Monthly Archives: May 2007

Okay, I think my head asplode.

As you might have noticed, if you have been reading my blog since the beginning loyal readers, I am very fond of Chaucer, both in his real and blog incarnations. And you may also have noticed, along with less loyal readers, who come here via Cheeseburger, that I am also fascinated by lolcats. These didn’t seem to be tastes that in any way intersected, but what the hell, this is my blog, and I said I would write about things I like and things that interest me.

Apparently, a liking for medieval poetry and cat macros not that rare a combination, and when put together, it results in Chaucer deciding he can hath cheezburger. He called them lolpilgrim, but some wag in the comments suggested Lollards, which is so much funnier.

lollard

Feckless’ immediate reaction to seeing the Lollard pictures was to ask “Did you do that?” meaning, did I mention lolcats to Chaucer. Which is flattering, but no. I did mention them to some other medievalists, though. Unusually, I didn’t find the post by checking Chaucer’s blog (although I do this very frequently), but because I was reading another blog. What delights me is the idea of the synergy, I think. This is partly about the lolcat phenom, but it is also about blogging and the community of ideas. So much awsum.

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The f-word.

I haven’t bitched about my students this semester (I’m teaching an intensive Spring class; we meet 4 times a week). This is because I have the dream class; the class that makes me remember why I actually do really like my job. They are keen, they read, they talk, they ask and answer questions. We have interesting debates, and generally I get the impression that they are learning and thinking, and they tell me they are enjoying it. It is so awesome, I could just collapse into a warm fuzzy glow.

We did have a moment last week, though, and it was particularly interesting in the context of this class because they do seem to be bright, and open to ideas. I had them read the widely anthologised essay “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” by Emily Martin. Martin’s essay essentially talks about the way we are all taught that science and science writing is neutral and objective, and yet when you read it carefully, it presents its material through “stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female.” Thus the sperm is the active, heroic figure, bravely battling its way to the passive egg, which waits, rather like Sleeping Beauty.

How is it that positive images are denied to the bodies of women? A look at language – in this case specific language – provides the first clue. Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how “femininely” the egg behaves and how “masculinely” the sperm. The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is transported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.” For this they need “energy,” “fuel,” so that with a “whiplash motion and strong lurches,” they can “burrow through the egg coat,” and “penetrate” it. (from Signs 16.3, 1991. source: JStor, footnotes omitted.)

Martin’s essay presents a case made up of numerous specific examples from a wide variety of articles; students always complain about how long it is, but when pressed, they admit that the weight of evidence is partly what makes the essay work so well. They agree that it is an excellent example of linguistic and rhetorical analysis, that Martin supports her case thoroughly and that her research is well documented (there are 12 footnotes in the passage I quoted above). Did they like it? Survey says: “not so much.”

“Why not?” I ask, because in my class rule one is “you may have any opinon you like, as long as you can support it.” There’s a pause, and then Mickey, a very put-together PR student who is working as a realtor while she studies for her degree (i.e. successful and ambitious working woman) says in a depricating tone, “Well, it is a bit feminist, isn’t it?”

“You say that like it is a bad thing,” I reply, and there is a collective intake of breath. Now it is on for young and old. Excellent.

I have a version of this conversation every semester I teach this course and ask my students to read this essay. Sometimes there is a big argument about it, other times the class is apathetic and hasn’t read it, or doesn’t care, and no one says much. Usually, there is some antagonism, often directed at me for raising the issue of the f-word in the first place, other times members of the class get into it with one another.

There was a solid group in the class who, earnest as they are, really tried hard to get me to see their point of view, which essentially boiled down to: “The article would have been so much better without the feminist parts”. What? “The evidence without the connecting argument?” asked Nathalie, who suddenly emerged as an Amazon heroine after being quite quiet up to this point. “If you take away the feminist parts, then there is nothing to say.”

Further pressed as to their objections, it became clearer and clearer that the students agreed in principle with what the article was saying, and more broadly, with feminist ideas. The problem is not feminism itself, but that they have an allergy to the word. I think this attitude is sadly prevalent. I see it all the time in other contexts, too. For instance, on that argumentative forum, a character who claims to hate feminism and all that it stands for said the following:

Am I a feminist? No, I am not. I just don’t let any person take charge of my life. I have self confidence and don’t really care what anyone thinks of me and how I live my life. I’ve always been that way.

