Feta

Feta, the Scandinavian Elkhound.

We’d been watching the Montgomery County Animal Control website for a few days, figuring right now to be as good as any time could be for taking the leash on a new pet, a guardian of the chickens who would not succumb to predator instinct nor terrorize the cat, Z. I dragged my feet on an impulse-trip to the shelter on Friday, but on Saturday, sure, why not?, and so we drove across town. We’d seen the profile of a Great Pyrenees who was by breed and age and temperament a promising prospect. The shelter also happened to be hosting an event called Purricane, what I understand to be a kitten season adoption and fundraising extravaganza made even funner-sounding by blending ‘purr’ and ‘hurricane.’ We witnessed it not as so much storm-like but as heavily trafficked with kitty oglers such that were it up to me, I might have gone with Catectacle. Catectacle drew a magnificent crowd.

The foot traffic boded poorly for really meeting a prospective foster dog. The shelter hallways were golldamn, devil, bustling, and most of the dogs mirrored the energy, which was filled with possibility, nerves, anxiety, and barks of all sorts. We met the Great Pyrenees, and then as A. was lingering with her, I walked a round to have a look adjacent, like we did back in the olden days when libraries had books on shelves and we browsed by looking not only for the focal book but also looking around at its near neighbors. As I did, I spotted a dog who quietly and smartly seemed to be telepathizing something like ‘I’m the one.’ A Norwegian Elkhound, she presented as sagely and warm and hearty, like she remembered her great-grandmothers were Scandinavian wolves and that this shelter scene was only temporary. Her self-control under the duress of the raucous shelter ambience suggested a different kind of interiority; I want to be careful here because it’s not as if I am some kind of dog whisperer, but I had a feeling just by pausing with her, looking at each other, that there was more to her than was common. A good feeling, an I-could-get-along-with-this-dog feeling. I was surprised when I went back to A. and said there was another dog here worth of a look that she said she’d already sent a photo of this Elkhound to her mom because it reminded her of her childhood dog, Pepper, who also happened to be a Norwegian Elkhound. A. was thinking that I was hard-set on a Great Pyrenees, but since I wasn’t, the Pyrenees-adjacent, serendipitously glimpsed dog elicited even more interest from us.

Saturday’s click meant Sunday included housewarming and yardwarming efforts: complete the foster-to-adopt form on their website, order and assemble an outdoor pen, and revisit the process that would allow us to have a trial period before committing, as aggression toward Z. or the chickens would be a deal-breaker. The form asked for a list of childhood pets: Cookie, Brandy, Peppy, Sheba, Jake, Kelly, Mushroom, Fang, Pigeon, Max, Tony, Cujo. Not all of these were dogs; Kelly and Mushroom were cats, and Cujo was a guinea pig. But mostly, in those years, dogs were the pet of choice.

We’d been lightly considering for several months a tandem, two dogs, one named Salty and the other Cousin, but fostering two dogs at once was, as the real and pragmatic conditions came into view, just too complicated. With everything else lining up as it did, we were green lighted to pick up the Norwegian Elkhound and bring her home on Monday afternoon. The folks at the shelter had given her the temporary name, Snigglefritz. And we talked some about the decision either to go ahead with calling her Cousin, or, instead, to spend some time with her and for us to come up with other possibilities later. By Monday night, we were thinking either Saga or Feta, both being two syllables with a hard second consonant that would not sound too much with the names of Z. or the chickens. Is. confirmed by text that Feta was a good choice, and so that’s it.

Feta commonly refers to a simple, crumbled, brine-based cheese. Languages being many, in Norwegian, which I don’t know about you but I can plausibly suppose a Norwegian Elkhound more or less comprehends, the word ‘feta’ translates to ‘fat’ in English. Given the troubling ways this pejorative association tracks, we can instead say she is a Scandinavian Elkhound, generally Nordic, possibly Icelandic. But then there is the similar phrase, “fytti faen,” which a lookup tells me is Norwegian for a milder version of “fucking hell,” translated roughly as “golldamn, devil.” Should I be worried about this secondary connotation? No. It’s just enough to not want to shed the Norwegian valences altogether.

We’ll continue for another week in the maybe phase, but after a day it has already become a maybeprobably phase and by tomorrow could be a Feta is where she belongs stage. She’s an astonishingly kind, patient, subdued canine, a creek wolf with Diogenesian quirks who wades in until the water is almost touching her belly, then sits, solving for just-right depth. And golldamn, devil, does she shed. A lot. Guess it’s a seasonal thing, winter coat loosing its blankethold. Creek currents willing, I’ll introduce Feta as friend and flock protector, and, in time, I suspect, as much more.

