Monday, August 29, 2005


For those of us who spend our days among words, it is particularly painful when their inadequacy is so plainly revealed:

one's not half two. It's two are halves of one:
which halves reintegrating,shall occur
no death and any quantity;but than
all numerable mosts the actual more

minds ignorant of stern miraculous
this every truth-beware of heartless them
(given the scalpel,they dissect a kiss;
or,sold the reason,they undream a dream)

one is the song which fiends and angels sing:
all murdering lies by mortals told make two.
Let liars wilt,repaying life they're loaned;
we(by a gift called dying born)must grow

deep in dark least ourselves remembering
love only rides his year.
All lose,whole find

Sunday, August 28, 2005

What do you say, dear?

Today's title is from this book that delighted me no end when I was a child. I adored the combination of preposterous situations and etiquettal precision (and I know that's not a word. Look, people, the reason I got myself a blog was so I could make words up as necessary, instead of being subject to the tyranny of the existing lexicon. Think of me as Shakespeare, minus the actual talent, of course).

Due to the diabolical powers of Google, I have been "found" (in my real-life persona, not as my blogger least, not yet) by an acquaintance from my darkest past. This is not someone whom I had thought of much in the intervening years, because while I suspect there was some torch-carrying going on way back when, I wasn't the one carrying it. This was awkward enough. I don't hide myself, in real life. I have publications under my own name, a utilitarian web listing for my academic work, etc. I'm not averse to being "looked up" by people from my past, although I confess I'm not very interested in the vast majority of people whose paths crossed mine somewhere along the way. Like Emily Dickinson, my soul "selects her own society," and she tends to be a persnickety and capricious sort, who finds most acquaintances beneath her notice. So I was startled when I received an email out of the blue, and a bit dismayed when it was followed by several more contacts from other voices from the past, with whom the intrepid googler was still in contact.

Is it me, or isn't the Googling of people from one's past the kind of thing that, like masturbation, everyone does and so no one actually talks about or admits to? I figured that my late night attempts to find those lost loves, bitter enemies, and remote figures from my past were things never to be spoken of in daylight--not because they were wrong, or particularly peculiar, or shameful, but because they were intensely private and pretty much universal. In other words, I don't have to tell you about my autoerotic life because I expect you to have one too, and we would both find the discussing of it to be awkward, at best. And futile. Because what we then go home to do by ourselves probably wouldn't change much from the reporting of it. Unless, of course, one has something particularly outrageous to report: a new vibrator attachment, position vis a vis the shower head, or the fact that the guy who swore he couldn't live without me did, in fact, perish of love?

But now, I fear, the plot thickens. Even coagulates. The uninvited visitor from my past has now sent me a gift of original work, requesting my magnificently doctoral opinion thereof. This is beyond awkward. For one, the work is of a form I am ill-equipped (and by nature completely disinclined) to enjoy or review favorably. A brief scan has already created the impression that it conforms to all the excesses and inadequacies of its medium. And yet such a "gift" demands a response. Presumably something kind and encouraging. This is precisely the kind of sticky web I seek industriously to avoid. A "genuine" response would probably not be what my correspondent wants to hear. I've found that the notion of "constructive criticism" is an oxymoron to all but a very few of us, and in general, I reserve my critical and analytical powers for those with whom I have deep and reciprocal relationships. I have to care deeply about you and your work to offer suggestions, because at that point, it becomes, in some tiny way, "mine," as do you. This is why I only ask my very dearest friends to read my own work--not because others couldn't offer appropriate advice or perceptions, but because the process of criticism is (or ought to be) so intimate. It requires knowledge about the work and its author that a casual acquaintance simply can't have.

I'm not, of course, making the case that all criticism should be based on intentionality. There are multiple places for "outside" criticism and reviews, as well as impersonal editing. But it still seems to me that the best editor has to give a great deal of attention to the artist and what she is trying to accomplish as well as to the effect of that work on those with whom the artist will never come into contact. Even if the artist and critic never meet, criticism is an intimate affair. This is why teaching can be such a fraught affair. Working with students demands intellectual intimacy from both parties, and falters when one party is resistant or careless with that connection.

So to me, this unrequested "gift" offers a burden of intimacy I simply don't care to return.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Next target for the "Intelligent Design" crowd?

