Upcycled pandemic mask for the end times

Finnish women knitting for the war effort, WWI. Wikimedia Commons.

I never thought we’d be reliving the days of knitting stockings for soldiers on the frontlines and digging victory gardens to make up for food shortages.

But through a combination of federal foolhardiness, individual hoarding behaviors, and production slowdowns in China due to their own struggles with COVID-19, here we are.

I’ve been seeing patterns for DIY masks intended to protect oneself from the coronavirus, and initially I ignored them, as the scientific consensus seems to be that such masks primarily served to protect people from their anxieties rather than infection.

Then, I saw that the CDC had approved them for use by medical staff, which alarmed me. Then my sister-in-law, an urgent care doctor, saw something I posted on Facebook about them and asked me to make some for her, because they’d be better than the bandannas and scarves that the CDC was also recommending. That was even more alarming.

It turns out that doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, and hospitals across the country are anticipating dire shortages of masks and other protective gear (or PPE, for personal protective equipment) just as the demand for medical care from people sickened by the virus kicks into full gear. So SIL asked me to make a small stockpile for her … if, and when, they run out.

So how could I refuse? I made a sample from the pattern I’d been seeking circulating most widely, and had her try it on. She said it was too small to provide adequate coverage. Now that wouldn’t do. So we worked on adjusting the pattern to make a size that will actually provide better protection–adding an additional 2″ to the height of the mask from the 6″ in the original pattern. That’s quite an adjustment.

In addition to the size issues with the patterns out there, their dependence on elastic will keep many home-sewers from making the masks. Perhaps you too have discovered that it is no longer possible to buy elastic of any kind at Joann or Michaels or other sewing stores unless you want to buy a kit. Ah, capitalism.

The elastic I have on hand, I discovered, also just doesn’t work very well. Beading elastic is too thin and likely to break after repeated use; cord elastic is too thick to go through the sewing machine without significant cajoling; and commonly available 1/4″ elastic is too thick to be comfortable looped over the ears.

So I did some thinking. The solution? T-shirt yarn. It has just the right combination of elasticity, softness, and durability to work as ties. It sews up a lot more easily than cord elastic, and is widely available without having to leave the house. Doesn’t everyone have some old t-shirts lying around the house?

So … here is my pattern for DIY, upcycled/recycled face masks to keep you and yours a little bit safer during this pandemic. The pattern is a result of several rounds of trial and revision, and should fit most average-headed adults. Materials are based on some research (though there is a lot of conflicting evidence out there). Adjust width & height for larger & smaller people, including children.

You can make them from stuff you have lying around the house and were probably thinking about giving to Goodwill or just throwing in the trash: old pillowcases/sheets, dress shirts, T-shirts, etc. I made the mask pictured with fabric from a set of scrubs I picked up at Goodwill or something years ago (I mean, puppies) and a promotional T-shirt Matt got for something and couldn’t bear to throw away though he had no intention of wearing it. So the mask cost nothing to make except maybe a penny or two for thread.

I should note that the greatest preventative qualities of these masks reside in the fact that it will help you from infecting others should you be exhibiting symptoms or simply carrying the virus. Wearing one will also keep you from touching your face. The jury’s out about how well handmade fabric masks filter the virus out of the air, but this is true for surgical masks as well. Please do not stop washing your hands!

I hope the instructions are clear and the pictures helpful. Let me know if not. And please— post pictures of the ones you make in the comments!

How to Make Your Very Own Upcycled Pandemic Mask for the End Times

Equipment needed:

  • Sewing machine
  • Scraps of fabric or an old pillowcase or sheets (or similar weight fabric)
  • T-shirts (new or old); lighter weight recommended
  • Thread
  • Pins
  • Iron & ironing board
  • Rotary cutter, cutting mat, and straightedge (recommended)
  • Sharp sewing shears, ruler, and tailor’s chalk or marker (if you don’t have a rotary cutter


Using a rotary cutter and straightedge if you have it!), cut the following pieces:

  • 1 8” tall by 9” wide piece of tightly woven cotton or cotton blend cloth (quilting cotton, an old dress shirt, sheet, etc.). If the cloth has a pattern, it should show right-side up when the 9” sides are on the top/bottom. This will be the front of the mask.
  • 1 8” x 9” piece of t-shirt material or other thin cotton knit fabric. This will be the back of the mask.
  • 1 1” strip from the bottom of a t-shirt (size L). Cut the hem off the shirt first. Avoid any printed parts of the shirt for the ties as they will prevent the T-shirt yarn from curling properly.

*These measurements result in a mask that fits an average-sized woman. Make adjustments as needed for kids or larger adults.

Cut fabric pieces
All you need is 3 pieces of fabric, like so.


1) Make T-shirt yarn for the ties. To make T-shirt yarn, pull on the 1” strip until the edges curl in. That’s it! Then cut it into 4 pieces of equal length. Be careful not to stretch the yarn while cutting or your pieces won’t be equal.

