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.

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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!

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.

Onward!

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.

writing on the wall

Nursery rhymes and playground songs are full of superstitions and hare-brained predictions. Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back. Monday’s child is fair of face. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy. Who knew that counting magpies could determine so much?

In my training-wheels days, deciphering my fate through the patterns in the larger world made a lot of sense. I had no qualms attributing larger shifts in my universe to worn pavement, the arbitrary logic of the calendar, the arithmetic of flocks of birds. Fed fat with children’s verse and stories rife with clues and omens, wishes-come-true and dire portents, I began to formulate my own system of superstitions. An even number of stairs was auspicious. A note or flower pressed inside a library book obviously translated into good fortune. A phone ringing three times — not two, not four — promised bad news.

I still try to snatch the phone off its cradle before that third ring, and I’ll be sure to sprint to the receiver each time it rings during job market season. I’ll imagine a search committee chair on the other end of the line, counting each ring. It rings once, I have an interview. Twice, perhaps a job. Three times? The chair has obviously changed her mind and is calling to tell me about that typo on the first page of my CV. “Did you really mean to say you were from Horston, Texas? Ridiculous! We’re shredding your application right now. Do you hear the ominous whir of the shredder? Do you hear it!?!

Intellectually, I know these small details have little to do with success or failure. Stumbling on a crack on the sidewalk can’t fracture a spine, and counting magpies won’t bring happiness or heartbreak. But somewhere in my lizard brain I both enjoy and fear the simple equations of superstitions. I appreciate their immediacy: the sense of urgency they lend to trivial situations and their assumption that something as simple as bird-against-sky is legible. Read the world and know what’s next.

And nothing puts me in a superstitious frame of mind quite like a fortune cookie. Sure, I’ve disparaged them in the past, but I do so with a sideways glance at the swirling cosmos and a hidden sense of respect for whatever a small slip of paper may reveal to me. It was with ambivalence, then, that I cracked open two cookies last week. I was alone in my hotel room at an academic conference, a little greasy-fingered with take-out veggie lo mein and a little heavy-hearted with the feelings of inadequacy conferences tend to inspire in an anxious person like myself.

Fortune cookie #1 told me that I should bide my time for success is near. Not bad! Fortune cookie #2 revealed that I should be prepared to accept a wondrous opportunity in the days ahead. That word wondrous rung a little false, perhaps. Wondrous? Really? Should I expect a stray twenty dollar bill on the pavement, or are we talking leprechauns and winged monkeys? And how to I prepare to accept a winged monkey, anyway? A litterbox and a stash of bananas?

Before I tossed the fortunes in the garbage, I turned them over for my mini language lesson. Fortune cookie #1: “Market, shì chang.” Fortune cookie #2: “March, san yuè.”

Propitious, I’d say, for a job market that begins to resolve itself into new hires in the spring months.* I’ll be keeping these two tacked to my bulletin board.

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* I have no idea if the cookie intends March the month or march the verb. I also don’t want to know. I am interpreting my cookie as I see fit.

eight eyes

You would think that a blogger writing under the guise of a running carrot would be both speedy (I’m not) and in possession of keen visual acuity. Carrots, after all, allow their eaters to see in the dark and through walls and such, no? Well, no. It’s all baloney. And this carrot… Well, this carrot needs glasses.

I’ve actually needed glasses since my seedling days. And I did wear them for a while. I particularly remember a pair of bright purple frames that, in my elementary years, were the coolest. But then middle school insecurity kicked in. And in high school, that adolescent sense of invincibility. Who needs glasses? I can see just fine.

But, carrots readers, I am approaching the ripe old age of thirty. Grad school decimated not only my bank account and my sense of the outside world but also my ability  to, you know, see things. Victorian periodicals are printed in very tiny type! And my driver’s license was expiring. I had a sneaking suspicion that the vision test would not be such a breeze as it used to be. I was having nightmares of standing, humiliated, in the DMV, my forehead pressed against the greasy headrest of that enormous viewfinder, squinting at a row of letters that will not come into focus. FAIL! the DMV officer would intone, and I would shuffle out, dejected under the sad fluorescent lighting, mocked by all of those people standing in line who did not come with the proper documentation.

