Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Real Future

So much I've seen lately has been about looking to the future, about not dwelling on the past. About the chimera of general hope in the progress of humanity. I think it's all poppycock. History is integral. And not just THE history, but historical perspective. So many people think there is only one past. If we knew the pasts of other cultures better, if we constantly challenged ourselves in search of new perspectives on things we thought we knew, it would only foster greater understanding. After all, real progress is an expansion of knowledge, not a contraction of hope in one feckless direction. The "future"? It's a rhetorical device. Recall Ecclesiastes (1:9-11): "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Looking at history? That IS looking at the future. The real future.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thoughts of a Pawn

There's a glass chess set in the break-room which no one uses. I'm not sure why it is there--possibly because it looks like intelligent people would use it. It sits in the middle of a table stacked with businesslike magazines, never dusty, its pieces haphazardly jumbled. I often amuse myself with taking a turn or two on amongst the improbable arrangement of pieces; originally, this was to see if anyone else felt like playing tag chess, but now it is just because I am sorry for the neglected board. Today, I was surprised to see that my carefully randomized board game had been "fixed." All of the pieces were in their rows on the far sides of the board. Clear glass was on one side; clouded glass on the other. Except the pieces were not in the right places! Some well-meaning organizer had simply put them into neat little rows. The queen was on one end in the pawns' row, and two rooks stood side by side next to her. A pawn stood where the king ought to have been. I felt like crying. It symbolizes, in many ways, all I have learned about the textbook/course production industry since I joined Logos. We're very good at producing neat little packages which look intellectual: in some cases, they actually are. But with the outsourcing of writing, editors without content expertise, and managers intent to organize without understanding the material, there is little here of pedagogy. Anything I write will be hacked to bits; any historical content I advise can be bludgeoned. I am expected to list historical resources, but they are not reviewed. Time and workflow and organization: these are tantamount. This is a business. What else should I have expected?


I put the chess pieces back in their proper places.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Loving Fox

I love my wife. She is awesome and awe-inspiring.

Riboflavin's Complaint

Riboflavin recently complained that I don't blog enough. Always quick to self-justify, I looked back over the blog, and behold! Not a single entry since I started working at Logos. So here, in a nutshell, is what has been eating my life:

First: I have had two colds, each lasting for over a week. Minimal functioning.
Second: Editing deadlines. They eat your soul.
Third: Childcare, shared with the adoring Sparrow and on the weekends, with my parental units. Thorn is a genius, but a demanding genius.
Fourth: Spare time spent freaking out about the cold and knitting scarves for babies. Also editing various writings by Sparrow and Aunt Violet.
Fifth: D&D some weekends, but a lot of travel otherwise. Went to Colonial Williamsburg with Sparrow for our tenth year together.
Sixth: I learned everything there is to know about assessment writing, DOK levels, and multiple-choice options, and wrote "the guide" on the matter for Logos freelancers.
Seventh: Art history, as per my editing deadlines. As far as writing and editing (re-writing) goes, I started with Antiquity and have gotten up to the Quattrocento thus far. Major stops included Mesoamerican archaeology (of course), Byzantium, Gothic illuminations, tempera techniques, 15th century Italian painting from Masaccio to Mantegna, and (currently) 15th century art of France, Germany, and Spain. All of which are fascinating to me. Like the Ghent Altarpiece's Virgin, my twin. Or the perfect breast spheres of Fouquet's Madonna. Dürer's beguiling self-portrait. Masaccio's intense Expulsion. Mantegna's Dead Christ--aaagh, it gives me goosebumps!

The best thing about all this art history is that it has forced me to read a lot of books in order to get my source material. Which means that I'm only two books shy of my 50-books-a-year goal. Once I've gotten to fifty, I promise I'll post the list and my thoughts. After which I can read The Lord of the Rings again without guilt!

Oh, and if you wondered, the election didn't make me bat an eyelash. Lack of a landline and no television made my November wonderfully free of political advertisements. Americans have given no mandate to anyone. They want jobs, and if you start with that racist immigration crap again, Republicans, you will see one of your biggest fans give you the finger. Just balance the budget like good small-government types, pat-pat.

Happy now, Riboflavin?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Weary Metaphors

"Amid a national Republican wave that also washed through conservative Texas"
"Blunt rides Republican wave to victory"
"Toomey at Helm of a Republican Wave"
"Minority candidates ride Republican wave"

And that, my friends, is only a sampling. No doubt the Republican party hopes this election represents a sea-change in American politics, but do we really have to see so many tired references to the sea? Waves upon waves upon waves, crashing onto the shore. It would be one thing if this were the particular phrase picked up by a single news outlet, but this phrase is pervasive. Will history remember this moment as the Republican wave? Or tide? Or, God save us, tsunami? I'd just like to see more variety with our metaphors, because if I have to hear about any more waves, I'm going to need a Dramamine.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Day in the Life: November 2nd -- Election Day

An odd assortment of today's activities:

Frost! My car was encased in it this morning. The trusty weatherman had told me it would be cold, and he'd even hinted at frost, and so I'd planned to spend ten extra minutes outside scraping away the snow-cone fluff. Alas, my extra time was gobbled up by a fruitless search for a tie. My striped shirts are not tie friendly, unfortunately, and so the time was utterly wasted. The drive, however, was not the monotonous traffic jam that the I695 B-more Beltway tends to be on a Tuesday morning around 6:45 am. Election day means that many schools are closed. School closings mean less traffic. Less traffic means that I did get to my office before 7:30 am this morning. And what does that mean? Means I'm happy.

I handed out a bucket of candy to all of my students today. Fox and I are trying very hard to keep to our eating plans. I'm looking to fit into my jeans again. I haven't been able to since Thorn was born. Candy sitting around the house just wasn't conducive to that project. The students were thrilled to get it, and now I can say that I've contributed to a university-spanning sugar high.

Fox and I voted this afternoon. It is only the second time that we've gone down to the polling place together. Last election, Fox voted absentee, and I was alone on the long and ebullient line. This election lacked the same energy as 2008, but the people in the line were dedicated souls. Also the local election staff was kind as can be, and we got in and out in short order.

Tonight I added 2,710 words to the 863 that I wrote yesterday. The dissertation is moving right along. Something on the page every day this month. This is my November.

Lots of meetings tomorrow. Watching elections results until 10:00. I do so love democracy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Foodie Love: October dishes

Reviewing October's Cooking Light.

I have a subscription to Cooking Light magazine, and October's issue came with a must have recipe: Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Sugared Walnuts. Risotto is, without exaggeration, my favorite comfort food. Butternut squash is a close second. The combination of the two compelled me to attempt this recipe, despite the fact that risotto-making is often a time-consuming activity, and time is the commodity that I have least. Still, on a lovely October Wednesday, I settled down to craft this meal for our little family. Thorn cannot have wheat or dairy, and so this recipe (if you disregard the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese) is free of both. I had hoped he'd enjoy it, too. He didn't, but Fox and I did. It was very easy to prepare, and if you've got the time, I highly recommend it. There is nothing like biting into the smooth and creamy risotto, except doing so and finding a crunchy, warm and sugary walnut!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sparrow's Work

I find it easier to talk about my work now. For years I would demure, I would deny, and I would shuffle aside what I was doing, or how much of it I'd done. Since the beginning of my graduate career, I've kept much of my work a secret. I did this not out of some misplaced notion of privacy, but out of fear. Fear, not that someone would steal my ideas, but of ridicule.

Fatherhood has done many good things for me. One such thing was to make me less concerned about ridicule. I should have put aside my adolescent worries years ago, but only becoming someone's dad forced the realization. There are things that I need to finish. There is work that I need to do. So, in light of this transformation, it is time to write about my work here.

I am currently involved in three research projects. One is my dissertation, the second is a work that I hope will become an article on Martial's poetry, and the third is an examination of the strange marriages mentioned by several of our surviving texts. The first and second projects are well under way, but the third is floating in a preliminary "wait-until-later" stage.

