Monday, September 30, 2013

Picking cotton

Tomorrow is our second wedding anniversary. According to some entirely unreliable source and some totally bogus tradition, that makes it our cotton anniversary. Although cotton lacks some of the whatsit of the gold, silver or diamond anniversaries--and dudes, you'd better believe that if we make it to our sixtieth anniversary, this nonagenarian and centenarian will be rocking the bling--it's not actually that hard to come up with gift ideas involving cotton. There are plenty of options. It's just that they all suck.

Blah blah, shirts, blah blah, sheets. Blah blah, towels. I'm trying to think big here, people! A bale of cotton? A cotton gin? The collected works of Cotton Mather?

Help a girl out. What's the awesomest cotton-themed gift you can imagine?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making mystics out of cheeses

The September 16th issue of the The New Yorker contains a wonderful collection of entries from a journal Flannery O'Connor kept in 1946, while at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. They're prayers to God, funny, lovely, and peculiar little things that address an enduring artistic problem: success depends upon ambition, drive, and egotism--but also upon real self-knowledge and humility.

The link requires subscriber log-in, but here's a taste:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

[. . . .]

[A]ll my requests seem to melt down to one for grace--that supernatural grace that does what ever it does. My mind is in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box. Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for. Please let some light shine out of the things around me so that I can. . . .Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel.

[. . . .]

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that--make a mystic out of cheeses.

I love all of this, but especially the first and last metaphors: an artist needs to be careful not to mistake her own massive shadow for substance, or to let it obscure what she's trying to communicate. But sometimes an artist--like God--can take a piece of cheese and turn it into a mystic.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A year and a half from my fortieth birthday, it occurs to me that I have no idea what it means to be middle-aged. The term itself is part of the problem, suggestive as it is of being stuck in a place that's neither here nor there: not youth, not early-career, not the beginning of anything--but not the culmination or fulfillment of anything, either.

This is not how I regard my actual fortysomething and fiftysomething friends, all of whom lead the kind of rich and interesting lives that I'd be lucky to emulate. But I haven't thought much about how they got to where they are--and, more importantly, I've never had any vision for what I wanted my life to look like at that age.

Maybe popular culture is to blame, with its scarcity of interesting midlife characters (unless you're a parent or having a midlife crisis, there's not much place for you on stage or screen), or maybe it's academia, with its prolonged deferral of adulthood; I'm only just now at the place of personal and professional stability that most of my nonacademic friends reached five or ten years ago. But mostly, I think it's that the interesting things that happen in midlife are less dramatic, less external, and less predictable than those that occur in one's younger years.

Up to age 30 or 35, there tend to be clear paths to follow or clear milestones of achievement. These vary somewhat by profession, peer group, and domestic choices, but one generally knows both what the "expected" next step is (get married, buy a home, have kids, make partner) and what one's own desired next step is (get divorced! move abroad! go back to school!). I was always impatient to be a grown-up, eager to be 18 and 25 and 30. I knew the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I wanted to lead, at least in general ways.

But now I. . . don't know. I don't fear turning 40. I just have no idea what it means to be a fortysomething woman, or how I want to be a fortysomething (and eventually fiftysomething) woman. I don't have the kind of hard goals I've had for every other stage of my life. I mean, living in the same place as my spouse is still something I'm striving for, but otherwise it's more of the same: I want to keep doing the stuff I like and find meaningful, and discover more such activities.

When your life has been goal-driven for so long, with every goal the plausible and satisfying end of one particular storyline, this approach feels vague and aimless. What's the point? What's the payoff? Who benefits from my learning Italian, or resuming music lessons, or remodeling my kitchen?

At the same time, there's something freeing about realizing there's no script and nothing I have to do. God willing, I've got, like, decades and decades to figure it out. I don't yet know how to exist in the world as someone who's not a young woman, or a junior scholar, or any of the other things I've been for a long long time. I never imagined myself as middle-aged. But now that I'm starting to, it feels like a gift.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The wages of casualization

I'd been thinking of writing a post about what it feels like to be back in the classroom as a student after more than a decade at the front of the room, but I wasn't sure I had much to say. Then I read this horrific article about the death of an impoverished adjunct just weeks after she was fired from Duquesne's French department, and it clarified some of the uneasiness I've been feeling about my Italian class.

My class itself is great, and my Italian professor everything you'd want from a beginning-language instructor. But like Margaret Mary Vojtko, the Duquesne adjunct, la professoressa is contingent faculty. And like Vojtko, she's older than we--by which I guess I mean "I"--typically imagine adjuncts to be. At first I assumed my instructor to be in her early 40s: she's fit and attractive, with long hair and a stylish, youthful wardrobe. In reality, she must be at least 50. She's also a single mom with two kids.

And for all the hand-wringing and fulminating I've done about the casualization of academic labor over the years, I have to admit that I've rarely thought about adjuncts as men and women in their 50s, 60s, or (in the case of Vojtko) 80s. I've never thought about anyone being an adjunct until retirement--or at least not in the absence of any other career, or without a partner's income, pension, or benefits. Vojtko didn't have health coverage even when she was working at Duquesne, and she sure didn't have any afterwards.

