Thursday, August 30, 2007

The first week in review

Signs that the semester may be off to a good start:
Having your repeat students, when asked their reason for signing up for your class, say "because I really like [or in one case, totally love] the professor." (This was not said to me directly, but via some first-day, getting-to-know-each-other activities.) It's kinda awesome to have fan club. It's even more awesome when said fan club is made up almost entirely of very smart, very funny, and rather cheeky women.

Seeing this bumper-sticker on a student car on your first day of class: "The real Jesus forgives your Jesus for being a greedy Republican warmonger."

Finding out that the edition of the King James Bible that you'd ordered for your class on Big Johnny is actually a facsimile copy of the 1611 original. (All I'd wanted was an orginal-language edition, so I ordered the thing sight-unseen; I had no idea that it would turn out to be so fabulous or to have so many potential uses.)

Discovering that, although your freshman comp class this fall has weaker writing skills than the comp class you had last fall, it's 100% more lively and participatory--and you're thus unlikely to end every period in a murderous rage.

Signs that there's still room for improvement:
Deciding to wear, on the day that you intend to do a lot of chalkboard work, a black suit with a very flat weave.

Having a habit of making every author/character you paraphrase sound like a valley girl. ("So he's like, 'you're totally making a present for Baby Jesus, right?'")

Not bad, on the whole.

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Year's Eve

Like many academics, I consider the start of the school year to be the start of the year, period, and even during the time that I spent working at an office job I still had a hard time not thinking of "a year" as something that began in August or September. (I distinctly recall talking to a coworker one fall and referring to something that had happened "last year," when the event in question had actually occurred in February or March.)

For me, the new year begins tomorrow (since I continue to have that sweet, sweet Tuesday/Thursday schedule, whose long weekends and limited number of required days on campus more than make up for the fact that I teach three 90-minute classes, two of them back-to-back, on each of those days).

What have I done to prepare? Well, apart from putting together my syllabi and lesson plans and handouts, I've been doing a lot of things to put me in the appropriate psychological state for a fresh start--some of them practical, and some of them a little silly. I've cleaned my apartment from top to bottom. I've caught up (temporarily) on my email correspondence. I've taken a nice long bath, soaking and scrubbing and exfoliating, followed by giving myself a fresh pedicure. I went out and bought myself a new perfume--I'd been wearing the same two perfumes for something like 5 and 9 years each, and it was time for something new; I'm amazed, frankly, by how NEW this new scent really does make me feel. If I have time before I go to bed, I intend to fix myself a celebratory Negroni.

So I think I'm ready. The committee meetings and dinner parties that I've had with colleagues in the past two weeks have reminded me all over again of how much I like these people. And although I have several serious projects (an article revision and my reappointment package, to name two) due in the next five weeks, in addition to all the papers that will start flooding in about then. . . that's what I wanted, right? More structure? Lots of stuff to keep me busy? Well. Looks like I've got it!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Self-indulgent summertime retrospective

I realize I've been a crap blogger these past few weeks, but there's been a lot of stuff going on, both in my life and in my head. Regrettably, most of it isn't worth blogging about--and although I'd be perfectly content not to be experiencing it, it seems a courtesy to save all y'all from hearing about it.

Every August I find myself torn between freaking out because the school year is about to begin, and I haven't gotten nearly enough done--and absolutely dying for the school year to begin, because I'm so sick of summer and all that unstructured time. That tension is still present this year, but all in all I think I've NEVER been as eager to return to the classroom as I am right now. It's not that I'm truly prepared for the academic year (although I'm genuinely excited about two of my three classes this semester), and it's not that I have a great sense of satisfaction about what I've accomplished over the summer (because, um, I don't). It's just that I think I'd jump off a fucking cliff if I had a single additional week of summer to try to fill.

Has it been a bad summer? Well, yes. But it could certainly have been worse. Has it been a good summer? That seems like a stupid question to ask, but many things about the summer have been good, even surprisingly good, and my ambition is to be able to look back on the past three and a half months as having been largely positive and productive, even if disagreeable on a near-daily basis.

For one thing, over the course of the summer I think I've learned more about myself than I have during any other comparable period of time; frankly, I'm inclined to think I've grown and changed as much in the not-quite-four-months since my breakup as I did in the entire six years I spent in that relationship--and that's in no way a dismissal of the value of the latter. It's nice to discover how much more one is capable of than one would have believed. . . and how much better, more dedicated, and more generous a person one is. (It would be even nicer if those attributes or behaviors were immediately recognized and rewarded, but I suppose such commodities hold their value.)

