Friday, May 30, 2008

Have cat, will travel

Tomorrow, before daybreak, Nero and I are boarding a plane for State Capital That Is Also Home to a Major University. SCTIAHTAMU (pronounced: sk-TEE-ah-ta-MOO) is not a place I have ever visited, or where I know a soul. However, it is home to the institution that awarded me a bunch of money to do research, so we're off for a month.

In addition to knowing no one, I will not have a car, and my sublet has neither a television nor internet access (though there's free wi-fi on campus). So I anticipate spending a lot of time in the library, or in my own little campus office, Getting Stuff Done. In addition to books for research, I've also packed TEN novels purely for leisure-reading purposes.

The last time I did any serious leisure reading? Was longer ago than the last time I did any serious writing. I'm hoping the immersion method--or maybe it's shock therapy--serves me well on both counts.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Academic courtship*

I feel like I just asked someone to please be my boyfriend. My academic boyfriend, I mean. And the person is female. But she said yes!

Let me back up a sec. The first thing you need to know is that I didn't have close academic friends in grad school. I also never had a reading group or a writing group, and my advisor and I only met once or twice a semester. So for six years--or almost my entire academic career--the person who read and re-read everything I wrote, and who heard my every idea and talked me through every problem, was my ex.

After we broke up last summer, I was virtually unable to write. I felt I didn't know how to write without hashing through the day's progress with him, and he was also too intimately associated with everything I was working on. I got over my paralysis, in part because I had deadlines to meet and in part because the awesome Evey immediately offered her time and her feedback to help me meet the first one. I knew, though--and I'd known even when my ex and I were still together--that I needed to develop stronger intellectual relationships with more people in my field.

I now have quite a lot of academic friends, and I've vaguely talked about exchanging work with some of them. But yesterday I had dinner with one--a relatively new friend, in my field--and I asked her out. Uh, I mean: I asked her if she'd be willing to be a regular reader of my stuff. And she said yes. . . as long as I'd do the same for her.


I can't tell you how happy this makes me.

*h/t Neo.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The consolations of narrative, or, late again to my own blogiversary

In a recent post, Mean Something wrote about a friend who had suffered a loss and whom she was considering sending a book--but which one? Her post became a meditation on "consolation" and the works in which we find it, and she asked her readers to come up with their own list of five books that they turn to when in need of consolation: not works that are in some obvious way about loss or intended to console--nor works that are purely escapist--but that are, for whatever reason, comforting to the individual who chooses them.

As MS suggests, what we find consoling tends to be highly individualized, and I'm not sure that it isn't somewhat arbitrary, too: the state of mind we bring to a work determines what we find in it, and if you come to a book in need of consolation, it's likely enough that you'll find it (along with lots of other things, which you may then feel free to disregard).

At any rate, the books that I read semi-regularly aren't consoling in any ordinary or expected fashion. These include:
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

John Cheever, The Stories (I flip through the volume at random, but "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Swimmer" always get read)

Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
What do these works have in common? Failure more than success; the discovery of ugly things about other people or oneself; good times that prove to be fleeting and a past that can't be returned to. Those things would not, one would think, make for agreeable reading when one is feeling low--but if there's something more than aesthetic consolation that I find in these works, it's the reminder that, fuck it: life goes on.

Consolation, for me, resides in narrative (something that Sfrajett wrote about beautifully several months ago). Other people's stories remind us that we all heal and change and grow, and that there's usually something good lurking around the corner that we can't now imagine.

But as the books I've chosen suggest, it's not the happily-ever-after part that I fixate on, but the attempt to get there. Happy endings aren't magic, something that God or the universe gives us or doesn't--we make them, to a degree, for ourselves. We may not be able to change the past or be fully in control of what happens in the present, but we are in control of the meaning we assign those events, and we rewrite our scripts continually, making something new and comprehensible out of what seem, in the moment, to be narrative dead ends.

I'd been writing this post in my head for a day or two when Guy and I happened to go see Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad as part of an Alain Resnais retrospective. Both movies deal with the problems of memory, and both have a narrator who is trying to force the past and present into some kind of relationship. But Hiroshima (which I loved) shows life fucking going on--even with the past lurking behind every corner--while Marienbad depicts the suffocating inability to let go of the past or to incorporate it into a comprehensible narrative. I actually found the paranoid-obsessional tape loop of the movie's consciousness pleasurable, at least at times, but for very different reasons than Hiroshima or the books I've listed above.

