Wednesday, December 07, 2005
One phrase particularly stung, as she described this woman who did not in any way fit the mold of the usual coffee-house denizens: “She just looks wrong here.” (I mean no criticism of NK; that’s something we’ve all thought or said at one moment or another, which is why the honesty of her post is so valuable). It’s what we think when we find someone doesn’t fit our expectations, when we sense they don’t belong.
I love to travel, and one of my obsessions with traveling is to blend in well enough that no one will immediately guess I’m a tourist. I know I can’t avoid giving myself away at some point, but I feel a powerful obligation to master at least a smattering of the language and the customs. I want to delay as long as possible the moment when it happens: the reaction that is never spoken aloud, but easy to see in someone’s eyes, “You don’t belong here.”
I can do this in a few parts of the world for a reasonable amount of time before the disguise fails, but one of the most memorable elements of my long-ago trip to Thailand was the realization that I was unavoidably trapped in my skin. I knew that during my brief weeks there I had no hope of mastering more than a few phrases of the language or getting a very sophisticated understanding of the culture, but I thought I could do enough to not stand out as a painfully obvious farang. It didn’t take long to realize that even if I spent the rest of my life in this lovely country, even if I made friends and got a job and settled into a community, if I spoke Thai and dressed Thai and lived Thai, the first reaction of any stranger upon observing my Anglo-Saxon features would be “you don’t belong here.” It doesn’t even have to be malicious, it’s just the observation that I’m different, but not to be able to escape it is maddening. I’m embarrassed to confess that that was my first real understanding of what most African-Americans and Hispanics and cerebral-palsy patients and folks in wheelchairs live every day in this country, the extent to which the majority of the population bases their first reaction and set of assumptions on appearance. (I was nineteen and naïve; these things took a while to sink in.)
It’s easy, if you listen, to hear that phrase going through people’s heads every day on my own campus, that momentary double-take of dissonance: when they encounter the overweight, awkwardly dressed student I see lumbering across campus every day; when they see black students in graduate courses; when they see female faculty in the science departments; when they see the kid with blue hair and a nose ring; when they cross paths with the janitorial staff before 5 pm. I know that at least one of my colleagues thinks it of me.
One of the comments to New Kid’s post was from marcelle_proust, who said simply that “Compassion is a learned response.” That’s so true. Compassion is not automatic; it needs to be practiced and cultivated, and never more than when we are least inclined to it. We can’t help our initial reactions and judgments when we see someone we perceive to be out of place. We can help how we express them or respond to them. We may hear that phrase flash through our own heads – you just look wrong here – but we can challenge it, and look twice at the person, and say: Do you want to be here? Welcome.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Here’s how the bar will celebrate Thanksgiving. There’s a tradition from Galicia, the northwest of Spain, that I’m particularly fond of because it involves strong alcohol, fire, and the company of good friends. It’s called a queimada, and it goes like this.
Start with a big shallow bowl and a couple of bottles of orujo. Orujo (pronounced oh-ROO-ho) is a drink unique to Galicia, made from fermented grape skins, a cousin to Italian grappa. Take a careful sniff from the bottle; it’ll make your head snap back and your eyes water. As you pour it into the bowl, the fumes will rise and whisper to the whole neighborhood that you’re up to no good.
Stir in a substantial amount of sugar, the rind of an orange, and a handful of coffee beans.
Now comes the good part. This is best done in the summer, on the beach late at night under a watchful moon, but we can do it here in the bar where it’s dark and cozy. Take a shallow ladle, dip up a bit of the brew, and light a match. It won’t flare up immediately; you need to be patient, hold the match under the ladle to warm it up and coax it into flame. When the flickering blue spreads across the liquid, gently lower the ladle to touch the orujo in the bowl. Watch the licks of fire skitter across the surface, hesitant at first, then more bold.
Fire is a powerful element, but it still needs your help. If you stand back and watch, the flames will burn the alcohol off the surface and disappear. Stir it gently, and they will revive. Lift the ladle, and you can pour delicate streams of fire back into the bowl. Pass the spoon around, and let everyone stir the flames. The constantly shifting patterns of blue tipped with gold are hypnotic; there’s always a period of silence while everyone loses themselves in the mosaic of flame.
But we shouldn’t forget the purpose. The traditions of Galicia say that a queimada is to summon witches, demons, and evil spirits, so that with the proper incantations they may be destroyed in the flames. In our queimadas, we let everyone summon their own demons: too much grading. family squabbles. difficult colleagues. stupid politics. frustrating research projects. looming deadlines. too much grading.
Bring them all in the room, name them, and dissolve them in the fire. You can see them flame up and disappear; they don’t even leave any smoke.
Now, look back into the bowl. The fire has slowly caramelized the sugar, toasted the coffee beans, and drawn the zing out of the orange rinds. The alcohol has lost its punch-you-in-the-face potency and is now mellow and smooth. Pour a short squat shot-glass full; it will be warm in your hand. Sip, and it is sweet and potent and caffeinated; as we pass the glasses around, the atmosphere will change from quiet, intent focus to cheery babble. The demons are banished; only the friends remain.
I propose we have a four-day queimada, starting now. I’ve poured a big bowl of orujo; who wants to burn some demons?
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
1. O highest and most marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.
2. King of England, render account to the King of Heaven of your royal blood. Return the keys of all the good cities which you have seized… you must render justice, and pay back all that you have taken. King of England, if you do not do these things, I am the commander of the military; and in whatever place I shall find your men, I will make them flee the country, whether they wish to or not; and if they will not obey, [I] will have them all killed.
3. The same citizens among us will be found devoted both to their homes and to the state, and others who are immersed in business are still fair judges of public matters. We are the only people to regard the man who takes no interest in politics not as careless, but as useless. Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.
4. Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
So here I am on the Other Side, and let me start off by saying that I haven’t had a chance to post to the blog at all this week because I’ve been buried in grading and class prep and meetings; indeed, three days out of the last week I stayed on campus nearly twelve hours a day. Do you get where this is going? Yeah, tenure isn’t the big holiday on the beach I was hoping it would be. I do get a kick out of seeing my new title on my business cards, and on noticing they updated the department website as well. And the raise was nice! (It may even keep us up with cost-of-living increases.) But the sky is still blue, campus still looks the same, my daily routine is exactly what it was before the Change.
To be fair, I didn’t expect things to be much different. There’s nothing controversial enough about me to make the job security seem more comforting. And my motivations are largely internal more than external; I didn’t spend my time over the past few years writing comments on student papers and helping to design a capstone course for the department because it would help get me tenure. I did these things because they matter to me. They’re an important part of how I perceive my role at a university, and they’re rewarding in that I can see the effects in student performance and the progress of the department. Now that I have tenure, I’ll continue to do these things in pretty much the same way and for the same reasons.
The only thing I did do differently because of being on the tenure track was to push the book through, and I have mixed feelings about that. Had I stayed in my previous position at Small Liberal Arts College, I wouldn’t have needed the book for tenure. I like to believe that I would have finished it anyway, more carefully and at my own pace, rather than scrambling to get it out and cutting every corner along the way. I like to believe that my internal motivation would have been enough to maintain my research agenda. But I also face the reality that academics have a notoriously hard time finishing projects even when they are under deadline, so it may be too much in the realm of fantasy to think that I would have done this without the maddening tick of the tenure clock. How the book is received will probably have a great deal to do with how I look back on the tenure process: if it gets much criticism, especially for the weak spots I know it has, I’m likely to feel fairly resentful that I had to forego some revisions and additions in the interest of meeting a hoop-jumping deadline. If it gets rave reviews, I’ll be relieved and grateful that I took a position that made me crank the thing out in record time.
