vivid field trip memory, in fact, was a trip to an apple orchard in the early days of elementary school.

After the indignity of being “partnered” with a classmate and forced to hold said classmate’s hand en route to the waiting bus, and after the cruise through the streets of Tennessee — a journey unfailingly punctuated by at least one threat of carsickness — we arrived. We were first ushered into a makeshift movie theater, where we sat on overturned apple crates to watch a film on the varieties of apple featured in the orchard. The film was dated, speckled with lint and scratches and played at a volume that could overpower the clacking of the spinning film reel.

Each apple was given a pair of cartoon eyes and a personality. The red delicious is, apparently, an egoist. He is very proud of his “three bottoms.” A titter drifted across the young audience.

Once we were armed with spare paper grocery bags and released to the trees like the monkeys we were, life was easier and less organized. Weaving between low branches and kicking spotted, brown Macintoshes at one another, we were loose-limbed and increasingly sunburned, stopping every now and then to seize up in that stiff-spined, paralytic posture that overtakes any elementary school student in the presence of a bee.

But while I remember the early moments of the trip — the dark green plastic seats of the bus, the misanthropic basset hound that slept slumped against a storage shed, the difficulty of opening a plastic baggie full of grapes when one’s fingers are sticky — what I remember most is what happened when we returned to the sterile, fluorescent classroom. Sitting at my desk, writing the obligatory “three complete sentences” about my orchard experience — how do you spell “bottoms”? — I watched as a friend got up from her desk, gained permission for a trip to the bathroom, and headed for the door. Which quickly slammed on her fingers.

There was a strange, suspended moment of complete stillness and then: Oh sweet Jesus yes that is one of her fingers on the floor. ON THE FLOOR. Her finger is on the floor.

My teacher, a woman of impressive composure and strong stomach, scooped up the rogue finger, wrapped it in a paper towel, stuck it in a plastic cup full of ice, and handed it to its owner, whom she promptly sent off to the emergency room. I do this all the time, her demeanor suggested. A disembodid finger? Pshaw!

The finger! It was reattached! No lasting harm done.

Except, perhaps, to my delicate psyche. The heavy door, the careless slamming, the total panic: all of these happened post-field trip, at school, but the two events of that day — a trip to the orchard and a lost digit — were indelibly linked and impressed upon my second-grade brain. Now, while I associate field trips with the sweet thrill of leaving behind the routine of spelling lists and math pre-tests, I also know them as the death trap they really are.

Dark things can happen, my friends, when you slough off the warm, protective cocoon of your average school day.

carrots blinds you with SCIENCE!

My current office is a cubicle in the chemistry building.

At least I think it’s the chemistry building. There are many different genres of science at Rice — although I suspect scientists don’t call their respective fields genres? — so I am not certain that chemistry is what happens in my building. It could be bioengineering or nanotubing or whatever field it is that involves the discovery of the buckyball.

Life is baffling as a writing professor in the perhaps-chemistry building. The posters on the doors leading into the building advertise events with names like Beyond Graphemes! (Okay, okay. I added the exclamation point. But don’t you think it needs one?) Often, upon opening said doors, I’ve staggered backward, assaulted by noxious odors that may or may not erode the lining of my lungs. My office shares a hallway with a room where rattling machines swirl test-tubed liquids in soothing, rhythmic movements. Crushed ice fills a nearby cooler. On this cooler is a handwritten sign with the reassuring message: This ice is for HUMAN CONSUMPTION ONLY.

I have consumed this ice many times, and I have not keeled over or found myself growing a third arm. So this sign. It does not lie.

Last semester, the office next to mine was, apparently, the site of a light-sensitive experiment. A sign on the door told me so and warned me not to open the door. (Scientists like their signs!) This, of course, made me really want to open the door. Each time I passed that office, I speculated on what would happen if I recklessly disregarded the sign and turned the knob. A ray of fluorescent hallway lighting would fall across the room, finally settling on an ominous collection of petri dishes. They would start to tremble. Cells would divide riotously. Broken glass! Suckered tentacles! Danger, Will Robinson!

Next to the light-experiment office is a wall-mounted trauma blanket for burns, shock, and other sundry accidents, and across the hall is an emergency shower and eye wash. Sometimes, after a particularly thorny meeting with a student about a rewrite, I have considered using both.

