A road not taken

There is no path not taken, I said. The only path is the one you’re on. So it took awhile for me to remember that I might have gone to grad school where I am working now. My intellectual self could have been formed in this library, shaped by studying these artifacts in the Rare Books room; I might have walked these streets daily for six or more years, taken this architecture for granted, seen these views, explored this region, made different friends, been prodded, stimulated and evaluated by other faculty.

Naaaah. I just can’t see it. Being here is fantastic. Everyone is nice, and I’m getting so much done. I can concentrate: no small thing, after the past few months. Nonetheless, the school I did go to shaped me so irreversibly that any alternative is now unthinkable. I think my alma mater was better for me; this place might have chewed me up and spat me out. (I suspect it’s easier on its visiting fellows than on its students.) Or maybe I don’t give my younger self enough credit; maybe I was scrappier in those days than I am now. Could this place have shaped me, honed me, polished me to a hard bright gloss?

Or is this a sort of grass-is-greener phenomenon? If I imagine spending a month working at my alma mater, I do not feel the sense of inspiration I’m feeling now (although in some ways I prefer the library there). Instead, it summons up feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, not the grown-up version, but the pre-Ph.D. version: what am I doing here? Didn’t I get a job? But if I’d gone here, I might feel that way about this place, and look on my alma mater as the bright beacon of rescue from this winter’s discontent.

This path brought me here, now, with a span of time short enough to make me focus on making the most of it. That’ll do.

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From an undisclosed location

I get to spend a month at a cool East Coast library doing research on the thing that took me to England last summer. That is, it funded the trip, though you may remember I managed to fit in some other research as well, and some conferences, because I am so very hyper-efficient (spear and Percy Folio!). And after just one day my brain is fizzing with ideas about how to make this research serve what I think of as my “real” work, from which I thought this was a mere excursion, originally undertaken to keep an NEH Institute happy.

I feel like I should have much more to say about this but at the moment I’m too bleary-eyed to continue, not to mention being in that sort of fragile, hopeful brain-state that can’t quite believe in good fortune and needs to sort of watch the ideas out of the corner of one eye for awhile . . . don’t spook them . . . don’t make loud noises . . . wait till they settle down a bit.

Yeah, it figures. My ideas are cats. At first they’re afraid to come out of the carrier, and before you know it, there is cat hair everywhere and no way to make all the hair coalesce into a tidy cat-shaped object, that is, a book, in this metaphor that is getting slightly out of hand. I’ll try to coax the metaphor / cat / idea out from under the bookcase before I post again.

Showing up

Browsing around the blogosphere, it seems like a lot of us are doing other things lately. I keep thinking I’ll post when I finish the essay I’ve been working on since, oh, I don’t want to think about it. I am so close to done, so close, but not there yet. Today I added 746 words (some moved from an earlier draft), and did a batch of editing, and figured out why I need all these details about analogues, which means that tomorrow I’ll have to re-shape the section about the analogues, and I will still be this-close-to-done.

The thing that actually is done is course descriptions for the fall. I made them sound all cheery and breezy, which probably violates some truth-in-advertising regulation. Here’s a more truthful version:

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. We will read Chaucer in Middle English, which a few nerds will enjoy, but it will make most of you curse the day your professor was born. You will endure the professor reading to you in Middle English, Old French, and Latin, all of which will sound like gobbledygook to you, and you will not be able to hear the rhythms she keeps telling you to listen for. Oh, and she shows off by singing to you, as if you’d ever want to hear the beginning of the General Prologue set to the tune of “The First Nowell.” You will be appalled to discover how difficult it is to write a one-page paper that actually says something intelligent about a text (your returned papers will look like this: “In this paper I shall argue that despite Chaucer‘s attempts to pacify the Church, he nevertheless shows the Pardoner as a snake. This shows that the Pardoner is evel SP. . . HOW DOES HE DO THIS?“). Even if you read translations so you know what’s going on, there will be translation exams that check your understanding of Middle English, as if the prof didn’t trust you, and at least one reading for which there is no modern translation so you’ll have to try to figure out the weird spelling after all (and that reading won’t even be Chaucer, which is like totally cheating on the prof’s part, since the class is called “Chaucer”). This class is completely irrelevant to the real world and the professor will not care about your feelings about the text, the Middle Ages, or anything else. She only ever cares about the words on the page and how to make sense of them.

(At least, this is how I imagine the class looks to some people who have been through it. My dear students: it’s true, I care passionately about the words, their meanings, their etymologies, their sounds, their rhythms, and the poetry these elements create. If you can learn to appreciate any part of Chaucer’s poetry, I’ll be very happy.)

Sir John on Basement Cat and Theology

Last night, the Scot came galloping out of the basement meowing. I said, “A person would think you’d run into Basement Cat down there. But Basement Cat is upstairs in his room.” I turned to Sir John. “Does that make us Satanists, if Basement Cat lives upstairs in our house?”

“I think we’re in an alternative theology, in which Satan, that is Basement Cat, wasn’t cast into hell but remains bound in heaven. And he’s even allowed to be unbound periodically and roam free in the house, although I, at least, corral the innocent inhabitants and pen them in another part of heaven so that they won’t suffer from Basement Cat preying on them.”

Sir John looked meaningfully at me. It’s true; sometimes I pen up only the most vulnerable inhabitants, and leave the Scot and the Shakespearean heroine to defend themselves against Basement Cat. And sometimes I lure both the Scot (our most mellow feline) and Basement Cat into my study (that is, the other part of heaven) and give them both manna, I mean cat treats. The hope is that this will convince Basement Cat not to attack the Scot, and the Scot that . . . well, that B.C. might be a good thing. The Scot is totally venal and will do anything for cat treats.