T-shirt yarn
Your T-shirt yarn should look like this once you’ve pulled on it to stretch it out and make the edges curl in.

2) Place the T-shirt fabric right side up on a flat surface. This will be the inside/back of the mask.

Place pieces right side together.
Position the main pieces, right sides together.

3) Place one end of each of the four ties along the outside edges of the mask, just over 1/2” from the top & bottom edges. Lay the top fabric back over the tie and pin it in place.

Position of ties
Position ties as shown, a little more than 1/2″ from the corner and facing in the direction the mask will be worn.

4) Repeat for the other 3 sides. When you’re finished, you should have a “sandwich” with the main pieces as the “bread” and the ties tucked inside as the “filling,” as shown (you can also pin in the middle of each side for greater stability):

Assembled mask "sandwich"
The assembled mask “sandwich.”

5) Sew, using a zig-zag stitch and a 1/2” seam, all the way around the sandwich, starting and ending on the bottom side and leaving a 2-3” gap in the middle of the bottom side. I am using a walking foot but a regular zigzag foot should work just fine.

Starting sewing on bottom edge
I started sewing on the bottom edge, a few inches from the corner. Use a zigzag stitch.

6) When you get to a corner, put your needle in the “down” position, lift the foot, and turn your sandwich 90 degrees. Put the foot back down and keep sewing. Be careful to make sure the ties remain well inside the sandwich so you don’t sew over them by accident.

Turned corners
To turn corners, put the needle down through the fabric, lift the foot, and turn the entire sandwich 90 degrees.
Finished seaming
The finished seam. Note the 2-3″ gap in the stitching on the bottom edge. You’ll turn your sandwich inside-out through this gap.

7) Clip the corners close to (but not cutting through) the sewing line.

Clipped corners
Corners clipped! This will help the corners lie flat by reducing bulk.

8) Turn the mask right side out through the gap left in the bottom side of the mask. Your ties should now be at each corner of the mask.  Press the mask so that the seams lie flat. Be especially careful to press the seam allowances on either side of the gap so that they meet up evenly.

Turned mask, not pressed
Mask turned right side out–the ties are free! A press with the iron will make sure the seams are straight and square, which will make the next steps easier. Trust me. Do it.

9) Working from the top, pin 2 or 3 pleats approx. 1” apart, as shown. The pleated part should be about 1/2″. Make sure that the pleats don’t overlap one another or they will be too thick to sew.

FIrst pleat
Pin the pleats one at a time. Follow the markings on the mat in the photo  if you want. Every 4 dots = 1″.
Pleats-second row
Second row of pleats pinned. I am eyeballing these, so they aren’t totally equal. The thing you want to make sure of is that the pleats don’t overlap.

10) Get your iron and press along the edges as best you can (this will make the next sewing step easier).

Pleated and pinned mask
Pleats pinned and pressed.

11) Now, starting along the bottom edge, stitch about 1/4″, or as close as you can, to the outer edge using a regular straight stitch all the way around the mask. You may need to give your machine a little assist when you get to the pleats and where the ties are attached.

I started stitching on the bottom, where the threads won’t be as visible. And I picked a part of the pattern that most closely matched my blue thread to hide the start/finish.
Sewing over ties
When you get to a pleat, give the sandwich a gentle push or pull if the machine needs help .When you get to a tie, make sure that it is aligned the direction you want before you sew over it.
Topstitched--first round
Mask after first round of topstitching. See how it isn’t TOTALLY PERFECT. Don’t worry.

12) Then cut the thread and stitch again between the first row of stitching and the outside edge. This will help secure the ties and pleats. Alternately, you can sew one row of zigzag all the way around (but I think this is less attractive).

13) Tie knots at the end of each tie, trim threads, and press one more time.

Finished mask
The finished mask!

Voila! Your mask should completely cover your nose and allow the fabric to wrap under your chin. I tied all four strings together in the back.

PS If you have a more prominent nose, you may want to attach a twist-tie or other thin piece of wire to the top of the mask in order to remove gaps between the mask and your face. You can either sew it into the mask after step 6, or attach it to the inside of the mask using tape or whatever once you’ve finished the mask.


Starting this thing all over again . . .

It’s been over three years since I last posted to this blog. I started it to document a year on sabbatical, hoping to demystify the academic life for non-academics (and also to show my mom, and my mother-in-law for that matter, that being on sabbatical is NOT the same thing as being on vacation).

During that time I wrote part of a book (which has just, finally, been published) and also wrote some poems (which haven’t). At the end of that sabbatical, Freddie Gray was killed a few blocks from my house and I documented some of that as well, through the time when I decided I needed to direct more of my energies to supporting my community and decided to apply for a position at Loyola directing community-engaged learning and scholarship. Which I got.

