Friday, June 30, 2006

4th of July weekend poetry blogging

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

-- e. e. cummings

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Packing, packing, packing

I've been packing since Monday--although today has been my only full-day effort--and doing so has forced me to confront just how much stuff I have. I have very little real furniture and I'm moving even less, but to make up for it I have, oh, let's see. . . eighteen champagne flutes. An extremely heavy cut-glass punch bowl with fifteen matching cups. An even heavier Underwood typewriter from the 1920s. Probably two dozen purses and a dozen hats. Way too many framed prints and pieces of artwork. And let's not even get started on my files, which include some fifteen years' worth of correspondence and newspaper and magazine articles.

(And here's the worst part about packing: once you're done, then you have to go and unpack!)

Thankfully, however, this back-breaking labor has been interrupted nearly every day, and in ways that make me feel that I'm at least making the most of my final week here. Last weekend Amelia--a college friend whom I don't see nearly enough--was visiting from Other Eastern City and we went out with Bert and Julio on Friday and Saturday, getting to bed around 3 a.m. both nights. Then on Tuesday, after Bob gave me the second greatest haircut of my life (which he promises will last the 10 weeks until I'm back in town for a wedding), HK took me as her date to a schmancy law-firm-sponsored dinner. Mmmm: let's hear it for the chef's tasting menu.

Last night Jonesy and I went to see the new print of Louise Brooks' Pandora's Box, the showing of which featured an awesome live piano player--today I stayed in and packed--tomorrow night HK and I are hosting a joint farewell drinks session--and then Saturday, I'm gone.

[A pause, while Flavia contemplates that statement.]

Well. There's no help for it, so I might as well look forward to it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The longest way round is the shortest way home

The above is a quotation from Ulysses that I like to trot out in the classroom, not only when I'm pretending to be a modernist, but also when I'm teaching The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost. It's also a statement that I mutter to myself frequently, whether I've just completed a seemingly neverending project or have cleverly circumvented a traffic jam. But although I say it frequently, I've been saying it even more often these last few days.

However, I'm not entirely sure what I mean, this time, by "home."

Part of what I mean, or what I think I mean, is This City: the one that I'm still in, but which I'm leaving in just four days. The thought of leaving depresses me more than I can explain. Yes, I have many friends here, whom I'll miss terribly. Yes, I have years of memories here. But it's more than that. This city feels more profoundly like home, more like me, than anywhere I've ever lived. Even if I didn't know a soul here, I'd still be happy.

I moved here right after graduating from college, and I'd only been here for two months when I went back west to see my family for a long weekend. It was a lovely weekend. But what I remember about that weekend was when I returned: I caught a cab back to my apartment from the airport, and when the city first came into view my shoulders relaxed, I smiled, and I thought, involuntarily (even though a moment later I realized how weird it was to think this), "Ah. Home."

Of course, I do feel "at home" in Northwest City, just as I feel at home in Grad School City; I don't feel as strongly about either place as I do about This City, but I still miss things about both and I enjoy every single visit I make to each. And I'm quite sure that I'll like New City--in fact, I already like it. But I've been crying off and on for the last few days at the thought of leaving This City; it just feels like the worst break-up of my life.

Part of the reason that I'm so afraid of leaving is that I remember what it was like last time. Leaving This City to start grad school was sad, but I was sick of my job; I was looking forward to my program; I wasn't moving too far away; and I'd come to realize how completely and utterly over my head in debt I'd be if I stayed here. Also, I had no idea that I'd be gone for so long--I began grad school as an M.A. candidate.

Within perhaps 15 months, or by the time I was officially a second-year student in the Ph.D. program (I applied in December of my M.A. year, got in, and continued straight on through), however, I lost whatever it had been--excitement? fear?--that had propelled me through year one, and I became deeply, deeply unhappy. Yeah, that's grad school for you, and I knew then that most of my unhappiness was due to academic and social stress, but what I fixated on was how I was going to get back to This City.

