nerd holiday

Yesterday, my brain cells jumped into gear and I realized Damn, it's a holiday. Why haven't I been reading anything good?

I've spent the first week of my break watching a lot of movies, dealing with holiday stuff, and fitfully looking through the crappy novels I picked up on my last trip to the public library. So I actually did a little prep beforehand, looking up some titles that had been mentioned on various blogs and so forth, and discovered that the only copy of Quicksilver available in the whole city system was, amazingly, at the branch closest to my house! So I dashed over there to pick it up before anyone else could get it. And then, after yoga, I went to the main library downtown, where I totally hit the jackpot. I had already put a hold on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, because the computer had shown that there were no copies available -- but when I walked in, there was one sitting on the Bestseller table in the front. Score!

So now I have two massively huge novels that I've been wanting to read for a long time. I also picked up Frances Itani's Deafening, which looks really interesting, and a couple of other things that I found by browsing. Hopefully I've shaken off the bad browsing spell that accursed my last library trip and can settle into a few days of pleasure reading.

Oh, yeah, I started JS & Mr N last night -- I'm only about 80 pages in, but I'm really enjoying it. It's got a nineteenth-century flavor to the narrative style, faux footnotes (which I always love) and smart fantasy. Sort of like Philip Pullman meets Anthony Trollope. But it's actually better than that. More sustained commentary to follow in the days ahead, I'm sure . . .


someone remembers me

I'm so excited. My mother emailed me to ask if she should forward a card that was sent to her house (and actually forwarded to her new address, thankfully) from an old college friend of mine who I've been out of touch with for close to fifteen years.

Now, to provide some context. This is actually a guy I'd like to be in touch with, have thought about intermittently over the years, and even googled a couple months ago. So I knew what kind of law he was practicing and where he was living. But I hadn't emailed him -- because, although I google people all the time to find out where they are and what they're doing, I very rarely actually email people from my past. Did it once or twice and got no response back, and decided it was just a little too socially risky for my taste. Because, if you googled my real name, you'd find my university site within the first ten results. So if you had a couple of relevant key terms, or was a pretty good guesser about what I went on to do, you'd figure out it was me pretty darn quick. And no one has ever emailed me out of the blue. So the idea for me to email people (and we're talking about people in the 3rd or 4th or 5th layer of friendship, not formerly close friends) and possibly not have them even remember who I am feels way too risky. Because I'm actually kind of shy and wallflowerish and even worse than being unremembered would be to make it obvious that I'm unremembered.

I've been pretty good about keeping in touch with some friends from the different places I've lived, and different stages of my life. But I'm always curious about the people I didn't keep up with. If we'd had email when I was in college, I'm sure I would have kept in touch with far more people -- but that was the dark ages, back when you had to actually use pens and postcards and stuff.

Now, this guy J who apparently sent some sort of holiday card to my mom's address was a pretty good friend for two or three intense years in college. But by the time we graduated we'd sort of drifted into different social circles and so we didn't keep up with each other for very long. I'm so psyched that he not only remembers me, but went to the trouble to try and write! The only thing holding me back from emailing him right now is that I want to wait and see what he said in the card. So hopefully my mom will actually follow through and mail it to me.

holiday card roundup

So yesterday I finally sent out a few holiday cards, hopefully just in time for the new year. I just didn't have my act together this year to get them done before Christmas. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing, too, since two of my childhood friends with whom I still exchange once-a-year greetings had moved in the past year and I didn't yet have new postal addresses for them until their cards to me arrived. And I got a whole slew of cards on the 27th, so other people are also not quite "on time" this year.

Once again, we didn't get around to taking a picture of us and the dogs and making photo cards. I keep thinking that some year we'll do this. We did snap a cute picture one year, but then I just emailed it to people. There are so many friends for whom I only have email addresses, now, that the tradition of handwritten cards, which I really do like, is withering away despite my best efforts.

When I send holiday cards, I always write in them. Just a brief note about a couple of things that have happened lately. I hate receiving store-bought cards that just have a signature (got 2 or 3 of those this year). Why bother? If they're photo cards, or cards with a photo enclosed, then at least the photo is personal.

iBeth asks some good questions about the conventions of sending photos with holiday cards. Many of my friends had their children somewhat late, within the past couple of years, so now I'm inundated with toddler pics. Like Beth, I much prefer the pictures of the whole family, which at least includes my friend, since I have never even met most of these children.

Although I didn't make photo cards this year, I did enclose a picture of our dogs with some people's cards. G & W are a huge part of my life, and my note to people sometimes included news about them. And I felt a wish to share a picture back to people in exchange for the babies. And, to be truthful, some part of my brain was really sick of the whole baby-centered thing and wanted to shake it up a little. Which I'm sure they won't understand. But that's OK. Many years ago, a friend who had moved off the grid sent me a picture of her goat at Xmas. I kept it on the fridge for a long time, as a joyful reminder that families take many forms.


Susan Sontag 1933-2004

The news of Susan Sontag's death from cancer this morning marks the end of the era of the "public intellectual." Of all the candidates for such a post who have occasionally been trotted out in front of TV cameras, Sontag suited the label more than any others. She managed to be taken seriously by academics, by literary snobs & critics, and by readers of all stripes interested in the wide range of topics she wrote about.

I first read her famous essay on camp ("Notes on Camp") when I was in high school. As an alienated, bookish, lesbian with arty pretensions in a smallish midwestern town, coming across this piece was more than a breath of fresh air. It offered me some terms to begin thinking about the pop culture that I loved (Boy George, most specifically) that both acknowledged a contemporary queer aesthetic and pointed towards its place in a larger cultural history. Suddenly David Bowie made more sense as the serious artist I knew in my gut that he was. Camp helped explain the popular icons of gay male culture (because remember, in 1983 there wasn't much in the way of icons of lesbian culture -- just folk singer types-- but that's for another post) , helped drag be more meaningful to me, and encouraged my reading in the gay literary tradition.

As I continued to explore aesthetic theory and the early beginnings of gay/lesbian and then queer studies, I began to disagree with some of Sontag's claims in that essay, and with some of her later writings on photography and art. But she was there to disagree with -- writing in a clear, accessible style, about topics of historical and contemporary significance. Her book AIDS and Its Metaphors cleared a path for a whole slew of later studies in sexuality and representation. But also importantly, it got the attention of more mainstream, non-academic readers too.

Within the g/l/q community, Sontag's long-term companionate relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz has frequently been termed a lesbian relationship. Yet although Sontag had admitted in an interview to having been involved with both men and women (she was married in the 50s, had a son, and divorced in the mid 60s), she was extremely private about her personal life, and occasionally threatened journalists with legal action if they referred to her as part of a "couple" with Leibovitz. The two were frequently seen in public together for approximately 10 years, and had apartments in the same building in Chelsea. Leibovitz gave birth to a daughter (at the age of 52) in 2001. The gossip pages claimed in 2003 that the couple had split because Leibovitz became involved with the child's nanny.

So, was Sontag romantically or sexually involved with Leibovitz? Was she a co-parent of the child? Was she "simply a friend" -- whatever that means? Whoever knows, isn't telling. If anything, one might remember Sontag and Leibovitz as a contemporary example of the difficulty for women's historians to pinpoint and name intense women's friendships from past centuries. (Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual" is the standard cite here.) Does it matter to us if they had sex? if they thought of themselves as being in love? if they loved each other? if they thought of themselves as lesbians?

As much as I want to acknowledge and value the ambiguity of human relationships, and to respect individuals' wish for privacy, part of me thinks it does matter. Because, given the highly public nature of their "friendship," its complete absence from any of the obituaries I've read seems notable to me. I have no way of knowing if that's due to Sontag's or Leibovitz's wishes, or to the reluctance of journalists to admit that people's lives don't always fit into neat heterosexual paradigms. But I'd like to include their relationship, whatever it consisted of, in some kind of spectrum of same-sex relations. (Note: I'm not calling them "lesbians" because I'm not advocating the extreme stance Adrienne Rich argued for in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum," which can serve to desexualize lesbian identity, rendering it paradoxically less visible even though that was not Rich's intention.) Without knowing more details, we can't actually pin labels. But I'd like to think that someone with whom Sontag shared so much time, space, and public visibility, could at least get mentioned. It seems like a kind of erasure to me.

Of course, if Annie did run off with the nanny, maybe Sontag was understandably pissed and dictated that she not be mentioned in the obits. Can you do that? Yet obits of straight famous people often mention past liaisons, with or without the sanctity of marriage.

In any case, Sontag's passing has struck a nerve for me, on several levels. She played an important role in my own intellectual development, first as an inspiration and later as someone whose work I fruitfully disagreed with. It's a loss.


the MLA

I'm not at this year's annual meeting of the MLA (Modern Language Association), the professional organization for academics in modern languages and literature. This is my second year in a row not attending the convention, for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I really hope to go next year, when it will be in DC, a city I know and love.

So the convention started today, and so the NYT has published one of those mocking little articles that tries to poke fun at paper titles from the convention. Every year a few major newspapers offer up such pieces, trying to show how extremely "out there" literature scholars are. The NYT writer, for instance, is extremely anxious about studies of queer/gay/lesbian topics and what he terms "Tragic hipness, multicultural agendizing and an almost abject embrace of low/popular culture." After pulling out a mere dozen or so titles from the conference programme (which usually encompasses about 800 papers) as supposedly representative, he complains: "What any of it has to do with teaching literature to America's college students remains as vexing a question to some today as it was a decade ago."