A Norwegian Elkhound (named Feta) wades in a small creek.
Feta wading in the creek.

Both Are Main

I finished reading Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020) a couple of weeks ago, just as we in SW Virginia were crossing over into regreening season. The book was a rewarding digression at the end of an otherwise steeply-stepped semester, steep due in part to a heavy reading load for an awards committee I agreed to serve on, and due in part to the added-on role of interim PhD program director, a ‘yes’ whose reassigned time pays forward in Fall 2024. Structurally, What You Are…Library is a lightly interstitched episodic, with each of the chapters following a character from their life’s path maze to a local library where an aloof but intuitive librarian abides serendipity as a finding aid for recommending books. The recommendations are usually a combination of the patron’s at-directed line of inquiry and the around-explored one-off, which, in each case, turns out to deliver greater meaning than expected. WYALFIITL was an enjoyable read, and I appreciated especially the hodology of it, in that it is a pathfinding book whose characters are on mundane journey’s, negotiating the small uncertainties that come with career paths and life’s choices. She also felts small gifts, handing them off as pin-crafted tokens; each of these elicits added meaning, as the wayfinding plays out.


I don’t have an immediate, obvious connection in mind bridging this passage to anything I am working on, but in this excerpt, Aoyama captures the interwined character—for plants—of the aboveground and belowground. I was reminded of it while at Compost Fest a couple of weeks ago. While on the native plants tour, the guide said something like, “Trees are people, too.” It wasn’t such an outlandish or unexpected humanistic refrain, and yet with this passage from Aoyama in mind, we have what we need to fathom trees as more-than-human:

The third chapter is entitled “Below the Ground,” with subsections such as How do worms work? Where do roots grow? How much of a plant is in its roots? I find this chapter deeply fascinating. As I gaze at an illustration of a tree and its root system, with the earth the dividing line between what is above and what lies below, I am struck by a thought: most of the time we humans only look at the flowers or fruit of a plant, because we live aboveground. We switch our attention to belowground only when the roots have a particular interest for us, as in the case of sweet potatoes or carrots. Yet from a plant’s perspective, aboveground and belowground are equally important and in perfect balance.

Humans only see what suits them most, and make that their main focus, but for plants…

Both are main.

Michiko Aoyama, What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020), p. 95-96

Bill, Another Time

“It is as if life were just a dream placed in the window to cool, like a pie, then stolen” (13).

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore

Although I can’t believe it and the words don’t come readily, I thought I should try to peck a few lines on the sudden, tragic loss this week of Bill Hart-Davidson, a great and giving friend and colleague and mentor to countless people, and to me. He died on Monday, unexpectedly, due to a cardiac event while out for a springtime run.

Throughout the week I’ve read and deeply appreciated the memories others have recounted on social media (mostly FB), accounts repeating in the sense that nearly every one of them underscores Bill’s kindness and generosity. These qualities with Bill seemed predispositional, baked in, more settled than even a first principle, call it an ur principle, or a fiber of being. He was kind, generous. To me this meant that he always treated me better than I expected, or deserved, to be treated; he listened for and understood better than I could, the filaments of my ideas. This in turn sourced his encouragement; it felt almost like he could, by listening as he did, describe your meandering, nascent ideas back to you more lucidly than they had existed before. Almost a superpower in academia, we could call this regenerative listening, to take another’s criss-crossed wayfinding and to plant a few low-key pathway lights.

After I learned on Tuesday about the unfathomable lightning strike of Bill’s untimely death, I heard myself describing him to a few people who I see most days and who could tell I was carrying on, academia-in-April-style, with a sharp and heavy pain: he lifted others by the hundreds, juggled fire and more, threw disc golf with the love of his life in their magical backyard, ran and biked and yet never appeared tired, played bass, never missed an EWM tournament pick ’em, and associate-deaned so wholeheartedly and with rare optimism that we were all better for it.