For about a year I considered dropping out, but once I'd started to get excited about my research and teaching I decided, instead, that I could move at the end of my fourth year--as long as I had my finances in order and money saved up. I worked a part-time job and stayed in my tiny, cheap apartment, paying down an amazing amount on my credit cards [alas, that debt has now returned, and then some]. I amassed enough money for movers and a rental deposit. And of course, in the interim, I spent many weekends here, I cried every time I listened to certain songs, and each time I talked to my friends here, I'd say, "In a year and a half. . . a year from this month. . . in just over six months. . . in eight weeks. . . I'll be back."

Obviously, I did get back, and I've been lucky enough to have had three years here rather than the two I anticipated. And even though living here involved working even more hours at a different part-time job (and, this year, commuting more than two hours each way to my lectureship), I HAVE been happy to be here, and just about every moment of it; I've certainly been saner and healthier on a daily basis than I ever was in Grad School City.

So I'm afraid of leaving at least in part because I'm afraid of missing this place that much again--even though I know that leaving it for a real job, a nicer apartment and a better life is quite a bit different than leaving it for grad school. And I suppose that I'm at least half hoping-against-hope that I'll be able to work my way back here again in another five or seven years (or that George Washington Boyfriend will get a job here, which is really rather more likely).

That's part of what I mean when I talk--or when my subconscious talks--about taking the long way home.

But good things did happen while I was in Grad School City, and even if I wasn't happy while I was actually there, I returned here as a person whom I like much more than the person I was when I left. So I'm wondering whether maybe I shouldn't be thinking of "home" differently: as a state of comfort and satisfaction with oneself and one's life--personally, professionally, socially. Even if I never love another city as much as I love This City, it's possible that there might be enough compensating factors, elsewhere, that I don't notice the loss.

Maybe that's what my subconscious has meant by that statement all along.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Maybe I'm a total fraud

. . . but this time, not as a scholar. Who knew that blogging could add another twist to that epidemic disease, Academic Imposter Syndrome?

Last night I had a dream that I met up with a blogger whom I read faithfully and absolutely adore--and who I have reason to believe at least partly reciprocates the sentiment. We went out for a meal and then hung out with some of the blogger's friends/roommates/colleagues (it wasn't clear to me exactly who they were, but they were mostly in the background, chatting with each other).

Our interactions weren't awkward, exactly, but they weren't comfortable, either--which is quite the opposite of my experience in my actual blogger meet-ups. I was eager to like this person, and I mostly did, but I felt that s/he wasn't really warming up to ME, and as time went on I started feeling increasingly anxious: we'd had great email and comments exchanges! I knew this person! What was wrong?

Finally, s/he turned to me and said, "Look, I want to be up-front about this: I don't think this is working. We obviously don't mesh in real life." The blogger paused. "You aren't who you are on your blog."

But I am! I said. Maybe I'm--maybe I've been acting a little reticent today. But I'm totally totally that person. Ask any of my friends who read me. I'm, like, at least 85-90% that person.

"I don't think so. I expected . . . something different."

And I woke up feeling as devastated as if it had actually happened.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Translation practice and the liturgy

Those of you who care about such things may have heard that the Catholic Church has announced that it's revamping the English-language liturgy so that it hews more closely to the language of the Tridentine Latin orginal.

In and of itself, this move doesn't seem particularly controversial and might even appear desireable--who, after all, could be against greater accuracy in translation?--but it's worrying for several reasons.

First, it's one more example of the Vatican's centralization of authority. While during Vatican II the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular had been assumed to be the right and responsibility of individual countries and their local bishops, now the Vatican is insisting that all translations follow the Latin scrupulously and be overseen and approved by Rome itself. (Although in theory this decision affects all vernacular translations, the effort seems to be directed mostly at the English-speaking world.)

Second, the Vatican is not merely acting to correct acknowledged inadequacies--whether of meaning or of style--in the current translations. In fact, the International Commission on the English Liturgy (ICEL), made up of representatives from 11 English-speaking countries, had been working on a new translation of the liturgy for some 30 years, "aiming at a fuller, richer, more poetic and exalted tone" while remaining faithful to the original.* Because of Rome's displeasure with the nature of their translations, however, the ICEL has been purged of its original leadership and its decades of work have been completely scrapped.

