what I have learned

  • If I didn't exercise, I would have a lot more time.
  • But if I didn't exercise, I would have to spend a lot of that time being depressed.

Today was day 6 on restricted activity because of my f*n sprained ankle. It's getting better, but I have to be careful not to overdo it -- this is my bad ankle that was injured years ago and has never been the same since. I know from experience that waiting until it's really healed is important so that I don't reinjure it right away.

I'm used to getting a certain amount of activity every day, and it's an important element in my brain chemistry management plan. Not getting it is starting to really get me down. I can do some very modest yoga and stretch, but even the minimal amount of walking I've beeing doing (parking lot to office, etc) gets my ankle really tired by day's end.

Each night I've been surprised by how long the evening is after I come home from campus -- I usually have 2-3 hours of transit time and yoga and/or gym in between. So it's been nice to do some reading and hang out with the dogs. But not nice enough that I'd trade if given the choice.



I recently finished Allegra Goodman's newest novel, Intuition, which focuses on the work and lives of medical researchers in a Boston area research lab. It's a rather philosophical novel in its concerns and its structure, probing into questions about ethics and epistemology. Did the marginalized postdoc Cliff, doing a failed experiment for the third time (against the orders of his supervisor), really discover something that will aid in the fight against cancer? Or did he falsify his results in some way? Goodman cleverly organizes her chapters, which take up different characters' points of view, so that the reader never gets a definite answer to such questions. Instead, we are inevitably in the position of using our readerly intuition to interpret or predict the actions and motivations of the different characters: the two supervising scientists, their assorted postdocs and techs, the spouses and children whose lives are dominated by the pursuit of medical discoveries.

Unfortunately, the word intuition shows up rather too often in the book's midsection for my liking, making what would otherwise be a rather elegant structure seem a bit clunky. Of course, intuition isn't scientific -- we are told this over and over again. In some ways, the novel seems to be interested in revealing the limitations of the scientific mindset (particularly in the scientists' difficulties with human relationships), but the camps of Science and Humanism seem too exaggerated: on one side, the postdocs suffering for their love of research, the research scientist who never sees his family on holidays because he's in the lab, the chess player who can't imagine a world without rules; on the other, an English professor spouse who has never finished her book about suffering poets, and a gawky teenager who shuts herself up in her room reading John Donne and sends copies of Victorian novels to the postdoc she has a crush on. But these are tensions worth exploring, and some of what I enjoyed in the book was its juxtaposition of different models of knowledge.

The last third of the novel sets these issues aside, however, to castigate all outsiders as inadequate judges of what takes place within the confines of the lab: the NIH committee investigating fraud, the unscrupulous journalists, the hayseed Congressman. But the hierarchies of academe and the desire for reputation are equally under scrutiny in this book, which doesn't really offer much of a conclusion. Everyone, from the disillusioned whistleblower to the possible cheater, just wants to keep on doing research.

I always read novels featuring academics, and it's refreshing to read one that is serious, rather than a satire. I thought a lot while reading it about my friends from graduate school who were in biology, and our many conversations about the different processes of investigation and analysis in our respective fields. We in the humanities think differently about the answers and about the questions than many in the sciences, and what we understand as the work of research is often quite different. If just for the depiction of labwork in all its boredom and brutality, the novel is interesting (although hard to read in places). But I wanted more from the characters -- the coldly patterned structure didn't quite give me the intellectual or emotional satisfaction I wanted as a reader.



OK, Universe. I get the message. Yet again, you've sent me a sign that I really need to work on my approach to deadlines. I've always been a deadline-motivated person-- which is not the same thing as a procrastinator (although I've done that too, on occasion, about certain tasks). Staying up late the night before a paper is due to write it is different in cause, experience, and consequences than procrastinating on grading a stack of papers.

I learned early on from watching my parents that this was how you did large projects -- you worked steadily leading up to the big crunch, and then you stayed up late. I stayed up late for the very first paper I ever wrote (in fourth grade, although I had to stay up not for the composition but for the actual writing -- we were getting graded on handwriting and I had to recopy my whole paper, slowly and laboriously).