I share my cubicle in the perhaps-chemistry building with the lovely Sarah. I never see Sarah because we teach opposite schedules, but for a time we communicated by posting on our cabinet door jokes related to the epic and not at all ridiculous movie Snakes on a Plane. I left a small movie poster for the low-budget companion film, Snakes on a Train. (It’s real!) She left a pseudo movie poster for Snakes on Every Plane. (“We’re going to need a lot more Samuel L. Jacksons!)

Swapping Samuel L. Jackson notes with Sarah is perhaps the only thing I am going to miss about my cubicle in the perhaps-chemistry building. One of the perks of getting a job, after all, is that I finally get an office. With a DOOR. I am salivating over the prospect of a non-cubicle office in a building that does not always smell like burnt rubber and hand sanitizer.

Next year, my good friend Ryan will also be enjoying his own office with a door (and, in his case, with a fireplace!), so we have been discussing new office decor. I’m mostly excited to have an out-of-my-house place to shelf my research- and teaching-related books, but I’m also considering a minimalist children’s lit poster. The Wizard of Oz one is fantastic but perhaps inappropriate. So I’m thinking Little Red Riding Hood, a narrative I teach often.
So, carrots readers, what would you suggest as appropriate decor for my new office? My new office with a door! Hooray!

to new england… and beyoooooooond!

If a gang of menacing public radio producers held me hostage, threatening me with novelty tote bags and an endless fundraising drive unless I write a This I Believe essay — because let me tell you, I would be resistant to putting pen to paper for a This I Believe essay — I would write about lists. I believe in lists. I believe in their promise of small victories. I believe that many of the most pressing organizational problems of the twenty-first century could be solved with strategic stickie notes and stylized bullet points.

(Of course, in order to meet the demands of a This I Believe essay, I would probably have to come at my love of lists sideways, through a story about the death of my childhood pet — a bullfrog named Tony — or through a meandering love story in which I was reunited with my sixth-grade sweetheart through the unlikely misplacement of a to-do list. I love public radio. But the genre of the This I Believe essay is a strange and sometimes unsettling form.)

But lists are failing me now, because itemizing the next few months task-by-task feels a little unmanageable. Our “Let’s Move to New England!” list includes big-ticket items like “find a place to live” and “pack entire apartment” and “drive across the country with two cats.” I’m really dreading that last one. Toby is a yowler in the car, and Echo is afraid of light rain, plastic bags, and some varieties of lint. It will be an interesting caravan, to say the least.

Troubled by the enormity of the task, Danny and I decided to subdivide the list into a few sublists. A list of things to buy before we leave Texas: a large crate for said cats with disposable litterboxes and perhaps soothing tuna aromatherapy oils, new tires, a winter coat for Danny. A list of things to donate, recycle, or trash: the stereo I’ve had since sixth grade, the hopper full of flat tennis balls stuck in the corner of our hall closet, and c’mon please at least one set of golf clubs because lordy there are so many. A list of towns we might want to live in, sorted by cost of living and proximity to campus. A list of rental properties in those towns to check out when we travel northeast in May. A list of our lists.

Today we began chipping away at our to-dos by going through all of the books in our apartment, determined to sell duplicates or titles that no longer held our interest to Half Price Books. We managed to cull about two-and-a-half boxes worth of books from our library, which is pretty good. The bookcases are still packed, but the spindly one that was leaning precariously is, once again, upright.

Among the books that made the cut: my collection of vintage Ray Bradbury paperbacks. I love Ray. Let me list the ways. I love that he wrote The Martian Chronicles, a book that I find breathtaking every time I read it. (Read it. You don’t like science fiction? I don’t care. Read it anyway.) I love his not-often-read collection of verse, I Live by the Invisible, which includes a poem entitled “When God in Loins a Beehive Puts.” I love that he apparently refuses to change his author portrait, in which he sports a very eighties calculator watch.

We have newer editions of many of Bradbury’s books. William Morrow published well designed hardcovers of many of the more prominent titles beginning in the 1990s. These newer editions look sophisticated and quiet. They are understated.

But it is because those supposedly classier editions are so demure that I’m compelled to keep my older copies of Bradbury’s stories and novels — Bantam paperbacks that were once, many years ago, displayed on revolving wire racks and sold, at full price, for 75 cents. My dog-eared copies of Ray sport covers that thrum with the raucous energy of 1960s and 1970s science fiction. Hitching onto the momentum of the space race, the publishing industry churned out cheap editions covered in acid oranges and nuclear reds.