I'm amazed it took so long for some zoo, somewhere, to get around to this. Am I the only one to have noticed that all anthropological and natural science museums have exhibits whose denizens bear a striking resemblance to some guy we all once dated?

Personally, I think that "Survivor" marked a definite step back down the evolutionary ladder. Notice my restraint at saying nothing about the current administration or its more simian-countenanced members.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The loneliest job in the world?

All hyperbole aside, I think that the job of "cancer-spouse" must be one of the loneliest that there is. In addition to all of the heartache, worry, and grief, there's an immense feeling of isolation. I think that isolation comes, in part, from the nature of serious illness itself; no matter how loving, supportive, and helpful one's family and friends are, there is nothing in "normal" life that prepares one to deal with terminal/serious illness. People whose lives are still filled with the "normal" stresses of job, childcare, friendships, social life, family can't possibly (and perhaps shouldn't be able to) understand the daily anguish: the waiting, the watching for something "new," the helplessness of sitting around while the medical system grinds ever so slowly through its cycle of appointment, follow-up, referral, long wait, test, long wait, results, long wait, treatment.

There's also no way to communicate what it's like to have the most important person in your life drift inevitably away from you--from fear, or pain, or pharmacopeia. I never realized how much of "couplehood" is anticipatory; we spend much of our lives planning ahead to the next dinner party, the next movie night, the next vacation, the dream trip once the kids are old enough. Once the illness is serious enough, all of that goes away, for the most part. Plans are all contingent on the progress of the Disease, and every hope for the future is tinged by the real fear that there won't be time for it to come true.

Finally, serious illness is isolating for the sufferer. Most people retreat into themselves when they are in pain, frightened, or heavily sedated. Someone dealing with their own mortality is unlikely to ask "How was your day?" and be able to stay awake to hear the answer. The minor triumphs and setbacks of the "healthy" partner (although that term is misleading; cancer, in particular, has two victims when its host is part of a couple) pale against the life-and-death issues they face in their couplehood.

Scariest of all is the realization that the only way to have the dreadful stress end would be to suffer an even bigger loss. To return to "normal life" would be to lose one's dearest partner and friend, and to enter a new life of even greater loneliness. Because there's a lot to be said for presence. For even five minutes of conversation. For doing the little things to ease the pain and fill the void, and for savoring the fact that at least for today, we are two who are also one.

Right now, I'm thinking of Badger. And of myself. And of our husbands, whose bravery is only occasionally and by necessity surpassed by ours.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Scenes from the mall

Okay, it wasn't actually a "mall"--it was a big-box store. The scene: a lengthy line of bargain hunters, each burdened with jumbo-sized cartons of various household goods, essential and not, winds its way back nearly to the pallets of snack foods reaching toward the sky. The characters: our newly "doctored" Dorcasina and her formerly lovely daughter, now officially a participant in the terrible twos and henceforth to be known as the Holy Hellion.

HH (in a loud, piping voice, futilely called the "outdoor voice" by her benighted parents): "Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Maaaaaa Maaaaaa! Maaaaaa! Maaaaa!"

Dr. D (who is, it will be noted, standing at the cart, within six inches of the HH, wondering what decibel level HH is currently achieving, and hoping to distract her from the incessant shrieking), quietly: "That's DOCTOR Mama, baby!"

HH (at even greater volume and pitch): "YOU"RE NOT A DOCTOR!! YOU'RE NOT A DOCTOR! YOU'RE NOT A DOCTOR! &c."

Can we spell "reality check," people?

Monday, August 22, 2005

silver linings

This is a pretty tiny lining on a pretty ghastly dark cloud, but it appears that blogworld is a mighty generous place. It seems that Academic Coach's fundraising drive to help sustain Badger, Mr. Badger, and Badger Boy through their tragedy has already been successful in providing hospice help. Read the update here and donate (for the first, second, or third time--let's keep this help coming) RIGHT HERE.

We've been incredibly fortunate in our own family story, which is a righteous bitch but nowhere near as sad as Badger's, at least not yet, to have had financial support from our families, an excellent albeit expensive medical plan, and lots of other perks. And you know what? It still sucks. The sorrow, rage, frustration, and grief are all but incomprehensible from the vantage point of "normal" life. Mountains of debt that still didn't begin to provide sufficient care? Heart-wrenching and gut-twisting.