So, throughout my school years, I worked in adrenaline-crunch mode, cranking out a lot of work just in time to meet the deadline. But I never missed a due date, never asked for extensions. The fear of the deadline was motivating enough.

Graduate school started messing with all of that, as it became clear that some of our profs actually preferred that you take incompletes, or considered that your work couldn't possibly be good enough if you turned it in by end of semester. Due dates became these slippery half-fictional beasts that weren't so scary after all. And that was perhaps my downfall.

In the last few years, I've realized that I have less and less tolerance for the deadline crunch, at both the mental and physical level. I just can't stay up as late at night, I just don't bounce back as well the next day, and the adrenaline rush isn't as fun. I'm too old to live that way. I've been gradually realizing this but it's going to take a while to figure out how to really change all of my work habits -- counting from fourth grade, that's three decades of writing practices I have to unlearn.

So, since I've been slow about this, the Universe has been sending me some not-so-subtle messages. Remember when my mom needed sudden surgery and I had to drop everything and go and take care of her? I had a small project due the following week, a book review I'd been asked to write 2 months previous. I had put off working on it until the semester was over, until I thought I'd have 10 days clear to read the book and write the review. Ha! said the Universe, You should have written it during the first month it was assigned to you.

This weekend a friend's been visiting us from out of town. All week long I was busy with some organizational projects (clearing out files, getting some new shelves at home and rearranging a lot of our household stuff) and also doing some major spring cleaning. None of this was exactly because my friend was visiting, but her arrival did function as a due date for getting the house into presentable order. (Nothing like reorganizing to create new chaos, at least temporarily). What did the Universe do? Made me stumble and sprain my ankle 8 hours before her arrival, before I'd completed the vacuuming and tub-scrubbing and other cleaning chores I'd planned for the half-day before she came. In the end, I suppose it worked out -- I got to spend a few hours reading and working on the couch with my foot propped up, so I was less irritable than if I'd been doing chores all day. And if she's horrified about the state of our house, she's hidden it fairly well. But it's just another lesson. I have to learn to do things early.

I've been starting small -- working on getting to appointments early (the key seems to be always having reading material with me, so as to lessen my social anxiety about waiting). But I need to develop a plan so that I can meet my next deadline with ease and grace and not feel stressed or have to stay up late or give up yoga or anything else. I guess that's what I can try to map out during the next few days when I won't be able to go to the gym or on dog walks while my ankle heals.

And please, don't tell me just to set an earlier deadline. If I could do that effectively, don't you think I would already be doing it? I've tried and I always use up the cushion of time because I know it's there. Focusing on all the things that are unpleasant to me now about working for a deadline might be helpful -- a model of what not to do.


proof of age

Things my GF has said recently:
  1. (as we drove past one of the independent movie theatres that still shows cult classics as they were meant to be seen) "I wish the midnight movies would start at 10."
  2. (as we went by the location of the new Target which will open soon in our neighborhood, only five minutes from our house) "I can't wait for them to open -- we should go on the first day."
Yup, these are the thoughts of the almost-40s.


furry news

We are now officially a three-dog household. We've taken in my partner's dad's dog, (who shall be known as Old Girl here) full-time, whereas before now we were taking care of her when he was out of town, which sometimes got extended for fairly long stretches. Now that Old Girl is getting, well, older -- she has some arthritis and she's become quite deaf in the past year -- my father-in-law is less able to take care of her. (He's getting older too.) Old Girl used to live with my GF many years ago in another state (when my GF was some one else's GF), along with The Boss -- they get along just fine because Old Girl isn't interested in challenging anyone else's power. Speedy, on the other hand, loves Old Girl with a passion that is rooted in her puppyhood, when they used to play together. Old Girl has always been very gentle and tolerant with young pups.
I think she's happy to be staying with us -- she gets more walks, and home-cooked meals, and plenty of companionship in our pack. But it's sad to see how much she's changing as she's getting older. She spends most of the day sleeping, and she's more and more in her own world because of the deafness. Taking care of Old Girl triggers a lot of my own concerns about getting older, about our parents getting older, all the eldercare issues we will have to be facing in the next five to ten years. Of course it's infinitely easier to take care of an aging golden retriever than one's aging parent. A practice run of sorts.


