Friday, December 13, 2013

Barometers of Life I – Surviving Oktoberfest

Well, then can I roam beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel myself a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, said maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

                   Woodstock, written by Joni Mitchell, 
                          performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)

I can always tell the state of my life by two basic indicators. The first is my library. If my books are stacked up, waiting to be read, I’m spending so much time on work that I am not feeding my mind. If the pile of partially read opened books stacked next to my bed threatening to fall on my head and kill me in the night is any indication, I’m in big trouble.

The second indicator is my garden. If my plants are overgrown and the borders of my beds have disappeared under cascades of growth, I am not feeding my soul. My yard has never been a chore and certainly not a matter of conformity to middle class aesthetic values. Given my deep connection to the earth, my garden is inevitably a veritable barometer of my own mental and spiritual health.  My garden reveals the state of my soul.

An Anxious Waiting Game in Michigan

My yard was badly in need of attention when I left Florida to attend the NEH seminar on ethics of global development at Michigan State last July. I found out late that I had been accepted, no doubt when a first round pick declined. My time before my departure had been spent on a summer faculty conference and teaching an online course. The last three weeks before leaving were spent locating and reading an avalanche of materials preparing for the seminar getting nowhere close to the bottom of the stack of readings assigned.

I had also spent an enormous amount of time preparing for a job interview for a new regional campus position that presented itself out of the blue in January. While I had requested to simply make a lateral transfer to the new position leaving my main campus lecturer position to be filled, as has happened previously in our department, I was told early on that I’d have to jump through the hoops of yet another search process once again. The first interview was once postponed the day before it was to occur and then rescheduled for two days before I left for Michigan.

Not surprisingly I was pretty frazzled by the time I finally departed, new laptop and suitcase in hand. I promised the stacks of books by my bed, in my office and library that they would be filed away once I was back from Michigan. And I promised the yard it would get my attention first thing upon my return. However, as my father repeatedly told me as a kid, the road to Hell is always paved with good intentions.

I arrived in East Lansing with great anticipations. The subject of the conference – looking at poverty in the developing world and its relationship to privilege in the developed world – promised to provide me with new insights for my teaching and writing. Though I knew I came with a bit of a deficit in philosophy, I had a decent grasp of the ethicists we were to discuss and a ton of life experience in observing first-hand the conditions in the developing world.

Sadly, I found I couldn’t be fully attentive to the seminar once I arrived at Michigan State. My first two weeks there were consumed with the anxious waiting game of the job search, a game in which I ultimately came in second as the search committee minutes later revealed and just as my intuition had sensed. I assume I ultimately secured the position because the first place candidate turned the offer down (perhaps because it was not enough money to make a living wage). After finally getting the offer, a week of negotiations for salary garnered a slight raise in my base salary to $45,000.

Look out, Mr. Gates, I’m gunnin’ for you!

Gentlemen, Start your engines…..

But the position was only half of my worries, my teaching load being the remainder. The final configuration of my fall schedule was decided a mere 10 days before classes began. It included a brand new online class of my own making, Religion and Law. While I was excited about teaching two subjects near and dear to my heart, I’d been told right up to the end of the summer that it would not make and would be replaced by an online lower division humanities course.

So I hadn’t done any prep for the class presuming I wouldn’t be teaching it. Miles from home and a mere 10 days from fall term blastoff, I suddenly had a tsunami of work to do in locating textbooks and readings, drafting syllabi and schedules and creating assignments and exams.

I arrived back at OIA at midnight, Friday. My brand new class had to be up and running by that Sunday midnight along with the three other course websites. Working furiously over the next 48 hours, I managed to get the first two weeks of assignments and quizzes for all four classes up and running by the deadline.

But fate had more surprises in store for me.

The world religions class I had agreed to teach at the Osceola Campus of Valencia (where my new position would be located) was cancelled due to low enrollment. But the college needed someone to teach the Ethics and Critical Thinking course instead. I agreed to take the class because it would place me on the Osceola campus where I could get to know the regional campus UCF staff and hopefully proselytize Valencia students for the new religious studies program I would be teaching. And, truth be told, all of my classes are ultimately about ethics and critical thinking regardless of content. So why not?

All of these changes occurred within the three weeks surrounding the beginning of the semester. By the time they were through, I would find myself teaching five different classes in three different disciplines (Humanities, Religious Studies, Philosophy). It would mean reading two new textbooks to be used in two new classes. It would mean teaching on two different campuses and at two different colleges. It would mean attending faculty meetings on those two campuses. It would mean reading and assimilating two brand new text books.

It would also mean continuing to do all the advising for the Humanities department during my three days on the main campus as well as advising new students at the regional campus. I had been told that I would have no more course releases for that advising because advising was to be divided among all the faculty. While the course release did go away, the parceling out of advisees did not happen. I’m guessing it was a good deal for someone.

