A little peace and quiet

The run-up to Christmas can get strained around here (and how does that make us different from anyone else who celebrates Christmas?). Sir John’s family has birthdays and stuff to celebrate, so there are multiple gatherings. For me, Christmas week is flanked by the anniversaries of two significant deaths, so, in the years since those happened, I tend to want to stay home and be quiet. This year I’ve been better; I even had stirrings of celebratory feelings, such that the Christmas cards we received got lined up on the mantel, and I sent a few of my own.

But just when I’m more cheerful than usual, Sir John’s family suffers a spate of weirdness and re-shuffles itself. Usually the whole clan gets together for all the events. This year, due to Stuff, I thought we were going to have separate gatherings, with the Plain Speakers on one side and the Socially Correct At All Costs on the other. Instead, the Plain Speaker With Feels seceded from all the rest of us, and since Sir John didn’t feel like losing his whole family, we spent Christmas Eve with the Socially Correct chunk of the family. It was much quieter than usual, but at least we didn’t have to talk about feelings.

It was especially quiet for a moment after my mother-in-law mentioned that she’d be spending Christmas afternoon with the one With Feels. We thought that one wanted a year without any of the rest of us, just immediate descendants . . . I’m pretty sure you could have seen the exclamation points hovering over my head and Sir John’s. But we changed the subject and moved on.

So today will at least be normal, since we always spend Christmas quietly at home with the cats, recovering from the week’s uproar. I’ll go to the gym. Sometime after Sir John wakes up, there will be presents. I’ve done stockings from Sandy Claws. I will cook. We’ll read Christmas presents or watch some TV.

I hope that by next year either things will be back to normal or we can go visit my family, who have young ones. It’s more fun wrapping for children than for teenagers, who mainly want gift cards or money. I realized when wrapping our presents that I spent years stockpiling bags for odd-shaped presents, and now I don’t really need them any more!

If you need some peace and quiet today, I hope you get it. And if you’re enjoying a whirlwind of presents and family, more power to you.

Productive procrastination, or Working when Stupid

I’ve been sleeping poorly, again, which makes it difficult to focus during the day.

I know what’s wrong. My wonky ankle has been acting up, so I’m resting it, which means I’m not working out, which means I don’t sleep so well. This will pass. The ankle will improve, and I will work back up to a decent level of cardiovascular exercise, and all shall be well. In the meantime I try to do more yoga and other relaxing things before bed.

Anyway: what to do on a work day when I have stacks of (well, three) articles to revise, and I don’t feel like I can grasp my own arguments, let alone anyone else’s? Answer: write syllabi and plan spring classes. Tired and fuzzy-headed (or, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid) is the perfect state to work on these tasks. When I’m alert and intelligent, I get over-optimistic about wildly creative, innovative ideas that require lots of energy and a clear head to put into practice in the classroom, and I forget that I may not have those attributes on the future days when I will need them. When I’m tired, I recognize that bad days happen, and that it would be a good idea to re-use old assignments (tweaking as appropriate); to omit or re-schedule that reading that always needs Extra Energy and Enthusiasm!!!; and to leave some flex days on which I can either experiment with a new innovative assignment as a low-stakes, in-class activity so that I can work out potential problems with it, or else, if the flex day is a low-energy day, show a relevant movie or You-Tube clips with discussion of same.

Some more alert and intelligent Future Self will have to look over today’s plans to make sure I haven’t done anything really stupid, like putting all the wrong dates on the syllabus or scheduling two separate sets of readings for the same weeks. Even so, today I’ll get something useful done, and my Future Self will be glad to have a chunk of the work at least drafted.

Eight things plus plans, today

Today I have

talked for over 2 hours with a grad school friend whom I have known for 28 years

skipped a yoga class so we could go on talking

eaten lots of carrot muffins

cooked scrambled eggs with spinach, green beans, and tomatoes for brunch

gone for a short walk (it is very cold here, and the sun was very bright and the sky very blue)

attended a Christmas concert

waved the Fevver Toy for Reina

put together dinner.

And now Reina has dragged the Fevver Toy into the kitchen, so I am going to go wave it around some more. She is addicted to that toy. It no longer has any feathers; I think Basement Cat destroyed them when he was her age. It does have tempting, taunting leather strings, however, and she will chase it till she is panting.