My dissertation, which remains untitled, concerns children in Roman antiquity. I decided, while reading Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria, that the elements of elementary education present in the late Julio-Claudian and early Flavian periods had not received the type of attention they deserved. Extensive work has been done on elementary education's role in creating the adult orator, specifically on the what of education. I am more interested in the how. I want to understand the pedagogical methods that Quintilian and other instructors relied upon to teach their students. I want to understand this not because my dissertation focuses on pedagogues and pedagogy, but because understanding these topics provides a window into adult understandings of children's minds and imaginations. We cannot directly study the minds and imaginations of ancient children. They left behind very little, and almost none of it psychologically revealing. We can, however, study the minds and imaginations of the adults for whom the education of children was important. I hope that by engaging with such individuals, like Quintilian, a better picture of the Roman child can be achieved, one that takes into account their intellectual capacities and the creative impulses.

My second project concerns the poetry of Martial. While attending a seminar on ekphrasis in ancient poetry (both Greek and Latin), I was struck by Martial's use of it. Some famous examples deal with a variety of art objects that Martial enlivens through brief, epigrammatic ekphrases. My project ignores those famous examples, as they have already received a decent survey by scholars. Instead, I've focused on a series of poems, among the lengthier of Martial's tidbits, which describe, in sometimes vivid detail, various topographical features. I've limited my sample to those works that Martial wrote during his time away from Rome (he left for Spain), and which deal directly with the empire's capital. These topographical ekphrases, a term used by some scholars, though none associated with antiquity as far as I am aware, describe Rome's streets, her statues, her buildings, and treat the city as a canvas, a static art object that Martial's mind has memorized. His memory of Rome permits him to send his little book (libellus) down through what he hopes are still familiar streets. As the book goes, so does the reader, living and walking through Martial's imagined Rome. I hope to show in this work that Martial's use of these elements resembles (perhaps, echoes) his use of more traditional ekphrastic styles.

My third project has not advanced beyond the 'clever idea' stage. During a debate with a faculty member, I was struck by Plutarch's discussion of Cato (the Younger's) marriage. His second marriage, I believe. There is something exceedingly odd about the entire episode, and as of yet I haven't found a scholarly reading of it that satisfies me. Cato has married a much younger woman, whose fecundity is, apparently, a proven fact. A friend of his, who greatly desires children, asks Cato if he would be willing to divorce his wife so that he, the friend, could marry her, have a child, and then return Cato's wife to him (Cato). Actually, the friend first asks for Cato's daughter, but Cato demures, claiming that his daughter's marriage is, in fact, a happy and prosperous one. Cato, however, agrees to the divorce, and his friend is made happy. What does this mean? What does it say about marriage in the late Republic? What does it say about Cato? I find the entire episode bizarre, and as soon as I have the time, I intend to tackle it.

 There, now, in public, are my three projects. Each moves along nicely, and I hope each will eventually see successful completion. Dum spiro, spero.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Loving Thorn

I can scarce remember last September.

Was it cold? Did I have a lot of work?

It was the first September of life with Thorn. I thought, during the long nights and the frantic days, that we had a new status quo, and that life would eventually settle into a new pattern. I was wrong. Life didn't settle, and the status quo kept changing. In fact, it is still changing. What was true yesterday is not true today, and so I'm living in my own personal version of the post-modern universe.

What is truth?

Something I'm daily discovering anew.

Life with Thorn is wondrous. It remains frantic, though not nearly as much as last year. And he is changing. He is bigger, of course. He has more hair. But that doesn't impact as much as the little personality that is rising in him. He isn't saying very much beyond 'dad' (of which I'm still inordinately pleased) and 'dog' (which is now beginning to settle on the correct species rather than all animals), but he understands. He learns quickly. If you show him something, like how to put a block in a slot, or how to turn pages, flip cards, open cans, or stack boxes, he replicates your actions. When left to his own devices, he will eventually figure out how to get through most barriers and locks that bar his way. He will not be contained. He likes certain things now. He loves books, dogs of all sorts, and dancing. He doesn't like having his diaper changed, but who can blame him. He has begun to imagine. Yesterday with Drake, Fox's brother and Thorn's uncle, he pretended to drink from a large, yellow cup. He knew there was no liquid inside, but he still made the slurping sound, still brought the cup to his lips. I know imagination of this sort does not seem remarkable, and in the fact that nearly every human being alive has this capacity it isn't, but to watch it begin -- to watch a child begin to separate and to play with the boundaries of the real and the fantasy is amazing.

Every day I look at our Thorn, and every day he surprises and delights me. What will you do next, my son? What dreams will you weave? What will I teach you? What will you teach me?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Job Updates

Logos has offered me a contract position for ninety days as a writer/editor for an art history course -- the same one I edited as a sample earlier this summer. It's at a lower wage than I normally get for contract editing: with the higher taxes of the self-employed, it'll virtually be minimum wage. But I'll get to use my Mesoamerican history, which is a bonus. It's also superior in its very impermanence: Thorn won't need daycare, I'll still have writing and gym time, and we'll be moveable pending Sparrow's jobhunt next summer. A surprising ending, really, as the second interviewer has still failed to contact me. I can't say I'm impressed with their handling of the interview process, but I'm sure the company will improve upon closer aquaintance. Anyway, that's an end to it.

In other news, I got my first rejection as a writer. The rejection wasn't for "A Judge of Her People," which is still in consideration, but for a second story, "Raj," which was a glorified writing exercise I sent out on a lark. It was a lovely rejection: my wee tale was "beautifully written and has great voice," but was more of a vignette than a story in itself. And I'd totally agree. Overall, it was more of a success than a failure. My next sci-fi, "Commencement," will be sent out sometime this week or next, pending good reviews from my readers. So the pen flows.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Worldedit IV: Usage on a Lower Level

Hanging on the wall of a luckless Baltimore parking garage:

Dear Valued Customers:

Don't be statistic! Remember to place all packages and personal passions out of site in your trunk. Do not leave them in plane view and risk tempting someone to break in to your vehicle.

On behalf of P---- Corporation, thank you fir your patronage.

P-----: Parking at a Higher Level


This should be given to every student who thinks spellcheck is all you need.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Teaching Greece

On Tuesday I embark upon a new experience. I will be teaching, for the very first time, the history of Ancient Greece. I am a Romanist by graduate focus, but perhaps it is time to put aside that restrictive label. The term generalist seems, well, too general. But, I think if it can be applied to one who has an equal passion for Greek and Roman antiquity, then it might be just right after all. In preparing for my first lectures, I have rekindled a long-forgotten passion for Greek things. I am not in threat of becoming a Hellenist, for the Romans and their Empire have too great a hold on my heart, but you cannot deny the sirenic qualities of the Greeks. Linguistically there is much to admire, and Western Art would not be were it not for the Greeks. I think, then, to share my passion, I should provide the readers of this blog with small insights on Greek culture, history, art, and literature. I will hope to post such musings at the end of each week of teaching. I look forward to sharing with you.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

TED Talks: Creativity and Pedagogy

I am fond of Sir Ken Robinson's theories on education and creativity, so I thought I should share.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Wait

A yes or no, Logos, would be sufficient. Particularly after keeping me on the hook all summer, past the registration times of some daycares, making me go to multiple interviews, and getting free editing from me. It's not like you're a top secret organization. Put me in a cubicle and let me get to WORK.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Goodnight Moon

Thorn, our 15-month old (on Saturday), went to bed clutching his copy of Goodnight Moon. He does not have a single toy or doll that he likes to accompany him into the realm of sleep and dreams, but he has never (as far as I'm aware) taken a book to bed before. I'm absolutely delighted. He wants to read every day, although, of course, reading consists in flipping rapidly through as many books as possible, but he loves the tome, he loves the images, and I think he will learn to love the words. My bibliophilic heart is warmed. I look forward so much to the years and the days and the hours that are ahead.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reading Patricia McKillip - A Brief Review

"The lords were due any day, and the house was in a turmoil preparing to receive them. Already their gifts had been arriving for her: a milk-white falcon bred in the wild peaks of Osterland from the Lord of Hel; a brooch like a gold wafer from Map Hwillion, who was too poor to afford such things; a flute of polished wood inlaid with silver, which bore no name, and worried Raederle, since whoever had sent it had known what she would love." --Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip

Scenes scripted so lusciously are what attracts me to Patricia McKillip's writing. I return to her tales again and again. She is one of the few authors who rarely ever disappoints, and yet maintains a prolific publishing schedule that I greatly envy. I was introduced to McKillip's fantasies by Alphabet of Thorns. I stumbled upon it one day at a bookshop. The cover, a dense and alluring painting by Kinuko Craft caught my eye. Yes, I admit, I do judge books by their covers. At least, I do when I am in a bookshop. When presented with so many thousands of bindings, I think it is the only way that I can navigate the selection. After all, a publisher, a marketing division, and sometimes (if very lucky) the author herself has made a deliberate choice in how the book will appear. If the marketing does not appeal to me, I will generally pass by. This process can be curtailed, however, if I am struck by the title. I love good titles, and I couldn't resist one like Alphabet of Thorns. So, I picked it up. I read the first page. I was immediately transported to a world where magic flowed freely and language had mystical properties. As a philologist I find magical languages fascinating, and McKillip's language featured very heavily (as one might expect from the title) in that particular book. As was my habit in those days, but thankfully is no longer, I began to purchase every McKillip book I could. Now, upon our shelves at home, I have a large and rather unwieldy stack of her novels. I decided this year that I would invest my fantasy reading in McKillip alone, at least until I'd made a dent in that pile. If you take a moment and look over at our Book List on the right side of the screen, you will see that I have finished four McKillip novels thus far this year, and the quote at the top of this entry is from a fifth that I began last night.

Of the four books that I have recently read, I was most impressed with the very, very short, nearly novella-length, novel: The Changeling Sea. What I am struck so powerfully by is McKillip's ability to blend fantastic elements in a way that is neither clunky nor frivolous. She dips into world mythology, into fantasy-history, and into what seems an infinite well of creativity when it pertains to the workings and workers of magic. I am, as those who know me well will attest, a lover of wizardry and wizards. No one write wizards and their magic better than Patricia McKillip. She has a way with spellcraft that leaves me, for lack of a better term, spellbound. But, there is much more to her writing than that. Her characters are vibrant. Their dialogues are keen, engaging, and never superfluous. Female characters feature boldly in her stories, and are usually actors rather than victims or sidekicks. Alphabet of Thorns for example has two main, powerful, female characters. The Changeling Sea's narrator and protagonist is a young woman, as is the central character in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Concerning the books that I have read this year, only the Riddle-Master of Hed didn't have a central female character. But, alas, that is only one of that particular book's problems. I give my highest recommendation to The Changeling Sea, but would also praise The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. I found both books more than satisfactory. They were truly delightful. The Book of Atrix Wolfe was good, but it suffered from some stagnant passages, and the lengthy and difficult silence of its main female character. Still, I enjoyed it. Riddle-Master of Hed, however, was my first disappointment from McKillip. I am under the impression that it was written early in career, for it lacks the elegance of the works that first caught my attention. I found the language to be puerile, the characters lacking in dimension, and even the beautiful descriptive passages which I think McKillip is a master of to be paltry in comparison to the lushness of works like Alphabet of Thorns. It took me significantly longer to read Riddle-Master than any previous McKillip work. Riddle-Master is also the only trilogy of McKillip's that I am aware of. All of her other books, as far as I know, are stand-alone novels. The sequel to Riddle-Master, Heir of Sea and Fire, which I featured in the paragraph at the top of this entry, has begun with greater potential than its predecessor. I hope it continues to. 


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Buffity Pastrami

There is nothing like a good round of exercise to blast stupid things like bad interviews from your brain. I scooped up Thorn and went to the gym for a few hours; it did me worlds of good. First pilates, which forces you to think about nothing other than your quivering, aching limbs for an hour. Next, the row machine to loosen up, and then weightlifting, which would be my favorite activity if I remembered my MP3 player for once. My gym has a "women's" section, but naturally I shunned it in preference for the fully-equipped, weight-loaded everyone-gym which men frequent. And I was on fire today. Added ten pounds to every machine, and still burned through it like a phoenix with a hundred lives to go. At the end, I was reborn: a sweaty, pulsating mass who didn't give a rat's arse about pencil-pushing, paychecks, or pastrami.

Well, maybe pastrami.

Fox Update

A wise and companionable friend asked why I don't write in this blog often enough. I didn't have a good answer for her, so this means I must write in the blog. And give her an appropriate pseudonym. Shall we call her Riboflavin? Excellent.

Summer has been a busy blooming time for this 'ere rose: I've worked-out, interviewed, and -- most importantly -- written. Physical therapy for Achilles tendonitis just ended: it really worked this time, and I'm keeping up the foot exercises, weight-lifting, and pilates religiously at my gym. In a year, I will have gone from a hobble to running up stairs. Nothing short of a miracle after three years of chronic pain. It also doesn't hurt that all this working out has slimmed me down a bit, too. A bit lower in the poundage, and I think I'll get myself a blue silk sari.

The interviewing I mentioned has all been with the same company, which I'll name Logos to keep it private. I've had two interviews and one editing test so far -- the process has dragged all summer. I can well believe it when economists state that companies are taking their time with new hires. My first interview went swimmingly, but I'm a bit anxious about how the second went. Sure, it was a success in any case because my clothes were made of flaming red womanpower, but in the broader scheme of things, I'm not sure I sold myself particularly well. The woman behind the desk had interviewed several just before me, and she was clearly pressed for time. I may not have sounded it, but I felt like I was screaming, "I'm a people person!" à la Office Space. Oh well. I'll find out next week as to whether I've got a cubicle at Logos, or a dismissive pat on the rump.

At least my real words are working for me. This has been the writing summer of wonder. In just two months, one short story is awaiting acceptance or rejection at a random webzine, one short story is being read by some of my readers, another chapter has been written, and several short stories are emerging from their beginning phase. Creative words clutter my notebooks, my voice recorder, my waking and dreaming thought. I've even revived the old writing group and spread my fire, putting up word exercises and reading others' submissions, not to mention finally tackled the three novels my Aunt Violet sent to me some time ago. A lot of word confidence is spinning around my head, and I want to use it to its fullest before I get my first rejection.

Looking back, I can understand why "beginning phase" sounds rather pathetic. "So what if short stories are in a beginning phase?" you might ask. "That's what, a paragraph?" So let me explain my phases to you. Being the lunatic organizer I am, I have a master list of all stories in progress, color-coded according to phase of writing. The last three phases have to do with publication. There are also the writing and review phases, two and three, respectively. The beginning phase includes early research, which can be enormous, particularly for the science-fiction. It also includes character and world creation. Most importantly, it encompasses only one form of writing: the first sentence. Anything beyond the first sentence --even the title -- is second phase, since a short story tends to flow well for me after that. There's so much pressure to produce a good first sentence that I've had stories sit that way for weeks after everything else is done, waiting for the right set of words to blast it off. So much of writing is sheer work, not inspiration, but that first sentence has to be dynamine. It has to appeal to the curious, suggest questions. It's what makes an editor keep reading. Thus, I'm willing to wait for inspiration. I just got the first sentence to one of the phase-one stories and I'm very excited to finally begin. Onward with the words!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Three Years

Three years isn't a long time, is it?

Sometimes when I think about the prospect of the next three years, I imagine that I have an abundance of time. I see the months ahead, the rolling weeks, and the seemingly interminable days. I see the work -- oh, the work -- that piles like a winter snow, deep and cold.

And then, dear reader, there are times when I see three years, and I realize how often such a trinity has passed in my life. For example, I'm entering my seventh year of graduate school. That means I've gone through two three-year periods. It didn't seem all that long. In fact, it felt as if it rushed by. The last seven years have been a whirlwind to me. A lovely whirlwind. Well, generally lovely. There were, as there always are, bumps and twists along the way, but the views were marvelous and the overall impression was excellent.

Why am I going on and on about three years?

Very dear friends of ours have moved away. We expect them to return to Maryland (or nearby) in three years. I'm beginning a countdown. I've had many friends move away. I, myself, moved away from home a decade ago. People move. Sometimes you know that they will never return to live near you, and so you make the best of it. But, when you know someone is going to be coming back -- you cannot help but wait. And so, dear reader, I wait.