Finally, it would mean having to use two different online course providers, the flakey-on-a-good-day Canvas program at the university and a dreadful Frankenstein patched up version of Blackboard at the college. And it would mean being on those two different campuses four days and one night each week with only Thursday to catch my breath, plan and grade papers. As it turned out, most Thursdays I found myself in bed trying to recover.

I spent most of the semester on a dead run creating discussions, assignments and tests, trying to stay at least one week ahead of my classes. Though I like to get all graded work back to students within two weeks, I often found myself triaging prep work for the next week before grading. I finally completed the prep work for all of my classes - which I almost always have completed prior to the semester’s start - the second week of November.

Were my work schedule the only schedule that mattered, as is often the presumption that many employers make about their workers, this might have been a little more manageable. Such was not the case.

I had promised the Florida Humanities Council a year prior that I would serve as their scholar for the Prime Time Reading program at the university branch of the public library. I was hardly in a position to tell them I couldn’t serve a mere four weeks from the starting date. Thus, for six Wednesdays in September and October, I would leave my last class at the university and go to the local library branch. There I would spend the evening serving parents and children of our community learning to appreciate reading through story-telling and my follow-up questions designed to provoke critical thought.

I had also promised two churches I would preach a given Sunday service for them long before any of these changes at work came to be. Thus I would travel one weekend in September to a Unitarian church on the Gulf coast to talk about ethics of global development and spend the first weekend in October in my home parish, St. Richards Episcopal, Winter Park, preaching on St. Francis and blessing animals.

In all honesty, I’m thankful I had all of these non-academic commitments. They were little breaths of fresh air amidst the train wreck of my academic life this semester.

I called this impossible six week period in the middle of this long, difficult term my Oktoberfest. I stocked up on vitamins, drank the fresh squeezed juice my husband provided me each morning, rode the bus to reduce the stress of negotiating the tollways and university parking and spent most weekends in bed when I was not working on classes. I knew if I could just get through that period, I’d survive this unrealistic, hellish term.

“Rumor has it there’s a house in there….”

The good news is that I did survive.

In the past few weeks since Oktoberfest ended, I’ve finally begun giving the yard its promised due. The huge Bolivian Sunflower I’d planted out front had grown so large as to block our mailbox and obscure the entrance into our yard. It has now been cut back and transplanted to another area of the yard where it will have room to grow. Sadly, it was just about time for it to bloom for the very first time but I couldn’t wait. The postal service carrier was having a difficult time getting to our box.

The corner of our yard where Roberta Avenue and Pickfair Street come together was also completely overgrown but has since been cut back. The blooming agave (which our friends dubbed the penis plant for its curved bloom spike soaring some 30 feet into the air culminating in an explosion of blooms) has been cut down. The baby agaves it spawned have been saved for planting elsewhere and the wild pineapples encroaching into the yard and the street have been snipped off and replanted back in the corner bed. And I definitely have the scars to show for it.

The Mexican petunias banked along the street side of the living walls which separate our home from the madness of the world around us have been hacked off a good foot or so. Already they are sending up new growth from their roots and stems. By the spring this river of lavender that surrounds our property will return with a vengeance. At their feet, the border grass is being dug out and replanted to form a ribbon of dark green defining the jungle, tying up our little corner lot.

There is much, much more work to do in the yard. I now am working on removing the African wedelia and Aster daisies which have invaded the grass out front so it can be sprigged and hopefully replenished with grass. The grass in the south front yard under the trees died of drought and overzealous mowing this summer during my absence. Given the shade in that area and the difficulty in keeping it watered, I have chosen to replace the grass with patio stones and border grass. This is a big project that will likely take most of the winter to complete.

I’m also in the middle of replacing a number of my hanging orchids, bromeliads and staghorns around the yard that died from drought or vermin attacks this summer. The replacement for my Magic Tree which came down in a storm this summer will have to wait for the winter break. I’m thinking a Tree of Life might be its replacement. I’ve bought the timbers for the trunk and branches and am currently soaking the labels off the green wine bottles that will serve as its leaves.

For now, it once again appears that we do not live amidst an abandoned lot. The neighborhood joke that “Rumor has it there’s a house in there” is only funny when the neighbors are still laughing.

My beloved garden, the external barometer of my life most apparent to the world, is improving as I have had time to catch my breath post-Oktoberfest. My books, on the other hand, the internal barometer apparent only to me, must wait until finals are graded next week to finally receive their attention. I am planning to organize my library this winter as preparation for the writing I plan to start working on this spring. It is a job made for the long, cool days of winter as the days begin to grow longer again.

[Continued in a second post]

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Third Order Anglican Franciscan (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida,
Osceola Regional Campus, Valencia College, Kissimmee, FL

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

gameboyguy13 said...

Sounds like it was a terribly busy semester. Glad you made it through, and congratulations on the new position. Would love to see pictures of all the new plants, too :)