Monday, January 31, 2011

Them's my values

So I'm planning a wedding. This is neither the high point of my existence nor something that causes me excruciating torment. I'm by nature a list-maker and an information gatherer--and I've got oceans of time and not a lot of felt imperatives about what a wedding should be.

My guiding principles are these:
  1. All other things being equal, I'd prefer to throw some kind of party and invite people beyond our immediate family members.
  2. I refuse to spend much money. Some years ago I heard that the average American wedding costs $10,000. Apparently that figure is now $20,000. I believe that number (if you want to be very afraid, go to the comments on this post), but that's not our ball game.
Given items 1 & 2, here's what I care about:
  • A church wedding. Although the Catholic church fucks up almost everything having to do with sex, sexuality, and gender, I think it gets some important things right in defining marriage as a sacrament. (Also: my church is gorgeous. Church wedding = pagentrial loveliness for very little $$.)
  • As for the reception, my values are these: open bar, good music, and enough food to keep people on the dance floor and from passing out drunk.
That's about it, really.

I don't care about flowers, photography, or a sit-down meal, much less about hair & makeup or a big white dress. Other people have other values, and that's fine; I get why those with larger budgets might pay upwards of $3,000 for a great photographer. But I really dislike the fact that there seem to be three dominant wedding discourses in this country: you're a traditionalist, or you're "making your own traditions," or you care fuck-all about weddings.

The first two tend to amount to the same thing, and often the same price: every detail is imagined as having huge personal significance and reflecting the couple's unique taste and sensibility--whether it's a princessy dress and 12 attendants in matching frocks and tailcoats or a rockabilly biker theme.

And if you're not consumed by such details, you're imagined as someone who officially Doesn't Care About Weddings, and you get married at City Hall.

All three kinds of weddings can be lovely, but they're not the only (or mutually-exclusive) options. Dudes. I'm getting married in a church in a blue-green cocktail dress from the 1960s. There will be a bunch of people and a party in a rented space, but it might involve hamburgers, an iPod, and former students acting as bartenders. That's not my special uniqueness; that's just what's happening.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The upside of working on stuff no one cares about

There was an astonishing article in the New York Times on Wednesday about the ways in which the N.R.A. has systematically blocked research into gun violence--including such central and seemingly non-partisan questions as whether owning a gun makes people safer or less safe, or whether waiting periods or background checks have any effect.

The N.R.A.'s contention is that, basically, any research into gun violence is politically slanted. It has therefore worked to defund the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which used to perform the bulk of research into firearm injury and safety. Although Congress still funds the C.D.C. for research on traumatic brain injuries, there is a stipulation that "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control. . . may be used to advocate or promote gun control."

Although funding is available through private foundations, those foundations tend to be "much more interested in work that leads to immediate results and less willing to finance basic epidemiological research"--or in other words, private foundations tend to be more partisan and less willing to let scientific research take its course.

It's been a long time since I felt this grateful to be doing work that nobody cares enough to restrict, and that doesn't require enough funding to defund.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rhetorical questions: who needs 'em?

I just skimmed a painfully dull book (an experience made all the worse by the fact that I paid money for it and made a separate, dedicated trip to the MLA book exhibit as they were closing up shop on the last day). It's a perfectly readable work that nevertheless has a number of stylistic problems, chief among them the author's overuse of rhetorical questions:
Why does he declare himself to be a royalist, but seem to side with the parliamentarians?

Is this really a work that fits within the ars moriendi tradition?

How do we understand this publication strategy?

What accounts for the shift in tone in the third section of the book?*
People! Rhetorical questions are lazy. They're not provocative. They're weak placeholders or bits of throat clearing that signal your unwillingness to make a straightforward claim. They're fine for first drafts. But please replace them when you believe yourself to be advancing an actual argument.

*Fake examples, but representative.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fetish objects

Like athletes, many scholars develop rituals, charms, and neuroses related to our performance: clothes we wear when writing or researching, places we sit, mugs we drink out of. Most of my own habits feel incidental: I wear a version of the same outfit (with warm- and cold-weather variants) whenever I work at home, but that's just because it's easier not to have to think about what I'm wearing; the outfit itself doesn't have talismanic properties.

But the one thing I absolutely cannot work without are legal pads. I write only on yellow legal pads, and if forced to write on something else (I've forgotten to bring a pad to a rare book room, and they give me loose sheets of printer paper) I'm itchy and unhappy and transfer my notes as soon as I get home.

I also need a decent writing implement, and though I'm slightly more flexible about those, I've used Uniball rollerball pens (with a micro nib) in their various incarnations since I was 18 and they remain my strong preference. When I use a pencil, it has to be a a mechanical one; I can't deal with the erratic and changeable line precision and messy writing that results from a conventional pencil.