I don't have inside or detailed knowledge of the process, so most of my information comes from what I've heard on NPR and (especially) from this article in last December's Commonweal magazine. However, according to the article's author, John Wilkins, one of the issues that first worried the Vatican was the translation committee's use of inclusive language. Inclusive language, people--like not using "mankind" and "men" and "brothers" when it was reasonable to assume that a broader audience was intended.

But I don't want to get sidetracked into making this about the church and gender, since that's a separate, neverending, but ultimately not very interesting rant. To me this story is about the erosion of local autonomy in the church--and, at least as crucially, about intellectual and linguistic idiocy.

Here, according to Wilkins, is what the Vatican thinks about translation:
Instead of conveying an equivalence of meaning between the Latin and English texts, as had been ICEL’s practice hitherto, the congregation [for the doctrine of the faith] . . . wanted translations that conveyed an equivalence of individual words.

. . . . .

[The Vatican's 2001 instructions on translation] insisted that translations follow an extreme literalism, extending even to syntax and rhythm, punctuation, and capital letters. The clear implication was that in this way it would be possible to achieve a sort of “timeless” English above the change of fashion, a claim reminiscent of that made for the Ronald Knox translation of the Bible, which today is so dated that it is not read except as a period piece. [Italics mine]
I don't even know what to say to that, except that it seems to reflects the same anti-modern, un-nuanced, and frankly almost talismanic attitude toward words that our current president has: it's the belief that language is completely transparent, that words have only one meaning, and that by invoking the right ones--"liberty" and "freedom," say--you're somehow making an entirely clear and unassailable statement. "Interpretation," on the other hand, is evidence that you're imposing mere "opinion" on something that all right-thinking people know means something completely different.

Well, I'm sorry. The Constitution is a living document. "American values" has no single sense. Language is not transparent. And the Church is its members, has changed over time, and is capable of being better than it is.


*All quotations are from Wilkins's article, which is a fine and very worthwhile read despite the author's penchant for gawdawful cliches along the lines of, "But the committee had an ace in the hole," "storm clouds were now gathering over the ICEL," and "Rome was moving toward a knockout blow."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Returned and refreshed

I got back late last night (later than scheduled, of course--why do I persist in believing that my transcontinental travels will actually return me at some time even close to that promised by the airlines?), exhausted from the travel itself but otherwise done very well by my time in California. I'm not really a hot weather person, but being back in California during the summer for the first time in years--in my childhood we spent two or three weeks in SoCal every summer--reminds me that, oh yeah: some regions of the country are capable of doing this whole 90 degrees thing without humidity! (Let's get on that, East Coast, now shall we?)

So it was blissful. It was great to meet so many of my brother's friends and roommates and to run around with him demanding continual refills of the complimentary champagne that every reception seemed to feature; I was also impressed by how well-conceived and efficiently-run all the events were (everything actually began and ended precisely on time, including the three-hour-long graduation itself). And although I know that the sentiments trotted out during college commencements represent the ideals of an institution rather than, necessarily, its reality, I was impressed all over again with this particular university's mission, commitments, and scholarly programs.

The graduation speaker was Thomas Reese, the Jesuit recently, uh, removed by the Vatican from his post at America magazine for not being orthodox enough, and his address (which was perhaps more powerful in its delivery than in its specifics) began with an indictment of the Bush administration, an enumeration of many of the problems and sufferings around the world, a reminder that America stands like the rich man in the parable, with the third world as Lazarus at its door, and ended with this exhortation: "It's your city; go fix it. It's your state; go fix it. It's your country; go fix it. It's your church; go fix it. It's your world--GO FIX IT."

The university that has that guy as a speaker? Is a university I want to work at.

Apart from the official events, there were plenty of fun times, including meeting up with an old high school friend one night and going out to Napa with my family another day (wine tasting? picnicing out on the lawn? what's not to love?), but one of the best was surely being invited to one of the last house parties at the place my brother shares with seven other guys.

It was one of those parties--the kind that materializes ad hoc, with lots of phone calls and no prior planning, where for an hour or two it's just ten guys sitting around drinking beer and then the next moment there are at least a hundred people drifting in and out of every room. Loud rap and hip-hop; drinking games; random violence against material objects (before the party proper had started, one of the housemates decided to set a t-shirt on fire out on the patio, where it smouldered for hours; later, as I was leaving, a bunch of the guys decided that they should take the dorm-sized refrigerator that had been defrosting on the lawn and see if they could hurl it onto the roof of the building next door--no luck, but they attempted it for some time).

