Category Archives: You Really Oughta Read This

Pedagogy Stew: July 2013

As I write this, my husband and son are in the living room, reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  We’ve spent a lot of 2013 so far reading those books, just plowing through them.  (I almost said “burning through them,” but that sounds bad.) With summer here, the pace has increased, well, apace.

In one way, I’m jealous of my son. Remember how long we had to wait between each book? But in another way, I’m sad for him. How amazing it must have been to be a child when the first one came out, and then grow up with Harry, with a book coming along every year or so, just when you thought you couldn’t possibly wait any longer.

On the third hand, wow do I love to binge through TV and book series.

Late May and June were Maisie Dobbs weeks for me this year. I read all ten of Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries featuring the “psychologist and investigator,” quickly, not exactly in order, but saving the 10th for last.

Leaving Everything Most Loved is in some ways a summary of the previous novels, mentioning their plots and characters, and serving as something of a “final accounting” for the whole series (though it doesn’t seem to be final—I’ve scoured the interwebs, and there’s no word of this being “THE LAST Maisie Dobbs novel.” Whew).

What is a “final accounting?”   Winspear defines it as what Maisie does as she makes “the essential visits to places and people encountered,” and calls it “a task that brought work on a particular investigation to a more settled close.” It’s more nuanced than our clichéd use of “closure.” When Maisie has wrapped up each case, she prepares a report for whomever hired her and then returns to locations crucial to solving whatever mystery there was.

It’s easy enough to end a semester as a professor by turning in grades, cleaning up my office, making a to do list for the summer, and no more.

But I’ve long tried to spend some time reflecting—what went well? Not so well? Why? And what can I do differently? I keep track of how promptly (or molasses-slowly) I return student work in an Excel spreadsheet, and I give students grading feedback on Excel, so I can run reports that way, too. Looking at the data for multiple years if sometimes almost a revelation.

This time, in addition to all the reflecting I typically do, I think I will visit each classroom I taught in, and my son’s classroom, where I volunteered, and see, like Maisie Dobbs, what each room has to say to me.

It also can’t hurt to think of all my semesters as mysteries, most of them solved (a few cold cases, I have to admit, still lingering).

What about you? What season has just ended for you? What case have you just solved? How will you do your final accounting?

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

My Last Transition Metal for a While

The end of this month, I’ll turn 48. Inspired by Oliver Sacks, I looked up 48 on my Periodic Table of Elements place mat and found that Cadmium is element 48. It is a Transition Metal, the last I’ll experience for a while. Next up is Indium, which is grouped under “Other Metals,” (so no telling what that’ll be like), and then a couple of Nonmetals, and then, at age 54, a noble gas! Xenon. That’s something to look forward to.

More about Cadmium, from a lovely blog called GrrlScientist, which has an “element of the week” feature:

  • It’s highly toxic.
  • Used in nuclear reactors.

Cadmium also “adds fatigue resistance to many solders,” which I mis-read first as “adds fatigue resistance to many soldiers.” In any case, fatigue-resistance sounds lovely. Just what I need.

It can make strong batteries and then pollute the environment.

It makes pretty colors.

This post on cadmium yellow says that “Claude Monet (1840-1926) liked to use cadmium yellow for outdoor settings in paintings such as Autumn at Argenteuil, as he believed it would better guarantee the survival of his art. For this reason he abandoned chrome yellow pigments (with the exception of zinc chromate yellow) in the latter part of his career.”

Cadmium green, meanwhile, shows up online as all the shades of green I’ve been obsessed with lately. I may have to go to an art store soon just to get a tube of Winsor & Newton:


So, other than being toxic and all, 48 should be an interesting year.

If you haven’t yet, you should read “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)” in which Oliver Sacks points out that his upcoming birthday, 80, is Mercury on the Periodic Table (I don’t know if he has the table on a place mat or not). It’s a lovely piece, with several notable moments. My favorite is this:

“At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — ‘I’m glad I’m not dead!’ sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, ‘Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?’ to which Beckett answered, ‘I wouldn’t go as far as that.’)”

I have elements of both those sentiments. Sometimes I do feel “every day is a gift,” but some days, I admit, the gift feels like a total white elephant.

Here’s hoping 48 is more Sacks than Beckett. In most ways.

Driving in a David Cates Novel

“O beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening”
“The End of the Innocence”

Taking the secret detour, the one the natives use,
I fly down Highway T to Z,
past the Cates family farm but really,
it’s the dips and swales and curves
and hills and valleys and long slopes up
and ridge roads that feel impossibly high
for Wisconsin that let me know I’m in a zone
where fiction could happen and also perhaps
some magic but for me, partly panic–

I get agoraphobic on some of these rises
where all you can see past the crest
is the sky. It reminds me of Eastern Montana
a little (except for more trees on both sides),
where I once drove up a long brown hill for so long,
for an hour, forever, I stopped believing in Canada.
I couldn’t imagine anything north of where I was.
Nothing but a sheer drop-off to Hell, maybe,
over the top, nothingness, a crevasse, the crimp-
edge of the known world, no ditch, just–

The trip up, the torture, doesn’t last that long here.
Just when I’m wanting to pull over,
figure out how to turn around or back up,
which is impossible–the road’s too narrow,
the curve’s too sharp, the hill’s too steep–
well, there we are, around the bend
finally, a stretch of open road, another red barn.

Another falling-down house tucked in behind
a mess of blooming lilacs, under which,
if this really is a David Cates novel, someone’s having sex
RIGHT THIS MOMENT, and probably with someone they shouldn’t.

And later the woman, or maybe she’s a girl,
would take a dandelion and say “make a wish”
as she blew the white seeds everywhere at which point
the man, or maybe he’s still a boy,
would think “tampopo” but not say it, not wanting
the girl to feel bad for not knowing Japanese,
and he might also think, but not say,
some racy, clever thing using the word “blow.”
What he probably would say would be “Great.
Now there are more weeds everywhere,”
but then regret having said anything at all.

Because you have to remember, the moment you think
“Anything can happen,” that something bad could.

Just because it’s almost June and everything’s green,
every shade of green, just because the blue sky
is paint-chip sky-blue right overhead, even when
you’ve got Don Henley cranked on the radio,
you can glance in your rear view mirror and see
how the bright blue turns to pale blue and then haze
and then gray along the horizon.

You can see farms you can’t get to on Highway Z.
The people who live there are happy or sad.
But you’ll never get there. You’ll never know.

Coming home, you’ll stop at the T of Highway T and 23
and you’ll see Frank Lloyd Wright’s wind mill
and it won’t impress you this time. Not at all.

I left Southern Illinois to go to graduate school in Missoula, Montana, and there met David Cates, who’d come from Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I live now.


His latest book is odd and beautiful and haunting and two trips to Dodgeville recently I really have felt as though I entered some sort of parallel universe. If you read the book now, there’s probably a silver station wagon taking a curve a little too fast. I’ll be waving.

The latest novel by David Cates (wonderful to read, odd to drive in)

The latest novel by David Cates (wonderful to read, odd to drive in)