So I made an appointment and trotted off to get my eyes checked. I steeled myself for that annoying little puff of air meant to dilate your eyes. But as soon as I arrived, the receptionist sent me away. It seems my insurance requires that my primary care physician provide a referral. For an annual eye exam. Bah.

My regular physician was unavailable, so I instead booked an appointment with this condescending, happy-Barney-dinosaur of a doctor who withheld my referral for an unreasonable amount of time and made me undergo all sorts of evaluations and acrobatics that have nothing to do with getting an eye exam. Weight, height, blood pressure. A discussion about “how things are at home.” Questions about my exercise regime. A mind-numbing series of anecdotes about Pickles, her geriatric cat. And, finally, a brief eye exam — which is what I wanted all along! just not here! As I covered one eye with that clammy circle of plastic, we had conversation that went something like this. (The optometrist will be played by Richard Simmons. I will play myself.)

Richard “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” Simmons:  Can you read that top letter?
Me:  You mean the enormous E?
RS:  Good job!  That’s fantastic!
Me:  I’m not blind.
RS:  You’re doing such a good job!
Me:  (glower)

I don’t handle the atta-girl attitude well, especially when it’s unmerited. Or when it isn’t followed by a cookie. But I finally made it out of the doctor’s office, referral in hand. And after much hand-wringing and angsty musing and facebook polling over which frames suit my face — a face that, after trying on so many pairs of glasses, felt puffy and funny shaped and weird — I bought glasses.

So now we’re an eight eyes household over here at the Smiths. (Danny has worn glasses since he was eighteen.) It’s nice to focus on that street sign up ahead, but I’m surprised at how challenging my transition from two eyes to four eyes has been. I expected a few headaches and some disorientation, but getting new glasses has made me reevaluate my face. A lot. Lately, as I walk through the grocery store, I’m convinced that passerby are eyeing my glasses, making silent judgments. I’ve caught my reflection in a window and wondered who that strange bespectacled person is. And I’ve caught a few suspicious looks from the cats, who eye me sideways and wonder if the woman in the glasses still hands out the treats.

I consider myself a well-adjusted and reasonably confident adult-type person. I suppose what has surprised me most of all is how something as puny as a pair of glasses can make things go atilt for a moment.

Of course, I have many wonderful friends who have assured me that glasses make me a librarian-chic, academic goddess who can walk through walls and make Arby’s roast beef sammiches appear out of thin air.

Okay, I might have made that last part up. But I’m going with it.

in which carrots buys a roasting pan

When you’re a high schooler, wearing the mandatory khakis and navy polo and enduring an endless calculus class, you think about how glamorous life will be when you are in that magical decade: your twenties.  Your evenings will be full of cocktails with old-fashioned names served in heavy-bottomed glasses.  Your weekends will begin with visits to the farmer’s market for organic asparagus and end with dinner parties attended by sharp-tongued colleagues.  You will be independent and oh so adult.

Like many of my associates, I am at the tail-end of my twenties.  While I enjoy the occasional happy hour at Benjy’s,* and while many of my friends are indeed witty, adult life is not quite the magazine spread I once imagined it would be.  On the rare occasion that I host a dinner party, I certainly don’t float among my guests, aproned and wasp-waisted in designer heels.  I don’t monkey around with a pressed linen tablecloth or coordinated placesettings.  Instead, I order Thai takeout and take a few minutes as my guests arrive to clear from the table the more mundane trappings of adulthood: the power bill, a reminder to renew our lease, and the smoke alarm torn off the wall to stop its ceaseless beeping when I scorched the frozen pizza the previous evening.

