St Thomas Becket

Time flies; I thought I’d done a Becket day last year, or maybe the year before, but it was 2015. My reasons for liking Becket have not changed.

In this morning’s work (10th consecutive day), I’ve read parts of a book I should have read a decade ago, a brilliant book whose author is now a professor at Oxford. It’s making me want to go in the garden and eat worms.

There should be plenty; it rained overnight.

Comparisons are odious. When I was young, I didn’t have a single-minded focus on medieval studies, nor an educational system that forced me to focus early. I’m not so much a late bloomer as a slow bloomer. Maybe this is because I keep getting distracted by new, shiny projects, some of which get done before the old ones, some of which take their places in the shifting relays of things I work on in sequence. Eventually I finish, and the ideas are (I hope) richer for their long gestation and cross-influences.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent desire to have been different? I can only be who I am. It’s way too late to be anything else.

The Feast of Stephen

Boxing Day, for some. It’s been Box Day around here since a Chewy.com delivery arrived on the 24th. The cats have been thrilled with the empty box and rustly paper. Better than catnip, they said.

Here’s one of my presents from Sir John. He certainly has my number (and if he didn’t, I’d give it to him).

We had a good time watching Die Hard with his mom. Young Alan Rickman, yum.

25 December 2019

Right, it’s that day when nearly everything is closed and people with happy families are together being all alike.

I’m going to do some writing, as I have managed to get back into a long-postponed project; go to the gym (open for a few hours, yay); open presents with Sir John if we can get to them before the cats shred all the wrapping; and spend the afternoon at his mom’s. Just us: the rest of his family is doing their individual-family thing.

I have not spent Xmas with my family since 1986. For many years, it was my policy to avoid them on major holidays. In the last decade, Sir John and I have twice gone to mine for Thanksgiving. The first time was lovely, except that Sir John came down with a cold and spent most of the visit sleeping. The second time was an unmitigated disaster and has led me to a renewed determination never, ever, to visit for a major holiday. They are having a big shindig today that, given the list of attendees, has the potential for major drama. I hope it will all work out fine, but I am very happy to be a couple thousand miles off-site.

Whatever your situation, I hope you have a lovely day. I vote for peace and comfort over merry and bright, but you do you.

Family visit

Sometime he angers me
with telling me . . .
such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
as puts me from my faith. I tell you what:
he held me last night at least nine hours . . .
I cried “hum,” and “well, go to,”
but mark’d him not a word.

Advice from William Shakespeare, I Henry IV III.i

Psychological pathologies

Someone I read posted about wanting to fix all the problems, and trying to figure out how to navigate her priorities (work, family, writing, various sorts of service to various communities) so she can do as much as possible.*

My first thought was, “You might want to work on that over-developed sense of responsibility in therapy.”

Then I had to wonder if other people would agree that that is something to work on. I know a lot of academics, for instance, who score highly in “neuroticism”; they are reliable, responsible colleagues, concerned and effective teachers, and valuable members of the community . . . and the ones I know are not exactly unhappy, but they’re none too relaxed, either.

I can be quite intense (i.e., not relaxed), but I aspire to be relaxed and calm, and to be able to distinguish between things I can do something about and things that are out of my control. As a result, I’m generally happy. At least, I think it’s a result, but who knows, maybe I’m happy for other reasons, like genetic predisposition, or having enough money. I have a strong sense of priorities (health, marriage, work in the sense of vocation, job, in that order; enjoyment fits in there somewhere, or maybe it’s an over-arching theme that precedes all the others). I think my reaction to this idea of Fixing All The Problems comes from my own particular family-of-origin constellation, which expected me to be The Fixer, from an early age, and in part by my very existence, of problems way too large for anyone, but especially a child, to be able to solve. So maybe if you come from a psychologically healthy family, responsibility is a good thing; maybe a person from such a background gets real satisfaction from identifying and solving more and more problems.

It’s huge, for me, that I have learned to say “not my circus, not my monkeys” about many things that I mentally paint pink and slap a “‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ field” on (thanks to Douglas Adams for that lovely turn of phrase). But maybe this means I’m the one who is or was broken, that it’s my idea of responsibility that is at fault, an unfortunate inheritance from my parents. Even if so, I like to think that I’m stronger at the broken places.**

*I’m not going to link, because I’m being critical, but it’s someone on my blog roll.

** “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms: call this my early Armistice Day post.)

Productivity advice

Do the thing you really want to do.

I decided that I will go to a conference that I love but whose timing is terrible, and started working not on the paper I thought I could easily put together but on the one that I really want to do.

