Sunday, November 30, 2014

The two-body problem affects more than two bodies

When we talk about the two-body problem, we talk, mostly, about that nuclear relationship and what it suffers as a result of two jobs in two locations: the time, expense, and hassle of commuting; the deferral of child-bearing (or the exponential explosion that is the three body problem); and the general emotional strain on the partnership.

What gets less discussed--I'd say never discussed, but I guess I haven't read every last thing on the internet--is the strain on all the other relationships to which either partner is a party. Since we've just concluded one major holiday and are fast approaching another, let's talk first about how a long-distance relationship complicates familial relationships.

Now, as long-distance relationships go, Cosimo and I have it pretty easy: we don't have kids, we're close enough to see each other every weekend, and both our families are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Still, we want to see each of our families at least twice and ideally three times a year, and since each lives a full day's journey away, there's no such thing as a weekend trip.

Many couples these days live far from either partner's family, and face logistical problems (or familial conflict) as a result. But when a couple lives apart at least half-time, the logistical and familial issues can be close to unworkable. If the couple doesn't even see each other often enough, it's hard to sacrifice their already-limited time together. If one or both partners are spending significant hours on the road or in airports just to maintain their relationship, they may resent the idea of spending even more time traveling. And if they have a primary home that one partner doesn't live in full time, it's hard to give up holiday or vacation time there.

Friendships present a similar problem. It should be easier to maintain independent friendships in a long-distance relationship--no need to make excuses for going out with the girls/guys; for seeing that friend your partner can't stand; or for seeing one-on-one that friend your partner would be hurt not to be seeing as well--but in practice friendships often get sacrificed: the partner who commutes has little enough time to attend to all his or her work obligations (and keep doctor's appointments and sit at home waiting for the cable guy) between packing and travel days, and both partners may be jealous of their weekend time together and socialize less than they otherwise might.

So far, the best solution we've come up with is to pile everyone in the same place as often as possible: each of the last four years, we've had an Autumn Weekend of the Parents, where both sets come to visit us (helps that our parents get along!), and we're devoted to the dinner party (such an efficient way to see multiple friends over multiple hours) and the occasional weekend get-away with a gaggle of our beloveds.

It's still not enough. It's never enough. (But better, I suppose, than the opposite problem.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

There's snow on the ground. Someone is making pies in the kitchen. The Godfather is playing. Family came to us this year. AND WE'RE NOT TRAVELING ANYWHERE.

Hope yours is equally good!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The recursive clanking of memory

A few weeks ago, Daphne Merkin had an essay in the Sunday Times called "Making My Therapist Laugh." It's about finally letting go of the desire to entertain and amuse her therapist, but in reflecting on what therapy should provide the analysand, she hits on a longstanding interest of this blog:

therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts. In ordinary, above-the-surface life, we're endlessly exhorted to move forward and not hang back, when the truth is that the psyche is not such an efficient piece of machinery and is marked by recursive clankings as much as anything else.

As my readers know, I don't believe in being "over" things. I don't believe in "moving on"--if by that we mean declaring ourselves to have been left unscarred, unmarked, or, in some facile way, "better off" now that a catastrophe has receded into the past. Nothing that has ever mattered to me is gone, and no crisis or shattering change is ever fully in the past (although my relationship to those people and events is often quite different after years of reflection, reframing, and reconsideration). Healing is not the same thing as never having been wounded.

Last week a close friend suffered a terrible loss. It's not my story to tell, so I won't tell it, but I was struck by how shell-shocked the rest of us seemed by the news, how continually on the verge of tears and in need of companionship and conversation. Yes, we all love our friend and were trying to figure out ways to help, but I think her loss also ripped a hole in our own sense of security, our narratives of healing and progress, reminding us of our own losses and the way that sorrow stops time and exists outside of it.

That's the central conflict: time is linear and craves resolution while our inner lives are brooding and recalcitrant, slow to heal and slow to change. Last week I was also teaching The Winter's Tale, which may be my favorite Shakespeare play. Like all the romances, it's an improbable fairy tale that somehow also manages to render loss and recovery with real emotional truth: the central character loses everything, believes he can reacquire it quickly--and then spends the next fifteen years in grief and self-recrimination. Eventually, he gets some of what he hoped for, but not on the terms he expected.

That's the kind of happy ending we actually get in life: not what we wanted, but even more dear when it comes. Recognizing it, though, requires remaining in touch with all we've lost and hoped for in the past.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lake effect snow, explained

When the rest of the country hears the term "lake effect snow," I think they understand it to mean "if you live near a Great Lake, you get a shit-ton of snow for some, like, complicated meteorological reason." And then Buffalo gets a shit-ton of snow, and the national newscasters earnestly explain the science (cold mass of air moving over a warmer body of water, blah blah), and that seems to confirm it. Great Lakes = lots of snow.

But that's not the relevant fact about lake effect snow. Lake effect snow, as Cosimo says is "guerrilla snow." If most snowstorms advance like a conventional army, cutting a wide swath of destruction--worse in some places, to be sure, but leaving nothing in the region unaffected--lake effect snow comes out of nowhere and then vanishes into nowhere, targeting areas completely randomly and unpredictably.

The photos from Buffalo are jaw-dropping. But no one's showing you photos that illustrate that while some communities in or adjacent to Buffalo got several feet of snow, many of their immediate neighbors got just a few inches.

I live an hour east of Buffalo, and the portion of the Thruway that runs just 15 miles south of me has been closed for days. Reasonably enough, I've been fielding emails from family and friends wondering how many feet of snow we're under.