I will be contributing monthly to this fund. I hope others out there will look at their healthy partners and children, and give too. It's both so much, and so little.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Say it isn't so

A school in Vail, Arizona is going to issue students i-Books (with e-books) instead of textbooks this year.

Does it sound codgerly of me (and phooey if "codgerly" isn't a word--it should be, and what good's a PhD if it doesn't entitle one to coin words? I mean, really) to suggest that this might be the final sign of the Apocalypse we've all been anticipating? The final straw on the back of Western Civilization as we have known it?

Lest you think I am a Luddite, pure and simple, please note that I do in fact a) blog; b) have a "professional website" [okay, full disclosure--my husband designed and updates it; I just email him the text files]; c) communicate with my students by email often; d) have experience in "computer-assisted pedagogy."

Okay, so maybe my technological savvy is not genuinely impressive, or even impressively genuine. I still found this article alarming, and not just on the visceral level of a bibliophile and library-phile. I'm still mourning the passing of those massive wooden card catalogues we used to use once upon a time, with their ancient yellowed cards, barely legible typescript from obsolete machines, and their careful notations in the elegant spidery-scrawled script of old-lady librarians long past. I miss the old bulky "Reader's Guides" to periodicals, too. I now do most of my research online first, but I think intellectual culture has lost some of its cultural heft and value with its removal from the realm of the tactile.

But as I was saying, this article alarms me not just in a sensory or material way. Instead, I have more pedagogical concerns. First of all, I am incredibly skeptical about the claim that

[. . .] officials looked at the use of laptops in other schools and decided that high school students were more engaged when using computers. Unlike many adults, teens weaned on digital material seem to have little difficulty adapting to reading primarily on computer screens, Baker said.

I have no doubt that the current generations are more comfortable at a screen than I was, and possibly more comfortable there than they are with books. What I don't buy, however, is the implicit claim that students absorb as much or even more of what they read on-line. As it's developed, I think the internet tends extraordinarily to favor skimming over submerging, scanning over real intellectual engagement. I know that's not true for everyone, of course, but given how my students often struggle to retain material they read, let alone read on line, I worry that this technology just exacerbates the real lack of reading skill among young people. Tell me what you will about the various technologies for "interacting" and "engaging" with the text on the screen--anecdotally, I ain't never seen it happen.

Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, this approach feeds into the student-as-consumer/ citizen-as-consumer mentality that we struggle against in our classrooms daily. This whole idea that the primarily goal of education is to "meet students where they are" and adapt to fit the ideas, technologies, and assumptions already in use is pernicious and, I think, destructive. I'm not anti-progress or anti-technology. I know my students already live in a world and culture very different than the one I grew up in, or even than I live in now. My values and beliefs are vastly different in some ways.

But I firmly believe, too, that my job is not merely to play to my students' strengths. They have lots of those: they are acute visual observers, quick thinkers, inveterate arguers. But the whole notion of education, for me, is predicated on the possibility, even the tendency, toward transformation. Students should come to class expecting not "the same" as what they encounter at the mall, the video-game store, the consumer website, the blog. They should expect to be challenged by information and perhaps technologies that they would not otherwise encounter, that they could not otherwise master, that they could perhaps learn from. I'm afraid that books are becoming one of these "Other" technologies. Already our students code everything they read or encounter in terms of what they call "relatability"--does it speak to me as I am, where I am, and as I currently understand myself? If not, they all too often reject it out of hand.

But books, especially old books, are something outside of their everyday frame of reference. The pleasures of the library must be learned. The intricacies of locating knowledge extend beyond "Googling" an obvious phrase. It seems to me that what these laptops suggest is that everything of value can be found on a computer. To me, that's the most frightening idea of all: That only what has been deemed, by the recent generations savvy enough to have mastered the technology, important enough to be made available through technology, matters. That learning is something you can do solely or even primarily by sitting on your ass waiting for it to appear on your screen. That nothing written by or valued by generations prior to the "technology revolution" is worth the effort of walking to the library, asking the librarian, or digging around. That "Important" knowledge is technical, and never to be found on yellowed pages in dusty stacks on a shelf untouched for the past 15 years.

Their spokesman claims that
"We're not trying to eliminate books [. . . .] We love books."

