doing her part for the planet

Over the past couple years, several companies have switched to biodegradable packing peanuts made from cornstarch derivatives. I don't know what else must be in them, but we found Old Girl happily snacking away on a few yesterday. Cornstarch itself doesn't seem like something that would be particularly scented or tasty, but dogs sure seem to like the peanuts. Perhaps that's a secret tactic for degrading them?
(p.s. her digestion has been completely untroubled by them; after all, this is a dog who loves cat poop...)


library happiness

I just came home from a trip to our neighborhood branch of the city public library -- I had a book on hold to pick up, and I took some time and browsed around and walked out with an armful of fiction and light nonfiction.

I love, love, love that feeling of walking out from the library with anticipation for what's in those books. Even though I probably won't love or even finish all of them -- that in itself is one of the happy things about the library, that freedom from any sense of obligation -- I always feel optimistic and excited after checking books out. This is even true at the university library with research-related materials -- I don't think that the library happiness is different with different libraries, even though my reading experience and attitude certainly is for research vs free reading.

As I'm thinking about this, I realize that I don't have any unhappy memories or thoughts associated with libraries -- with any of the several libraries I know well. And I have so many happy ones. Reading has, over the years, sometimes gotten complicated, since it's what I do for work as well as play. But exploring, gathering, skimming in the library is unadulterated pleasure.


thoughts on time

The thing I've wrestled with the most this semester is, not surprisingly, time. I feel like I've been struggling with time in various ways for years -- not my whole life, exactly, although a few key scenes from the past do stand out. Certainly by my mid20s I was frequently finding myself morassed in indecision when I had too much flexibility in my schedule, and feeling oppressed when I had too much constraint.

Of course, time itself is actually never the problem. It doesn't actually change. My perceptions of it, my stories about it, my ways of dealing with it are what I can change. And that's what I've been working on a lot this semester.

I've realized that at least one little piece of the problem has probably been with me for a long time, because I hear these phrases all the time from Elderly Parent: "the day's half over already," "there's never enough time" or "I don't know where the time goes." And I catch my own mind saying those and similar things too. I've probably been running those mental loops for most of my life, since that was certainly very familiar in my childhood.

Even when I know it's literally untrue to say that the day is half over (when it is only 11:00 a.m., for example) (or when the start and endpoints of the day are up to me to determine), that feeling is a horrible one. To feel the substance of the day slipping out from underneath you like sand.

At this moment, distant from the mind that thinks and says those things, I can see that such a feeling is just a form of self-criticism masquerading as a fact -- which makes it all the trickier to rout out. Because what it really means is that if one had gotten up with the early birds and been of righteous character, I would have already written 10 pages and cleaned the house and run 10 miles and five other virtuous things by 11:00 a.m. , instead of doing whatever it is I usually have done by that point in the day. I don't exactly know where my inner Benjamin Franklin came from, because I wasn't raised that way (if only I had been, maybe I'd have more discipline now, right?). I had one parent who woke up early and was the industrious bird, and one who woke up late but worked most of the night. And I mostly remember being left to figure this stuff out on my own.

Part of the difficulty is that I don't have a particularly strong pull towards any time of the day. I like to stay up late but I also like to get up early. I could do without early afternoon, maybe, but that's not a very useful chunk of the day to dispense with. Time management gurus tell you to experiment and discover your inner rhythms, but I have very little sense of when my optimal work zone is, because I've done good work at almost every time of the day (but too often at no time of the day). I probably work better at off hours, when I feel less distracted by other things; but I also have a strong desire to conform to normative hours for waking, working, and sleeping so as not to feel totally out of sync with the world. And I've learned that it's best for managing my mental health to get up fairly early, preferably near sunrise. I just dislike going to bed early enough to make that an easy lifestyle choice. So then I'm virtuous during the week, or for a few days, and then have to catch up on sleep. Which isn't the healthiest approach.

You'd think that having several months in which to experiment with all this, I'd have been able to mastermind a perfect system. But I feel pretty far from that. Especially right now, when I'm in some weird leave-holiday transition time that doesn't have very clear boundaries. Am I squeezing out the last few days of my research leave? or am I easing into a few days of vacation? Can I do both?

This week's affirmation is one I've used a lot this semester in an effort to counter the inner carping critic: I have plenty of time. I have plenty of time. I have plenty of time. Because time doesn't change and I might as well try to feel open and bountiful and generous about it, instead of miserly and anxious.


the nothing response

After yoga class this evening, I was getting dressed after taking a shower, and the changing room had pretty much emptied out. I was putting on my boots, and a young woman (20ish) said "Actually, ma'am" -- I glanced at her -- "Ma'am, there's a place to put your shoes out in the lobby, people don't wear them in here."

Now, in our studio, the rule is no shoes in the yoga room itself, but you are allowed to wear shoes into the changing room. In fact, most people who change and shower do leave their shoes with their duffel bags in the lockers in the changing room. There are also shoe shelves out front, which are mostly used by people who are already wearing their yoga clothes and who just want to dump their keys and shoes on their way into the room. So she was wrong about the studio rules. And she was wrong about what "people do" -- I have been practicing at this location for about five years, and I've seen lots of people wear shoes into the changing room. And I've never even seen this girl before. So I have the authority of experience (as well as age, underscored by her calling me "ma'am"). But I so didn't want to get into it with her. So I just did nothing. I didn't say anything, I didn't shrug, I didn't make a face. I just finished putting on my boots and coat and walked out.

I've often noticed that the yoga studio offers innumerable case studies for thinking about the relationships of individuals to community: we are each individually practicing the Bikram series, but the collective energy in the room can definitely help or hinder you as you practice. Each individual's choices impact those around them in the room, but some people are more aware of this than others. Some people are overly conscious of those around them, and some are oblivious to the disruption they are causing. You're supposed to stay focused on your own breathing, and your own practice, yet it is a very rare yogi who never ever notices anyone else's practice (whether it's irritation, competition, or admiration that is evoked). And there are rules -- once the class has begun, you stay in the room (unless it's an emergency -- or, as one of my teachers says, "if you're going to make a mess I have to clean up, you can leave"). No phones, shoes, or bags in the yoga room. No chewing gum. That kind of thing. These aren't so unusual in yoga studios I don't think.

But Bikram practice can seem very authoritarian to outsiders because it is standardized across all the licensed studios to create consistency, and because the teachers use a script during class. And I think that the heat and humidity in the room sometimes calls up the judgmental or complaining element in one's mind -- for myself, I've learned that if I'm busy judging myself or other students in the class, it's a symptom of a deeper imbalance. It's a distraction thrown up by the superego (or the left brain, or the monkey mind, take your pick of labels for that chattering voice). But it's not uncommon after class to hear someone complaining in the changing room that it was too cold, or too hot, or the microphone was too loud, etc. I think the critical brain can be so threatened by the meditative quiet that yoga produces that it works extra hard to keep running throughout.

I have great respect for the rules of my studio, and for consideration of the community. But I wasn't violating either of those things. Also, I don't like confrontation, I don't like to be told what to do, and I really, really hate to be unjustly criticized. She was wrong, and I was right, and my inner brat really doesn't deal with unfairness very well. The situation definitely pushed some of my childhood triggers, which might be why I turned blank. But since I didn't have a pithy remark available at the moment (of course I came up with several, long afterwards) and since I didn't really want to get all hierarchical with her when I'd just detoxified and meditated for 90 minutes, it was probably the best response.

I wish I could say my reaction was a carefully considered zen decision that would reflect her judging mind back to her as she tries to interpret my lack of response. But it was just a gut reaction.


why I like my magazines on trees

Even though I'm all for digital access to texts of all sorts, I'm realizing that I'm rather old-skool about magazines. I love reading magazines -- we subscribe to a couple weeklies (news/entertainment) and a couple monthlies (health/lifestyle). (All of which get recycled, and also distributed at the gym etc for re-reading.) And whenever I'm on a plane, I feel allowed to indulge in a handful of other magazines -- the ones that I don't read regularly, but thoroughly enjoy on occasion.