Now here’s an interesting twist: what I’ll miss about being on the tenure track. I’m increasingly convinced that tenure is a stupid, stupid system (see any number of Dean Dad’s latest posts for evidence of this), and I was frequently frustrated by the meaningless and even counterproductive aspects of the tenure process. But I have to confess, I was drawn to academia in the first place because I’m a talented hoop-jumper, and I’ve always been pleased by the applause for my performances on standardized tests and getting-along-well-with-others. I gained a fair amount of smug satisfaction from preparing my annual reports each year and checking off all the things I’d done that I was supposed to do, and then some. Now those things don’t count for so much, at least in the sense that the hoop-keepers don’t particularly need to keep track anymore. I should feel freedom and relief at the fact that I ought to be able to progress towards full professor as long as I keep up my publications and don’t kill anyone, but really, those standards are a little low to be satisfying. Plus there aren’t any penalties for not making full professor, so there’s not even that sword hanging over my head.
My experience of the last twenty years has trained me to think in terms of measurable stages of work and aiming at the next goal: college degree, MA program, thesis, PhD program, prelims, dissertation, job search, tenure-track treadmill. It’s a little odd to think that of all the progressive steps built into an academic career, at the stage of associate professor I’ve completed all of them but one, and I’ve got a good thirty years of career still ahead of me. I’m back to relying on my internal motivations, which is fine, but the applause was nice too. There won’t be as much of that from here on out, so I’d better figure out how to generate my own.
Saturday, October 08, 2005
Aside from the usual sorts of phrases you'd expect from a "pilgrim" search, like "pilgrim needs a good map," I discovered the following:
Pilgrim needs to back off he ain’t got no street cred
Pilgrim needs at least a DirectX8.1 compatible graphics card (that explains a lot)
Pilgrim needs fencing for his turkey coop
Pilgrim needs a pure heart and lawfully earned money
Pilgrim needs eggs
Pilgrim needs experienced hands, She is a fine ship, and fast!
Pilgrim needs an infusion of some $225 million (that, indeed, would be helpful)
Pilgrim needs to lay that burden down
Pilgrim needs a listening place
Pilgrim needs to really trust you
Pilgrim needs practice in skipping and hopping (my favorite!)
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Many, many years ago, in my braver and more foolish days, I spent a summer backpacking through Thailand with a friend. We took a train up to the north, and traveled by foot and canoe and elephant to a series of small villages where there had never been any substantial incursion of cars or electricity or white people. We ate simple meals of rice, fish, and fruit, slept in small bamboo huts, and spent the evenings listening to the village families singing by the river. It was remarkably calming to look out over the hills in the twilight and not be able to see a single road, building, or electric light as far as the horizon.
One day we arrived in a slightly larger village (with a paved road!) and it turned out that this village was on the border with Burma. There was no customs office, no passport checking, just a simple banner over the road, and dozens of little wizened Thai and Burmese villagers paid it absolutely no attention as they passed back and forth with their baskets and water buffalo, going about their daily routines. I couldn’t resist the temptation: surely it wouldn’t be wise to wander very far into Burma, but wouldn’t it be fun just to step across the border, to be able to say I was there? Who would mind?
As I tried to stroll nonchalantly down the road and blend in with the villagers (ha!), I looked out of the corner of my eye into the shadows at the side of the road. There, one on either side of the road, silent and immobile and nearly hidden in the brush, were two men with machine guns. Rats. They looked like statues, completely unconcerned about the flow of people crossing back and forth. But as I approached the magic invisible line that separated the two countries and began to take a step past the banner, one of them met my cautious glance, and with the faintest of smiles, merely shook his head “no.” Sorry, farang girl, you don’t want to go there. Disappointed but unsurprised, I turned to go back to the Thai side of the village, but not before my right foot had edged just across the line.
I have no passport stamp to prove it, but that’s the story of how my foot has been to one more country than the rest of me.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
P/H: Wow, we’ve been together over eight years. Do you still love me?
P/H: It hasn’t gotten old?
LWI: Nope. I’d need to replace my underwear after eight years, but not you.
P/H (pondering this comparison): What if I got holes?
P/H: Like your old underwear.
LWI (pause for thought, then a cheerful conclusion): ...Patches!
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
At least I thought it was a typo, but she describes them as "great worriers" throughout the essay. Now I can't shake the mental image of these powerful bearded men sitting around their campfires, wringing their hands and moaning "Do you think it's such a great idea to conquer Egypt? What if they fight back? What if we all get killed? Oh, whatever shall we do?"
Saturday, September 03, 2005
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations. This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace is to be found in the Bible.
People who are unable to understand perfectly both the Bible and science far outnumber those who do understand them. The former, glancing superficially through the Bible, would arrogate to themselves the authority to decree upon every question of physics on the strength of some word which they have misunderstood, and which was employed by the sacred authors for some different purpose. And the smaller number of understanding men could not dam up the furious torrent of such people, who would gain the majority of followers simply because it is much more pleasant to gain a reputation for wisdom without effort or study than to consume oneself tirelessly in the most laborious disciplines.
(Full text may be found here.)
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
But with the death of Mr. Badger and the devastation of Katrina, it seemed impossibly trite to write about my office. Others have been far more eloquent than I about the Badger family's loss; I just don't know how to express my sadness at having lost someone I never met.
But Phantom's comment thread about sharing New Orleans memories inspired me. I never knew Mr. Badger, but I did know the Crescent City, and I don't know of a better way to honor her than to post some of my favorite memories. I don't mean this as a requiem: New Orleanians are tough people, and I imagine the city will survive in some form. But I don't think it will ever be the same.
Just a few of the images that are running through my head:
Walking past Café du Monde when a sudden gust of wind stirred up a miniature tornado of powdered sugar from the beignets.
Joining spontaneous parades that would erupt out of nowhere in the French Quarter.
The week when my musician brother and one of his musician friends came to visit me over Thanksgiving; both were so inspired by the city that they could hardly contain themselves, and we sang and played and wrote songs for five days straight.
That same Thanksgiving, I invited over several friends who had no family nearby, and we had a huge potluck dinner. It was the first time I’d made my own turkey, and it turned out to be one of the most delicious we’d ever had. Only problem was that no one knew how to carve it! We hacked it to pieces, ate every last bit, and remembered it fondly as the Turkey Chainsaw Massacre.
Food. Every time I’ve returned to New Orleans, I’ve had to plan the whole trip around touching base with all my favorite places. Muffalettas, red beans, chicory coffee, beignets of course, crawfish, jambalaya, Cuban food, Caribbean food, every possible combination of ethnic background and creative preparation. There is nothing like food in New Orleans.
Several of my friends, including the Poet, lived in a neighborhood where people still sat out on their front porches in the evenings; none of those houses had central air. Everybody knew everybody; everybody had a story. They were from all parts of the world, many different religious and ethnic backgrounds; they all looked out for each other. When I started dating the Poet, within a week the whole neighborhood knew me better than most of my family does.
My first Mardi Gras, I went to several of the parades with one of my best friends, a Franciscan priest. He is one of the kindest, most gentle people in the world, and it gave me no end of delight to watch him caught up in the glee of bagging more Carnival loot than anyone else. (He’s over six feet tall, so his strategy was to stand behind the families who had little kids. The krewes tend to toss more beads at the kids; he’d just tower behind them and gather up all the stuff that went wide.)