And if I had to add a third item to the list, it would be my lap desk. My brother bought it for me several years ago, and though I can work without it--there are always desks and tables--I work best in an armchair, on my sofa, or in bed. I take my lap desk with me when I travel by car. It's more of a luxury good than my legal pads, but it makes me happy.

What are your own fetish objects or rituals for writing?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading better

I've spent the past few days devouring books. Not in the heedless, headlong way we usually mean that expression (reading through the night until it gets light, book propped between faucet and backsplash while brushing one's teeth), but with focused determination: I'm cramming, basically, trying to get through a stack of recent and/or semi-seminal scholarship before I revise my book's introduction.

It's not un-fun (many of the works are thoughtful and well-written, and I've included several that are more appealing than they are directly relevant), and the drunken, discombobulated, where-am-I? feeling upon shutting the book at the end of the day is the same. But it's definitely work: tape flags out, notebook open, antennae up.

I note this because it's only been in the last two semesters, teaching M.A. students, that I've come to recognize this search-and-destroy method of reading as a skill that takes time to develop. It still astonishes me when smart, perceptive students will entirely miss the main argument of a scholarly essay that I thought a model of clarity--but I know now that it's usually a forest/trees problem: they don't know what to disregard. My students don't yet know the subject area or the critical background, of course, but they also don't totally know how scholarly writing works. (The 50-something psychiatrist in my grad class last spring was by far the best reader of literary scholarship, probably because, as a doctor, she understood the basic moves of academic prose and could immediately recognize which parts were lit review, which parts were argumentative positioning, and when evidence shaded into interpretation.)

I'm not sure whether there's a way to speed this process up for students, other than assigning them a damn lot of scholarly literature. And while I'm grateful that it feels like second nature, now, to me, I wonder whether it's changed my ability to devour books for fun: it's hard to read without a pencil. And when I realize that I've completely forgotten the ending of a novel that I read and loved six months ago, I'm irritated at myself for not paying more attention or reading better.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Be it resolved

WHEREAS Flavia's leave semester ends in mid-May; and

WHEREAS her summer will involve teaching a two-week Shakespeare course, moving two households, going to Europe, and planning a wedding; and

WHEREAS she will be teaching a new senior seminar, getting married, and going up for tenure in the fall;

  • That she will complete revisions on her book manuscript
  • That she will send said manuscript back out for review
  • That she will research and write an SAA seminar paper from scratch
  • That she will read the book she promised to review for a journal lo these many months ago
  • That she will work her way through a buttload of primary and secondary texts she should have read in graduate school
  • That she will read novels
  • That she will catch up on good t.v.
  • That she will go to the gym every morning, five days a week
  • That she will meditate for 20 minutes every morning, five days a week
  • That she will not use the internet between the hours of 1 and 8 p.m., five days a week
  • That she will not bore the living shit out of her blog readers with too many lists like these.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Start your engines

I've now moved self, cats, and half a zillion books to Cosimolandia. Let the research leave begin!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

MLALA: retrospective

I've finally made it back east, no thanks to the snowstorm and the surly incompetence of American Airlines (have you ever seen a ticket agent pick a fight with a passenger who was going out of his way to be patient and good-humored? I have now!)--so it's time for a few general observations about this year's MLA.

This is the seventh consecutive MLA I've attended and the sixth I've blogged, but it was also, probably, the least exciting. Some of my lessened excitement may be the result of the date change: say what you like about the inconvenience of the post-Christmas conference, but it ensured that most attendees were still adrenaline-charged and wound up; the hotels were decorated for the holidays, everyone was wishing everyone else a happy new year, and the conference partook of the general mood of festivity. Moving MLA well after Christmas and New Year's (and into the beginning of the term, for those on the quarter system) means that everyone has collapsed but not yet recovered, and the holidays seem very far away.

However, I don't think the date change fully accounts for my more subdued mood. Much of it, I think, has to do with this being the first MLA at which I felt like a grown-up.

My first two MLAs I was on the job market, and dazzled and excited to be surrounded by 9,000 other members of the profession. And for the next several conventions, I was still settling into my identity as a junior professor. Part of the excitement of the convention in those years was its newness, and the fun of assembling friends and associates for meals and drinks and coffee--it was fun just to feel that I had enough friends and associates to keep myself so busy.

But now, honestly? I know too many damn people. I have grad school friends whom I never see, because we're not in the same field; I have Renaissance friends whom I see at conferences two or three times a year if I'm lucky; I have RU friends whom it's fun to hang out with in a new city; I have Cosimo and Cosimo's grad school and professional friends, who have become my friends; I have blog friends whom I wish to know in real life; and I have non-academic friends who happen to live in or near the city where the convention's being held.

So although the socializing was still fun, it also felt like an obligation that I was perpetually defaulting on: I wanted to spend multiple evenings with most of the people I saw only once, and there are some people I spoke to for five minutes on the escalator, exchanged promises to catch up with later. . . and didn't.