But seeing as this was graduation, there were two special features: illegal fireworks, and Jesuits. Both were supplied by Bro's roommate and closest friend in the house, a guy who strikes me as someone who could talk anyone into anything; in the course of his endless series of phone calls to round up guests, he rang a couple of priests from the school--and to everyone's surprise, the two 60-somethings showed up. One parked illegally and immediately asked for a beer. Both worked their way through the crowd easily, watching the fireworks with apparent unconcern even as bits of burning matter fell down on the surrounding rooftops, trees, and upturned heads ("Are you zoned for fireworks?" I asked someone. "Nah. But it's been a wet spring"). They stayed for perhaps 45 minutes--leaving, conveniently, just before the police showed up.

Awesome. Like I say: it's the kind of place I'd like to teach.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Interruption in blog service

Tomorrow I'm off to Cali for several days for my brother's college graduation* and I'm taking the bold step of not bringing my computer along, in the hopes that I might actually do some fun reading in my downtime (like catching up on a contemporary novel or two) rather than frittering it away on the internet. I am, of course, also bringing some work with me, as well as a couple of chapters of George Washington Boyfriend's revised book manuscript to proofread--but hey. It can't be all fun, now can it?

It's interesting: over the last several months I've been astonished to discover that I actually can read scholarship not directly related to my current projects--and enjoy it!--and I've been rather proud of myself for working through the back issues of several journals that I've had piled up and even making it through three entire books that I didn't "need" to read. This is a big deal to me, since I have continuing anxiety about how very, very few of the Important Books or even Ideas of big-name scholars in my field I'm actually familiar with; this is partly the result of the way that classes are taught and (especially) the way that oral exams are structured at INRU, but at least as much of it is the fact that I didn't really have a sense, as a graduate student, of how to do academia: that maybe I should regularly go to the library, thumb through the current issues of journals in my field, and see what was being written? That I should start going to conferences early on, just to get a feel for the field?

So okay; I was a late bloomer academically, and now I am, perhaps, hitting my stride. Hooray for me and all that. But with this greater immersion in my work, I'm worried that I'm in danger of letting other things go. Yeah, I go to the movies and the theater fairly often, and I read entirely too many general-interest magazines and listen to way too much NPR. But I find myself reading very few contemporary books these days, even as I'm continually making mental notes to pick up this novel, that memoir, and a popular history book or two. I make the notes, but I don't buy the books, much less read them.

That matters to me, but obviously it doesn't matter enough, since I'm seriously considering bringing De Rerum Natura along on my trip as "fun" reading (Lucretius is very distantly relevant to one of my chapters, but not enough that there's any reason I should be reading the dude on the plane, or indeed ever). So I relate to what Hilaire wrote recently as she contemplates ending her involvement in a hobby that she's pursued for years. She writes:
I’ve always been so happy to have a life that’s not defined solely by the academic work I do. I worked in magazine publishing on the side, all the way through undergrad degree and most of grad school. And I had The Activity. These two things, I thought, saved me from becoming too wrapped up in the ivory tower [. . . .]

Really I just seem to want to work. But I’ve watched myself working very hard over the last week – I become so lost in my own brain that some nights I feel like I can’t even pull far enough out of myself to say two words to GF. Is this who I’ll be without The Activity? Is this what I want? Will I watch my life narrow, along with my own capacities to imagine myself differently? Will I start on the road to early-onset academic eccentricity, that all too common affliction?

Seriously, I worry about the ways this life can be an unhealthy obsession. I think those of us who do this work all live with the knowledge that we can't leave work at work...try as we might, we can't be 9-to5ers. Nor would we want to be - that's what's liberating about this job, after all. So it seeps into our lives. But when does the seeping stop? In my case, will my stopping the Activity - and not replacing it with something else - mean it's crept too far?
I could have written most of those sentences myself.


*My brother and I aren't as far apart in age as that fact would suggest--he took several years off between high school and college (working a job, at age 20, for which I believe he was paid nearly as much as I'll be making on the tenure-track). Oh well: at least there's one success in the family!