I don’t remember meeting Bill before 2009, but he was then and there in that moment, my first semester at EMU, what was a short drive down I-96 from MSU, a fast friend, thoughtful and engaging and abundantly convivial. In truth, he was more the longtime friend of Steve K. and Steve B., two of my new-at-the-time EMU colleagues. They would golf, for example, and oftentimes invite me, but I wouldn’t go, golf not really appealing to me. But this hospitality extended to so many other occasions: a lunch meeting at MSU that spring (of 2010) to talk with Malea Powell about whether NCTE could be persuaded to preserve the infrastructure (or at least the data) from CCC Online Archive, or New Year’s Eves at The Compound throughout the 2010s when I could tag along and enjoy seeing again so many of the MSU WRAC crew. There was a time when, at EMU, I was hailed from across the parking lot as Steve (which Steve, nobody could say), and this was a low key running joke Bill and I shared, how to be friends with the Steves while not surrendering overmuch to Stevenesses.

In April 2011, I flew on Spirit Airlines to the Atlanta CCCC. I stayed only a couple of nights, crowding into a roomshare with Bill and Steve K., claiming the rollout couch, and making the most of the conference on a spare budget. The trip back to Michigan was by car, twelve hours along I-75, with a stop-off in Lexington, Ky., to visit with Jim. On that drive, we came up with plans for what would be the first of several WIDE-EMU conferences, a local, free, one-day conference on a football-free Saturday in late September or early October, hosting first at EMU, then alternating, MSU, EMU, MSU, EMU. Bill taught me the value of these affordable, accessible structures of participation, about how articulating them made them so, about how they sewed connections, rapport, goodwill, and senses of belonging to something bigger than only local programs and institutions in isolation could offer. Proof of concept was among Bill’s maxims, and WIDE-EMU proved again and again the richness of low cost sociality for the field.

When I took to the mid-career job market in 2017-2018, Bill had just blurbed Network Sense, a continuation of the ways he’d steadfastly encouraged that work over the years, and I asked if he would be willing to write a letter on my behalf, which he did. Later, when I was sitting with a difficult decision–one of the most difficult decisions of my life in that it would require me to move 500 miles away from Is., who was then in middle school, he was there, available to talk on the phone, to weigh pros and cons, and to think across those sometimes hard to follow dotted lines from minutiae to the biggest of big pictures and back again. He was more generous with me than I deserved or could ever repay. And I always felt like had I asked for more–of his time, of his perspective, of his guidance–he’d have given it. Is there any purer form of friendly mentorship, or uplift than this?

Recently Is., who is now a high school senior, committed to MSU and so will be in East Lansing this fall, dormitory living, a first-year student, middle of the mitten verdant as only a new Spartan can be. All those years ago, I grew up an hour north of Lansing, and with a wish for return, also because I don’t mind at all the long cold gray winters, I’d given my best attempts over the years to find and follow a path along the Red Cedar River, first as a PhD applicant, then as a professorial one, kindly and gently declined in each case. In addition to witnessing Is.’s beaming green about the years ahead, among the things I most looked forward to about her being at MSU was reconnecting with Bill, catching up with him for a beer or over lunch, talking, listening, being excited about ideas, feeling smarter than before; I’d been so looking forward to this as the best-of East Lansing, taking some reassurance in knowing that Bill’s friendly, timeless wisdom was nearby.

I know I am not alone with the magnitudes of upheaval felt across the past several days. And through that jarring sadness, especially for those who loved him most, for his closest colleagues, friends, and former students, especially for the Steves, especially for L. and L., all of whom deserved more time1I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’, in Bill’s memory and honor, I wish for clearings mapped in soft hewn outlines to allow for the fitfulness of grief, and for remembering well and again every, every of the best parts.

Notes

  • 1
    I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’

AIlingualism

By omitting a space and setting it in a san serif font, AIlingualism piles on ambiguities. On page or screen, it might tempt you to see all lingualism, the heteroglossiac babelsong, much like Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol might tempt you to hear Anglophone snippets in what is stylized nonsense. “AIlingualism” sounds like eye-lingualism, I suppose, or the act of entongued seeing, which without going into the subtleties of synesthesia might be as simple as tracing tooth-shape, fishing for an offshed hair from a bite of egg salad, or checking the odontal in-betweens for temporarily trapped foodstuff. Hull from a popcorn kernel? When did I have popcorn? A similar phenomenon would be something like “retronasal olfaction,” which Michael Pollan describes in Cooked, as the crossover between senses, the role of olfactory processing within experiences of taste, or where smell and taste commingle and coinform.