I also found myself, for the first time, recognizing grad students as definitively younger and at an earlier career stage than myself. I had drinks with a former RU student of mine, now a Ph.D. candidate at a flagship state school out west, and found myself waxing oracular. I reassured the nervous grad student on my own panel, and had several others approach me deferentially afterward (all "Dr. Fescue" this and "Professor Fescue" that), and, holy cow: the three women from UC Davis sitting behind me in one panel looked about as old as my undergrads.

And equally suddenly, I found myself thinking of those 15 or more years ahead of me in the profession as almost-friends: people I was happy to see and could hold a normal conversation with, rather than being convinced that they were just humoring me and that we had Nothing in Common. The chair of my panel was anxious to know when my book was coming out. The editor at the press that's publishing my edition buttonholed me at a reception and demanded when I'd be sending my monograph to her.

So I guess I. . . know people? And have a professional identity? That's awesome. In fact, that's super awesome. But it makes MLA feel more like work than it used to. I used to go because it was fun, and because I desperately wanted to be a part of that world. Now I'm a part of it, and I go because it's professionally useful. These developments are good ones, in almost every conceivable way, but they do dampen one's energy and enthusiasm.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

MLALA: Day Three

Yesterday Cosimo and I were awakened at 7 a.m. by loud chatter from the room next door. As I went about my business getting ready, I realized that this conversation involved more than the two voices I'd first heard--and by 9 a.m. it was clear that there was a job interview in progress: modern British novel this, modern American novel that, "there are a lot of ways you could teach this course," and so on.

Since I'm not on the market, the interview portion of MLA has steadily become less real to me. I have friends who are serving on hiring committees and I have friends throwing their hats in the ring for better jobs than their current ones--but the real fear and desperation of this part of MLA feels a long way off. Listening to this conversation through the wall, and knowing that it was taking place in a small hotel room like our own, probably with committee members perched on beds (and for a job that may well have received 500 applicants), was sobering.

Indeed, Day Three seems to have been about the intrusion of real life into the manic and self-involved whirl of the conference. At lunch one of my friends cried out, having caught a glimpse of CNN on a t.v. screen in the bar behind us; eight hours later, I ran into people who still hadn't heard about the assassination in Arizona. And in the late afternoon the boozy professional chatter in the main lounge was briefly interrupted by grown men shouting--again, there was a t.v., somewhere, this time broadcasting the Seahawks-Saints football game.

I don't mean to imply any equivalence between those events, but I experienced both as disorienting intrusions and reminders of how unreal conference time and space are. Some 9,000 language and literature professionals descend on a few blocks of a city, and for three or four days we socialize only with each other, indulging in the folkways of our tribe. It's exhilarating and rejuvenating, annoying and exhausting, and I wouldn't miss it--but it's also a strange and privileged space.

I have more to say about this MLA, but it'll have to wait: Cosimo and I are headed to the bay area for a couple of days to see my brother. For now, I'll leave you with this photo, taken yesterday, immediately outside the conference hotel. We're half convinced he was a performance artist.

(Photo credit: W.H.)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

MLALA: Day Two

Either L.A. is lame or I am: I've gotten to bed before midnight both nights. But although that might suggest to you a conference experience totally out of the ordinary, fear not! There's still been drinking, erratic eating (the first day, I carried half a loaf of panettone around in my bag; the second day, all I had to eat before dinner was a cookie), gossip-mongering, and, oh yes: conference terrorism.

Friday, January 07, 2011

MLALA: first impressions

Downtown L.A. is a crappy place to hold a conference. I knew that before in theory, but now I know it experientially: the hotels are far apart, there's not much in the way of decent restaurants in the vicinity, and the main conference hotel and the convention center (both of which host panel sessions) are a confusing and inconvenient walk away.

And, yeah: it's 65 degrees and sunny. But the schlep back and forth and the difficulty of getting anywhere without a car means the weather is not a substantial point in L.A.'s favor. Also, is sunlight really what academics want? Based on the number of black suits and pale, squinty faces I saw yesterday, I'd say no.

But not all locations have equally convenient facilities, and I do like the main conference hotel itself: it's easy to navigate, with decent conference rooms and (more importantly!) a great, lounge-y first floor with two bars and a nice, non-Starbucks café.

More irksome than the convention facilities are several bad decisions made by the organizers. It's unclear to me why they extended the conference by half a day, so that sessions yesterday began at noon rather than around dinnertime. . . but given that they did, they ought to have gotten conference rates at all the hotels for January 5th (instead of just Jan. 6-9th); I have friends who had to fly in on the 5th because of early sessions or interviews on the 6th, and who paid nearly twice as much for that first night as for the other nights. I'm also pissed off that the book exhibit wasn't open yesterday (although it appeared to be open: everyone I know got stopped by a bouncer-like figure upon attempting to enter).