Later that same Mardi Gras (the full New Orleans version lasts about three weeks), I was following the Krewe of Comus down St. Charles. There was a guy on one of the floats who struck me as remarkably attractive, so instead of watching the parade go by, I ambled alongside it for a while, a little ways back from the crowd. Cute Guy ducked into the float and reemerged with the prize of all prizes… a frisbee! (Usually the krewes throw beads and doubloons; other tosses, such as flowers or plastic cups or stuffed animals, are more rare and thus far more valuable. A frisbee was a treasure beyond compare.) The crowd surged around him, hundreds of arms in the air, begging for the frisbee. But no! Cute Guy paused, surveyed the crowd, and pointed at… me, a good thirty or forty feet back. Heads turned; the crowd parted. Cute Guy spun the frisbee in a perfect floating path straight to my hand; I made a flawless catch. I blew him a kiss; the crowd cheered; the parade resumed. I wore an irrepressible grin for three days straight.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Personally, I’m fairly sure that there *isn’t* any best method, since every person’s ideal situation is different; the book piles and loud 80s pop music that works for me will be nowhere near the spotless desk and soundless room that works for you. Not to say that the discussions aren’t helpful; they’re often both valuable and interesting. I just don’t think there’s a single magic exorcism for the age-old demons of procrastination & distraction.
I’m going to propose something else, though, and argue that even if you do come up with the perfect combination of desk condition, ambient sound, snack food, time frame, and whatever other psychological carrots and sticks get you going, that might not be as helpful as you think. First of all, you can burn up most of your research time creating (and/or waiting for) the “perfect” conditions. Second, it trains you to focus your attention on all the things that you perceive to be in your way: I can’t write until I get my desk cleaned up, I can’t write because my husband’s playing music too loud, I can’t write until the kids go to camp, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
While I was staying with my husband’s family for two months this summer (lots of people in a very small space), I had very little hope of getting much work done, aside from the mornings I spent in the archive a few times a week. We had one computer with an internet connection, shared by three people who needed to use it every day, and one laptop that my husband and I were sharing. There was no separate quiet space to work in; we had either the dining room table or (more often) the living room couch, with the TV tuned to Mexican soap operas. Family members would often drop by with small children, and both the next-door neighbors and the folks across the street had home-improvement projects going that seemed to involve a great deal of pounding. Oh, yes, and the chairs in that house are the most butt-punishingly uncomforable I’ve ever known.
In other words, all the circumstances were lined up against getting any kind of work done (and, besides, we were mostly on vacation, so I didn’t have big plans to get a lot done anyway). But I tried to sneak a little work in here and there, everything from class prep for the fall to actual thoughtful writing. What’s odd is that I don’t remember doing much work; I don’t remember even having tried very hard. But every time I open up a file, thinking “Oops, I’d better work on getting x done in the next couple of weeks,” I’d find it finished. When the hell did I do that? Oh, yeah, during the episode of Clase 406 when Fercho got shot by the guy on the boat.
I’ve noticed something similar going on, oddly enough, playing tennis, which Husband and I do every morning. When it’s a rare perfect day, no wind, not too hot, hair perfectly tied back, clothes comfortable… I don’t play so good. But give me a twisted sock, a sweaty lock of hair in the eye, an unraveling seam in my shirt sleeve, and that’s when I start making the killer shots, again and again. WTF? I was really baffled about this for a long time, until I thought about it alongside the amount of work I got done this summer under equally difficult circumstances. If everything’s perfect, I get scatterbrained, as if thinking only about what I'm doing somehow becomes an obstacle in itself - sort of a mental hall of mirrors. If something’s in my way, that makes me focus on the thing I want to get done, and I’m thinking of how I can instead of why I can’t.
This has been particularly clear in the last two weeks since we’ve been back. I’m back to my quiet house, my own speedy computer, my comfy office chair, my perfectly-ordered desk, and I can’t focus to save my life. Unfortunately I’m not sure if this leads to any kind of solution or recommendation – somehow I suspect that engineered distractions won’t work quite the same way.
Where are my mother-in-law and her Mexican soap operas when I need them?
Saturday, August 06, 2005
Whatever it is, I’m not sure to what extent I was born with it, though I know there have been more than a few moments in my life where it’s been consciously cultivated. I think optimism is a much a habit of thinking as anything else, and habits take some work to build.
One of those moments was when I was eleven or twelve years old, out on a summer bike ride with my best friend K. As we were heading back, about a mile from home, we realized that the formerly bright and sunny morning had given way to rapidly approaching storm clouds.
The first fat cold drops of rain began to hit the ground, and my first reaction was to do what anyone would do in that situation – sprint full speed for home! But just as I started to stand up on the pedals to give it all I had to make it home safe and dry, K. called to me – “Hey. Don’t speed up. Slow down and enjoy it!”
I wheeled a big slow circle back to where he had stopped his bike, arms out, head tilted up to the sky, welcoming the rain. And I instantly felt foolish – why run away from this? It was August, hot and dry, we were twelve, who cared if we got soaking wet. And it felt soooo good, that cool wash of rain, and it smelled even better. I felt a sudden rush of smug complicity – everyone else had run back to their cars or houses, thinking they were successful if they avoided the rain, or being irritated if they didn’t, but really they were all missing out on the best part. And I’ve been grateful ever since to K. for teaching me that lesson.
Since then, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for the prizes that might be lurking in apparently unpleasant situations. Granted, I may have taken that to extremes – many years later, K. commented, “You know how people describe themselves as seeing the glass half full or half empty? With you, not only would it be half full, but if it fell off the table and smashed into pieces on the ground, you’d pick up the little pieces and say ‘Hey, look, I could make a pretty necklace!’”
This isn’t to say that I deceive myself by ignoring the ugly parts of life; I don’t blindly accept injustice or stupidity by pretending there’s something pretty to be found behind them. It’s just that some situations are unpleasant because they really are hurtful or destructive, but most are unpleasant because they’re simply not what we wanted at the moment. In the latter, in my experience, there’s almost always something else there, like the rain, that isn’t what I thought I wanted, but turns out to be even better, if I only have the sense to appreciate it.
It’s a little odd to write about this, because there’s something about this attitude that many people find irritating. (Happy people can't possibly be serious, productive people! Being cheerful is a sign of great simplemindedness, nothing more!) I’m not sure why that is, except that it reminds people that if they’re unhappy, it might have more to do with their attitude than their actual circumstances, and it’s so much easier to blame your circumstances. For as much as people claim to want to pursue happiness, they’re awfully unwilling to catch it. I suspect this has a great deal to do with capitalism, which relies on engendering dissatisfaction… the constant message that you’re really inadequate, but you’d be happy and successful if only you had a bigger car! or whiter teeth! or sexier shoes! Nobody wants to hear that the secret to happiness is actually appreciating what you have… and letting yourself get caught in the rain once in a while.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
If I were to write a field guide for fledgling historians, I’d include all the practical stuff most of us learn the hard way (and that some of us keep learning, because for some reason I’d forgotten all of this from the last time I did hard archive time.)
· Get in shape. Strengthen those wrist muscles, because there’ll be at least one archive that won’t let you bring your laptop, and you’ll have to copy things out by hand. This may not sound like a big deal, but for me it’s been about ten years since I’ve handwritten anything longer than a grocery list, and leaping into four or five hours of handwriting makes me a little more sympathetic towards my students who write blue-book exams.
· Toughen up those spindly arms, too, because those innocent-sounding council reports you asked for come in a box the size of a Volkswagen, and you’re the one that gets to lug them across the room.