Now to me, that idea about not letting anyone take charge of your life bespeaks a strongly feminist ethos, but apparently, to the writer, “feminist” is some kind of insult.

My students seem to feel that way, too. “Can’t we use some other word?” they often ask, as if the word itself is somehow offensive, or that it signifies something unspeakably evil. I say “unspeakably” advisedly, because they have a lot of trouble defining their objections. One thing they often bring up is that feminists have “extreme views,” which, in the case of Martin, apparenly means “she expresses a clear, strong opinion on the topic at hand.” This, of course, is what I nag them to do all semester.

So we went round and around the topic, and while none of them disagreed with Martin, or with any of the views I presented to them as feminist ideas, or even with the examples of gender stereotyping and body image I brought up, they were still resisting this nebulous feminism in the article, and more generally.

Finally, another heroine appeared. It was Annabel, who said, a little defiantly, and a little diffidently (understandably enough, given the previous discussion), “Look, I used to be like all of you, and think that feminism was a bad thing. But I didn’t really know what it was, just that I didn’t like it. Then I read a couple of books on feminism, and I realised that these were ideas that I agreed with. So, now I am a feminist.”

I couldn’t help it. I collapsed in a warm, fuzzy glow.

Flights of Fancy

My spawn (hereafter known as Stepladder, thank you Cheezburger) has a really amazing, overblown, out of control imagination. When she was a little girl, like 3, not the mature nearly-seven she is now, she said she had 105 imaginary friends. Now, she says she has “infinity a hundred”. These friends include characters from books, shows and video games as well as characters she just makes up – current favourites in the roster include Nellie, Aradia and Joy (the baby spiders from Charlotte’s Web), a siamese cat called Rainbow Magic, another cat called Cinnamon Bread, Yoshi (yes, Nintendo’s Yoshi), Mystery Yoshi and Lystery Yoshi. She goes to the playground with them, makes up stories with them, and plays a variety of games with them at home and school. Basically, wherever she goes, she has an invisible entourage.

Her imagination is part of what makes her who she is, like her long hair which is the result of her fear of the hairdresser, or that she chooses to be vegetarian, or has iron hard calf muscles. Sometimes it makes her delightful, sometimes it is annoying, but we work around it, and accommodate it, the same way we work around the other quirks by spending a lot of time brushing and braiding, feed her cheese instead of chicken, and put a rebounder in front of the television so she can jump and watch at the same time.

Yes, I let my kid watch television in moderation – she tends to watch DVDs rather than actual tv shows, and she plays games on the wii and her computer. I know that in some circles this makes me a Bad Parent, but I would rather not let my kid grow up being a pop culture doofus. This is really how I am molding her in my image, come to think of it – I mean, as this blog attests, I love Chaucer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also love lolcats.

Stepladder seems to exist in direct defiance of that popular opinion that “kids today have no imagination” which is usually said to be the fault of electronic media. In fact, she uses electronic media, and other media, and her real life experiences, to create her incredibly lively imaginary world (hence Yoshi and his side kicks). So if it isn’t the much vilified electronic media, what is it? I have been thinking a bit about creativity and imagination because I have noticed the ways in which they are challenged.

I’m not going to be so ridiculous as to say that a big imagination is like a disability, because it isn’t. However, as I suggested, imagination is part of my child, and it is part of her all the time, regardless of whether it is convenient. As a parent, I have a choice about whether I foster her imagination, or tolerate it, or try to modify her behaviour. I never really thought about how much I was doing to foster her imagination until recently, when another parent asked me that question. This has also made me reflect on how imagination is actually perceived, which I think is not exactly the same as the romanticised reactions there are to it in the abstract.

For example, I had a meeting a month or so ago with Stepladder’s teacher, and the principal of the school (the reason for the meeting has to do with they way parents who are academics tend to make primary school teachers shit themselves, which is, no doubt, a topic for another post). Anyhoozle, at one point in the meeting, Stepladder’s imagination came up, at first in a context that seemed positive: she’s fantastic at making up stories in language arts, she always responds to writing assignments with a wealth of material. Translation: other kids write 2 -3 sentences, Stepladder writes 2 pages. So, in the right context, imagination and creativity are seen as a positive.

