Sunday, March 30, 2008

My life, in six words

Adjunct Whore tagged me for this one, which at first struck me as futile (what is this blog, if not autobiography? And if I could condense that autobiography into six words, why the hell would I be blogging?)--but after several conversations with friends this past week, I think I actually can tell you everything you need to know about me in six words:

I'm always sure I know better.

By which I primarily mean, better than everyone else. Evey and I have concluded that this is at least partly a big-sisterly trait: the conviction that you know how to do a thing properly--and are, moreover, obligated to explain that method to everyone else.

I can understand that some people might find this irritating, but I have a hard time seeing it as a character flaw. I mean, I give a lot of thought to the best, clearest, most efficient, and (where relevant) kindest ways of getting things done--so why wouldn't I want to share that information with others? And why wouldn't they want to learn those best practices from me?

The sentence, though, also applies to myself: whenever I do something dumb, I'm always sure that I do or did know better. I tend to believe that I understand my own motives and feelings nearly perfectly--or that I can, with just a bit of reflection. When I err or misread a situation, then, I'm angry with myself for not being smarter or paying closer attention.

Maybe what I'm really saying is that I believe there are right ways to do things--and that though one may err, one also can learn from advice and experience.

Or at least, as long as I'm around to help out.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making the life of the mind earn its keep

Back when I was organizing for the graduate student union, there was a certain crusty old professor whose opposition to the union was legendary. Whenever confronted by the idea that graduate students might be otherwise than perfectly happy, Dr. Crusty would smile, shake his head, and say, "But you're living the life of the mind! If you want to get paid like an investment banker, go get a job as an investment banker!"

It made no difference to Dr. Crusty whether the students' grievances actually involved money; as far as he was concerned, there were two kinds of people in the world: those who valued the life of the mind, and those who were money-grubbers. The fact that his own Life of the Mind had been underwritten first by family money and then by a job he'd slid into during the boom hiring years of the 1960s (and had somehow managed to keep and get tenured at)--and that it might be awfully hard to live The Life of the Mind when worried about paying the gas bill or getting evicted--never seemed to occur to him.

Within the union, then, "the life of the mind" became shorthand for the position of those who Just Didn't Get It, and I still use the phrase today, usually in sentences that begin "So I guess I'm living the life of the mind, and shit, but--" and then conclude with a complaint. Sometimes it's about overwork, or another encounter with a bald-faced plagiarist, but usually it's about money.

So when I found out this week that I'd been awarded two of the four short-term external fellowships I'd applied for, the progress of my reactions went something like this:

1. Oh thank God. I wouldn't have been able to face my recommenders if I hadn't gotten something (the first letter I'd received had been a rejection, and many weeks elapsed before I heard from the other institutions).

2. Ooh, it'll be fun to get back in some archives.

3. Hey, I have a 12-month salary. And these awards are on top of that? I totally don't need this much to rent a sublet in X City or Y City. Holy shit--that's like THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS!

Now, it's true that some of that money will, in effect, just be helping me to pay for those conferences that my departmental budget doesn't cover--and that the rest will quickly disappear into the black hole that is the debt I incurred while in graduate school--but for at least a few minutes I considered talking about the Life of the Mind with a little more respect.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Returned, if not refreshed

Apologies for the lack of further updates from my adventures abroad, but after the arrival of my travel companion and then our relocation to Florence, my internet access became more sporadic and my free time less free; you'll be happy, however, to hear that my emotional erraticism also declined with those twin events--or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I settled back down to my usual oscillation between Hectoring Enthusiasm ("How much do you love this? I mean, love this?") and Vague Irritation ("I need for you not to talk. Can you just. . . not talk?").

It was a blast, though, and worth my being now even further behind in everything and having to teach for 10 hours today on four hours of sleep and jet-lagged all to hell. I'd been told by just about everyone that Florence was more fun than Rome, which after five days in the latter I thought couldn't be true. . . but, well, they were right. Dante! Michelangelo! Ferragamo!

I bought a beautiful green leather handbag. And a ring. And visted the temple of the master (see above). Drank Limoncello. Learned about Brunelleschi and Michelozzo and how to identify St. Peter Martyr in paintings. Concluded (unoriginally) that the Medici were pretty badass. And decided that I needed a teeny-tiny, single-volume edition of the Commedia to carry around with me at all times--like those old ladies on the subway with their New Testaments.

It's true that my Italian is just about good enough for me to translate newspaper horoscopes. But if I keep Dante in my pocket, surely that will all change.


Updated 3/28/08

The purse (it's a brighter green than it appears in the photo):

The ring (which is Venetian glass despite my not actually having gone to Venice):

The itsy-bitsy Dante:

And heck: I wasn't going to post any photos from the actual trip (since I figure you've all seen pictures of Italy before), but this I couldn't resist. From the Piazza della Signoria:

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Travels with the emotionally erratic

It's the end of my second full day in Rome. I'd forgotten how exhausting traveling is--by which I mean emotionally more than physically, although there's always plenty of the latter (I think I hiked up and down every one of those seven hills today, and have the shin splints to prove it).