I hope the next three years goes by quickly.

My friends (so newly departed), return to us soon and in good health. We miss you. We love you.  

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Writing and Grading Writing

The title of this blog suggests the subject, but I should nuance my purpose. I assign my students work that requires them to write. Sometimes this writing is short -- one or two pages in length. Sometimes it is considerably longer. I assign writing projects because I believe strongly that students should have to articulate their ideas, and that reading assignments often deserve deeper attention than they usually receive in class. My problem comes not with assigning this sort of writing, but with grading it. I am never certain how I should evaluate another person's writing. Generally, I tend to look to see if the student has answered my question (or questions) to my satisfaction. If he or she has done so, then I give them a good grade. If they haven't, then I don't. I have noticed, however, as I teach more often, and as I assign more and more writing work to my classes, that more than a few people lack even rudimentary skill when it comes to writing an essay. My question is often repeated back at me a dozen times within a single page. Theses are obscure or non-existent. Spelling is terrible, and proof-reading has been shoddy if present at all. I don't expect perfect essays. I don't write perfect essays. I make mistakes. I rush through things at times, but when you need to turn in an assignment to your professor, then, at the very least, it should be read aloud once or twice. So many mistakes could be prevented if people would just read aloud their work. I think that I will have to consider ways to instruct people on writing techniques. I want students to leave my class, not only more aware of the topic that I teach, but also better able to articulate their thoughts. I think that if you leave college able to do nothing else but explain your thoughts and analyze something you've read, then you can consider yourself accomplished. The problem is -- how to do it? As I think, I'll write more. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Seeking Truth

Quod est veritas?

What is truth?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus this question in John's Gospel.

Since the publication of that particular book in the first century A.D., the question has resonated. Everywhere we turn we hear about professors, authors, journalists, doctors, priests, ministers, and mentalists asking the question and providing answers. Few of these answers satisfy.

The search for truth is a perennial one for humanity. But what does truth mean for the historian?

I ask that question because historian is my profession. What is truth for me? And what role does it play in my work?

First, I think it is important to say that most modern historians do not seek truth. Our sources, the documents and objects that we study, do not permit us to say that something is certainly, or absolutely true.

We acknowledge that truth is often subjective. This is not to say that we cannot make an argument, or that we cannot answer a question with any accuracy. We can. Historians work by amassing information, analyzing that information, sometimes synthesizing that information, and then providing conclusions based on reasonable and defensible theoretical principles. We are often proven wrong. Inevitably someone arises with a better theory, or a more organized method of research, or, very luckily (in ancient history) has found a new source that previous scholars did not have the benefit to use.

Students in history courses are often appalled at the lack of knowledge that we have. They do not always see that the mass of knowledge that we have is the more shocking feature. Not knowing something is the default. It is what we know that makes our profession possible. But it is not a search for truth. Not the abstract ideal anyway. We search instead for a measure of accuracy. All of our information is weighed upon the scale of accuracy. Do we judge it to be more or less believable? All historians should be skeptics. Like the magicians who debunk the psychics and the mentalists, historians must wade through lies, deceptions, and faulty minds.

I often conduct an exercise with my students. I take a fragment of a document. I put it on the screen in a PowerPoint presentation. We read it together. Then, when they have internalized it a bit, I ask them a series of questions: If this document were the only one of its kinds, the only source we had from a particular point in antiquity, what could we tell from it? How much can we trust it?

It isn't always a fruitful exercise. Some students are more imaginative than others. It is, however, always an interesting procedure. For only in that exercise can the non-historian begin to imagine what the historian is up against. Fragments are our life's work sometimes. History, as a process, has not been kind to documentation. We have so little to work with sometimes that we are left with only our speculations. We must be good guessers sometimes, and my students always laugh when I tell them that, but it is true. We guess. A lot. We have to. We simply lack the data to do more. But, that doesn't mean that our guesses are inaccurate, because we always base them on the information we have.

History is a wonderful mystery. I know that sounds a bit trite, but I believe it captures the essence of our work. We are all hierophants, those of us who deal in the past, doing what we can to reveal the important things, the sacred and secret things that time has hidden from us.

I suppose, in the end, it is a kind of truth-seeking. While we know we will never find the truth, as such, we believe, and we work, to reveal as close a semblance to it as we can.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Car Machinations

I took my 1998 Oldsmobile Achieva to JiffyLube this morning. Mine was the only car in the shop, so I didn't have to wait long for the service folks to come with explanations. Having any work done on my automobile is always an experience for me. I'm woefully ignorant of automotive matters. I do not know how a car is put together, and I barely understand how to open the hood, pop the trunk, or fill the car with gas. When most of my friends were learning to drive, I was practicing the skillful art of getting someone else to drive me wherever I had to go. So, when I need to stand in front of the Jiffy technician, I am, understandably, nervous. He begins to rattle off various parts of cars, and I find myself quickly overwhelmed. I do not know which valves do what, which fluids are important where or in what quantities, and I certainly don't know if the prices listed for the variety of services are fair.

This has led me to wonder about the other technologies that I use that I know nothing about. I find that I am remarkably ignorant of most of my machines. I don't know much about how my computer works, or my television, or my mobile phone. I know how to use all of these devices. I would, in fact, consider myself well-versed in their various applications. This ignorance of mine, I'm fairly certain, isn't limited to me. I doubt if most of us know how our machines work. And what does that say about us? What does it mean that we use devices every day that we don't have any idea how they function? I don't think this spells doom for the human race. Many a science fiction author has toyed with the idea that our ignorance of machines will one day destroy us. I'm not convinced. Most of us don't even know how our own bodies work (I point to the chi-wielding faith healers as a prime example), and we get around just fine. Still, I am disconcerted by my own lack of knowledge, and I think I should spend some time learning about how my machines work.

Does anyone know a good primer in learning about a car's operation? I'm looking for something brief and articulate. I'll move on to my computer and my mobile phone next.   

Monday, July 26, 2010

Creating Vera: Lord Night

I am, rather haphazardly, designing a new fantasy-themed world. "World-building" is a hobby of mine, and one that I begin a great deal better than I end. I don't normally share many creative ideas in my blogs, but I think that is more tragedy than benefit. I am all about benefits these days, as I continue in my quest to get my life on the right set of tracks.

The world is known as Vera. This is a nod to Latin, of course, and the idea of truth. For me, Vera is the true world, the center of an entire creative (and created) universe. I am overly fond of wizards, sorcerers, and the magical arts. Thus, Vera is heavily populated with arcane individuals and their equally arcane sentiments. Many of these mystics dwell in a floating city called Aeralunde. Since, however, I'm teaching a course on Greek Mythology this summer, I have had gods and goddesses on the brain. Today's entry is a part of my rumination on the divine.

Subject: Night (celestial divinity; male aspect)

Lord Night is one of the four creative deities of Vera. By creative I mean that his origin was spontaneous, and that he himself is a creative power. He has fathered gods and mortals, and through him aspects of nature and society have come into being. In religious iconography he is never depicted with a face. His body (as a statue) is divinely masculine, although it can sometimes be androgynous. Statues of Night always wear masks. The masks are often elaborate, but during the Fast of the New Moon, a simple, ebony mask is chosen -- the eyes closed, the lips barely smiling. Lord Night is wed to Lady Moon, but their marriage is an unhappy one. Lady Moon did not wish to marry anyone, but Lord Night demanded her hand from Mother Sun -- otherwise he would cease to honor their agreement to keep the days bright and the nights dark. Lady Moon became Lord Night's wife, but she is only bound to his demesne on the night of the New Moon. At all other times, she has freedom. Lord Night can be cruel He is always capricious. He has been known to work kindly, but this has more to do with his whimsy than with any compassion on his part. The night of the New Moon is his monthly celebration and sacrifices to him are made in Aeralunde and across Vera.