And there on the cover, amid his bubble-helmeted spacemen and cratered moonscapes, is Ray, his hair swept off his forehead, staring into deep space through horn-rimmed glasses.

partings welded together

I’ve been gone for two months, an unprecedented blogging hiatus. Things are changing here at carrots headquarters. That means that we’ve been running by the seats of our pants. The cats are restless. The carpet needs vacuuming. And I’ve been staring into the pantry, unwilling to brave the grocery store, trying to devise dinners out of instant rice, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn.

In the words of Bill (or Ted?), strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

First, I got a job. That deserves an exclamation point, and perhaps italics. I got a job! After four years of sending out dozens of hopeful application letters, producing what my advisor claimed was a hysterical number of sample syllabi, composing pages-long lists of small talk topics for campus visits — “So, I hear that cicadas migrate through this part of the country each spring! How do you deal with stray exoskeletons?” — and coming in second place more times than is healthy for a vulnerable, freshly-minted PhD, I suddenly found myself deciding between two wonderful offers from two wonderful schools. I felt so very lucky and so very overwhelmed. I know that uttering even a syllable of discontent about that situation in this market merits excommunication from academia, but I was baffled to find myself facing a  choice. I don’t think I’ve ever logged so many hours on the phone with family and advisors, or burned through so many pencils scrawling pros and cons lists, or asked the same questions of myself and Danny so many times.

I talked and reflected until words started becoming nonsensical — Seussian or Learian or Carollian — and then I made two terrifying phone calls. And so. In the fall, I’ll begin a position as Assistant Professor of English in New England — a huge change, but a choice I feel great about.

Phew. I am leaving Houston, people. LEAVING HOUSTON. For a JOB. Whoa. I better start eating some serious Tex-Mex, and fast.

After my two offers but before my two phone calls, however, Danny’s dad, Bert, died very suddenly. Anyone who has met Bert knows what a huge life force he was, and it is still impossible to imagine him gone. I drove Danny to the airport, our conversation wavering a little drunkenly between job one and his family, job two and his last visit with his dad, job one again but maybe job two and how is his brother dealing with this? Total excitement and total confusion and total grief.

Things are finally starting to settle down, though there is still this strange vibration throughout the apartment. Sometimes it’s difficult to disarticulate the joy and excitement from the vestiges of confusion and the sadness that will certainly be sticking around for awhile. And they weave together, the warp and woof of this what’s happening next for us.

Bob emailed me an appropriate Dickensian quote: Joe Gargery in Great Expectations recognizing that “life is ever so many partings welded together.”

And then there’s Paulo Coelho: “Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen at once.”

Preach, Paulo.

my house was made of straw

Hello again, dear carrots readers! I apologize for my absence. I blame the perils of academia. It’s been a stressful month, but now I’m back and ready to pro-blog-stinate. Or procrasti-blog? I’ll have to consult my Lewis Carroll portmanteau dictionary.


At six or seven, I tapped to a stirring rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” See exhibit A: an early dance portrait. It was a bittersweet experience. The satin bows on my patent leather tap shoes were glorious. The costume involved gratuitous sequins. But I had not scored the solo at the end of the number: a brief moment in which a carefully selected young girl pig screeched in terror as a wolf hefted her onto his shoulder and ran off-stage. The wolf in question was an employee of the dance studio in a musty suit that read more dog than wolf, and the whole scenario was a little too redolent of abduction. But I was still crestfallen when my dance teacher chose Julia instead of me. My squeal, apparently, was not convincingly porcine. I should have tried method acting.

Despite such setbacks, I continued dancing.I spent a few summers with my high school dance team at a Universal Dance Association summer camp, where I learned pom routines in fast succession, vied for the illusive Spirit Stick, and performed a series of pseudo-military commands (parade rest!) with such precision that I won the coveted title of Drill Downs Champion. I’m serious, people. I HAVE A TROPHY.

[Side note: One year’s camp was hosted by UNC-Greensboro. The cafeteria served breaded fish fingers called “C Nuggets.” That’s right. Not “sea nuggets” — which would also be questionable — but “C Nuggets.”]

My high school team performed at football and basketball games. We also competed and failed miserably at a competition in Florida. It seemed terrible at the time — it’s the little pigs all over again! — but losing at Nationals in Florida really means you have more time to enjoy Universal Studios while the winning teams nurse blisters and wait for their turn on a blistering-hot stage. We tried again and fared much better in Myrtle Beach. Somewhere in my collection of embarrassing high school snapshots is a photo of my team on the garishly carpeted steps of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. We’re all dressed in Carolina blue tank tops and sport curled high ponies.