In other words, though I've always seen casualization as a scandal and a tragedy--the fact that talented, highly-trained people who love their work get exploited because of that love--and I've always recognized that there are major financial, opportunity, and emotional costs to remaining in that kind of abusive relationship with academia--

Well, I guess I've still always imagined the adjunct as someone who could leave. Someone who might leave with real scars, but who was still talented enough and young enough to build a life doing something else.

Vojtko's story might be unusual in 2013, but if current trends continue, it won't be in 2033.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


For readers curious how Flavia is spending her sweet sweet sabbatical year, I'm here to assure you that it's not just about arising late, debating which exotic shade to paint my toenails, and getting quietly blitzed on gin. (I do all those things in a regular semester.)

Mainly, I'm trying to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Time. If life during an ordinary semester means doing battle with clock and calendar--trying to fit everything into an already jam-packed schedule--life on leave involves a different kind of struggle: the effort to impose a schedule on endless days during which no one particularly cares where I am or what I do. (Except for the cats, whose only requirements are that I hang around and produce body heat and feed them once a day.)

If you're lucky enough to have a year or semester "off," how do you ensure that you're using it well? And at a more basic level, how do you fill each day in a way that allows you to go to bed without a gut full of guilt and self-loathing?

I've known since grad school that maximal free time does not make me maximally productive. When I was teaching, I wrote an average of two dissertation chapters a year (usually one during the academic year and one during the summer). But the year I was on fellowship and relieved of my teaching duties, I wrote exactly one new chapter. Now, I wasn't loafing around; in addition to research for my new chapter, I got two articles based on earlier chapters accepted for publication, I went to a couple of conferences, and I continued working two full days a week at my publishing job. But though I may not have done any less scholarly work that year than the previous one, it's impossible to argue that I did more.

A tenure-line job ties up my time as grad school never could, and it's much harder to get work done during the academic term. Still, my progress during summers and my pre-tenure leave suggests that when I have no obligations other than writing and research, I do not get a strictly proportionate amount of work done (which is to say, I don't fill up my normal 40- or 60- or whatever hour work weeks with scholarship). That's not something I fret about, particularly: people in intellectual and creative fields need time to recharge, to read widely, and to pursue tangential interests; if I succeeded in spending even 25 hours a week, every week, for an entire year, reading and writing within my field, I'd consider my sabbatical a screaming success.

The problem, then, is how to get those hours in, how to make them feel worthwhile, and what to do with all the other hours in a day.

So for now, this is how I'm getting through the days and weeks with a reasonable sense of purpose: I'm taking Italian classes Monday-Wednesday-Friday, which also involves a commute. Initially I was worried about all the extra time this would suck up (just going to class takes approximately three and a half hours each day we meet), but in fact it's turning out to be exactly the structure I need: three days a week, I have to get up and get out of the house at a halfway normal hour, put on something other than yoga pants, and pay some attention to my hair and makeup. I take the light rail downtown and have a pleasant walk to campus. That's also my exercise for the day, which amounts to about two and a half miles total, between getting to my neighborhood rail stop and the walk to and from campus.

I walk up one of the city's grand old nineteenth-century boulevards, lined with beaux-arts buildings, past the theatre district, restaurant row, a sports stadium, and a public library that looks like the NYPL's younger sister. I know from experience that parts of that walk are deserted and even ominous at night or on the weekends, but at lunchtime on a weekday the street is filled with office workers, tourists, and sports fans. It's nice to participate in the regular, workaday rhythms, nice to have some human interactions, and nice to see more of the city and its citizens.

I get home at 3.30, which still gives me plenty of time to work if I want to--and on the days I don't have class, I have wonderful long blocks of time to immerse myself in my work; blocks I wouldn't value or get excited about if every day were similarly open and unplanned.

It's been working well so far, but up to now I've been working on deadline for a few discrete projects--proofreading and indexing my book, writing a short commissioned article, that sort of thing--which has helped my sense of focus. Starting the second week in October, though, it'll just be me and Book Two, which remains a vast, amorphous, and somewhat intimidating project. I'll report back then.


Readers: how have you dealt with unstructured time or made the most of any research fellowships or leaves?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Lessons from the Woodman

I saw Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine a few days ago. I liked it less than some people and more than others, but I'm not interested in talking about the movie. What I want to talk about is the fact that Allen has made a movie a year since 1966.

Sure, lots of those movies are forgettable. And sure, at this point in his career, Allen can get movies made that no one else working within his time and budget constraints could. But my point is this: he just keeps moving.

And as I contemplate the long and as-yet-undifferentiated vista of my mid-career, that seems like a worthwhile model. Most people can't put out whatever the academic equivalent of a movie a year is (a book every five? a conference paper every three months?), and I'm not advocating a focus on numbers in any case. But the way to have a lot of hits is not to fear a few misses. And the way not to fear a few misses is to already be engrossed by the next project.

It's weird that our creations only enter the world once we're decisively done with them; the book that I spent 10 years of my life writing is now the work of a past self, and it's hard not to feel some anticipatory defensiveness about any negative reactions ("hey! that's an idea I came up with in grad school! why you gotta be so mean?"). But hopefully this means that my energies will be elsewhere by the time the reviews come out: I've got a year of conference-going and new-work producing ahead of me.

Just keep moving.