Lord Night has many servants, and even more children. His chief servants are the Varja--shadowy beings who act as messengers of Night's will. The Varja usually appear to those who have attended upon Night's mysteries. These initiates will then interpret the will of Night to their acolytes and the city at-large. Night's temple is one of the largest in Aeralunde, smaller only than the Mother's and the Lady's. His mysteries are experienced by many, but very few initiates have ever claimed to receive the word of the Varja. Less benign than the Varja are the demons, said to have risen from Night's anger at Lady Moon's rejection of him. Lord Night does little to control these nefarious creatures, and they have insinuated themselves among mortals. Another servant of Lord Night is actually the chief messenger of Lady Moon, an enigmatic being known as Lynx. Lynx serves Lord Night on the Night of the New Moon, performing tasks that are too complicated for the Varja. Lynx is not believed to enjoy this service, but since his mistress is Night's wife, he has little choice in the matter. Lynx is a jovial fellow, who appears, much like Lord Night, in dapper dress that is only slightly old-fashioned.

That is good for now. A very basic introduction. I will continue to work on Night, the Varja, Lynx, and my demons (who need a better name) in the coming months. Comment and let me know what you think.    

Friday, July 23, 2010

Like Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, you know.

I had a charming ride on the Hopkins shuttle this afternoon. Unlike the ride to campus this morning, which was on a school bus, the ride home was in a lovely, temperature controlled vehicle that smoothly took me from Homewood's green expanse to the subterranean origin of the Baltimore subway. While on the shuttle, I also had the occasion to overhear a conversation that, I think, can only occur near or in a modern university setting.

Directly behind me on the shuttle, a young gentleman and a lady were having a conversation. Their conversation was about a particular TA that the gentleman had, who, while working in one of our foreign language departments was actually a philosopher, and whose book is soon to be published. The TA's book looked, as far as I can tell from my eavesdropping, at the relationship between Heidegger's work and Japanese aesthetics. But that is not the point of my blog entry. No, I am interested, rather, in how the young man and woman were speaking to one another about this topic. It was obviously a topic that the young man found very interesting, and I sensed that young woman was also versed, if not as interested, in matters Teutonic and philosophical. Their discourse, however, consisted of very comprehensible statements about Heidegger, Japanese aesthetics, and Wittgenstein, and a garbled series of "likes" and "you knows", which I took to indicate nervousness from both parties.

I know that "likes" and "you knows" are verbal placeholders, akin to "ums" and "ehs" which we use when we aren't certain what we would like to say. What struck me is that these phrases so often are equated with low intelligence. The individuals behind me could not be said to be of low intelligence. In fact, I would say that they were quite the opposite, being, as they were, able to ruminate meaningfully on German philosophers and their potential intersections with Japanese culture.

So, what is my point?

My point is that I wonder how we can inspire young people, who have accepted the verbal cues of their age, to be more confident in their intellectual abilities, particularly in their ability to articulate those ideas to another person. How, in fact, do we foster the ability to articulate ideas among our students? I would want to see both the young man and the young woman lose much of their nervousness, and be willing (and to let their word choices indicate this willingness) to articulate ideas meaningfully and clearly. We haven't lost intellectual ability since the advent of the Internet, or Twitter, or whatever bugbear is currently en vogue. What we have reduced, however, is the training of students to speak their ideas clearly, and to be confident about their own intelligence. This is something that needs correction.

Well, for an entry that cries out for clarity in speech, this wasn't precisely as clear as I would have liked, but I begin with it. What is a blog if not a place where ideas start, where we can ruminate freely, where the practice of writing can lead to writing as art.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pedagogical Difficulties

Discussion is an essential part of the learning experience. It permits a closer analysis of material, and it encourages the types of debates which can crystallize ideas. The value of discussion in the classroom, I believe, is without question, and yet, it is something that simply does not appeal to many of the students I teach. I cannot perceive if it is because of embarrassment, or if the students have not read the material (this has been a problem in a recent course of mine), or if there is some other underlying distaste of discussion as a tool for learning.

I do not want to believe in the Wikification of learning, where people only care about the acquisition of facts (such as they are), and not about the application of understanding or the deeper analysis of ideas. I recognize that many of my students are more comfortable in the simpler lecture-style portion of my courses than in the discussion element. I know from colleagues that have attempted discussion-based learning before that they have switched over to entirely lecture-based courses. They, too, have noticed my difficulty. If they hadn't, I would have assumed that the problem rested squarely in me, and then I would have tried various personal methods to correct it.

I am, however, convinced that this is a deeper problem, and it requires a new evaluation of how to use and introduce discussion-based elements into the classroom. At this stage of the game, I can only introduce that there is a problem-- Discussion is difficult in class, and students do not profit from it as they should. Thus, a solution must be found (and it will probably be an evolving one) that permits students a more fruitful engagement with discussion-based elements, and that returns the discussion portion of a class to better levels of activity.

As the summer semester winds down, I will begin to post some of the ideas that I have concerning various methods. When I get the opportunity to test these methods, I will post my results. If any of you, whoever you are, have any insights, I would be pleased to hear about them, and look forward to your comments.  

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hierarchies

There are many days when being a graduate student feels just like being a member of the faculty. You teach classes. You grade students. You go to meetings. You sit on committees. You research. You write. You meet with colleagues. In each of these ways there is no discernible difference between the one life and the other, save that faculty get paid considerably more. Inevitably, however, someone or something returns you to reality, you are dashed out of your happy illusion, and you run smack into the existence of the hierarchy. This happened to me today, and in order to have catharsis, I intend to write about it.

Gilman Hall is the center piece of Hopkins' Homewood campus. It is the heart of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, though there are never any sciences present in Gilman. No, that lovely building serves as the home of the school's various humanities departments. In the new Gilman, that is the Gilman post-70 million dollar renovation, three of those departments share space. Specifically, the graduate students of the three departments share a lounge and a workspace room. While seated in the lounge this afternoon, I overheard a conversation between a member of our faculty and an administrator from another department. You see, the issue at hand was the large and lovely pantry (complete with fridge, cabinets, microwave, and sink station), which is a wonderful feature of the new Gilman. Alas, I heard, and had later confirmed, that this lovely space was for faculty and staff only. Graduate students were forbidden to use it. The tone of voice of the speaker made it incredibly clear that a hierarchy did exist, and we didn't measure up to the ability to use the "big people" pantry. Instead we have a destitute little unit of our own.

Ah, graduate life. The sooner you are over, the better.

Time to research.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Malfunctions

I had occasion to be in Lancaster, Pennsylvania this morning. One of the doctors that I see keeps his practice in that city, and so I make the trek once (or sometimes twice) a month, generally enjoying the ride up I-83, which is relatively scenic. This is especially true on bright, clear days, when various river valleys and woods are available for the eye to see. Unfortunately, today was not one of those days. The rain, which was much needed and appreciated, was coming down in proverbial buckets. This not only (of course) made the roads slick, but it also obscured the lovely vistas that help to make the ride to Lancaster a pleasant one.

My Oldsmobile Achieva, nicknamed Bessy, chugged merrily along all the way to Lancaster without trouble, fending off the rain droplets with a slightly squeaky swish-swish of my windshield wipers. Bessy also managed to get me all the way back across the Maryland border before something went wrong. Just as the rain was increasing, my right wiper, the one directly in the face of the front passenger, began to malfunction. It started to swing too far to the right, and then kept getting stuck in the down position. I still had my driver-side wiper, and so I didn't worry (immediately) about it. I had another appointment at Hopkins, and so I didn't have time to pull over and figure out (hah!) how to fix it. As I approached Hopkins, with the rain beginning to lessen, the right wiper suddenly flared to maniacal life. It swung all the way across my windshield, striking my working wiper, and entangling with it. This caused me to shout and plead with the wipers to stop their terrifying death dance. I did manage to get them to stop swinging, but now both wipers are bound to the down position.

I guess I know where I'll be tomorrow.

Oh, Bessy, what will I do with you...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How We Decide - a Review


I read a lot. Not every book that I read deserves a review. Some books are just too light, to uneventful, too prosaic to bother adding my opinion to the public records of the Internet. Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide, is not one of those.

How We Decide is an succinct examination of how brain structure and chemistry impact the decisions that we make. This book has changed the way I think about my own mind, and it has made me highly aware of my decision-making process. A few weeks ago I wrote about decision-making as it applied to food in my life. This is only one aspect of how Lehrer's book has affected my life.

