Wednesday, December 31, 2008

MLA Day Three: fuck it

I intended to write at least one more MLA post, but you know what? I didn't have the time when I was there and I don't have the time now--and, like Sisyphus, I found the whole experience rather un-MLA-ful, what with the beautiful weather and the being in the heart of the tourist district and the fact that I was neither presenting nor interviewing. It was basically a $600 vacation during which I saw a few papers, reconnected profitably with a mentor, and hung out with a ton of friends who just happen to be academics. So apologies, but I expect the snark (by which I mean: my detailed and trenchant insights) will return in the year ahead.

Monday, December 29, 2008

MLA Day Two: listen like you mean it

I've been attending fewer panels than usual--at the moment, I'm on track to see five or six over the conference's three days--but as usual some have been good, some bad, and others might have been good had their papers been better delivered or I not undercaffeinated, overfatigued, or wedged into a hot, crowded room with a whirring exhaust system.

Given the effort required to focus on anything for 75 minutes, I often blank out for a minute or two during even the best papers--and during the not-best I may give up the attempt to follow along at all. Because I've been civilized (or trained in the arts of dissimulation, which amounts to the same thing) I usually manage not to show my lack of engagement, instead keeping my eyes fixed on the speaker with a look of intensity or encouragement, laughing when the rest of the room does and smiling now and again as a recognizable phrase or fact penetrates my brain.

I always feel a bit bad about this--even when I'm secretly and simultaneously envisioning a panelist's head exploding and cutting short her talk--but it wasn't until today, as I sat there letting a speaker's words pass unimpeded through my brain, that it occurred to me that I was probably feeling what my students sometimes feel listening to me: that even while I was certain that what I was saying was hilarious, or vital, or even just reasonably interesting, they were wishing I'd be done already. . . and registering only vaguely that I seemed to be joking, or hammering home a point, all while mysteriously delighted with my own charm and brilliance.

I skipped the next session. Self-knowledge is overrated.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

MLA Day One: pride goeth before a you-know-what

I've been at MLA for 24 hours now, a sojourn made more pleasant by the fact that my luggage returned from Barcelona full of shoes and other good things--and then I went to DSW and bought a pair of these at 80% off.

So all has been well on the sartorial front, and if you don't consider that a crucial element of the conference experience, you're no friend of mine; I consider the dressing up and playacting part of conference-going one of its distinct pleasures. A good paper is that much better when it's heard in new shoes, while a lovely suit (whether one's own or someone else's) is a welcome diversion during a bad one.

Being well-shod, however, is no defense against native stupidity--nor will pretty clothes distract anyone when you wipe out in the lobby of the main conference hotel. Late to meet someone for dinner last night, I burst out of the elevator the moment the doors opened, taking the marble floors at a gallop. . . and thus treated everyone behind me to the spectacle of my catapulting forward for three long, slow-motion yards before hitting the floor.

Guess I can't wear that outfit again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good News/Bad News: Christmas Edition

Good News: I got back to the family homestead with spectacular ease on Monday night--both my flights were more or less on time and more or less uneventful.

Bad News: my luggage wasn't so lucky. It got routed not to Northwest City, but to Barcelona. It's unclear where it is now or when it will reach me.

Good News: I packed a sizable carry-on, in which were most of my toiletries, my clothes for MLA, and my jewelry.

Bad News: my checked luggage contained all my shoes, the power cord for my laptop, and my Christmas presents.

Good News: looks like now I have to make a trip to DSW!

Bad News: I left Cha-Cha City with temperatures in the teens and two feet of snow. . . and found the same conditions when I arrived here.

Good News: in Northwest City, it's gorgeous; even in the 'burbs we're hemmed in by hills and towering evergreens. And I can't remember the last time we had a white Christmas.

Bad News: did I mention the hills? And the fact that Northwest City is ideologically opposed to salt and to snowplows with metal blades (you know: the ones that actually work)? We haven't gotten mail, UPS, or newspaper delivery in days.

But we're all here, and able to get off our particular hill as necessary (albeit with a struggle). There are agreeable smells emanating from the kitchen. And this year we have power! So it's a merry Christmas indeed.

Wishing the same to you and yours~~

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trivia question

This one's for my Renaissance peeps:

What seventeenth-century book does the INRU rare books library have more than 20 different editions of--all of them in English and all published within the same year or year and a half?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Going home, again

I'm back in the bosom of my alma mater, on a fellowship at the rare books libary. Being here has been weird, but pleasant. But also weird.

Aside from the city where I grew up, I've lived nowhere as long as I lived here--and although I can't imagine a set of circumstances that would return me again for any length of time, you never know: the woman I'm subletting from turns out to have been in my undergraduate class; like me, she came back for graduate school, and now teaches at a university 40 minutes away. Her landlord? Also from my graduating class. As is another of the building's tenants. Today I'm having lunch with a college friend who recently moved back as well.

I guess people are always doing that--moving back to places they've lived in before, or just not leaving in the first place--but continually returning and continually leaving is an especially estranging experience. When I returned here for graduate school, after a couple of years away, I occasionally had moments of feeling unstuck in time: walking across the main quadrangle, I'd suddenly forget where I was going, or what year it was: I was going to meet HK for dinner in her dining hall, right? No, wait: she'd graduated three years ago and now lived in D.C.