Recently, Undine talked about how Newsweek is trying to be more like a blog in its writing style, and Gawker reported the rumor that Entertainment Weekly might move to online-only format. We subscribe to both of these, and I've been interested to see how each manages the hybrid format now common in the publishing world, where the website supplements the print issue to some degree. Frankly, the rare occasions when I've gone to each website, I've found them frustratingly organized and overly redundant. But when I'm reading EW its mentions of additional movie reviews etc that can be found on the website actually sound interesting. Whereas Newsweek has this incredibly irritating column each week that ranks the 10 most viewed stories on their website for the previous week -- which inevitably includes several stories that were in the print magazine, but some that were not. I suppose it's meant to make me interested in the trendy stories of the day -- but inevitably I feel only mild curiosity combined with irritation -- if these stories were so important or intriguing, why weren't they in the print mag?

What I like about Newsweek and EW as weekly magazines is that they are designed for interstitial reading -- the little bits of time in the day when you want to relax your mind but don't want to get caught up in something lengthy or challenging. And for me, by definition, these moments are not in front of the computer. I like having lightweight reading matter that can easily slip into my bag if I'm going to the dentist, or that I can read while I'm heating up leftovers for lunch. Something that I can spill coffee on without dismay.

And when I'm online, I've got so much else to read, I rarely go to sites from major news media, preferring born-digital sources. I guess I prefer those worlds still kind of separate.



Another Not Surprising Update from Research Leave: The holiday spirit is much more accessible when you're on leave, rather than immersed in grading. I spent the afternoon actually baking today, which then gives me simple holiday gifts for the few outer-circle people I usually give presents to.

Recognizing and renouncing my perfectionism, which has prevented me from sending out the cute photo-card of my dreams for the past several years, so that then I don't wind up sending any cards until January, I actually purchased some cards already and should be able to finish writing them well before mailing deadline.

I don't feel a lot of external pressure around the holidays, compared to most people I know. GF and I have only minimal family obligations for Christmas, and no kids, so things are pretty simple. But this year is shaping up to be even more relaxed and enjoyable. And it's been nice to take time out for decorating or baking whenever I feel like it. (Of course, if I were a "real" academic I wouldn't admit these things, even on a pseudonymous blog. But I'm just not that serious I guess. "Leave" means permission as well as absence, and I've been enjoying that flexibility.)



It's cold today. Really cold. And because of some peculiarities with our old house, it's cold inside, too. In the winter, we close off the outer rooms of the house, only making brief foraging trips into them for particular items. We live in the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom, camping out with our laptops and building little work stations wherever it feels warmest. (In warmer seasons GF and I each have our own separate rooms for study/office space, since we work at home a lot.) I cook things in the oven to help warm us up and we wear hats indoors. We exercise a lot, and always shower at the gym since it's much warmer there than at home.

Depending on my mood, it's either miserable or kind of fun. Tonight it's going to be super cold, so we'll retreat further into just the bedroom, giving up on trying to heat the living room enough. Get the dogs into the bed with us, and read and watch movies on the laptop. I know a lot of people actually manage to go out and do things on winter evenings, but my impulse is to just curl up and stay inside.


a booster rocket day

Michael Neill has a wonderful discussion somewhere in one of his books (and I've heard him talk about it on his radio show) about inertia. You know, an object in motion tends to stay in motion; and one that is at rest tends to stay at rest. (And I'm sure if there were a physicist in the audience, she'd have some much more complicated revision of that "law" we got told in school, but I'm going to hang onto my old ideas for now, since I'm actually more interested in their metaphorical application here to personal development.)

Anyway, his idea is that many of the difficulties we attribute to anxiety, fear, or procrastination are really just the force of inertia. If you're not actively working on a project, you are resting, inert, and not moving -- not because you're stupid or lazy, but because it's an energetic principle of this world. And, correspondingly, once you can take a little tiny step towards whatever project or goal you'd like to move towards, then the next little step gets easier. But sometimes you need a shove or some assistance in the right direction. And that's the booster rocket -- once out of the Earth's atmosphere, the spacecraft no longer needs all those rockets it needs at first to get off the ground.

For myself, I know that inertia is a very real force-- and something I struggle against, because once in the grip of it, I can't always see that that's what's going on. Rest is something we all need, in the sense of relaxation, reflection, pause. But there's some very fine line between that sort of rest (what I needed right when I came back from my intense conference and research trip combo) and the rest of inertia, the rest that feels like you can't quite get out of the mudpit. (Being prone to depression doesn't help things, since when I feel inertia then I start to wonder if it's the greys starting up again.)

Luckily, I was listening to some old podcasts on my mp3 player and heard the one about inertia again and realized aha! that's what my problem has been for the past week or so. So I set myself a clearly defined intellectual task, and made myself accountable to someone else about it (a friend who I had to email afterwards) and made sure I had quality caffeine . . . and what d'ya know, inertia got kicked to the curb. At least for a few days I hope. What's tough is that seems so obvious. Do work, get involved in work, get excited about it again. But sometimes it's the getting started, and re-started, and re-started that is the hard part. At least for me.


leave: like a shower for the psyche

Last spring, when I was anticipating going on leave for Fall 08, I think I told several people that I'd be sure to be meeting them for lunches and coffees, since I'd probably be feeling kind of squirrelly just working on my project, not having regular social interactions. Somewhat surprisingly, that really hasn't been the case. I think I was feeling so overextended that I needed these 7 months (summer plus fall) to recuperate, re-energize, reflect on what I was doing and why. (Of course, it is also possible that I've crossed some line into truly weird hermit behavior and will have to relearn all sorts of basic social interactions come January.)

Many years ago, long before I was anywhere near getting a research leave, one of my old mentors told me that when I did get a leave I should be sure to spend it out of town, so that when I came back I would be happy to see my colleagues again.

I didn't go out of town this semester, except for a couple of brief trips. But I pretty much pretended that I did -- I've gone into campus only four or five times, to sign paperwork or pick up interlibrary loan books. My closest friends here are not in my department, so I had very limited socializing with colleagues.

And it's been great. It's not that I don't like my department, my colleagues, my job -- I do. But getting a little distance has been nice. I really like not knowing all the latest gossip. I hear a little bit of it when I go in to collect my mail, but I try to limit those exchanges. Being away from the hallway chitchat reminds me even more how draining and toxic it can be. There are a few people who I'll be really glad to see when I get back to a regular campus routine in January -- particularly some older colleagues who I'd never socialize with because we have very different lifestyles, but who love to talk about current movies. And I feel tolerant and detached about some of my less favorite folks. I think this is what my old friend was trying to tell me. Certainly, if I'd been in my campus office every day and hearing all the news in the hallway, I'd be feeling much less refreshed.


hotel life

So I'm staying in a quite nice hotel for a few days for this conference. There are a lot of things about how hotels are run that are of course excessive (new towels every day) but seem only like an exaggeration of my regular life -- I change the towels in our house every few days, so fresh ones every day is just stepping up the speed or scale of domestic practice. (And unfortunately this is not a "green" hotel that offers you the possibility of saving your used towels for another day, nor the hooks to hang them on even.)

But then there the little things that I think are supposed to signify luxury, but just seem strange. The folding over of the edge of the toilet paper. The two new bars of soap every single day (but at least they don't take away the used one, so I can just keep using it). And the weirdest one at this hotel is that each day when the room is made up, housekeeping pulls out two kleenexes from the box (concealed by a ceramic container, nice enough) and fluffs them into some kind of flower-like shape and tucks them into the edge of the tissue box. Like I want to use a tissue that someone else has put their hands all over?? Like I'm supposed to be too fancy to pull my own tissue out of the box? (And although writing it out here demonstrated to me that it is probably supposed to aspire to the aesthetics of a flower in a vase given the ceramic container around the tissue box, it's still a couple of kleenexes. It's not that impressive, not like some origami-style dinner napkin at a restaurant.) So every night when I want to blow my nose I remove the fluffed up ones and get a fresh one. My skeeviness about germs wins out over my environmentalism, especially while traveling. (Usually however I can use those to mop up toothpaste or spilled coffee or something. I find some sort of use for them, as I can't just throw them away.)


fantasy academic camp

I read a personal essay recently in some magazine or other -- probably one of those Newsweek "My Turn" columns, or something similar -- in which the writer talked about his experience attending baseball camp for adults. I don't remember the exact name of the camp, and I don't follow baseball -- but what I gathered from it was that a bunch of middle-aged men go to camp to be coached by retired baseball players -- fulfilling lifelong fantasies and their love of baseball. (To be fair, the essay in question also was about starting a charity for ALS sufferers, and the baseball camp was just part of it.)