Once I started doing that, I also graded an entire set of papers over two days, and finished taking notes on an ILL book that would not renew, adding about 1500 words to my annotated bibliography. Would I rather be doing “real writing”? Well, yes, but it is worthwhile to have thorough notes on ILL books, and it keeps me in touch with the project, not to mention allowing me to return that book so that I’m not blocked from further ILL requests, so win-win-win.

Having been wildly productive in the past six hours, now I am going to go work in the garden, then go for a walk to un-kink my back (inevitably kinked after significant garden time), cook, and watch something on TV with Sir John. We are spoiled for choice right now: old cycling, new Durrells, or new-ish Discovery episodes. Such an exciting life I lead.

Actually, there was a bit of excitement earlier this week: I had a tiny dinner party! Mid-week! A friend was in the area and suggested dinner, and I countered with an invitation to dinner chez Hull. It was lovely. It made me feel so . . . sophisticated? Leisured? Socially active? Like my memories of Lady Maud’s father, who often hosted guests (fascinating, varied, intellectual, artistic) to dinner at his family table, and not just on weekends. Like I was living the life I meant to have, instead of the one I wound up with!

It also helps that I’ve two nights of entirely adequate sleep in a row. What a difference that makes. Long may it continue.

Falls

This is my 33rd fall.

I am much older than 33, but I grew up in a climate where there are at least a dozen short seasons, not four that (notionally) last three months each, or the two that around here are Winter and Road Construction (or destruction). When I was young, the deciduous trees were generously accompanied by evergreens, both conifers and whatever the term is for trees with leaves that continually shed and re-grow. Fall did see some falling leaves, and leaf-piles to jump in and make crackle; my midwestern-born grandfather might have burned leaves sometimes. But the season was marked more by Back To School, Halloween, and Thanksgiving than by weather or other natural phenomena.

I remember very clearly a few minutes of a fall morning 33 years ago. My penny loafers rapped out a rhythm on a concrete sidewalk as I headed for a bus stop, on my way to a day of classes. I wore a red and black checked skirt my grandmother had made me, in a light woven cotton, over black tights; on top I had on a black silk button-front shirt and a black angora cardigan, and a black beret on my head. The day’s high was forecast to be around 55. There was frost on the grass and on car windshields. Where I came from, frost happened only rarely, in the depths of winter. Fisting my hands in my cotton pockets, I began to get a faint notion of what winter would be like in my new place. I had one wool dress, which I had worn once on a November trip to Chicago. I had a gabardine raincoat with a zip-in wool liner, which had not been warm enough in Chicago even when layered over the wool dress. I had a pair of fur-lined leather gloves given to me by the doctor I once worked for, who had grown up in Philadelphia.

Within a month I had acquired a parka rated to -15 degrees F, a pair of boots that could withstand snow, and a pleated wool skirt that I still have. I would also learn about flannel-lined jeans, waffle-weave long underwear, and properly insulated gloves. I’ve learned to cope. But I still find it hard to move from the season my body recognizes as winter to the sort of winter that afflicts the midwest. Fall seems to be coming late this year, and I hope that doesn’t mean that winter will be vicious when it hits.

The very local news

  • Basement Cat still fights getting pills, but the discussions over venison kibble that eventually lead to agreement to swallow are getting shorter and can be handled by a single human. This is progress.
  • Basement Cat’s health is definitely improving thanks to said pills.
  • Glendower would like to do some negotiating over venison kibble or baby food, and is a little sulky that he is not the only Poor Sick Cat around here.
  • Reina is doing fine. She likes to sit on my desk or my desk chair, and I have to move her to do any work.
  • Cardinals and mourning doves have visited the bird feeder.
  • Earlier this week, I dug more bellflower out of the front yard. Will this never end?
  • Five weeks into the semester, I still haven’t adjusted to getting up before dawn. Will I ever, or am I just going to be perpetually sleep-deprived for the next ten weeks?
  • While minding my own business, or rather Sir John’s (buying a birthday card for his brother), I bought a novel I would like to read. A week later, I still haven’t opened it.
  • We still have the TV coverage of the women’s Vuelta à España on the DVR.
  • I’m not sure what I have been doing that keeps me from reading or watching TV. Cooking, working on dead languages, and driving, probably.
  • Also grading and course prep. I’m teaching lower-level classes and find that students at that level need lots of accountability. Frequent short assignments keep them engaged, so there we are.
  • I have bought two new pair of shoes since the beginning of the semester. Abeo makes shoes that are comfortable for a person with very high arches. I like having both happy feet and cute shoes.