This brings me, somehow, to the fact that yesterday was my three-year blogiversary: two years in this space and one in my previous one. I started blogging as I was finishing my dissertation and preparing to start my first full-time teaching job, and I've continued it through a second job search, a move, and adjustment to life on the tenure track. Sometimes I think that the five or six hundred posts I've written in that time are just a tape loop, continually revisiting the same issues with tiresome repetition--but although my archives do demonstrate my own paranoid-obsessional patterns, I think there's narrative there, too. Thanks for sticking around and helping me find it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's as if I had an Amazon wishlist

About a year and a half ago my reading group read a book related to my primary scholarly subfield. It was long, and parts of it I didn't have time to read carefully, but what I did read blew me away. I knew I'd be going back to it, and I wanted my own copy. . . but the damn thing was more than $150.

A couple of months later I heard an excellent paper on a similar topic, and when I learned that it was derived from the presenter's newly-published book, I made a note to look for it. Once again, the price deterred me: $95.

Well! Patience is sometimes rewarded: last night I got an email from a journal asking if I'd be interested in reviewing both books. If so, they'd ship my copies right away.

It's a racket, I know--and the bigger issue is that a certain Cambridge University Press doesn't price its books so that faculty and grad students can actually afford them--but 24 hours later I'm still dancing around my apartment, emitting occasional squeals of joy.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Using tools fashioned only from gum, paperclips, and a rollerball pen, I have dug my way out of grading jail. Nero is pleased:

During my incarceration, I learned some interesting things.

Thing One:
[Redacted, to protect the guilty.]
Thing Two:
Psychotropic drugs and Milton appear not to mix.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Gin culture

I was just looking at the CFP for the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies annual conference, the theme for which is "Appetite, Desire, and Gargantuan Pleasures." In case the possibilities of that topic aren't sufficiently clear, the webpage gives a variety of prompts. The one that caught my eye was "gin culture."

Gin culture. Well now!

Can't say as I have a paper on that topic, but as one who regularly defends the honor of gin vis-à-vis vodka--and who still remembers the awful morning she woke up and found her bottle of Bombay Sapphire missing--I sure hope this panel comes together.

(Will there be a tasting? Should I bring the vermouth?)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mothers' Days

Last night Guy and I went to see Smart People. Before the movie itself, we saw a preview for Then She Found Me. By my calculations, this brings to six the number of American movies released in the past twelve months that feature unexpected pregnancies: Knocked Up, Waitress, Juno, Smart People, Baby Mama, and Then She Found Me.

I've seen all but the last two, and liked them to varying degrees. But I'm bothered by a few things. In all cases, the pregnancies come as an unwelcome surprise: the women tend to be too old or too young; unmarried or married to assholes or in the midst of a divorce; and all have "ambitions" or "dreams" or "a future"--futures that are either jeopardized or significantly complicated by a pregnancy.

And in each case, the woman has the baby. Those movies that raise the possibility of an abortion do so only obliquely, often euphemistically, and the pregnant woman rejects the idea immediately.

We're supposed to celebrate these women for being brave enough to step into the unknown, to accept that plans change, and to sacrifice some of their ambitions for the sake of something (or someone) else. That's a lovely message as far as it goes, and in each separate case I'm willing to root for the woman and to support her choice--but when that message comes, time and again, without more than a perfunctory acknowledgement of the difficulties these women will face--and in the absence of the social, economic, and legal structures that might permit them to balance work and family life with something approximating success--the feel-good endings of these movies do not, in fact, make me feel so good.

So this Mother's Day, let's take a moment to celebrate birth control. And let's hear it for keeping abortion safe, legal, and accessible.

Hollywood, take a memo.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What is truth? Said jesting Pilate

This semester, not for the first time, I've had a student I've charged with plagiarism who remains in my class for weeks or months while the charge makes its way through the university's courts of appeal.

Some students respond by slinking into back-row seats and avoiding eye-contact at all costs, while others (pathological liars, sometimes, or just really fucking ballsy) show up every day determined to perform their diligence and sincerity. One of them wrote me a review in which she accused me of being a power-mad egomaniac who goes around charging students with plagiarism with absolutely no proof--and then showed up in class the next day and spoke all period long, smiling shyly and winningly at me from beneath her bangs.

As awkward and occasionally enraging as such a situation can be, it can also be perversely fun: there's my plagiarist in the front row, hand continually raised, and there I am being smiley and affirmative, both of us engaged in a performance whose falsity only we know. It's a kind of brinksmanship.

But although our motives are different--I'm mostly just trying to keep the class running smoothly, and I'm as happy to have smart comments from a plagiarist as from anyone else--I wonder whether our temperaments are so different: aren't we both showing off and taking pleasure in our own power (of self-control, if nothing else)? And aren't we both displaying a spectacular capacity for deception?

I know, I know: the motives matter. But when I wonder whether my plagiarists haven't, somehow, convinced themselves of their own virtue, and cluck my tongue over the bizarre mental malfunction that permits this--I have to acknowledge that I, too, have a powerful ability to make myself believe what I want to believe. I don't lie often and I don't lie about big things, but when I do rearrange the facts a bit, whether to save someone's feelings or to excuse and explain a minor misdeed, I almost never feel that I am lying; I guess I have to believe that what I'm saying is in some sense true, or I couldn't say it.