This came to mind because right now I've been enjoying academic fantasyland for two days. The annual big Victorian conference is at Yale this year, and since I'm on leave I was able to extend my trip so that I could do some research in their libraries before the conference starts tomorrow. So I've had two days of intense work in the library, hours in coffeeshops, Thai food, and Bikram yoga. There is no version of reality in which I could actually live in New Haven and be so carefree and happy -- but it is fantastic to visit. I've been getting lots of good work done, and just enjoying the atmosphere, which is so very different from my own urban campus and my own home city.

I'm going to be really ready to return home to my own cozy life -- it's hard to be away from GF and the dogs for so long -- but as fantasy trips go, it's nice to pretend for a couple days what it would be like to be a major league player in this game.



Today, I am willing to give up my cynicism about politics. Today, I am willing to give up my defeatism learned from years of living in states that don't match my values. Today, I am willing to believe in possibility. Today, I am feeling hopeful about this nation in a way I have never felt before.


my voting story

Voting today was both exciting (since this election is potentially such a history-maker) and strangely anti-climactic: so many people had early voted (I know people who waited for over 2 hours last week to vote early) that there were no lines at all. Granted, GF and I did walk over to our polling place at about 2 in the afternoon; it looked bustling enough at 8:15 this morning when I walked the dogs near the church where we vote. But at 2, there was just us, and the two guys manning the table.

And now, we wait and see what happens...


happy november

What's it like to be on a semester of research leave?

it's awesome.

I kind of feel bad saying that when everyone else is in the throes of mid-term grading, when people I know are in crappy jobs, and when there are much more serious problems in the world than the textual and historical questions I've been spending my time on.

But it is true. And no one ever explained this to me before. I have two close friends who had year-long leaves recently and did not seem to be enjoying them at all. They were each in her own way consumed with anxiety about not producing enough, not having enough time, not being enough of whatever she thought she should be. Colleagues in my own department who have had leaves in recent years similarly reported to me that they wished they had written more, travelled more, or slept more.

With my colleagues, most of whom I'm only casually friendly with, I suppose this might simply be a demonstration of their mastery of either Academic Imposter Syndrome or Academic Faux Insecurity One-Upmanship Discourse: "oh, I'm such a failure, I only wrote four chapters this semester" "oh no, I'm the failure -- I only got a national award this semester" etc. (The conversation is excruciating either way, whether it comes from a psychic place of suffering or dominance.) Smaller versions of this get played out at the end of each summer and winter break, too.

But my close friends were genuinely frazzled and anxious near the end of their leaves. So I approached mine with some caution, having seen what I really didn't want to experience for myself. I counted the days of my leave, vowing to make the most of them. I wrote up plans. I set goals. I did all the things I'd been doing for the last ten years in this job. And then I decided to chuck most of that and try doing things differently. Because although the past ten years have been good in many ways, I haven't been as successful or as happy as I would like, at least as regards my research career.

And it's been awesome.

I took a break from this space for a variety of reasons -- not least of all my sense of needing to withdraw and turn inward for a little while. But also because I've been trying to figure out what I wanted to say, or how to say it. As I often remind my students, it's usually easier to write about a piece of literature that you don't absolutely love. If you love it, it's hard to develop a critical stance, a clear perspective. Now, I don't have a critical stance in this space, per se, or at least not a defined one -- but I've certainly found it easier to write those posts in which I'm complaining or critiquing someone or something. It's harder to say "I'm doing well." Or at least it seems more boring.

I don't think that is just due to the Insecurity Discourse (though a shadow of that ran through my spine as I typed the last sentence: who am I to say I'm doing well, when I haven't met X publishing milestones?). It's more a sense of "who would want to listen to someone who's happy? isn't that irritating?"

Maybe it is. But I'm not really writing in this space for my audience -- I'm always surprised and glad if you're reading it. What I do know is irritating is continually listening to people who are bitter and negative all the time (my Elderly Parent being a prime example, though there are others in my life). So I'm going to see if I can figure out how to write about some good stuff. I'm highly trained in critique -- of self and others -- and I don't expect to lose that. But what would it mean to think and write about happiness for a while? I'm going to try and find out.


73 minutes

There are 73 more minutes left to the time band in which I was told to expect the washing machine repairperson to arrive.

. . .

sigh. This is what my afternoon has been like so far: sit down to work. Our younger dog barks furiously, I go to the front of the house to see if it's the repair person. No, it's the spaniel across the street who's causing our dog to bark. I return to my chair. Work for 20 more minutes. I hear a noise of a large truck, go to the front window, and no it's not the repair person. I hastily pee in case the repair person suddenly arrives while I'm in the bathroom (because that's usually how it works). Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.


follow up

Well, after writing a carefully casual email, we have a plan to meet the afore-mentioned couple at a neighborhood coffeehouse/bar type place later this week. We'll see how it goes.

And I didn't mean to start a with kids/without kids debate in the comments -- I can't possibly know what someone else's experience is like. From this side of things, I can say that it's often hard to become friends with people with kids, because they are busy doing all the kid type of things. I've been to too many parties and picnics filled with moms of 3 year olds who look at me blankly when I explain I'm a colleague of the host, not a playgroup friend. But one of my (not local) friends who does have kids complains that it's hard for them to meet couples they want to socialize with too. So I guess maybe it's just difficult for everyone of a certain age. Once you're out of school, it's harder to meet new people.

There's a hilarious How I Met Your Mother episode about this phenomenon, so it must be widespread enough to be reflected in sitcoms. Lily and Marshall get new across-the-hall neighbors and start "dating" them -- ordering takeout food, playing games, watching movies. And then the buzz wears off and they have to sneak around to get in and out of the apartment without the neighbors seeing them. Luckily for us, these new neighbors are several blocks away -- on one of my dog walking routes, but it's easy enough to walk another way if need be.


the couple friend game

I have probably said this before, but I'm not so good at making friends. The ones I have, I hang onto, and treasure dearly. But the small talk, getting-to-know-you part is hard. Even harder, though, is finding suitable subjects for such a small talk experiment. Even more challenging has been the project of finding some couples for GF and I to be couple-friends with. Usually, one of us knows half of a couple, and it pretty much stays that way. We have tried hanging out with a few other couples, but haven't really clicked with any. To be fair, GF and I are socially awkward introverts with semi-geekish interests and fairly clear ideas about what we do and do not want to do while socializing. (Do: eat at non-pretentious restaurants, play cards/board games, watch movies. Don'ts: drink beer at smoky bars, attend crowded sporting events/outdoor festivals, watch the other couple fight passive-aggressively.)

So it was quite exciting today to serendipitously meet a couple who've just moved to our neighborhood who we might actually want to hang out with. I just happened to be walking by when a guy I am sort of friendly with was going to their house and so I was introduced as a friend-of-a-friend. They are academics at another university (a plus), they have dogs and no children (a definite plus), and they seem smart and kind of interesting (super plus). And they just moved to our city so are actively interested in meeting people.

Now, however, comes the hard part. The part that feels too much like dating. Figuring out whether we email them, or wait for them to email us. If we get together, what place/time/activity do we suggest. Etc. Junior high all over again.


not really quite so exciting

I recently read Rachel Pastan's novel Lady of the Snakes, which was enjoyable enough for a Possession wanna-be. I did think Pastan's awareness of the complicated lives of young academic women was noteworthy (although some of the breeding details I thought were heavy handed -- really, does "linea negra" have to show up not just once but twice in the book as the main signifier of pregnancy? that was just clunky writing).