movie roundup

I have fairly broad tastes in movies, and low tolerance for pretentious Film chatter -- so if you want to read deconstructive readings of rare indie stuff, you can look elsewhere. Because this is the summer movie season -- a time to watch things explode, bad guys suffer, and cute girls get the boy of their dreams -- all while soaking in some over-chilled AC and maybe splurging on some popcorn.
  • Poseidon: I thoroughly enjoyed this remake: great dangerous disaster (worth seeing on the big screen), the adorable Josh Lucas (who is actually surprisingly smart -- I saw him on an interview show when Stealth came out and was quite impressed), and best of all, the gay guy doesn't die. You know how it is -- you look at a bunch of characters at the beginning of an disaster/horror/thriller movie and you know a couple of them are going to be offed before it's all over. And usually, unfortunately, it's the person of color or some other minority identity who gets grabbed by the alien first. But that's not (entirely) true this time...
  • X-Men: The Last Stand: This was a big disappointment. The change of director (and whatever accompanying decisions came before or after that) has taken this film in a very different direction than the first two, which were exceptional in the comic book adventure genre for really having substantial characters and social/symbolic content. The mutants are my people, after all, and in someone else's hands the fight against a government who wants to "cure" them would have been inspiring and exciting. Instead we get an film that's all action and special effects, no meaningful dialogue or character development -- really, the characters are anti-developed, watered down to simple cardboard caricatures -- a much more typical, and therefore boring, comic book style. And it's incredibly misogynistic (whereas the first two films, and the original comics, are not): over and over, the sexuality of female mutants is sensationalized and made problematic. Sure, Rogue's mutation means she can't touch other people -- that's grounds for making her a really interesting character, and giving her relationships plenty of tension, which is what good films use. Instead, she's turned into a wishy-washy sellout because she wants her boy -- which the film doesn't support as a strong choice, but rather portrays as an inevitable weakness of her girlish identity. Jean Grey's Phoenix split identity as Phoenix is the devouring femme fatale whose sexuality is irresistable and deadly -- and again, this could make her interesting, or at least give Famke Janssen something to do. But no, that's not the route they chose. And Mystique's fate? Oh please. Exploitation, exposure -- a franchise exhausted of its good stuff.
  • District B-13: Built to show off the talents of parkour inventor David Belle, this was filled with super-amazing athletic feats and the sharp French style of Luc Besson, who co-wrote and co-produced the film. I saw it the day after X3 and the contrast couldn't have been sharper -- here was a movie with amazing action (but very few computerized effects -- these guys are really jumping off roofs) but also a moral code. You want your good guys to be pursuing justice, to be against corruption -- and in X3 the mutants inexplicably wind up supporting the government? Here the bad buys are deliciously bad (both the puffed up bureaucrats and the ganglord) and the good guys kick ass.
  • The Proposition : Powerful, beautiful, but very, very brutal. I'm glad I saw it, and I think it's a good film -- but I felt worn out and shaken by the end of it. Of course, the presence of Emily Watson's sweet round angelic face is usually a sign that incredible brutality will soon occur. Her performance is fantastic, and she's one of the few modern actresses who can wear period costume and look real about it (no prancy Emma Thompson here). The harshness of the Australian colonial frontier is one of the film's central topics-- the other has to do with torn loyalties. The problem, however, is that the hero's choices aren't ever really explained or justified. If we're meant to accept him as a hero, to believe that he's changed or progressed in some way, there ought to be something more -- and for me, to have experienced the violence in this film, I wanted at least to have gotten more of a moral or psychological payoff.
  • The Break-Up: I like romantic comedies, I like Jennifer Aniston, and from the previews I'd seen of this film, I expected it to be something quite different than it turned out to be. It's not quite a comedy -- but it's not quite a drama, either. I wouldn't say that it's subverting the romantic comedy formula exactly -- although there's a point in the movie, about 30 minutes before the end, where it could have gone in a much more conventional direction and possibly have been more satisfying. There were moments of dialogue that ring with truth -- but then a lot of stuff that seemed to be drifting along in absurdly bleak directions that didn't seem either realistic or humorous. I saw it basically as an update to Swingers -- as in, where would these guys be a few years later. But it needed a tighter structure or editing or something to really pull it off.
  • The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift: Awesome. On the next hot Sunday afternoon, get into a movie theater and be blown away with adrenaline, speed, and cool Japanese teen styles. I liked the first 2 FF movies but this one really rocked. Totally fun, and full of everything you could want in a big-screen summer movie: sexy girls, bad boys, fast cars... and the racing scenes never, ever got old.
(Told ya I'm pretty lowbrow in my movie preferences. It's the summer, after all.)