· Dress appropriately. My key mistake today was dressing in black. Sure, if you’re working in Europe you’ll want to look all classy and sophisticated, but some of those files are going to come in teetery two-foot stacks of ratty old paper, and there’s no way to get them safely across the room without leaning backwards, hugging them tightly to your chest, and walking in a slow penguin-shuffle to your desk. If you’re wearing any dark color, you might look good coming in, but you’ll leave papered in dandruffy flecks of archive residue. Solution: invest in a wardrobe whose theme color is four-hundred-year-old-paper beige.
· Last but not least, if I’d known better when I was a kid, I’d have taken some sort of Scout training to learn how to tie knots. In one archive, the only thing holding those teetery two-foot stacks of paper together is a thin cloth ribbon, wound in an impossibly intricate cat’s-cradle around the bundle. Sure, it’s easy enough to undo, but when it’s time to tie them up again, it’s like some sort of sadistic puzzle where you always come up an inch short. I used to think that the practice of history was about finding Clever Answers to Meaningful Questions; now I know that it really all depends on getting the damn knots right.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
I'm not kidding about the colors - the sky really is this blue.
On the right is the interior of the Alhambra, the last Moorish palace in Spain.
Below, looking up at one of the columns in the cathedral of Granada.
One of the many fountains of the Alhambra. The whole palace (from the 13th century) and its gardens are designed around water, with a series of fountains and channels that provide the soothing sound and the cool refreshment of splashing water in each terrace and patio of the palace.
And to the left, one of the patios. The gardens of the Alhambra are about the most peaceful place I've ever been.
Notice the carving of the windows, designed to let in breezes and gentle patterns of light, but shielding the interior from the intensity of the sun.
The same idea is applied to the public baths that existed in every Muslim city, where star-shaped openings in the ceiling serve to illuminate and to let the steam escape. These folks knew how to elevate bathing to an art form.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Mr. P/H: Hi, could we have two coffees please?
Bartender: No, no, wait, the waitress will come take your order.
Mr. P/H: Oh, okay, thanks.
He returns. We sit; we wait. Waitress ignores us.
After a while, Mr. P/H returns to the bar: Could we just have two coffees?
Bartender: No, no, wait, the waitress will take your order. [Yells at the waitress: Carmen! Table three!]
Waitress approaches: Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you. What would you like?
Mr. P/H: Two coffees, please.
Waitress (without moving) yells at bartender: Two coffees!
Bartender, satisfied, goes to the espresso machine and makes us coffee.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
But here’s one thing I’ve been pondering. One of my principal goals this summer was to set up a new research project, since the last one is in the final stages of being wrapped up. Of course over the past few years I’ve had nice pat answers prepared for the annual-report kinds of questions about my future research plans, but they were designed more to satisfy the report-people than to satisfy me. Lots of ideas, yeah, give me tenure, yada yada. Here, I’ve finally addressed the issue for real, and have tinkered with several ideas to see if they were feasible. About two weeks ago (June 22 to be exact), I had one of those rare mental lightning-bolt experiences where I knew exactly what the next book would be – not just a flicker of an idea but the concept for a full-fledged many-chaptered book, that sprang fully formed out of a tangent of a tangent of one of those earlier ideas.
What’s odd is that even though I find this idea enormously exciting and promising, and I jotted down in my research journal the exact moment of the lightning bolt to remember it fondly in the future, I’ve been reluctant to tell anyone. After a few days I hesitantly mentioned it to Mr. P/H, who was characteristically enthusiastic and supportive, and who had several suggestions about friends & researchers I should talk to. Eeeek! I’m not ready to talk to anyone. But why not? It feels risky enough to say it out loud to my husband; I can’t imagine turning it loose around anyone else.
In part, I’m afraid to get too invested in this idea until I have a better sense of whether it will really work out. The topic is very indirectly related to other things I’ve been working on, and although I haven’t ever come across anything written on this subject, it’s entirely possible that it’s already been done. (This brings back vivid memories of my undergraduate honors project, where I came up with the world’s greatest idea, thought it all through, and went to present it to my adviser, who said “In fact it is a great idea! But it’s just been done,” and handed me a book that was exactly the idea I’d hoped to pursue, written by none other than the best historian in the field and published only months earlier.) But I’ve been scouting for a couple of weeks now, and it really does seem doable, and it really does seem original. So why do I literally flinch at the thought of talking about it? Somehow the idea seems too young and fragile to survive on its own outside of my head; I don’t want to risk it getting banged up or misunderstood or laughed at.
But it’s an idea, not a helpless baby bird, and ideas thrive on company and light and conversation. I get my best ideas, without fail, when I’m kicking topics around with other people. Isn’t that what conferences are supposed to be about? (I know many of you have dark views of the value of the academic conference, but I’ve always found them richly useful for that very exchange of thoughts and perspectives.) What’s most likely is that I’m simply afraid that this topic isn’t half as clever as I think it is, and I can maintain all my fantasies about it as long as no one has the chance to poke holes in it. This of course is an entirely counterproductive attitude; if it does have holes, the sooner I figure them out, the better. The last thing I need is to obsess in great secrecy over this idea, only to have someone point out three years down the road its obvious flaws. And if it does turn out to be half as clever as I think it is, there’s the advantage of staking a claim to it early on, so that everyone knows it’s mine.
What do you all do with new ideas? Do you wave them around on banners, or guard them close to your chest?
Thursday, June 16, 2005
My brother, a man of great wisdom, has a trick he uses for facing difficult or challenging decisions. Not sure whether to play it safe or take a risk? Imagine yourself, he says, at the age of ninety, looking back on your life, and ask yourself: which thing would you rather have done? It's remarkable how much that kind of perspective helps you get past the things that seem scary.
So as a corollary to the 13-year-old question, I ask you: Imagine yourself at 90, looking back on who you are now. What would your 90-year-old self be most proud of, and what would your 90-year-old self kick your current self in the butt for?
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
These days, it's most noticeable with the news about Iraq. In the US we get the news about the daily bombings, but just the numbers - three more people dead, five more, twenty. Every day a few more, but it's just numbers. Here, with every single incident, every single day, they show the images of the bloodied fragments of corpses spattered across the streets, more wounded being carried away, more stunned and frightened neighbors, another father howling in grief and anger.
It's truly awful to see, and we haven't quite figured out what to think about it. Husband thinks it's too harsh, that they're only showing these images for shock value (and in the sense of entertainment/attracting attention, not shock that these things are actually happening). I think maybe Americans could use a little more of the latter kind of shock, though. It's too easy to say We're Number One and We Create Democracy and We're the Good Guys Why Aren't You More Grateful, when you don't have to see the consequences of the Pandora's box we've opened. I don't believe in exploiting the grief and pain of others, but it wouldn't kill us to be a little more aware of it.
Monday, May 30, 2005
This is way too much fun to pass up. I'm going to ditch all my boring research plans and make a name for myself as the Historian of the Orange.
(Can you tell I have a lot more free time to blog, now?)
Friday, April 29, 2005
Saturday, April 23, 2005
I feel the same way about Earth Day and our approach to the environment. Jo(e)’s wonderful post about her student protesters, and particularly the discussion in the comments about veganism, got me thinking about this as well. Culturally we tend to favor dramatic action when we make changes in our lives. Instead of making small changes in our eating habits, we go on Atkins or South Beach or some other extreme change that promises total transformation. Instead of lobbying for the more humane treatment of animals, we swear off all meat and leather and animal products. Or at least a few of us do, but that’s the only model for change we ever see. For the vast majority of us (and mad props to jo(e) and her students for being exceptions to this rule!), that sort of dramatic action is too difficult, so we think, Boy, in principle I think it’d be a good idea to be vegan, but I just can’t give up eggs and cheese, not completely and forever! I admire that woman who went to live in a treehouse in California to protest our abuse of the environment, and I love those totally environmentally responsible New Mexico desert house designs I saw on the TreeHugger Channel, but that’s just way beyond what I can realistically do with my life.
