Dame Eleanor Hull

Basement Cat again

Now the old grey guy has been to the vet for vile experiments . . . at least they seem to have sent the right cat back this time . . . but maybe they’re just getting more sophisticated about their nefarious projects down there.  I am staying on my guard, and not going near any cat carriers.  I feel like I’ve moved to the island of Dr. Meaurao.

I now pronounce you partners for life


After all the lawsuits, all the people who died separated from their partners because of familial homophobia, all the outrageous death duties because gay partners weren’t covered by the same inheritance rules as straight marrieds, all the officials who here and there declared that they would issue marriage licenses to gay couples (like Gavin Newsom), all that and more.  Everyone can now have the next-of-kin of their choice.  Let’s have a really bang-up reception to celebrate!  Let us eat cake!  Champagne fountains for all!

Basement Cat speaks his tiny, paranoid mind

You may SAY that that’s Glendower, but I know that the real Glendower never came back from the vet (probably some unspeakable experiment is being done on him, and I can’t believe you don’t care about that; you say you love cats but obviously you don’t or you would never take any of us to the vet).  THAT is an imposter, an alien, and he is going to murder us all in our beds, especially you big hoo-man apes who sleep like the dead, not always ready to pounce on dangerous intruders, like us.  And if he didn’t murder you last night, that’s just because he’s playing some long game, lulling you into a false sense of security.  If I ever go off guard, HE WILL STRIKE.

You are going to be so sorry you didn’t listen to me.

And for cat’s sake, DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TAKING IN Academic Cog’s cats.  What are you, crazy?  The only good cat is Basement Cat, and ye shall have no other cats before me.  As for that mangy orange monster in the yard, you ARE crazy, clearly.  Why can’t you use your bleeding-heart impulses on some hoo-man political sneeze instead of trying to solve feline homelessness?  They’re all a bunch of lazy no-goodniks.  Except me.  I will selflessly keep trying to protect you from false-Glendower, until he kills us all.

Names and other inheritances

I was already trying to sort, purge, and organize our stuff when the basement flooded.  Now I have real motivation to make progress.  One of the items rescued from the rising tide is a small wooden chest that belonged to one of my grandmothers.  I hadn’t even looked at it in years, and hadn’t opened it in much longer.

It contains, among other papers, educational records for this grandmother, who was what we now call a returning student: she earned a college degree in her 60s, because she had always wanted to go to college, and finally was able to.  I knew that, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching the population I teach, including the returning students who are a generation or more older than the “typical” college student.

But I did not know her full name, or at least, I don’t recall ever being told it.  The “middle” name I knew for her was her nom de jeune fille.  Her given middle name:


So, although when I began blogging I chose the name of an obscure medieval woman translator in an effort to publicize the fact that there were accomplished, intellectual medieval women, in fact I have a sort of right to the name.  Oddly, I’ve even become a translator, when I had no thought of that however many years ago I began this blog.  The “Dame” part, though . . . well, we all know “There’s nothing like a dame.”  I expect that’s the best I’ll ever do in that direction.

Dream, interrupted

When the cat alarm went off this morning, I was having tea with Peter Wimsey, the ghost of his grandmother (or possibly the Dowager from Downton Abbey; it looked like Maggie Smith, which I suppose is not incompatible with being Peter Wimsey’s grandmother), and a former student of mine who is devoted to historical reenactment and was most fetchingly and appropriately dressed for the occasion.

The cat alarm said that the squirt bottle was not an appropriate way to activate the snooze function, and would in fact result in escalating the alarm noise.

I really wanted to go on with that dream.  I’ve never before had tea with Peter Wimsey, let alone his grandmother, corporeal or otherwise.  And there were other people present to whom I had not yet been introduced.  Could one of them have been Harriet Vane?  Or Peter’s mother, the enchanting Dowager Duchess?  And I hadn’t even started on the petits fours.

Planning and anxiety

I like planning.  And I dread it.  It’s reassuring and anxiety-provoking at the same time.  I like calculating (for instance) that if I produce 300 words a day, four days a week, in five or six weeks I should have an article.  I like planning that in this month I will work on Project One, and next month I will finish Project Two, and so on.