And then it seemed that I was entering a new chapter of my life (which I was!) and that the blog had run its course, so I “suspended production.” It was a busy three years learning about community engagement and the fraught relationship between universities and communities (was it worth it? That’s a question for another day) and then the past year was all about getting back to living a “regular” faculty life.

Now, that has all been turned upside-down with the advent of COVID-19 and the coronavirus on these shores. So it seems right to start up the blog again,

Not that I really think I have much interesting to say. But being in the habit of writing, and reflecting, and thinking, and doing, it seems that the blog is a good opportunity to document these unprecedented times–for myself and whomever is interested.

So here is what I did today. I am teaching online for the first time as of last week, which is both energizing and deflating. I have lots of new ideas about teaching, but let’s just say that these ideas are most beautiful right now as potentialities. I recorded a video minilecture on dialect fiction which I was very excited when I was putting it together, but on viewing the first few minutes of playback, I found it pretty boring. But I decided to just be proud that I was posting a first take, and moved on. I will have other chances.

An hour later, at 11 am, Maryland’s governor announced that “non-essential businesses” (which includes universities, I guess?) would be shut down starting at 5 pm. Today. So I went in to the office to make some final scans of readings for my students, and to gather my remaining plants. They are now taking up all the window space on our second floor.

Our second-floor living room/den/home office is now where ALL the plants live.

Later in the day, I took Lucy for a walk, and admired for the fourth or fifth day in a row the magnificent tulip trees in full bloom all over my neighborhood. It’s hard to believe that a world-wide plague is scourging the earth in the face of this kind of beauty.

So that is the preamble. My first “real” post will be about face masks, how to make one, why we do things like this under crisis, and whether or not they make any difference (and to whom).

academia, baltimore

Show me the money

Yesterday morning, I was out walking the dog when I ran into one of my neighbors. He told me that his wife, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, had just scored a $57 million grant. I was thrilled and amazed by this news.

Later in the  day, I was brought to tears by a woman from McElderry Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, who told me she’d tried—and failed—to get a grant to fund a trip she’d organized to take neighborhood kids to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. This rodeo features black cowboys and cowgirls (is that really what they’re called?)—I’d never heard of it before. She (let’s call her Lisa) showed me pictures she took of the kids at the rodeo, the bronco riders, the kids playing back at home on the streets.

Picture of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo from Wish I could show you Lisa’s pictures instead!

“I’d been counting on getting this grant,” Lisa told me. “I thought I was going to get it.” But she didn’t. She was devastated.

Lisa had come to Loyola on a Saturday, as I had, to attend a workshop looking at ways for institutions to work better with communities. I was there by way of my new job at Loyola, which is all about figuring out how to connect teachers, researchers, and classrooms with communities. The workshop leaders, De’Amon Hodges and Caitlin Childs, suggested that institutions could lead better and accomplish more by “stepping back”: rather than swooping in like golden angels to “save” communities, institutions should listen to what the community wants to accomplish, responding to goals instead of needs, energies and capabilities and gifts instead of deficits and problems.

This approach, they  said, could break down barriers between institutions and communities and even lead, in De’Amon’s words, to celebration and “mutual delight.” It has an uninspiring name: assets-based community development (ABCD for short). But it’s  an inspiring approach nevertheless.

As I listened to De’Amon and Caitlin, and all of the people at the workshop, which included community activists, various Loyola people (including a few students), government officials & politicians, and people simply involved in their city neighborhoods, one thing really struck me. A big question people in the community have for institutions like Loyola is simply this: How can institutions say they are invested (in principle) in communities, when they don’t invest (in principal, i.e., dollars) in those communities? Specifically, to the people in those communities? Why is it so hard to channel institutional resources—starting with simple, cold, countable cash—to actual people?

This isn’t just about giving away money. It’s about exchanging assets. It’s about equity. If you’re going to study a community, why wouldn’t you pay the people you’re studying just as you would expect to get paid to participate in a medical trial or weight-loss study? If you’re going to ask people to give their time to tell their story or give you a tour of the neighborhood or supervise your students while they learn how to work with kids or with elderly folks or people recovering from addiction, why would you not pay them? Time, bodies, local knowledge, experience, even passion and desire: these are all assets, are they not? Shouldn’t they be recognized and valued, and made visible, as such?

This is, indeed, a conundrum. It brought to mind a meeting I had a couple of weeks ago with the director of our office of community service and advocacy at Loyola. We were discussing my budget (another uninspiring, but important, subject). She emphasized that we needed to find ways to pay community members directly, even though the university generally disapproved of this practice. I was initially horrified to learn of this. “We pay our community partners?” I remember asking.

“Yes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they remain whole, no matter what happens in their interactions with us.” Especially, when those interactions don’t work out as well as we hoped. Which inevitably happens.

I now understand this. But the stark necessity of it became clear to me yesterday. Lisa had told her story to our entire group, bringing us, as I said before, to tears. I introduced myself to her after the workshop ended, which is when she showed me the pictures. She had clearly brought them to the workshop because she needed to tell her story. She needed to show someone those pictures of the kids at the rodeo. This is what she needed to become whole: for someone to know.