I've also been reminded of what amazing friends I have, and having the opportunity to reconnect with so many of them, so many times, and in such depth, has been a profoundly and consistently wonderful experience. After my conference last week I spent the weekend in the city that is now home to a ridiculous number of my college friends, and all I can say is, goddamn. What fabulous, insightful people they all are. My newer friends, too, are pretty awesome--in the past 24 hours I've unexpectedly started crying in front of two different people, first a young male colleague and then Evey, and both reacted in ways that were straightforward, sympathetic, and helpful, rather than awkward, anxious, or mortifying.

For years and years, through my teens and most of my twenties, I don't think I believed that I could be truly understood, or known, for whatever it was that I was--first known, I guess, and then loved. So if in some ways this summer has seemed to be a confirmation of that deep (and, let's be honest, totally narcissistic) fear, in other ways it's been exactly the opposite.

And hell. I did some fun travelling. I got at least a certain amount of work done. I read some books, made some new professional acquaintances, and heard some great gossip.

And of course, winter break is only 3.5 months away.

Friday, August 17, 2007

You're (only) as old as you feel

I'm blogging from the top-secret conference location where I've been for the past few days. This is a conference that I've never attended before, but it's similar to my usual fare in this respect: although the gender balance is close to 50/50 (slight edge for the men), there is exactly one person of color and the median age is probably at least 55 (and I think it's only that low on account of a handful of rather young graduate students). So: very old, very straight, and very white.

I mention this not to imply that it hasn't been fun--because it has--but rather to assure you, if you needed any reassuring, that what I work on is So Not Hot. I don't have a problem with the lack of hotness of my field(s), and we wouldn't be together if I didn't think that it had a totally amazing personality. . . but sexy it's not.

Sometimes I think that I am, secretly, a 63-year-old man.

When Lulu and I were first living in New York, we used to joke that we were "young old people," because we kept finding ourselves in ridiculously uncool places like the bar at "21" or the Carlyle, where we were younger than everyone else by at least 30 years. (Well, it was either that, or it was Limelight or Twilo at 5 a.m., and I'm not sure that we fit in there any more readily.)

And just last month, at Victoria's wedding, I wound up seated at a table next to one of her cousins, a woman whom I'd initially assumed to be my own age. We were talking about her job--interesting but probably not a career--and her love-life--frustratingly nonexistent. After I ascertained that she'd graduated from college just two or three years ago, I said, "You know what? I wouldn't be twenty-five again if you paid me."

"Really?" She said. "Why?"

I explained that I'd had a lot of fun in my 20s, but that it had been frustrating, even at the time, because everything felt so aimless and so undecided. No one I knew had any real idea of what he or she wanted to do, or where to live, or who to be with. The apartments we lived in were awful. The parties were awful--or at least hot and crowded and filled with the awful friends of one's friends' awful roommates. And the men (blanket apology here to all current and former 20-something males), they were definitely awful. We didn't know, honestly, who we were--and it was a different kind of not-knowing than it had been in college. In college, having unlimited opportunities was exciting. Post-college, it seemed dilettantish and like we were already failing at life.

Now, though, I finally feel like an adult, and I like that. I like having friends who are also adults. The parties are better. The people are worth talking to--or if they're not, they're not one's friends.

(As for being 63, that will probably come eventually. Being male, not so much.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hope vs. Hope

I recall reading the story of Pandora for the first time when I was quite young, in what was my favorite of all the Childcraft encyclopedias--the one devoted to stories and fables. The version of the tale given there was simple and straightforward: Pandora, because of her inability to resist her curiosity, opened up that box given to her by the gods, and loosed upon the world all the evils that had been trapped within. But! At the very bottom of the box was Hope, the one good gift the gods had included, and that's what gets human beings through their misfortunes.

But at some point I was told--and I'm pretty sure it was by one of my college professors or TAs, although I can't imagine who or why the subject would have come up--that hope is actually one among those evils (I seem to recall my instructor claiming that it was the worst of all), as it refers to the delusional hope-against-hope with which we carry on blindly, expecting an outcome that will never occur.

I think about this latter interpretation with some regularity, but when I finally bothered to go to my Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton today, and then to some online translations of Hesiod, I couldn't find anything that appeared to endorse such a reading; there are certainly variants of the tale, but none that seem to line up with what I thought I was told.

So tell me, wise and worldly readers: was my instructor full of shit (assuming that I haven't just misremembered what he told us)? Or is there some basis for what I thought I learned? (Alternately, feel free to support your own position: is hope a good thing, or a bad thing?)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Carrying books makes you look smart

Has anyone else seen the latest J. Crew catalogue? I have it only because I was at one of their stores last week (buying a navy blue pinstripe suit if you must know) and threw a copy in my bag. Today, in a moment of idleness, I picked the thing up and thumbed through it.