I will probably also read some more of my Spanish novel, and possibly do a bit more coloring.

10 things today

Today I did these things:

went to a yoga class

bought a Christmas present

talked on the phone with a friend I haven’t seen since May

made a phone date with another friend

baked carrot muffins

made vegetable curry

sat with Reina on my lap

sat with Basement Cat on my lap

colored in the Secret Garden coloring book

talked with Sir John about math puzzles

 

What is poetry good for?

Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?

 

Friday, fortunately/unfortunately

Fortunately I could sleep till I woke up.

Unfortunately, that was later than I hoped I’d be up.

Fortunately, I have finished writing the final exam I will give next week.

Unfortunately, I have still not finished the R&R I hoped to be done with last month.

Fortunately, now I have some time to work on it.

Unfortunately, if I work on the R&R, I will not get the undergrad papers graded today. Or maybe that’s a “fortunately.”

Fortunately, I can also grade papers tomorrow or Monday.

Unfortunately, I may have to go to campus Monday for one single meeting.

Fortunately, since it is now noon and no agenda has been posted, there is a good chance that that meeting may not happen.

Unfortunately, needing to finish writing the final exam, combined with late rising, means I didn’t go to the yoga class I hoped to attend this morning.

Fortunately, the same teacher gives another class tomorrow.

The War of the Emerald Ash Borer

One chilly autumn afternoon, Sir John and I set out to walk in a bit of urban greenbelt which we haven’t visited in some time. The sky was grey, the trees were bare, the path was covered in dull brown leaves. Since this is an urban area, even when we appeared to be deep in the woods, we could still hear the roar of traffic at a distance, and since even the vines had lost their leaves, we could see houses and their back gardens through a fence. It was all very drab, chilly, and ordinary.

We walked about five miles, looping out on a paved path shared with runners and cyclists, and back on a once-gravelled trail used only by walkers and the occasional horse. When we were about half a mile from the parking lot we’d started from, the trail began to slant downhill, toward a branch of the river, and suddenly the undergrowth was bright green again. We saw a deer grazing, her tail a white flag. We walked on toward a gently arched bridge, passing a white deer skull balanced at the edge of the stream. I said, “You know if we cross that bridge, we’ve had enough signs that we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the middle of the War for the Oaks or the War of the Emerald Ash Borer or something.”

We crossed. We reached a liminal space, where woods, prairie, and houses came together. We met only a mountain biker in a fluorescent vest, accompanied by two black Labradors each wearing a glowing collar, one green, one blue. And then when we were nearly back to our car, another group approached us: a silver-muzzled blond Lab leashed by a silver-haired man, and by his side a woman with an owl’s head . . . .

Things to do

So we have come to live in Bizarro World. There is a rift in the space-time continuum, only half the passengers understand this, the Enterprise is stuck and can’t make it over to bail us out, and Sisko and the Bajorrans are too far away to do anything clever with the wormhole. What now?

Some of the people whose blogs I read regularly are already thinking about how to react: Christine, with a comforting post; Cloud, with a thoughtful one; Fie, with characteristic refusal to quit. And John Scalzi’s worth a look. In The Middle makes a statement I can get behind.

I expect part of the reason I am so stunned is that I am not, in general, a very political person. I tend to cultivate my own garden, focus on the things I can change, ignore the ones I can’t, avoid conflict, political debate, and activism, and just sort of float along, sticking my neck out for nobody, as Rick says in Casablanca. I have only so much energy and only one life, and I like contemplating lilies (if you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily).

Thus, in that lily-contemplating spirit, while I’m going to be looking for ways to help people who help immigrants, I’m also a patron of the fantastic blog Medieval People of Color, because people need to know that the European Middle Ages were not a white supremacist’s fantasy land, and of Pamela Dean, because we’re going to need some more good escapist fiction.

It’s a start.

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I don’t know what to say to my students tomorrow.