She also said to me, “I came to this workshop today because I want to know, does Loyola know about McElderry Park?” This question stopped me in my tracks. Does Loyola know about this neighborhood? I honestly had no idea. I fumbled an answer about how I’d had students do service-learning at an after-school program in Collington Square, another East Side neighborhood which I thought was nearby (though I wasn’t exactly sure), and I knew we worked with other organizations in East Baltimore (though again, I wasn’t quite sure if any of them served people in her neighborhood). But I had to admit, I really didn’t know if Loyola really knew much about McElderry Park. Our efforts, frankly, are focused on neighborhoods closer to Loyola’s campus, and our relationships to specific organizations rather than to communities.

She pressed me further. “I want to know, what can Loyola do about this?” She picked up the rejection letter she had brought along with her pictures, a thin, letter-size envelope with a cellophane window and pre-printed postage, very official looking. “Does Loyola show people like me how to get grants like this?”

“Well, no,” I said.

But couldn’t we? Needn’t we? The dean of our business school told me a few weeks ago that she had helped orchestrate the establishment of a Kiva program in Baltimore (Kiva is a microlender that uses crowdfunding to fund small-scale entrepreneurs; they started in so-called developing countries but have started programs in economically depressed areas in the U.S.). That’s great. But are we just going to make the money available, or are we going to help people get it?

And how much money are we talking about? How much money can make a difference? During the workshop, De’Amon described his own foundation, The Learning Tree, which gives $500 to people with projects they want to pursue to benefit the community. During the workshop, he showed how even $500 can make a big difference.

So I asked Lisa how much money she’d applied for.

“$660,” she said. This number astonished me. It also made me recall my morning conversation with my neighbor about his wife’s $57,000,000 grant.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far from McElderry Park. In fact, the hospital campus forms the western border of the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and remains contested gang territory. Many blame Johns Hopkins directly for some of the problems suffered by the neighborhood. Despite that, residents have doggedly remained, turning vacant lots into community gardens, blighted properties into murals, publishing a great neighborhood newspaper—and, I discovered, taking their kids to the rodeo.

McElderry Park, photo by Rob Cardillo (


This juxtaposition got me wondering about the actual difference between institutional and community resources. So I did some research (that skill is one of my assets, right?) And here’s what I found.

In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine received over  $400,000,000from the National Institutes of Health alone. In the same year, demographic info on McElderry Park set the average home price at about $50,000, average annual income less than that. I’m not sure how much money is invested in the community in the form of schools, urban infrastructure, and social/community services, but I’m sure it comes nowhere close to $400 million dollars.

Research funding received by Johns Hopkins in 2013 and 2014 from the National Institutes of Health, from Johns Hopkins Medicine at a Glance 2014-2015,
2013 house values in McElderry Park, from

I find it interesting that the JHU graphic states that the grant money enables them to “study” over 8 million patients worldwide. Does that actually mean they are serving them, or just studying them? And I’m also curious to know, how many of those 8 million live in McElderry Park? How many of them aren’t being served because they can’t afford to pay? Maybe one of you reading this can provide some heartening answers.

Now, Loyola doesn’t get anywhere near this kind of research investment. But the disparity between the resources we have and the financial resources many in our community have access to still raises the same questions. We need to figure out a better way to get resources to people in the community who have ideas and energy and passion to make the world—their world, our world—a better place.

So, I have it in my head now to establish some kind of grantwriting workshop for community members, maybe bringing some faculty and students in the business school, but also writing, English, communication together to have workshops with people seeking grants. Nothing particularly glamorous, but obviously, necessary. Especially if they’re going to have any chance at getting those Kiva grants.

And, a coda. In this new job I am constantly reminded of community assets, assets that accrue to me and my own work. I mentioned earlier that I’d never heard of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Who knew that there was a black rodeo circuit—and that there’s actually a rodeo in Maryland every year featuring black riders and wranglers? I teach a course on the American West, and have always been interested in the unexpected ways that ethnic and racial minorities participate in American history and culture. Lisa gave me something great I can now bring into my course on the West, and maybe incorporate into future research. I’m chagrined that I did not even thank Lisa for this gift during our brief conversation. But I hope to make it up to her someday.




A cooler, a rickey, a cure for what ails you


I went to the Library of Congress this week to look at newspapers on microfilm. Amid the blur of tiny type, I ran across this little gem:



Now you’ll know what to drink if you’re summering in Manhattan or Manhattanville, Newport or Saratoga. Or if you happen to be attending a political convention. It looks like the “Mugwumps by way of drinks” have long outlasted their human counterparts.

I transcribed the piece below for your reading convenience. Enjoy, and let me know if you actually try out any of these cocktails! Speaking for myself, the champagne cup sounds like a refreshing antidote to a hot July day.