I am a consummate procrastinator. I wait until the last minute to do just about everything. This has, in recent years, caused me no small amount of stress and aggravation. For years I have tried to break the ingrained habits created by years of putting things off. I have been mostly unsuccessful. In the past few weeks, however, and much of it due to Lehrer's book, I have begun to take stock of the decisions that I make and the reasons behind them. A particular section of How We Decide deals with the brain's love of instant rewards. Thus, Lehrer argues, we turn to those things that give us "immediate" benefit. Here is the example he used:

A psychologist gathered together some children. Each child was placed in a room, and provided a single marshmallow. The psychologist then told the children that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited for him to return before doing so, they would get a second one. Now, who doesn't want two marshmallows. Most of the children, however, failed to wait. They were unable to control their impulses, those brain desires that demand immediate satisfaction.

I realized, after reading this part of the book, that I was living a life demanding immediate satisfaction instead of waiting for my second marshmallow. I want the greater rewards. I want the things that will be more satisfying. Putting off work, so that I can watch a funny video on YouTube means that I get instant gratification, but it is short lived. Soon I must contend with the fact that my work is not done, and by that time I have even less of a chance to do it. I am no longer putting off my work, or my projects because something fun and trivial raises its head. I will focus on my decisions. I will decide, not my impulses.

Of course, this is only a small part of what Lehrer argues, but he can tell you much better than I can. I give his book How We Decide my highest praise, and I think everyone who has an interest in how the human mind works should give this book a go.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Managing Your Time

Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University until he died of complications arising from pancreatic cancer. While watching TED videos on YouTube this weekend, I stumbled upon his lecture (from 2008) on time management. It was presented to an audience at the University of Virginia, where Pausch was a professor throughout most of the '90s. I've included the video below, but be aware that it clocks in at just over an hour. I cannot, however, recommend it highly enough. I have a problem with time. Most people have a problem with time. We don't treat time as the precious commodity it is. We squander hours in a way that we would never squander dollars. Randy Pausch speaks wittily and wisely in this lecture about the need to determine for ourselves what is really important. Only when we can decide what is important can we begin to prioritize our lives, and when our lives are thus organized we will stop wasting so much of them on things that are patently not-important to us. I do not have pancreatic cancer, and I have a reasonable hope that I will be alive for many years to come. But I don't want to waste any of the years I have.  I'm taking Randy Pausch's advice to heart, and I suggest you do the same.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Joys of Walking the Stacks

I get a visceral thrill from wandering the stacks in a library. First, there is the famous (or infamous) library smell, the scent of millions of pages slowly aging between their various bindings. Second, there is nothing quite like going to search for a book, and then seeing the book next to it, and the one next to it, and the one next to it. Related to one another, and yet potentially very different, the wanderer in the stacks can make connections between texts that the Internet searcher cannot. This is what I hope will become available for e-books. When we walk through an e-book library, I want the same random feeling that comes from walking down a library corridor. I want to be able to look at the shelf above and the shelf below and make the mental connections between texts that a computer cannot.* Today I began in a section of the library devoted to family studies and then continued to walk two or three shelves down, and I found myself in a section devoted specifically to the raising and training of children. I know that libraries are not randomly organized, and that this procedure I love first requires categories to be established, and so I understand that I a significant amount of order has been applied to chaos, but there is still nothing like simply turning around from one side of the stacks to another and seeing what is on the other side.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Making Decisions

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide opens a window onto the inner workings of the human mind. I have always had an interest in the intersections between brain chemistry and cognition, and Lehrer's work answers so many of my questions. In the very briefest of nutshells -- dopamine and the prefrontal cortex work together (or in opposition) and thus our decisions are made. Lehrer takes gambling, credit cards, and the stock market to task, since all three play upon logical failings within the mind. His work has forced me to take a sterner look at why I make the choices that I do.

Example:

I have for several weeks been attempting to eat better, to choose foods that are of better quality, more likely to end my hunger, and best for me and my personal longevity. But, if I fail to eat a proper breakfast, one that has enough staying power to last me until lunch, and I find myself near the coffee counter in the library, all of those muffins, which I know to be both bad for me and bad tasting, call my name. This is my prefrontal cortex demanding a sugar spike. It has lost the energy it had from breakfast, and you know what, when your mind is focused on writing, or reading a complicated text, and it is faced with the possibility of an easy sugar fix -- it will take the easy fix. Before I know it I'm munching unhappily on an icky-muffin, ruining my meal plan, and leaving my wholly unsatisfied with my choices. Boom.

The lesson I take from this? Willpower needs help. In any specific moment our minds can fail us. We can be misled by quick numbers, or by the need for a shot of sugar. Getting ourselves to make better choices takes care and careful planning. Breakfast needs to be more substantial, and better mid-morning snacks need to be made readily available so that the icky-muffin doesn't present so tempting an option.

Thank you, Jonah Lehrer, for making me understand my own mind a little better.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Grandfather - R.I.P. April 18, 1930 - June 30, 2010

Sometimes people get better. Sometimes they don't, and we have to say goodbye. We said goodbye to my grandfather a week ago Wednesday. I flew down to Florida earlier on the same day. Little Thorn was in tow. I saw grandpa alive, one last time, but he barely looked like the man I have known all my life. Thin, pained, his breathing shallow, my grandpa, once so vigorous, so engaged, waited for his body to admit defeat. It is not something I think he did easily. Death has knocked on my grandpa's door more than once in his eighty years of life. But, in the end, we all die. Avoidance is temporary. Eighty years is long. One hundred years still wouldn't have been long enough. Thorn got to say goodbye, too, although he didn't know it at the time. There were many tears, though none of them mine. I've said goodbye to two grandpas now, and I still haven't cried. I don't really know why. Everyone else did, even my father. Maybe someday it will hit me, and I will weep. Right now, though, I write.

Grandpa did not want to be buried, and so according to his wishes he was cremated and his ashes spread around the grounds of his Floridian church-home. The funeral service, which I could not attend, I am told was beautiful and fitting for my grandfather. I am glad. There is power in ceremony, in ritual, and funerals can help to close relationships, just as marriages can begin them.

I have also seen the strength of my family through this, and the strength of my grandmother. There were tears, but there was also laughter. Stories were swapped. Tales of sorrow, of joy, of humor, and of foolishness were traded around the tables of my grandmother's small home. Grandpa would have been happy. He will be missed.

All love to you, Grandpa.

Porto, portas, portat.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Grandfather

I had the great fortune to grow up in close proximity to all four of my grandparents. My parents met in High School, and their families lived only a block apart. This situation stayed the same until my father's parents moved to Florida. I think I was nine or ten when they did. My mother's father died in 2005, rather unexpectedly. My father's father is now ailing in his Florida home. I spoke with my mother this morning. She and my father will soon be on a plane to Florida. It doesn't look good. I thought, then, that it would be good, before word comes to me one way or the other, to write about my grandfather.

He loves television. I recall that the largest unit was up on the second floor of their Long Island home, and it dominated their Florida home's living room when they moved there. Sports are the prize shows, especially those featuring New York teams - most particularly the New York Giants. I learned my first curse word from my grandfather, who could often become irritated at his team's progress during a game.

I came to love the water because of him and my grandmother. They had a pool while they lived in New York, and I spent every summer of my remembered childhood there. When they moved to Florida, I was crushed, but they visited often, and we visited often, and there was still swimming, and there were amusement parks, and laughs, and card games, and fun. That is what I remember most about my grandfather -- he was fun. He was light-hearted, full of banter, full of stories. He was warm. We haven't had the chance to speak as much as I would like these past few years. I am busier and less organized than I want, and he was less well. But ours isn't much of a talking relationship, anyway. It was a doing relationship. With grandpa there were things to do. He loves food as much as I do, and movies, and eating out at restaurants. There is a picture I will always treasure from our last visit with him. He is holding Thorn, our son, and I am sitting next to him. Grandfather, grandson, and great-grandson. The oldest and the youngest members of our family together at the same time. It is a beautiful picture. I will tell Thorn all about his great-grandfather, and he will have that picture to know, for it is evident in it, how warm, generous, and loving his great-grandfather was through all his life.