Let me show you (and bear in mind, this is four days' worth of accumulation):

For reference, this is Depew, less than an hour away:

(Photo credit: Derek Gee, The Buffalo News, via AP)

I'm grateful not to have been clobbered as Buffalo was, but the real menace of lake effect snow isn't the volume so much as the unpredictability. When you're driving somewhere, you can't get ahead of a storm or wait it out because you never know exactly where it's coming from.

This is what highway driving is like when you're in a region where "possible scattered lake effect storms" are predicted: dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, dry as a bone, WHITEOUT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

In praise of half-assery

The good news: I haven't bailed on my Italian class yet.

The bad news: I continue to be doing a pretty half-assed job, since doing a full-assed job--assuming that's better than a half-assed one, which I guess depends on how you feel about asses--would require way more prep time than I have available. (My instructor is great, but I think she hasn't fully thought through the fact that, in a conversation-based class, the fewer students there are, the more homework we each have to do.)

But you know, whatever. So my presentation winds up being seven minutes rather than fifteen, and my PowerPoint is merely functional--and in rushing to get it done after a department meeting I didn't have time to double-check and correct the past participles of a few irregular verbs or think about which constructions might take the subjunctive. I'm still spending an average of 12 hours a week reading, writing, and speaking Italian.

Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay about what it feels like to haul oneself through language study as an adult and embrace one's own ineptitude captures some of what I'm feeling, though our experiences aren't exactly equivalent (on the one hand, Italian isn't my first foreign language; on the other, I'll probably never have the chance for the kind of immersive study he's done both in Paris and at Middlebury).

What's hardest for me is just letting myself be a crappy student, and being okay with it. As I've written before, it's not that I was a star student in college or grad school, but I desperately feared being a bad one. Appearing stupid, not being thought capable--those were among the most shameful things I could imagine.

Teaching has taught me a few things. One is that showing up actually does matter. And doing the work--even late, even badly--is better than not doing it. It means learning is still happening or at least has the potential to happen. (Officially, I don't accept papers later than about a week, but in practice I usually tell students to just turn in something: I can give them a 50 rather than a zero, and doing some version of the same assignment as everyone else means they're still in the game.)

Another is that the work I do or don't do isn't just about me: the classroom is a community that I'm either contributing to or abdicating responsibility for. When I failed to talk much in a particular college or grad school class, I felt self-conscious, but it never occurred to me that by not talking I was taking something away from others. Now, though--when I consider skipping Italian because I'm badly prepared and already running late--I realize that not only would I be cheating myself of the opportunity to learn something, but I'd also be cheating my classmates of the work I'd already done (and putting a huge burden on them to boot: one absent student out of four = 25% more airtime to fill!).

So, fine. I'm a crappy student right now because being a crappy student is all I have time to be. But being a crappy student is better than not being a student at all.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Teaching academic prose

This semester, in my senior capstone, I've been having my students choose most of the scholarship we read. We spent a few weeks reading and collectively working through essays that I'd assigned, but then they were loosed upon the MLA database to find their own.

It's been working well--better than some of my past strategies for acquainting undergraduates with academic prose--and I'll be reprising it for future classes. Still, I've noticed something curious: 80% of the articles my students have chosen have come from the same journal. Since I gave them a list of 10 possible journals, the reliability of this one isn't an issue; it's a solid publication, if not the most high-powered. If you'd asked me to rank those ten journals, back in August, I'd have placed it at maybe #8 or #9.

Having now read a whole slew of recent articles from that journal, I can't say I'd change its ranking--but I do have a new appreciation for what it does well.

First, it publishes shorter pieces, on the order of 15 printed pages of text, not counting notes, and they're usually well-structured and tightly argued. (I suspect the relative brevity of its articles is part of what attracts my students to this journal.) Second, its articles are surprisingly good models for advanced undergraduate and M.A. students: they demonstrate mastery of existing criticism; familiarity with the author's larger body of work (and/or the work's genre and/or its time period); facility in close reading; the ability to apply a useful theoretical framework where called for. And they generally do all those things both efficiently and explicitly, with every movement clearly signposted.

Indeed, reading this group of articles made me reflect on how tough scholarly articles can be for undergraduates and even many M.A. students, and how quickly they get lost in the weeds: they just can't figure out why the author is suddenly spending 10 pages talking about some minor historical event or track the way she's positioning herself within an existing critical tradition. That's not necessarily the author's fault, or at least not in the kind of articles I usually select; it's just that scholars write for other specialists and assume lots of prior knowledge. And over the course of a longer essay the big-picture argument and how its component pieces fit together can be harder to see.

But although I liked a lot of things about the articles my students found, even the most interesting and persuasive usually came up short. The best way I can describe it is to say that they lacked the final "turn": the explanation for why all this matters in some bigger way. In several cases I could see quite clearly what that turn might be--the dots were all in place, waiting to be connected--but the author declined to do so.

From a pedagogical perspective this isn't a crushing weakness, since it's an opportunity to talk about what more an author might have done to improve an already good piece of writing. And in the future, I can open the semester with essays from this particular journal as a way of introducing my students to the kinds of moves that academic prose makes before progressing to more sophisticated examples.

But I admit I find it odd that this journal publishes work that is so good in so many ways while mostly failing to rise to the next level. Maybe it's about length--a short essay can do a lot of things well, but it's not usually the place for a big claim--or maybe it's about the journal's place in the food chain: it gets tidy little essays that the authors either never wished to be bigger or that they tried and failed to get published elsewhere.

It's nice knowing that there are venues that publish modest but reliably good work, and a useful reminder that not every contribution to scholarship needs to rock the foundations.

Still, in the future, I'm imposing some quotas.