Teaching Statement

Bottom line: people like to make their own mistakes.

Academics probably know what I mean by my title phrase, but I’ll explain it for others: at intervals (applying for jobs, for tenure, for promotion), we have to write about our approaches to, and beliefs about, teaching. For external audiences, it’s useful to hit some buzz-phrases: student-centered, meeting students where they are, scaffolding assignments, bringing research into the classroom. (I have no objection to any of these ideas; depending on what and where you teach, they are all some combination of reasonable/ desirable / necessary. As Jonathan said awhile back, clichés are idiomatic and easily understood, and when writing for administrators, you want to make sure that they know you know what the currently important ideas and techniques are.)

I like teaching. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a significant part of my identity. Or rather, being a professor is significant. I enjoy talking with students about literature, and providing them with techniques for analyzing literature, so that they learn how to see what a writer is doing besides just stringing words together, so that they learn that discussion and writing for literature classes isn’t just a lot of hand-wavy bullshit. As I am a decent literary critic, so also I am a decent critic of other teachers. I don’t mean that I offer everyone feedback, but that I note in my head what people are doing well or ill. Yesterday I was at a dance workshop with a teacher who was an excellent dancer but lousy at conveying in words what he wanted people to do. His main technique was demonstration. I could tell he thought in patterns and movement, but had trouble translating that to language. For me, he was not a good teacher, because that is not how I think.

I have no ambitions to be a dance teacher, or to give instruction in any field other than the one I’m paid for. Sometimes I consider, as a retirement job, teaching English as a foreign language, or tutoring children in math. Such jobs would use the skills I have developed over the course of my professional career, rather than requiring me to pick up new skills. They would give me a place to go, people to talk to, when I am no longer at LRU. But I don’t feel that I need to teach, or that I have any special knowledge or wisdom to pass on. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of people who could teach the topics I do, and many of them would no doubt do it better. I tend to think up-side down, to start at the deep end and work back to the first principles, and most students want to start at the simple end and only gradually complicate matters.

As my grandfather got older, he became more and more taciturn. He figured younger people didn’t want to hear an old man bore on about how things used to be. He did, in fact, have a lot of useful specialized knowledge, some of which he may have passed on to my brothers, about working with wood and metal, about growing food and fixing things. None of this came to me, a girl; if he had any expectations here, it would have been that my grandmother would teach me to sew, knit, tat, embroider. That didn’t happen either. What did get passed on is his taciturnity, his tendency to talk only when asked a question. I consider the classroom a question: when I’m there, I’ll lecture or direct discussion, as necessary. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything special to convey to anyone. My life lessons are just that: mine, for me. Things change, the world moves on; what would have been good advice when I was 25 no longer applies to someone 30-some years younger than I am.

So this post seemed very foreign to me, though I can certainly understand the urge to Do All The Things (and look, I got a whole post of my own out of thinking about it). “I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years . . . and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach . . .” It’s certainly useful to be able to break down processes and think how to do them efficiently, correctly, well. But this observation, from the same post, is more where I sit: “she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes.”

Even if they are the same mistakes, they will be new to her. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and part of building a life. I may well have made some of the same mistakes made by my parents, and my grandparents too. But my reactions to them were mine, and my fixes were made in different circumstances, so it wouldn’t have done any good to have been warned.

To be totally consistent, I would now erase this post. Go do your own thing; there’s no point to reading my meanderings.

The mirror crack’d

The strange thing about my recent trip to my home state was that it didn’t feel like home.

It was beautiful, it was comfortable, if things shake out such that I live there again, that would be fine, but I did not feel the fierce pull of longing that has afflicted me for most of my adult life. I feel like now I can make a rational choice about where I want to live, rather than feeling like I need to get back there.

For years, I felt that I was living in exile (see here, here, and here, for example; I guess now I really mean what I said here). The place I live (where my job is, where Sir John is from) was too flat, too bland, too cold (in winter), too hot and humid (in summer), and too lacking in the kind of flora that I like best. But on this trip back, many of the roads were too narrow and alarmingly twisty, so it seems I’ve adjusted to flat, although the climate and flora were lovely. Some of the people I saw said they could never live with the kind of winter weather I grumble about, and I felt a certain pride that despite my grumbling, I can and do live with it.

Have I spent too long away, and so snapped the thread that stretched back there? Have I finally hardened off to the midwestern climate? I feel free, but this is very strange.