.A little later in the conversation, though, there was a clear indicator that imagination is problematic: when Stepladder has problems with her friends, she will go and play with her imaginary friends instead. Now, personally, I think this is an okay coping mechanism. Stepladder says “The good thing about imaginary friends is that they always want to play what I want to play.” Unlike Calvin, she doesn’t fight with them, although there have been occasions when they have been recalcitrant.

The teachers don’t really see it that way. She “really needs to learn to deal with other children and work out compromises with them.” Likewise, when she is bored in class, Stepladder will just wander away into Cloudland, or some other imaginary place, rather than sucking it up and learning about life in a fishing village in Newfoundland, or whatever. They don’t seem to understand that like freckles, or athletic ability, imagination is not something that children can turn off when it isn’t convenient. I mean, you can encourage a kid to be less imaginative overall, but I really doubt if you can channel creativity and imagination as rigidly as teachers and parents seem to want to.

I know this article in The Onion is satirical, but I think it contains a grain of truth, in that it is pointing out the emphasis many parents place on practicality over imagination. It really isn’t that far from The Onion’s satire to this article.

I do hear compliments on Stepladder’s imagination, don’t get me wrong. Her Violin Teacher is delighted with the way she picks up on metaphors and stories and description the violin teacher uses those techniques to explain the music. “Some kids really don’t get it,” Violin Teacher says. But rejoicing in the fact that she gets it involves a trade-off. Violin Teacher has to listen to Stepladder expand on those imaginative ideas for a minute or two.

Miss Lilly, her ballet teacher, also waxes lyrical about Stepladder’s imagination. You see ballet, it turns out, requires an ability to express imagination physically through mime. This is Stepladder’s fourth year of ballet, and the first year she did a RAD exam. The exam includes a mime component, and it is interesting to me to watch the other girls (I know, I should say “children”, but come on, this is ballet for 6-year-olds; it is totally girl-centric), many of whom have trouble with the idea of miming “A Day at the Seaside”. Stepladder has no problems, she meets a mermaid, finds a seashell to listen to, swims, builds a sandcastle, or any of a dozen other things. Many of the others stand fairly stiffly until Miss Lilly suggests things things they might do. Thereafter, they repeat the same actions in sequence, looking at each other for confirmation, “Is this right?” Stepladder never does the same thing twice.

There is one little girl, Ivy, who really has trouble figuring out what she is supposed to do. Ivy’s mom gives me a typical enough backhanded compliment on Stepladder’s imagination, calling her a “free sprit”. Seriously, what is this supposed to mean? Flaky? And she asks what I am doing to develop Stepladder’s imagination. At the time, I was at a loss, because I really don’t think actively about it. Actually, what I tend to do is manipulate the imaginative life for my own ends. E.g:

We are walking to school, and Stepladder is giving me grief because we are running a little late (which means “on time, as SL likes to get to school a bit early in order to play on the monkey bars and gossip”):
SL: You know I like to get to school early.
Me: Well, we are running late because you took a long time to get ready, and you were slow.
SL: That wasn’t my fault. My imaginary friends made me late because we were playing a game.
(I paused a momement here to think about my response, I admit.)
Me: Well, who is the boss of them?
SL: Me.
Me: So, you are their boss. That means if they are doing naughty things, you have to take responsibility. You can’t blame them for being late, because you should tell them you need to go. They should respect that.
(reflective pause)
SL:Okay.
Me: Okay what?
SL: I am sorry for being slow and making us late.

I guess the thing here is that I work within her imaginative universe.

When the ballet lesson is over, the girls come out, and Ivy and Stepladder are chatting about horses. Stepladder is hoping that her godmother will take her horseriding. “Of course,” she says, “what I really want to do is catch my very own unicorn. What you need to do is go in to the forest, and when you see one, you have to sit very still, and then the unicorn will come to you, and put its head in your lap, and you can pat it, and tell it you love it, and you can make a rein with one of your hairs, and then it will be your friend forever.” Ivy is overwhelmed by the detail in this description and Stepladder’s earnestness. She turns to her mother and asks “is that true?”