Yet I mean something altogether different with AIlingualism. Used to be the over-assisted writing revealed itself owing to too many thesaurus look-ups. You’ve betrayed a faithful expressive act because we could almost hear Peter Roget himself whispering through your words. But thesaurus overuse is a lesser crime than the wholesale substitutive “assists” that walk us nearer and nearer to overt plagiarism: patchwriting, ghost writing, essay milling, unattributed quotation, and so on. An assist from a thesaurus was usually keyed to a smaller unit of discourse, which in turn amounted to petty ventriloquism. But as the discursive magnitude increases, so too does the feeling that the utterance betrays the spirit of humanistic communication, that fleshly-terrestrial milieu where language seats, swirls, and percolates, elemental and embodied. I think this is close to what Roland Barthes characterizes as the “pact of speech” (20) in “To Write: An Intransitive Verb” (1970) from The Rustle of Language (1989).

AIlingualism creates phrasal strings from a vast reservoir of language, not the ‘Grand Vat’ but in the vaguest of terms, a large language model, or LLM, whose largesse blooms on the shoulders of other people’s language–papers, books, discussion boards, social media chatter, and utterances in whatever additional ways collected and compiled. Not that utterances have shoulders. But they do, at their genesis, stem from beings in contexts, and although the writing itself is a technology that rebodies utterances, LLMs as an extractable reserve and pseudo-sense-making melange yet further extend that rebodiment. To invent with the assistance of artificial intelligence is to compose in a way uniquely hybridized and synthetic. Language games, in this case, work by different but non-obvious rules. AIlinguals, or users of LLMs to write, suspend the pact and engage in pactless speech.

It isn’t so much the case that pactless speech of this machine-assisted sort is destined to be disappointing, underwhelming, detached from terrestrial contexts, or otherwise experientially vapid. I can’t say I am in a hurry to devote any time to reading AI writing, other than comes with the shallowest of headlines glancing. And now that we’re solidly a year and a half into this “summer” (or buzzy hot streak) of AI, it continues to hold true that most everyday people are still puzzling over what, exactly, is assisting when a writer enlists the assistance of AI. AI is as often as not fumbling along with poor customer service chat help, with returning Amazon orders, and with perfunctory Web MD advice (“Have you tried sipping chamomile tea for your sore throat, Derek?”). It is helping to offer safe-playing might-rain-but-might-not weather forecasts. Looks up; no rain. And in this sense, it still functions, albeit within my admittedly small and mostly rural lifeworld, innocuously.

In a section called “5. Creatures as Machines,” Wendell Berry puzzles out a series of questions that, though they appeared in Life Is A Miracle, which was published in 2000, might just as well have been about ChatGPT:

Is there such a thing as a mind which is merely a brain which is a machine? Would one have a mind if one had no body, or no body except for a brain (whether or not it is a machine)–if one had no sense organs, no hands, no ability to move or speak, no sensory pains or pleasures, no appetites, no bodily needs? If we grant (for the sake of argument) that such may be theoretically possible, we must concede at the same time it is not imaginable, and for the most literal of reasons: Such a mind could contain no image. (47)

Such a mind could contain no image. AIlingualism propagates pactless speech; its intelligence can generate but not contain an image. Its memory is contrived (or dependent upon contrivance), not organic, fleshly, or pulsed neurologically. This is the greatest and gravest indicator of all: still, it better than holds on. AI is ascendant, picking up steam. What can this mirror about the world we’ve built, grinding along with its paradoxically gainful backsliding, AIlingual utterances–today–amounting to no more and no less than the throat clearings, ahem ahem, of commercial science and militarism. Of all the possible energias to put to language, to sacrifice our tongues to, these? Ahem ahem ahem.

May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

Whirligig Oubliette – Tournament Pick’em Invitation ?

It’s March again. For the 20th year in a row, March means it is time to squander 30 minutes daydreaming about NCAA men’s basketball tournament glory by participating in the Earth Wide Moth Tournament Pick’em, Whirligig Oubliette, such a delightful torture as it is. So little has changed: we’re still using Fibonacci scoring with points increasing round by round (2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). You’ll also receive bonus points for upset picks (+1 point for upsets in the first round; +2 for upset picks thereafter). 

Everyone is welcome to join, so pass along the invitation. You still have a few days, but time is running out for getting your pets to eat treats that will alleviate decision fatigue, or finding a friend in western Kansas who can talk you out of rooting for the Big Sky champion. What even are athletic conferences anymore?! 