(And, confidential to the Marriott bar that tried to charge me extra for ordering my whiskey on the rocks: not cool, dudes. So not cool.)

But I did manage to see and catch up with a whole crush of people in a marathon six hours, despite the fierce return of my headache, and I got to be someone else's celebrity sighting: Michael Bérubé passed me on the street, looked back uncertainly, and said, "Hey! Are you Flavia?"

So we're off to a decent start.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

MLALA: Arrival

My morning went like this:

    -Got up at 5.15 a.m.

    -Felt strange stomach pains, which reminded me of nothing so much as the time I had an attack of diverticulitis. Panicked for an hour.

    -Headed to the airport, en route to which my stomach pains went away.

    -Got on plane

    -Read the LRB while waiting for the plane to finish boarding.

    -Found I couldn't read clearly. Identified wonkiness in field of vision as the sign of an incipient migraine.

    -Panicked for 45 minutes, waiting for the migraine to set in.

    -Acquired an extremely mild headache, and went back to reading

    -Arrived in L.A.

Unlike many people, I love MLA. But perhaps my body, knowing the abuse it would be subjected to, was protesting?

Sorry, body. You can take it.


Paper done. It seems not actively to suck. Watch this space for reports from the field.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Newsflash: writing is hard

I'm writing the most difficult conference paper I've ever had to write, and it's ruining my vacation and making me even more pissy about the MLA date change than I was to begin with. (If MLA had come and gone before New Year's, as God intended, my paper would already be written and delivered and I'd be able to get on with the important business of my leave semester. Or the important business of my winter holiday. Whichever.)

Thing is, this paper is totally unlike any conference paper I've ever written. It's derived from pre-existing material, so it should be a piece of cake to prepare: cut cut cut, give a little more background, make more colloquial and sensitive to the needs of listeners rather than readers, done. But instead I'm completely reordering, rethinking, and rewriting everything--on, like, the sentence level.

Basically, this paper is an introduction to my book project. I have twenty minutes to talk about half a dozen authors and almost a hundred years, to make big, bold claims with enough detail to be credible and suggestive (rather than cursory and reductive). And right now I can't tell if what I have sounds insane. . . or like a retread of extremely old ground.

And, unusually, my panel has a good time slot. And one very heavy-hitter. So we might actually get an audience.

God. I hate writing. I hate thinking.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Meme

(Latest in a series. See also New Year's 2008, 2009, and 2010.)

1. What did you do in 2010 that you'd never done before?
*Sent my book manuscript to a publisher
*Taught M.A. students
*Got engaged

2. Did you keep your 2010 resolutions, and will you make more this year?
I don't think I made any. I'm a great resolver, but not a great new years resolver.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Duh. I'm in my mid-30s, so these are the birthing years. But most significant are my elder cousin, who had her first, and two college friends, who each just had their second.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

5. What countries did you visit?
Just Canada, twice.

6. What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?
A home to share with my partner. A book contract. (And more trivially, I need some new damn clothes!)

7. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
I achieved a lot this year, but what feels like the biggest achievement is being able to look ahead to a personal and professional future that I'm happy with.

8. What was your biggest failure?
I feel that I was exhausted all the time, especially this past semester. I'm not sure that's a "failure," exactly, but it means I often had a pretty short fuse. I'm looking to be more centered in 2011.

9. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No. Though I'm getting creaky in the joints, already, at age 35.

10. What was the best thing you bought?
I didn't make any big or significant purchases last year. But I suppose the money that went to several short vacations with Cosimo (Maine, Portland OR, the Stratford Festival, and twice to NYC) was especially well spent.

11. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I have several friends who have been coping with ill, injured, or depressed family members, and whose behavior has been more inspiring than they'd ever believe.

12. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The problem student to end all problem students. I'll say no more--but anything you can imagine a student doing that doesn't involve physical menace, this student did.

13. Where did most of your money go?
Where it always goes: to rent, to my student loans, to car payments (& insurance & upkeep). The rest just disappears.

14. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Probably happier (though I was happy last year). I weigh a few pounds more, but am in better shape. On the other hand, I make more money, but am no richer.

15. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Visited/called/written my many long-distance friends.

16. What do you wish you'd done less of?
I don't know. Complained? But complaining is who Flavia is.

17. Did you fall in love in 2010?
Already there.

18. What was the best new book you read?
I didn't read much new fiction. But the best non-fiction I read outside of my own field was Robert Alter's Art of Biblical Narrative.

19. What was your favorite film of the year?
Winter's Bone

20. What kept you sane?
I'll go with last year's answer: all the people in my life.

21. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010.
It's so good to be a grown-up.

Happy 2011 to you and yours~~