Now, here I think Ivy’s mother had some choices, and I know what mine would have been, but she said “No, Ivy. A unicorn is a fantasy animal.” Stepladder was fully prepared to argue the point, but we had to rush off to meet the Feckless One at the Farmer’s Market. But here is my point – Ivy’s mother, while ostensibly admiring Stepladder’s imaginative ability, immediately moved to crush it in her own kid. I don’t think that is the fault of the electronic media, but rather of a failure of imagination.

Sestina

Lorelei said “sestina,” and this is what popped out.

I can see myself twofold in the mirror –
the easy choice to be a wicked witch;
much harder to find forgiveness, truth,
and love. Thus and so, I feel my way
stumbling through the thicket of roses, blind
and insightful: a paradox, defined by doubt.

Ironic that the thing I never thought to doubt
is now my downfall. If I look in the mirror
I don’t recognise myself. I am a cliché. Blind
with tears, my reflection wavers. The witch
I thought I could be mocks me. The way
I saw myself is hollow, emptied of its truth.

I want to scream at you to tell me the truth,
but there is no truth anymore. Only doubt
that undermines every utterance. No way
to trust you, or my feelings. The mirror
is dark and unreliable, as if that witch
had cast a spell on it, and made me blind.

For a moment, I found hope, but it was a blind
alley. You turned on me and questioned the truth
in my desire. Suddenly, I’m the wicked witch
again: I’m not kind; I’m manipulative. I doubt
myself in new ways. I thought your eyes mirrored
my regrets, but we were not facing the same way.

I want our bright love to last, not fade away.
Is this just an after-image on my eyelids? I’m too blind
to tell. I cling to bleak hope. I don’t want the mirror
to show me what I dread. The truth
is, that all I really have left is doubt
in my intuition. But I’m an oracular witch.

If I were not me, I would bewitch
you with a kiss, and force you to turn away
from the path you’re taking. I don’t doubt
my powers.Well, I do, but I could blind
you. But that would be a love without truth,
and I’m greedy. I don’t want a plastic mirror.

I doubt anger will help, which is the only
reason the mirror isn’t smashed. Don’t go away.
That’s my truth. I keep loving, blindly.

We are all luvz cat macros.

“They just laughed and stabbed her. She didn’t even try to run away. It was like they were _playing_.”
For some reason Magrat shot a glance at Greebo, who had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Pointy ears and hair you want to stroke,” she said, vaguely. “And they can fascinate you. And when they’re happy they make a pleasing noise.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

I am a member of a discussion forum – supposedly, its main purpose is a forum for some talented modders of a particular computer game, but it has a lively free-for-all discussion area. Well, I say lively; other people would say “terrifyingly cutthroat”. It’s the kind of place where you can post any opinion you want, on any topic you want, and there will be dozens of people ready to tell you what an idiot you are for having that opinion. These are people who will arguing about the merits of The Hunger Site, who will rend you to shreds for posting ungrammatically, who will argue for pages about what is better, Divacup wii or PS3, but post a cat macro, and people will coo about how cute it is, or (more likely) post a bunch more of their own. Everyone loves them.

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It’s clearly not a phenomenon limited to that one weird little community either. I Can Has Cheezburger has been the top blog on WordPress since it moved, and as anyone who was viewing the site a few weeks ago knows, that move was precipitated because ICHC was so popular its cheezservers were repeatedly meltzored by the pressure.

I’ve been thinking and reading a bit about the lolcat phenomenon. Obligatory academic disclaimer: admittedly, this is not my field, and I am not sure I really have the pop culture chops to write a serious critique, so what follows are my observations as a self-confessed lolfrend. Oh, and full disclosure – I have 3 cats.

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Clearly, cat pidgin (awsum pun, hur hur) is a developing language; Anil Dash has analysed some of the important characteristics of it. I think he’s right in saying that lolcat has very quickly evolved its own rules about correctness, which seems very odd in a pidgin that relies on incorrect spelling and grammar for its humour and meaning. As he says “The rise of these new subspecies of lolcats are particularly interesting to me because “I can has cheezeburger?” has a fairly consistent grammar. I wasn’t sure this was true until I realized that it’s possible to get cat-speak wrong.” Anil Dash does an admirable job of explaning the joke without crossing the line into explaining it so hard it isn’t funny anymore (cf with this rather more heavy-handed treatment).