There are lots of little vexations to traveling, it's true, but I'm not even talking about those: missed plane connections or getting lost or not speaking much of the language. No. For me, there's something about traveling--maybe a sense of being geographically and temporally unmoored--that brings out a bit of the crazy: I find myself bursting into tears or skipping around and singing, either full of manic energy or suddenly unable to unroot myself from my hotel room. Last summer I had to bolt from the British Library manuscript reading room twice because I started crying.

And so it was today. I woke up to Palm Sunday churchbells ringing all over the neighborhood, lept out of bed with a full list of things to do and places to see. . . but by the time I was dressed I was almost in tears and had a hard time getting myself to the train station and out to the Vatican. Being in Saint Peter's, though--and later the Pantheon, which I just turned a corner and found staring me down--provoked such insane euphoria that I couldn't bear to get back on the Metro and so charged up and down several more hills and to every remotely proximate historical site on the long route back home.*

I'm not like this normally. It's overstimulation, maybe, or being cast completely out of normal life, or just being alone for too long. Starting tomorrow, though, I'll be joined by an unexpected travel companion, so we'll see if I settle down then. If not, said companion may be in for an unpleasant surprise.


*Flavia is minorly obsessed with the Jesuits--and has been, since she was a child--so of course one of the stops she had to make was at Gesù church, home of the order. Not only does it have the tomb of my boy Ignatius of Loyola, and a Bernini bust of Cardinal Bellermine, but in one of the transepts is this awesome statue of religion overthrowing heresy. Damn. I love me some implacable nun-like women with whips.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The past couple of weeks in Flavialandia have featured weather grim even for this time of year and this part of the country: in addition to a heckuvalotta snow and punishing temperatures, we've also experienced what has evocatively described as "ICE PELLETS" (their caps) and "freezing fog." Just what those things are, I don't know--I only recently learned the difference between sleet and freezing rain and can't say I'm the better for it--but I know this: DO NOT LIKE.

This, however, I think I like: in less than 48 hours--or as soon as I grade, oh, 14 more papers, read an M.A. thesis, and write and administer a midterm--I'm off to Italy for 10 days.

If I can find my way to a computer and can come up with something more interesting than "oooh!" to say, I may blog. If not, not.

(In the meanwhile, amuse yourselves with this, courtesy of a gentleman friend.)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Another linguistic casualty

When I was younger--let's say fifteen years ago--I recall reading the occasional lament for the loss to the language of "gay" in its original sense. But although I recognize that it once meant something that wasn't quite merry or joyous or glad, much less happy or content, I never lived with the word in that earlier meaning and so don't particularly regret its loss.

A few days ago, however, I was trying to explain a manual operation in which the role of the fingers was important--but my describing the task as needing to be done "digitally" did not bring my audience to quite the desired comprehension.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Factoids ≠ devotions

At Borders the other day I came across a display for something entitled The Intellectual Devotional.

Back copy:
Millions of Americans keep bedside books of prayer and meditative reflection--collections of daily passages to stimulate spiritual thought and advancement. The Intellectual Devotional is a secular version of the same--a collection of 365 short lessons that will inspire and invigorate the reader every day of the year. . . . Impress your friends by explaining Plato's Cave Allegory, pepper your cocktail party conversation with opera terms, and unlock the mystery of how batteries work. . . . Offering an escape from the daily grind to contemplate higher things, The Intellectual Devotional is a great way to awaken in the morning or to revitalize one's mind before retiring in the evening.
Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class.
If there's such a thing as "the cultured class," you and I, dudes, surely belong to it. But whether there's a large number of people who believe that they do not belong, but who wish to (or even just want roam alongside us occasionally), I'm in more doubt.

Now, I went to the kind of college where people said--often laughingly, but in all essential seriousness--that a good reason to take Art History 101 was that it would allow you to make cocktail-party conversation someday. The exact set of circumstances whereby I might find myself at a party where suddenly everyone was talking about chiaroscuro were no more clear to me than why I would stay if they did--but, like my peers, I took the possibility seriously. In high school or college I might even have bought this book or given it as a gift to a friend.

But if anyone searching for the book's website has landed on this post by mistake, lemme tell ya: no one cares if you've read Ulysses, or know exactly what an aria or nuclear fission is--and trotting out your two-paragraph factoids on those subjects among actual Joyce scholars or opera singers or nuclear scientists isn't going to impress anyone. What do you do when you start "roam[ing] with the cultured class"? Uh, you hold intelligent conversation. You show that you have an interest in something, and are as eager to share your interests with others as to lean about theirs.

So pursue the things that actually interest you. Go to the exhibitions that come to your local art museum, or befriend a master woodworker, or take a series of pastry-making classes. Whatever. And if this book inspires you to learn more about some of the subjects it treats, awesome. But the only people with a fetishistic list of Things Everyone Should Know are those with screaming class and/or cultural anxieties themselves.

Trust me. The academy's full of 'em.