A few points have to be made. First off -- you have to really look closely at an MLA programme to find the "provocative" titles. Because most of the papers are, in fact, about really exciting stuff like "Copyright and the Public Sphere," Early Modern Hispanic Convent Literature," "The Comic Dickens," or "Faulkner's Style." (All examples pulled at random from a past convention programme -- I don't have the one for this year at hand.) But of course to actually report on what the convention is about would be far less amusing.

Secondly -- his final complaint, that the papers given at the MLA have little to do with teaching literature is wrong in so many ways. There are always numerous panels devoted to pedagogical topics, as well as panels focused on texts that are mainstays of the teaching canon. But more important, to my mind, because it's symptomatic of a larger problem we in literary studies have in terms of representing our work, is the assumption that what we do only has relevance in the classroom. Would a journalist ever think to demand that all the papers delivered at a biologists' convention be focused on teaching-related topics? Or a convention of sociologists? Because literature is frequently assumed to be something that anyone with basic literacy can enjoy (and I'm not disagreeing with that point), there's a false corollary that is sometimes also assumed -- that therefore anyone should be able to understand the highly specialized work of professionals in the field of literary studies. We don't all of us expect to be able to understand advanced physics without any training -- why should you expect to understand the intricacies of theoretical developments in literary studies without any training?

Such attitudes are not only the province of journalists looking for an easy laugh. They come up all the time in discussions with the Dean of our College (which combines humanities and social sciences), or on university-level promotion and tenure committees. Too many non-humanities faculty dismiss our work out of hand, or see us only as there to fulfill the most basic service needs of the institution (making sure students can read and write basic English). The challenge of representing our work to audiences outside the humanities is a real one, one which hasn't yet been adequately met by the MLA, although the organization has been trying. It has sponsored a series of radio programs and lectures that try to bring some ideas from current scholarship to a wider general public. But we face such issues within academia itself, from people you'd think would know better, since they themselves have advanced graduate training in their own fields. That's what's especially frustrating.


glumpy day 2

Profgrrrl is feeling kind of blue and I am too. Though not for the same reasons, obviously. I don't even know if I have "reasons." I'm just feeling kind of low and glumpy.

So I've started a reading menu of inspirational get-organized & get-focused books -- my standbys that have pulled me through many a rough patch in the past. I know that's one solution to the glumps, and I have several big organizing projects I want to do over the remainder of the break. I feel better when my space is clutter-free, but I've been struggling to manage my home office for a while, since it's a room that has to serve many different competing functions.

I also actually started doing some work today on a time-sensitive project that I need to finish in the next day or two. Not too interesting, but it has to get done.

So these are good steps. But somewhere around 10 pm I ran out of steam. But I'm not tired enough to go to bed, either.

I've been having a kind of "on hold" feeling, something that's pretty familiar to me during the holidays. I'm waiting for people I know to return from out of town, to return to their blogs, to return to ordinary routines. I want to phone some old friends this week to catch up after several months, but I feel like I need to wait a couple more days to make sure they're not in the midst of family things. A lot of people I know are going to MLA this year, and I'm not.

And the reflectiveness that the end of the calendar year brings isn't exactly cheering me up -- this year was pretty crappy for me, even though a couple of good events happened. Not as relentlessly traumatic as 2003, but not so great either.

I'm nervous about what might happen if I just allow myself to wallow in the glumps and sit on the couch all day watching movies. So I'm going through the motions: I went to the gym, I did some chores, I did some work. But I don't feel wholly present.

I just need to get my act together and shake this off.


bits and pieces from Xmas

  • In a break from our usual tradition, we held Dog Christmas and opened our own gifts around midnight of Xmas Eve -- we had to get up early (for us) today in order to get over to my gf's father's house today. It was fun, but I think I prefer the chance to lounge around in bed with coffee and presents instead.
  • I got up extra early, feeling very traditionally wife-ish, to do the cooking. I didn't have to do much: make chickpea-oat bake for we vegans, and a cranberry-apple crisp for dessert for everybody. We also brought rolls, but we bought them.
  • Spent several hours with my girlfriend's family: dad, brother & his fiance, and her paternal grandparents. Her grandparents are still going strong, although it's kind of scary that they still drive. Her grandfather doesn't hear much, partly because he leaves his hearing aid turned down. So grandma yells in his direction every so often. Then we'll get a piercing wail of feedback as he turns up the aid. It's sweet that they still have each other (into their 80s). But you also wonder what it's like for them, seeing their friends die off, feeling themselves getting out of touch with the world. But they're not the kind of people you could talk to about such things. So we just observe, and wonder what it will be like for us if we make it to their age.
  • Went to the dog park, which was fun.
  • Saw Lemony Snicket -- great look to the film -- the clothing, sets, etc. And I have to love a story with characters named Baudelaire! but it's not a must-see.
  • Our DVD collection has grown substantially this Xmas. There's something very comforting to know that I now have so many of my favorite 80s movies right at my fingertips . . .
  • I'm feeling kind of tired and glumpy now. Didn't get enough green veggies or enough protein today, plus it's a full moon. But I'm sure the issue is really more the holiday. It's kind of tough to spend it with someone else's family, even though I haven't spent it with my own since 1991. It's always kind of a weird day. I'm ready for tomorrow's quotidian routine.

yup, we're those kind of people

One of the best parts of Christmas is getting toys and treats for the dogs. They each have their own stocking, and we stuff them with toys, and give the stockings to the dogs to pull the things out of. Then we sit around and play and fuss over how much they like the new squeaky snake, or the bouncy rubber toy. We're total dorks, and we love our dogs.

Both of our dogs really like toys -- G, the puppy, likes things she can chew on (she manages to destroy most toys that claim to be for tough chewers, all of them except the Galileo and the Kong -- but she really enjoys shredding the other toys, so we get her some). G also likes things on ropes, or long toys like the snake that she can hold in her mouth and toss around. W likes stuffed toys with squeakers in them, and she is fanatical about little toys we call "puff" -- basically just a stuffed circle of fleecy fabric with a squeaker in it. (And I was interested to see when I looked for a link that the store calls them "puffs" too...) She carries a puff around everywhere with her for 2-3 months before it disintegrates from use. Other stuffed toys G and W love to play tug with and eventually gut them of their stuffing.

There is something purely joyful in playing with dogs -- they keep you in the here and now, in the moment. And you don't have to have fancy toys -- a tennis ball or a stick is good too -- but it is great fun when we can get them toys that they love. They also got some chews and a couple of dog cookies. It's party time at our house!


F**in cold

It is really cold here today. For our climate and our architecture, that is. I know there are plenty of people who routinely deal with worse weather -- in fact, I used to be one of them. But here's the thing: you experience temperature in a relative kind of way. If you're used to 50, then 30 feels cold. If you're used to 30, then that's normal. Etc. Plus you really do have to factor in how the buildings are made. When I lived in Chicago, for instance, we usually had to have the windows open because the radiators were blasting (we had no control over them in our building) and because the building was well-insulated. It's not like that in some other cities...here, when it is cold, you really feel it.

Anyway, this seems like a good day to wrap a few presents, drink tea, and try to read on the couch. I've got too much antsyness about work to just blow off another whole day. So I'm going to try and read. Though I'm not having a lot of success so far today getting focused...Tonight we'll go to a family party, and much of tomorrow will be family time as well. Then, I really do need to get organized about how I'm spending my break time, or it will slip away from me.

happy Eve, everybody!


a social adventure

So today I met up with someone I had only met once, to see a museum exhibit and have coffee. We'd met at a NaNoWriMo event, back when I was doing that, and she'd said "I'll email you" without our having exchanged emails. But I had told her my name, and where I taught, so she could easily look me up, which she did, and emailed me a week or two later. I was busy with end of term stuff, so we didn't get together until today.

This morning, I was going to post a note about how the effort to meet a new person to be friends with felt an awful lot like dating. I don't have very many friends here in this city -- several of my close friends have moved away in the past year or two, and during the year or two leading up to tenure, I was living kind of like a hermit, since I was really focused on my writing. I put a lot of effort into socializing during my first years in this city, when I was new in town and single. Since getting together with my partner, I've put more time/effort into that relationship and less into other, more diffuse, socializing.

It's hard to meet new friends -- I'm not really sure how you do it, in your mid-30s. Everyone I know (including me) is super busy with work/career stuff. And then many people my age are also busy with having kids, which mostly puts people out of the social circuit for 10-15 years. I know, I know, I could take a class somewhere, or join a discussion group, or a service organization... but I haven't had enough money, or time, or motivation, or focus to do something like that yet. Maybe next year.

Anyway, since this woman P seemed interested in getting to know me, I thought I'd say yes to her suggestion about getting together. It's been a long time since I met a new person who might be friend potential. So we met up today at the museum, and had a perfectly nice time. She's interesting, and very different from my initial impression. But . . .

It also turned out that although she's married and has 2 children, she identifies as a lesbian, is in an open marriage, and I think she was kind of interested in me. Which is kind of flattering, sure, but it is also a little weird, since I had not picked up on this beforehand (being thrown off guard by the husband and kids who were with her when I first met her). I was plenty surprised.