This summer offers me an important opportunity to reshape some of my work habits and systems: I'm not teaching summer school, so I have more flexible work time right now, and I'm at the beginning of two large projects (each of which is/will spawn various sub projects). Although this work is in some loose ways connected to the work I've been doing for the past 12 years, it feels like a fresh start, cut loose finally from the dissertation research that then shaped my pre-tenure years.

I'm always interested in self-improvement (I've got plenty of room to grow!) and particularly in effective work habits, time management, and spatial organization. I've made plenty of changes over the years, but there are also some things I started doing in graduate school that are still useful and that I want to retain in any new system I create.

I want to work this summer on improving my productivity systems at two very different levels -- at the ground level, I've got several big organizational overhauls to accomplish, like weeding out my paper files and systematizing my teaching files (which are mostly digital). At the sky level (to borrow David Allen's flying metaphor), I want to create work habits and organizational systems that will maximize my strengths and help me in the areas that are difficult. To do this, I'm revisiting some of my favorite books on these topics (David Allen, Julie Morganstern, Robert Boice, Neil Fiore, etc -- all the same books you've read too) and I'm also setting aside some time to write and reflect about what has worked for me already and what I'd like to change.

A few minutes in the productivity/GTD blogosphere shows you that lots of other people are also thinking about their work habits and how to improve them. I enjoy reading these blogs not only for the practical suggestions I've gleaned from them, but also to know that other people struggle with some of the same things I do. I draw the line at message boards, however -- an oft-reiterated plaint/critique is that people can spend way too much time reading about productivity or tweaking their software or their calendar systems, rather than actually getting things done. And certainly that danger is always there -- like with anything else online that can suck you in. But for myself, I've actually found the productivity blogs to be helpful when I'm feeling stuck. It's a break from work, but it's easy work-related reading that is usually inspiring or useful.

One of the challenges I've always found in reading books on time or work management is that many of them assume certain things about the workplace that aren't always true for academics. Many academics are not required to be in an office from 8 to 6 every weekday; some don't choose to work on campus every day; and most may have blocks of time (like the summer) with very few meetings or obligations, and other blocks of time (like the last month of the semester) when teaching and committee work takes up almost all time. Academic work is cyclical and fluid, and can offer tremendous flexibility. That same flexibility can also make it difficult to adhere to one's priorities or accomplish all of one's goals.

Lots of the productivity blogs I've come across are written by people in computer-related fields, whose interest in efficient systems or logical routines for completing tasks integrates well with the actual work that they do. That integration of work action/content and work structure is less clear and maybe less feasible for my own work areas, but it raises a set of questions I think are worth pursuing for anyone working in academe who's trying to improve their work habits through GTD or any other workflow system.
  • Where in your workflow do you need to complete discrete tasks? What kinds of tasks are they? Are they best grouped by type of action, content area, or work location?
  • Where in your workflow do you need to make space for creativity? How is your creativity expressed, channeled, or encouraged?
  • What balance of creativity and routine would be ideal for you? What balance do you currently have?
  • What external constraints shape your time and space? What personal and professional commitments do you have on a daily or weekly basis? What equipment do you need to do your work? Where do you do your best work and why?
  • What internal rhythms shape your time and space? When is your energy high or low? What setting is best for you to do which kinds of work?
  • What calendars shape your work -- personal, institutional, professional? How much control do you have over your schedule? How predictable is your workload from week to week or month to month?
  • What would consitute a productive day for you? Is that vision a realistic and attainable one?