We were called the Showcats.

(Shut up, Brian Soja. We were awesome.)

I danced for a few years in college, as well, mostly at scantily attended basketball games. The team’s coach my freshman year was a muscled guy named Ray Monte — although I cannot vouch for that spelling. He drove a car with vanity plates that spelled his name and running lights that reflected blue on the pavement.

[Another side note: I just asked Danny what such lights were called. “Running lights.” “Really? That’s it?” “Well, they probably have some street name I don’t know. Like pimpin lights.”]

Both dance team experiences were, for the most part, fantastic. I enjoyed them much more for the companionship than the showmanship, as I knew I wasn’t going to pursue dance post-college. Other girls on the team were far more talented than I was. I always felt a little juvenile and ridiculous around those skilled dancers — felt like I wore ghostly red satin bows above my dance shoes like phantoms of my early ineptitude.

But now, sometimes, I miss dancing. There is certainly satisfaction in mastering that series of small, swift movements that, together, make sense. I miss finding my pocket of space in a piece of choreography — feeling that bounded, predictable orbit where I move, next to another dancer in her own hemisphere. And I miss understanding that the great, polished swath of a dance floor was open for me to fill.

I’m a little too strapped for time — and a little too shy — to try out dance classes again, at least for now. In the meantime I’m working out my anxious energy through some exercise. Danny and I just started P90X, a home fitness program designed by Tony Horton. His enthusiasm isn’t as irritating as Billy Blanks of Tae Bo fame, and I do appreciate the slight bulge to his eyes whenever he gets into the zone. Look at that form! It’s GOOOOOORGEOUSSSS!

I think I’ll stick with it as long as possible. Academia, after all, is largely a sedentary affair. I might be able to pace the front of a classroom a few times a week, but that doesn’t compensate for the hours parked in front of a laptop.

Although I’m considering breaking out the tap shoes this semester. Comp classes can get dull, and nothing livens up a room like a kick-ball-change.

kiddie pools

Like any child of the 80s, I spent some time with Lamar on Reading Rainbow. (Butterfly in the skyyyyyyy! I can fly twice as hiiiiiiiigh!). I got down in Fraggle Rock — a show that, through the misadventures of Red, soothed my angst about being a carrot-top. And I appreciated the subtle comedy of Bill Cosby’s Picture Pages. (Seriously… have you revisited Picture Pages? Because it’s a lot more complex than I remember.)

Wow. That was quite a collection of 80s YouTube links.

Not infrequently, I recall the Yip-Yip aliens from Sesame Street, creatures whose droning calls adhere to my subconscious like some sort of nightmarish picture show, never to fade. :: shudder :: And a snatch of melody from a passing car will re-animate in my memory the Teeny Little Super Guy, from the same program, who tap-dances his way into my heart afresh every time I recall him.

You can’t judge a hero by his size, people.

But lately a lost snippet of childhood television has been clinging to the edge of my brain, persistent but indiscernible. A child stoops on a cratered seashore, a bucket near his bare feet. He peers into a tidal pool, and as he recognizes each creature — a sea anemone, a starfish, a hermit crab — it happily exits the lukewarm comfort of its home and jumps into the bucket. (Oh, unhappy creatures. Don’t you know that tidal pool trumps plastic Walmart bucket?) I don’t remember if the clip was live action or animated, because really? It doesn’t matter when you’re still wearing Jellie Shoes.

I blame this seashore children’s television clip for ruining the beach for me. Well, not ruining it, perhaps. But after watching this boy effortlessly collect a zoo of sea life within a matter of minutes, I fully expected all visits to the ocean to include an almost alien landscape of craters, each offering up a mirror-surfaced pool filled with its own miniature, Crayola-colored landscape. If this boy — who, if I recall, was not the sharpest pencil — could corral a seahorse just by smiling invitingly into the water, imagine the safari I could collect with my feminine wiles, my palpable enthusiasm, and my stylish Jellie Shoes.

I don’t have many early memories of the beach. I spent many of my elementary years landlocked in Tennessee or in the Midwest, where the shores of Lake Michigan offered no promises of tidal pools. When we lived in the Carolinas and ventured to the beach, I found the sprawling, flat sands of the Atlantic. No starfish happily waved their suckered arms at me. Digging in the sand usually unearthed the discarded spoon from a frozen lemonade.