But once, just once, I would love to read a novel featuring an academic in literary studies whose work seems remotely like what I and my colleagues do. In satires of academic politics (like Moo or The Straight Man) the literature profs usually are depicted as raging Marxists or Old School defenders of Truth and Beauty. Most people I know are some complicated mixture of both those things (plus many more). And Possession and its many imitators turns the study of literature into an historical/archival treasure hunt, complete with stolen or forged or hidden documents, literally or figuratively backstabbing colleagues, and biographical information as the be all and end all of literary study.

It's just not really like that, in the real world. Very few of the interpretive or historical or theoretical questions that motivate people in my field could be answered by the discovery of a particular lost document. If they could, they wouldn't (for the most part) be considered a complicated enough question to justify one's research.

But I guess having the heroine of a novel sit on her couch for hours reading obscure poems and thinking about their interconnections doesn't make for nearly as an exciting plot arc . . .


if I were Miss Manners

If I were an etiquette authority, these are the two sentences I would proclaim banned from polite conversation:

(1) "You look tired." Because really, if you don't feel tired, you don't want to hear this. And if you do feel tired, you don't need the reminder. Or the news that you are broadcasting your inner climate to the world.

(2) "You look like your mother/father." Because there's at least a 50% chance that the child really, really doesn't want to grow up to resemble his/her parent. At least.


damn, September.

How did it get to be September already?

I know, this is hardly an original complaint, or a concern unique to little old me. And in fact at the beginning of summer I even predicted that I would feel some anxiety at the end of it. And look, I do.

I don't know any academic who doesn't close out the summer with at least some tinge of regret for pages unwritten or books unread. For me, since summer was the prequel to the Semester of Leave I was busy thinking/saying/acting as though "leave" began in June. But that wasn't entirely true, as I was still mopping things up in the land of administration, moving offices, recovering from the past academic year, and coping with all kinds of Elderly Parent stuff.

But now, the semester's been on for a week. This is my leave, for reals.

And what am I doing? sitting in Oppressive Childhood Town preparing to take my hostile Elderly Parent to her Alzheimer's screening tomorrow.

I did read poetry for about 30 minutes today. And I read an article on the plane. But that's about all I've been able to manage.

I'm going to be super-hungry for work by the time I return home. And super sad about September.


from poetry to poop in 150 words

Evolutionary biologists explain that the large frontal cortex in humans, which gives us an exceptional capacity for pattern matching, was originally a survival mechanism. If we're not stronger or faster than our predators, then we need to be able to interpret their signals and make smart choices. Our brains are designed to read meaning into our environment -- whether we're reading gestures, words, sounds, or objects, we are constantly interpreting things, but usually at a level far below our conscious awareness. The top-level interpretations we are aware of are the result of hundreds more subtle patterns we've already decoded. This inherent capacity of the brain explains a lot of understanding that comes to us through intuition, or hunches -- things our conscious mind can't really explain but other levels of our brain have already grasped.

This skill also means that we start to see connections and cause-effect relationships among items that don't necessarily have them. It's a small step from "which one of these things is not like the other" to "when I see round objects I feel happy." Put five items in front of a person and sooner or later you'll start to make judgments about them -- and see connections, comparisons, and relationships that may or may not "be there" at some other level of evaluation. The most beautiful connections we call poetry, metaphor being its most condensed form. The seemingly most obvious connections we might call taste or preference: what seems appealing or disgusting to me seems self-evidently so, yet with a little perspective one realizes that it's just subjective perception. From another angle, we get superstition or mysticism-- human beings are biologically prone to making connections between unrelated things (hence the "lucky socks" students wear to test day) and also therefore prone to mistakes about judging the probability of certain events (any day's news reports gives you plenty of examples).

I've been reading a lot of different material lately about how these pattern matching and judgment skills in the brain operate. (from Blindsight to Fooled by Randomness to Spark.) As a literary critic, I rely upon these skills all the time, and part of my job as a teacher is to help students learn how to become more reflective and critical about the patterns they notice and enjoy. But I've been enjoying trying to observe how often that patterning kicks in -- how frequently I find myself with preferences or assumptions that really don't belong there.

Our oldest dog, known here as Old Girl, likes to eat poop when we're out on a walk. She prefers cat droppings, but will eat other dogs' poop too (but never our own family dogs, never in our own yard -- there's undoubtedly some territorial as well as gustatory element at work in her desire). This is a disgusting habit, but it is almost impossible to completely prevent her from getting some. She's crafty enough to squat to pee -- which is after all one reason for going on the walk -- and then suddenly duck her nose into a pile of cat poop. Old Girl would be approximately 97 years old in human terms, so at some level it's kind of like getting great-granny to give up bacon and cigarettes (that is, if I had such a great granny, but I know people who do). So my walks with Old Girl nearly always involve some struggles over her access to certain stinky items.

Poop is, I think, unequivocally disgusting. Possibly less disgusting than vomit, but I don't really want to put that to the test (and there are lots of digestive variables involved). But then this morning I realized my brain has actually made some more subtle distinctions. Because, I found myself telling Old Girl, cat poop rolled in sandy dirt is MORE disgusting and shouldn't be ingested, even by a poop- and dirt-loving old dog.

Ah, the brain at work. (or something)


laugh when you can

The past couple of weeks with Elderly Parent have been kind of difficult. I finally got her to understand that I wanted her to see a neurologist -- and why (for an Alzheimer's/dementia evaluation). Since then, she's been understandably agitated, angry, sad, and afraid. But given EP's upbringing and personality, her response has been to cut herself off from her friends and to demonize me. She phones me every day or two to go through the same litany of how terrible a person I am, how I've betrayed her, and how she's doing just fine and doesn't need to see a doctor. I was prepared for this, since it's actually fairly familiar behavior from her, but that doesn't make it any easier when I see her name pop up on my phone.

Getting the appointment scheduled has been a lengthy process, since a referral was required from her primary care doctor, whose staff are bad about returning phone calls. But then yesterday EP tells me that an appointment was scheduled for her with the neurologist. That's great news! But she doesn't know what day or time it was for.

Because scheduling an Alzheimer's screening on the phone with the patient is such a great idea. Right?

I've got to laugh about these things because otherwise it is just too irritating. (And I called that office today and they were happy to tell me when the appointment was for. Thank goodness for frequent flyer miles, since now I'll be making two trips out there this month.)


faculty leaves

This story in yesterday's Chronicle, about how the University of Georgia has suddenly canceled some faculty research leaves for this Fall semester, has really been on my mind. First, of course, is my sense of sympathetic outrage on the behalf of those faculty who thought they were on leave this semester and now suddenly have been told that they will be teaching next week. And on behalf of the administrators who have to find/create courses for them to teach, and the students in hastily-put together courses taught by someone who thought she'd be writing her book. That's really not an ideal learning situation.

I understand about budgetary cuts, and how research leaves might seem like something extraneous that could be sliced. But although the Chronicle article didn't specify which colleges/departments were being affected, such cuts typically affect faculty in the humanities much more than they do faculty in the grant-supported sciences, since we have fewer opportunities to take time away from teaching and put it towards research. So there's that concern. And what's even more frustrating (in my sympathetic response) is that the cancellations are being unevenly applied. According to the article, some faculty who had planned to be doing research in other locations for the semester are still being granted their leaves under a "hardship" clause. So if you already have your research completed and need writing time, or if your research materials are available to you through interlibrary loan, your leave is taken away.

I'm identifying very strongly with the Georgia faculty affected by these cuts because I have a one-semester faculty research leave for Fall 2008. My university, like Georgia, doesn't have sabbaticals. And in fact our leave program is only for our college and is thus contingent upon the good sense and good graces of our Dean. It's something that could be suddenly taken away from us at any point.

And I'm spending my leave semester here. I don't need to go do archival research anywhere else for this project. I'm presenting at a conference in the fall, but otherwise I'll be here -- I need uninterrupted reading and writing time in order to get this book written. As is also true at Georgia, we get a one-semester leave at full salary or a full year at half salary. Economically and logistically it really wouldn't be feasible for me to go somewhere else. And besides, I don't want or need to for my research. So I've very strongly identified with those faculty mentioned in the article who suddenly find themselves teaching when their colleagues who planned to travel still are on leave. In my department, it's usually only faculty who are married to high-paid professionals who can afford to take the year at half-salary and spend it abroad. Those with family responsibilities or smaller incomes usually spend their leaves at home.