random bullets of good stuff

  • my visit to the dentist was fine, and I got a good grade on my teeth and gums. (whew!)
  • I got an appointment made with the dermatologist, and getting the referral from my PCP for the insurance was much, much easier than I'd feared.
  • ever since GF climbed up a ladder to get into the little trap door into the attic, the frolicking creatures have been silent -- and out of sight in the attic, although it is unfinished and full of cracks and crevices for rodent-hiding.
  • Asparation, which has got to be one of the worst names they could have come up with (especially when its other name is brocollini, which at least sounds less like "ass") is actually really tasty. Our market mislabeled it as a hybrid between broccoli and asparagus (and that's what the name would make you think --) but it's actually a mix of broccoli and Chinese kale (thanks, JM, for pointing this out). The stems look like asparagus but it doesn't have the taste or slimy texture. Instead, it's like a mild broccoli you can eat the whole stalk of.
  • after a super-relaxing yoga class and then a mellow dog walk, I'm lying here on the couch while GF goes and picks up take out food, which we will then eat while watching the just-arrived DVD of Veronica Mars, our latest Netflix TV addiction. Awesome. It's the summer, after all, and I plan on enjoying it!


anxiety list

These are the things that are currently causing me varying levels of anxiety. I'm doing OK otherwise, except when I start thinking about one of these situations and then get all tangled up about it.
  • We have critters in our attic. I assume they're possums, but we haven't eyeballed them yet. But we can hear them up there. Our attic is unfinished and we don't store anything up there, but still you don't want them chewing up all the insulation and pooping everywhere. We're renters, and we're vegans, and the whole situation is very difficult. Will our landlord do anything about it? will they be destroyed or relocated? if we wait too long what might happen? Do we want to try to humanely trap and relocate them ourselves? Ack. It's incredibly stressful.
  • I need to get some suspicious-looking moles checked by a dermatologist. My health plan supposedly lets you visit anyone you want -- but if you want higher coverage, they have to be in-network; and for the best level of coverage you need a referral from your primary care doctor. I've collected recommendations from people I know and have found two derms who are in the network. But I'm dreading dealing with the process of getting a referral. I don't know if they're going to make me come in and pay for a useless appointment with my PCP or if we can just do it over the phone. And then there's trying to make the appointment with the doctor I need to see. Errrggghh. Did I mention that I hate seeing all doctors and have a lot of anxiety about dealing with them in any way?
  • Some would say I should have a physical with a regular doctor this year. But I don't particularly like my PCP. I got a recommendation from a colleague for someone else who is supposedly wonderful; but when I called on Friday apparently she's not taking new patients from my insurance (even though their web based directory said she was). It's almost impossible to find a female doctor who isn't based at a large teaching hospital (which means your exams are usually performed in front of med students, which is a pedagogical environment I'm not particularly comfortable in). The only smaller, neighborhood alternative I've found is a family practice office, which makes me nervous because of all the kid germs.
  • I have an overdue dentist appointment on Tuesday for a cleaning. All spring I would occasionally think to myself, "I must have a dentist appt coming up soon" -- but then I never did. Because I now remember that when I saw her last July, her clerk didn't have the January calendar open yet for the following year when my 6 month appointment would be due. I forgot to call, obviously. But you'd think they might have sent me a reminder? I doubt I have any cavities because I was genetically blessed with solid enamel. But I always fear getting a bad grade on my gums. I'm a regular brusher and 3-4x/week flosser, but now I'm nervous about the days I've skipped flossing over the past few months.
  • I want new tires on my car, because the tires that came on it suck in rainy weather. I mean really, really, suck. But it's a big expense, and then there's the burden of researching tires etc. In the past I've done OK with simply walking into the tire center and asking what they have available in my size, then picking by price range. I could do that again. But since this is really an optional purchase -- my tires are not worn down (I've only had the car a year) -- they just feel unsafe because they're not as grippy as I like -- I'm dithering a little more about it than I usually would.
Ah, summer. The season for Dealing With Unpleasant Maintenance.