But at best, won't their plans prevent students from learning to feel that love?

Who am I?

I guess I chose the right profession, anyway. Good to know with classes looming...

ENFJ - "Persuader". Outstanding leader of groups. Can be aggressive at helping others to be the best that they can be. 2.5% of total population.
Free Jung Personality Test (similar to Myers-Briggs/MBTI)

Gotta love that "aggressive at helping others..." Yep. That pretty much explains my tough-love pedagogical approach. Found over at ABD Mom's. Note to ABDMom: I haven't been able to post many replies these days, since I am Without Childcare, but I'm still out here and thinking about you!

Now, what are you doing reading about ME? Get on over and Help Badger.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The kindness of strangers

It's amazing to me how 'real' this virtual community of bloggers is. I'd been thinking a lot these past few days about all the great ABD folks' websites I seemed to find just as I completed my degree (except ABDMom's--she and I have been in this together for a while now). Those of you who are observant should notice a slew of new links (well, a small slew)--mostly to cool, interesting dissertators and other academics. If I'd know about all these blogs before, I suspect I would have felt less miserable and less alone these past few years. Even now, I definitely feel more "AB" than "Ph" D, so I'm reveling in the (painful, at times) camaraderie I wish I had found sooner.

I mentioned Dr. B's recent airfare fundraising bit of goodwill to my husband, who was suitably impressed by the generosity and connection among those in blogland (something he knows well, as the original blogger in our family, and the more widely-read, internet-wise). And when I told him about this site, an effort by Academic Coach to raise funds to assist an ABD and her family, he just shook his head in pleased bemusement, and we shared a "people are great" smile. It's a small, good thing among days that have felt more like "life is cruel."

Recently I wrote, in the context of a complaint about my own husband's battle with cancer, about how lucky I am: lucky to have my husband around when so many people thought he wouldn't be, lucky to have been able to adopt the most amazing little girl in the world, and especially lucky, these days, to have decent health insurance so that our family is not in the dreadful plight that Badger's is. Her story, as you can imagine, has touched me deeply, and the outrage I feel at the "medical establishment" (and the administrations, past and present, who have helped to precipitate this mess) is immense, unspeakable. I know all too well how awful the cancer thing can be; having the sorrow along with the financial anxieties Badger faces is unimaginable to me.

We can't really do much about the sorrow, the grief, the anger, and the suffering--those are inevitable. We can do something to chip away at the mountain of debt, and to clear away some of the clouds of isolation, loneliness, and fear that this disease always carries in its wake.

One more time: here's the link to donate. I myself was recently the beneficiary of some incredible generosity from a fellow blogger; here's my chance to do the same.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Second-rate regional redux

Those of you just joining our saga need to know that our gentle and delicate heroine has been forced, by the exigencies of the tenure line, to relocate from the unfortunately-acronymed Cool Urban Metropolis to the nearby Second-Rate Regional City down the road. She recently recounted for her gentle readers the tragic tale of an encounter with Bad Chai, which engendered paroxysms of despair over her ongoing exile from her former haunts. In fairness to SRRC, she now feels compelled to report in equal detail the unexpected pleasures of her new, albeit far less desireable, hometown.

This past weekend, our kindly heroine set off in search of her weekly ration of fresh produce with which to nourish her small daughter and ailing husband. Being a lady of gentle breeding and stalwart constitution, she selected for her conveyance the second-smallest of the family's extensive collection of transportation, a mode that ensured a comfortable ride for her beloved offspring, and guaranteed that she herself must use God's own conveyance, her dainty feet.

The morning was crisp and clear, with the promise of intense sunshine, as our heroine and her beloved daughter set out for market. They were delighted by the cool, shaded streets of well-kept abodes, the industrious activities of the ordinary folk who inhabit this quaint burg. The produce was uniformly delightful, the shopkeepers accomodating, and the prices reasonable. After procuring the necessary items, our two heroines set out for home, only to encounter, all unexpected, a charmingly humble village fete in honor of a departing and much-beloved shopkeeper. After feasting on fine cakes and ale supplied in honor of Mr. A— R—, and mingling for suitable time among the lesser residents, Heroine and Lovely Daughter continued their weary way home. As they strolled, surreptitiously feeding themselves upon the fresh-picked blackberries they had purchased, they encountered not one, not two, but three kindly townsfolk, who engaged them in pleasant conversation regarding the weather (unseasonably hot and sunny for our fair clime), the proper care of the garden (including a manly demonstration of a sophisticated tool for the extraction of undesireable species therefrom), and the importance of proper child rearing (namely, the necessity of preventing said children from ingesting inedible substances found along the road).