So I'm hoping we can maybe become friends and not have it be weird. But it also makes the project of finding some new friends seem even more daunting than it already did . . .

Flight of the Phoenix / Alexander

As previously noted, my girlfriend and I have been seeing a lot of movies, both in the theater and on DVD. From the past couple days:

I enjoyed Flight of the Phoenix -- it's exactly what it promised to be: an adventurous tale of a motley group of underachievers who have to band together and overcome great obstacles in order to survive. The over-confident pilot (Dennis Quaid) miscalculates and crashes his plane in the desert near Mongolia, forcing the passengers (the crew from an oil drilling site that's been disbanded by the corporate headquarters) to figure out what to do. The geeky guy (a platinum blonded Giovanni Ribisi, who is on my short list of quirky favorites) saves the day by being smart, which always makes me want to cheer. Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, and Sticky Fingaz spend lots of screen time with their shirts off, so it did make us want to run to the gym and lift weights, which probably isn't a bad side effect at this time of year. In short, if you have a couple of hours and a desire to go hit a matinee during the holidays, this one isn't bad.

Today we finally went to see Alexander -- we'd been putting it off until we could go to an early matinee, because we'd heard so many whiny complaints about its length (which is close to 3 hours). If you have any interest in the topic, and you don't already hate Oliver Stone, it's well worth seeing on the large screen for pure spectacle value. I was totally hooked into it, and didn't even notice the length, except for the fact that I had to leave to pee in the middle. Classical history and myth has everything a filmmaker could wish for: jealousy, pride, passion, revenge, murder, incest, the randomness of fate... I'm not a specialist in the area, so I can't make any comments on how the film is or is not "historically accurate." I don't really think that's only way to evaluate it. Visually it appealed to my historical sense enough to be credible for the 3 hours I was watching. (As well as beautiful/staggering in places.) The relationship between Alexander (Colin Farrell) and Hephaistion (Jared Leto) is really powerful and touching -- and I liked the film's casual acceptance of male homosexuality within ancient Greek culture -- Alexander's interest in men is shown as both part of that culture and also sometimes exceeding the expected roles or bounds. (For instance, his public acknowledgement of the boy dancer Bagoas causes friction within the ranks because it raises issues about Alexander's cross-cultural conquests and political goals.) Stone, or somebody, seems to have been reading up in Said's Orientalism -- I suspect for many nonacademic viewers his points about the conflicts between the West and the East will be either lost entirely or perplexing, since most Americans tend to think of "the East" as the "far East" -- China, Japan, etc, rather than what is now called the Middle East. Anyway, there's plenty to think about, but also plenty to just enjoy: Angelina Jolie gives a fabulously over-the-top performance as Alexander's snake-covered witchy mother Olympias; Anthony Hopkins sneaks in as Ptolemy; huge panoramic battles, and great campy splendorific scenes of Greek soldiers in short togas. Great fun.

tenuously connected thoughts

I'm in slow gear these days. Vacation mode. Honestly, I haven't had time to post because I've been spending every single minute either sleeping, watching movies, eating, or exercising. Which is a pretty great way to spend a couple of days.

I finally checked our academic calendar for spring: all hail the Calendar Gods who have granted me 27 more days before I have to teach again! This is perhaps the longest winter break we have ever had at my U -- it changes around year to year depending on how the moon's cycle intersects with the stock market (or some other set of equally random factors). So, I figure I can take a few days totally off right now before I start into my various plans for Accomplishing Great Things during the break.

Paranoid thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon when the back of my neck & head started to itch while we were at the movies:
  • spiders
  • fleas, mites, or parasites
  • allergic reaction to dusty movie theater
  • allergic reaction to whoever's head was in the chair before mine
It was probably just a reaction to the dry winter air and dry heat in the theater. But there's nothing like sitting in a dark theater worrying about insects crawling on you to make you feel squirmy.

Worst of all, we were at one of the megaplexes with the supposedly super-comfy seats that are kind of like airplane seats -- padded, wide-butted, with seat arms that can be raised up out of the way if you want to snuggle with your companion. But the un-comfy aspect of these chairs was the curvature of the seat back -- just like on many airplanes, for some reason, the top of the chair curves forward -- in a gentle C curve. I suppose this is to support a slump-shouldered person of so-called average height (which in airplane terms is what, 5' 8"?). But it doesn't seem very ergonomic, even for such a tall person. Well, I'm far short of that, so that such chairs push forward on my head and neck in a really unpleasant manner. I have to fold up my coat to make a cushion to sit forward of the curve, thereby bypassing most of the slouchy comfort of a padded chair. Why can't they just have a straight seat back like a regular chair? Is it for the weighty G-forces of airplane takeoff? Surely that isn't necessary in a frickin' movie theater. I suspect the theater folks think the chairs are comfortable. Are they, for those of you of mid-range height?



So we saw Spanglish last night, and I was pretty disappointed. I had moderate assumptions about what I was in for -- it's a James L. Brooks movie, after all, so I wasn't expecting anything arty or super-deep. But I liked Broadcast News, back in the day. And for the first half, or maybe even two-thirds, Spanglish was meeting my very moderate expectations. And then it all fell apart.

On the good side: several of the actors do a terrific job -- Tea Leoni & Adam Sandler, in particular (though I'm still trying to adjust to Sandler as a "serious" actor playing adult characters). Paz Vega isn't given very much to do, but she really shines in places. There are some great scenes sprinkled throughout the film. Also on the good side is the fact (I think unintentional) that a lot of plot lines/character arcs are left undecided at the film's end. There's an interesting tension in trying to show a budding connection/potential romance between people who cannot get together if the film is to maintain its relentlessly heavy-handed "family values" orientation.

On the truly heinous side: the idealization of the exotic Mexican domestic worker who will heal the fractured neurotic white family. Complete with a nauseatingly fake "Mexico" scene and a glossy airbrushing of border crossing.

Pretty awful: the villification of the competitive, ambitious professional woman (Leoni) who is falling apart after losing her job. She's continually made out to be monstrous, so as to increase our sympathies for her husband (Sandler), who's so super-nice as to be basically unreal.

Mediocre: This Film Needs an Editor. Still. As is, it lasted more than 2 hours and was so disjointed that some characters barely seemed to be in the film. Either there's a 3 1/2 hour director's cut somewhere, or maybe this was two separate movies that got mixed together.

Embarrassingly Bad: the frame narrative, which purports to be the housekeeper's daughter's Princeton application essay. Worst are the closing lines of the film, which want to have it both ways: to celebrate assimilation and yet also maintain the ideal of Exotic Hispanic Motherhood.

Basically, it's a film that lets upper-class white people feel good about hiring underpaid Hispanic workers to manage their children and their lawns because it shows us how their lives are full of simple beauty and deep truths about the necessity for repression. When they leave Mexico, Vega allows her young daughter "only one tear," in a gesture that is repeated at the film's end, as she and her daughter are leaving the Tomei/Sandler family's awkward, emotional, complicated embrace. Thus the film simultaneously rejects the idea of dialogue or communication (what Leoni attempts to achieve with Sandler many times, although not always in the best ways) and sentimentally idealizes silence: Vega's inability to speak English, Sandler's inability to hear his wife's words, and the cessation of their relationship before it ever really starts.

I expected the Hollywood idealizing of Vega's character. But I didn't expect it to be so badly handled as what I saw on screen. Don't waste your time on this one.


Actually, I got back from my trip late yesterday afternoon. But I've barely had any downtime since then. Got into town, took the dogs to the park, cleaned up the house and cooked dinner, then we went out to a movie. Got home, crashed. Got up early this morning to go to yoga, then my gf and I went out to complete our holiday shopping. Got home, walked dogs, changed clothes, had to go to a family party thing. Whew.

Though really, it's not that bad. Considering how much rushing around most people do this time of year. I don't have to buy gifts for very many people, or cook for 40, or bake a zillion cookies. Basically we got it all done online and today.

My trip to see my friend was good -- we just hung out, went to a museum, ate some good food. Nice to have a marker of the semester's end. I have a lot of things I want to do over the winter break -- I need some days off, but also have work and personal projects I'd like to make some progress on. First, though, I have to do some basic catching up -- laundry, household chores, blogging . . . between the end of the semester and then leaving town for a couple of days, I feel incredibly behind on the basics.

So tomorrow's plan I think looks something like this: yoga, read blogs, office, dogs, read blogs . . . One thing I noticed, as I was talking to my friend over the weekend, was how often I wanted to start sentences "I have a friend who..." or "Someone told me..." referring to those of you whose blogs I read regularly. And I really missed my daily checking in on people's lives, being off line for a couple of days. (In point of fact, I did say those sentences -- I just was sort of vague about how I know such people -- not wanting to explain it was all blog-related, since I'm sort of keeping my blog a secret from my academic IRL friends so as to preserve the thin veil of pseudonymity I'm still clinging to.)