So, sign up! It’s free to join this year’s group on Yahoo!, Whirligig Oubliette (ID#35970). If you have questions, you can reach me via email at dereknmueller at gmail.com. Invite your friends, deep fakers, frenemies, faux-frenemies, Great Lakes ystäväs, mud daubers, crows and crow feeders, dumptruck drivers, electricians who fix broken switches on short notice, flyers of homemade kites, people who convert VHS videos to digital formats for a living, banjo strummers, night sky oglers, Bluetooth dentists, orderers of fancy cupcakes for classes, youth baseball coaches, corn chip finishers, etc. The group has space for the next 49 who sign up. Egoless, impermanent stakes: reputations are made (and quickly forgotten) right here.

Yahoo! Tournament Pick’em
Group: Whirligig Oubliette (ID# 35970)
“20th annual.”

Firm up your selections any time between the selection show on Sunday evening, March 17, and first tip of the round of 64, sometime around noon EDT on Most People’s Birthday, Thursday, March 21. ”

Updated: Congratulations to Patrick, who won by a suspiciously wide margin. On the bright side, Duke lost somewhere along the way. Be well and suffer not, friends, until next March when we do this again. -Derek

Februaryisms ?

One-Off Non Series #00 “The Disentangler.”

A commitment to attend a youth basketball game, the schedules grandmotherly texted to us, now holds one last opportunity to attend on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m.

A phone call to Virginia Department of Transportation on February 8, and a neighbor’s phone call to VDOT that same week, ‘pot holes multiplying and deeper by the day,’ brought the gravel loader and grater to Rosemary Road for the first time since July 17, 2023.

An impressively steady and unchanging headache all day today confirms that I am afflicted by a cold but have withstood the evidently harsher version of it, which so many around me seem to be hosting, sneezecasting, muling to and fro.

Eighth and ninth class observations within a three week window happened this morning in the two farthest-from-Shanks buildings; I have managed to put together the 600-word write-ups during each class session, then conference with the teachers while walking back to Shanks together. Five more, Friday, Monday, and Wednesday.

A stop-off at Cburg Kroger today had me carrying home sweet potatoes, garlic paste, and Gatorade, with the first two elevating a sriracha peanut butter broth ramen brewed to tame this blerg.

A side-shed hour standing with the chickens as they free-ranged a bit, turning their time in the sunlight to dust bathing, except for Tiny Honey who chose instead to scratch leaves and pull worms.

A book award committee with an intermediate deadline of March 3, so there is time to get to these last two titles (in the first round) but the first ten have me going to the refrigerator for that Gatorade.

A sighting of yellow flowers across the road near the mailboxes tells us the daffodils have bloomed on February 21 for the second year in a row.

And that sighting is through a today-installed picture window, which replaced the one that inexplicably presented us with an expanding diagonal crack in one pane, lower left to upper right, sometime in early December, after which my brother quipped as chemists do “you do realize that glass only appears stable and is actually in a flow state?”.

An air dancer (guardian) is on a timer near the coop and run, set to intervals of fan-fed animation during daylight, unevenly but more or less for 20 minutes each hour, and this afternoon, despite its flailing or perhaps because of it, high above and circling intently were a trio of turkey vultures and a pair of red-tailed hawks (whose earnestness about actually attacking the chickens we have yet to confirm; today they remained distant).

Along with the daffodils, today bloomed 2024’s first invitation to do an external promotion review this summer; rules of the house, strictly enforced, are no more than two because three last year was one too many and four the year before were two too many.

Is Food Studies an Inquiry Paradigm? ?

Mid-February scatters into stolen moments as the semester’s Week Five tides rise. There are classes to prepare and teach and observe, micro-interim administrative hand-offs to receive (push exchange yields soon thereafter to pull exchange), and a pair of stout reading lists for different awards and recognitions. The hours hand waves in its dinky circles, hello-good-bye, hello-good-bye, again, though time’s passing isn’t so much doldrum-thrum as labored, more-so than usual, for three fitfully stacked oncoming weeks.

Duty-whines aside, in and among those stolen moments, I am provisionally sizing up and laying out interlocking puzzle pieces toward a conversation and workshop session I’m due to lead in April with the Food Studies group, framed primarily by the question, “Is Food Studies a Discipline?” Provisional intuition says that it is not, or, rather, that where the Food Studies label circulates and sits, there are semi-baked artisanal cracker crumbs and runaway shreds of cheese that only almost made it into the pimento cheese, but there is not as of right now any large-scale organizing will of the sort that a cohering and widely shared theory would be useful for. I could be wrong! Depending upon how long cast is the shadow of this disciplinarity question, it’s early, and I am an interloper in that my own engagements with Food Studies are recent and probably naive, as such. Nevertheless, this question is intriguing enough to me to follow for a while. To engage it further, I have checked adjacencies (as a bowler needing bumpers might do) with Visual Studies and Writing Studies. I mean that because Visual Studies and Writing Studies have, each in their own time, rallied a not insignificant measure of attention and energy at their own disciplinarity questions, there are cross-checks and angles by which to compare, albeit lightly and with due consideration of all the ways such comparisons become complicated.