Favorite Summer Drinks in the City and the Seaside

New York World Sunday Magazine, July 11, 1897, p. 37

The man who goes to a summer resort and makes an error in the choice of his iced drinks commits a solecism which no amount of social prestige will balance. For example, let a man drink beer at Newport, publicly and openly, or even in the supposed privacy of his high-priced temporary home, he is literally done for by the ignoble act and may never hope to atone an ignorance which no moral qualities can qualify.

Therefore, if you want to do the swagger thing, find out the latest fad in summer beverages of the spot you honor by your presence and stick to the tipple of the place.

A man who takes his life in his hand and goes to Coney Island—and goes to the right end of it, which is Manhattanville, of course— should say good-by to his Manhattans and Martinis, assume a tired air and in a blasé voice call for a “Remsen cooler,” which is a thing of joy, composed of old Tom gin, lots of ice, a bit of lemon peel, sugar and plain soda. Of course, he may drink champagne at his dinner. The cooler is for the porch.

At Brighton dull care is relieved by the “Caledonia cocktail,” an insidious concoction composed of orange bitters, Scotch whiskey and French vermouth. It is well to begin late in the day on the Caledonia cocktail if you intend to make a record and not disgrace yourself. There is a rival to the Remsen cooler in a drink known at Brighton as the “Walton cooler.” It is a jangle of imported ginger ale, whiskey, cracked ice, a dash of lemon juice, sugar and fruits of the season. Walton coolers are delicious and not particularly deadly.
The “bath frappe” is the proper thing after your morning dip, and is fascinating to the eye and delicious to the palate. It is brought about by union of claret, green chartreuse, shaved ice, sugar and a dash of brandy. Excellent physicians are in attendance at all of the leading hotels in Manhattanville.

Should you wander to Saratoga you are certainly old enough to know that you go for the waters. The waters are excellent, but you will drink, if you wish to be in good form, a white champagne for your dinner and the “country punch” at odd times. The country punch is a mixture of maraschino and curacoa [sic], shaved ice, lemon and Medford rum. The country punch is a misnomer, and may prove a merry jest to you if you permit yourself to think for a moment that it partakes of rural innocence.

The “maiden’s dream” is a Saratoga favorite, and would seem to indicate a rather killing pace for the Saratoga maid. It is a delectable scheme worked out in rum, cordials (two or three), a dash of a favorite cocktail, dry gin, orange bitters and lemon juice. The “maiden’s dream” is a combination to lay bets on. Saratoga mineral springs are much appreciated after a course of country punch and maiden’s dream.

If you live to get away from Saratoga you will be pleased to know that a camp-meeting is in progress at Atlantic City, and that lemonade, ginger pop and root beer are yours to swear by.

Suppose, however, as a man of fashion, that you take your outing at Newport. As you value your future, so will you order your champagne or your champagne cup served during your elaborate dinner, and make no mistake, for you must order it with the first course and abide by it to the bitter end.

If you do a bit of golf you will refresh yourself with a “silver fizz,” “golden fizz” or a “Scotch high ball.” “Scotch high ball,” which is the golf drink much in vogue, is a combination of a long glass filled with cracked ice into which a glass of Scotch whiskey is poured and on to that a bottle of club soda.

Champagne cup should be made for a quart jug as follows: One pint champagne, one bottle club soda, one pony brandy, one pony orange curacoa [sic], all kinds of fruit in season, a piece of ice as big as you can get in the jug and, to top off, a fragrant bunch of mint.
Drinks are classified. The man of fashion and the chappie would never condescend to swallow beverages in favor with the politicians.

Political drinks change as regularly as their owners change their styles in hat-bands. There are straight political drinks that have a standing record, and a high one, and are composed chiefly of whiskey. There are also some political Mugwumps in the way of drinks.

For example, the “high balls” and “gin rickeys.” The Board of Aldermen devote themselves during the summer to the rural pursuit of gathering “gin rickeys.” They are active, it is said, in their efforts, and leave a barren field behind them at the end of a long summer day. The gin daisy is a plant that grows in a long glass. Orange peel is sowed in the bottom, a short teaspoonful of loaf sugar is added, some pounded ice and old Tom gin to fill up the glass, and the daisy blooms.

The “statesman’s cocktail” is a drink beloved indiscriminately by politicians high and low. It is made up by putting a dash of syrup into a big glass, equal parts of Hostetter’s bitters and vermouth and a filler of Medford rum. The “statesman’s cocktail” is said to be a convincing argument and speaks volumes for the power of politics.

When you have drunk your fill of all these delicious compounds and want to repeat, you may hie to Richfield Springs, and there you will be regaled with the sulphur water, which is the only drink at Richfield. It is fragrant—of sulphur. It is suggestive of a spot which shall be nameless, and it is excellent if one is in a reflective mind with a tendency to view the virtues of total abstinence with reverence.

research, writing

A writing retreat

Matt said he was trying to help me jumpstart my summer writing when he packed me off for a few days to our cabin in WV for a 3-day writing retreat. I think he was really just sick of being surrounded by all my books and needed a break from them—and from  me wanting to talk about them. Out here on my own, I can make as big a mess as I want, stay up writing as late as I want, and eat as badly and as erratically as necessary.