Gentle reader, your heroine was, quite simply, flabbergasted. Not once, in all of her daily errands in Cool Urban Met, had she encountered the sheerly audacious friendliness of this lesser folk. Despite the fine beverages, superior shopping, and generally excellent features of her former home, she felt the first stirrings of--could it be, affection?--for the determined little town of which she was now a member. She was pleasantly surprised to find among her fellow SRRC dwellers little obvious sense of their inferior township, their limited opportunities, their lack of urban chic. Instead, these folk seemed uniformly content with their dowdy lot in life, unaware of the exalted reputation of their sophisticated Urban neighbor, and free of the nagging certainty that they were Missing Something.

Thus, dear readers, your heroine begins this week with renewed enthusiasm for her quaint new home, and for the simple folk who dwell therein. No more shall she long in vain for extensive independently-owned bookstores, unsweetened chai brewed like tea should be, or shops wherein can be purchased items in quantities of less than 50. She embraces the sweet pleasures of SRRC.

And besides, Cool Urban Met is just up the road. And she still has oodles of credit at that fabulous used bookstore she once frequented.

Friday, August 12, 2005

At last!

Someone understands the Real Me.

And yes, I stole it like the shameless groupie I really am, from Badger, 'cause I think she rocks.

david bowie
You're David Bowie...and every guy wants to be you,
every girls wants to be in your pants. Or vice
versa, or both! You are innovative, always
weird, and aesthetically pleasing. Your lyrics
are literate, and your music is unlike any
other. You are always unique, no matter what
situation you are in. Everyone tries to bite
off your style, but no one can be you because
you are funky fresh. Be careful to keep your
mental health in check, because you have a
tendency to flip out. But hey, being borderline
crazy makes you even more alluring! You are
skilled at manipulating everyone: the press,
your fans, and even your closest friends. You
are beautiful and strange, and you allow
yourself to change and grow.

Which rad old school 70's glam icon are you? (with pics)
brought to you by Quizilla

And yes, I'm going to back to syllabus drudgery now. Right NOW.

Bad taste in my mouth

Gentle readers, I have worked very hard these past few months not to lament our departure from cool urban metropolis to second-rate regional city. And I think, if I may say so, that I have done a damn fine job at NOT comparing the thin, too-sweet broth on my local thai green curry to the delectable stuff we used to get from Right Around the Corner, dammit. I've cheerfully exchanged tasty pub food for tuna melts in restaurants with un-ironic banquettes, and I have embraced the early-bird specials, the aquarium-sized cocktails, and the idea that "broiled" fish means soaked in butter. I make weekly forays to the big discount stores surrounded by parking lots, and, to be honest, we're pretty damn thrilled that there is an outlet of our favorite fast-food spot within a few blocks (there wasn't one that we found, ever, within the city limits of Cool Urban Met (the acronym's not gonna work).

This morning, still high on my determined "I'm gonna love it here" attitude, I dropped my daughter at preschool in the neighboring Soulless Suburb, and decided to treat myself to a caffeine fix at a local (not chain) coffee shop. It was supposed to be a Chai with non-fat milk. I ordered one from the nice woman at the counter, and tried not to flinch when she brought out a large tin canister with a powdery substance in it, which she proceeded to scoop into a paper cup. She added hot water. She steamed the milk. I pondered the kind of body-confidence that allows someone to select a sheer lace tank top (yes, see-thru) first thing in the morning. To go to work in. Gentle reader, I can't face my own gooseflesh first thing in the a.m., let alone imagine anyone else wanting to.