There’s an interplay here between what anyone can read as funny and the in-joke which David McRaney identifies in his interesting discussion tracing of the evolution of lolcats from leetspeak and image macros:

These image macros influence new leetspeak, which in turn influences new spoken leetpeak and new macros. All of this churns at a rapid pace and evolves with each new generation. Eventually, something like the lolcats comes along and splinters the whole language schema into a new branch where all new in jokes, references and acceptable formats are born.

As McRaney notes, the in-joke part of the cycle is clearly being played out at ICHC, where readers often post lolcats which teasingly respond to previous posts. I also have seen the language cycle back into chat – which McRaney identifies as one of its origins. (For example, people going to eat will say “I can has pizza”.)

Lolcat pictures (or lolcat-style) pictures are also evolving into narrative, possibly inspired by the exchange of pictures that occurs on ICHC, and also on forums, where people have been posting macros of various kinds to create conversational responses to one another. Loltrek was created as an answer to the question “what if lolcats had a tv channel;” srsly uses the pictures from a news story about a cat who takes the bus to explain things from the cat’s perspective, while this story uses lolcats’ humour to diffuse the author’s frustration with her computer repair people.

The in-joke nature of the lolcat phenomenon also makes it difficult to explain them to “outsiders”. Sure, some of the pictures are funny on their own, but this one, posted today, raises the layers of self-reference that make it impossible for outside readers to interpret to new heights (just check how many comments are asking for enlightenment):

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So, lolcats evolved from the way we form groups and play with language when we shape our group identities. They also, as Robin Amer points out, appeal to our broader desire to create animals in our own image.

I think the lolcats reveal the anthropomorphic way we think of our pets. They’re something more than animals, yet something less than hapless toddlers (or ditzy teenagers). They can communicate with us, but they haven’t quite mastered our codes. They have a life of their own.

And while I agree with this as a general idea, I don’t think it really explains why there aren’t huge numbers of loldogs and other animals. Yes, they exist, but lolcat pictures are overwhelmingly pictures of cats, after all. Far be it from me to dismiss the appeal of the lolrus, but it cannot be denied that a good deal of the appeal of the lolcat relies on the cats in those pictures.

I think part of what is going on here is that lolcats show the dual nature of cats – on the one hand, they are about the cats’ inherent cuteness and appeal, on the other, their inherent nature their desire for comfort, for prey and for world domination. Sometimes, all of these traits are illustrated in one lolcat picture, which, as McRaney notes, is what makes them so effective and funny.

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It is our specific anthropomorphisation of cats which lolcats illustrate, and I think that is partly behind the repetition of some of the recurring lolcat tropes. It is also what makes the humour of them compelling, too. They are funny because they are true – or at least they are true to our imaginary construction of cat personalities.

We may have an intellectual understanding that our cats’ affection for us is rooted in their desire for comfort and food, but we prefer to ignore it because they inspire affection in us. We attribute kindly feelings to our cats because we don’t want to admit that our love is unrequited. Part of the humour here is also based on our sneaking suspicion that cats are in on this whole anthropomorphising lark. They know that we can be manipulated by thinking they are cute; deep down we may know it too, but somehow this doesn’t manage to diminish their appeal. As Terry Pratchett notes, in the voice of Granny Weatherwax, “If cats looked like frogs, we’d soon work out what nasty cruel little bastards they are.”

This idea of cats’ use of cuteness to mask their greed is at the heart of the lolcat trope “i has [an item]”. Not only does your cat take your stuff, he rubs your nose in it. It is interesting that the iconic Cheezburger cat appears to be asking permission, because most of the other lolcats are rather triumphantly claiming ownership of objects they have appropriated (invisible or otherwise).

We see cats as suave; they are usually carelessly graceful, and as any cat observer knows, a cat caught in the act of doing something clumsy will often manage to project an air that the human observer interprets as “I meant to do that.” The “invisible [item]” trope works with this perception; cats caught in odd or compromising positions explain their behaviour by suggesting they are reacting to something we can’t see.

