Tuesday, June 30, 2009

There is no normal life

My summer-session class ends this week. It's been a relatively easy gig, and even a fun one, but it's got me on a strange schedule: I teach Tuesday and Thursday nights from 5.30 to 9.30 p.m. Now, I love a world in which I don't have to leave for the office until after 3 p.m., and teaching for four hours is a breeze when it's my only class (and one whose material I could teach in my sleep). But then I get home at 10 or 10.30, fix dinner, and read or write until 3 a.m.

I'm looking forward to having a more normal schedule for the last seven weeks of the summer, although I guess that "normal" isn't an accurate term: even if I were to spend all my time in the same city, going to bed at a decent hour and following something that looked like a regular routine, a schedule that one has for eight or ten or fourteen weeks is not, by definition, normal.

But is my term-time schedule normal? In the sense that I do it for the greatest number of weeks out of the year, yes--but given that a significant portion of my professional responsibilities, namely, most of my research, writing, and just plain thinking happens when school is not in session, then no: I alternate between one half of my job and the other (or, if you count service as an equivalent third, between two-thirds of my job and the other third).

I don't mind that division, but it leads to a peculiar understanding of time and timing. The belief that there is, or will be, a time for everything encourages deferral--which isn't a problem when it's an article or a syllabus (as long as those things eventually get done), but which has the potential to affect all areas of our lives: we can't clean the house until those papers are graded; can't work on the new book until we're on leave; can't have a baby until tenure.

This kind of deferral isn't unique to academia, of course; people in other professions let the rest of their lives slip when a big deal is closing or a case is going to trial--or simply because they feel they need to wait to do X or Y or Z until they're at a better or more secure place: with more money in the bank, a more stable job, a spouse. But I do think that academia, and especially the pre-tenure years of academia, encourages a continuing series of deferrals, large and small, as one jumps through a continuing series of hoops.

Cosimo, my gentleman friend, is up for tenure in the fall. Last week he submitted his final book manuscript. He's also been teaching summer school (and on a schedule radically incompatible with mine: five days a week, starting at eight a.m.). He's been a model of how to meet one's obligations without using them as an excuse not to do or talk or think about other things. But it's still hard, I think, for both of us--I suspect it's hard for all of us--not to say or believe, "as soon as this is done, I'll have time."

Time for ourselves, for other people, for everything. Not now, no. But soon.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends and colleagues

Last weekend was Augie's wedding. As long-time readers may recall, Augie is someone I knew slightly in graduate school who moved to Cha-Cha City the same year I did, for a job at a neighboring university, and who has since become a good friend. We were a couple of cohorts apart and technically in different deparments--but, given our shared background, I expected to see a bunch of people at the wedding whom I knew from grad school. What I didn't expect was to feel such a rush of warmth for them.

This has been happening to me a lot lately--not nostalgia for grad school, which I don't think is a period of my life I'll ever romanticize, but a sense of real affection and esteem for many of the people I knew there. Over the past year or two I've also had several friendships that began at INRU suddenly deepen and become more personal; I'm much better friends, now, with people I knew in grad school than I was while I was actually in grad school.

There are probably several reasons for this. One may be that I don't need the same things from these people now that I did then: during my first four years in the program, while I was actually living in Grad School City, I was terribly lonely and terribly insecure and my cohort was flying apart. I needed close, local friends who had some idea of what I was doing and enduring (academically and otherwise)--and my classmates for various reasons were not those people. These days I'm not lonely and not unduly insecure, and I have a great group of friends and colleagues. I don't need Grad School Friend A or Grad School Friend B to be my bestest friend ever, or my social or intellectual support system. That makes it easier to get to know them at whatever speed and with whatever limitations the relationship might turn out to have.

I got unlucky with my cohort (and possibly with my emotional and psychological makeup), but I don't think it's just me; everyone's happier now. Even when your program isn't cutthroat, as ours was not, grad school means living in a constant state of low-level panic about your abilities and your prospects; under those circumstances, it's hard to be someone you yourself like, much less to be open and generous enough to be a good friend to others.

I had a similar experience in college. Unlike in graduate school, in college I had a great group of friends--with whom I'm still very close--and yet I found INRU a socially and emotionally stressful place. One of my friends called it the "INRU cold shoulder": that experience we all had of walking down the street, seeing someone we knew from section coming toward us, and having a frantic 15-second internal monologue about whether we should say hello. (Will he recognize me? know my name? think he's too cool to talk to me? probably he IS too cool--but I should say hi anyway--well, I'll see if he says hi first--oh, no. . . he didn't.)

And yet, when I ran into exactly those same people in Manhattan, years after we'd graduated from college and years after whatever class we'd had together, we'd stop and talk for 35 minutes: eagerly, enthusiastically, unwilling to let the other person go. I think we missed college--or rather, we missed being so surrounded by smart, interesting people that we'd had the luxury of not bothering to know most of them.

So maybe that's what's happening here, too; it's been long enough for us to miss each other. This August it will be ten years since I started graduate school, six years since I moved out of that city, and three years since I took this job. I've been startled by the number of people from grad school who have recently friended me on Facebook, but perhaps we all want the same thing: to reconnect with those who went through it with us and whom we're abashed to find we never really knew.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Professional beginnings

I've been a reader for as long as I can remember. But although I can't isolate the moment that I knew I wanted to study literature any more than the moment that I knew I wanted to write (which came much earlier), I think I can identify the first time I realized that analyzing literature was a thing one did--and maybe something I had an aptitude for.