It's been a while since I perused their catalogue, so I don't know what the company's other recent photo shoots have involved (I seem to remember lots of beaches and barns, back in the day), but this one involves Boston, and it also involves a helluva lotta books. Some of the scenes are shot in front of the bookstacks in the Boston Athenaeum, while others just involve piles of books on the floor; being stood upon by models; in the arms of models; displayed with high-heeled shoes; and on, within, and all over the ground surrounding a 4x4 Jeep-type-vehicle.

And I was surprised by how much this annoyed me. I mean. . . attractive women in glasses, with really old books in their hands! In libraries! Shouldn't I be happy that J. Crew is celebrating (after a fashion) bookishness and libraries and the sexiness of people who read? And if anyone were to be excited by the juxtaposition of a totally cute high-heeled shoe and a stack of books, wouldn't it be me?

But I wasn't excited. For one thing, I found it irritating how prop-y those books were. Because I'm a nerd, I kept squinting at the titles on the shelves, and almost all of them were runs of very old, exceedingly dull-sounding bound periodicals ("New York Seaports" and "Pennsylvania History" are two I recall); they were clearly chosen only because they looked old and therefore cool, and not because the 20-something models with long shiny hair could have had any conceivable need to or interest in reading them.

And don't get me started on the models standing on stacks of books. I mean, I am, in Anne Fadiman's terms, more of a carnal than a courtly lover of books--I leave them face-down on the floor, use them as coasters, and dog-ear and write in them (albeit in pencil) with abandon--but there isn't even any pretended narrative point to this; were the models standing on books to reach a higher shelf, say, that would at least be explicable, and maybe cute in a little-girl way.

But maybe it's that cutesiness that bothers me. I couldn't help but notice that it's the women who are photographed with and near perilously-arranged or collapsed towers of books; books in the shots involving men are infrequent, and those books are always decorously placed on shelves or tables where they belong; the overall message, perhaps, is that there's something silly and excessive about women's relationship with books, while the men get to look moodily out of windows and think deep, studious thoughts.

I suppose it's foolish of me to be bothered by this, both because it's J. Crew, for God's sake, and because I'm clearly as much of a consumer, and as invested in constructing a certain look for myself, as are those 20-year-olds who buy glasses with clear lenses and pair argyle sweaters with tweed skirts. And really: who wouldn't prefer a little argyle to those simultaneously cleavage- and middrift-baring tops that I've seen entirely enough of in recent years?

But I am bothered, all the same.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

No fezzes, but plenty of ululation

I always love weddings, but I have to say that Victoria's was more fun than any I've been to in a long while. For one thing, the bride and groom did an aggressive job of introducing and integrating their many disparate groups of friends and relatives; for another, the setting and weather were gorgeous; and for a third, I suppose that I--being single for the first time in years--was socializing rather more thoroughly with the guests than I otherwise might have been. (All of a sudden, I recalled just why those weddings that I went to when I was 24 and 25 were so damn much fun.)

But part of the good times was surely thanks to the fact that the bride and groom are just Way More Glamorous Than You or I or Anyone We Know. (They are also, in the case of the bride, thinner than anyone we know.) Their guests included large numbers of Egyptians, Brits, Canadians, and other International Persons of Mystery; academics, art dealers, wine-store managers--and most of them smart, interesting, and hilarious. The events surrounding the wedding also went on and on, beginning days before and ending days later and featuring picnics and boat cruises, dining and drinking.

And that's the other reason that I love weddings: the illusion that such a convivial, fancy-dress version of life might always be within one’s reach.


Some images:

Victoria's engagement ring--it's a seal-stone from Persia, dating back to about the seventh century. The image is a wild boar.

Victoria and me, at the garden reception the day before the wedding:*

[Image redacted]

The church:

The couple during the ceremony (the image is blurry and non-representative enough that I'm leaving the faces otherwise unobscured):

[Image redacted]

Just after we all arrived at the reception site--a gorgeous, 1930s deco museum set in an arboretum--a blue heron flew by and settled himseld in a nearby tree. It's hard to tell how big he is, but seriously: he was big.

Victoria and the Mancunian, this time obscuring their own faces:

[Image redacted]

Victoria and me at the reception. I wish I had a full-length photo of my dress, shoes, etc., but trust me when I say that the outfit was beyond fabulous (as, of course, was the bride's).

[Image redacted]

*Photos of persons will self-destruct relatively soon; the others will remain up. ETA: Sorry to those who missed them!