Famous writers were kids once too

An old friend of mine was in town today for a book reading (she's probably the Most Famous person to have graduated from my high school) -- I hadn't seen her in something like 20 years, so I wasn't sure whether she'd recognize me (because I hope I don't look like that much like I did back then). But in fact, she did, and we had a wonderful time catching up, even with the bookstore staff breathing down her neck as she scrawled her name on extra copies of her book after her line of fans was gone. It was great fun to see her and to reminisce a little bit about junior high. It makes total sense to me that she's a Popular Novelist, since as far back as I can remember she was making up stories. In fourth grade, all the girls would go sit under the tree at recess and she'd tell us an episode in a long serial story she was making up. Not all that different from what she's doing now, only she gets paid and has people who drive for three hours to come and get her to sign a book for them.

There were a number of young people at this reading, kind of nerdy girls in their early teens, who clearly admired my friend and asked her questions about how she became a writer. It was great to see her answering and encouraging them, and to think about how the nerdy girls we used to be turned into the adults we are today. You'd never know just by looking at my friend that we used to spend hours playing with Star Wars action figures (and no, she doesn't write SF) -- but it totally helped shape who we are. Our earliest understanding of plot structures, character development, and the power of fiction to bring new meanings to ordinary life all came from those first two movies (especially Empire). So one of us writes fiction and one of us teaches it. Big surprise.

At a another level too, it was really interesting to be in a little independent bookshop with people who are Serious Fans for her particular subgenre of books, and of her books in particular. These are the readers who actually buy books, lots of books, and who care passionately about them. Some of my students would fall in that category, but not all of them. It's interesting to think about why someone would become an English major who isn't passionate about books. Or maybe their passions are just expressed differently. I mostly don't buy books myself, for instance (I can't afford them and I move too often) but I read widely in serious and nonserious genres, care deeply about books, and always want to encourage people to read more. I don't think it would take someone too long to figure out that I care about ideas, and reading, and writing. I try to assume that some kernel of that passion is in all of my students, even if I can't see it. Maybe it's just not activated by the texts I'm teaching, or their assumptions about my historical period get in the way. A lot of my teaching involves undoing their expectations, whether of the topic or of the college classroom itself.

Of course, there is a big difference between being a fan of a book and being interested/ able/ willing to discuss it critically, to analyze it, to come to some larger understanding about it or its significance. I often tell my students if they are having difficulty with a paper topic that it is much easier to write about (i.e. analyze) a text that they don't love -- as paradoxical as that sounds, if you really really love a book usually you can't see its details clearly. When I teach Jane Austen, for instance, there's always some doe-eyed quiet girl who confesses to having read Pride & Prejudice 50 times. She loves Mr Darcy, and she wants to be Elizabeth Bennett. (After all, who doesn't?) But if she can also learn something about how it is that Austen makes us feel that way about her characters -- through her prose style, through the structure of the plot, through the details she gives and those she omits -- then my student is on her way to an even richer kind of love.

Conservative critics of English departments often trot out claims about how the study of theory "destroys" the love of literature, how professors of English "hate reading" and other claims that I completely don't buy. Every English professor I know got into this business because of love. Writing a dissertation and spending 45 years of your life grading papers and teaching classes is not like working in the widget factory. You have to love it. And if you don't love every minute of every day, at least you can count on the fact that you love the books you teach. Learning how to explain why you love a book -- which I do (using other kinds of words besides "love," although I will sometimes admit to that as well) every week in the classroom, helps you understand not only the book but also yourself a bit better. If your love of a book can't withstand some analysis -- can't survive some historical research, some informed understanding of the structure, context, and implications of a text -- then it's not really love, it's just an infatuation.

Deep, old loves -- like the way I feel about The Empire Strikes Back -- happily persist. Yes, I can see the limitations of Lucas's dialogue; I can point out some of the literary, film, and historical sources he drew upon in crafting his plots; I can discuss how the class and gender dynamics in the film are used to create dramatic tension. These things help me understand the film in relation to its own historical moment and to the films that succeeded it. But still, even now when I watch that movie, I smile in certain places; my sense of possibility quickens; I feel an otherworldly delight that transports me beyond the mundane.