White lies aren't something I'm prepared to worry about, but I wonder whether it's a slippery slope. Just a few days ago I was skimming my archives and came upon a favorite post from last fall, one that begins with a brief autobiographical anecdote. I smiled as I read it, reliving the event--and then stopped. Oh, right: that detail I just "remembered"? It's fictitious. The real story wasn't much different--I needed to cut down on explanatory backstory, so I switched a few facts around--but in rereading that post I vividly recalled the event in a way it had never actually happened.

Rearranging details to paint a more understandable, agreeable or simply useful version of reality--well, that's what writers do, and I'm a frequent invoker of "the larger truth" of a situation. But I also believe in the importance of knowing the facts. And I guess I'm wondering whether my ability simultaneously to know certain things to be true, and yet convince myself they aren't, makes me so different from my front-row, gold-star plagiarists.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Ghosts in the house

Last weekend was the one-year anniversary of the last time my ex and I saw each other. I mentioned this in passing to several friends when I was in New York, and each one in turn sucked in her breath and said, "Oooh. How're you feeling about that?"

I guess such an announcement merits such a response, but I wasn't feeling anything in particular; I just think, always, in units of time. I'm continually counting up hours and days, looking forward or back, and calculating anniversaries. It's normal for me to stop suddenly and say, "a month ago I was having drinks with Sara in St. Louis!" or, "just 48 hours from now I'll have returned those papers!" I must feel that such measures are meaningful, but they aren't emotional occasions; I've never been a big one for celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, either--I just take pleasure in knowing when they are and ticking them off as they pass.

Still, I've been thinking lately about the ghosts in our lives: all the people who are no longer actually there, and yet who seem to have unfinished business with us or we with them. They flutter on the edges of our peripheral vision, disappearing just as soon as we turn--but that overturned glass and the door that drifts open and sometimes slams suddenly shut? They're there alright.

After my breakup, I was surprised by the number of friends--people who have been married or partnered for years--who told me matter-of-factly that they still had dreams about their exes or found themselves holding long, imaginary conversations with them. I mentioned this to my shrink and said something about how oddly comforting that was to hear--to know that such things meant something. She smiled and said, "or maybe it's that they don't mean anything."

What she was trying to say, I think, is that it's natural for anyone from one's past occasionally to float through one's consciousness, and that it shouldn't be taken as a major cosmic sign. But what I meant was that it's reassuring to find that the people who mattered to us don't disappear entirely; they lived with us and loved us and helped to shape us, and as such they'll always be present somehow, even if their presence isn't wholly welcome.

Not all the people who once mattered to us and are no longer in our lives qualify as ghosts; some just drift away, and although we may not be in touch with them, there's no sense of unfinished business: when we think of them we smile, and readily tell other people their stories or appropriate their jokes. We may think, "Gee! I wonder what so-and-so is up to?" but we don't bother to find out. They're safely dead, which is to say, still alive in some fixed and unchanging way as a part of our past.

The ghosts are the ones with whom something went wrong. I have a high school friend whom I adored--admired--idolized--but from whom I became gradually estranged. And I have a college boyfriend who will always be, in my mind, That Boyfriend: the bad one. Each played an enormous role in shaping who I was and how I saw myself, and I still think of them when I read certain books or go certain places. For a long time, thinking of either made me wistful or angry--but then, years later, I had the opportunity to revive friendships with both, and in both cases the friendships just didn't take: I didn't really like either one. Talking to them didn't interest me. Eventually I stopped returning their phone calls. And now when I think of them I feel sad for different reasons: they're gone, and maybe they weren't worth the importance I placed on them in the first place.

Some of the ghosts are those we feel have wronged us, but those we feel we've wronged are even more tenacious: there are several people I did fairly minor wrongs to, five or ten years ago--coworkers, guys I briefly dated, no one of any lasting importance--who still show up and rattle the windowpanes occasionally.

Other people's ghosts can affect us, too. For the past few months, I've been dating someone who's been divorced only a bit longer than I've been broken up. We knew this about each other from the beginning, and each sketched out our respective narratives, decided that the other's didn't raise any red flags, and proceeded from there. But when you're just starting to date someone you don't want to ask about his or her ex and you don't want to talk about yours--if only for fear of not seeming sufficiently Over It. And yet the presence of the other person's ex, that ghost, is as palpable as your own.

I don't particularly want the ghosts I have--I'd prefer for my memories to be untinged by a sense of loss or anger or regret--but I don't think I'd drive them away if I could; they're a reminder that people matter, and that they leave a mark. And if others exist in our lives as ghosts, surely we do, too, in theirs.