Thursday, October 29, 2009

What do we do about the past?

My title comes from an old post by A White Bear, which resonated with me at the time and which has remained with me. I don't know what to do about the past. And I'm obsessed by my own insufficiency in the face of it.

Mind you, I don't consider myself a person who lives in the past; I rarely waste time regretting past actions (sometimes things need to be atoned for, but that's about moving forward rather than getting bogged down in what can't be changed), and I'm not prone to depression. I'm future-directed and tend to have faith that things will eventually, inevitably, get better: my life is Whig history in action!

But although my personal narrative is generally one of progress and improvement, I've never been able to dismiss earlier stages and selves as merely shadowy types prefiguring a glorious and eventual Truth. Neither am I able to shrug and say, "that was then, this is now." I'm baffled--totally baffled--by the fact that one reality ended, and things changed. How can I not be the person that I was then? Or if I am that person, why isn't the present the same as the past?

Much of my writing on this blog has been an attempt to assimilate my experience of graduate school: to make sense of how I got to where I am now, and what role that uniquely horrible period of my life played in getting me here. I feel totally unlike the person I was then, but I was that person, for years and years. Yes, I can talk glibly about lessons learned and how I'm so much better for all of it, but even though I believe that narrative, the lived experience was something more than its role in that story.

I'm equally unable to make sense of my past romantic relationships. I don't understand how it's possible to go from having someone as a central feature of your world to someone who is at best peripheral to it. Again, this isn't about wanting to return to those relationships, or even about nostalgia, exactly; I feel this about my "bad" boyfriends as well as my "good" ones, and about relationships that I ended as well as those that were ended against my wishes. There was this thing, made up of two people. The two people still exist, but the thing does not.

The past has its own weather. And just as when we live in one climate it's hard to remember the feeling of living in another, so it's hard to capture, in the present, what it was to live in the past. We can describe it endlessly, and even accurately, but we can't quite conjure it up. I know how intensely I used to love certain books or movies or songs, and I get a nostalgic thrill when I reencounter them, but I can't feel that original feeling.

I need my past. I'm terrified of losing it. But I can't gain any purchase on it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

GEMCS 2009

I'm just home from GEMCS, which was unusually small and even-more-than-usually disorganized this year. The first I can blame on Dallas, which seems to have been universally loathed as a conference destination when it hosted the 2008 SAA (almost no one I know who attended that SAA made it to this GEMCS), and the second I can blame on. . . well, I won't blame anyone publicly for the second.

And indeed, Dallas and I did not get off to a good start. The cabdrivers were a combination of hostile, overly-chatty, and incompetent, while the hotel rooms were huge and self-consciously luxe--but evidently designed by someone who had never actually stayed in a hotel room: mine was twice as big as any room I've ever stayed in for a conference (and three times as big as some), with vast acres of unused space. It lacked drawers in the obvious and necessary places, was poorly lit, and the bathroom was missing towel racks and had a shaving/makeup mirror I couldn't see into even when wearing two-and-a-half-inch heels.

Then there was the opening reception, in a beautiful space tremendously hard to get to (the organizers helpfully gave instructions involving first one train and then one bus, which, I'm sorry: ain't happening when half the attendees have barely gotten off a plane and had time to shower by that hour).

But things got better. For one thing, I knew or met people with cars. For another, my paper session was relatively early. For a third--well, it's hard not to have fun at GEMCS. It's a winsome mess of a conference every year, like that college-era boy- or girlfriend you can't stay mad at because they're so much fun (though whether said conference is the one you want to marry is another question).

For the first time I was on a panel entirely with friends, people I'd known in graduate school, though not people I'd known equally well or all of whom work in my period--and that was fantastic, as was spending so much time with them; we'd exchanged work before the conference, so I spent my plane flight reading their chapter and article drafts and we had a work huddle later in the weekend, which was exhilarating in all the ways that one's own work so rarely is.

We also had another grad school friend who'd just gotten a job in the area, and she was determined to get us the hell out of downtown and show us a good time. Said good time involved spending hundreds of dollars at a designer consignment shop, swilling much too much booze, and eating all manner of Things Barbecued and Things Fried--but it was a blast, and proved that there is indeed fun to be had in Dallas.

This is also the second conference I've gone to with Cosimo, who's in an adjacent subfield, and that was lovely too--he's got hilarious, brilliant friends of his own, and it's fun to share them and the conference experience; it also feels satisfyingly efficient to be able to combine work-travel with relationship-travel.