That's how it felt to see my old friend, too.


grad school "friends"

A few days ago, What Now wrote about an old grad school friend who repeatedly diminished her accomplishments or boasted about his own. It resonated with me, and with many others, judging from her comments -- after all, who doesn't know someone like that from graduate school? I've been thinking about her post quite a bit since then, because I have an unanswered email sitting in my inbox from someone who's one of my own such friends.

I do still use the term "friend" when I think of this guy -- who I'll call Affable Joe, because he was (and is still) incredibly easygoing and sociable. We were in the same cohort, and probably had a couple of classes together, though we mostly knew each other socially. When we were writing our dissertations, we became closer friends, meeting for coffee once in a while to commiserate about the agony of dealing with our committees and our manuscripts. We both got jobs the same year, and kept in touch largely through seeing each other at conferences every year or two, plus email.

I do consider him a friend, and writing this makes me remember the strength of the experiences we've shared and of our deeper friendship. But in the last couple of years, there's been more friction in our conversations. By some measures, he's more successful than I am. By other measures, our jobs are at equivalently mediocre institutions. Our publishing records look very different -- we're in different sub-fields and have taken different paths in creating our scholarly profiles. I'm taking on a different role in my department and institution than he is.

Basically, our academic values are very different, and that seems to be causing some friction. I've certainly felt in our last few conversations that he's not supportive of my choices -- he flat out told me that I was heading for "failure" if I took an administrative post. That actually hasn't been true so far at least -- during the past year of admin work I presented at a major conference and won two research grants. Joe still seems to believe in the elitist model of solitary research above all else that our graduate program promoted, but which doesn't fit the institutions we're currently a part of. I don't believe that there is only one single path to success -- nor only one definition of professional or personal success. Perhaps I haven't been as clear in expressing that to him as I should. All I know is that I've felt judged and found lacking in our last few conversations, and it makes me reluctant to talk with him. It feels like it takes a lot of energy to protect myself from someone who used to be a buddy.


how to have a great birthday

  1. Wake up in your own bed, with your honey and dogs snuggling all around.
  2. Go on a long dog walk.
  3. Return for coffee and bagels and birthday cards and presents!
  4. Get a hair cut and begin to feel like your own self again, not some shaggy monster.
  5. Go to the office and find only a modest pile of paperwork that accumulated in your absence.
  6. Get notified that you won a research grant! Do happy dance.
  7. Find the elusive recalled library book on your office bookshelf.
  8. Eat a healthy and tasty lunch.
  9. Write recommendations, memos, and administrative emails with ease.
  10. Learn that childhood friend who is now famous will be visiting your city on a publicity tour later this week. Plan to stop by and surprise her with a face from elementary school.

and wait, there's more ahead, starting in four minutes:
  • leave the office to go work at the cafe
  • drink a fancy soy latte because it's your birthday, after all
  • work on Immediate Project A (which must be sent off tomorrow)
  • go to yoga!
  • go out to dinner with GF!


on the book table

Our city's public library consists of a main building downtown, and a number of smaller branches scattered throughout different neighborhoods. Although I really like the downtown location, and it's not far from where I live, sometimes the convenience of my local branch, which is only a few blocks from my house, wins out. You can return items to any branch, where they stay in that location's collection until checked out or requested for delivery to another location. So browsing the shelves at my local branch is always interesting, a kind of snapshot of what my neighbors have been reading lately.

It was through one of these browsing afternoons that I picked up David Leavitt's 2000 novel, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing. I was 40 pages from the end when I had to leave town--not enough to make it worth lugging the hardback book with me on the plane. So one of the first things I did when I returned was to finish this novel, which I enjoyed tremendously. At one level, it's an extended playful meditation on the relationship of "real" life to fiction -- the protagonist is a young writer who publishes an acclaimed short story in "the magazine" (aka the New Yorker) and enters into the 1980s New York literary scene. As did, of course, Leavitt himself. Yes, much of the novel clearly draws upon Leavitt's own experiences and acquaintances (and reviewers were quick to "identify" who certain persons were) -- and yet the text warns us against too easily mapping fictional characters onto real persons, suggesting in its depictions of Martin and his writing teacher, Stanley Flint, that the writer's craft transforms the raw materials of experience into something else, something more coherent and more beautiful.