I've been maintaining a regular gratitude practice for several months -- expressing my gratitude for the blessings in my life each morning and evening. And the luxury of my research leave has definitely been on that list. But unlike my yoga practice, for instance, which is also on that list, I also feel a sense of responsibility and some anxiety about my leave. Will I have enough to show for it? am I using my time in the best way possible? And now I kind of feel like not only am I writing for my own reasons, but on behalf of those whose leaves were cancelled.


relative femininity

Dr Crazy's been writing some thoughtful posts recently about (among other things) the genre of personal academic blogging and gender normativity. The concept of the "personal" is inevitably coded differently for men and women -- and often assumed to have a connection to the domestic and/or feminine.

I'd think it's quite safe to say that Dr C experiences her gender identity (whether on her blog or IRL) very differently from me -- the ways each of us inhabits her female identity is very different. (I'm much older, less girly, and half of a short-haired, comfy-shoe wearing lesbian couple -- among other things). But I've also been struck by how cushioned I am in my day to day life from ever even contemplating my gender identity these days. No one is likely to comment on my childlessness or my appearance, and most of the time I don't really think about it.

What brought all this particularly to my attention was that GF and I recently attended a funeral and reception involving her extended family and several generations' worth of family friends. I so rarely see so much plastic surgery (kind of shocking when the 60 year olds look younger than I do) up close, so much cleavage, or so many high heeled shoes. And I work in an English department with its share of stylish women. But they're stylish in the way that academics are stylish, feminine, and attractive -- which is to say, very very different from the rest of this city's inhabitants.

I've always thought of femininity as a relative construct. Next to my partner, I'm definitely the femme. In my department, I think I'm about a 5 on a 10 point femininity scale (makeup, but no skirts; boots, but no pumps or sandals; earrings, but no necklaces). I think for most of these women at the funeral, I'm not even on the same scale that they are.

Then, after the funeral, we went to the mall for one of our twice-yearly expeditions. Another version of the same thing. What are these women wearing and why? What does a woman like me have to do to get noticed at the Clinique counter to buy a refill of my sunscreen? (Sometimes it's mighty difficult. I left one department store where the clerks refused to pay attention to me and went down to the next one where they were happy to take my money.) In my usual routine of university, yoga, gym, grocery store, post office, and library no one cares what I look like. So it's a bit of a shock to be reminded of what mainstream culture thinks.

I should be clear: I don't want to look like scary plastic surgery lady or a girly girl. I'm mostly content with how I look and I'm certainly content with how I perform and experience my femininity. But I guess in losing some of my youthful self-consciousness I've also just stopped thinking about these things so much. What that means I'm not yet sure I've considered.


the google rabbit hole, with a twist

Over the past couple weeks I've fallen down what I think of as the online rabbit hole a few times -- you, know, the process by which you think of an old acquaintance and google them and then look up somebody else, and then, and then...it's 45 minutes later and you've done nothing except experience a little Schadenfreude and a little envy. I haven't yet figured out what this process is a symptom of, for me -- I don't do it all that often, but every once in a while I get curious about people from the past. And the fact that a friend of mine was recently extolling the virtues of Facebook to me in a way that actually made me kind of curious (I have completely resisted it thus far since I hardly need new ways to waste time online, to which the above will attest), combined with Facebook's now displaying public profiles (name and picture is all) when you google somebody (btw this is only if you have your facebook profile set to do this, it's not for everyone) means that I found some more people in the latest rabbit hole adventure. And I'm contemplating a limited foray through Facebook (esp since my 20 year college reunion is coming up next spring).

But then last night GF and I were rabbit hole adventuring together -- it started out with a reasonable research project, to find an obituary for a family member -- and then it turned into full out googling of various relatives etc. And then of course ourselves, and our googlegangers. And here's the twist: since the last time I googled myself, my university page has fallen substantially in the results (which is fine with me, it's not like anyone else is actually looking me up that way) because there is now an adult film actress with my name. Too funny. (Especially if I could print the titles here, but I'm not going to.)


the ideal and the real

I have this fantasy picture in my head of what working at the office should be like. I guess it's an amalgam of several real faculty offices I've known -- none of them mine -- seasoned with a few fictional or film versions. Key elements include a window (preferably with trees or hipster urban cityscape outside), bookshelves, a large desk surface, a comfy reading chair, elegant lamps for light, edgy artwork/wall hangings. and a coffee pot. Such a fantasy office is of course located in a charming Gothic style academic building (but completely fitted with modern amenities), filled with genial colleagues, brilliant students, and an atmosphere of intellectual discovery.

The reality is something a bit different. My office (which actually I'm quite pleased with, having only moved into it a couple months ago) is small, windowless, and contains two metal bookshelves circa 1969. The 6 year old carpet is the newest thing in the office (I found papers in the filing cabinet dating back to 1977 and the metal desk was I think designed to act as a temporary shelter from nuclear attack) -- I know this because it had to be replaced when a fire broke out in that office because of the wiring on that side of the hall. You see, someone had plugged in a coffee pot. We were scolded by physical plant and told that the building really couldn't handle coffee pots along with computers (and how are you supposed to have an English department then?). So now there's a circuit breaker for that side of the hall -- but it's located in the men's room. (Again -- we're the English department -- we have more female faculty than any other department on campus -- and they put the circuit box by the urinals.) I have a couple of posters in my office that I really like and I'm hoping to add a few more. But the room's base look suggests the office of a bookeeper in a industrial tubing factory (thanks to the yellow walls and perforated ceiling tiles) and it's a challenge to disguise it as anything more rarefied.

The (not Gothic, not stylish. not historic) building smells of mold, rather than discovery, and every single person I spoke with on my last trip to campus was in the throes of depression. I know it could be a lot worse -- I'm very fortunate to not have to share an office. But it's so far from my mental picture of how working at my campus office could be pleasant and supportive rather than draining. It's not just the physical environment of course - - we're a commuter university, both in terms of our student population and our faculty. Most of us come in only on our teaching days and do our research from home. It's a tricky circular effect -- the building is bleak so few of us are there so then it seems gloomy and disheartening.

But in any case, the space is still mine to use as long as the state sees fit. To make sure I get to keep it during my leave semester, I have to show up every few days for a couple of hours and make sure that our office manager sees me visibly using my office. It's kind of grim but at least it's mine. And every day allows me opportunities for cultivating gratitude -- that I don't have to share it, and that I can close the door, now that I'm out of administration.



I picked up a novel last week at the library and turned, as I often do, to the back flap to learn about the author, whose name was unfamiliar to me. This was The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, which I read and liked (and although it may appear this blog is quickly sliding down into some morass of Alzheimer's-only commentary, it was pure coincidence that I pulled the book off the new fiction shelf) (although I suppose maybe not a coincidence that I read it). But jeez oh pete, he was born in 1982.

I was startled, but decided to read the book anyway -- it's not the first novel I've read by someone younger than me (although possibly the first by someone that much younger) -- and as I thought about it I figured I inevitably see actors and listen to musicians younger than myself. But there's still something embedded in my head that goes way back to I think the 3rd grade -- the sense that cool people are inevitably older than me. For so long, all musicians, novelists, and actors were older than me, that it came to seem inevitable.

And although I hear music on the radio from new young bands, I'm entrenched enough in my habits that most of what I still listen to is from people of my own generation or older: Robert Smith, Bono, Madonna. I just checked, and as I thought, John Digweed and Tiesto are about my age. Most of the contemporary fiction I read is from people around my own age or older.

I guess all that's getting ready to change...



Phone call this evening with Elderly Parent:

EP: My leg is doing so much better. I went on a big long walk.
Mel: A big long walk? what does that mean exactly? (EP had a fracture and months of rehab; now walks with a cane when outside her house, doesn't use it in her house)
EP: oh I just went round and round. I went to see my neighbor Alice down the street. And then I went the wrong way and didn't know how to get back to my house. So I went on a longer walk than I had planned.