Approximately a decade ago, with the publication of Farewell to Visual Studies (Penn State UP, 2015), James Elkins sent into circulation an adapted version of an introductory lecture from 2011. The short piece consists of two elaborated lists, a list of farewells to unfulfilled promises (“Farewells”), and a list of “things [he’d] like[d] to see visual studies become.” Returning to the question I am considering, as a Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies academic transposing the disciplinarity question now onto Food Studies, I’ll post Elkins’ list once as it appears in Farewell to Visual Studies, and again with modifications posed as a rerig for Writing Studies and Food Studies.

List of farewells for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Visual studies should be harder to do.
  • Visual studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Visual studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary visualities.

List of farewells rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing studies should be harder to do.
  • Writing studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Writing studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary composing practices and compositions.

List of farewells rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Food studies should be harder to do.
  • Food studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Food studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary foods.

List of absences for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Images need to start arguing.
  • Visual studies needs to make more adequate use of its images.
  • Visual studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Visual studies shouldn’t bypass non-art images and scientific images.
  • Visual studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making of images: like art history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making of art.
  • Visual studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Visual studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing needs to start arguing.
  • Writing studies needs to make more adequate use of its texts.
  • Writing studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Writing studies shouldn’t bypass non-creative writing and scientific writing.
  • Writing studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the doing of writing: like media history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the doing of writing.
  • Writing studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Writing studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Foodstuffs need to start arguing.
  • Food studies needs to make more adequate use of its dishes.
  • Food studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Food studies shouldn’t bypass non-culinary foods and scientific treatments of food.
  • Food studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making and eating of food: like culinary history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making and eating of food.
  • Food studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Food studies is confused about ideological critique.

In each list for Writing Studies and Food Studies, I have boldfaced the rerigged lines that seem to me to be worthy of entertaining, even momentarily, and I have italicized the lines that suggest instead a hint (or greater) of dissonance, surfacing a quality or condition that just doesn’t quite seem congruous with the network of activities and materials that correspond with the named field of study (albeit from my own small, humble, and unavoidably limited standpoint).

Having stepped through the exercise, it leaves me with doubts about whether it generates much in the way of new insight or possibility. Might not be map to follow if we want to venture farther into the maze. Heck, it does more in service of recalling the questions about what it means for Visual Studies to have given up the ghost, so to speak (coincidentally? not conincidentally? at the same moment when Visual Rhetoric was still gaining curricular and researcherly traction, almost as if Visual Rhetoric, even if it did not get big time sustaining uptake in any of the field’s prominent organizations or journals, was untroubled by the overtures about Visual Studies’ end). And so the light turns green on the EMF meter, but I don’t know if it blinkers toward anything significant for these other two pairings, writing and food.

I don’t know yet whether I will return to Elkins’ lists or make new lists of my own for the April workshop. I am thinking that I might instead switch to an approach influenced by Steven Mailloux’s 2000 RSQ article, “Disciplinary Identities: On the Rhetorical Paths between English and Communication Studies,” where he cited Janet Emig’s 1982 CCC article, “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing.” Here’s that long excerpt from Mailloux, citing Emig:

The changed rhetorical conditions of disciplinary formation become strikingly evident in the 1982 volume of College Composition and Communication. The February issue alone contains Janet Emig’s “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing” and Maxine Hairston’s “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” as well as reviews of rhetoric and composition collections that refer explicitly to disciplinary paradigms.’ Addressing her fellow researchers in composition studies, Emig argues that “our responses concerning the nature, organization, and evaluation of evidence reveal our inquiry paradigms, both those we elect to inhabit, and those we may even help to create” (64). She then goes on to elaborate the most important characteristics of an inquiry paradigm:

1) a governing gaze [a steady way of perceiving actuality]; 2) an acknowledged, or at least a conscious, set of assumptions, preferably connected with 3) a coherent theory or theories; 4) an allegiance to an explicit or at least a tacit intellectual tradition; and 5) an adequate methodology including an indigenous logic consonant with all of the above. (65)

Emig demonstrates how these characteristics inform disciplinary research into writing and how such phenomenological and ethnographic paradigms contrast with traditional positivistic paradigms, which sometimes are “simply, globally, and, of course, mistakenly” identified with “The Scientific Method.” Not only does Emig cite Kuhn in explaining her notion of “paradigm,” but she also clearly distances composition from traditional notions of science out of which came the scientific rhetoric used by teachers of public speaking earlier in the century.