Monday, June 12, 2006

I knew it was spam, but I had to open it anyway

I just received an email in my Big Urban account (BUU's spam filter might as well be a funnel) with this subject line:
Airborne Puritan
Alas, it was a "press release" about some supposedly hot stocks--but I'm enjoying considering the more interesting things this message might have been about.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Summertime meme

I'm renaming Jo(e)'s hot weather meme (because it hasn't been particularly hot around these parts lately--not that I'm complaining!) and adapting it slightly.

How do you cope with hot weather?
Multiple showers a day. Fans. A/C.

When does the heat make you most crazy?
The heat pretty much always makes me crazy, although it's lovely for the first few minutes after exiting an overly air-conditioned building.

Songs/albums that make you think of summer?
Talking Heads, "This Must Be the Place"
Liz Phair, Whipsmart
Getz & Gilberto, the entire album, but especially "Girl from Ipanema"
Madonna, Ray of Light

Where do you go to get air conditioning?
Chez moi, though I'm wondering if perhaps I can do without it this year. Supposedly my new apartment gets a good cross-breeze.

Your favorite place to sleep in hot weather?
Either with a fan blowing directly on me or in a room with A/C.

Your favorite hot weather food?
Anything that doesn't have to be cooked.

Your favorite people to visit in the hot weather?
I enjoy me a summer wedding--and luckily, over the last several years there have been some lovely ones packed to the rafters with old friends.

Your favorite way to wear your hair in the hot weather?
My hair is quite short, but since it's also very thick, in hot weather I'll sometimes pull it back in a scarf, kerchief-style.

Your favorite outfit to wear in the summertime?
My summertime uniform consists of fitted black tank tops with wide-legged khakis. Occasionally I'll wear brightly-colored tank tops with skirts instead. I do not believe in shorts.

Your favorite hot weather drink?
Iced coffee, though a G&T or Campari & soda vie for a close second.

Your summertime story?
Well, there was that summer after my first year of grad school when Lulu and I shared a sublet together in the city. Yes, my room (in Uptown U Law School housing) didn't have an A/C. Yes, I was working a crappy legal temp job during the day and taking an intensive Latin II class in the evening. Yes, I DID ride a Greyhound bus 9 hours each way to a wedding (for which I couldn't, even so, afford either the bus fare or the hotel room). Yes, I did have some. . . boy episodes that summer. An unusual number of such episodes, and most of them as scandalous as they were (then) traumatic and are (now) stupid. And yes, I did drink far too much all summer long, as illustrated by that time I got driven home by Campus Security--all of two blocks--when I got out of a cab and couldn't find the street our apartment was on: I knew what the street number was, and I knew the number of the street where I was. . . but the street numbers totally weren't running consecutively! Really, officer! And yes, I ended the summer more broke than I'd begun it and well on my way to the worst year of my life, emotionally--

But damn. It was still a great summer.

Is hot weather good for anything? Not much that I can think of.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday poetry blogging: Kurt Brown

I love this poem because it (unfortunately) captures my own attitude toward money perfectly. Given how much of the stuff has been flowing out of here lately, it seemed like the right time to post.

Money as Water

"Cash flow" "liquid assets" "pooling our resources"--
it's clear that money falls from heaven,
drops in pennies, nickels, dimes, to gather
in the small depressions of our hands.
It's clear how profit swells and streams of money
merge, how waves of money move
through nations, cause a "rippling effect"
and soon recede. How some people
drown, while others stay afloat and keep their heads
above the flood. How banks are "bailed out"
like wounded ships and panic follows,
bubbles burst, small investors find it hard
to breathe. It's clear how money
passes through out hands like water,
and our sources, once dried up, leave us
thirsting after more. How funds
diverted, often vanish, and those without a "safety net"
go "belly up." How all we have
goes down the drain, and we get soaked.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The organization woman

This move will be my third in nine years, and although I always hire movers, I do all my packing myself; it's one of the few parts of the process that I enjoy even slightly. It's time-consuming and I hate having half-full boxes all over the place for days, but I enjoy the knowledge that everything I own has to pass through my hands at least once and be reevaluated, however briefly. I find the process of weeding through my possessions to be extremely satisfying--even therapeutic--although that's not to say that I'm great at the business (that's why I still have a green flannel shirt that I haven't worn since college and a weird 1980s cocktail dress that I bought at a thrift store eight years ago, wore out once to a bar, and persist in believing that I'll wear again).