But planning also revs up the Voices In The Back Of My Head.  They don’t just whisper; they get cranked up like the Chipmunks.  On speed.  “No plan survives contact with the enemy make a plan and the gods laugh over-ambitious not ambitious enough why haven’t you why don’t you don’t be ridiculous you never you always!”

Actually, imagining their voices getting higher and squeakier and tinier till they’re no longer audible is very helpful.

The thing about having time is that you also have time to think in ways that are about more than just managing the voices.  When I’m sandwiching writing between bouts of grading and the next committee meeting, it’s not too hard to insist, internally, on the value of the task, and just do it.  Maybe I should always work like that; maybe that’s why some people overload themselves.  But I’m trying for improved mental hygiene, since I now have more time for self-awareness.

The Chipmunks are mainly my mother.  I know: it’s such a cliché.  Believe me, I’d love to stop blaming things on my mother.  But really, she was a piece of work.  Maybe these days she’d be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or maybe she was just one of Julia Cameron’s “crazymakers” who loved the drama of getting other people worked up.  Whatever her problem was, the result was the same: any time my father or I made a plan, she would start asking anxious questions and prognosticating doom.

I don’t mean helpful, pre-emptive questions like, “In case this happens, then what will you do?” and “If plans A and B don’t work, do you have a plan C?”  I mean “How do you know?  You haven’t thought this through!  Are you sure?  It’ll never work!  What makes you think you can do that?  You don’t know that!  You Will Fail and Everything Will Be Ruined And It Will Be All Your Fault.  (And then I’ll say I Told You So.)”  It was exhausting then, and it’s exhausting to think about even now.

This morning I sat down to plan some of my three weeks’ worth of three weeks.  At one level, that was pleasurable, a way to take control of my time.  And then I noticed the accompanying anxiety: what if at my annual checkup I’m diagnosed with something fatal or at least time-consuming?  What if my father dies?  What if Sir John and all the other men of his Zodiac sign get run over by egg trucks?  What if what if what if?

What if none of those things, I asked myself.  What if, this year, nothing awful happens and I am able to stick to my plan?  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Wouldn’t it be silly to ruin a year’s sabbatical with anxiety about what might happen, when I am feeling well and my father is reasonably healthy and we do not live on an egg truck route?

Although she died seven years ago, I’m still recognizing and trying to uproot my mother’s voice in my head, like some particularly persistent invasive species.  I think it’s a good sign that I can now recognize it, name it, call it a Chipmunk, turn up the speed even farther, and let it go.

And in the interests of mental hygiene, I’m going to finish the day’s research task, spend some time outdoors (probably ripping up more bellflower), and listen to Warren Zevon while I work out.

On “Carpenter’s Block”

Undine and I are revisiting old posts, and a lot of us are working on summer writing projects, and I like to start the day by reading something inspirational (and, okay, web-procrastinating a bit), so I read this old one of hers: http://notofgeneralinterest.blogspot.com/2009/03/writing-is-fun-starting-is-hard.html

The comment about not believing in “writer’s block” any more than in “carpenter’s block” struck me.  Hard.  Because some of my relations are carpenters, builders, and contractors, and they do run into such problems.  Okay, they’re not “blocked” as in “unable to pick up a hammer.”  If I said to one of them, at a not-working point, “Could you put together this bookshelf that fell apart when the movers knocked it around?” he could do it.  But they do have periods when they’re faced with a set of materials, a space to fill, a type of thing that needs to go in that space, using those materials, being functional in such a way . . . .

That’s not blocking, that’s a design problem, you say.


So consider that the writer, too, may have a design problem.  Or an organizational problem, or a significance problem, or an originality problem, or a perfectionist problem.  All of these are solvable problems.  Once we recognize that there is a solvable problem, we can find ways to solve it.  Sometimes that means writing something else, or going about our business until something shakes loose, or staring at the blank page and thinking.