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Likewise, the cat’s nonchalance is illustrated in lolcats that start “Oh, hai/hi.” This trope illustrates both the destructive tendencies of cats, and the fact that they don’t seem to care about human disapproval for destructive acts. While dogs might look, well, hangdog, when they get caught out, cats will try to make an argument that the destruction was actually a good thing.

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The feeling that we care more about our cats’ approval than they do about ours is expressed in the trope “[item] cat is pleased/displeased”.

Our ideas about our cats’ intelligence play a major role in creating all of these in-jokes, of course. We know that they are manipulating us, and yet we let them do it (actually, we know that they know that we know…). Our anthopomorphic concept of cats includes the idea that they are clever tricksters. It seems quite believable that they are on our internetz when we aren’t looking, so of course they are hip to pop culture references. We may even suspect that they are hipper and cooler than we are. Cats probably even know for certain the origin of the “i’m in ur” meme.

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Humans are the butt of many of the lolcat jokes – our cats are kind of mean to us, and then they laugh at us for being hapless. The fact that they can’t even type correctly kind of rubs it in.

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But while the cats in the lolcats may express disdain for their human overlords, pictures which might indicate a real world in which there is cruelty to animals are completely taboo. Indeed, although there are some exceptions, the trend in lolcat pictures is for “natural” pictures of cats – cats just doing what cats do. Manipulation of the pictures is relatively rare, and it seems to be if not strictly against the rules, not quite cricket. The notable exception is in cases where people have made visible the invisible item, or responded in some way to the original photo. Likewise, there seems to be a trend against setting up the picture; good lolcat photos rely on the same kind of serendipity that engendered the phenomenon in the first place. The humour in the captions comes from the things cats do, and the interplay between our understanding of cats and our own common imagination.

Lolcats, at their heart, are about our affection for cats, and our hope that they like us enough to laugh at our jokes.

Note: Thanks to ICHC for the images, and the lulz.

Walking

I’m going to tell you something about myself that may make you think less of me. I don’t have a car. Actually, I don’t drive. It’s partly a lifestyle choice, and it is also partly an environmental choice. I think the economics of it balance out – I have always chosen to live in the inner city and pay a little more rent, so that I am close to work and good public transit, but I don’t have the expense of a car. (I must confess that I do buy expensive shoes. I fell in love with Camper when I read the description of a pair of pumps – “for women who walk.” Yes! I thought, these people are my tribe.)

Walking is a normal part of my life. Sometimes it is annoying (but then so is driving in traffic); most of the time it is enjoyable. Walking is a Slow choice; the time it takes to walk, and I think the rhythm of the physical activity itself, help to create a liminal space between here and there.

Sometimes I deliberately try to do nothing, and to think nothing as I walk, other times is a time to think, plan, fume, daydream. Often I listen to something on my iPod as I walk (I prefer audiobooks and Rachel Maddow to music); if I’m walking with someone, there’s time to have a conversation.

In the city where I live, walking is not seen as a normal thing to do. In fact, you could be mistaken for thinking it was a disease or a disability, or even something to be embarrassed about from the reactions of the people who find out you are on foot. “You’re walking?” reapeats the grocery store clerk incredulously when I turn down his offer to carry my purchases to my car. “Are you sure?” asks the colleague who pulls up beside me to offer an lift. “You really want to walk?” asks the kind mother of a child in my spawn’s class when I politely refuse her offer of a ride home. Walking with a child is somehow much worse than walking just by yourself; “We saw you walking,” acquaintances confide, in hushed tones.

None of these people are lazy; I am sure they all drive to the gym a couple of times a week. They pick their children up in the car and drive them to a physical activity because they worry about the “epidemic of childhood obesity”. When I walk home with my spawn, I know she is getting 25 minutes of mild exercise. That’s nice, but it isn’t really the only (or perhaps even the main) reason we walk.

In that space between school and home, I can feel her unwind. If it’s been a hard day at school, sometimes she stumps along, or drags her feet. As the walk progresses, her steps get lighter, until she’s twirling and dancing with her usual joy in the last block before we get home. As we walk, we chat: I know who is in her secret club and what the password is this week; I know that she is proud of the puppet she made to go with the legend she wrote, even though some boy said “Cats can’t be pink”; I know that her ‘big buddy’ in Grade 3 made her day by spending a couple of minutes talking to her; I know so much more than I want to about Swannalina and Swanna – characters in the story she is telling in her head. This information takes time to trickle out; it isn’t what you get when you ask “How was your day?”