So instead, we make no changes at all.
But what if we tried a few small things that didn’t involve major sacrifice or transformation? Like using our turn signals when we drive? (I have a major obsession with people who don’t signal their turns. Are you saving yourselves some enormous effort and inconvenience in not having to move that little lever up and down? Really, it’s not that hard.) Do the same thing for the planet. What if we thought, I don’t have to give up all meat products, but maybe I could eat a little less meat, or buy free-range eggs instead of caged-chicken eggs. (That’s maybe thirty cents more you’d pay, to avoid a lot of animal suffering.) I could leave the windows open a few days longer before I turn on the air conditioning. I could water my lawn a little less frequently over the summer. I could recycle a little more. And so on. These actions probably won’t bring the rewarding sense of self-sacrifice and transformation that moving into a treehouse would, but face it, you’re just not likely to do the treehouse thing. So do what you can do, and see the powerful effect of small changes.
Happy Earth Day.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
But then there comes a day when you hop on the bus, say hi to the driver who recognizes you now, spend your day at your usual table in the archive, stop at the store on the way home, ask for half a kilo of cooking tomatoes, greet your neighbors, pause at your door and realize – hey, I just did all those things effortlessly and without thinking, those things that three weeks ago felt like walking through sand.
Where is this going, you ask? Well, this is for Rana (and for Scrivener who's just turned 34), because I promised several weeks ago I’d write about why I liked being 35. In the larger pattern of my life, being in my 30s feels like having been in Spain long enough to know how to buy tomatoes.
This analogy probably won’t work for non-academics, because it rests on the fact that my 20s were mostly spent in graduate school, postponing the kinds of things that most people associate with a real life – a spouse, an income-producing job, a house, a car. Instead, I had the constant learning curve of coursework, research, and prelims, in equal measures satisfying and exhausting, and all on close to a poverty-level income. When I got frustrated by my lack of a “real life,” I consoled myself (fairly successfully, because I’m incurably cheerful) by thinking, Yes, but I still have all those things to look forward to, and the reasonable expectation that they will indeed happen, just as I knew I’d eventually figure out that three tomatoes were about half a kilo. And I enjoyed the anticipation.
So here I am at 36, starting to get all those things I looked forward to for so long. And I think I’m enjoying them a hell of a lot more than I would have if I’d just been handed them all when I was 20. These aren’t big successes I’m talking about (except for that big fat trophy, heh); they’re not newsworthy or earth-shaking. All I’m doing is going through my ordinary life doing ordinary things, but I still get a little private sense of triumph from them - hey! I know how to find my way through the world now.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
I am delighted to inform you that the Board of Trustees has acted favorably on the recommendation from faculty peers and administrative colleagues that you be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor and that you be awarded tenure. This action recognizes your accomplishments in teaching, scholarship, and service to [this university] and the academy.
Congratulations on attaining these important benchmarks in your academic career, and thank you for your contributions to [this university].
[Chancellor who bears an unsettling resemblance to John Malkovich]
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Please consider being organ donors, folks. It's a gift of life.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Before him are long tall margins of vellum
and on the page the characters sacredly drawn.
His pens sleep. Beside them the onyx eye
of the ink. And he looks at the table.
Then opening small vessels of folium,
of indigo and orpiment, white and red lead,
he offers his hands. The kermes, or carmine red,
weeps with Christ's blood, remembering.
And the ultramarine, elaborately prepared
by the Arabs and as precious as gold,
rests in its silver cask, on which are
peacock heads with eyes of lapis lazuli.
A door creaks. Brother Jasper slips out
for another night of the flesh. Down the hall
the old abbot himself falls dangerously into
his sleep, the other cells collapsing in darkness.
But in the marginalist's, verdigris is opened,
the extract of malachite. Outside, where
the dark muscles its way toward the coast
or plays the empty eyeholes of a Viking's mask,
there is dead weight. Inside there's oil light,
and a slim green line that begins its pilgrimage
across a maiden page.
Well, as you've probably guessed, that little fantasy moment became real about ten years earlier than I'd expected. (They're very careful to keep this a total surprise to the winner, and believe me, this winner was surprised.) They begin with a little speech describing the professor and the things students have said about him/her, and they slowly become more specific in the description so that everyone in the auditorium is trying to guess who it is. I figured it out (Holy Shit!) at exactly the same moment that one of my colleagues sitting just in front of me elbowed the guy next to him and whispered gleefully "Hey! It's Pilgrim!"
So there was that, and some photos and interviews, and lunch with the chancellor, and that was my Big Day on Thursday. :) I'm slowly getting the hang of this... my husband and I mock-squabble over things all the time, but since Thursday, every argument effectively ends with the statement "I have a big fat trophy. I can do whatever I want."
Saturday, April 09, 2005
A Birthday Poem
Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.
Friday, April 08, 2005
Some Directions for the December Touring of Westcentral Nebraska
Turn right at the Standard Station
And head due west. Do not
Eat at the Hungry Indian
In Ogallala or stop for
Free tea at the Big Farmer
In Oshkosh--By Gosh. My
Advice, Sir: go cold and
Hungry over these wintered ranges
Where only on a cloudless night
Can the sky outstrip the land.
Join the tumbleweed. Huddle
With herefords against leeward
Walls. Walk barefoot over
Steaming dung along the
Dormant seeded rows of
Next year's yield. Forget
The motels at North Platte,
Tune out all noisy Teepees:
KODY, KOLT, KCOW. Hum
The notes of rusting cultivators
And watch with the hawk
for mice and rabbits and
Scott's once-in-a-lifetime bluff.
Inhale. Go dizzy with the
Windmill. Stretch even the
Fingertips against sand-coated hills.
You can get there from here,
Sir. But you must go
Cold and hungry. That route is best.
Just forget your Pontiac, then
Turn right at the Standard Station
and drive due west.
William Kloefkorn, from Uncertain the Final Run to Winter
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
THE SUN NEVER SAYS
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Looking on the bright side, though, as I am wont to do (one friend used to describe me as "gratingly cheerful" for my abuse of this technique), one of my tasks today was to coordinate the formal presentations made by students who are completing research projects for departmental honors in a variety of subjects. Some were confident and polished, some were shaky and nervous, some a little arrogant, some shy, but all of them had at least one moment during their brief presentations where their sheer joy in what they were doing showed through. Two of them in particular impressed me, partly because they were in fields (biology and accounting) both far from my own and difficult to communicate well to a general audience. Chatting with me afterwards, they both had moments where in the middle of describing the enormous amount of work and thought and time they'd put into these projects, and the corresponding dead ends and frustrations they found along the way, they'd crack a huge grin and say "And it's been so much fun!" Not in the way of students who want to suck up, but in the totally genuine way of students who have really engaged in the process of research, know that they've accomplished something unique and valuable, and discovered how genuinely fun that can be. (I've never seen anyone light up that much about the fun of accounting, and so contagiously!)
Many of my students are lazy and unmotivated, and operate with a powerful sense of entitlement that the world will simply hand them whatever they require. I worry a little bit about our future when I think of them. But these kids I worked with today? They can definitely run the world when I'm old, every one of them.