I don't move for weeks, so I'm not packing yet, but I've taken my impending move as a reason to go on a shopping and organizational binge. Over the past week, I have bought:
  • New bed linens for the queen-sized bed that the vacating tenants of my new apartment are generously gifting to me
  • Gorgeous new tea-towels that I found at the flea market
  • A real vacuum cleaner (until now I've made do with a Swiffer and a DustBuster)
  • Photo storage boxes in which to file all my old photos and negatives
  • Frames for some small pictures and prints I'd never gotten around to framing
  • Two huge Case Logic cases for my CDs, since I'm damned if I'm moving all those jewel cases and that media rack again (I know: Case Logic is SO 1996, but I don't have an iPod).
On tap for next week:
  • Weed out my wardrobe
  • Have frames made for my M.A. and Ph.D. diplomas, to match the one for my B.A.
  • Purchase some photo albums, since I haven't done anything with the photos I've taken over the last three or four years
  • Clean and Scotch-Guard my upholstered furniture
  • Launder the new linens I've purchased
  • Buy a third section for my over-door shoe rack, since I'm long since out of room.
I've also scouted out a variety of organizational fixes for my new place--the apartment's one major negative is that it has relatively little hanging closet space--so that after I move I can perform the appropriate emergency measures.

And I have to ask: is there anyone out there who doesn't love the Container Store and the way that it allows one to feel, ever so briefly, in control of all aspects of one's life?

(If so, I haven't met this person, and we probably wouldn't be friends anyway.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

On the clock

Because this is my first non-dissertating summer in several years; because I have historically been very productive in the summer; but especially because I'm feeling rather at sea with all the odds and ends of various projects that I really should accomplish or make significant progress on before September, I have drawn up A Plan for my summer.

The Plan is modelled on my orals-studying strategy. The summer before my orals (which were held in early September), I worked for eight hours a day, seven days a week, for 15 weeks. I did take one or two weekends off and a few half days--but otherwise, I was a machine.

And you know what? I liked it.

So this summer, my goal--which I fully expect that I won't meet most days; that's why it's a goal--is to work for six hours every weekday and three hours every weekend-day. That time is to be divided into three unequal parts:

  • one or two hours on lesson planning and syllabus work, until my fall classes are ready to go
  • two or three hours on research for the book project
  • two or three hours on other projects (in late July, these two or three hours will be transferred over to writing for the book project)
The Plan went live on June 1, and so far I've haven't actually logged six hours (or, okay, even five hours) on any one of those day--but at least I've been working on a variety of projects, and given that George Washington Boyfriend is currently in town and I'm distracted by a million move-related details, I think that's pretty good.

I also have a list of things that need to be accomplished--a much more detailed version of the one that I've put up on my sidebar--and a diary in which to log what I get done each day (I know: how very Puritan of me), and I'm hoping that this is all the organization and structure that I need to keep me from either succumbing to my native sloth or becoming paralyzed in the face of everything I have to do.

Because frankly, I hate having to self-motivate. I'd much rather someone else gave me the schedule and the deadlines and kept me on the clock. . . but since no one else actually cares what I'm doing, it looks like I'm going to have to review my own damn time sheets.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Is Milton funny?

This past spring I taught both a Milton seminar and two sections of Brit Lit I, which at Big Urban concludes with selections from Paradise Lost (I do more than most instructors: all of books 1-4 and 9-10). Because I'm a dork but especially because I'm a masochist, I decided that it would be fun to come in on a Saturday--a week before the end of term--and stage a marathon reading of Paradise Lost and encourage the students from those three classes to come, promising them extra credit if they stayed and participated for a set minimum period of time. It went beautifully: my Milton students loved it and even many of my survey students professed to have enjoyed the experience and to have been inspired to read the rest of the poem.

But the first class period after that reading one of my smartest survey students interrupted our discussion to say, "I'm just wondering: is Milton funny?"

Uh, I said. Well. Milton's not typically thought of as a witty writer, no--not in the way that Donne or Herrick is. . . why do you ask?