In fact, as I discussed with my friend Bee just yesterday, I feel that I am not alone in being somewhat surprised by thirty — baffled by the fact that I just don’t have my shit together, to put it bluntly.  Of course, I’m together in some ways.  I am employed, although not yet in the position I hope for.  I manage to clean the lint trap, negotiate health insurance, and get my car’s oil changed in a timely manner.  But I certainly don’t feel an accomplished almost-thirty.  Perhaps this is a consequence of the extended adolescence that is graduate school.  It’s more likely I was never that magazine spread person.

Of course, this is fine.  I’m not sure anyone is the magazine person.  If she exists, I suspect she’s a snot.  A snot wearing expensive shoes, but still a snot.

I started thinking about that romanticized decade of “your twenties” this Sunday, when Danny and I spent at least half the day thinking about roasting pans.  We’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and were inspired by an episode that guides viewers through what the spindly, cigarette-stained Anthony considers the basic skills every home cook should know: simmering up beef bourguignon, cooking tomato sauce from scratch, salting some homemade french fries, roasting a chicken.

The last seemed the most doable — and delicious.  Hence the search for a roasting pan.

As a former employee of Crate and Barrel, I know the basics of roasting pans.  The Cadillacs of cookware were certainly out of our price range, although the stainless steel AllClad roasting set glinted at me with a polished wink and it’s $200 price tag as we browsed Williams Sonoma and Macy’s.  We needed something serviceable and sturdy that could accommodate future Thanksgiving turkeys while fitting somewhere in our shoebox of an apartment kitchen.  A few hours (yikes!) later, we had purchased a pan and were manhandling the goosepimply chickens at the grocery store, debating the merits of bird-alone and bird-with-veggies.

“We just spent almost an entire day purchasing a roasting pan,” I observed.  “We are uncool.”

But while an afternoon of weighing nonstick against stainless, considering the rust potential of hinged handles or the likelihood that a one-ply pan might warp at 500 degrees, does not  match my romanticized projections of twentysomethingness, it was nice.  And the chicken.  It was delicious.

I trussed it myself!

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* Mmmmmm.  Beef arepas.

the way you make-a me feel

Last week, my college-years partner-in-crime Sandy and her husband Tommy visited the great state of Texas.  Between watching for grackles at Rice and eating warm sopapillas at Chuy’s and browsing alarmist baby books at Half Price, an amazing thing happened.  Sandy and Tommy.  They bought us Michael Jackson: The Experience for the Wii.  And life has never been the same.

For those readers unacquainted with the game:  As a player, your task is to mimic Michael’s moves as he dances to twenty-six of his hits, from the bubble gum “The Way You Make Me Feel” to the weird and angry “Ghosts,” a song I never knew existed until last week. MJ’s costume and coif transform as you travel through his musical career — from bell bottoms to leather leggings, from fro to mullet — and as you follow his sequined glove with your controller, you earn points for accuracy.

This game!  It is such fun!  Sure, my Ikea coffee table interferes with my zombie pop-and-lock when I groove to “Thriller,” and my crotch grabs are  not as committed as Michael’s.  I just can’t bring myself to do it with such conviction.

Yet.

But, as Sandy so aptly noted as we caught our breath between “Smooth Criminal” and “Black and White,” it doesn’t matter what you actually look like while playing Michael Jackson: The Experience.  Because in your head, you are a BAD ASS.  In fact, about thirty minutes in, I am usually not only winded but also baffled.  Why haven’t I been discovered?  Obviously I should have been one of MJ’s backup dancers.

There is, however, one flaw in the Michael Jackson Experience.  As you turn on your Wii and strap the controller to your wrist, you must make a decision.  Will you dance with beautiful, awe-inspiring abandon, or will you instead snap your wrist in the precision that a high score requires?  There is, of course, something satisfying in racking up points while the whirring console tells you, again and again, that you’re “perfect!”  But there is also something satisfying in completely rocking it, hair flying, to “Billie Jean.”

Because she is not my lover!