Anyway, what I got when I sipped my drink was god-awful. It tasted like liquefied pumpkin pie filling blended in cream. The texture was nauseatingly smooth and creamy. All in all, it was like drinking hair conditioner. WTF? So now I confess: I am homesick. I miss real bakery products that are not from a giant supermarket, and coffee that isn't served thick with syrup. I want a sandwich that does not involve a shaving-cream can-sized dousing of mayo. I want a used bookstore that isn't owned by a conglomerate. I want a store that has no parking lot out front. I don't want the person in front of me in the grocery line to be buying cases of sugary drinks for her kids. I want hip little Asian teenage guys in lowered cars, not wanna-be confederate rejects from the Marines in jacked up pick-ups. I've hit the geographical wall.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

It ain't over 'til it's over

Borrowing a page from my pal ABDMom, I'm drawing on Lenny Kravitz's foray into bad Europop for today's title. The phrase seems all too apt, in ways good and bad.

First, the dissertation. Note to my fellow dissertators still in the salt mines: the goddam thing just WILL NOT go away. I'm slogging through the "conclusion" my committee requested, realizing that the best I can do is to write in circles for page after page. I have a scribbled page telling me exactly what they want to see, and it's nothing new, scary, or unusual. But since the best description I have for the actual defense is THIS (at least for the time being), I'm finding myself lacking in motivation and confidence. More about that, later. Suffice it to say that I want the thing off my desk, but don't want it to embarrass me any more than it already does; hence the dawdling. This is one fat lady who will be singin' as soon as she can, but in the meantime, there's no rest for the wicked.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Exhausted by her rapid-fire clichés, your tour guide needs a moment.

The other situation is worse: new tumors. We hate that. Given my husband's recent brush with death from pneumonia (scourge of cancer patients everywhere), chemo is temporarily (we hope) off the table, which means we fall back on the brutality of radiation. As my husband says, "Fire up the barbie and let's toast this thing." Of course, it's not that easy. We'd had a certain respite from new bad news, but that appears to be ending. Or not. In the world of "palliative care," things aren't always what they seem. It's cancer of the "don't ask, don't tell" variety, and during our absence from the oncology ward, our doctor has reverted to his triage approach.

Still and all, we are lucky. Lucky to have had, already, more time than any statistics could have suggested. Lucky that, right now, no tumor is causing immediately horrific consequences. Lucky that our little girl gets more time with her beloved papa. Lucky that I have, in fact, defended my dissertation, which has hung suspended over our lives for far too long when we should have had time for other things. Lucky to have each other. Lucky to have decent, albeit expensive, medical coverage. Many, many members of our sad club are not that fortunate. Remember, we live in a country where your life's value is ostensibly determined by your income: you have money, you get care. You don't, you don't. If you ever doubted that this country values rich people more than poor people (instead of kind people over nasty ones, or smart people over foolish ones, or any other possible permutation), remember that the 9/11 executives' survivors got a lot more than the firefighters'. And that your government has apparently infinite amounts to spend on keeping you safe from foreign terror, but not a dime to protect you from the terrors closer to home.

Didn't realize I was in such a bad mood, or I would have skipped the post.

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Damn, it feels good to blog

The family's napping, so I'm going to steal a meme:

1. First name: Dorcasina

2. Were you named after anyone? My mother's upwardly mobile aspirations...

3. Do you wish on stars? Sure.

4. When did you last cry? One week ago; briefly yesterday.

5. Do you like your handwriting? No--it looks like it did in jr. high, when I was always changing it to look like some cool girl's.

6. What is your favorite lunch meat? Turkey. Smoked. Or Tuna.

7. What is your most embarrassing CD? Selena. Not even a Tejana album; pure American pop crap.

8. If you were another person, would YOU be friends with you? God I hope so. Then I would have two friends, right?

9. Do you have a journal? No.

10. Do you use sarcasm a lot? Only when I breathe.

11. What are your nicknames? Mama.

12. Would you bungee jump? Yes

13. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? No.

14. Do you think that you are strong? Emotionally, yes. Physically, nope.

15. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? Coffee. Or peanut butter.

16. Shoe Size? Never tell.

17. Red or pink? Yes.

18. What is your least favorite thing about yourself? Insecurity.

19. Who do you miss most? When? It's different at different times of day.

20. Do you want everyone you send this to, to send it back? No.

21. What color pants and shoes are you wearing? Jeans and dorky white ped socks.

22. What are you listening to right now? The traffic going by outside.

23. Last thing you ate? Cookie dough.

24. If you were a crayon, what color would you be? Burnt sienna.

25. What is the weather like right now? Gorgeous.

26. Last person you talked to on the phone? Friend from grad school

27. The first thing you notice about the opposite sex? Sense of humor.

28. Do you like the person who sent this to you? Well, since I picked it out myself...

29. Favorite Drink? Bourbon or champagne. Not together.

30. Favorite Sport? No.

31. Hair Color? Fading to natural

32. Eye Color? Both are the same color.

33. Do you wear contacts? Not always, but yes.

[. . . .]