More coherent thoughts tomorrow, I hope. (as I guess you're hoping too...)


notice of interruption

I'm going out of town for a couple of days to see an old friend. The last I heard, she no longer has internet access from home -- her university access got too sucky to deal with, and she doesn't want to pay for service herself. So she only has access at her office. Now, I couldn't live that way, but she says it suits her just fine. How will I survive -- for 2 1/2 days with no internet? I'll be burning up the highway on Sunday to get back here and assuage my withdrawal pangs...

So anyway, probably no blogging for a couple days.


closing out the semester

Turned in my grades today!! Yay!!

As always, a horrible sprint for the finish line, but I got 'em in. And I mailed out all the rec letters. Whew.

And immediately, I felt so much better, so much happier.

Though I was actually surprised at the range of grades in my "good" class -- they were a great group of students, I really enjoyed our discussions, and I fully expected to have a pretty high average grade. But some of them slacked off on turning in their weekly response papers or other assignments, and it really hurt their grade. I always warn them about that. Then, there were the 3 or 4 people who just didn't turn in their final paper, and didn't take the exam -- no email, no explanation, nothing. 2 of these were really good students, too. I'd have given them incompletes if they'd gotten in touch, explained the situation, asked for an incomplete. But they didn't, and so I had to give them Fs. (Of course, 95% of undergraduate incompletes turn to Fs in a year anyway, because they don't follow through. But it seems nicer to give them the chance if they want it.)

Remember Mr Text Messaging? Over the rest of the term he supposedly had a car accident which totalled his vehicle, hindering his ability to get to campus; his girlfriend's son had to have surgery; and his grandmother was sick. No, really. Really. The last time I spoke with him he was asking for an extension on the final paper -- I gave him the same one-week grace period I allow all my students (with a set penalty for lateness). He emailed me to ask if he could email it to me. I said yes. He never turned it in. He did well on the final (B or B-) but he had missed a bunch of earlier assignments. He got an F. Not even close to a D-. I triple checked everything, because he's just the sort of guy to try to file a grievance just because he thinks the world owes him extra favors. Oh, and the last time I saw him he also managed to be vaguely insulting to me, by implying that he thought I was a TA. Oh please. I'm so sick of this guy. I just hope he doesn't try to come and complain about his grade.


who needs to be grading exams??

Don't Trip
You will be smothered under a rug. You're a little
anti-social, and may want to start gaining new
social skills by making prank phone calls.

What horrible Edward Gorey Death will you die?
brought to you by Quizilla

I love Gorey. Though I'm jealous of Scrivener, who got the leeches, which seem like a much more gruesome way to go....

One of my favorite books as a child was You Read to Me, I'll Read to You, a delightfully twisted collaboration between Gorey and the poet John Ciardi. Poems about a boy with two heads, about being eaten by sharks, about eating rocks for breakfast. They're dark in the way that bookish children enjoy, and the pictures are fabulous. So I've been a Gorey fan since age 3 or so.

safe following distance

On my way to yoga this evening, the driver of a large SUV in the lane to my left swerved over into my lane, overlooking the fact that I was there. Luckily, I had several feet ahead of me, plus the gutter to my right, so I instinctively hit the gas and moved forward and right, avoiding the worst of the collision. We were on a crowded city street, moving only maybe 20-30 miles an hour, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Basically, she clipped off my driver's side mirror, but there was no major body damage. Shook me up, and it's really irritating to have to deal with duct-taping the mirror, etc, and eventually getting it fixed. But it could have been so much worse.

Last Sunday, my mom, who still lives in the town where I grew up, told me the latest from the local obituaries in the newspaper: the guy who had been my driver's ed instructor passed away recently. I hadn't thought about Reggie in a long time. We didn't have driver's ed in school -- it had been cut along with English and History electives for budgetary reasons. So you had to pay some money to one of the 2 driving schools in the town, if you wanted to get your learner's permit before age 16. (You weren't required to take a course to get a license, you just had to wait a year or prove that you were working and needed a license -- I come from a very rural/agricultural state.) So the summer I was 15 I went once a week for 6 weeks or something to sit in a room and watch videos of car crashes. Reggie was a pretty intimidating guy, whose pedagogy involved a mix of trying to scare us, embarrass us, and prove to us that we were not invincible. What I remember most is that he would pick on these two girls, Anitra and Margaret, who were sort of on the edge of the "popular" group. Neither of them had the money to really be in the popular crowd, but they made up for that by being kind of slutty. Anyway, Reggie started calling Anitra "Teflon" -- because, he said, "nothing sticks." There was something incredibly refreshing about a teacher who actually made fun of the popular girls for being dumb. Of course, it's not very nice -- but most of my teachers in high school weren't very nice to us either.

There were rumors that Reggie was also a dealer -- whether he was or not I'll never know. But one time as I was out on a practice drive with him, he asked me several times if I knew someone named "Michael Hash." I couldn't tell if this was code, or if he was really just asking. I just shrugged and said no.

Anyway, thanks to Reggie for teaching me enough about safe following distance to keep me out of harm's way today.

Ocean's 12

We took a break last night from all the end-of-term craziness and saw Ocean's 12. The best way I can describe the experience-- which I found delightful-- is by metaphor.

If most of your meals consist of 1 protein, 2 vegetables, and 1 complex carbohydrate -- whether that's standard "meat and sides" or all mixed up together in a pasta dish, stew, or stirfry -- then there's something especially tantalizing about tapas or dim sum. All the little bits of different foods -- it's up to you to combine them however you want, try as many different things you want, explode the concept of what a "meal" is. This movie is kind of like dim sum for your brain.

I liked Ocean's 11 well enough -- it was stylish,well done, and so forth. I never have seen the 1960 original movie, so I didn't have that to compare to. But it was enjoyable enough.

But this one, this was great. Back to the dim sum effect: you've got most of the actors from the first one, plus a couple, each of them simultaneously performing a character and also performing themselves playing the character -- that sounds more self-conscious and irritating than it actually was for me. They seemed like they were having a good time. And they weren't taking the characters too seriously. Instead, it's a romp that deftly swerves here and there into postmodern anachronism, then back into emulation of the caper genre. Throw in several beautiful cities, some awesome clothes, and one really amazing capoeira performance. Style, humor, lots of delicious little morsels for your eyes and brain.

If you want linear plot, if you want character arcs, if you want the standard caper -- then go somewhere where you get "meat and 3 sides." But if you like dim sum, this is your movie.


two versions of my day

Version 1:
  • just couldn't drag myself out of bed as early as I had planned, thereby not accomplishing several household tasks before I had to leave for campus
  • had to sit for 90 minutes in an Incredibly Boring Faculty Meeting in which an important document was not discussed as had been announced. Instead, we discussed the process by which we would begin discussing said document next semester.
  • grading, grading, grading
  • comments from colleagues suggest they're all glad I'm going to be taking on a certain administrative position next fall -- yet at the same time they make ominous comments about the potential decline in my research productivity. I know they mean well, but it's not helping my attitude.
Version 2:
  • I actually was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by 3 or 4 of the student projects I graded this afternoon -- students who really took creative risks, who got engaged with the topic and succeeded beyond their previously demonstrated capabilities. There sometimes actually are gems buried amidst all the detritus.
  • I went to a Bikram class for the first time in three weeks -- it's taken me that long to get over this horrendous virus. I was mostly over it middle of last week, but still too exhausted to even attempt doing a whole class. 3 hours later I'm still high from all the good brain chemicals yoga lets loose in your system.
  • Just had a great late-night romp in the yard with the dogs, who love the cold weather. The stars are visible for the first time in a long while, which makes me happy.

in solidarity

Jimbo's grading log is truly comforting to me. As are the comments there from Scrivener, Dr B, and so many others. I've finished grading the papers I have here at home with me, but tomorrow's going to be a truly ugly day for me, grading-wise. Some of my undergraduates turned in final projects that involve constructed items in addition to papers -- these are too unwieldy to take out of the office, so I have to get through 12 of them tomorrow. Plus finish 2 letters of recommendation that I've been dragging my heels about. Add to that a faculty meeting and a desperate attempt to make it to yoga class. Tuesday I give a final exam, whilst grading the last of my grad student exercises. Then grade the exams. Then, somehow, I'll be done, I suppose on Wednesday or at least by noon on Thurs when my grades are due.

But there's something really comforting to know so many others are in the same kind of position right now. Grading really is the worst part of the job. And when I was an undergrad, I had no earthly idea. I appreciated getting written comments from those (few) profs who gave them; and I liked it when we got papers back in a reasonable time frame. But beyond that I never really gave it much thought. As a grad student, I was teaching, so I had a much better sense. And therefore more reason to be frustrated by the lousy commenting/grading that most of our profs did. Some wouldn't hand back your seminar papers at all. So I do understand that it's important, for at least some students. And it's important to me to have fair and reasonable documentation for the grades that I assign -- even though, before I even grade those final papers and exams, I can usually predict 90% of the students' final grades. But because of those few who do improve dramatically or flake out abysmally, it's worth the attention. If only it didn't seem to turn my brain cells to jello...


potluck II

I am not really very good at remembering names. I have many strategies for learning them at the beginning of the semester, and have all my students memorized within a week or so. That's something I feel is important for my teaching. But after the semester is over, then those names start to slip away, as the data storage slot in my brain is filled with new names.
Last night at the party, though, I was in the Extremely Awkward position of talking with a former grad student (from 7 years ago) who had actually assisted me one summer with a research project -- he's back in our department after a hiatus. I also know his now-wife, who had been a student of mine as well. But I could not remember her name. Luckily my partner was with me, and so she eventually introduced herself and covered for me. Although I think my gaffe might have been obvious. (In a room full of introverted socially awkward people, maybe not.)