Friday, April 01, 2005
After a while I got bored with grading and decided to do a quick browse of the blogosphere, since I had the laptop hooked up for the student presentations (and Steely Dan). I visited all the usual suspects, chuckling, pondering, basking in the warm glow of bloggy companionship. And then, in the middle of reading the comments about oral sex over on Phantom's blog, I realized that the room's overhead projector was still on, casting a full-color ten-foot tall image of phrases like "I kept wanting to slap him and say, Get over yourself, little white guy!"
It seemed oddly appropriate.
Monday, March 21, 2005
I had a dream a couple of weeks ago that Husband and I went to play racquetball (as we do a few times a week), and in the court next to ours, there was an odd sort of treadmill thing installed in the middle of the court. It was just the conveyor-belt part built into the floor, without the usual upright handles or screens or anything. The idea seemed to be that you could get extra exercise (and work on your coordination!) by running in place on the treadmill, at the same time as you tried to keep the ball going. Imagine a George Jetson scenario, arms and legs windmilling around, going top speed just to keep from getting sucked under, and that's sort of what this was supposed to do. In the dream, there were a couple of other players who'd gotten assigned to that court, and they were asking us how the hell it worked, and I described to them what to do, but noted that it seemed a pretty damn stupid idea to me.
Anyhow, over the last few weeks I've been facing this volley of tasks that are getting fired at me (some scheduled from long ago, some unpleasantly unexpected): coordinating student presentations for Honors Week, setting up a student organization banquet, heading a hiring committee for a last-minute search, finishing book revisions that are due soon, working with an ad hoc scholarship committee, working on assessment for our undergraduate program (and merely typing the word "assessment" just made my blood pressure shoot up ten points), writing up and submitting program changes for our department, etc., etc. Every time a new thing comes up, the same image flashes into my head: me as George Jetson flailing around at top speed on the racquetball treadmill, doing a hell of a lot of work and accomplishing absolutely nothing.
But at least it makes me laugh.
And now Scrivener/Scurvy Dave has given me homework!! I mean, thanks. :) Stick around, folks, I'll post more as soon as I figure out how to do the racquetball-treadmill and type at the same time.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
1. IF YOU COULD BUILD A SECOND HOUSE ANYWHERE, WHERE WOULD IT BE?
La Adrada, a small town in the Guadarrama mountains outside Madrid. We’re actually hoping to do this someday.
2. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE ARTICLES OF CLOTHING?
Flannel pajamas. To work in, not to sleep in. A good day is when I can spend all day in my plaid flannel PJs.
3. THE LAST CDs YOU BOUGHT?
Do people still buy CDs? I haven’t joined the iPod mobs, but I do subscribe to MusicMatch, and that’s on pretty much all day. But to answer the question, I think the last CD was Manu Chao, “Clandestino.” He’s what I listen to in the car, most of the time.
4. WHAT TIME DO YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING?
6 am, or what my nieces used to call “the butt-crack of dawn.” Husband had to start teaching 8 am classes a few semesters ago, so I started scheduling mine then too, figuring if I was going to be on campus, I’d might as well get something useful done. Then we realized that traffic is lighter, we get great parking, and early classes weed out lazy students. We’ve almost gotten to like it. Left to my own devices, I’ll stay up till 2 am and sleep till 9.
5. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE?
I don’t really have an emotional attachment to my kitchen appliances – that’s more Husband’s territory. He’s having a genuine love affair with our new extra-snazzy toaster oven, though.
6. IF YOU COULD PLAY AN INSTRUMENT, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Maybe banjo? I have a secret yearning to be Béla Fleck.
7. FAVORITE COLOR?
Totally depends on context, but I’m leaning towards pumpkin and pomegranate and paprika shades, lately. Maybe I just like colors that begin with ‘p’.
8. WHICH VEHICLE DO YOU PREFER, SPORTS CAR, MOTORCYCLE, OR SUV?
Bicycle! Combustion engines are evil.
9. DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE AFTERLIFE?
Kinda. I believe that the human brain is probably incapable of any real comprehension of most of the things in the universe, so I have my guesses, but nothing firm enough to call belief. I’m looking forward to finding out, though.
10. FAVORITE CHILDREN'S BOOK?
I really don’t remember much of my childhood, and I was reading grown-up books at a fairly early age. (Family lore has it that I was reading Shakespeare by the age of 5, which is true in that I spent an afternoon paging through Macbeth, but I didn’t really get any of it – I just liked the bits about the witches.) Anyway, the only children’s book I have any memory of at all was about a dog (named Henry?) for whom someone had knitted a sweater. The children’s books I like best now are the ones that Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater read on NPR. :)
11. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SEASON?
All of them. I revel in spending time outside, though I don’t do nearly enough of that these days.
12. IF YOU HAVE A TATTOO, WHAT IS IT?
Joseph Campbell once spoke about “leaving space for the gods to find you,” and I always imagined that a physical symbol of that space for me would be a sort of upside-down omega, like a little cauldron. I haven’t gotten a tattoo, but that’s what I’d get if I did.
13. IF YOU COULD HAVE ONE SUPERPOWER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
To eradicate idiocy and selfishness. Zap!
14. CAN YOU JUGGLE?
Not a chance. My brother can, though, and he used to work as a mime, too. I think he got all the circus genes.
15. ONE PERSON/PEOPLE FROM YOUR PAST YOU WISH YOU COULD GO BACK AND TALK TO?
A guy I had an extraordinary e-mail relationship with once, that ended under odd circumstances - we both sent e-mails to each other the same day, and both messages disappeared, so we each thought the other had stopped writing, and by the time we figured out what had happened, the magic was lost and we drifted out of touch. Sam, if you’re out there and this sounds familiar, drop me a line sometime.
16. WHAT IS UNDER YOUR BED?
You want to know, you go look. No way am I going under there.
17. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DAY?
Thursdays are good. I love looking forward to weekends, though when they come I usually spend them dreading Monday.
18. WHICH DO YOU PREFER, SUSHI OR HAMBURGER?
Mmmmm, both. Sushi from IchiBan in Omaha, burgers from Matt’s in Minneapolis!
19. FROM THE PEOPLE WHO NORMALLY READ YOUR BLOG, WHO IS THE MOST LIKELY TO RESPOND FIRST?
I’ll carry on terminaldegree’s tradition of awarding a prize to the first. Ready, set, go!
20. ON WHICH BLOG DID YOU FIND THIS MEME?
21. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FLOWER?
Why narrow it down? All of them, especially those that are hardy and natural – not the fragile hothouse kind. I don’t much like things that need to be coddled.
23. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEAL?
Real Spanish tapas – little plates of manchego cheese, olives, patatas bravas, octopus, morcilla, chorizo, boquerones en vinagre.
24. DESCRIBE YOUR PJS.
I’m a fan of sleeping in a big old T-shirt worn soft with age. Current T is grey with a big piranha fish cartoon from New Orleans.
25. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BREAKFAST?
I don’t do breakfast most days. But on Sundays, I lounge in bed a little later than usual (sometimes as late as 9 am! oh, the decadence!), and Husband brings me coffee and toast while I read in bed. It’s the best.
26. DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB?
27. WHAT IS YOUR DREAM JOB?
Teaching “How to be a decent and constructive citizen and human being 101” to eager, curious students at a small, well-funded liberal arts college, in a city that feels like Seattle but is much farther east and doesn’t rain quite so much.