I love you, grandpa, and I hope you pull through. We're praying for you.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Ten Book Challenge

Fox and I own a lot of books. We both had fairly significant individual collections, and in the six years we've been married, we've managed to increase our library by several hundred books a year. We do not, alas, read several hundred books a year, and so we have a growing, ever-growing number of unread books on our shelves. In order to stem the tide, before we are overwhelmed, I have decided to institute the Ten Book Challenge.

I pledge that I will not purchase any new book until I have read at least ten books from my personal library. Books from other libraries do not count, which, you see, makes this challenge rather difficult, as most of my reading is school-library related.

Ten Book Challenge begins now!

Redo

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff." - The Doctor

I don't know if the Doctor is right about time, but his statement certainly can apply to blogs. My last entry, sometime in late April, was all about working, about getting enough courage to start working, to stick working, to keep your head up and soldier on. I didn't really do that. I fell. I wept. I shattered into a million pieces, and now, with June rolling to a sweltering close, I am finally putting myself together again.

I have decided to pick up my own challenge. It is necessary to write every day. Writing must become an addiction. I've tried so hard to make it one, but each time I fall short. Well, folks, I'm starting again. I need to. I can't explain why yet, though I think it has a lot to do with sentiments of self-worth, but I need to try again. I need to get it right. Today is Sunday. It begins my week. Tomorrow, Monday, is the first step in my challenge. We'll see how it goes.

Love to you.

~ Sparrow 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Practice Makes Art

Hello, blank screen.

We meet again.

I'm getting a little tired of these gatherings.

You mock my existence, and I do whatever I can to shatter yours.

It is an odd cycle.

Don't you agree?

---

Blank screens are compelling, are they not? Perhaps not as compelling as empty pieces of paper, but close. Both are awkward in their naked state. Embarrassed, even. A piece of paper with a word or two jotted down upon it is at least fulfilling its purpose. The tree, who gave up its life for the purpose, did not perish vainly. The same is true for word processor screens, save that the trees are safer now. A blank screen is empty, lifeless, devoid of art and substance. Put a word on it, however, and it has purpose. Put a second word next to the first and the blank screen isn't blank. It is actually a remarkably easy process - writing. You think words and then you, well, write them. The trouble comes when you say to yourself that you have chosen the "wrong" words. It is not, however, the words which are wrong, but the writer. Confidence is the chief ingredient. The rest--all the rest--can be acquired after. Skill comes with time and with practice. Writing is an art. All arts require practice.

I've never been good at practice. When I was a boy I wanted to play the piano. I didn't want to practice playing the piano. I wanted to play it. I wanted to sit down at the keys and channel Bach or Mozart. I want music to rise up awesomely from my fingers. When this miracle of talent did not happen, I quickly lost interest. I hated to practice. The monotony of sitting hour after hour, day after day, working my fingers into shape, learning the shapes and distinctions of the musical marks, gaining a sense of rhythm, did not appeal to me. I abandoned the piano. I also abandoned the flute, the clarinet, tap dancing, and solo-singing. Math, too, once it required more work than the most basic algebra, I left behind. Anything that required me to practice, I despised. But now, seated as I am in graduate school, staring my dissertation in the face, I realize that I have long been a coward and a fool. For, you see, I must write, and I must write like I have never written before. And writing requires practice.

I still hate to practice, but now, at least, I know why I do. It was not, as I told myself all those years ago, that the subject just didn't interest me. It was because the subject was hard, and I was afraid to fail. If you don't do something, you don't fail at it. If you try, however, you will probably fail at least some of the time. Your fingers will miss a key, or your eyes will miss a note, or you will miss a step in your equation--and that idea, that concept of failure, was so terrifying that I backed away from it. I have run away from everything that was too hard to do. I have permitted myself to move by innate ability, choosing easy things, playing to my strengths, because when I did that I was less afraid of failure. But now that this vast writing project is before me, I have had to come to terms with my fear. I was afraid to fail, but now, I'm afraid not to.

It is a remarkable shift. I fear not-failing, or rather not-doing, more than I fear failing. I would rather fail, for failing means that I tried. I did something! I am tired of not doing anything, of watching while others do things. I want to write. I want to love writing. I want to foster an addiction to writing. I want to be ill with the idea of not-writing, rather than be ill with the idea of writing and writing poorly. I don't care if I write poorly. I can edit. I don't care if I ramble. I can edit. I don't care if my first ideas don't work. I can revise. I can edit. You see, I'm sure, the same pattern that I do. It shouldn't be the blank screen that is compelling, but the one that is filled with my words. Like Michelangelo with marble, a blank screen should burn to be filled, formatted so that a shape emerges from it: the shape of my work. That is what I intend. That is what I will try to do. I accept that I will fail as often as succeed, but at least now I'm practicing, and I'm bloody happy about it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Food Meme -- and I want answers!

Here is a blank meme, from which I want to see answers from YOU. Gimme a comment with your favorite foods. I'll wield it with efficiency whenever you visit. Mwahahaha!

The Food Meme

In everyone's life, there is the potential for the ultimate day of food: a day wherein all foods are favorites, and all sounds are sounds of delight. So go on: wake up! Today is your lucky day.

It's morning. You're still partially asleep when your significant other holds a cup of _________________ under your nose. Best morning drink EVER.

This is followed shortly thereafter by your favorite breakfast, which is _______________________.

Later, at the gym, you need a quick energy snack. Your favorite is ___________________.

What a productive morning! To celebrate, you buy each of your co-workers your favorite sandwich, _________________, and your favorite cold drink, ________________________.

Hungry again? Well, it IS time for lunch. What do you have? ______________________.

Well-fortified, you easily make it through the rest of the day, to supper. Or is it dinner? A sage over your shoulder quips that "dinner" is whatever the largest meal of the day is, unless it's breakfast. So what do you tell the sage? When is "dinner" for you? ________________________.

Time for supper! And I'm sure you have an ultimate feast in your mind. What is the best supper (or dinner) you could possibly have waiting for you when you get home? ____________________.

And no day is complete without your favorite desert, right? _______________________.

Ahhhh, bliss. As you slide between the covers, your stomach says that no, it isn't quite bliss without that other favorite food -- the one you couldn't fit in before now. You sigh and walk to the kitchen to have some ________________.

Sweet dreams!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fatherhood: The First Hour

Thorn will be a year old at the end of May.

A year ago, when Fox was nearing the end of her pregnancy, when the fateful moment was weeks and not months away, I made a decision. I decided that I would capture the memories of my first year of fatherhood in a special journal, and then I would share the best parts with whoever would listen. I chose a happy blue journal--we knew Thorn was a boy, and so blue seemed only fitting. Affixed to the front was a lacquer turtle, and, because it was cute, it fit with the sentiment of a father's journal about his son. My pen scratched in some small details of the day Thorn was born, but the rest of the journal is bare.

I never understood how much work it was to raise a child. I knew, of course, that it was work, but the time, the hours, the exhaustion…these were things about which I possessed no accurate sense. I have spent a little time beating myself up for not keeping to my original plan. But that type of self-indulgence just doesn't sit well for long. No, there is no point getting upset about work you haven't done. Don't cry over spilled milk. Clean it up. Dear friends, here is the beginning of that process.

---

Thorn entered the world eagerly. Weeks ahead of his due date, he decided to squirm his little body out into the bright light of his first day. Unfortunately, his attempts met with little success. Simply put, his head was too large and Fox's bones too delicate and slender. The most exceptional physician knew what to do, and so Fox and Thorn (still wriggling away, perhaps aware that his moments in the womb were swiftly departing) were ushered off to the nearby operating room. Never before in my life had I observed a crew of people move so quickly and so calmly. I, alas, was anything but calm. C-section. Surgery. They were going to cut open my love, and she was out the door before I had time to get the green frock they'd tossed in my direction over my head. I did manage to get garbed. Many thanks are owed to my mother-in-law, who maintained her serenity when I had lost mine to the rush and the winds. The pants were several sizes too large, and so I had to hold up the ensemble with one hand. For minutes (exceedingly long minutes) I waited just outside the operating room. A nurse eventually arrived to convey me to Fox's side. The operating room was small. A huge curtain had been raised above Fox's midsection. The anesthesiologist sat by her head. His small corner of the room was filled with enormous machines that hissed and whistled as they pumped merrily away at their appointed tasks. Another nurse, or perhaps the same who led me in, provided me a folding chair. I sat down, my legs trembling, my breath short, and my heart pounding. The surgery had already started. I could hear it, though blessedly, I couldn't see it. Fox and I comforted one another as best we could, as the most exceptional physician did her work.