Question: would it be better to (1) appear rude in not introducing the woman, so that my gf did it herself (2) actually say, "I'm sorry, I don't remember your name?" I often self-deprecatingly go with #2 but in this case (I went to their wedding, fer goodness sakes) I didn't want to confess my stupidity for fear of seeming even more rude, if that was possible.

I'm going to have to start crafting an all-purpose excuse for memory loss, I guess. It's only going to get worse over the next few decades.

potluck I

Last night we went to a potluck holiday party given by one of my colleagues -- something of an annual tradition. Since I'm usually the only vegan in a room, and one of the minority of vegetarians, I often feel like there's some responsibility encumbent upon me to bring some amazing vegan item that will impress the carnivores and also ensure that I have something to eat. I have a couple of casserole-type things that I often bring to potlucks, but last night I went the super-easy route instead, with an olive tapenade:
1 cup kalamata olives
1 cup pine nuts
1-2 TBS capers
1-2 cloves garlic
1 TBS lemon juice
1 TBS olive oil
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp black pepper
parsley (optional)
Throw it all in a food processor until smooth. It helps if you process the pine nuts first before adding the other stuff, but it works out OK the other way.

Add a nice crusty bread from the bakery and you're all set. Great as a starter, or with salad as a light meal.

It's a great recipe but actually not so great for potlucks, since it's not entirely evident what it is . . . and it's sort of purply-brown in colour.

But it worked out. The party was small enough people could ask if they wanted to know what it was.


Friday DOG blogging

W. has heard that for some reason cats have priority in the blogosphere on Fridays. She has also heard that G. was featured on this blog recently and attracted many comments. She would like to remind all readers that she is, in fact, the boss of the household and deserves appropriate respect.

Although I tried to convince W. and G. to help me with grading, they thought that lounging in the sunshine on a blanket was a much better way to spend the day. I can hardly blame them.



If Chuck can write about reality TV, so can I. Actually, for a while now I've been mulling over some thoughts about why my gf and I keep watching Wifeswap on Wednesday nights.

A prefatory note: we don't actually watch much TV, for various reasons. We don't have cable, and because of our proximity to downtown, we can't even get some of the networks (or PBS!) very clearly. We don't really have the time to watch much TV (I read those statistics on "average" Americans and really wonder where they find 5 hours a day). And if we have the time, we tend to watch movies on DVD instead. I wasn't raised watching much TV, and for many years didn't even own one, so it's not an instinctive reflex. I hate having it on unless we're actually watching something. I don't like it as background noise, because I'm too sensitive to the noise and can't tune it out.

But this fall we've been watching three shows: Desperate Housewives, Lost, and now Wifeswap. All on ABC -- we only found Wifeswap because it's on the same night as Lost. (Which is a really interesting drama, but that's for another post.)

If you haven't seen it -- the premise of Wifeswap is that the wife/mothers of two families trade places for 2 weeks. During the first week, the wives have to obey the "rules" of their host family (rules are drawn up in a "manual" by each woman before she leaves her home); during the second week, the visiting wives get to set their own rules that the family has to follow. The families are selected to be really different from each other -- the strict Christian goes to stay with the rock-n-roll family, the fitness fanatic with the fast-food eaters, etc. Stress and difficulties arise, words are said, tears are shed. And most episodes end with at least somebody learning some lesson about themselves or their spouse. And, if you believe their "follow-up" tapes, some changes occur because of doing the swap -- children or spouses do more chores, couples spend more time together away from the kids, etc.

Why do I watch the show? Partly because it's fascinating to see how people actually live their lives. Like any home makeover/reality type show, it's reassuring to see that other people also have trouble keeping everything in tip-top shape on the domestic front. (Some of the "wives" work outside the home, some don't. I think all have had kids, in the episodes we've seen.) It's also interesting to see the dynamics between the couples, and especially with the kids. It's so clear from watching this show how much your environment while growing up shapes you -- we all know this instinctively, but you look at these sample families and can really see patterns.

We generally have one family we like, one we don't like so well. But there have been plenty of pleasantly surprising moments, like when the bossy redneck man broke down in tears once he realized how hard his wife was working to maintain a full time job and do all the chores, cooking, etc. One of the things I like best about the show is that it makes it really clear that domestic labor is labor -- tiring, boring, draining labor. Add to that an unreasonable spouse or irritating children, and you have a show that usefully deconstructs some of the mythology around women's roles in the family. It also makes clear to the women, especially, that things don't have to be the way they are -- just seeing how other people live, what choices they've made, can be really eye-opening and instructive.

As a spectator, the show is fun on a values-clarification level too. "Would you ever do that?" "Am I more like her, or him?" etc. Many of the show's themes/issues are the same for same-gender couples. There are chores to be done, food to be cooked, and various assumptions about whose job it is to do what. Every household involves complicated arrangements of money, time, and labor. For us, our arrangement follows many of the gender-typical roles -- my partner is more masculine, and I am more feminine-- but not all of them. The way that same-sex couples perform gender is always a negotiation, a choice, a performance. It's not just handed to you by the larger culture with your sex assignment. So I suppose that's also why the show is interesting for us, since we both are and are not like the couples profiled on it. And, to the credit of the show's producers, they've actually found a number of families who aren't following "typical" male-female gender patterns, even though all of the families have been two-parent heterosexual couples (not all of them married, btw).

Unlike a lot of "reality" shows, there's no competition, no voting people out of group. And no external authorities dictating changes to the participants. It's just opening up the windows onto people's lives for a little bit. I'm sure plenty of things are staged for effect. But even so, it's been pretty compelling.


I was about to ramble on a bit about slogging through the grading when I figured I might as well check the OED:

1. a. trans. To hit or strike hard; to drive with blows. Also fig., to assail violently.

1824 Session Papers Central Criminal Court 21 Sept. 535/1 One of them said, ‘Go back and slog him.’ 1853 ‘C. BEDE’ Verdant Green xi. 106 His whole person [had been] put in chancery, stung, bruised, fibbed,..slogged, and otherwise ill-treated. 1884 ‘R. BOLDREWOOD’ Melb. Memories iv. 32 We slogged the tired cattle round the fence. 1891 Spectator 10 Oct. 487/1 They love snubbing their friends and ‘slogging’ their enemies.

b. Cricket. To obtain (runs) by hard hitting.

1897 H. W. BLEAKLEY Short Innings iii. 49 Mr. Dolly slogged sixes and fours until he had made about eighty.

2. intr. To walk heavily or doggedly.
Halliwell's ‘Slog, to lag behind’ probably belongs to SLUG v.

1872 CALVERLEY Fly Leaves (1903) 119 Then abiit..off slogs boy. 1876 Mid-Yorksh. Gloss., Slog, to walk with burdened feet, as through snow, or puddle. 1907 Westm. Gaz. 2 Oct. 2/1 Overtaking the guns, we ‘slogged’ on with them for a mile or more.

3. a. To deal heavy blows, to work hard (at something), to labour away, etc.

1846 Swell's Night Guide 37 Most of them can slog, that is to say,..fight. 1888 Daily News 22 May 5/2, I slogged at it, day in and day out. 1894 HESLOP Northumberland Gloss. s.v., They slogged away at the anchor shank. 1903 19th Cent. Mar. 392 They have no incentives to slog and slave.

b. Cricket. To hit, or attempt to hit, the ball hard and with abandon.

1869 Baily's Mag. July 21 Not only did he ‘slog’, in the true sense of the word, which we take to be hitting blindly and high in the air, but [etc.]. 1904 F. C. HOLLAND Cricket 36 You should go to the nets, not to slog, but to play. 1935 J. C. MASTERMAN Fate cannot harm Me viii. 167 At the fifth ball the Admiral slogged with even crookeder bat and even more mighty effort; he missed it, and all three stumps were spreadeagled. 1980 Cricketer International Feb. 11/1 The incredible thing is that he never had to slog once to make his runs.


Somehow all that cricket terminology makes slogging seem much more vigorous than what I had in mind. The 1876 quote under usage #2 was more what it feels like, trudging laboriously through puddles. A combination of sludge, effort, and sloth = slog. Or at least I thought so. But perhaps I can now reconfigure my mental attitude and go "assail" some papers "violently." Or something.


follow up

I really appreciate all the suggestions I've received regarding the student who wants a rec letter from me. I have contacted her, and, as when I talked with her a few months ago, I have the distinct impression she's completely ignoring my advice. Be that as it may, at least I've signalled to her that a letter from someone not in the area she hopes to specialise in may not be that useful to her, and that I can only speak about how she performed in my class. My discomfort about this situation I think will help me in the future in how I handle rec requests -- I already ask students to give me copies of various materials (writing they did for my class, their app letter, their writing sample, a transcript, etc) and talk to me about what they hope to do in school and afterwards. But maybe I need to start adding some other criteria. At least for the MAs applying to PhD programs other than our own. Most of the letters I've written in the past few years have been for BA students applying to law school, for teaching jobs, or for MA programs. And there's just much less at stake in that sort of rec.