The scene inside: stacks of Stephen Crane and trusty Scrivener on-screen.

I’m devoting a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs to Stephen Crane. What? Did Stephen Crane ever laugh? you may be asking. The author of the grimly symbolic Red Badge of Courage (1895), the hopelessly deterministic Maggie: Girl of the Streets (1893)? The writer who described winter in Nebraska as follows:

Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea. (“The Blue Hotel’—my favorite Crane story)

I don’t know whether Crane laughed much himself, but some of his sentences make me laugh. In “The Open Boat,” he has his four characters, stranded on a 10-foot dinghy in the middle of the ocean, repeat the same existential question to themselves as they row, and row, and keep trying to row to shore: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

I can’t help it. This passage cracks me up. My students are afraid to laugh at Stephen Crane, but I think they should let themselves go. It might do them some good.

In my book chapter, I’m exploring the grotesque humor that marks Crane’s work from the very beginning of his career. Some of his earliest published—and unpublished—work feature exploding babies, pet dogs thrown out of windows (I admit that this story, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is simply horrifying and not comic at all), lots of incoherent drunkards, and people who generally stumble, directionless, through life.

But there is something essentially comic about Crane. And that’s what I’m writing about right now. I’m planning to discuss some of the sketches I’ve just described, as well as “The Men in the Storm,” “The Five Blind Mice,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Monster,” and “The Price of the Harness.” I might throw “The Blue Hotel” in, too.

I took lots of notes and did a lot of freewriting, and returned home to Baltimore all set to do some proper writing.

While I was out in WV, I was able to get a few hours of gardening in, separating the mountain laurel shrubs I’d planted too close together in April, planting some lilies of the valley a neighbor let me dig up from her yard, and weeding. Lots of weeding. (Weeding helped me feel virtuous about taking a break from reading/writing.)

Everything is looking good right now. Each year things look a little less stark, a little more natural. It’s tough when you can only tend things every few weeks or so.

Can’t wait until the monarda start blooming! By then, I hope to have this chapter on Crane drafted.


Their Books of Zen

I cannot help but use this post to brag on my students. I posted earlier in the year about the “Journal of Zen” assignment I’d given my first-year students this semester, and they SO delivered. The culmination of the semester was that they had to create a book to hold and express their understanding of “zen” in their own lives– what brought them peace, revelation, happiness.

We spent a couple of days learning to make books in class, and they then selected one or more items from their journals to use as the basis of their books. They put their books on display, with “artists’ statements,” today, and then we all voted on which books should be included in the campus exhibit, which will be on view in the student center outside the Julio Art Gallery from Wed., Apr. 27, through finals.

Their projects were thoughtful and inspiring. The juried selection process gave them an opportunity to see everyone’s work and give props to their classmates. They learned so much about themselves—and one another!

I hope that they will keep these books and look at them every so often to remind them of things that can be so easily forgotten in the hurry-scurry of everyday life.

academia, research

This just in!


My first book, in all its academic glory.

Just this week, I discovered a new review of my first book. The book was published in 2002; the review was published in 2005—appearing in a journal I’ve never heard of before (Women: A Cultural Review)— and written by someone I don’t know, one Sarah Meer. The review was very nice (thank you, Sarah!), and I can now add it to the stack of two (2) others I know to have been published. Ever. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll find out about another review that was published in, say, 2006.

It boggles my mind that it’s taken ten years for this review to finally reach me. For whatever reason, publishers of academic books don’t seem to keep track of where their books are reviewed, or perhaps they do, and it just slips their minds to tell the authors. We are supposed to keep track of our own reviews. And reviews, as you see here, can sometimes (usually, actually) take years to appear. The wheels of academe sometimes move so slowly that it’s hard to tell they’re moving at all. To mix metaphors, I’m not going to waste my time watching the grass grow.

Of course, I seriously doubt that my book was reviewed all over the place and I just happened to miss it. But you do have to wonder if there are any others.

With a publicity system like this, who needs enemies?

It’s baffling, especially since academics increasingly need reviews to show that their work is being read and valued. Even more, given how long these sorts of books take to write, how hard they are to get published, and how few people read them, a review is like a little glimmer of light off in the distance, showing you you are not absolutely, entirely, and terribly alone in the desert.

Oh well. In case you’re curious, here’s the bit about my book. The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton, incidentally, is about a half-Chinese Canadian writer who adopted a Japanese-sounding pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and wrote popular romance novels about geishas and the like (in the vein of Madame Butterfly) about 100 years ago. She was an opportunist and a poseur, but I argue that writers like her challenge us to rethink what it means to be an “ethnic” American writer, as well as what it means to have an “authentic” ethnic voice.