28. WHAT AGE DO YOU PLAN TO RETIRE?
When I no longer love what I do.
29. WHERE DID YOU MEET YOUR SPOUSE OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER?
At a friend’s house, watching a soccer game in Madrid. I had absolutely no intention of dating anyone while I lived in Madrid, but it was very much love at first sight.
30. SOMETHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO DO THAT YOU HAVE NEVER DONE BEFORE.
Lotsa things. Walk the Appalachian Trail, learn Arabic, learn to dance, go to China, change the world.
A friend and I, however, are engaged in the project of teaching ourselves Basque, which has been enormously entertaining and humbling. We're planning on trying it out in a trip to the Basque Country this summer (which will probably be even more humbling). While I'm there, I may check out the condition of that stretch of the pilgrimage trail, to see if there's any chance of getting this blogger-trip out of the realm of fantasy and into some serious hiking boots. After my trip in 2001 I was both inspired to do it again and determined to wait a while, because with the sharp increase in popularity over the past few years, the trail is becoming decidedly crowded, which is bad for pilgrims and locals both. The whole hospitality-thing crumbles pretty quickly when you have hungry, lost, blistered, helpless people wandering through your back yard on a daily basis. (and I suspect that many of the same travelers who simply trust in the charity of others when they are hungry or in pain as pilgrims, wouldn't stop to offer that same charity to those who are hungry and lost in their own neighborhoods back home. But that's another story.)
So I'll check things out while I'm there, and once the pilgrimage-as-latest-trend has petered out enough, I'm serious about picking up my staff again and readying the thick socks. Ianqui, Rana, Jo(e), Phantom, Scrivener, PPBear, Dale, anyone else, wanna come?
I try to share this with my students, and I tell them, Look. History shows us some of these possibilities. There is more than one way to believe. There is more than one way to organize your government. There is more than one way to understand who is your family, to evaluate crime and impose punishment, to produce food, to create law, to treat others who look different, to impose social conformity, to marry, to use the resources of the earth. None of these is perfect, but you need to understand the nearly infinite possibilities of what humans do, and then use these to understand better your own choices, for they are choices, and they both reflect and perpetuate who we are along this long spectrum of human possibility.
Usually this variety fascinates me, but lately it has become overwhelming, because so many contradictions exist within my own society. In recent decades we have made so much progress in civil rights and equality for minorities and women, but black men are dragged to death behind trucks, and white supremacist organizations are growing. We fiercely defend the rights guaranteed by our constitution, while we defend our right to deny those rights to others, as we perpetuate torture and humiliation. We have created a society of more prosperity and freedom than nearly anything the world has yet seen, yet we are creating a growing gulf between a small, powerful, wealthy elite and an underpaid, uninsured, poorly nourished populace. We have exponentially broadened our scientific understanding of the world, but we are poisoning our air and approaching genuine crises in our reckless consumption of petroleum and water. And so on.
All this came to my head because this morning I read Jimbo’s post about our impending doom here, and then Psycho Kitty’s about compassion and acceptance here, and I’m still thinking about the beauty of Jo(e)’s posts about her monastery. The variety of human experience is echoed in the variety of things we write about, even in this relatively small circle of bloggers. I am touched by our deep capacity for simplicity and respect and compassion, and horrified by our tendency toward hubris and ignorance and greed. This echoes the confusion I feel about modern Americans, and modern humans: are we great inventors, liberators of the oppressed, believers in freedom and opportunity, creators of possibility, curers of disease, rescuers who help others in times of crisis? Are we oppressors of others, manipulators of the weak, destroyers of the planet, heartless towards the helpless, disdainful of our poor?
I believe we are all of these things, but it’s hard to fit them all in my head at the same time, and I don’t know whether to celebrate or despair. Most days I do a little of both.
Thursday, March 10, 2005
Four years ago, I went with a colleague and fourteen students to Spain to walk three hundred miles’ worth of the ancient pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. In the eleventh century, Santiago was the most important pilgrimage center in Europe; Dante wrote in La Vita Nuova that “in the wider sense, a pilgrim is whoever is outside his fatherland, but in the narrow sense, none is called a pilgrim save he who is journeying towards the sanctuary of Saint James of Compostela.” Some traveled to express their thanks for the protection of the saint, some hoped for miracles, some walked as penitence for their crimes. I proposed the trip as a unique way to experience the history and culture of Spain, to literally walk in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of medieval Europeans.
I love telling travel stories (I should post sometime about being spit upon by elephants; that’s one of my favorites) but for some reason I don’t talk much about the Santiago trip, and I’ve never written about it. This is partly because there were so many different facets to the trip: I experienced it as a professor, as a guardian of students, as a lone walker, as a friend, as a historian, as a foreigner, as a spiritual explorer, and even though those all overlap in my own consciousness, they’re all very different perspectives and I don’t know how to begin to make a coherent narrative out of them.
It’s also because I didn’t construct any narratives for myself in the process: I chose to take neither journal nor camera on the trip, though I usually travel with both. It’s too easy for me to fall into the role of narrator of my own life, imagining a third-person description of what I’m doing or a viewpoint through a camera lens. But much of the impact of pilgrimage lies the experience, to be acutely aware of your own existence and the world around you in each and every moment as you pass through time and space, and I wanted to develop that awareness as much as possible. The journey itself was more intense and felt as a consequence, but not in a way that fits well into words, because I didn’t fit it into words at the time. I’m glad of that, even though it makes the stories harder to share.
What I remember most is the routine of each day. The trail has gained renewed popularity in recent decades, so you’ll always share the road with other pilgrims. You’re up early, slipping out of bunk beds and silently arranging your backpacks, making sure the weight is balanced just so. Everyone’s on the road not long after dawn. You walk with your students, until they gain confidence and dare to venture out on their own, at least until you gather them back together at the end of the day like wayward sheep. You join a group for a while, chatting and exchanging stories; you walk alone, seeing more of the unfamiliar flowers and skies and small stone villages where someone will always pause from tending the sheep to wave and wish you buen camino, a good road.
While the sun is still casting long early-morning shadows, you might pause to sit in a field to share your yogurt with the military guy from Wisconsin, who gives the best advice about how to avoid blisters; later you’ll sit on a rock wall on the outskirts of a town to break a chocolate bar with the funny Portuguese girls who know all the gossip about everyone else on the trail that day. You’re not in a hurry; everyone develops their own pace and rhythm, and it’s almost impossible to change yours once you have it. Sometimes you see the same people over several days as your paths leapfrog each other; sometimes you’ll have a single intimate conversation with someone, and after they move on you never see them again. You can always seek people out if you want companionship, or you can walk alone for weeks; people recognize the signals either way.
If the priest in the next village sees you coming, a group of pilgrims trudging in from the horizon, he may ring the church bells and come out on the steps to entice you in, to stamp your pilgrim-passport and tell you proud stories of his town and the church and the saints who watch over it. He’ll tell you the best place in the village that offers a good hot lunch. Every little restaurant along the camino has a “pilgrim special,” a pot of stew or soup that’s easy to make in large amounts and is delicious and sustaining to people who walk all day.
When you arrive at the refugio, the hostel-like accomodations for pilgrims that you’ll find at regular intervals along the road, the first thing you do is wash your socks. Socks are to a pilgrim what oxygen bottles are to the climbers of Mount Everest. Everyone has three pairs: the ones you have on, the clean ones in your bag for tomorrow, and the ones you washed last night, maybe still hanging on the outside of your bag to dry. You don’t always know where the next refugio is where you’ll spend the night, but you know you’re home when you see any building with rows and rows of socks hanging in the breeze like little welcome banners. One refugio in the countryside didn’t have any clotheslines set up, but there were several young trees in front of the dormitory, and their lowest branches were always festooned with pilgrim socks.