All this raised up a lot of issues for me about the profession, too, separate from this particular student and her misguided goals. I have real doubts about suggesting that anyone go and get a PhD. I always ask students what they hope to do, why they're going to grad school, and what's really motivating them. I talk to them frankly about the crappy job market, about how the system chews up a lot of people and leaves them emotionally maimed, and about the need for an almost insupportable dual identity: on the one hand committed to your field, your research, your academic goals; on the other, figuring out what else you can do if it doesn't work out. Because in English/American literature, anyway, it doesn't work out, for at least 50% of people who get PhDs. (If by work out you mean obtain a full-time job with benefits, whether tenure track or not.) But no matter how frankly you talk to students, there are always one or two who just blithely think to themselves "I'll be different." I suggest to students that they have to have some motivation that's internal, that doesn't have anything to do with the job/profession -- something that just makes you want to sit for hours in libraries reading and writing. If doing that will make you happy for a few years -- then by all means go to graduate school. But if you can imagine doing something, anything else, and also being happy -- think long and hard about it. It's years of your life, and probably thousands of your dollars even if you are funded, since most schools can't pay a living wage for 12 months.

Some of the greatest minds in my field have stopped teaching graduate students because the ethical issues are too painful. That's an extreme position (and one only the most esteemed scholars can choose, because they have already proven themselves etc) -- but it's an important counterpoint to the assumption that we all love to teach graduate seminars on highly specialised topics. Or that we want to produce younger versions of ourselves. I certainly don't.


rec letter ethics

I'm faced with something of an ethical quandary right now. In my department at Large Urban U, we have several graduate degree programs. Some are nationally ranked; others are not. In those latter programs, we mostly serve a regionally-based population of graduate students. One of my MA level students from last year asked me to write letters of recommendation for her as she applies to PhD programs. She asked me (and I agreed) last spring, at which point I also tried to counsel her about how to select an appropriate program. Only later, this fall, did she tell me which programs she was applying to.

Quite frankly, I think she's applying out of her range. There is no chance that she's going to get in to 2 or 3 of the 8 schools she's applying to. I hope she'll get in to a couple of them to have some choice and hopefully some funding.

My problem? one of the schools she is applying to is my own PhD-granting institution, which is in the top ten in my field. (This is the state of the academic market right now: semi-mediocre places like Large Urban get to hire people like me with degrees from Ivies/Ivy Equivalents. I don't have a problem with working at Large Urban -- the public service that I do in my undergraduate teaching is one justification for my professional existence. In fact, I'm happier here than I would be at many top ten places.) I don't feel that I can write her a strong recommendation for my own former department -- not only because she isn't of that caliber, but also because my own reputation is on the line in a sense, since they know me. Yet I have to write something.

Plus -- in looking over the forms this student gave me for some of the schools, I notice that she has refused to waive her right to see these recommendations. I'm not sure what to think about that. Is she simply clueless about how the system usually works? or does that imply lawsuit? or have things changed since my day, when we were told that basically you had to waive it in order to get a good evaluation?

I hate the inflated language that is so frequently used in these letters. I've often suspected that I'm not really that good of a rec writer, unless I really know the person quite well. Which too often isn't the case. I barely know this student, and her performance in my class was OK, but not outstanding. Not top-ten PhD material. Probably lower-40% PhD material -- which has its own ethical issues too, since I believe that too many depts are putting out too many people with PhDs who are then woefully underemployed or exploited by the adjunct system.

Do any of you flat out refuse to write letters of rec? I've never before had to write one for PhD programs, so I'm feeling a bit stymied. I'm going to be stricter in the future about who I write for (i.e., you have to have taken 2 courses with me, or something). I guess a lot of my discomfort this has to do with the fact that when I first agreed to write for her, she was talking about applying to our own PhD and some other less prestigious places. Places she'd have a better chance of getting into. I certainly did not encourage her to consider the places she's decided to apply to, because I'm just not that cruel. I know that sounds harsh, but it can be devastating for students to get 7 or 8 rejections, too.


So we finally got out of the house today, to see Mike Nichols's latest film, Closer. I really liked it, for a whole range of reasons.
Aesthetically, it's fabulous. The 4 actors are cast and dressed in such a way as to suggest a spectrum of gender positions: the beautiful-enough-to-be-a-lesbian icon Jude Law opposite scruffy macho Clive Owen; and a butched-up Julia Roberts opposite waif stripper Natalie Portman. For once, Julia Roberts doesn't just look like Julia Roberts. She doesn't smile all the time. And she's wearing some great men's trousers. London, too, shines in the film -- everything looks amazing, whether old or new. Great architectural shots, etc.

It's from a play, and thus has a tight focus on just these four characters -- no one else even really appears in the film except in crowd scenes. That doesn't bother me -- in fact, with characters as interesting as these, who needs anyone else. And the actors really have worked to make this an ensemble piece. It's hard to single one of them out as superior to the rest, or to know who would count as "leads" or as "supporting." They're all really, really good.

It's a movie about and for grownups. Not just because much of it is about sex and relationships, or because of language or nudity (which is there too). But because it's about the randomness and intensity of romantic passion -- the highs and the lows. I think anyone over the age of 30 who sees it has to be able to identify with at least one of the characters, at least some of the time. These aren't necessarily people who you'd sympathize with consistently, or even like all that well. But they're familiar. Who hasn't been in a relationship and felt like they're just waiting for the other shoe to drop? Who hasn't felt cornered by a lover's questions, to the point where neither truth nor lie would satisfy? Who hasn't been tempted? Who hasn't done someone wrong, in one way or another? Who hasn't wondered exactly who your lover really was before you knew each other?

What I like best is the way the film refuses easy resolution of these questions, or the happy/unhappy ending that formulas usually demand.



Reasons I'm feeling blah:
  • I'm not yet 100% better -- I still have a cough, still get tired pretty easily. Being sick always makes me kind of depressed, not feeling like myself, not able to do my usual routine.
  • Because I've been sick, and so has my gf -- it seems as though there's nothing very interesting to report.
  • Everyone else in the blogosphere is full of thoughts and I'm just not.
  • The semester is over but not over -- I don't have to teach any more classes, so that's nice -- but last week and the next 2 are really overloaded with extra stuff -- meetings, defenses, grading, etc. The end is in sight but there's a heavy slog until that point.
  • The house is a mess, because it's end of semester and I've been sick.
  • My study at home is an even worse mess. I have big plans for reorganizing etc during the winter break, but I can't really do all that until I'm done with everything else.
  • I haven't done anything creative in days.
  • I haven't done much yoga or exercise aside from 60-90 minute walks with the dogs. I'm easing back into my home routine, but I haven't been to a yoga class in 8 days -- I don't have the stamina yet for a full Bikram class, or the ability not to cough for 90 minutes.
  • PMS
I'm going to take the dogs to the park and then go to a matinee later this afternoon to try and bust out of this rut. I've got things I need to do, and I'm sick of feeling so droopy. I'm also really sick of being sick.


hangin' at the PS

Hangin' at the Procrastination Station...

Why, oh why, am I reading blogs this evening? I need to be reading through a very large 3rd year review notebook in preparation for a report I have to write and a meeting I have to attend tomorrow. One of the joys (?!) of being tenured is that now I get drafted to do this review duty for my junior colleagues.

This was something I had fully intended to do over the holiday, but first I was having fun and then I was sick.

As always, my visits to the Procrastination Station are fueled by resentment of authority. (See Fiore for full details on 3 main causes of procrastinating.) I am feeling resentful of my service duties, because today was my last day of teaching and I should be celebrating, or at least relaxing. But noooooooo, I have to do this very dreary task. It's important, since it has to do with my colleague's future. Yet, the 3rd-year review (which is sort of a mid-way to tenure practice run -- anxiety provoking but in our dept no one gets dumped at 3rd year--they wait until tenure to do that) is not something that the chair takes very seriously, or most of the people on the P&T committee. Very mixed messages, in other words. My own personal sense of responsibility says I need to take care of my part of the report in a serious and thoughtful manner. And I have no doubt that I will. But right now I'm still feeling resentful. Resentful too, I suppose, because it calls up thoughts/feelings from my tenure year, and from my own 3rd year review, which was royally f**ed up by the then-chair and the committee. Completely worthless for me in terms of feedback, and yet stressful. So of course, I want to do a better job for my colleague. But obviously having to do this is raising my own stress/issues in deeper ways than I had hitherto realized.


killah G

Well, she finally did it. All those hours of chasing and leaping in the yard paid off. She actually caught and killed a squirrel today. I wasn't home, but my partner was. Our puppy ran excitedly inside the house and jumped on our bed with something that my girlfriend first thought was a plush stuffed squirrel-shaped toy. But it was a bit larger than a toy. Turned out it was a dead squirrel on our bed. Yeccchhhh. Puppy was mighty proud of herself. (she's not really a puppy any longer, she's 2 years old, but she's still the baby of the family)

So my gf gets some major points for dead animal removal today.

G., our puppy, has really strong hunting and chasing instincts, much more so than our older dog. If she breaks out of the yard, it's in order to chase one of the stray cats that walk teasingly just outside our fence. She's super fast, all lean muscle and energy. I know it's her instinct that led her to catch the squirrel and kill it -- but as a mostly-buddhist vegan pacifist, it also kind of freaks me out. G is my child, and I love her completely. But I don't want her to kill other living creatures.