Walking gives us time to notice what’s going on in the neighbourhood, to understand our environment, to feel connected. We know where the puddles form when it rains. We know who shovels their walk, and who doesn’t. We know lots of the local cats, and have our own nicknames for them. Our favourite is Hammock Cat, who, when he isn’t sitting in the window, often leaves a little stuffed toy dog to mark his place.

We’ve been tracking the progress of spring in lots of ways. We know who has good flowers in the garden, and we’ve been watching the tulips come out, and speculating on what colours they are going to be. There’s a huge plane tree next to the pedestrian overpass; when we walk up to the top of the ramp, we are level with its upper branches, and we can see the progress of the buds and leaves.

Walking is worth the time it takes – and I guess that’s the whole point of slowness. Once we get home, life speeds up.

Marking: the good, the bad and the buttsecks.

Last week, I was struggling with a massive pile of essays, and despite having left them out repeatedly for the marking elves, I had to mark them all myself. There were a bunch that made me want to bite them, but a colleague of my mother’s once did this, and then deliberately spilled coffee over the bite mark, thinking this would make it less obvious, which it so did NOT. Having learned from her experience, I thought I would poke them here, which would then hopefully relieve some of my feelings.

There are a couple of categories of things students say that make me go, oh dear lord. First up are the plain stupidities:

“You will be surprised to learn that A. A. Milne was not just a children’s book writer; he wrote children’s poetry as well.” Well, given that I set a bunch of his poems for you to read, not so much.

“Unless I am absolutely mistaken, using the term royalist poet is an oxymoron because the poets that are classified as royalist were not of royal birth.” Generations of literary scholars thank you for pointing out their embarrassing mistake.

“In the modern day some people are led to believe that Shakespeare was a sodomite.” Anyone want to bet on this student’s religious affiliations? But wait, the following sentence seems rather pro-gay: “A sodomite is a kind person who participates in anal intercourse.” Heaven forbid you engage in such activities with an unkind person.

Then there are the unfortunate word choices – like the one that gave this blog its name:

“This is the voice and audience that the poetry apples to…”

… a painful memory, subsided by the mind…

“Therefore, as time transgressed, her life became dull…”

“A child needs a supportive environment to develop their self of steam.” This one is so popular it’s practically a trend; I expect it will be in the dictionary in no time.

“This is much like society in general, and how resources are taken for granite.” If only this had been in a Geology essay.

Then there are the ones that make me go “WTF?” For the life of me, I cannot work out what these students were trying to say:

“Grendel is an exile. In Anglo-Saxon societies, exiles were often radicalists.”

“The illustrations are unique in that they are tartarised to encourage the child to interact with the pictures.”

The best part of marking this semester was marking my Children’s Literature class’ term projects. Students in the class are required to write a children’s story – they may illustrate it if they wish – accompanied by a reflective essay on the process. As usual, there were some wonderful creative efforts, some of which showed the benefit of some fun time at the craft store; foamy stickers were very popular this year. This is the third time I have had students do this assignment, and they are always fabulous; colleagues always drop by to check out my brightly-coloured haul.

Spawn helped me read the books, and we both loved the bug counting book, the backward animal alphabet (the author/manager of this one apparently dragooned everyone she knew into making the illustrations) and the wonderful, gentle story about a special raincoat. That one was so good my colleague Socks and I thought the author should see if she can get it published.

The books are fun, but for me, the reflective essay is where I get the most satisfaction. Students this semester said, as they do every time, “I thought this seemed like a really silly assignment at the beginning of term, but when I thought about everything we learned this semester, and tried to incorporate that into my book, it was actually really hard to make something I thought was good.” I love it when students learn things, but it is even better when they realise that they learned things.

Finally, in the backhanded compliment category, there is this offering from my poetry exam, where the bonus question asked for a haiku (or similar) about students’ experience in the class.

Not as dopey

as expected, much more fun

than pins and needles.