"Because during the reading on Saturday, you and that guy next to you [George Washington Boyfriend] kept laughing, but I didn't really see what was funny. And reading this at home, I still don't see it. It's complicated and really interesting. . . but I don't think I ever laughed while I was reading it. I believe that it's funny, since you seem to think it is, but I'm not getting the joke."

I stammered for a minute, came up with a few mildly funny moments, and then deferred to the rest of the class: did anyone else find the poem funny? One student admitted that she did, and that she'd written in the margin things like "LOL" or "psyche!" at moments when Satan was clearly fooling himself, so I seized eagerly on this and talked about the dramatic irony produced by what we and the narrative voice know about the fall and redemption, and the characters' more limited perspective, and blah blah blah, and class went on.

However, I was bothered by this conversation for days afterwards. Because the thing is, I really do think that Milton is pretty hilarious, and I always have--back in college, HK and I both covered our copies of Complete Poems and Major Prose with marginalia much like my second student's (e.g., in Book 1: "So God was stronger. Who knew?").

But with the exception of Milton's often viciously funny prose tracts and the amusing spectacle of Satan's hubris, much of what I find funny is material that I'm not at all certain is intended to be funny. I crack up at the conversations between God and the Son, and between Satan and Sin and Death; I'm amused by some of the narrator's aggrandizing claims; and lots of little things--the elephant waggling "His Lithe Proboscis"; the image of the serpent moving in an upward, springlike motion before the fall--similarly make me smile.

So okay: I think that Milton is awfully wacky, and I think that I do a good job of conveying my own sense of delight and wonder at his wackiness to my students. This is useful in the classroom, when so much time is necessarily devoted to historical, political, and theological back-fill. But isn't there something . . . condescending about reading an author this way? Sure, Milton's claim that Jesus's statement that anyone who divorces and remarries is committing adultery actually isn't a condemnation of divorce--not at all! the Bible clearly permits divorce!--seems to defy logic, but is it appropriate to shake one's head and laugh at this?

I probably wouldn't still be mulling this over if I hadn't, in fact, been accused of being disrespectful of Milton (especially of Milton, although the charge has been made about some of my work on other writers) by certain scholars. Granted, these have all been scholars of a certain vintage--all much older white men--and I don't really respect the grounds on which these charges have been made (the first reader of one of my articles began his 13-page, single-spaced review with a lecture on how important a figure Milton was; how I clearly didn't realize his stature; and how "we should be leery of taking pot-shots at dead authors who can't defend themselves, lest we discourage future generations from reading them"), but I do wonder whether there's a tiny bit of truth there. When I describe Milton as "wacky," am I not, in effect, patting him on the head, bringing him down to size--and consequently building up myself and my authority?

I'd like to think that my amusement at the material I work on (right now I'm reading some of King James's political writings, and I keep laughing out loud) is a good thing--just a bit of scholarly dorkiness and enthusiasm, and something that doesn't necessarily diminish the carefulness or the quality of my work--but now I have this nagging doubt.

What do you think? Has anyone else had these concerns?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Moving on up

I have an apartment!

I haven't wanted to jinx the process, so I haven't discussed my apartment-hunting trip or the place I'd set my heart on--but since my credit and reference check has gone through and the landlord and current tenant seem okay with my preferred move-in date, allow me share my enthusiasm for a moment.

You will recall that I currently live in a studio; in fact, I've lived in studio apartments ever since I graduated from college, and although my current place is the nicest in that series--large and lovely and quirky in ways both good and bad--I have long harbored a dream: the dream to live in a place with more than one room.

Well folks, that dream has now been realized.

Here are the specs: my new place is a beautiful one-bedroom with a full kitchen, a small separate study, and a balcony out back. It has 13-foot ceilings and enormous windows, including a big bay window with a windowseat. Original Victorian moldings and floors (hardwood and tile) throughout. Oh, and? It's in the city's leafy, lively arts district: across the street from one museum; two blocks from another; three blocks from a third.

And of course, it's only 70% of what I'm currently paying in rent (and 55% of what my landlady intends to charge the tenant who replaces me here).

So~~let's hear it for economically depressed regions remote from other major cities!