This is not the first such tale I've heard. I'm not sure if it's better or worse that she was on foot this time -- last year I heard a couple of stories from her about getting lost driving to familiar places like her hair salon. And in recent months as some of her acquaintances (including her hairdresser) have realized that I'm aware of her cognitive losses, they've been more forthcoming in telling me other such stories. EP has clearly not been telling me all such stories -- so at some level she realizes this is not normal behavior.

But I can remember only one occasion when she admitted to being nervous or frightened at being lost. Most of the time she acts as though it's no big deal.

And that's what's really, really hard to respond to. I know the generous, kind thing to do would be to say "oh your leg must be doing so much better" since that's what she is focusing on. But all I can hear is her saying that she got lost walking back to her house from down the block.

And when I hang up the phone and turn on the computer, there's an email from her caretaker telling me the same story again. With the added dig that EP was upset because of an earlier conversation with me when I suggested it might not be a good idea for her to fly alone to a professional meeting that she used to attend yearly (even though she's retired). I have heard the stories from last year when she went to the meeting accompanied by two friends who wound up acting as caretaker/nurses for her. She can't travel alone and until we can actually have a conversation about why I have to keep emphasizing her physical limitations (the leg).

EP has lived in the Land of Denial for most of her adult life so the fact that she denies that anything is wrong in her melting brain isn't that surprising. But it's hard to figure out how to break through. So I'm not really trying to yet.



One of the biggest challenges I've been facing over the past several months -- and to a lesser extent the past year, year and a half -- is Elderly Parent's declining cognitive state. EP doesn't admit that she's lost any cognitive function, however, so she's not yet receiving any medical treatment or evaluation for Alzheimer's. She had a fall and some other health issues this spring and I got her set up with an elder care organization, so she has an assistant visiting her each day and driving her on errands, etc. My hope is that the more she gets used to having the caregivers around, the less likely she is to want to try driving herself, etc. (we've had that discussion but no definitive outcome yet). But as her physical injury heals, she's becoming somewhat resistant to having the caregivers come so frequently.

What has really helped is that she had one caregiver in particular who she really liked -- they developed a very friendly relationship that meant EP didn't mind so much having her around. I found out this week that this caregiver has given her notice to the agency. Apparently she's going to tell EP tomorrow. Which means I can expect a rageful phone call in the evening.

One of the most stressful aspects of this whole situation is that I have to be in regular contact with EP. Regular as in phone calls every 1 or 2 days, visits every couple of months (she lives 800 miles away). EP was never an easy person to deal with, and her mental decline exacerbates her bitterness, self-centeredness, and insecurity. And on days when I'm not actually having to talk to her, I'm frequently having to deal with her (financial, legal, medical) affairs in one way or another.

Like this evening. I'd spent the day mostly on household projects, and was looking forward to sitting on the couch and reading blogs etc. But there was an email from the caregiver agency. And although it was nothing particularly distressing, it's really hard for me to keep up sufficient boundaries between all the EP stuff and the rest of my life -- to keep the thoughts of an EP task I'm dreading tomorrow, and her phone call I'm dreading, out of my mind as I plan what I want to work on and focus on tomorrow. Containment and detachment are what I'm working on. Back to the yoga mat.


the next door pinata

I grew up in the 70s -- when if something could possibly be made into a craft project, we did it as a craft project in school: macrame, melted crayon art, shrinky dinks. And pinatas. I vividly remember several occasions when we had to stick gloppy gluey newspaper onto a balloon. Because this was the Midwest, that's all I knew about pinatas until much later in life.

There are a couple of stores in my neighborhood that sell very elaborate pinatas in just about any shape you can imagine. But even so, it was kind of disturbing to pull into my driveway this afternoon and see the party going on next door for one of my neighbor's grandkids. A group of people (kids and adults) circled around a life size Little Mermaid swinging from the tree, beating her with a stick. It really looked like a person, even with the tail. And why -- if you were a 4 year old who liked the Little Mermaid, would you want to see her smashed with a stick? Even if her guts would eventually disgorge candy? Ick, ick, and ick.


no more admin for me

Undine pointed me to the latest not-surprising news about women and administrative service. One of the studies cited in the IHE article focused on the the three years immediately following tenure -- in which 16 of 20 women found themselves with "significant increases in their service obligations" but only 5 of 20 men did. I haven't read the actual study to know how the samples were selected (from the same discipline? from related ones?) but the numbers certainly aren't surprising to me. Especially since I'd have been one of the 16 of 20.

I'm in an English department, which means we have almost equal numbers of tenured women and men. (14 tenured women and 15 men in literary studies by my count; the numbers in the other areas are roughly similar). In the 10 years that I've been in the department, we've had two chairs: both men. All the other administrative positions in the department, ranging from advising positions that give you 1 course reduction, to full-time administrative roles like directing the graduate program, have been held by women. The chair's position is the only administrative post in my department that also comes with a salary increase.

Was I invited, encouraged, pressured, or exhorted to take on the administrative job I did? yes, to all of the above. I did, however, go into it knowing at least some of what it would entail. I figured I had the organizational skills to handle it and that I could take advantage of the partial teaching reduction to try and develop a new research agenda. (Which I did, but only after the first year which was mostly spent figuring out all of what was required.) I also went into it wanting to find out whether administrative work was something I'd be interested in as a career path, since that's one route to more geographic mobility and financial compensation.

I discovered that although I'm capable enough for such work, even good at many parts of it, it's NOT AT ALL what I'd want to spend the rest of my career doing. And that was really, really, useful to find out now, when I'm still early enough in my midcareer to make adjustments.

But it's still sobering to find oneself so clearly described by a statistical trend. I'd attribute at least half of my organizational ability to my personality type (INTJ). But probably about half of it is due to cultural conditioning. I know for a fact that at least two other female colleagues and myself worked as secretaries in the distant past of our student years; I seriously doubt any of my male colleagues did. And although good administrators don't necessarily have to have good clerical skills (witness my chair, who has a secretary who actually types his correspondence), it doesn't hurt. For instance: I know how to make a graph, a pie chart and a spreadsheet -- and I also know how to make an argument to our upper administration based on the information contained in them. Filing information and retrieving it is second nature to me. Many of my male colleagues have made a virtue of their incompetence in such areas as email, photocopying, agenda setting, meeting planning, and other basic organizational skills that I honed in my years as a clerical assistant. If you are perceived as disorganized or inept, you don't get asked to serve in administrative roles; that rules out about half of my male colleagues right away.

The other way to be ruled out from consideration for administrative service is to be perceived as socially disruptive, personally vindictive, or just kind of insane. I have both male and female colleagues who are exempted from service for this reason. But again, cultural conditioning tends to reward women for good social skills, for thinking of the impact of their behavior on the community, and for diplomacy. It's not that we're necessarily happier with how things are going, but we're less likely to bang our shoes on the table and storm off in a huff.

The worst part about leaving my administrative job is that too many of my colleagues seem to think that I'm just taking a break for a little while and then they'll get me into some other such position. This is not going to happen, since they can't actually make me.

I can't hide my knowledge of email and Excel, but I've decided to try and channel one of my male colleagues who doesn't ever do anything he doesn't want to do. He'll serve on certain committees for the department or university when he thinks it's important. But most of the time? he comes to campus only when he feels like it, he teaches his classes and meets with his students, and he writes. I do care about the functioning and the future of the department, but not at the expense of my own intellectual development and my own career (both of which were slowed, but not stopped). This fall I'm on leave -- and it feels freeing and full of possibilities, but also like I'm playing catch up. And that's a bit disheartening.


wolf circling

The other day, I was listening to an interview with a naturalist who was talking about hiking alone and coming across a mountain lion. Apparently, the idea is if you should ever find yourself in such a situation, to try as much as you can to not seem like prey. Stand tall, don't seem weak, hope you're not exuding the stink of fear. I don't have to worry about predatory cats since I am risk-averse enough to stay away from things like extreme outdoor adventures. But the grey wolf of depression is sniffing around me lately. Hasn't attacked yet but I know it's there. So I'm trying not to seem like prey to the wolf: exercise more, work more, stand straighter, take my supplements, smile. Not prey. Not prey. Not prey.


blog sticker

I was sorting through some plastic storage bins of old stuff yesterday, and was happy to find a couple of sheets of stickers that I'd forgotten about-- neon smiley faces, and some animals. You see, over the past few months I've been tracking various things on my wall calendar with stickers: different kinds of workouts, my daily household chores, writing time, and other self-improvement measures. The concrete physical act of putting the sticker on the calendar and seeing them accrue is oddly rewarding -- even more so than using joe's goals, which I had tried a year or two ago. I'm not on the computer 24/7 and since most of the tasks I want to track don't involve the computer, using the site was more of an obstacle than a reward. (Plus I got sidetracked by getting obsessive about what the relative worth of different tasks might be, since you can assign them point values.)