I’m reminded of Comrade PhysioProf’s process, which involves a lot of putting off writing while he thinks, and which he vigorously defends (you can find bits and pieces in the comments of some of the writing group threads, here and on other blogs, but I don’t want to take the time to find the bits now).  It works for him.  He recognizes when the back of the mind needs time to work.

So, if you’re blocked, don’t beat up on yourself.  Think of it as carpenter’s block, as a design (or similar) problem, and think about how to solve that problem.

Two essays on writing


Medievalists have probably already seen these; but if you’re not a medievalist, and like reading about how (other?) academics write, here are a couple of essays with food for thought.

My thought is that they’re not counting their preparation as “writing.” They wouldn’t get the manic bursts of thousands of words without the regular reading, planning, thinking that they both talk about. Sometimes I get such bursts, and they feel like a gift; but, physically, I can’t produce even 2000 words a day without pain. So I plod along, maybe not a tortoise by nature, though I’ve learned to act like one.

Both writers insist on knowing yourself and the way you work, which I think is good advice; and “know what you are and be it more” is great advice.

A garden is a loathsome thing, God wot

When I lived in my third-floor walk-up, I had pots of flowers and herbs on the back stairs, and dreamed of a larger garden.

When I lived in my townhouse, I had a plot roughly 10′ by 10′, plus another bit about 4′ by 3′. I crammed in roses, day lilies, Asiatic lilies, a butterfly bush, iris, spring bulb flowers, hostas, and a clematis. I still dreamed of a larger garden that I could divide into “rooms,” each on a different theme.  I also spent a lot of time drowning beetles that liked to eat the roses.

I now have a larger garden, not the huge one I dreamed of, but normal city-lot sized garden. It was very pretty when we bought the house, color-coordinated in shades of purple and white. Iris, hyssop, nicotiana, roses, ornamental thistles (the goldfinches love them), clematis, assorted other hardy flowers and herbs. Including campanula . . . oh, wait a minute.

I now see the point of lawns: they are a low-maintenance way of providing space between you and your neighbors; you can hire someone to come and cut the lawn and trim the shrubbery and you’re done. You do not have to spend hours ripping out creeping bellflower, and then ripping it out again, and again. I found some tiny little lemon balm plants struggling for survival underneath it. I didn’t think there was anything that could choke out lemon balm. Morning glories have spread from somewhere (those tiny little seeds . . . ) and I’m unpicking them from the roses (ouch).

The hostas are holding their own fairly well against the bellflower. I may try to plant a sentinel ring of hostas around the iris and the roses. But I’m now dreaming of a condo with a balcony where I could grow a few flowers and herbs in pots.

700: three weeks’ worth of three weeks

This is my seven hundredth post.  After . . . seven and a half years?  Not particularly prolific.  But long-lived!  You have to give me that.

It seems appropriate that this is a numbers post.  I like doing the numbers.  I’m starting a year of sabbatical leave (woot!), and need to think about ways to break up the time and make it meaningful to me, so I don’t waste it.  I’ve written before about the struggle I have to make time seem concrete and real.  It seems like progress to have worked out that I have this problem.  More than a year (since I have next summer and this summer) seems like a lot of time.  Fifteen months is even more time.  Breaking it down into weeks . . . there’s a long string of weeks, more than sixty.

I have found that I can schedule tasks for myself for up to three weeks at a time.  That is, I can be quite specific for one week (400 words on Specific Topic), a little more general in the second week (400 words added to Essay X), and in the third week things get vaguer (at least one hour on whatever Essay X needs then).  By the end of three weeks, I have to recalibrate.  But I can get my mind around three weeks, in a way that doesn’t work so well with longer lumps of time.

So, that long stretch of over 60 weeks?  Actually, it’s sixty-three weeks until I’m on contract for my next teaching semester.  3 x 3 x 7.  Twenty-one times three weeks.  Three weeks is 21 days.  So, three weeks’ worth of three weekses.  I can grasp this, and plan in three-week chunks (though in practice, I’ll need to review at least every second week, since when I start that vague third week, it needs to get some details).  It’s a plan.


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