So thanks, GEMCS, for coming through. Maybe even my first-day public display of bitchiness--totally warranted, but not entirely well-considered--will have passed into oblivion before we meet again.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


When I have a very early morning flight--as I did traveling to Western City yesterday and as I will on my return on Monday--I try to sleep as late as possible, packing the night before and taking only the briefest of showers. I do wash my hair, and I dress nicely but comfortably. However, I do not put in my contacts and I do not put on any makeup.

And no matter how well I'm dressed, when I'm wearing my glasses and un-made-up, I get treated completely differently. To some degree this is my intention: I don't want to interact with the world at that hour or in those circumstances, so I'm not wearing my public face. But it's still unnerving. If I accidentally bump into someone, and smilingly apologize? If I make a joke or two with an airline agent or small talk with a TSA employee? Old, young, male, female: everyone I encounter is far less likely to respond, to smile, to engage with me in any way.

I guess this is something I've long intuited, and it's probably influenced, over the years, the way I present myself. But it pisses me off to be reminded of what we value and respond to in others. On an overnight flight to Rome last year, the flight attendant checking my passport made an exaggerated, comic routine out of not being sure whether I was the woman in my photo. And at a conference hotel I once ran into a colleague as I was checking in immediately after getting off a 6 a.m. flight. I said hi, and he (after figuring out who I was) said, "wow, you look really. . . tired."

I was tired, and I know that every one of us sometimes has difficulty recognizing people when they change their appearance or are out of their usual context. But I also know that what we read as "awake" and "rested" involves concealer and mascara.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Random bullets of dear God: isn't it November yet?

Around these parts, we're limping toward the midpoint of the semester. I guess Week Seven always finds me dragging and feeling overwhelmed, but it hits me with new and surprising force each time.

Among the things currently sapping my strength:

  • Grading. 'Nuff said.
  • I'm chairing a major departmental committee. The work isn't monumental (and I've been fortunate in how little service I've been expected to do in previous years), but it's still new work, with the attendant learning curve.
  • Fall. I love fall, but I always get a bit moody and prone to bursting unexpectedly into tears at this time of year.
  • The fabulous progress I made on my manuscript over the summer has not been sustained, and I'm mad at myself for that.
  • After more than two years, I recently got back in touch with my ex-partner. It's been a good, healthy, and even basically banal event--but reintegrating him and parts of our shared past into my present has still taken up a certain amount of psychic space.
  • Recommendation letters. Endless recommendation letters
  • Another one of my local friends is moving away. I've been developing and/or deepening other friendships, of course, but this is a reminder of how transient most members of my social circle really are.
  • I'm traveling each of the next two weekends, most of the way across the country both times.
  • One of those trips is for a conference. For which I have yet to write my paper.
  • I'm not getting enough sleep. I had a brief cold a few weeks ago that left behind a lingering cough that acts up at night--and though I'm now on antibiotics, having two cats isn't conducive to getting an uninterrupted 8.5 hours, either.
  • Did I mention grading?

Damn. October really is a brutal month. How's it with you-all?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Worked out

I'm a 34-year-old woman who has never belonged to a gym. I've never run regularly or taken a yoga, aerobics, or any other fitness class. I might be the only person of my age, class, and dress size for whom these things are true.

Part of the problem is that I appear fit: I'm slim and I've been within 10 pounds of the same weight since I was 18. I guess I'm moderately active; living alone for 15 years has meant that I'm used to moving my own furniture, lugging bags of groceries around, and installing and uninstalling my 75-pound air-conditioner by myself. I also don't eat much, and I stretch regularly and use free weights occasionally.

But although I've never deceived myself that I was actually in shape, with no connection between how fit I looked and how fit I was, there wasn't much motivation to work out. I thought about joining a gym for a while when I was in my early 20s--I was living in Manhattan and it seemed like A Thing One Did--but there was always something more appealing to spend my money on.

And yet today I'm on the verge of joining a gym. I've had a trial membership at one for the past couple of weeks, and to my surprise, I like it. Turns out that stuff about endorphins? Is totally true!

More importantly, I'm 34, and while I hope that I have another 34 years in me--if not indeed another 50 years--this is the body I'm stuck with. It's not going to get any better.

Maybe there's something to that whole mens sana in corpore sano bit after all.