It was strange being back in a place that I'd once known so well, and where every corner had associations with my younger self. For a couple of years, I described the experience to people as what I imagined living in the same city or small town all one's life would be like: having layer upon layer of different memories attached to the same places.

But I now think that's wrong. If you live all your life in the same place, you have a sense of progress and continuity; the town changes as you do. I have all kinds of relationships with this institution and with this city, but they're not continuous: I've come and gone, as an undergraduate, an alumna, a graduate student, a city resident, a commuter, and effectively an adjunct.

Now I'm a fellow, and a temporary resident of a neighborhood I didn't previously know. But as I walk to campus I walk past the apartment I sublet for a summer when I was 20 and working a 9-5 job. I stop in at the coffee shop I discovered as a freshman, returned to in grad school, and where union representatives still tirelessly organize. I pass the health plan and remember what a long schlep it was from the train station when I was commuting. And as I approach the rare books library, I can see, in my mind's eye, the photo of me and my roommate standing there at our college graduation. I have another photo, shot in the same location, where I'm in my doctoral robes.

I like myself plenty, but running into all these previous selves is getting exhausting.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Earlier this month I broke up with the man I'd been dating since February. I've mentioned or alluded to him on-blog several times, but never properly introduced him--and maybe nothing is greater evidence of my shittiness than the fact that I'm only doing it now, after we've broken up, in an effort to assuage my conscience or whatever it is that I'm doing.

This is the first time I've broken up with anyone. Back in my early 20s I did pull a few fades with guys I'd gone out with a handful of times and just wasn't into--but it felt inconceivable that I could tell them as much. And several of my friends have argued that, in a sense, it was I who broke up with my long-term partner--since I was the one with persistent dissatisfactions, who had suggested that the relationship would end if certain changes weren't made. I'm fond of this interpretation, but the fact remains that I wasn't the one who actually ended things.

Each of the times I've been broken up with has been awful, but I wasn't prepared for how awful it would be to initiate a breakup, too. I knew I'd feel bad and probably rather sad. I didn't know I'd cry for three days.

I suppose it's always hard to cause another person pain, but when that person is someone you truly think is fantastic, who has been a perfect boyfriend, and is even--in all the usual and some unusual senses--a great "catch," it's hard, too, not to believe that you're crazy or at least ungrateful and possibly constitutively dissatisfied.

But I spent months telling myself that I was crazy, and that as long as being with him made me happy, I shouldn't worry about that vague sense that something was missing or my feeling--which I could never explain--that this wouldn't work long-term. Surely I was just resisting commitment, or wasn't completely over my previous relationship, or whatever. He was amazing. My friends loved him. Surely I'd settle into it.

And of course, it's not impossible that I could still settle into it, given yet more time, but I don't think so. I've never understood what people mean when they say "trust your gut" or "follow your heart": I don't feel things when I make decisions; I tend to know, with great clarity, exactly what it is that I should do. I didn't break up with him until I knew it was the right decision. Or rather, since knowledge implies the ability to explain--to point to specific problems or incompatibilities--maybe it actually is more accurate to say that I felt it to be right.

But what I feel, primarily, is awful.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Happy 400th, Big Johnny

You ask what I am thinking of? So help me God, an eternity of fame. What am I doing? Growing my wings and practising flight.

-- John Milton, Letter to Charles Diodati (1637)

In the second semester of my sophomore year of college I signed up for a Milton course. I had no idea who Milton was, but taking that course (along with one on the Romantics) was the only way I could get out of the second half of the Brit Lit survey. I'd disliked the instructor I'd had for the first half of the survey and I'd heard that the Milton prof was great. . . so, yeah, whatever: sign me up.

It's still hard for me to know to what degree my becoming a Miltonist is due to Milton and to what degree it's due to that particular instructor. All I know is that from the second week I was in love with either Milton or the version of him my professor delivered.

I mean--Milton dreamed vaguely of greatness, but feared he was already too late to achieve it? Hey! I dreamed vaguely of greatness! Milton went back and lived in his father's house for seven years after graduating from college? Hey! I was majoring in English! I'd probably wind up back in dad's basement myself!

As I'm suggesting, my initial feelings of affinity for Milton weren't profound or even deeply-rooted in the works themselves. Still, I think the young Milton is a more sympathetic and recognizable figure to college students than most instructors assume--and for me, anyway, the same held true for the older Milton: I probably only half understood the content of his prose, but I knew I loved its language and the fierceness of that mind.

So while Donne wins most people's votes, it's Milton who's always been my secret boyfriend. (Come to think of it, that might explain some of my actual boyfriends.)

This is something that teachers of Milton have to acknowledge: that the personality of Milton is so central to his works that liking him--that personality--is almost a necessity for liking his works. If you don't respond to whatever you perceive his personality to be, you won't respond to his works. With other authors I try to limit or even eliminate the amount of biographical background I give, but with Milton there's no help for it; the man appears on every page.

So for those who love the guy, it's good news that the week of his birth also marks the birth of a new Renaissance blog--and only the second by a Miltonist.

Fuck the dramatists. This is the year of my boy JM.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A query

Why is it that stray assignments--those turned in late, done as make-ups, or somehow separated from the rest of their batch--take three times as long to grade?