43. What Books Are You Reading? Biographies, mostly.

44. What's On Your Mouse Pad? "Rumba"!

45. What Did You Watch Last night on TV? The Daily Show

[. . . .]

51. What is your ring tone? There's a recording of an actual tasmanian devil that my husband and I want to install, if we can figure out how--and buy a phone to accommodate it. Right now, I think it's Korean folk music. I don't know why.

Don't thank me, really...

Just in time for the new academic year, I bring you "Grading Problems Solved!" After reading this clever response to outsourcing, and having answered a few too many of those telemarketing calls (long silence; series of clicks, followed by impossibly foreign voice that says, "Good evening, I am...uh...Russell and I am calling from Big US Corporation"), I have decided that we academics must make outsourcing our friend.

We all know, courtesy of "60 Minutes" and liberal whining, that countries like India are positively teeming with articulate, educated people just aching to do the kind of jobs that Americans demand overpayment for. My proposal is simple. Even the lowliest tenure-line assistant prof. rakes in, say, 30K/year. Many of us make a wee bit more than that. Even factoring in massive student loans debts incurred by those of us with suicidal humanities tendencies, we can easily squeeze 10K off the top to hire two bright, educated, articulate foreign nationals to whom we outsource our grading responsibilities. It's like an international system of TAs: we provide the rubrics, the bell curve, the grade distribution—those of us who are over-achievers can even order a set of comment stamps with things like "This is the stupidest thing I've ever read," and "Duh!" in our own handwriting. With our new, high-efficiency grading team behind us, we have hours, and hours snap up those fine single-course opportunities on campuses within a reasonable radius. No, 4K/semester is not sufficient income for a highly educated teaching professional who must live thereupon. But hire your outsource team well, fudge your enrollment numbers, and we're talking $3000.00 pure profit for each additional course with your name listed next to it. Well, after taxes. But think of it this way: students whose instructors are paid less-than-living wages can't honestly expect quality face-time, right? Be sure to include "phone conferences" in your list of outsourcee responsibilities, and let the students wonder why you develop that odd accent after 8 p.m. every night.

What about the class time it takes to manage your expanding empire? This is the beauty of the "distance-education" revolution: one hour of you, on video, can serve as a "class session" for your various client-bases. Every third class can be a "research day," "writing workshop," or "reading day."

The question is, are we going to allow our administrations to be the only ones who gain from the exponential rise in outsourcing, domestic and international? Or are we going to seize the reins and drive our own destinies?
No, don't thank me.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Maybe I've been spending too much time with this biography of Emily Dickinson; I found "Emily Dickinson post-Zoloft" hysterically funny. Or perhaps I've spent too much time alone, upstairs, with my work...

The ever-hilarious (that's pronounced long-vowel-sound "i"-larious, in honor of my grandmother) Aunt B. over at Tiny Cat Pants suspects her cat may be the mad poetess of Amherst, reincarnated, and who am I to disagree? They are certainly up to no good, those cats, with all those unsupervised hours and their utter moral turpitude.

Elsewhere (and if you are guessing, by now, that these are things I meant to post about sooner, but that got lost in the final throes [spasms, paroxysms] of the Great Dissertation Submission Debacle of '05 (pronounced "ought-five,"again in honor of my grandmother; whom we suspect was what might be termed, in a British novel, "twee"), you are right, my children.

Thinking about Emily Dickinson and her voluntary withdrawal from the "real world" makes me wonder if it is still possible to opt out. I mean, it's too, too late for me—I have family obligations, y'all, and miles to go before I sleep—and I don't think my sister would be amused at having to act as my interpreter to the world, as ED's did. And would it count if I kept my internet connection? Could I be the Spinster Poetess of Urbatopia (leaving aside, if only briefly, my complete lack of poetic talent and my tendency to stir-craziness) and never leave my humble abode? Can I still watch "Law and Order" reruns nightly, just to reconfirm the reasons for my flight from the real world?