The phrase “inquiry paradigm” rings nimbler than “discipline,” in part because inquiry paradigms haven’t imposed their ordering functions so deeply into the higher ed org charts (i.e., stabilizing, yes, but also overdetermining to the point of entrenchment in many cases the delineations walling off common questions by walling off departments and programs), and so it may turn out to be a better choice for inviting engagement on the question(s) about Food Studies and what, if anything, coheres its domain of activity. The governing gaze can refer, simply, to an in-common-ish attention structure sufficient for cooperative guidance (and corresponding leadership). Each of the other criteria–set of assumptions, coherent theories, an intellectual tradition, and an adequate methodology–steer me more toward uncertainty and less toward crisp, identifiable anchors, whether the ponderables are posed for visuality, food, or writing.

For this preliminary go-round, I’ll let this end with a ‘good enough’ nod; it’s gotten me thinking in ways I wasn’t before. Nothing conclusive, not yet. Senses of new and reshaped possibilities. And there is time, pocketed in dips and dives intermittent throughout the next couple of weeks, yet with sufficient momentum that I can pick these ideas up again with the goal of chilling the aspic for setting it more firmly by mid-late March.

Where Are You?

Big Sweetie.

This morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, upon opening the coop door, the flock descended the ladder and settled in pretty much as they usually do, Bitumen and Lightfoot at the feeder, Tiny Honey who is rebounding from her molt heading straightaway to the water, and the others kicking walnut tree detritus and leaning in for the scratch grains mixed with layer pellets, a half cup of which I scatter every morning to ease traffic at the feeder. Keeps peace. Their eyes have been up and searching, noticeably scanning for signs of return since the Wednesday late afternoon incident. This was apparent late yesterday, when I hurried home after teaching to share a few minutes with them before they tucked in, to play the xylophone cover of Shake It Off so as to warm their crossover into the dreamscape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, A., driving separately because it was undecidable for the first half of her day whether she would go to campus at all, happened not to be long behind me. The hens were almost all inside the coop when we arrived at 5:42 p.m. ET (sunset being 5:45 p.m. ET). Only Fluffy-foot, the head hen, was visible there in the coop doorway, posting up as she does for one last look-around before going in for the night, but when I emceed the Taylor Swift tunes, she doubled-back, down the ladder again, and soon after her followed Bitumen, then Lightfoot, then Cinnabon. Everyone can stay up a few extra minutes at times like these, linger for a few plinks, elongate the softly transitioning dusk. Tiny Honey stayed in; her January molt has accompanied a tendency to rest, to hold spacetime with the eggs, and so this was nothing out of the ordinary, her settled reserve. 

Different this morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, was that after opening the door, setting down food and water, as we walked back toward the house, there came a sharp bird call from the vicinity of the run. Was it from the trees above the run? From one of the hens? Once, twice, again. Three or four seconds between each call. And this was a new sound; a sound I hadn’t heard before: an intense callout expressed so as to travel the holler’s uneven landscape, a sound for finding, for carrying, for bringing back.

Back at the house, I read this, an excerpt of an excerpt from Melissa Caughey’s book:

Still, for days after a hen dies, it is not uncommon for those who were closest to her to mourn the loss of their friend. From the safety of the coop, they call out, using the same sound that means “Where are you?” when they are free-ranging in the yard and can’t find a missing member of the flock. A grieving hen avoids interacting with the flock and sits in a corner with puffed-up feathers like a chicken that feels ill.

And so it happened, on Wednesday afternoon, a Cooper’s Hawk attacked and killed Big Sweetie. The chickens had been out of their run for 90 minutes. Big Sweetie was creekside, curating the muddy banks with Lightfoot and Cinnabon when the raptor made first contact. The offshed feathers tell of an encounter that started on one side of the creek and continued to the other, where A. found Big Sweetie moments later, fatally injured, likely a broken neck or back, as the hawk exited the scene. I wasn’t at home, but A.’s messageless call at 4:50 p.m. ET, near the end of the writing group session I was on (from my campus office), let me know something was not as it should be. There are known risks in free-ranging, especially in mid-late winter, but so too are there deleterious impacts for always and only ever being cooped up. This is not to rationalize away the incident but to take responsibility for caring for vulnerable birds under conditions of a sometimes-predative surrounds. Rather than go long with forensic redescription, though, Big Sweetie deserves a few more eulogistic words.