So we do our best to keep her away from the stray cats. And until now, we've always assumed the squirrels could easily escape her grasp. I just don't want our yard to become a killing field.

blog post, hold the content

Not much to say. Today or yesterday, for that matter.

I'm getting better, but I still have a horrendous cough that has forced me to leave my class, leave several meetings, etc, to have a coughing fit out in the hallway where I won't be as disruptive. And yes, I have cough drops. And I'm taking dextromethorphan, which is the cough suppressant ingredient found in most cough syrups -- you can now get it by itself OTC in little caplets, which is helpful. But I'm still coughing, the dry tickle-your-throat kind now. Which brings me back to being hunched over in the hallway coughing. Yuck. Dextromethorphan kind of makes me feel a little weird, though not exactly an adverse reaction. (It is a mild hallucinogenic, though supposedly not at low recommended doses. Kids in my high school used to suck down bottles of Robitussin for fun. Super gross.)

And, as of this morning, my partner is coming down with the virus herself. So she's cranky and coughing.

Luckily, tomorrow is my last class day!


not my usual workout

When you've spent the last three days hacking up mucous, as I have, it really works some deep abdominal muscles. I do plenty of ab work, but the coughing located some muscles I don't usually use. My abs are now sore from coughing so much. That's ridiculous but true.

In good news, I'm slowly getting better. Felt like the walking crud at the office today, but it was an interesting conversational test piece:
Colleague 1: "oh, you've got what I had last week. And it lingers (coughs to prove it). I had to go home and sleep in between my classes." (followed by more sympathy)
Colleague 2: "How was your holiday?" (I cough and say "good, until I got sick") "Guess mine was better than yours!"
Colleague 3: "People always wonder if they're sick or if it's allergy." (me: "well, since I had a high fever, I know I'm sick") "And you know what? it's both! ha ha!"

In case you couldn't figure it out, Colleague #1 would best be able to pass in the so-called "real world." She's also disliked by many of her peers for her sophistication, professionalism, and social conservatism. (I disagree with her on most political issues, but we have a good working relationship anyway.) Colleague #2 is one of my favorite old guys on the hallway. I think this counts as "banter." Colleague #3 has been embittered by the system.
{Last comment edited a bit this morning to be less cranky.)

Finding Neverland

So one of the movies we saw over the holiday before I got sick was Finding Neverland. On one hand, it's got all the ingredients that apparently are pulling in the crowds: it's got a family theme; it gives one version of the backstory to Peter Pan; it has cute little kids and a dog in it; Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Julie Christie for star power; and it has an amazing ability to turn the entire theatre audience into weeping puddles by the end. I kid you not -- I'll tear up at all sorts of movies, so I'm no litmus test. But the big guy who sat behind me? the senior citizens at the end of the row? the teenaged girls? Everyone. My gf and I actually stood outside and watched people coming out. Nary a dry eye to be seen.

On the other hand, there's a lot of potentially disturbing stuff here too. After all, it's about a grown man (J.M. Barrie) who likes to spend his afternoons in the park playing imaginary games with someone else's children. The first 20 minutes or so are really uncomfortable to watch. Depp gives an amazing performance that teeters exactly on the boundary between playfulness and flirtation -- with his wife, with Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (the mother of the boys), and with the boys, especially the one called Peter. Now, because it's a big-budget movie released during the holidays, we all know it can't possibly be about a pedophile, right? So one of Barrie's friends takes him aside and says, basically, "you can't keep doing this, people are talking about you." And Barrie says "You mean with Mrs Davies?" and his friend says "Yes. But also with the boys." Barrie denounces all such rumors, and we the audience are summarily dismissed too, asked to stay and enjoy the film only if we can agree not to worry about such questions.

To the extent that you can do that, then, you get drawn into the story of Barrie's life as this film tells it. Wounded by his own childhood and the death of his brother at young age, he's an adult who longs for the innocence of childhood. He both recognizes and projects his own issues in/onto the boys, who have lost their father. As a playwright, he's struggling against blockage and failure. The imaginary games he plays with the boys provide him with material that becomes the successful stage play of Peter Pan. Life is fodder for art, according to this film; and the imagination can transform life into something better, at least for a little while.

Anthony Lane's review in the New Yorker points out some of the many ways in which this film does not actually represent Barrie's life. It too is an imaginative construction, which I think is only implicitly acknowledged in that early conversation between Barrie and his friend. What 21st century audiences expect to find in Peter Pan is something a little more sugary than what is actually in Barrie's text -- most people today think of Disney before anything else. Why did the story of Peter Pan resonate with its Edwardian audiences? Because death, the donning of adult responsibilities, the loss of childhood, were familiar obstacles for all adults. Why do today's viewers weep at the end of this movie? For exactly the opposite reason: we don't have an intimate familiarity with loss. We are stunned by the multiple losses experienced by the children in this film. We live in a world in which people live longer, in which we can buy enough entertainment stuff to prolong our childhoods forever, in which the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by sex, not loss/death. For us, we can't not see sex hovering around the edges of this story, even though the film tries to banish it from our sight. What really happened? What did Barrie's wife think? What did the first viewers of Peter Pan think it was really about? There's no way to know. This film gives us maybe a partial glimpse. But it also tells us a lot about our own time.


vacation virus strikes again

This is the first time in about 36 hours that I've felt up to sitting at the computer. I got hit with a chest cold/virus thing that started out slowly Friday night. Some congestion, nothing too terrible. I slept late Saturday and thought I was getting rid of it. But by 6 pm I had a fever of 101.5, headache, and a bad cough. I felt really lousy. Last night was really bad, because I was tired, but couldn't sleep because I couldn't breathe properly. Then all the shallow breathing started causing an anxiety reaction. Horrible. Plus I had to keep getting out of bed to cough up phlegm. I think I finally got sleep around 5 this morning. My fever broke around noon today, so I'm definitely on the mend. But I'm trying to take it easy. Once I get off the computer I'm heading back to the couch. I ought to grade some papers, or read my colleague's third-year review dossier. But I might just have to watch another episode of Queer as Folk on DVD.

If I get sick, it nearly always happens in the vacation at semester's end, rather than during the school year. Once I relax a little, my immune system also relaxes I guess. So maybe getting this now means I won't get sick in the longer winter break, right? I'm trying to put a positive spin on things, since I really hate to be sick. I am a lousy patient. I get really frustrated with not being able to do my normal activities. And then that often prolongs the misery because I start back too soon. So I'm really trying to take the rest of today off. I have to be functioning tomorrow and the rest of the week. At least the fever burned out the germs pretty quickly. But it left me feeling wrung out and tired.

Blech. OK, I'm heading back to the couch. Now I really wish I had a laptop so I could snuggle up in a blanket and read blogs at the same time.



Just in the past year or so, I have really noticed the full moon's effect on me. I don't sleep much on or around the full moon. It's not insomnia, exactly. More like a strong unwillingness to go to sleep. The dogs are definitely more restless around the full moon, too. I don't know if I picked it up from them, or if living with them has somehow put me more in touch with the lunar rhythm. So, two nights ago, which I think was the night before it was technically full, I was up until 5. Last night I managed to turn in around 3, which isn't totally unusual for me anyway. I aim for 1 or 2, but if I get that second wind, then sometimes I'm just up.

But any new change in my sleep patterns gives me a little bit of anxiety, because I have a fear of insomnia. I've never had it, I don't think. But my mother & brother had it, and my dad certainly had very peculiar sleep patterns. I've always been a sound and heavy sleeper. I can drink coffee at 10 pm and go to sleep a couple of hours later. Usually, my issues result from just not getting enough sleep due to scheduling, rather than any other sort of concern. But I know that all sorts of things are changing in my body as I get older. Sleep seems to be one of them. I wake up more easily in the night (partly since I'm the on-call dog mom, so if either of them needs something, they come to me to wake me up) and I have a harder time sleeping past 10 in the morning. Though today I managed to loaf around til 11:30.

So at least figuring out the lunar connection gave me some peace of mind -- for a few days each month, if I just can't seem to go to bed, I have a reason for it, not just general decrepitude and aging.



Over the past few years, my partner and I have developed our own Thanksgiving traditions. This is how it went this year. We slept late, I fixed scrambled tofu and soy bacon for breakfast, and then we went to the gym. (My gym is open every year on Thanksgiving day -- and my yoga place had morning classes, too, which would have been a great option except for the sleeping late.) Then we came back and took the dogs to the park for a romp. This year, we met up with my father-in-law at the park -- we usually don't spend the day with any family members, but he was in town and wanted to see us a bit. Then he went off to his society shindig, and we went home to eat vegan Thanksgiving food from the natural foods place -- they do a pre-planned menu thing, where you just specify how many people you're ordering for, and pick it up on Wednesday night. It's pretty tasty, and it means that the day is a real holiday for me too. The dogs get special Thanksgiving food too. Then we went to the movies. Also a new twist on tradition -- we've always had the good intention of going out to the movies, but have often wound up staying in with DVDs instead. I think the key factor was that we didn't eat dessert before going out. Then we came home, and for the past hour or so our frozen vegan blueberry pie has been baking in the oven. We've each been writing/playing on our computers, geeks that we are. We'll rendezvous in a little while for pie and another movie.