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If this piques your interest, you can check out books by Winnifred that have been reissued—A Japanese Nightingale (co-edited by yours truly), The Heart of Hyacinthher fictionalized autobiography, Me: A Book of Remembranceand Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model … or you can read any number of works & stories I’ve collected into the Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which is stored on this site. If you’re just interested in her biography (she lived a very interesting life), you should check out Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, by my friend & fellow blogger, Diana Birchall, who also happens to be Winnifred Eaton’s granddaughter. Diana really brings Winnifred to life in all her burnished glory.

academia, writing

Full retreat

This is what my spring break (yes, it’s early!) has looked like thus far: me, my computer, stacks of books, in the library. Yep, that’s right: Profs Gone Wild!

I’ve been joined in the library this week by a half-dozen or so intrepid colleagues from around campus. We’re all trying to write. We’re all trying to shift gears from our day-to-day semesterly grind to devote some solid, untinterrupted time to our research.

Unfortunately, being on this retreat has reminded me—oh halcyon days!— of what being on sabbatical was like. Fifteen months of doing almost nothing but research. While the reminder certainly made me nostalgic, this week I also realized why I have such a hard time doing research and writing while I am also teaching. And serving on committees. And all that day-to-day semesterly grind-y crap.

I realized this week that when I am writing, a switch flips in my brain that basically makes me useless for anything but writing. On Monday, I ended the day, satisfied with the 6 or so pages I wrote, and came home with a stack of books but no backpack. Which also meant, no laptop, no notebook, no notes. (Luckily, no one uses the library during spring break, so I recovered backpack, computer, notebook, and all the next morning.) Then, after deciding on Tuesday that I wasn’t satisfied with those pages after all, I started over again, wrote another 8 pages, and went to bed, satisfied but exhausted. And then sat up bolt upright at 3am with a Great Idea and decided to start over again … at 4:30 am. And aside from a few breaks, I’ve been at it since then. A good 11-hour day of writing. If your brain isn’t a bowl of overcooked noodles after than, I’m not sure what it is.

I can’t do this and actually teach anyone about anything. I can barely dress myself this week. Luckily Matt is a good sport about all this.

I am starting to suspect that the reason why I have only been able to write in fits and starts, during breaks—mostly during the summer—is because that is, in fact, the only way I am able to write. Lots of academic productivity coaches advocate writing every day, even if it is just 30 minutes. I tried and abandoned this experiment on sabbatical, and my experience this week confirmed again that this method just doesn’t work for me.

I would love to know if it works for you!

teaching, writing

My book of Zen

It’s been a long time since I’ve last posted, but I have been writing–a lot. Over the past few months I presented a conference paper that I was asked to turn around immediately into an article (done as requested), wrote an academic book review, and written a piece of local history for the Bolton Hill Bulletin, my neighborhood newsletter (which I’m now co-editing).

I also witnessed, finally, the publication of an essay based on the blog posts I wrote last April and May in the weeks after the death of Freddie Gray around the corner from my house. I’m especially proud of this piece, “The Accidental Activist,” because it was solicited by The Concord Saunterer, a journal devoted to the study of Henry David Thoreau. I don’t study Thoreau—in fact, I engaged in a somewhat perverse resistance to Walden throughout my teens and twenties—so to be invited to comment on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in light of the events in Baltimore was gratifying, to say the least. (I also used the occasion to pay some penance for my earlier misdirected hostility toward Walden.)

And of course, I’ve been doing lots of other writing since returning to teaching after my year-long sabbatical. Handouts, emails, Tweets (see right), comments on student papers, lecture notes, committee reports and proposals: this is the kind of writing that sucks dry, drop by precious drop, anything that might have collected at the bottom of the creative well.

So it’s been hard to write here on the blog. None of this is a surprise, but it’s no less deflating.

But I have taken a cue from an assignment I developed for my first-year students this semester, and which, on a lark, I decided to do alongside them. The assignment is called “Your Book of Zen.” It’s inspired by the “moment of zen” with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of the Daily Show. All students need to do is to keep a bound journal and at the end of each day, briefly write about a “moment of zen” they experienced that day.

The moment of zen might be a moment of hilarity or intense irony, as it so often was on Stewart’s show, or simply a moment of balance. It might even be a moment of realization, an epiphany.

You might wonder why I have incorporated this assignment into a Gen Ed class called Understanding Literature, which, as its title implies, promises nothing but boredom. In it, students toil away learning the ins and outs of terms they thought they already knew “from high school,” as they like to say: metaphor, sonnet, symbol, synecdoche.

The scope and stated goals for the course already make it a tough sell. And the millenials I’m teaching, to tell the truth, make it harder. While they are very caring, and earnest, and kind, they are simply not very creative or prone to risk themselves, either psychologically or intellectually. Preserving their own safety, as so many have been talking about lately, is their modus operandi.

I am just as frustrated as any frustrated Gen Xer at the current state of things. But rather than throw triggers in their faces, or tell them to suck it up because life is hard, nasty, brutish, and short (and then you die), I wondered if there might be ways to lure millenials out of those “safe spaces” that have been built around them all their lives, to make risk-taking appealing rather than scary, something they might willingly choose to do, even want to do. I wondered if they would they risk their safety to experience the thrill of something new? To experience unexpected joy?

It seems to me that only by taking these sorts of risks can one actually understand literature. For that is what writers themselves do, and want their readers to understand: risk-taking. They risk their language, their emotions, their intellect: they flay themselves open and call upon the vultures to feed, and the next day, they do it all over again, all in the service of that moment of enlightenment, of realization, of coming-into-being, of zen.

(I am pretty sure I am totally misapplying the actual concept of zen here, but I hope you get what I mean.)

Maybe if they can see the zen in their own lives, my thinking goes, they’ll be able to see it in someone else’s writing or art. But mostly, I would just like for them to feel it for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Walden, now that I’ve actually learned to appreciate it, is where Thoreau says he went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” I want them to taste that marrow and savor it.

So far, we have only been keeping our zen journals for a couple of weeks. Most of the students still seem pretty baffled by the whole idea. But some, I can see through my skimming of their entries, are starting to get it. A few of the more well-adjusted, mature students are really seeming to enjoy it.

Initially, I, too, was a bit baffled. Students asked me what to write if they did not have a moment of zen on a particular day (millennials love rules) and I just told them to write, “No zen.” I wrote that myself a couple of times in the first week. But we have discovered together that if you give yourself enough time to think, and actually notice what you are doing during the day, it’s not hard to find a moment of zen every day. It’s a good feeling to have.

If you pray regularly, meditate, or already keep a journal, I’m probably not telling you anything new. Indeed, my Book of Zen assignment is a stripped down and secularized version of the five-step reflection process developed by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of my university: the examen.

The beauty of the Book of Zen is that it really only takes about a minute or two—literally—every day. In only a few weeks, I now find it one or two of the best minutes of my day. It is so good to end the day knowing 1) that something cool did in fact happen, and 2) that I actually wrote something.

Perhaps it’s ok that I’ve let long-form blogging slip these days. I decided to set aside a couple of hours this morning to write this entry, just to keep a foot in the door here, but I do so in part because I know I will not be able to devote a couple of hours to the blog for the next few months. In the meantime, I may post a few Book of Zen entries.

For instance, as I put this post together, I watched the sun gradually illuminate the stand of trees outside our little house in West Virginia, against a startling blue sky that only appears in wintry places. Deciding to write this post instead of getting right to work gave me a chance to see it. That’s my moment of zen for today. I already know it.

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Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: the ballad, at last

When I went on sabbatical a year ago last May, one goal I had was to write a poem each week, adopting a different form of poetry each week. As the weeks and months went by, I had fun writing lots of different kinds of poems– limericks and double dactyls and haikus to begin with, then sonnets, and so on. One form I tried and failed many times to write was one of the simplest: the ballad. Stock-in-trade of plangent singer-songwriters everywhere, I just couldn’t write one that didn’t sound trite or stupid. Funny ones, sure. But serious ones? Seriously.

My difficulty with this form made me gain measures upon measures of respect for all those songwriters. Sure, some really dumb ballad lyrics were helped along and probably carried by great melodies, a chunky guitar riff, or even some crazy funky drumming, but the words remain.

And then, there are the poets who specialized in the ballad. I’d already learned to admire these poets, but my experience trying to write this form– stanzas of four lines each, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and rhymed iambic trimeter– made me realize that this form, so easy to write, is one of the hardest to write well. My cap’s off to you, Emily Dickinson, who wrote over a thousand of these suckers, each one seemingly more simple yet more profound than the last. Here’s one that gets at the heart of the matter:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

I just couldn’t put the Weekly Poem Project to bed without writing a ballad. It just didn’t seem like I’d finished the project without having written one. This weekend, a line finally came to me, and I put a poem together. It is workmanlike at best, and maybe ends up benefiting from not taking itself too seriously, but it seems to fit the subject. The subject is my dog, Lucy.

She is totally unremarkable in every way, and is actually one of the dumbest animals I have ever known. However, I am very attached to her. And I will say– she does her job, which is basically to bark loudly at people who don’t belong in our house, and to remind me that life, in the end, is really just about eating, sleeping, and getting some attention. Many possibilities, I’ve discovered, dwell here.


My dog is not loyal, or wise.
She pricks her ears up smart
If there should be a beefsteak near.
In this, there is no art.

She eschews begging, not because
To do so would be crass.
It just never occurred to her
To send a hint, or ask.

She enjoys a rub behind the ears,
A walk is always nice.
Baths, she’s willing to tolerate.
She’s somewhat afraid of mice.

On questions of philosophy
She’s troubled not one bit.
This is why she gives me joy.
I count on her for this.