When you sign up to do the 60-day Bikram challenge at my yoga studio, they put a chart on the wall with your name on it, and you add a star sticker to the chart each day you complete a class. The experience of the challenge has its own momentum, and the yoga is intrinsically rewarding, but somehow the stickers help. Even this past spring when I did the challenge for the second time -- knowing that I could and would complete it -- the stickers were still a nice form of encouragement. So I decided to adopt stickers for my own purposes at home.

So, although I haven't written a blog post in six days, I can tell you that I completed 8 workouts, 3 household projects, 4 writing sessions, and had one rest and recharge day. It actually wasn't a great week for getting stuff done, but it's nice to see that I accomplished some things even though I felt really scattered. So now a green smiley face is going up on the calendar. Like anything else, if I just keep doing little bits maybe I'll improve...


from my kitchen

Thanks to all who encouraged me in getting an electric kettle -- when we went to the store the choice was obvious, since there was a kettle on the shelf which looked like it really belonged next to our aforementioned toaster, even though they are made by different firms. (There is actually a slight difference in their color but close enough for happiness in the kitchen.) I've been drinking more tea and extra-speedily doing all my other boiling-water tasks.

I think this might be the most fancifully-colored dish I've ever made. Sure, bunches of steamed greens are bright, and stir-fry is multi-colored. But this beet/carrot/red cabbage salad wins the prize. (I just shredded the vegs (myself, I can't imagine shredding beets without a food processor, but if you don't mind blood-red hands you could I suppose) and dressed them with lime juice, ginger, a little ume plum vinegar, and a tiny bit of olive oil.) (Toasted sunflower seeds are excellent on top, too! I just didn't put them in the main bowl because I don't want them to get soggy over the next couple days.)


previous self

There's a great line in the first season of How I Met Your Mother (which we just recently discovered and watched on DVD) when Marshall is confronted with a tough decision and he says "I'm going to let future Marshall deal with that." GF and I have taken that up as a strategy on occasion and it's really helpful -- not, I'm going to keep on worrying over this choice ineffectually for the next three months; instead, I'm going to just turn it over to my future self who will have more information and be smarter. (Note, too, the congruence of this idea with GTD methodology - store your information and your decisions-to-be-made somewhere in your system so that you can deal with them as the time becomes right, not too early or perpetually.)

Lately, however, I'm working on a chapter about some poems for which I have various sets of older notes that I've been sorting through. I've presented a couple of conference papers that dealt with some of this material, but that's the extent of it. I've been delighted to find out that previous Mel was smarter than I thought! My memory of the two conference papers was muddied by my feelings about the panels (one in particular was the last session of the last day and had clearly been thrown together by the conference organizers as a grab-bag of barely-related topics). And my notes clearly show that the ideas I'm currently working with for the chapter have, in fact, been in my head for a long time. It's just that my conscious mind didn't know it.

This fragmentation of my thinking self isn't new -- I have a weak memory and I've only recently discovered notetaking techniques that might help me keep hold of some of the associative links more firmly. And so much of my early academic life was fragmented into particular tasks: write a paper for a seminar, write a conference paper, write an article for a deadline. Now that I'm trying to modify and enjoy my writing process in a more holistic way, I'm sifting through some of those past tasks and meeting up with my previous self. I used to be frustrated with the recursivity of my reading and writing process -- but I'm trying to cultivate a more open and friendly attitude, like Marshall's. Hey, past self, nice to see you in these notes, thanks for pointing out these subtopics already. (I know, it's not very academic, but I take my models wherever I find them)


Victorian Poetry Pop Culture Watch

In Hellboy 2, not only is the first stanza of section 50 of In Memoriam quoted twice, there's also a very nice shot of a late-19th century edition of Selected Poems (judging from the decorated cloth binding) that plays a briefly important role...

(At least, my aging brain thinks it was section 50; I haven't found any confirmation on the internets and GF wasn't paying as much attention to the poetry as I was. Any questions about the Hellboy mythos and how the film did or did not adhere to it have to be routed to her. I was just along for the ride. And the poetry.)


office hours

This Chronicle article describes how administrators at Kean University (a public university in New Jersey) have put in place new regulations that will (1) alter class schedules to include Fridays and Saturdays, including changing existing 2-day class blocks into 3-day blocks; and (2) require faculty to hold 2-hour office hour sessions 4 days a week. All of these changes are being made ostensibly in the name of resource utilization and optimizing student learning.

Many universities, including my own, have made or are considering making adjustments to the class schedule to make campuses more efficient. We don't yet have many Saturday classes, but they have been much discussed, since we have (like Kean) a mostly commuting student population. And many faculty have actually expressed a desire to teach courses on Saturdays. Few of us, however, prefer 3-day courses to 2-day schedules -- like the students, faculty are commuters too. Most of us try to bundle our courses together so that we only hold classes and office hours on two or three days of the week. I was assigned to 3-day blocks my first couple of years in the department, and although they work well for certain kinds of writing courses, I found them very frustrating for upper-level literature courses, because of the difficulty of parcelling out the reading assignments and of keeping discussions flowing from one day to the next. But that was several years ago, and given the attention deficits I've been noticing among many of my students more recently, perhaps 50-minute blocks wouldn't be so bad. (Essentially, I divide my 80-minute class hour into 4 20-minute blocks of different topics/activities etc.)

But requiring office hours 4 days a week? I strongly agree with those quoted in the article who are protesting this part of the rule. Kean is, I believe, a school with a strong liberal arts component, which often accompanies a student-centered mission (whereas I teach in a liberal arts college within a much larger university with several professional colleges as well). But the idea that mandatory office hours -- and in some instances, office hour blocks being assigned by the administration or department chair, not to accompany class hours but rather simply to create a sense of "coverage" in the department -- will enhance student learning seems patently flawed. What good does it do a student in Professor X's class to consult with Professor Y about the paper assignment? How can Commuting Student A who attends class only on MWF in order to schedule her work hours and childcare, attend office hours on Tuesday? Faculty are not interchangeable with one another. And most of us feel our primary responsibility in a given semseter to the students we are actually teaching that semester, and perhaps to students we have taught in prior semesters. Not to random students in general.

I know that small liberal arts colleges have often had such office hour requirements (although often expressed in unwritten rules and codes of conduct). But it seems wrong-headed in the urban commuter environment. And I'm sure it's a drain on faculty time and energy at the SLACs, too. Office hours are by definition time in which it's difficult to get any sustained work done, even if you don't have many (or any) students show up, because you have to be able to drop what you're doing at any moment. Students tend to phone during office hours, since they know you'll be there. And the open door brings in noise, chitchatting colleagues, and all kinds of other visual and auditory distractions.

Kean's provost gets my vote, though, for most irritating quote in the article:
Mark Lender, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kean, said many professors already were on the campus five to six days a week, doing teaching and research. "Our good researchers look at all this and essentially say, So?," he said. "The folks who are making these arguments are not among our most active researchers."
It's not the number of hours punched on the clock that creates good research: it's the quality and consistency of those hours. And the measures of quality will vary widely from one individual to another, and from one discipline to another. Just because Chatty Cathy loves to write in the midst of the faculty lounge doesn't mean it works for Serious Sue, who needs absolute peace and quiet. It is true that research in a laboratory environment, for instance, most likely needs to be carried out on campus. My colleagues in the hard sciences are typically on campus every day, but not necessarily available to students (especially since many of our science faculty don't teach that much and certainly don't grade student work themselves). But research in other disciplines may require different tools and surroundings. If I'm examining a book in the Rare Books library, or consulting a reel of microfilm -- I'm not in my office. And given the noise levels and climate control problems in my building, I'm much more able to do serious thinking and writing at home, at the library, or in a coffee shop, rather than in my faculty office. (Even though I have hopes for my new digs on campus.) I sympathize with faculty at Kean. And I really hope our provost doesn't read this and get any bright ideas...


netflix profiles are safe!