All in all, it's been a great day. Very relaxing. Around Christmas time, we have to spend a lot of time with my partner's family, who are local. Travelling to see my mom is much more pleasant if we do it at some time other than the holidays. So we've been able to clear Thanksgiving for just us, which has been really nice.

I am so thankful for my partner, and for the life we've created together. I'm thankful also for the chance to share my life with two dogs -- over the past three years this new path has helped me to learn more about the web of feeling that connects all living beings together, and to become a better person through living in a new family group. I'm thankful for my friends old and new, face to face and virtual. Without all those moments of connection and support and laughter, this existence would be so much more bleak. And yes, I'm thankful for the internet, and for bloggers. When I stumbled into the blog world in May, I had really no idea how important it would become to me. Gratitude overflowing, y'all --


reading matter

OK. Maybe I'm not that detail oriented, in some aspects of my life. Because today was the first day that I actually read a Starbucks paper napkin. So I don't know if this poetry has always been printed on them or not. But in case you don't have one (or your politics preclude you from ever succumbing to the temptation of chain lattes) this is what it says (along with a spiraling design):
extract the secrets
of my soul

mine becomes yours

(I've formatted the indents to reflect the graphic design -- though the words are also curved around the spiral motifs, which I can't replicate here)

I suppose this is the textual equivalent of the abstract art you see in hospitals or corporate buildings -- abstraction works in those settings because you can order it up color-coordinated to your decor, and because you don't run the risk of offending anyone with representational art. (I'm also not against abstract visual art -- I just want to point out the marketplace value of it in today's world.) This is poetry that most people don't even see, or if they do, they pause only briefly and move on.

I'll save a full textual analysis for later.


creative obstinacy

...might be one way of describing my persistence this evening in crafting a truly fabulous class plan for tomorrow. Even though I know that a lot of my students won't be there. As we get to the end of the term, I've learned that I have to lecture more explicitly, since they're doing less of the reading, and attendance gets more sporadic. Although my pedagogical philosophy and my teaching style are very much discussion based, I suspect that I'd also be pretty good at doing large lectures. It would take a heck of a lot of work, though. Every time I revamp one of my mini-lectures (since I never lecture for a whole class period -- maybe 30 mins at a time, tops) I have new respect for my colleagues in history who lecture every class day. Anyway, those few students who show up tomorrow get a cool presentation with some new slides that I'm pleased with.

I know, it's sort of silly at this point in the term to be putting this much effort in. But I hate the way the literature at the end of the term always gets short shrift. Maybe it's time to teach the course backwards.


nano update

This weekend I went to an event for people in my area who are doing NaNoWriMo. It was interesting to see the range of people who are also going through this crazy and wonderful process. It's incredibly inspiring to me, that 40,000+ people are signed on to attempt to write a novel this month. People of all ages, professions, locations; and novels of all genres. Creativity is an innate human capacity, one that our culture tends to dampen down and cordon off, telling us that it's best left up to the professionals. If you spend time making something that matters to you just because you want to, it's a really great thing. Whether or not you show it to anyone, or get recognition for it, or any of that.

My novel? I am way, way behind on my word count -- the goal is 50,000 by the end of November -- and I may not make that target. But even if I don't, I've already gotten so much out of the process. It's been incredibly freeing to just sit down and write something that doesn't have an argument, an audience, a rhetorical strategy, or evidence. Something that is just pure play. Especially since I've been struggling with some blocks in my professional writing, this experience has been a good way to loosen them/me, I think. I'm behind on my word count only for time reasons. I'll know better next year how to plan my month to enable the furious composition necessary for NaNo. And I've got some extra time next week with the holiday...who knows how many words I might be able to crank out?

The NaNo event was also kind of interesting, since I'm rarely in social situations where I don't know a single person, and where there isn't one shared interest drawing us together. Obviously, there was some kind of interest in writing shared among all of us, plus the willingness to attempt this. But beyond that, not much. I made an effort to talk to people, maybe 9 or 10 of them -- kind of a big deal for me, since I'm introverted and pretty picky in choosing my friends. But this was an event mostly attended by other nerdy introverts, so I assumed most of the social weirdness was due to a general lack of social skills.

But the gathering also forced me to recognize one of my own biases. Two of the women I chatted with were wearing crosses around their necks. And as soon as I was standing close enough to them to realize this, I started looking for ways out of the conversation. Now, I have several friends who are practising Christians, and two close friends who are active in their Unitarian churches. But I don't know anyone who wears a cross. And for me, it signals a kind of close-minded religiosity that really puts me off. I know that's an unfair judgement. If I were in a work situation, or some other kind of relation that would require us to spend time together, then I would make the extra effort to get to know these individuals and perhaps do a little educating (of them and me). But in a casual social setting, the cross seems like a voice saying "BACK AWAY, you lefty non-Christian lesbian." I just don't want to bother putting out any effort at all to find out if that's really what its wearer would say or not.

Obviously, I don't usually encounter crosses in my social circles. So this was interesting. I've had students with crosses before, of course, but in that case my feelings about it are completely irrelevant, since we don't have a peer relationship in which one would share personal information.


movie roundup

Until someone builds something like all consuming to keep track of the movies I've seen, I only sporadically keep up with them here. But that's better than not keeping track at all. I once knew a guy who had a notebook where he listed every single movie he saw -- and he'd been doing this since he was 15. I'd love to have a list like that. Mostly because my memory for titles or actors' names is lousy, so it'd be a big help when I want to recommend a film, or see something again. imdb and Netflix are a big help for looking things up, but only if you can remember some detail to get you started with the search, rather than the miscellany my brain holds on to: you know, that film we saw last winter that had the blond woman in it, who was in that other movie about the spy? and there was the car accident, and the little kid? I'm forever trying to trace back through the recesses of my lousy memory. The plus side of a bad memory, though, is that I can rewatch a film I saw 10 years ago and fully enjoy it a 2nd time, since I've forgotten everything but the broadest outline of characters and plot. (Not true for everything, but for a lot of movies.)

Anyway, some of things I've seen recently include:
  • Sideways -- we just saw this today, and I really enjoyed it. It's smart, it's funny, and it has the marvelous Sandra Oh in it (if you haven't seen her in Last Night, you really should! it's a wonderful bittersweet existential indie pic). Ostensibly it follows two guys on a trip through wine country during the week before one of them is due to get married -- it's a buddy picture, a last fling/wild oats picture. But it's also about creativity, about arriving in early middle age and trying to figure out your life, and about how deep knowledge acquired in the course of pursuing a hobby or interest -- in this case, wine -- can wind up offering the key to understanding the larger picture.
  • Undertow: David Gordon Green can create a beautiful shot -- but there's not a whole lot of plot in any of his movies. I like All the Real Girls the best of any of his that I've seen. Unlike a French movie with no plot (like any Rohmer film, for instance) , where at least you have characters talking -- this movie you don't have much talking either. Green wants the setting/scenery to do the talking. But I enjoyed it well enough while I was watching it.
  • The Incredibles. I saw it. I admired the technical aspects. I acknowledged the sweet family values behind it. I fell asleep. Really, I did. I knew I'd possibly have a hard time sitting through it, because I just don't really like animation. That puts me firmly on the margin of most American viewers -- it probably has to do with how I was raised or something. But it's true. I just don't like cartoons. No matter how cute, or sophisticated, or violent -- whether it's Loony Tunes or anime, it mostly leaves me cold.
  • The Forgotten. Julianne Moore is definitely in my list of actors I'd watch reciting the phone book. And I really enjoyed this thriller up until the last 20 minutes -- there was really no way to resolve the movie in a fulfilling way. Interesting mix of the psychological and the extraterrestial.
  • Birth. Fascinating to watch this one in a movie theatre, since there are a couple of scenes that had people (mostly men) freaking out -- giggling/gasping in discomfort. Intriguing premise, and some really interesting acting -- it's all about family dynamics. Points for the great haircut on Nicole Kidman, too.
  • By Hook or By Crook (DVD). I LOVED this movie. It's beautiful, moving, funny, quirky. Best of all, it features two very butch women in a buddy pic that isn't about being lesbian or transgender. The characters (played by the co-writers and directors of the film) are just who they are. For me and my partner, it was extremely refreshing to see masculine women on screen -- you very rarely see butches, even in lesbian films, except as minor characters. IfThe L-Word is mainstreaming the representation of lesbians on screen, it's only presenting a certain version of lesbian sexuality (long haired femmes with femmes), one that's really appealing to straight men, who make up a big portion of the audience for that show. Not that any one show, or any one movie, can ever represent the complexity and variety of lesbian gender and sexuality -- any more than any one hetero movie can -- but because there are still far fewer lesbian films made, the stakes involved in such representations are pretty high. I'm a femme-identified lesbian, but because I'm attracted to and partnered with a butch woman, my identity as a lesbian is no more represented in The L-Word than my partner's is. By Hook or By Crook is also exciting because it's coming out of the Bay Area punk dyke scene (Sini Anderson and others were involved in the making of it) and there's a lot of creative independent energy visible in the film. Digital video is one tool for the coming aesthetic revolution . . .