It was in ninth-grade English. We were reading a novel whose title and precise plot I no longer remember, but its protagonist was a pre-adolescent boy. I believe he was an orphan, and he might have been a Native American (I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where we were assigned a lot of books about Native American boys). In one of the chapters the boy befriended, or maybe was just fascinated by, a wild or semi-wild animal; I think it was an unbroken horse. Our teacher asked us to look through the chapter and pick out the adjectives used to describe the horse, and as we called them out she wrote them on the overhead projector.

We had come up with perhaps a half-dozen words and phrases, not yet very far into the chapter, when I looked up, studied the list for a minute, and raised my hand.

"Those words?" I said, tentatively. "I think they don't just describe the horse. They also describe [the protagonist]."

My teacher gave me what may be the purest and most radiant smile of satisfaction I have ever received, as if I'd passed a test she'd set up in the hope but not the expectation that I might have exactly the skills--or talent or moxie--to succeed where others had failed.

The confident warmth of her approval is, in fact, probably why I remember this moment--for as literary insights go, it was not one for the ages. Maybe that's why I got into and persist in this business: in the hope of once again being told that I've gotten it exactly right.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Working: not actually so bad!

After various delays and false starts and irritating side projects to attend to, I returned to my manuscript last week. As I've suggested, I've been fighting a rising sense of panic as that day approached--believing my manuscript to lie in pieces, parts of which I knew to be good, but with lots of work to be done in lots of places and an overall logic that felt as if it were shifting and changing into something I no longer quite grasped.

But I got my ass and a chapter draft to the coffeeshop where I did most of my revising last summer (working at home is hopeless for me unless I'm reading or merely transcribing changes from longhand onto my computer). I bought my coffee and an M&M cookie, found a table ideally situated--my back to the plate-glass windows, not too close to the speakers--and spread out my materials and started reading.

I've been working on this chapter for ages, albeit with large gaps of time in between whiles, and I'd remembered it as being in decent shape but in need of a solid week or two of work. This depressed me, because the chapter after this one is truly a mess, but I felt I had to plow through this one and get it in the best possible shape before moving on.

But as I read and edited in longhand--mostly minor matters of phrasing, with a few new or substantially revised sentences here and there to clarify my argument--I had the experience that I never have.

Hey! I thought. This is fine.

It'll need work later, but it's fine to send to my mentor-type person in the fall. It's probably even fine to send to a press if anyone ever asks for the complete manuscript (once there is a complete manuscript, and a book proposal, and all that jazz). I can move on.

I doubt the rest of my revision process will be as agreeable, but for the moment I feel as though things are under control. I just need to keep getting out of the house and buying my M&M cookies and everything will be fine.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Textual scholarship is bunk

Several weeks ago I picked up an edition of Golding's translation of Ovid at a used bookstore. It was $12, and since I only wanted it for casual reference, I didn't care about having an especially scholarly edition. This looked like a perfectly serviceable transcription.

It is, and I'm happy with it. But I didn't expect its editor to be so aggressive about not having undertaken a more bibliographically ambitious edition. This is from his note on the text:
This present edition is based on the copy of the first edition (1567) now in the Library of the University of Illinois. Its purpose is simply to present the pleasant and delectable work to a reader interested in what must have been one of the favorite books of the young Shakespeare. . . . It is not, then, primarily a textual edition--one scrupulously based on a collation of many copies of the first and later editions, with the laudable purpose of arriving at a text scientifically as pure as possible--purer, in fact, than any Elizabethan ever happened upon. The boy from Stratford, for example, probably not long before 1580, would simply have picked up a copy of the book; it would not have occurred to him to compare it with other copies for variants in phrasing, spelling, punctuation, most of these due to human accidents--to the extra tankard of beer the compositor had at lunch, to the pretty girl who brushed by his window and set his hand a-fumbling among the letters, to failing light or weariness at the end of the day.

Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation, 1567, ed. John Frederick Nims. New York: Macmillan, 1965
Wow. Contempt for textual scholarship just drips from those lines, doesn't it? Oh, those textual scholars, with their "laudable" (by which I mean, sweetly pathetic) devotion to a "scientifically pure" text! They should drink more beer and eye more pretty women and really, you know: live life. Like Shakespeare! And Golding's compositor! (And perhaps Professor Nims himself, who appears from his acknowledgements to have fobbed most of the edition's actual labor off on the English department's secretaries and typists.)

So those of you currently collating and shit? Stop right this minute!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unexpected events

Things I did not expect, ex-boyfriend edition:
1. That I would still not be speaking to my ex-partner, two years after the end of our six-year relationship.

2. That scarcely two months after the not-great end of a not-quite year-long relationship, I'd have resumed hanging out and even getting shitfaced drunk with my most recent ex-boyfriend--and that it would be entirely fun and entirely un-weird, and we'd be talking even more frankly than we had when we were together.
I'm not sure which of these two circumstances surprises me more. And while it would be incorrect to say that I find them equally agreeable, taken together they're a pleasant reminder (for apparently I need frequent reminding) that life is rarely what we expect.