Daily quota of moral outrage for the day: a sign advertising an LA strip club that reads (or did, until it was removed and edited, albeit not for content...) Vagina's R Us. I hope the apostrophe pussy...uh, I mean posse is on them in a flash.

Why I love the net: searching for a link to the story above, which I read in my local paper but could not, of course, use as my link because it would destroy my delusions of pseudonymity, I googled "LA vagina banner." I won't tell you how many responses I got, but I did like the pop-up eBay ad: "Looking for Vaginas? Find it at eBay." Ah, folks, if only it were that easy.

Monday, August 1, 2005

What, you ask... a newly-minted doctor thinking about these days? Bill McKibben's lucid and thoughtful essay "The Christian Paradox" in this month's Harper's. In it, he underscores the relative homogeneity of American christianity*, and explores the troubling contradiction between Jesus's "radical" message of altruism and service (Do unto others...) and its particularly bizarre and selfish contemporary manifestation (God helps those who helps themselves). Along the way, he points out how "our" (meaning a generalized American majority) outspoken professions of "Christianity" are incompatible with our private and public behavior: more violence, divorce, poverty, and less charity than in nations that are less eager to claim for themselves a Christian self-righteousness:

Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations [. . . .] Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest.

What McKibben wants to get at is why, as "a place saturated in Christian identity," America fails so spectacularly to get at what Christ actually taught:

Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.

In 2004 [. . .] we ranked second to last [. . .] among developed countries in government foreign aid [. . . .] And it's not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It's also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us that you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention.

Notice that McKibben is not debating whether the nation should or should not be "Christian," but he is comparing us to the model "we" publicly set for ourselves.

His explanation has to do in part with the popularity of the "apocalyptic" arm of Christianity, a focus on "End Times" that he likens to trying to theorize the Constitution by focusing only on the 25th Amendment. And, of course, a focus on the world to come (and one's likeliness of being included therein) obviates concern with the problems of the immediate, material, physical world.

Oddly enough, this new brand of fundamentalism partakes in a logic that would be familiar to perhaps the best known American fundamentalists, the Puritans. The Puritans were equally, if not more obsessed with the life to come, but instead of dismissing the material world, they scrutinized it obsessively for signs of their standing in what they called the Invisible World of God's Kingdom.

But as McKibben notes, a Christian scrutiny of the world does not lead to a particular concern with doing good in that world. In fact, the obsession with the state of one's own soul leads too frequently to a disdain for the problems of those around us. And, in both its late Puritan and contemporary American incarnations, it manifests in a self-absorbed desire for material goods as the index of one's spiritual state.

Like McKibben, I fear even more the message of what he calls "the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs": that is, those churches whose "spiritual" message is, in fact, disturbingly "conventional" in its emphasis on the self, the spiritual seeker as one more facet of the consumer. "The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs," McKibben writes. "Their goal is to service consumers—not communities but individuals [. . . .]"

Without that other-directedness that is the core of Christ's message, Christianity becomes a mere adjunct of American self-interest, a minor corollary to Franklin's self-made man. This kind of "soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith" is, according to McKibben, "a perfect mirror of the [. . .] secular culture, with its American fixation on self-improvement, on self-esteem." These parallels, he argues, are what make the current pose of "persecution" by contemporary Christians ludicrous in the extreme. Or would, if they weren't being taken so seriously.

In contrast, McKibben offers Jesus's own description of what Christianity should be: "a call for nothing less than a radical, voluntary, and effective reordering of power relationships based on the principle of love":

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

That's it. Simple, clear, concise. Devilishly difficult to put into practice, of course. But then, Jesus himself is, whether you believe in his Divinity or not, a clear example of putting into practice what he preached. What if every self-identified Christian took a few days just to re-read what Jesus actually said? Considering the public assertion of the Bible as literal truth, shouldn't you all know what it says?

*To be fair, I, too, was surprised by the homogeneity he attributes to the U.S. As a secular liberal, I cling to the fantasy that this is a diverse, secular nation of many faiths and creeds. But his claim is not that all of us are Christians, but that so many Americans specifically identify themselves as Christians, and, especially in recent years, our national image is one of assertive (I'd say even aggressive) public Christianity.