About a month ago Netflix announced that it was going to dismantle the Profiles feature in September. But enough users raised enough of a fuss that they are going to retain Profiles. Yay!!

The Profiles feature lets you have more than one queue within the same subscription account. This is crucial for our household, since GF watches cartoons and ultra-violent Korean horror movies and I'm partial to romantic comedies and costume dramas. (There is a large space on our Venn diagram that is shared, containing science fiction, TV shows, and indy dramas.) We definitely need our separate queues and taste profiles.


home again

Yesterday was a relatively uneventful, if long, travel day. At least it began with an awesome vegan English breakfast plate. I was really impressed at the level of vegan awareness in Toronto -- we ate out at several places that were all vegan, or all vegetarian, or at least had large sections of the menu that were vegan friendly. I really appreciate it even more when the restaurant might not be vegan, but they still use the word vegan on the menu.

It's nice to be home again -- I had a wonderful trip, but that was the fourth trip out of town in two months -- which for me is a heck of a lot. But I've come back feeling happy and restored, rather than drained and cranky, thank goodness. Today was a re-entry day -- sleep, dogwalks, yoga, a trip to the public library, hanging out with GF. I started catching up on the laundry and household chores, though I still need to finish unpacking my suitcase (for some reason that's a task that I often procrastinate on).

Maybe tomorrow I can get up earlier, and get a bit closer to my ideal summer schedule. Because now that my travelling is done, and my administrative duties officially closed out, MY SUMMER HEREBY BEGINS. It's hard not to feel the clock ticking behind that statement. But there's still a lot of time left, and now it's even more under my control.

oh, and GF has agreed to the electric kettle! so I think a trip to Target is in order...



Traveling opens up my perceptions -- as well as enjoying and appreciating a new place, I usually begin to see my own city, my own routines, and my own habits differently. I'm in the midst of a larger geographic-existential reflection which once digested I'll write about -- but more superficially, I'm finding myself repeatedly thinking about teakettles. My friend that I'm visiting uses an electric teakettle, after her years of living in England, and I'm quite enamored of the ease and speed of it. At home I use a standard stovetop kettle and the one we have is in need of replacement (GF and I have said this many times) so it's not pure frivolity to be considering the electric option. However, we really don't have counter space to spare, so it would require rethinking the arrangement of my kitchen. Perhaps the kettle could sit on the table, or the canister of cooking utensils will have to go somewhere else so it could go on the counter.

I'm not sure if there's any health concern about one versus the other, assuming it's not made of aluminum or something known to be bad. I'll have to look them up. But I think having the electric kettle would definitely increase my tea consumption, which is a good thing all around: antioxidants, happier brain chemistry, etc. But since it takes up counter space it feels like a commitment. (Though it would free up stovetop space -- and remove the grungy old rusty one from our kitchen altogether). I'm fairly cautious about household type purchases, wanting to make sure that it's something we really need and will use. So -- votes for or against electric kettles?


travel yoga

Today was the first time I got to visit a Bikram studio in another city from my own -- most of my travels in recent years have been either to places without Bikram schools (like where Elderly Parent lives) or for conferences where it feels too hectic to figure out how to fit a class into the day.

Toronto has many Bikram studios, a surprising number really, for a city of this size. Most of them seem kind of small, and have somewhat limited schedules (which makes me realize how fortunate I am at my home studio, which offers 7 classes a day). I picked one to try today and wound up really liking it -- there's another one I might try that is a little closer to my friend's house, but with a less convenient class schedule. But the one I visited today was absolutely beautiful, with a wooden floor (I'm used to carpet) which felt so soothingly toasty warm during the floor series. The teacher was great, the atmosphere was pleasant, and the changing room spacious and well-equipped. And since it was Bikram yoga, I knew what I was doing. My beforehand jitters (my usual social anxiety with any new place/activity) dissipated super-quickly since it was essentially familiar and welcoming.

And after traveling and the crazy unpredictable schedules of vacation time, I really needed to get my spine and nervous system back in sync. I've come to rely on Bikram class for the mental focus and clarity even more than the physical realignment and relaxation. A couple of days out of the yoga room -- even for fun and good reasons as this week -- makes me start to feel kind of scattered.

So now I'm put back together again -- and looking forward to returning tomorrow! So far it's been a really relaxing visit -- not much writing has happened yet, but we've been having fun cooking, walking, talking, etc. Who knew you could fill up whole days just hanging out?




happy canada day

I'm visiting an old friend of mine in Toronto this week. It's the first trip I've taken in about three years that's just for fun - - not for a conference, and not for family stuff either. (I've done far too much of the latter in recent months.) I'll never be a big traveler -- after all, I've finally created a home life and home space that I really love -- why would I want to leave? But it is certainly easier to be going somewhere when it's a desired trip, not a required one.

Yesterday's travel was easy -- and frankly, once I get to an airport and start the journey, I'm pretty mellow about the whole process. I like airports -- drinking coffee and reading are high on my entertainment list anyway, and there's good people watching to boot. It's the two days of keyed-up hyperactivity before I leave on a trip -- and the lack of sleep the night before -- that I wish I could manage to do without. For whatever reason, I suddenly become obsessed with cleaning the house, doing a thousand errands, and completing tasks that I've been procrastinating about for weeks. (Hey, let's go to the DMV! or rearrange all the towels!) And then the night before, no matter how much pre-packing I've done, I'm still up for hours. This time I just embraced it and accepted my weird process. And since I didn't have to drive a rental car or deal with difficult relatives or present a paper upon arrival, who cares if I was a little tired?

And since it is Canada, everything has been so super easy and wonderful: people are incredibly polite and helpful, signs are clear, public transport is easy, and the weather is fantastic. Today we just walked around, ate lunch, hung out, had a fun lazy day. Tomorrow we'll be on a more normal schedule -- part of the plan for this trip is for my friend and I to work on our respective manuscripts. We wrote our dissertations on the buddy system, and figured it was time to kick that into gear for these projects too. So we'll have work sessions interleaved with yoga, dogwalks, and long conversations about life and everything else. Highly, highly restorative.


goin' back

Well, the "new" template I selected wouldn't play nice with haloscan commenting. So it's back to my old look for now. I know I'm about a year late to all the reformatting business -- and since most everyone uses a feed reader, the design hardly matters. It was just the allure of a new clear surface.



still fixing comments on the new template etc.

re: turn

The cyclical rhythms of academic life have a reassuring predictability, even though when I'm in the midst of them I sometimes lose sight of it -- it might feel like the crappiest week ever until you realise it's just the 9th week of the fall term. Semesters begin, muddle, and end. There are at least three new fresh starts in every year, for which I am ever grateful.

And I've now been doing this long enough to begin to perceive the longer cycles as well. I've been here at Large Urban U for 10 years -- long enough to have been through two up cycles and two downturns in department morale (apparently 2.5 years is about the span of such cycles). The key cycles in my own career from the university's standpoint have each been approximately 3 years: 3 years as a new assistant, 3 years of getting ready for and going through tenure review, and then 3-4 years of administrative service.

And now, a turn. Another transition, another fresh start. Out of administration and down the hall to a new office -- one with a door I can close. Away from the noise and the politics of the front office suite. And even more promising: a semester of research leave.

Other turns and transitions in the first half of 2008 also have kept me away and now brought me back to this space: the loss of The Boss, our canine pack leader, to liver cancer; Elderly Parent's increasing cognitive deficits and health issues; and turning 40.

I started blogging 4 years ago, about a month after the last sequence of huge life transitions. Clearly it's time to return.