One of the Wonder Hollow Six, she and her small flock came home from the Radford Rural King in a small cardboard box on April 18, 2023. We’d sought a pair of Cinnamon Queens, a pair of Black Sex-Links, and a pair of Calico Princesses that day. As entropy would have it, with the last pair, we ended up with one Calico Princess, Big Sweetie, and one Buff Brahma, Fluffy-foot: Rural King bin sisters, if sisters from other mothers. Calico Princesses tend to have a shorter lifespan (~3-4 years) than the other breeds, a fact we learned only after bringing them home. Big Sweetie quickly distinguished herself. She was in those especially formative days the biggest and the sweetest, easy to find during that stage when chicks are all down plumage, befuzzed and nonstop peeping. The other chickens grew and eventually caught up with her in size, but never in sweetness. Her sweetness was observable in her seemingly caring deference to the other birds, a conflict-averse friendliness, a palpably joyful regard for human attention, an implicit jolliness. A. identified her quickly as her favorite bird of the six (as Bitumen is special to me, Big Sweetie was and is to A.; what can explain how such a feeling forms?). 

Ten or twelve weeks ago, when Craigs Mountain neighbor H.’s on-the-loose but thankfully slow dog lumbered with a drooling hoggishness through the holler, all of Big Sweetie’s commatriots darted with astonishing speed to the woods, but Big Sweetie, even as she was evidently terrified, rather than running—freeze!—went into statue mode, standing still-still in the tall grass, as if seized by the threat. Nothing happened. And yet, this confirmed an understanding that Big Sweetie was not in the same way as her sisters equipped with a flight response. It was as though because her disposition was deeply defined by friendliness, joy, and curiosity, there was nothing left over for capacitating fear.

Wonder Hollow Six (left to right): Lightfoot, Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Big Sweetie (front center), Fluffy-foot, and Cinnabon.

I have a hundred more anecdotes: about how she was, we think, the first to lay an egg, and how, thereafter, she would linger in the run when each of the other hens laid their first (few) eggs in September and October, companionably close-by but not over-bearing, proximally supportive and being in such a way that hints at the calling of an avian doula, were there such a thing; about how she wanted so badly to be able to perch but didn’t have the flap and spring coordination of Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Lightfoot, or Cinnabon, and still she tried and tried and tried until one day she reached the roost; that night she sat on the roosting bar for 30 minutes after dark, extending her accomplishment, holding onto the moment all for herself (and for A. who photo-documented it from the window) after the others had gone inside the coop for the night; and about what a friend she was, like the day—which just so happened to be the first day of classes last fall—when she went deep up into the pine woods with Lightfoot and Fluffy-foot, the three of them would not—golldammit!—come for calling nor for the irresistible rattle-shake of mealworms in a plastic cup, so I had to climb and navigate bramble and sweat (before leaving for work) only to nudge them from their holdout. The thing was, while the other two birds were entranced in a forest floor dust bath, Big Sweetie was just standing there, along for the joyride. 

Big Sweetie (top) stubbornly remains deep in the pine woods along with Fluffy Foot (bottom) and Lightfoot (right) who are entranced by a forest floor dust bath on Monday, August 21, 2023.

***

Might not be cut out for chicken-keeping, is one thought, one topic of conversation these past 48 hours. Or maybe, instead, this is exactly the structure of feeling we owe to this ecosphere, a structure of feeling that has gone thin socioculturally such that it is uncommon to interact with chickens in this way, to engage them as friends, good, giving, and profoundly mutualistic in what they provide us and each other. It’s been a heavy couple of days. We miss her; we’re sad. And not just we the hominids. The Wonder Hollow mixed flock is looking and calling so hard for their sixth and biggest-hearted; a song of sorrow, and so too a together and onward song, expanded by a life with Big Sweetie so fully and lovingly in it. 

Wonder Hollow Six head hen, Fluffy Foot, expresses “Where are you?” callout for Big Sweetie, who was killed Wednesday afternoon, 1/31/24, by a Cooper’s Hawk.