But the book was compelling to me on other levels as well. David Leavitt (like Martin Bauman, his fictional persona in this novel) is 7 years older than me. And Martin, who narrates the novel in a reflective look through his own past, is 38 -- my age this year. So not only is the inevitable re-interpretation of one's own past something I recognize in myself, but the cultural details Leavitt so carefully records in this novel (late-80s literary culture etc) are also deeply familiar to me. I wasn't partying with the Brat Pack literati, but I read about them in magazines and read their works. I know enough about the world he's referring to to recognize it. But you don't have to know the personalities to enjoy this novel, since the psychological material in it is very rich, and Leavitt is a fantastic prose stylist:

Lately I've come to believe that the process of growing older is essentially one of ruthless and continual editing, so that the novel of one's experience -- at nineteen a huge and undisciplined mess, heavily annotated, the pages out of sequence -- will by forty have resolved itself into a fairly conventional tale of provincial life, and by sixty be reduced to one of those incisive, "minimalist" works in which irony and wordplay displace "plot" (a word I put in quotation marks because Flint loathed it). Thus at thirty-eight I travel in a comparatively restricted circle. At nineteen, on the other hand, I had dozens of friends, and more than that, I looked upon every one of them as a potential intimate. (10)

There is no quicker shortcut to intimacy than the discovery of common ground, of which Liza and I had acres; what we didn't realize -- what we wouldn't realize until we were older -- was that it is upon the method by which that ground is cultivated, not the soil iself, that intimacy in the long run depends. (205)

I vividly remember when Leavitt's first collection of stories, Family Dancing, was published in 1984 -- the cultural impact of that book was huge. Finally, a book about gay people that mainstream literary types were reading. My own parents, who faithfully subscribed to the New Yorker throughout the 1970s and 80s to feel some connection to what they thought of as their own cultural interests, which were not reflected in the small Midwestern town in which we lived -- my own parents read Leavitt's story in that magazine, and even read the collection when it was published. For me, as a still-closeted teen, that was significant.

I read Leavitt's second book, the novel the Lost Language of Cranes (1986) -- but I sort of lost track of his work during the 90s, when I was in graduate school and busy reading other things. I was vaguely aware of the dust-up around his novel When England Sleeps, which drew upon the published memoir of Stephen Spender, who then sued Leavitt for slander. Leavitt was forced to withdraw his novel, and it was later reissued with some changes and an angry preface. So obviously the issues about fact and fiction, and what freedom the artist does or does not have, are important ones for Leavitt. But overall, too, his reputation has suffered, I think, at the hands of reviewers who have criticized him for repeating the same themes or concerns. His early success at a very young age seems too easily to fall into the pattern of inevitable decline that you see not only in literary reviewing, but also in those VH1 bio segments etc.

The political and cultural climate has changed significantly since the mid-80s, too -- all of the reasons why Leavitt's stories were so ground-breaking then are precisely why they might seem tame or dated (or constrained by their middle-class-ness) now. The autobiographical aspects of this novel, particularly in the sections where Martin/Leavitt comments on his own choices and mistakes as a writer, allows him the flexibility of self-criticism, particularly in relation to the AIDS crisis. But the novel is not just a meta-fictional and autobiographical commentary --it's also its own thing, its own creative structure.

Throughout the book, Martin and the other characters struggle to make sense of their lives and their relationships. Commitment -- to a person, to an ideal, to a profession -- is deeply problematic for these Gen-Xers in ways that I understand and see articulated in my peers' lives as well. Success itself becomes fodder for self-doubt, even as Martin and his peers live lives undreamed of by the generation previous to them. The novel's subtitle "A Sure Thing" refers immediately to a comment made by Martin's writing teacher that Martin was most likely to grab at the sure thing. Is this the bitter quibble of an aging teacher jealous of the student's success? The critique of the artist resisting art's assimilation into a devouring mass culture? Or just an assessment of Martin's psychological drives? The novel doesn't rest on easy answers, and neither should we, in our own narrative journeys of self-reflection.