Then, in the late afternoon, there’s almost always a period of silence and reflection. Travelers trickle in one by one to the refugio; after they find a bunk and ease off their packs, they sit outside on rocks or under trees, writing in journals or just enjoying the stillness. After twelve or fifteen miles of walking, you savor stillness, letting all your joints finally stop moving. Sometimes pilgrims will chat quietly or tell stories, but until sunset, it’s more common to find an appreciative silence.
In the evening, revived by the rest, everyone gathers in the refugio’s big stone kitchen to compose a stone-soup kind of dinner: you offer your cheese, the Brazilian brings some meat from the market good for stew, the Italian couple tosses in their vegetables, others bring bread and fruit, everyone mixes and shares and laughs and communicates in gestures and fragments of any language they know a word of. Someone always has a guitar; everyone is generous and cheerful. It’s easier to be thankful when you’re a pilgrim: you’re thankful for a smooth path, for not being lost, for having found a place to sleep, for having food to share, for having clean socks. I think much of the spiritual experience of the road comes from being surrounded by thankfulness; it brings out the kindest in people.
There’s no way to know how much the experience of being a pilgrim to Santiago in the twenty-first century echoes the experiences of previous centuries. Sometimes you walk through villages that have seen little change over the centuries; your feet follow Roman roads past ancient Celtic forts and Visigothic churches. Occasionally you walk along the shoulders of highways, shrinking from the noise of passing traffic. Our understandings of religion and travel are certainly different from the medieval pilgrim’s. But there’s something about pilgrim-ness that I’m sure is the same. Pilgrims are outsiders; there’s an inescapable air of otherness about them, and they recognize each other no matter what the circumstances. There are the obvious clues, of course: Santiago travelers always carry a scallop shell somewhere on their hat or their pack, and if you see a person with a walking staff and a backpack anywhere in northern Spain, chances are he’s a pilgrim. But even if you go to the refugio and clean yourself up, put on your ordinary clothes to tour the town as if you were any other tourist, there’s a pilgrim-aura about you, and the locals greet you with particular hospitality. You instantly recognize any other fellow traveler, and they wink back and wish you a buen camino.
But the pilgrim-aura lasts precisely as long as the pilgrimage. You meet so many fascinating people on the trail, and you marvel at sharing a common experience with people from such extraordinarily different backgrounds. Everyone exchanges addresses and promises to keep in touch, but you know that you won’t. Your bond to each other is the journey itself, and part of its magic is that it cannot last.
The object of the pilgrimage is to reach the cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, to greet the saint and thank him for the successful completion of your travels. Most are elated at their arrival, celebrating their accomplishment; others, like me, are a little sad, knowing that the journey meant more than the destination. It doesn’t take long to readjust to the twenty-first century, though for a day or two you’re dizzied by the sensation of riding in a car, and you still have the urge to wash your socks in the evening. You’ll always keep the scallop shell that you wore on your pack.
Sunday, March 06, 2005
So grading midterms is bad enough, without this spectacle of sloth before me. I’ve decided that although I have a mountain of things to tackle over spring break, the very first day will be spent doing not a damn thing but lounging in bed like the cats. My poor fried little brain can’t imagine anything more luxurious (except maybe making popcorn, and eating it while lounging in bed. Oh yeah.)
That’s how tired I am. My fantasy life, once rich and creative, has been pared down (forget Hawaii, no more hitchhiking around the world, who cares about frolicking with Adrian Brody and Andy Garcia) to the idea of spending just one whole day in bed, with popcorn. That’s as good as it gets.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
You know how you can right-click on a web page to see the source code? Last night I had a dream in which I saw the world that way. I could look around my ordinary surroundings, and see the html behind all of it that determined the size, color, and shape of things, how far apart they were from each other, and so on. It was kind of fascinating and kind of... disturbing.
I don't know what browser my brain was, though.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
I’m up for tenure this year, and so far it’s going quite well – after several very harrowing moments (suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law was wreaking all of its glorious havoc on the fate of my book manuscript over the past year and a half) I’ve been approved by my department, my college, and my dean, so that all that remains is the rubber stamp by the provost and the Board of Trustees. (Yeah, we’re very administration-heavy for a smallish college, but that’s another story.) But every time someone congratulates me, I brush it off with “No, no, don’t say that, it’s not official yet.”
But I’ve been saying that for months (years?) now, and I’ve been stuck in the rut of always focusing on the next thing, and not pausing to appreciate what's gotten done. The whole time I was writing the book, I thought, I’ll be so damn happy when this is done, I’ll treat myself to a week of massages and a chocolate cake and a trip to Costa Rica. Yet getting it done didn’t really count without having a publisher, so I thought, boy, when I land a contract, that’s when I’ll party. Then I got a good contract, but a contract alone does not a tenure case make, so I’d better wait until the tenure thing goes through. My department’s recommended me, that’s nice, but I’d better not celebrate until it gets to the dean… and so on and so on. By the time I get the final word on tenure, sometime in April, I’ll have forgotten what it was I was supposed to be celebrating. I have yet to even get myself that massage.
So much of the academic life is like this. It’s very process-oriented, which I enjoy, but we’re always struggling through the middles of things, and rarely looking back to appreciate how far we’ve come. (Prelims done? Great, but you'd better get to work on that dissertation. Dissertation defended? Nice, but have you landed any job interviews? Got me a job. Good for you, but you'd better start publishing so you can get tenure and keep it.) There’s a wonderful Goya painting of a dog up to his ears in a stream, gazing in desperation (or is it hope?) at the waterfall in front of him, and this painting always brings tears to my eyes, because it’s often how I feel about much of my work – bravely paddling away and keeping my head above water, but never on solid ground enough to relax.
Last week Dr. H insisted on congratulating me on (almost) getting tenure, despite my earnest efforts to dissuade her, and she suggested that it might actually be okay for me to be excited about this even if it wasn’t fully official yet. You know what? I decided she was right. Those of you who know me may find this ironic, because I’m usually readier to celebrate than most, but even though I’ve been working my butt off with the book and the tenure case, somehow I’ve not let myself enjoy finishing any of it. Too, one is always surrounded by friends and colleagues in the middle of their own struggles, and one doesn’t want to offend by tooting one’s own horn when others are stressed (lest one be whomped upside the head with a ten-pound textbook or stabbed in the throat with a laser pointer).
But dammit, I’m about to get tenure and publish a book. I’ve decided that it’s safe to do a little gleeful dance, very quietly in my office, when no one’s looking. And who knows… I may even go get that massage. Thanks, Dr. H.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Found at frogblog:
Ten Things I've Done that You Probably Haven't (and if you have, do tell!)
1. Been spat upon by an elephant
2. Held Tipper Gore’s hand
3. Edged my right foot into Burma (the guys with machine guns wouldn’t let me go any farther)
4. Made a rocket in my kitchen (although that wasn’t really on purpose)
5. Exploded a kite
6. Picked a guy up in a bar by starting an argument about seventeenth-century art (we ended up dating for several months)
7. Walked 300 miles across Spain
8. Ate grasshoppers (mmm, crunchy!)
9. Was questioned by security guards as a possible terrorist – long before September 11
10. Called the Pope to wish him a happy new year (okay, we didn’t actually talk to the pope, but we did talk to some nice folks in the Vatican. And yes, we were a little drunk.)