Not that there is anything wrong with east coast beaches. I enjoy them very much, in fact. But the disconnect between my Sesame Street expectations and the quite different beauty of a place like Hilton Head or the Outer Banks or Surfside was a shock to the system.

And really, it’s a lesson in both managing expectations and paying attention. As much I would love to live in a Fraggle Rock world of talking trash heaps — or in a Sesame Street world of endearingly antisocial trash monsters — it is probably irresponsible to take life cues from daytime television. And trash cans without monsters are, after all, useful — just like beaches featuring smooth sand instead of rocky pools inhabited by hermit crabs on a suicide mission are enjoyable in their own way. You just have to know how to look at this very different beach. For example: with a margarita in your hand.

Like Robert Fulghum, I’m trying to learn such lessons from my kindergarten years. Things are taut and stressful and not enough right now. (COME ON job search committees. We’re dying here.) But things are fine. Great, even. I still suspect that these tidal pools exist, somewhere. Edmund Gosse tells me so in Father and Son. And I may not be in these tidal pools (yet).

But the water here is fine.

in which sheep are encased in rogue glaciers

Wandering through your local big-box bookstore, there is much to find mildly repulsive. The inconsiderate jerkface who leaves his half-empty frappe mocha venti concoction on top of a stack of hardcovers. The gaggle of teenage girls wearing neon thongs and low-rise jeans. Tuesdays with Morrie. When you walk into a Barnes and Noble, you steel yourself against these things. But last night I was not expecting to happen upon this:

Crafting with Cat Hair: Cute Handicrafts to Make with Your Cat

No, not really with your cat. Out of your cat. Author Kaori Tsutaya and translator Amy Hirschman recommend brushing out all of that excess fur in order to create small, felted cat figures to use as finger puppets or decorations for book covers and coin purses. One project: a jaunty brooch fashioned out of Trixie’s shed pelt. And all that fur your good cat Socks is leaving around can, apparently, be transformed into a portrait of Socks. Very meta.

I snatched the book off the shelf and ran to find Danny, who was thumbing through some art books on the other side of the store. Without a word — but with my best WTF? face — I showed him the cover.

“No,” he said.

What I didn’t know at the time was that crafting from pet hair is a thing — an art much defended by its practitioners. Crafting with Cat Hair has garnered seven positive reviews on Amazon, a fair showing. But apparently cat owners are indifferent to the opinions of others — typical — while dog-hair knitters are quite vocal about their craft. See: Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater from a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You’ll Never Meet, by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery, an instruction manual that includes 25 reviews, 23 of them positive (or mock-positive). Some highlights:

“Be very careful with this book. Thinking myself clever, I shaved my dog, then knitted him a sweater using his own fur. I believe this paradox may have ripped a small hole in the space-time continuim. My son seems to be now aging in reverse, causing me to deduct one star from this review. Otherwise a very informative book.”

“When all the sheep have been swept away or encased in rogue glaciers, what will be left to make our clothes from? Dogs, that’s what. Man’s best friend will stick close by our side through the emergency — begging for Snausages, most likely — and will happily provide raw material for our shirts, hats and scarves in the aftermath. Because they won’t know any better.”

And, perhaps my favorite: the disgruntled Knitting with Dog Hair customer: “My only complaint is the cover is misleading, there is a picture of a basset hound on the cover but you can’t spin basset fur. I own a basset and bought the book because of the cover.”

But I wanted a basset sweater, dammit!

All joking aside — if that’s possible — many customers seem to genuinely appreciate the book, and as I read through their reviews they did begin to answer some of my concerns about crafting with the hair of an animal that licks its own butt. The smell, apparently, is not an issue, after a thorough washing. And, as one reviewer reasoned: “Have you ever smelled a wet SHEEP? A dog smells like daisies by comparison.”

Overall, defenders of the art of dog-hair knitting make some valid (if odd) arguments in favor of their craft. There’s something kind of ecologically responsible about the entire endeavor, they argue. Why let all of that good hair go to waste? And some fierce dog lovers suggest that crafts made from a beloved pet’s hair can be a sweet reminder of days of fetch once your four-legged friend has left you. That feels a little icky. And a little nineteenth-century! It reminds me of mourning jewelry made out of hair–the locks of a loved one woven or shaped into an image or transformed into ink.

So, dear carrots readers, next time you’re lint-rolling Fifi’s hair off your favorite sweater, consider the relative ease of dog-hair apparel. You never have to lint roll dog hair off a sweater made of dog hair.