My students who are Muslim, mixed-race, American-born black, American-born of Hispanic descent, West-Indies-born immigrants. Those are just the ones I know I will face tomorrow . . . so many other faces of other backgrounds, from other semesters, are in my mind, including a young woman who found out, months before her 21st birthday, that she was illegal, in this country illegally, brought as an infant, which her parents never told her. These students know, better than I do, how racist this country is. I don’t want them to have to comfort me. But I’m not sure I have it in me to be their older, wiser, reassuring professor.

Change activities

Hey, Dame: what are you doing indoors on a gorgeous fall afternoon?Go outside! Don’t hang around reading blogs because you’re too lazy to get up.

I’ve finished a decent writing stint. It would be a good thing to go cram some yard waste into bags, and take the leaves Sir John raked and spread them in the flower beds to be mulch. And if I were not a professor who can always find something to write, read, or prep, and if I were not afflicted with more garden than I actually want (eyes-bigger-than-stomach syndrome is not limited to food), what would I do with myself?

I’m bad about hobbies. I enjoy reading about the Desert Knitter‘s creations, but having made more than a few attempts at handwork, and hanging out with knitters pretty regularly IRL, I’m quite sure needlework is not something I want to pick up. I like jigsaw puzzles. I like going for walks outdoors, and admiring scenery/other people’s gardens. (Just because you like to look at something doesn’t mean you need your own one. Why didn’t I realize that sooner?) I don’t particularly enjoy activities that get my hands dirty or banged up. I enjoy coloring in coloring books for adults, but I don’t seem to spend much time on the one I have, even though I can think of one or two coloring books on different themes that I’d like to acquire. Sometimes I listen to music and think I should do that more often, and then I completely forget to do it for weeks or months. Does waving feather toys for the cats count as a hobby?

Probably my favorite “hobby,” apart from reading, is studying foreign languages, which could also be classified as “professional development,” since languages are a medievalist’s stock in trade. Even if I took up a language that was in no way connected to my research it could probably be useful in teaching or student outreach, somewhere along the line.

So I’m off to tidy the garden, which I have come to think of as a task, much like housework, rather than a hobby, as I once hoped it would be. I’ll enjoy being outside, and doing the clean-up will probably make me all the happier to get back to my computer or a book. I prefer to think of myself as ideally suited to being a professor, rather than as lacking the imagination or initiative to take up hobbies.

 

Job changes

Not mine. That is, every month it seems we’re supposed to be more excellent with less money, but that’s been going on for so long that I don’t think it qualifies as a change.

No, I recently did a little web-stalking of an ex-colleague (I’m beginning to think I should have a separate category for reporting on the results of web-stalking). This person worked with me, oh, maybe ten years ago, and, like me, commuted because of a two-body problem. In this case, there were small children in the mix, combined with the ultimate inability of a partner with a prestigious but not-so-employable Ph.D. to find a suitable permanent academic position.

My colleague quit.

Both partners spent awhile cobbling together jobs, benefits, networking opportunities. These included adjuncting and freelancing and temporary positions involving soft money. And as of a few years ago, both are employed in very responsible positions in the non-profit sector in a very cool West Coast city, the sort of place I’d be glad to live.

But would I want to work my way through five or six jobs, including a period of hustling for freelance work, in order to get there?

Oh hell no.

Possibly if I were younger and more energetic, the calculation would come out differently, but I’m lazy. I like to set it and forget it, in every area possible: marriage, job, finances. I want to live my life, not have to scramble to move up, move on, make the right connections. Long-term readers know I whine a lot about being homesick for the west coast, but I don’t hate where I am. I don’t love it, but it is a decent compromise that lets me lieben und arbeiten at a lower cost of living than in most of the places I’d like to be, which in turn means I can travel to places I like. I love the job security of tenure. Scrambling in Paradise would be a nerve-wracking situation for me.

Maybe if my Ph.D. were in economics or CS or engineering, I’d feel differently about it. However, considering that all my degrees are in areas that made many people ask “And what are you going to do with that?” while I was working on them (“cram my diploma edgewise into the mouth of the next person who asks that” was a response that frequently came to mind), I’m pretty happy to be a professor at LRU, despite the excellence without money scenario. Could the situation be better? Certainly. Could it be worse? Definitely. I’m happy for my former colleague, but glad I don’t wear those shoes.