We knew the baby was out before we heard him. There is this terrible and intense moment, when, blinded by the curtain, you cannot see the babe they've pulled from your love. You wait, counting heartbeats, straining to hear a breath, a cry, a squeal, anything to confirm that your child is healthy--that your child is alive. There is a sound that comes first, a strange suctioning sound, and then, finally, you hear the intake of breath and the cry. Loud. Throaty. Indignant. Little Thorn wailed to the world that he had arrived and that he didn't think it was as great as he hoped. No doubt it was too bright, too cold, and too crowded with strange and mysterious folk garbed in sterile greens and blues. Thorn was cleaned, placed in a plastic bed atop a cart, and then wheeled over where we got our first look.

He was thin. His long limbs of bone thrashed about while the nurses measured, poked, and prodded to see if all was well. All was well. I think I cried a little, and I kissed Fox, and she kissed me. We were parents. Here was our child. He was red and distressed. His skin was wrinkled and filmy. And yet, he was beautiful.

The most excellent physician restored Fox's body to its closed state, and then they once more wheeled my love away. I remained behind to stand as a witness to the marking of my child. Hospital rules require that each parent and child receive wrist-bands that indicate you belong together. These bands come off only on the day you take your baby home. Fox needed to be in post-surgical recovery, and so I stood, jittery, dancing from foot to foot, as the nurses took samples of blood from Thorn's foot, and then placed identical tags on each of us. I got my first good look at him. He was well-formed. A strong torso and the lungs to inhabit it extended into four bony limbs that twitched and flailed passionately. He had hematite eyes -- I will never forget them, though now they've gone, replaced by browns and lighter grays. His skin was warm and dry when I touched him. I was not permitted to hold him yet, but I longed to. He was my son. My boy. My firstborn. Together, once he was tagged, diapered, and bundled, we went to find his mother in recovery.

I thought the most stressful time was behind me.

Silly me.

---


More on Fatherhood in a later installment.

Primary Source Hell

There is little worse in the writing world than making bibliographies of eighteenth-century British newspaper clippings. My beloved Chicago simply doesn't have clear enough guidelines for them. I took what otherwise worked and applied it, but there's this nagging feeling that I missed a comma. Or a period. Or a location. Perhaps another level of publisher? Arrrrrgh.

(Thank goodness some of my sources come from this lovely compilation. They aren't precise, but this isn't for a dissertation. And the best part is that Internet sources are so easy to cite.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Writing-Fox

I have never looked at my vixfey Gmail address at this hour in the morning. Apparently, what happens in my fox-themed tea house background is that three ghost foxes get together the garden to play Go. I find this amusing.

What I did not find amusing was last night. I must have leeched the insomnia from my brother, or perhaps from Sparrow, allowing him to sleep (that at least sounds philanthropic). I could not get comfortable. All of the little lights, so small in the bright sunlight of day, got to me. Even when I blocked them with artful stackings of the comforter, my mind raced. I worry, because it always seems to happen when I have things to write. So here I am, trying to write enough to confound my inner writing-fox, as it were.

I call it my writing-fox, not because everything is fox to me, or because my fox-associated best friend always nudges me to write, or even that the muse of our Unseelie Court is Fox, but because of something earlier, read in a fit of poetry. The Thought-Fox, by Ted Hughes. The poem takes place at night, and concerns writing more than anything else. A blank page becomes printed, and it is an effort, but an animal one, as all nighttime efforts are, in part.

I would like to fall prey to a sleep animal, myself, but my writing-fox is quite the insistent one. It isn't passive, as Hughes's fox. And foxes smell, did you know that? As strongly as a ferret or skunk. So while most folk may maintain the mental image of a fox as a sly creature easily eluding hounds, mine is of a skulking Presence who lurks with intentions known, demanding to be found, hard to see, but obviously there. In more than one tradition, foxes went between the spirit world and this one, so why not make a writing-fox usher of inspirative words? Especially at night. At night, when I would rather sleep and let the feathery martlets guide me to dreams with no grounding. But foxes invade the dreams, give me ideas, make me wake up and write them down lest they, with much gleeful yipping, retreat to torment me at a later time. Not all writing-foxes retreat, however. This one planted himself squarely on my chest and stared. I will need a new animal to push them away and guard my sleep, methinks. A ferocious dachshund...?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Shrink-Wrap

Do you ever feel like time is shrink-wrap, conforming to your habits and pushing out your occasional, deviant joys? I don't like having the mere outline of a life. The only thing I can do is to tear at the shrink-wrap, or else make more things habitual.

Writing, for instance. Who says I have to limit myself to the Most Important Matters first? It isn't as though there is a shortage of ink. Writing is positive feedback. The more you write, the more you create an addiction to write. Starting today, I'm tackling all of my backlogged correspondence, my limping blog, and my dusty idea-books. They will be viewed. Written-in. Covered with words in their imperfection. I will not wait until summer to work on sellable fiction. I will feed my sense of wonder until it is a bonfire, until others' firepits spontaneously ignite. Write, my friends, write! Write before you rot!

...and then post something here of your writing. It doesn't have to be more than a phrase. I'm just keeping you honest! Throw a stick onto the fire, eh? It's cold without words.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Good News: Working for about an hour, each taking a half-hour shift, my spouse and I have finally freed one of the cars.
Bad News: We're about to be snowed in again. Significant snow will hit the region (again) sometime between Tuesday and Wednesday. Right now they're predicting 12-18 more inches. On top of the 25-30 we got this weekend.

Good News: Being snowed in has given Sparrow and I time to pack.
Bad News: We've run out of tape, twine, and boxes.

Good News: I've been getting good stuff on cross-dressing marines in the British navy, 1700s.
Bad News: I can't get to the library to pick up books on the subject. Good thing early English newspapers are available via Internet.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cooking with Ellie Krieger

Inspired by the film, Julie/Julia, and, more particularly, by the tale of Julia Child's own trials and triumphs, I have decided to share my love of food and cooking with all of you. The first step was to find the appropriate cookbook. I avoided Julia Child's guide to baking, since, forgive me Julia, I just cannot live with the amounts of butter she was fond of. Since I want this to be a weekly practice, I needed a cookbook that would give me tasty food, but also healthy food.

Ellie Krieger's The Food You Crave fit the bill, and so that is the cookbook I've chosen. This project is not thematic, nor very organized. Each week for as long as it takes, I will cook one recipe out of Ellie Krieger's cookbook. This week it was Roasted Cauliflower with Nutmeg. Astoundingly simple, this recipe only required four ingredients: cauliflower, olive oil, nutmeg, and salt. You sort of just mix it all together and roast it in an oven-safe dish for about an hour at 350°. Ms. Krieger swears that this recipe will turn cauliflower haters into lovers of the white, bush-like vegetable.

I admit that I am a cauliflower hater, and while this was the best tasting cauliflower I've ever had, I'm no convert. Still, Fox loved it, and even Thorn had a small helping. It will return to our table again.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Best of Broadway (IMHO) #1

Because all good things must come to an end. Because not all endings are final. And, because sometimes you have to stand up and say "World, this is my time now." For all that, and because it makes me cry, this song from Gypsy is my number one.

#1: "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy

The Best of Broadway (IMHO) #2

Much subtlety is lost in our hyper, stylized, and glossy media world. There are things to be said about old actors and their ability to bring to life so much with so little. While some modern actors have this talent, and many old actors didn't, I think, if recent trends at the box office are any indication, that subtlety is no longer quite so important. This song is an ode to a fading art. As a classicist, I appreciate this very much.

#2: "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard