27 December 2008

The fleshche is brukle

I think my word count may have to stand as last reported, even though I'd need just over 2000 words to meet my minimum goal of 20,000.

Although I allowed for the usual effects of the holidays, I had no reason to expect my mother to become very ill, and then to die, just before Christmas.

She disappeared in the dead of winter.
All the brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
and snow disfigured the public statues.
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
the day of her death was a dark, cold day.
(Adapted from Auden's poem about the death of Yeats)

18 December 2008

Basement Cat's Secret Life

After breakfast with friends this morning, I was about to drive away when I saw the car waiting for my space: a black Mercedes, with a personalized license plate bearing Basement Cat's real name (that is, not his inanineffable name, but the one the family use daily).

What does that cat do when we think he's safely shut in his room?

16 December 2008


Just getting back to my normal schedule for reporting progress: 17,735 words as of today, with 15 days left in the challenge.

15 December 2008

24 days

I've slipped up a bit on reporting progress with the Forty Days writing challenge. As of Saturday: 15, 750 words. I skipped yesterday (Sundays are the most likely day I'll skip) plus last Friday. And I've been doing under 1000 words a day in the last week. Still, any progress is good progress. I've also checked out a lot of books and downloaded some articles, and I think I need to add a new component to my regime: the Book A Day.

Not that I intend to read A Book A Day (too much like studying for candidacy exams). No, the idea is to pull at least one library book off the shelf and figure out why I checked it out: which project is it for? What information do I need out of it? Do I need to quote a paragraph, read a chapter, or digest the whole thing? The information goes on a sticky note stuck to the book. Then if I'm not sure what to do in a given writing session (definitely a factor in writing less: so much easier if I know I need to write Paragraph Of Close Reading or Paragraph of Historical Background), I can pull a book off the shelves and write something about it.

On an unrelated note, if any academic bloggers will spend any part of the winter break in the City of Wind (you know, in state with arrested governor), drop a line; I'm available for meet-ups.

06 December 2008

Chaucer review

Well. The plumber was very late. And the problem is more severe than was thought two days ago. So now a wall is coming apart. And in the meantime, I engaged in some procrastinatory activity that may prove productive; at any rate, I'll post the results, because with all the pounding, I can't concentrate on editing. And it doesn't seem like a good time to spread closet contents around. But I can stand to look up links.

Dr. Virago has written about her plans for changing her Chaucer course, and in the comments people have expressed enthusiasm for what she’s doing and interest in Chaucer teaching more generally. So I offer here my take on the new edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, from Broadview.

When the Broadview rep e-mailed an offer of an exam copy, my first thought was, "It takes nerve to do another edition of the CT," quickly followed, of course, by "Yes, please—I want to see what you’ve done."

For grad classes I always use the Riverside Chaucer, but for undergraduates, I’ve tried a variety of texts. I’ve been using the Riverside CT paperback for awhile, because, after all, it is the Riverside. It has the best notes, a glossary, and uninterrupted text, glosses at the bottom of the page. But it’s big, and two-columned (like a real medieval book! I think; weird, not like a novel, think my students). Students seem to prefer marginal glosses, and it’s very hard to get them to go to the back for notes, even though I remind them to do so and suggest sticky notes as bookmarks. (Please note that in everything that follows, I’m referring to the Riverside CT paperback, not the complete Riverside Chaucer.)

I’ve also used the Norton CT edition, about which I have mixed feelings. The original edition had a very limited number of tales; I appreciate the additions of the second edition, but even then, what if you want to refer to something that isn’t there? And yet the Norton is a nice, handy size; and the marginal glosses and foot-of-page notes are easier to deal with than flipping to the back for notes. They have a lot of useful material in the back, both sources / analogues and criticism. And yet (once again) what if you want other stuff? The Norton editions often excerpt criticism from books, which on the one hand is helpful if you want to present major scholars’ arguments in parvo. On the other, though, I don’t just use criticism qua criticism; I also want scholarly essays to help me teach how to construct an argument, and my students often have valid criticisms of essay-length book excerpts: key concepts can be omitted, chunks of the argument glossed over, the structure (unsurprisingly) like a piece of a larger work rather than like a stand-alone essay. The essays I require of my students are not nearly so long as a published scholarly essay, but students find it easier to think about an article as a model for their own work than to take a chunk of a book as a model.

(That said, I’m rather excited about the Norton edition of the Dream Visions and shorter poems, which I may review separately.)

The other Chaucer text I’ve used is Baugh’s Chaucer’s Major Poetry. The advantage is that it has almost everything: T&C and dream visions as well as the CT, all in one volume. But I miss the prose, because I like to assign excerpts of the Parson’s Tale.

No, listen: parts of it are very funny! It’s a terribly undervalued text, especially for teaching undergraduates. Go look at the descriptions of clothing under Pride if you don’t believe me; read them in the voice of the clergyman in Harold and Maude, the one who says "flabby . . . b-b-buttocks."

And (hey, come back; ah, heck, everybody’s off checking You-Tube for Harold and Maude excerpts), and, I say, Baugh uses the Bradshaw shift to order the Canterbury Tales, which means I have to explain the different orderings and why the Bradshaw shift went by the wayside. That’s not all bad, because it lets me wax enthusiastic about manuscripts and why we should look at what actually existed in the Middle Ages as opposed to some possible ideal Ur-text. But again, my students find this a bit tedious and want to know why the Baugh edition is still kicking around if scholars no longer accept the Bradshaw shift. That lets me talk about publishing and book history and scholarly reputation, all of which I find wildly interesting and relevant, but my students are single-minded and think they are in class to learn about Chaucer and Middle English. So, in the end, I’m not so happy with Baugh even though it’s a not-unreasonably priced single volume of most of what I want when teaching Chaucer.

That was a long preamble to consideration of the Broadview edition. It’s slightly larger than the Riverside CT, significantly larger than the Norton; it’s in two columns (like a real medieval book!) with marginal glosses (glossed words are marked in the text with a raised open circle, as in Norton) and foot of page notes. The print is uncomfortably small, at least to my middle-aged eyes. There are some "Background Documents" at the back, including, to my delight, bits of the Tale of Beryn. All of these, including Beryn, are translated into modern English. There is no glossary. The edition is based on the Ellesmere MS, corrected from Hengwrt only, say the editors, where Ellesmere is "clearly defective" (37). They repeatedly characterize their goals as "more modest" than those of other editors: they wish to "mak[e] sense of a specific manuscript" (37). There are several black-and-white reproductions of pages from Ellesmere, and on the cover is a color picture of Ellesmere’s first page.

The introduction is, I think, considerably more accessible to undergraduates than the Riverside introduction. In the first place, page numbers are Arabic, not Roman, numerals. The Riverside begins with a discussion of the extant Chaucer life-records; the Broadview editors begin by saying, "Chaucer’s biographers reckon the approximate date of his birth by testimony Chaucer himself gave" in the Scrope-Grosvenor dispute. They give specific examples of how we know various information about Chaucer, and frame his life in a way that I think my students will find more engaging than the Riverside’s presentation of the same information. For example: "Chaucer came from a well-to-do merchant family" (Riverside, xiii); "Chaucer was born to a family that eventually rose from the peasantry to the nobility" (Broadview 9). The movement of the second formulation will appeal, I think, and show that social structure was not so rigid in the Middle Ages as some people are inclined to think. (Or maybe A Knight’s Tale already made that point.) Broadview includes assorted snippets of information that help individuate people in Chaucer’s background, such as "John le Chaucer was killed in a brawl," and explain cultural practices , such as "It was normal for married couples in the upper nobility to maintain separate households" (9). After the opening section on Chaucer’s life comes a section on "The Construction of the Canterbury Tales," brief discussions of "Chaucer’s English" and "Chaucer’s Versification," and a lengthy study of reception history, divided into two parts, one up to the twentieth century and another devoted to twentieth-century criticism.

The section on language is much briefer than that in the Riverside, with no tables for pronunciation or paradigms for pronouns and verbs. While I will miss having those at hand to point out to students, I always have to spend considerable time in class on the language anyway, and my students usually have seemed more willing to study paradigms I put on the board in class than those neatly printed in the book they paid good money for. (I don’t understand it; I merely report. Perhaps it’s the act of copying out the pronouns, etc., from the board that helps them to learn.) I object to the characterization of Chaucer’s verse as "iambic pentameter" (18); sometimes his lines come out to iambic pentameter, but sometimes they’re four-stress lines, with a looser rhythm, more like older English poetry. But again, the finer points of medieval prosody don’t usually get a huge amount of attention in my classes anyway.

I will also miss the timeline included in the Riverside, but again, I’ve had difficulty getting most students to pay attention to timelines (I love them, and the few stray history majors I’ve had seem to like them, too, but I don’t get enough of those: English is an oversubscribed major at LRU, so I teach mainly majors). If you’re trying to teach a significant amount of medieval English literature in the original language, there’s quite a lot to do in a semester without teaching the history of the fourteenth century as well. Some historical context is crucial, but like the language, it may be better delivered in class.

All in all, I like the book for its accessible introduction, including the introduction to twentieth-century schools of Chaucer criticism, its simplified notes, and its focus on a single manuscript. I’m going to try Broadview next year and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go "faire and weel," as Nicholas says, then I’ll return to the Riverside. I'll try to remember to report back to you next fall.

So. That was another 1500 words. But it's not research.


Today is the fifteenth day of the Forty Days Writing Challenge. Word count: 12,221. I skipped one day entirely; did less than 1000 on two other days; but today I got up to 1450 and felt reluctant to quit.

That sounds like I'm on a roll. Actually, I'm quite ready to stop the project I was working on (more ME/AN lists). Other possible activities, however, have limited appeal. It's cold and snowy outside, so I don't so much want to go out (though I have to get cat food today). Some of the closets really, really, in actual non-procrastinatory fact, do need cleaning, but if the choice is cleaning, I'd really rather write. Or edit something. At the moment, I'm waiting for the plumber, anyway. Sir John is at Midwest Theory Day*, so no distractions from him. I guess the overdue essay will get some attention.

* Why am I not there? It's not what my usual readers are likely to think. No, really, other disciplines have theories, too. This meeting, however, always makes me start saying, "It's flat because the giants trampled it down! No, it's flat because the glaciers receded! It's so big because it got stretched out flat by the giants!" And then Sir John rolls his eyes and says "Nyuk nyuk nyuk," and I give up trying to theorize the Midwest.

The Scot and the Grammarian

I did say more cat pictures were coming. Here are our other two boys. Their pseudonyms are in-jokes related to their real names and some obscure details of early modern English cultural life.

02 December 2008

Cue rant

It's probably a Christmas card; probably from a not-close relative on Sir John's side. But here we go again: I'm Dame Eleanor, not Lady Hull, definitely not Lady John Hull, a form of address reserved, I believe, for old-fashioned wives of dukes' younger sons (as in Harriet Vane becoming Lady Peter, for social purposes, when she married).

And since this is the USA, the social niceties aren't nearly as tricky as working out who's who among British aristocrats. How hard is it to ask people who marry what they want to be called? She might or might not change her name. Sometimes he takes hers! They might hyphenate, or adopt a name meaningful to them both, or combine.

Combination actually makes for an excellent party game. Which guests ought to get together just for the name possibilities? Dart and Staley become the Dastardleys! Villalobos and Barton become the Villains! Who ought to eschew any such partnership, or, should it develop, avoid name-combination at all costs? I can think of some well-known scholarly collaborators who, at least for nomenclatory purposes, should keep their collaborations to the intellectual realm.

Well, yes, I go to some very nerdy parties. But we nerds have fun, too, in our own weird way.

01 December 2008

One quarter of forty

I'm now ten days into the Forty Days and Forty Nights challenge, one-fourth of the way through. My total word count as of this evening: 8291.

I have met my word count every day except yesterday, when I did not write a word. Today I achieved 568. Except for these two, I have succeeded at producing a thousand words on workdays, five hundred on weekends and holidays. If I continue to produce 8000 words every ten days, I'll have not 20,000 words but 32,000 by 31 December.

I could wish more of them were continuous prose. Much of what I've been doing lately involves listing brief quotations from a Middle English poem and its Anglo-Norman source, in columns, under various headings, trying to work out which images they share, how often the speaker refers to himself as "I" or "we," how many times each version refers to singing, writing, or other forms of narration. The translation, of course, is not literal, but sometimes Anglo-Norman images reappear some stanzas further on in the Middle English. At some point I will turn this raw data into prose---I mean into excitingly incisive analysis of the medieval lyric---but for now I'm still listing and thinking.

And today I printed a nasty dirty draft of the overdue essay, to be edited (cut, pasted, excised, added to and rewritten). I'm sure other things I've written have come more easily. I swear I remember other essays almost writing themselves after I had an outline. Is this like childbirth? Have I just forgotten what it was like, those other times?

Without losing sight of the main goal (500 words a day, every day; on weekdays, 500 on each of two projects), I want to add an hour of editing time to weekday work. We'll see how it goes. If I have to work out some equivalencies (500 words of new writing = one hour of revision), I can accept that, but I'd rather treat editing as a separate kind of work.

Next report in another five days. I'm hoping to get around to giving you some more cat pictures in between. We do have others besides Basement Cat, after all; they should get their moment of fame.

28 November 2008

im in yr head rooning yr vocab

Proof that the internets in general and LOLcats in particular have had a deleterious effect on my ability to express myself in a manner suited to my profession: in today's writing session, I noticed something outstandingly interesting and significant about a text I've worked on for over a week.

The phrase "OMG PONIES!!!" appears in writing at the point where the connection dawned on me.

27 November 2008

Just under the wire

I didn't start till 10:00 p.m. I just finished 535 words.


The rest of the day was pretty good, too.

26 November 2008

The first five days

Five days into the Forty Days and Forty Nights Writing Wilderness Challenge, I am happy to report that I have written 4326 words. I have consistently produced between 500 and 600 words on whatever I'm working on: a single project each of the weekend days, two projects Monday to Wednesday this week.

I felt pleased with myself over the weekend; on Monday I felt that I was not doing enough; Tuesday I got the work done by 1:00, which made me feel good; today it has taken several hours, with assorted interruptions from family/holiday related phone calls, cats (of which more below), and nose-blowing (did I mention this is a really yucky cold?). I have not yet done any necessary errands or even checked my e-mail. But I did get the day's writing done.

Basement Cat came and lounged on my desk in the sun for awhile. He seemed peaceable and laid-back, rather than energetic and bitey, so I was off-guard. And then, still reclining lazily, he stuck his paw into my half-full mug of tea and knocked it over. On my desk is a large monthly calendar from Office Max, with the months' borders alternating blue, green, and tan. Half of November is now uniformly tan. At least I snatched my laptop out of the way.

Would anyone like an elegant black panther who purrs at people and bites other cats? It's hard to believe he was ever an adorable tiny kitten; at 7 months, he weighs ten and a half pounds, and has all the judgment of a backwards teenager. What percentage of their adult size do cats achieve at 7 months? If it's 3/4, he won't be much bigger than our orange tabby; but I certainly hope he's more than half-way to full-grown. All we need is a 20-pound bully.

22 November 2008

Forty days

Last night I figured out that there were 40 days till the end of 2008, a very Biblical number.

If I wrote 500 words a day for 40 days I would complete 20,000 words between now and New Year's.

This is my new goal. 500 words a day, every day, weekends and holidays included, for 40 days and nights in the writing wilderness.

Also: not more than 1500 words a day, because I fear bingeing and stalling. Should I reach 1200 and still feel like writing more, it will be time to sketch what I think should happen the next day and then stop. I refuse to be a writing bulimic. I am trying to instill (re-instill: I had them once) good steady writing habits.

On weekdays, I hope to do 500 words each on the book and on the overdue essay (if the editor is reading this, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). On weekends and holidays, I get my choice of one or the other, or 250 on each.

Today I completed 509 words on a text that I will discuss in the book. Please cheer me on---and if you are one of those people like me who has failed at the November research-writing challenge, you are welcome to join the Forty Days and Forty Nights in the Writing Wilderness challenge!

Get thee behind me, Basement Cat.

21 November 2008

Three cats in one

In photographs, our Basement Cat looks solid black. However, close inspection reveals a dusting of a couple dozen white hairs on his lower belly, seven more on his chest, and one white whisker, making him a sort of vestigial tuxedo cat.

What's more, in the right light you can see that rather than being solidly black, he has faint black-on-black stripes. I'm wondering if, when he is old, he will fade into a tabby, just as a beloved-and-departed tabby faded with age into a gray cat (stripes faintly visible if you knew where to look).

He's trouble enough for three, that's for sure. Getting better . . . but every time I say that, Sir John says, "He's not good yet."

20 November 2008

Sick days

This week I have the worst cold I've had in years. It's . . . no, I am not going to describe the symptoms. Just the worst, OK? I have not even tried to do any work. I spend my days lying on the couch, draped in cats, watching Six Feet Under, blowing my nose, coughing, and drinking cup after cup of herbal tea.

Sometime next spring, I am going to regret this. Right now, it feels like payback for all the times I taught when I was sick, graded when I was sick, alternated hours writing with hours napping when I was sick.

That November write-your-whatever thing? Just not happening.

15 November 2008

A bad year for it

Just now a friend from college called and said, "Remember last February?" Her best friend from high school died yesterday in the workplace version. I knew him, not well, but we went to some of the same parties when we were all undergrads.

12 November 2008

Basement Cat

. . . is the reason your work is going to hell. Letting Basement Cat out of the basement is always a bad idea. Installing him on your desk is just asking for trouble.

07 November 2008


Neophyte asked about my outlining work, so here is a long and wordy post that I hope may help others who struggle with this part of writing.

Lately I have been trying to think much more abstractly about what the various parts of an essay need to do. The "abstract" outline for my current essay goes something like this:
state problem
plot and manuscript background
explain extent of problem
breakdown of problem (1, 2, 3)
methodology (1, 2, 3)
apply methodology to problem (1, 2)
compare to other similar texts
point of making comparison
generalize to whole text (not just area of study)
other solutions to problem, from analogue texts
work that area of study does for text as a whole

It helps me to think about what various parts of the essay need to do in the most abstract terms possible. But it's not easy to do that. I tend to bog down in details; even in the list of topics above, you can see some slippage. Why isn't "compare to other similar texts" part of "methodology"? It is, in essence, but I started getting more concrete as I worked through the elements I thought I'd need. Still, such a list helps me ensure that all the necessary parts of the essay get written.

A few years ago I wrote a conference paper that I knew from the outset would appear in a proceedings volume, greatly expanded and developed. Here are the outlines I made for the conference paper and at an early stage in the expansion, followed by a reverse outline of the paper as it finally appeared. Details are suppressed in favor of vague terms like "particular kind of thing."

Conference paper organization:
introduction (refer to critics 1, 2, 3),
theoretical background/situation in terms of topic 1 (deeper treatment of critical POVs),
also for related topic 2,
MS description,
plot summary,
explain "filter" (critic 4),
argument about the audience (critic 5),
analysis of text as particular kind of thing with examples (critic 6),
position of text in MS & how it relates to other contents,
idea of pairs of texts in MS as MS organizing principle.

When I started revising for publication, I made a list of "building blocks," and wrote these sections separately before thinking about how to fit them together:
text and MS as particular kind of thing
description of MS
description of audience
relationships among MS contents
particular text as "key" to MS
plot summary
particular text as particular kind of thing
history of particular kind of thing (as usually told)
definitions of particular kind of thing
2 types of narrative structure in particular kind of thing
how particular text participates in these types of structure
critical and theoretical backgrounds
importance of fundamental critic X

And here is what the published essay turned out to look like:
Intro: 3 graphs
fundamental critic X and his influence
historicizing and theorizing part of his argument
important questions for Middle Ages that X failed to ask

Text and manuscript: 7 graphs
argument about text A
idea about pairs of texts as organizing principle in MS
how text A relates to other texts in MS
original owner of MS
description of MS
other readers of MS

Definitions of particular kind of thing: 11 graphs
problems of defining
efforts to define, 1
efforts to define, 2
efforts to define, 3
periodicity problems
overlap problems
focusing on overlap as feature, not bug
critical solutions to definitional problems
how this works in medieval texts, 1
medieval texts, 2

text A as particular kind of thing: 12 graphs
medieval standards for kind of thing
kind of thing in text A
close reading of part of text A
more close reading
relating close reading to significant critic Y
more close reading
relating critic to significant critic Z
further attention to text A
more of this kind of thing in text A
links between texts in MS, 1
links, 2

conclusion: 2 graphs
MS owners and reactions to texts
connecting all major ideas

I'm not sure that what I see the parts of this essay doing, now (about 5 years after starting it) was what I thought I was doing when I wrote it. It was long and complex, and required boiling down a lot of ideas that I am dealing with at greater length in my book in progress. Writing the essay, in fact, made it clear to me that I needed to write a book in order to present the ideas adequately. Furthermore, the topic of the conference meant that I was free to talk about only certain aspects of Fundamental Critic X, and only in my introduction, and then leave him for other contributors to deal with in other ways and at greater length. If I had written this essay as a stand-alone piece to submit to a journal, I would have made sure that Fundamental Critic X reappeared at least in the conclusion.

Really detailed outlining---I A 1 a b i ii c 2 a i etc---just doesn't work for me. I have tried, because my writing process does involve gathering lots of details and writing about them. So it seems as if sorting them into categories, then fitting them together in that sort of outline, ought to be a helpful approach. But it isn't. The paper built up from that approach never makes any sense. By nature near-sighted, I find it very hard to get any perspective on the big picture; but that is precisely what I need an outline for, to keep me on track with an actual argument instead of presenting the reader with more and more delightful details that I think are really exciting.

And now off to work on one of the "break down problem" paragraphs.

04 November 2008

Free at last

This afternoon on CNN someone said something about waiting 21 months for the election results. I said, "Try eight years."

Really I've been waiting for this night all my life. I was born the year these men died.

I don't think the work of the Civil Rights Movement is finished. But am I ever glad I got to see this day. And that my almost-83-year-old dad got to see it, too.

30 October 2008

Frank talk from chair

Jeff Darcy was amused by the idea of Jane (at See Jane Compute) having a frank talk with her chair.
I think my chair needs to have a frank talk with me.

"Eleanor," it says, and I can tell it means business because it has neglected my title (it knows I prefer to be called Dame), "I need you to sit on me. 'Apply seat of pants to seat of chair' does not mean 'Pile yesterday's clothing on me.' Sit down. Turn on your computer. Unplug the internet connection. Open the documents you're working on. And start typing. That's your job. Can you agree to do it?"

"I'm sorry, I'm tired," I say. "And I spent all day yesterday on campus, and I have a lot of errands I need to do today, and the *&^%$#@!!! cats are driving me crazy. The morning got away from me and I work better in the mornings. Can't I get back to you tomorrow?"

"I'm sorry you're having these problems," says my chair, "but your job is to sit on me and type things. If you can't agree to do that, I will have to start disciplinary proceedings."

"What are you going to do, report me?"

"I can become un-ergonomic. Or I can break."

"Oh, yeah, that'll get me to work. Then I'll have to take time to get a new chair."

"We're getting away from the point, here," says the chair. "Can you agree to do your job? I want you to unplug the internet connection and sit on me for about an hour, or 500 words, whichever comes first. At the end of that time, you're free to either do an errand or go to the gym. We'll review your progress after that. Also, before the end of the day, we need to talk about what you'll be doing tomorrow. Right now, just give me your word that you'll sit on me and produce 500 words on something scholarly."

"Oh, all right," I say. "I can do 500 words."

"Thank you, Dame Eleanor," says my chair. "I know you can do it, and I always enjoy having you sit on me. I look forward to putting this little problem behind us and seeing what you'll produce in the next hour."

Try to avoid acquiring mouthy furniture with delusions of grandeur. You may not get as much writing done, but you will have more fun and a better-stocked refrigerator.

28 October 2008


OMG ROTFL LOLcats AND xkcd all in the same place at the same time.


Apparently even pictorial cat blogging loosens the writing mojo; I now have an outline for the essay that's due at the end of this month. That is, on Friday.

Once I have an outline, the actual writing usually goes very fast. I can cut and paste chunks of my early figuring-out-what-I'm-saying, and where I need to write new material it's clear what I need to do. The outlining, though, that is a trial. Getting the argument made clearly, with all the pieces in the right order, not overwhelming the main point with extraneous detail (but really, you need to know this about medieval sermons to understand my point about romance conclusions!), including a suitable number of quotations and making sure they actually contribute---this, to me, is to writing as grading is to teaching: the part they pay us for.

But now I can get on with the good part.

26 October 2008

Cat and boots

Since the writing elves aren't visiting my blog, either, I'm not going to wait for Friday: here's some Sunday cat blogging, along with the bonus of my new boots. I'll have to do another picture that shows the heels, which are nearly 3 inches. ft [that was what the cat typed, not inappropriately]

21 October 2008

Types of creative worker

In the 20 October 2008 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about prodigies and late bloomers, using Picasso and Cézanne as artistic examples, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain as literary ones. Gladwell draws on research by David Galenson at the University of Chicago. He quotes Galenson as saying of late bloomers, "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. . . . Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal."

And Gladwell says, "The Cézannes of this world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition."

It used to be that the model for medievalists was a late-blooming one, because there was so much to learn, so many languages, so many hundreds of years of critical responses to texts. At least in literature departments, the paradigm started to shift, during my career, to "must have a book for tenure, no matter your field." I didn't; I got tenure the old-fashioned way, for medievalists, with articles. But that left me feeling very much behind the eight-ball, with no book at mid-career.

Gladwell and Galenson make me feel better. I've been building my skills and improving my work.

12 October 2008

Pretty Creature

I have a dim memory that someone, during the summer, requested more pictures of our new kitten. Here he is, hoping that it might be Take Your Kitten To Work Day. He loves climbing in bags. This is the one I use when I have lots of stuff, or heavy stuff, to take to school.
The book is Pretty Creatures.

11 October 2008

What I'm reading

The confession: for awhile now, I haven't been able to enjoy reading fiction written for adults (I started to write "adult novels" and realized that would be prone to misinterpretation). I feel like my English-professor license may be revoked at any time.

Even genre fiction, otherwise known as brain candy, hasn't appealed. I've been right off mysteries, once my preferred escape fiction. When I visit my family, I read romance novels, as they provide the right level and kind of escape (look, a fantasy situation where all the interpersonal conflicts get resolved! they live happily ever after!), but as soon as I get home, I can pick up another romance by the same author and think, "Why in heaven's name would I want to read this?" Fantasy/science fiction, usually my old reliable, isn't working for me either.

A lot of this is because I'm spending a lot of my time, mentally, in the fifteenth century (with a few excursions a little bit forward or backward in the abysm of time). And I want to spend my time there. I really enjoy my current research projects. But there are limits to how much time one can spend reading work material, even fascinating, well-written scholarly work or charming, original medieval tales. Thus, children's literature to the rescue.

When I got back from England this summer, I acquired all the Swallows and Amazons books I didn't already have and read right through the whole lot. After all, there's nothing half so worthwhile as simply messing about in boats. As I've said before, I love re-reading my favorites.

But I'm branching out. This week, I've read three kids' books that were new to me and liked all of them, though they're all quite different. Sylvia Waugh's The Mennyms is a strange and charming book about a family of life-sized rag dolls living in present-day (well, now about a decade back) England, trying to keep anyone from noticing that they aren't human. Very little really happens; that is, what's advertised as the big conflict turns out to be a non-event, and the real drama lies elsewhere entirely. Rather like life, now I think about it.

I discovered a Diana Wynne Jones novel I hadn't read yet, Hexwood. Its form is almost experimental, as events take place in a non-linear fashion, which confuses the characters; but Jones motivates these temporal shifts by a science-fiction device. Somewhere past the middle it dawned on me that Hexwood is an Arthurian novel (with most names changed to protect the guilty). Arthur has a fairly small role, but I think I should have noticed Merlin sooner. On the other hand, there's competition for the Merlin role. I can't quite decide if Verrian is Vivianne/Nimue; probably, but she seems much nicer than her avatar. I'll have to put this on the list of Outside Arthurian Literature I assign to students in my Arthurian Lit classes. It's a lot more complicated than most YA Arthurian books; more "inspired by Arthur" than a close follower of that plot.

And my favorite from the week: Pat Murphy's Wild Girls. I read a review of this last year and thought I might read the book, but then forgot about it till I saw it on a library shelf. I loved the book, and it went somewhere quite different from what I thought the review suggested. I loved it partly because it's set in my old stomping grounds (the characters are just a few years older than I am), and it's a pleasure to re-visit my very own childhood in this way. I also like the way life in the book continues past the climactic moment that ends the first part, and the way the characters invent personal myths knowing that that's what they are, but recognizing that sometimes you need to believe in something crazy because the truth hurts too much. You deal with the truth later, but the myth is sustaining in the meantime.

Happy reading.

01 October 2008


I'm realizing why, when I'm teaching, I tend to alternate 12-hour days on campus with days when I do maybe 4 hours of work interspersed with the gym, errands, laundry, and so on. It seems as if 40 hours a week ought to be the same whether you do it as 8-8-8-8-8 or 12-4-12-4-6-2. But it isn't.

Part of it is a matter of what I'm doing. Teaching is a curious combination of energizing and exhausting (Dr Crazy had a post recently about needing the energy from one class to cope with its drain on her energy; I knew just what she meant). On campus days, when I'm not teaching, I'm usually in a committee meeting or in office hours. In office hours, I'm either meeting with students or dealing with correspondance or other paperwork, possibly prepping for class. Once in awhile I manage a quick dash to the library. When I'm being very determined to keep research going, as I was all last year, I will schedule a whole hour in the library to write or read (if I stay in my office, I find it very hard not to respond to the inevitable knocks on the door).

So I can stay awake and focused to do all these people-oriented things, and find the hour in the library restorative. There is really nothing to do but work; I push away all thoughts of domesticity and what a friend calls Life Admin. Then the next day I'm worn out from all the classroom performances and interactions with other people, and it's nice to sit quietly and read and take notes, or work on an outline, or actually write something, while the physical activity of errands (or whatever) re-energizes me after sitting down to a writing or grading task. And over the course of the week, the hours sort themselves out (I do keep track).

Having all day every day to read and write is another matter. The research is no longer a welcome break from other kinds of work; it's THE work. I have a schedule, but it's easy to show up late when the appointment is with oneself, not someone else (or a room full of someone elses) waiting for one. Then there are the things that aren't really on the schedule and so, at some point, overrun it, like organizing a series of Kalamazoo sessions for next spring. It seemed like something that could be done in a few minutes here and there, until deadlines loomed and participants needed to be chivvied and in some cases coaxed out of the woodwork. Then it ate most of a day: except for the two hours scheduled to write with a colleague, for which I showed up and did my work.

(I must say, though people often say that gathering academics together is like herding cats, that I find herding cats vastly easier. What is the equivalent of a nice rattley jar of cat treats to shake for medievalists?)

Part of the trick to time management is to be realistic about the amount of time tasks take: not my strongest point, but I'm working on it. Another is to get the right combination of variation among tasks and time to concentrate on a single project. It is such a luxury to have a thought and spend a couple of hours following up on it, consulting relevant volumes immediately, and letting one lead to another, instead of making a list of things to look up next time, whenever that is. Then there are the rituals that signal "time to work." I've been starting my work day with half an hour either studying Greek or brushing up my Latin. It seems almost self-indulgent, but it's a mental exercise that calms my mind and helps me focus. I think I may also need more interaction with other people. In addition to my dates with my writing buddy and a regular library day, maybe some phone check-ins with virtual writing buddies would help.

25 September 2008

The Hull fam damily

Just another evening with both of us at our computers, Sir John cursing loudly, regularly, and elaborately, me reading blog posts and wondering why it seems I have nothing to blog about when I'm not teaching. I didn't think I wrote that much about teaching, but maybe it's that interacting with other people stimulates thought in a way that holing up with books and computers does not.

I used to dream of sharing a home office with my partner, back when I still expected to attach myself to another academic. I imagined a large attic space, desks at opposite ends, looking out windows into trees. A screen in the middle would allow privacy if we wanted; or we could read to each other from funny student papers or interesting scholarly sources.

But it's a good thing our offices are at opposite ends of the house. Whatever's happening with Sir John's work tonight does not sound good, and though I'm used to this sort of thing, I can't say I enjoy it. I think the only time my work drove me to curse loudly enough that Sir John heard me was the year when, around the 5th of January, I realized that the spring semester started a week earlier than I had thought.

16 September 2008

Reminders . . . .

Or, when will the NCS conference really end?

The toenail I bruised while running on the beach at Swansea is now about ready to fall off.

I thought if it were going to fall off, it would have done so much sooner than this.

More substantive posts soon.

04 September 2008


Unlike many of the academic bloggers I read, rain does not make me want to settle down and do a lot of work. Rain makes me want to doze off again, lulled by the drops on the roof; get up late; bake cookies and eat them; read a novel, preferably one set in England or Scotland, to go with the ambience; take a nap; have a cup of tea and read a bit more; bake something else for dinner; go to bed early. If it goes on for days, then I lose the cozy feeling and just get depressed.

Sunlight, however, makes me bounce out of bed and head to my desk.

This is a learned reaction. Where I grew up, I had allergies pretty much year round, but they were worst in late spring and early summer. By my mid-teens, I had learned that on a sunny, bright, breezy day---when my peers wanted to ditch class in favor of swimming, cycling, picnicking or just making out on the lawn---the best place for me was a climate-controlled building whose windows did not open. That is, the library. Windows were good---I did like to see the sunlight, flowers, grass and trees. But I had to enjoy them from inside.

Later on, better allergy meds were invented. But I still have the sun > library reaction. I don't know why I turn to such a slug in the rain, unless it's just that rain is the best white noise ever.

01 September 2008

Down and dirty

My Labor Day weekend so far:
Saturday, unplugged the kitchen sink.

Then I turned to the garden. Most of you probably realize that academics whose research requires archival visiting should not have gardens, and vice versa. But my version of having it all does in fact involve both.

And, of course, I am academically curious about any unexpected thing that pops up in the garden. One year, the unfamiliar objects that looked like artichokes rising straight out of the ground turned into Asiatic lilies, thus fueling my tendency to leave things alone and find out what they will become. Another year, the stranger became a wild aster, which looks quite pretty among the day lilies; it has small white flowers and gives the same general effect as baby's breath in a floral bouquet.

This year my luck ran out. The interloper was not identifiable when I left for England, but when I came back, it was huge. Taller than I am, if it hadn't flopped over the garden path. Thick stems. Large leaves. Not unattractive if you have all the space in the world, but I don't. And still it took me a month to summon the energy to deal with this monster.

I dug a hole two feet deep, well into subsoil, going after its taproot. At that point, when the root broke for the 4th or 5th time, I gave up. It was tempting to use the hole for another rose bush, but I decided better not. A) I prefer to plant roses early in the season, to give their roots a better chance before winter; and B) I may be uprooting The Thing for some time to come.

Sunday I was strangely tired. It was only a two-foot hole.

Today I need to write up my library notes from Friday. Gardens, archives . . . who says the summer is over?

24 August 2008

A great leap forward

I threw my index cards in the recycling bin.

That's several shoeboxes worth of index cards. They have been stored on the top-most shelves in my study, inches from the ceiling--not exactly prime storage real estate. All the same, they're not something I'm using or have any intentions to use.

I was the queen of index cards in graduate school, probably copying my dissertation advisor, who had her own shoeboxes full of them. Term papers, exams, dissertation, my first few post-job conference papers and essays, all represented in those boxes. Bibliographies. Quotations. Very little in the way of my own thoughts, outlines, reasons for copying out the quotations. Gradually I moved on to other methods of note-taking and paper-writing. Obviously, assembling bibliographies has become a very different (easier) task since the days when the only MLA bibliography was a print MLA bibliography.

I'm not even sure why I kept them for so long. Souvenirs, maybe. A reminder of how hard things used to be. Some buried wish to be like my dissertation advisor. A feeling that since I had gone to all that work, I should keep them.

But the benefit of the work, I think, is in the process. I had it, and if I needed to consult one of the books I took notes on for another paper, now, I would need to read the book again.

So they're in the bin, and they'll be gone tomorrow. At a minimum, I now have a little more storage space in my study. But I'd like to do a little magical thinking: now that the dissertation cards are gone, it will somehow be easier to complete my present book-length project. New book, new world order.

23 August 2008

Feline peer pressure

Because one of our cats has had some bladder problems, the vet said he should eat wet food, not kibble, and suggested various specialty foods that would be good for what ailed him.

Of course, he didn't like any of them and wanted to continue to eat kibble.

The vet then said any wet food would be better than kibble.

This is our most outgoing cat, and the biggest show-off. I noticed that he took some interest in the wet food our tabbies eat, sniffing their bowls and sometimes their mouths after they had eaten. So I started offering Mr. Picky "big cat food," at the same time as the big tabbies get theirs. It worked---especially after the big cats took an interest in Mr. Picky's bowl. Popular with other cats? OK, he'll eat it.

Sir John said he never would have thought of this solution. Of course not. He himself is impervious to peer pressure and "all the other cats do it" arguments. I understand that sometimes you just want to fit in with the group.

I swear being a cat parent is more like being a kid parent all the time. At least the Tiny Girl has stopped wetting the bed.

Because we took her bed away.

Imagine the therapy bills if we had kids.

19 August 2008

What to my wandering eyes should appear

At the final reception at the NCS, I was talking with Dr. Virago and some friends of hers I had just met, and found my eyes wandering around the room in the way that so often signals "You're not important; I'm looking for a Name to talk to." I kept telling myself, "Stop that. It's very rude. Focus on the people you're with," and then I'd catch myself doing it again.

I'm sorry, fellow-NCS-delegates. Let me explain. First, crowds make me nervous; at least we were at the edge of the room, where there wasn't anyone behind me, or I would have been even twitchier. Scanning for possible danger is almost instinctive with me, the behavior of a shy animal. What could happen? Oh, I don't know; that's not the point. I might be pounced on by either a very large predator or someone trying to get me turn in something I've forgotten about (if those aren't the same thing). It's just that I feel I need to keep a wary eye on a room full of people.

Second, I confess it: I was hoping to spot someone else. Not a Name, just someone (almost anyone) I'd known for longer than I'd known the people I was talking to. I was at the end of five weeks away from home, in which I had had many conversations with people I had just met, about either purely practical things or completely superficial subjects. I had spent no time at all with old friends or anyone who might be counted among my intimates. I was tired of such a public life. A few minutes with someone I had some history with would have been restorative.

As medievalists, we're familiar with how in bono and in malo interpretations of the same scene can co-exist. I admit my behavior looked bad. But perhaps, knowing the background, you can find it in you to be charitable, as I prefer to be so long as I can imagine any alternative explanations for behavior I might otherwise object to. This person may have had a forgetful moment; that one may have been jet-lagged; another may have been profoundly nervous at seeing Professor X in the audience.

I'm no saint. Finding charitable explanations is an act of rebellion: my mother, in her own words, is a nasty old cat who can't imagine how she raised such a mealy-mouthed child. A bland social smile is to my face as full Goth makeup once was to some of my peers.

12 August 2008

Still boring

Done: all but two chapters of the dissertation; Zoo abstract drafted; birthday card in envelope and in car waiting to go to the post office (oversized, so it needs official intervention); schedule (more or less); laundry, dishes, gym, cat stuff. The kitten seems to think he's a puppy or a rabbit, the way he chews on everything, which makes filing papers an urgent task---just less urgent than the dissertation.

I'm thinking about a post on academic hierarchies and conference-going; but getting the tone right is tricky.

08 August 2008

Facing the crumhorns

Still having problems with the motivation. I went to campus on Tuesday and got some stuff done . . . and remembered a batch of things I'd failed to put on the list, and I thought, well, that's fine, you start doing things and that leads to doing other things, and now you have a new list for next week.

Then Wednesday Sir John and I went hiking at a state park---nothing too challenging, but still, we were so tired out at the end of the day that yesterday I kept spinning my wheels. So I'm giving you a boring list-y post of things I have to do:
  1. Read a revised dissertation draft.
  2. Sort out various papers I brought home from campus.
  3. Sort and file various papers in my study.
  4. Mail a very late birthday card to a nephew.
  5. Write an abstract for a Zoo paper.
  6. Set up a real schedule for next week.

There are some more fun or at least more active things to do, as well:

  1. Propose times and venues to get together with a friend.
  2. Put away laundry.
  3. Dishes.
  4. Gym.
  5. Supervise kitten-cat interactions.

I'm not too surprised that the kitten has found a hair scrunchie to play with; there are lots around here. But how did he manage to turn the one scrunchie of a minute ago into two? It's the miracle of the hair scrunchies! But I'd better take the dissertation to high ground before he turns its pages to papier-mache. The corners of a 2008 Zoo handout I left on my desk are beyond perforated now; in fact, they're well into mutilated.

I'll let you know how it goes. And I'd better put "write interesting blog post" on the list.

04 August 2008

Monday. Not morning.

Medieval Woman was kind enough to give me a blogging award, though I can't say I feel I deserve it.
I'm not sure about passing it on to others; for one thing, I don't like to leave people out. If you're on the blogroll, and possibly even if you're not, I probably want to give you an award.
But, sorry, I'm just not up for all the linking today. I seem to have overshot on the recovering-from-jet-lag process, and wound up halfway to Hawaii. At least it's not Taipei. It's Monday afternoon, by the clock here, and I have things to do. Besides reading children's fiction and being beat up by a tiny cat, that is. (I am never getting another kitten. Never. We'll stick to adult cats after this.)
Report on the weekend: gym everyday, check. Farmers' Market, check. Phone call to friend whose garden needs plants, sorta check: message left, no response. Craft project: sorta: I have started learning a new crochet pattern, dots-and-diamonds, though just in a practice square. Weeding: not done.
And the bills and banking are not done either, but they have to be the next up. I think the problem is that I don't want to face the tally for several weeks in England. Nonetheless, Dame, it's time to face the crumhorns and dance.

01 August 2008


I've been on vacation since I got home. I haven't even done anything interesting. I sleep, run errands, cook, eat, read children's fiction, do crossword puzzles with Sir John, and play with the cats (especially the new baby). But now it's August, and at the very least I'd better pay bills and get to the bank today.

I do need to start thinking about work. To start with, I should make a list of things I need to do on campus: file travel voucher, which means finding receipts; check out books, which means thinking about what I need; get letterhead and write a couple of letters (and at this point I get tired and think I should spend more time with the cats).

But seriously. I have to write an abstract for next year's Zoo. That's a nice small piece of work, something that will stay done when 'tis done. And then not only is there the book to tackle (I had really better break this down into much smaller tasks), I also have 2 months to write an essay for a book collection. This is a project whose proposal sat on some editor's desk for years, so that I had more or less forgotten about it, or turned it into one of those "someday" things. And then last week I learned that it's a "go" and I have to start thinking about that essay again.

For today, anyway, and through the weekend, I'm going to continue the vacation---just try to make it a more active one. I'll go to the gym every day. I'll hit the Farmers' Market tomorrow. I'll do some weeding in the garden. I'll call a friend about going and having a look at his neglected new-house garden, so I can work out how many of my day lilies and hostas can move there (my garden is tiny, but I can never bear to just throw out healthy plants, even when they're taking over). If I'm feeling really ambitious, I might start a craft project.

Because I'm actually getting a little tired of being a slug.

21 July 2008

Welsh Zulu Chant

Now I know what I heard singing: the Welsh, or maybe Wales itself. The conference ended (for me; I skipped dinner) with a performance by the Morriston Orpheus Choir. It was lovely. My parents always said there's no nation like Wales for choral singing, and I have a taste for it, as a former chorister myself. They did a grand job with the Zulu chant, but the songs that made me cry were the hymns I remember from childhood.

And "Speed your journey" was moving, in part because the choir members---at least, those performing tonight---were mostly elderly; the average age must have been seventy. The eyebrows of one gentleman looked quite fetchingly like white mice sitting on his glasses rims. I wonder if his grandchildren stroke them.

Now I have to try to pack for my trip home, including finding space for my new Morriston Orpheus Choir CDs. I want to thank the choir for a great evening. May you endure to the last.

19 July 2008

I shall wear white flannel trousers

I'm at the NCS conference in Swansea, and loving it. All the papers I've heard have been good, and Christopher Baswell's paper in the plenary session this afternoon was stellar. I've met old friends, fun people, and useful people (some of these categories overlap).

But the best thing is the beach. Less than a quarter mile away, just down a slight hill, across a 4-lane road, and through some bushes, the beach stretches for miles along the bay here. High tide comes quite close to the little tree-lined rise that separates beach from road, but this is a very flat beach: at low tide, the water is half a mile out. Seriously: it took me 10 minutes to walk out to where the water was, late this morning, and I'm not sure that was the lowest point of the tide. So it's no good for swimming, but lovely for taking your shoes off and walking along in the water, which warms up quickly in the sun, since it's so shallow. Lots of pretty shells get left behind, in good shape since they haven't been dashed against rocks.

I'm used to beaches along a continental shelf, where the drop off is steep, close in, and potentially dangerous, where finding undamaged shells is more of an event. Well, perhaps I'm no longer "used" to them, after my years in the midwest, but that's my archetype. This is very different. But it is saltwater, with seaweed, so it smells right, feels right. A saltwater beach is quite different from a Great Lakes beach.

I've heard some people complaining that this just isn't the luxury venue they expect for the NCS. I have no expectations; I'm not a regular at this conference. My feeling, however, is that if it's held in London, there had better be some really good stuff like dinner in the Mercers' Hall (or wherever it was that year), but in a place like this, all I ask is more free time so I can go listen for the mermaids. Something is singing to me out there.

11 July 2008


Yesterday morning, Bodington Hall and its environs were buzzing with people. Last night, there were a handful left at dinner. They dwindled further this morning. Now the place is nearly empty. I'm still here because I had a manuscript to look at today, and since the Congress offered the option of staying through tonight, I took it.

I didn't have enough time with the manuscript, but then, one never does, when one is a North American coming to the UK on fishing expeditions. It's so hard to tell how much time you'll need with any one book. I liked this one better than most of what I saw at the BL. It gave a good sense of the interests of a group of people, probably family, including sense of humor: one of them liked to make anagrams both English and Latin of his friends' names, and then write verses about them. Some of the anagrams didn't seem to work very well. The writer introduced extra letters or left out repeated ones. But here's one I liked:

An anagramm upon Mr Richard Stacy, a present procurer under god of ease for the Gout: Stay a Rich Curde.

Of course now that I can't check on it I wonder about that U. This writer has lower-case a's that often open at the top, like u. And yet, given the gout, curd seems more likely than card.

Later in the MS, Stacy provides a recipe for the relief of hemorrhoids. It requires a lot of hog grease.

10 July 2008

Random bullets of Yorkshire

  • The excursions from the Leeds conference are really great. I saw Gawain country and two fourteenth-century manor houses (one restored, one ruined), plus Ripon Cathedral and a small chapel with fifteenth and sixteenth century effigies.
  • Ripon has some great misericords. I like the fox preaching to the poultry, the bear playing bagpipes, and St Cuthman wheeling his paraplegic mother about in a wheelbarrow (at least, that's the story about that carving that I choose to believe).
  • But some of the memorial tablets there are distressing. For example, two women who died in the eighteenth century, in their early thirties, after nine children apiece. One was 33, with 4 children surviving. Bad. One was 31, only 2 children surviving. Worse. What were their lives like?
  • At least one well-known medievalist from this side of the Atlantic needs a closer acquaintance with at least one of the following: (a) soap; (b) deodorant; (c) laundry detergent. Honestly, I am much less picky about body odor than many Americans. One or two of the above would probably be adequate. But dude, your research is teh awesomest but I totally don't want to smell you from four feet away kthxbai.
  • But then, maybe he's teh awesomest because he spends ALL his time on research and very little on effete wastes of time like showers and laundry. No wonder I am not teh awesomest.
  • I like English desserts because they're not too sweet. Tonight the dining hall had meringue with a dollop of sweetened cream and summer fruits (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, red currants) on top, with pureed strawberries around the edges. The fruit was fully ripe. The meringue was crisp and melted fizzily. You could taste all the flavors, and enjoy all the textures. I don't usually like meringue, but this was outstanding.

I guess this isn't so random. There's a definite sensory theme running through the whole thing. But I certainly haven't the energy to make it either more or less random.

08 July 2008

Blogging the Lost in Leeds

I don't know if it's Google Maps, or English roads, or my map-reading abilities (not too shabby in the U.S.), but every time I carefully prepare for exercise by reading a map and working out where I want to go, I get lost.

It started in London, when I was trying to find a particular historically significant swimming pool. I looked at the map, I worked out what streets to take, and set out (jogging; I wanted to find the place first, and swim once I knew I could get there). The next thing I knew, I was at Blackfriars. Similar results the next day. The third day, I worked out what the problem had been, and also that by taking some of the streets I had got lost on, I could get there more quickly. So I got there; and then, trying to reverse direction, I got snarled up in a six-cornered intersection, turned the wrong way, and went back the longer, simpler way I had hoped to do in the first place.

In the meantime, I found a health club that was much easier to get to where I could swim.

This evening I headed out for a run. I wanted to be out for about half an hour; I worked out what roads to turn on so I could do a loop instead of straight out and back, and headed out the Otley Road.

Two and a quarter hours later, I made it back to my dorm room.

I hadn't counted on some small country roads (you hit country fairly quickly here) not having signposts with their names, or only partial names. (Fairly close to getting back, I thought I was on Air Foot Lane, like Airhead only the other end, but it turned out to be Stair Foot Lane when I got a full signboard.) It's true that a faulty sense of direction got me into most of the trouble, but that's partly because the sun is so far north at this time of year that trying to steer by it was my first mistake. I also hadn't realized that in addition to two golf courses north of here, there are two more to the west.

But it wasn't raining, at least, and a dogwalker helped me out when I finally asked for directions, and I'd had the sense to buy a sandwich earlier and leave it in my room so there was food when I finally got in.

And even though it took me in the wrong direction, I don't regret the footpath through the sheep pasture. (This was the point at which the run turned to a walk.) It was a really lovely ramble, and coming down through Adel Woods was even better.

But I'm not sure I'll be able to move tomorrow. The woman who falls asleep and then wakes up groaning during your session? That'll be me.

04 July 2008

Magic Folio

For about four hours today, the Percy Folio was mine.

I found out what I needed to know, and then I gave it back.

And spent another couple of hours at Lincoln's Inn, which is a fantastically beautiful place to work.

Then in the evening went to this.

Quite a happy fourth. Off to Yorkshire tomorrow. Has anyone arranged a Leeds bloggers' meet-up?

02 July 2008

Magic helmet.

Still no Percy Folio. There was "a cock-up" (how I love that phrase) at the library. British embarrassment ensued. I am now promised the MS for Friday, to celebrate Independence Day with, I guess. I'll let you have a look, if you stop by the Manuscripts Reading Room.

27 June 2008

Plum pudding and the Percy folio

No, definitely not both at once.

I'm here to work on a project I stumbled across a few years ago---not my usual line of country, but people have been interested in it and it got my institution to cough up funds for travel and transcription this summer. (If I finish early and spend some time looking at manuscripts related to my Real Work, well, that's just efficient use of my time and the university's money.)

So I have actually got through almost all the likely suspects here, with the exception of one manuscript that someone else has been using all week, and one other I thought I'd have to see in microfilm. And so I asked about microfilm of the Percy Folio. (PER-cy FOL-io!) Well, there isn't one. No facsimile, either. But I am already cleared to see select manuscripts, so, great, I just put in the request slip and went off to lunch.

I was feeling so delighted about getting to see the Percy Folio, which is a two-fer (current project AND Real Work) that I decided I'd have dessert, especially because one of the offerings was plum pudding. I'd never had it before, yet it seems like one of those iconic British desserts, I mean puddings, that you have to have sometime. It was very nice, not too sweet.

But the manuscript had not been delivered. The PERcy FOLio is on exhibition. So I had to fill out the form requesting that it be pulled just for petite moi next week, that is, at least 3 working days from now (when I had been wondering about going up to Oxford to get my paws on some more MSS related to the current project).

All this for something I'd be perfectly happy to look at in facsimile or microfilm. I mean, wouldn't you have thought that something in an exhibition would have been microfilmed or digitized?

Magic helmet. At least I enjoyed my plum pudding.

24 June 2008

Random bullets of the British Library

  • Archbishop Cranmer's lion heads have nice smiley faces.
  • In one manuscript from today, I found a pasted-in slip explaining the comments in "modern ink" on a particular folio as the work of a reader who was later convicted of malicious damage to the MS and sentenced at the Old Bailey to two months imprisonment, in 1891. You have been warned, I thought.
  • There sure are a lot of useful reference works I never knew existed. Indices to this, that and the other.
  • I had lunch with a medievalist I met at Kalamazoo . . . some year or other. I splurged on a big meal at the BL's restaurant, and it did make it easier to keep going the rest of the day.
  • The lunchtime medievalist has a room in a flat in East London. While it would be nice to be able to cook, I so do not want to spend time and money on the Tube. I hate crowds, and I love being five minutes from the BL.
  • There are many things I love about the density of London (excellent public transportation, for starters, even if I avoid it in peak hours) but being kept awake by young carousers outside is not one of them, nor is being awakened by yobbeaux (I think the offenders are French) thumping up the staircase and slamming doors late at night. (OK, that has nothing to do with either density or the BL. Work on topic sentences, Dame.) I keep telling myself that the nature of hotels is that their inhabitants are transient; thaes overeode, thisse swa maeg.
  • When I left tonight, I was walking near an elderly man who looked just like an ex-colonel out of Agatha Christie, except for the earphones. I don't know what he was listening to, but as he walked, he was declaiming in something that sounded rather like Old English. It certainly wasn't any of the modern European languages I know or recognize. I suppose it could have been something else entirely . . . but the stresses sounded so familiar . . . and yet, you know, it's simply TOO BL a sort of thing to happen. I probably hallucinated it. Not enough sleep lately.

22 June 2008

Before I left

Given this post, you would think my life before I left for London was quite complicated enough, with enough things to do. But no . . . I had to go and add a new kitten to the mix.

Sir John has wanted a new baby (or two) for awhile, and I have said no no no we have enough cats! So we did not go to the shelter and deliberately pick out a kitten (or two). No. I went to the library. Or rather, I was going to go to the library, but first I stopped at DD to get coffee for the drive. As I parked, I noticed an elegant young woman in a black dress, with heels, and thought how nice she looked. Then I realized she was accessorized with a small black kitten clinging to one shoulder while she worked her cell phone. Of course I stopped to admire the kitten. I am never able to coordinate my animals and my clothes so successfully.

She asked if I knew of any animal shelters in the area. She had just found this kitten on a very busy street corner, and wanted to find somewhere to take it; she had dogs that she thought would not be kind to it.

I know my duty to catdom when it stares at me out of a tiny kitten face. I said I'd take the kitten home.

Before I left, I spent as much time with him as I could. He is tolerably healthy, but is being treated for roundworms and a bacterial infection in his tum (not that either has slowed him down any; he's a hellion, and getting very bored in quarantine from our other cats). He is very social and good with people, so he wasn't feral before the elegant young woman found him. But he wasn't chipped, and I didn't see any signs posted about a lost kitten. So he's ours now.

He's named, more or less, for the research project I was trying to get to the library to work on.

19 June 2008


When I travel, I often don't bother to unpack. Most of my clothes aren't wrinkleable, or else they're meant to be wrinkled, and I don't mind rooting through my bag for them.

But I'm going to be in my current location for 16 more nights.

I filled up all the (few) drawers in my tiny room.

The BL was great again. Today's celebrity sighting: Bill Jordan. Since we're academics, should that be "celebrity citing"? I'll see if I can work him into my next conference paper . . . .

18 June 2008

. . . gone tomorrow

Actually, I'm already gone. I just don't believe it yet. But I have been in London for almost 12 hours now, of which 4 were in the BL, and now I'm in my tiny hotel room, on the top floor, staring out into the sea of green leaves stirring in the wind outside. My favorite place to write is staring out into treetops . . . and my favorite place to live is a city (some more than others, but city rather than countryside of whatever variety). It can be difficult to combine these preferences, but right now I am very happy.

People I know kept saying, "London! How exciting! You'll have such a great time!" and I would smile and say Yes, I will.

But I bet most of them were thinking, "Theater! Sight-seeing! Shopping! Night life! Historical atmosphere!" whereas my thought bubble read, "Get up early and go for a run! The reading rooms open at 10:00! Lunch at 1:00, then more manuscripts! Tea when they close up at 5:00, come back and work on other projects until 8:00! After closing, get a snack, call Sir John or do e-mail, fall in to bed, repeat until Sunday! What a wonderful life!"

10 June 2008

Later than I think

This turned into the semester that would not die, with incompletes and administrative tasks hanging on for some time. But at last I wrapped it up, and started thinking about settling into a summer routine, setting a pattern for sabbatical work that I can continue in the fall: half an hour of Greek study in the morning, then writing, some library time; should I go to the gym first thing, or use exercise as a break in the middle of the day? Of course, all this will be interrupted by summer travel plans, but it would be great to get into a groove.

Summer travel plans.

Summer travel plans! Today is . . . Tuesday . . . the tenth of June. In a week I will be on a plane to England. Hell's bells. So much for getting into a groove. I have to finish a conference paper, and make various arrangements for being away. I know I have time management problems, but I'm not usually this bad. Really. But it was a very turbulent semester, and it just started seeming like summer here, and I can't believe I'm about to be gone for over a month.

So. Who's going to be in London during the period mid-June to late July? Leave me a comment or e-mail me if you'd like to meet up.

17 May 2008

It's all about the shoes

I went to graduation this morning. I scored a seat in the front row, perfect for getting up to congratulate students I recognized as they came off the stage, and also giving an unobstructed view of the footgear. My students this term told me they knew it was important to wear interesting shoes to graduation, to keep the faculty entertained. So let's see what shoes stuck in my mind. (I did not take notes; this is purely what was memorable.)

There were many tasteful pairs of black high heels, some shiny, some open-toed, some serious spikes, some platforms. I also saw a lot of red patent leather, a few flats, some spikes, one dark red lizard print. High-heeled gladiator sandals were also popular, and there were several pairs of metallic gold pumps, as well as a glitzy silver-sequinned set.

Of my current students, the only one whose shoes I recall was a young man who always came to class in loafers and a leather blazer, but today was wearing olive drab canvas sneakers and a headwrap under his mortarboard (he does not have the kind of hair that needs to be wrapped to make it smooth). I don't know what that was about. Oh, and the double major (Art and English) wore her usual red ballet flats with jeans; it's her signature look, sort of Audrey Hepburn-esque.

A student from last fall had a lovely pair of sapphire blue suede heels, with a chunky heel. I added to my congratulations, "Nice shoes!" and she said, "Thank you! I wanted something special, and you know, there are so many people wearing shoes that just don't say 'Graduation.'" I had to agree. I don't care how many crystals and gewgaws you add, or how good your pedicure is; flip-flops just don't seem right for an occasion like graduation, in the opinion of this old fogey. In fact, I prefer closed-toe shoes rather than sandals for such an event, though I would accept a nice pair of peep-toe slingbacks. Someone wore such a pair, in a black-and-white spectator style.

Another black-and-white pair I liked were flats, a floral print. I noted a pair of sporty yet fashionable athletic-style shoes, in tan, on the feet of a woman probably in her fifties getting her bachelor's degree, and I thought, "There is someone who knows the value of comfortable feet, but she did get new shoes for this, all the same."

There were two pairs of high-heeled, pointy-toed shoes that stood out for color: one bright pink, one neon orange. I admired a pair of wedges where the top was brown and the wedge was a sort of houndstooth print in brown and cream. One young lady matched her golden yellow honors stole to golden yellow high-heeled sandals, with toenail polish a few shades lighter: that was impressive. And a doctoral student had very high-heeled leopard-print shoes, which stood out because usually the Ph.D.s wear much tamer (and often more comfortable) shoes: these students are older, busier, concerned more with substance than style.

Men usually don't have memorable shoes. One wore very pointy-toed shoes with a black-and-white chessboard effect; that got our attention. And I find I do not care either for tassels on men's shoes, or for patent-leather tipping on a plain leather men's shoe. If you must have patent leather, let it be the entire shoe.

My prize-winning most memorable: pink wedges, where the top was hot pink and the wedge was pink with white polka-dots.

Congratulations, graduates!

15 May 2008

Bait and switch

I feel like I should blog about the Zoo. I want to blog about the Zoo. But I am still working my way through a stack of graduate papers, unable to figure out why they are going s-o s-l-o-w-l-y. Apparently when I planned assignments so the undergraduate grading wouldn't be too bad at the end, I missed something on the grad side.

It's probably partly fatigue. The weekend before Kalamazoo, I was at another conference. Different papers. Neither one wanted to lie down and behave itself. I think I'm looking at my second book in this snarl, actually. That really makes me feel like powering through the first one this year, so I can get on with the next project. But anyway, all the traveling and thinking was tiring. And aside from the grading, I have one more significant administrative project to complete before I can really feel my sabbatical has started. It landed in my lap this week. Well, it really is my job, I understand that, but everyone had forgotten about it.

And I want to be done.

And I want to be able to think about some of the great papers I heard at the Zoo and about some of the stuff that happened before it all fades in the noise of grading and admin.

Maybe a random-bullets-of-Kalamazoo post. Not now. Either when the grad papers are done or when the deadline is past so I'm doing manual change-of-grade forms anyway.

27 April 2008

Analysis 6: conclusion

I don’t feel I gave up much. I would like a little more time for hobbies, but my interests outside of work are not passions, not things I need to have central in my life. I don’t want to give the impression that I work all the time, because I don’t—I aim at 40 hours a week, on average—but work is what shapes my life.

Perhaps the work/job distinction should be explored. I certainly count research as work, not as something I’d do anyway—I mean, it is, but since it’s an expected part of my job, research is work in the daily sense. But then there’s The Work, what to some extent I chose over The Life, because I felt the need for work that was a vocation, work that helped make life meaningful. At one point when I was in graduate school, some of my non-academic friends, and their academic mother, were reading Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life; they found the idea that women were likely to put together a series of lives consoling. It was what the mother had done, and my friends, unsure of what they wanted to do, hoped form would emerge out of patchwork for them. I saw myself with a more traditionally masculine trajectory, and that is (so far) what has happened. I didn’t seem to have the experience of being broken down and re-formed in grad school that some of you report, perhaps because I wasn’t firmly formed when I started. I got to grow into the identity I had long desired, rather than losing pieces of myself.

And though I chose The Work, I have A Life. I have a really good job. Most of my colleagues are sane, most of my students are nice, smart people who work hard, the library is decent, the location is acceptable. My house, which I can afford and which is in a good neighborhood, is filled with books and cats and sunlight. I am very happily married. I have access to the cultural amenities of a big city and to the intellectual life of my campus, both of which get some of my time. I have friends, and some of them aren’t even academics.

I don’t have everything I want. But if, when I was 20, a fairy godmother had said, "Look, you can have work and love but you’ll have to live your life in exile; or else you can live in a place you love and take your chances on the rest," I would have thought that was a no-brainer. In fact, I’d make the same choice now.

A tiled patio over whose white walls tumble jasmine and bougainvillea, shaded by a pepper tree, whispers the fairy godmother. Geraniums that grow into hedges, lantana that grows tree-sized. Plumeria. Wisteria. Mountains. La la la not listening, I say. La la la love my work.

It’s hard to know what matters to you till you lose it. And if you lost something else, that might be the thing you truly can’t live without. The path not taken doesn’t exist. The only path is the one you’re on.

What I have is what I wanted most.

26 April 2008

Analysis 5: Health

Again, it depends on where you stop telling the story. I find I’m reluctant even to start this one. I seem to be fine now. Around the time I got tenure, though, I had a series of injuries and stress-related ailments that took years to resolve. Much time spent seeing different doctors and physical therapists. Much research time lost. Much wondering whether I would remain impaired for the rest of my life.

It started with a broken rib, sustained when I fell onto a trailer hitch while trying to get a good picture of a pageant wagon in York (see, work-related). I was reasonably active up till then, as time allowed, but exercising with a broken rib is painful. Recovery was slow. I had to become more assiduous about exercising than I had been.

When I thought I’d made a comeback, I injured my shoulder, which provoked symptoms that were misdiagnosed as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, despite my insistence to doctors that it all started with this shoulder thing . . . . This one’s harder to call, because the diagnosis was work-related, but the shoulder injury may or may not have been related to work ergonomics. At any rate, it’s hard to recover from an injury that’s being treated as a different kind of injury entirely.

On top of the years of pre-tenure stress (and job-market stress, and relationship stress previously recounted, and other grad school stresses my readers no doubt can easily imagine), the physical stresses and pain—I believe—contributed to various other problems. I don’t want to recount them here. Like I said, I’m fine. But a couple of bloggers I keep up with have reported, this spring, on health anxieties that were very familiar to me from personal experience. I know what procedures you’d go through for diagnosis, and how it feels while you wait for results, and how you research stuff on the web, thinking about what might happen and how much time or physical ability you might have in various scenarios and what you’d do with it.

So, as with the long-term relationships, if we stop the story now, it ends well. Of course, in the long term, we’re all dead. And maybe you consider that even a few years of injuries, pain, ailments, and doctors means that I did, in fact, give up my health for my job. Now I work at staying healthy, as I did not pre-tenure, because I know that the expense of time and energy on exercising and getting good food at regular intervals is far, far less than the expense of not getting exercise or eating right. And that sounds like a sermon, which I didn’t mean to give.

25 April 2008

Analysis 4: Children

This is more what it looks like to others than how I feel myself. I never much wanted children, though I also always thought that I might, eventually, change my mind. The grad school boyfriend (see #3) wanted children, and so I thought I could see my way to it, someday, eventually, if everything worked out. But I didn’t really think through, then, what would be necessary in terms of time, arrangements, type of job, location and cost of living, all of that—especially energy and time.

After we broke up, I realized that I really did not want to have children, for many reasons. This became a problem with most potential partners until I met Sir John. He was flexible on the issue, which meant he could accept my wishes. Later, when I felt more flexible, he had decided he was happy as we were, and in turn I accepted that, quite easily, really. Now that it’s too late (well, probably, and yes, there’s adoption), I find babies and small children look much more attractive to me than they used to. And yet I don’t really like being around them for very long, and I don’t know where we would put a child—not in terms of physical space, but in the shape of our lives. It’s not as if we have swathes of time we don’t know what to do with. We both work a lot, we both have fairly substantial commutes, we’re used to routines that would have to change a lot to accommodate a small person. And having been the child of older parents, I think there’s a lot to be said for not having parents more than 40 years older than their kids. In some ways, I wish we’d had a kid years ago, but looking back, I can’t see when would have been a good time any more than I can see how a child would fit into our lives now.

Bottom line: I know I would not be a particularly good parent, though I sometimes feel I should have had a child. I’m a thinker, not a feeler, so what I know wins out. However, I recognize that some people see me as having sacrificed motherhood to career, and I am aware of possible alternate lives in which this would have come out differently.

I do like being old enough that no one asks any more when I’m going to have a baby.

23 April 2008

Analysis 3: long-term relationships

I’m married now, so this doesn’t look like something I gave up. But I married Sir John when I was 40. That gave me time for a number of long-term relationships, all but one of which foundered, for assorted reasons.

I won’t even go into anything pre-grad-school, except to say that my focus and ambition in college seemed off-putting to many of the young men I knew then, and that I was myself ambivalent about marriage at that time. I wanted a close relationship, but I feared falling in love with someone who would want a capital-W Wife, not a partner, someone who with good and loving intentions would protect me from risks, change, travel, and growth.

In graduate school, for five or six years I was in love with a man who wound up leaving with an M.A. and getting a high school teaching credential. That could have been perfect for us as a couple, and I had high hopes as I entered the job market that I’d get a position in a region he’d consider desirable. But I didn’t. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I’d got a job in the city where he settled, he would have come up with some other reason not to commit. My focus and ambition put him off, too. He wanted more play time, and a wife whose job could be left at work. Having him around did loosen me up a bit and meant I had more fun in grad school than I might otherwise have done, while he probably got more work done with me around than he would have without me. At any rate, when I started my first job, I certainly felt that I had sacrificed love to career. But I could do no other. My work was very important to me—more a vocation than a job.

I made that quite clear to the next boyfriend, someone who had had a crush on me for awhile. Given the timing, it was clear that we would have either a fling or, after two months, a long-distance relationship. I would have been fine with fling, but he wanted relationship. Well, okay. I guess. Here’s what you should know about the academic job market and the tenure process, to understand why I am going to have to concentrate on work about the way I concentrated on the dissertation. . . . Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he told me I was cold, hard-hearted, selfish and obsessed with my work. I was baffled. "But I told you all that six months ago," I said, and broke up with him.

My job is in a smallish town where there is not much social life for anyone over 22. One of my friends, in a similar position, went to EVERY campus event and met her husband at a reception for professors who had recently published a book. That approach didn’t work for me. I was probably ambivalent about getting involved with another academic. Certainly I see a lot of advantages in having "married out," as it were. But for awhile, anyone else I met was put off by the Ph.D. When I moved to the suburbs of the nearest city, I dated some men with medical degrees, and a photographer who thought of my work as a creative job comparable to his. At that point, I stopped feeling that I’d never find anyone, because clearly there were presentable candidates.

It’s all in when you stop telling the story. I had a few bad years in there. This does not compare to people who are tenured in tiny remote towns where moving to the nearest city would require driving three hours or more one-way. But it’s not like I’m a Smug-Married-at-22, either. I have a colleague who started graduate work in her 40's, after another career. She treats the long-distance relationship that entailed as no big deal—she'd been married for 20 years, her children were nearly grown, it revitalized the marriage. I'm the other way around. Long-distance? Been there, done that, epic fail. Now I want to be with Sir John.

22 April 2008

London lodgings

We interrupt this series of self-indulgent musings to bring up a question: does anyone have any experience with/knowledge of Hughes Parry Hall (and associated student halls) at the University of London? I'm trying to sort out a trip next summer (got my start through Dr. Virago's posts from last February, thanks for those!).

Analysis 2. Choice of where to live:

My feelings about this one have see-sawed considerably over the years. I knew when I started that I’d be lucky to have a job, anywhere. During adolescence, I thought exile was romantic, and I kept that attitude for awhile, reading Lorrie Moore characters with a positive spin. I wanted to get a good long way from the people I grew up with, and stay there; grad school took me away, and I didn’t want to go back. What’s more, I had a strained relationship with my family, who moved away from our home state while I was in grad school, so I was happy to get a job a long way from them, as well as from home state. It meant I didn’t have to come up with reasons not to visit. Too far, too expensive, that was simple. I hoped for a job in a particular region (more about that will follow), but that didn’t pan out. Where I am suits me well.

Still, the older I get, the more I miss my home state. I lived there all my life before graduate school, and the climate and plant life still seem "right" to me, as twenty-plus years of "real seasons," bulb flowers and hardwoods do not. I have lost touch with the friends from high school that I wanted to leave behind. I am now secure in my identity. I’d love to go home, but I’d have to change professions to do that, and I do love my job. There really are no comparable jobs in my home state—the choices would be a much more high-powered institution (not likely), or a significantly higher course load (not desirable, even with palm trees).

Also the older I get, the older my parents get. I don’t like their part of the country either, but if I had a different kind of job, I think I might plan to move much closer to them for, say, five years, and then move on—either back where I am now, or try to go home after they die. As an academic, I don’t have that option. I’m here for good, unless I leave the profession, or turn to adjuncting (right out), or go into administration (still a bit of a gamble as to place, though there are slightly better opportunities to move). I’ll have to rely on FMLA if there comes a time when I really need to be near my parents for awhile.

One thing really helps me, though, and that’s that I chose this life. I didn’t choose where I’d live, but I made a very deliberate choice to leave where I grew up and accept whatever the job market doled out. I am old enough (and my parents are old enough) that I was brought up to marry, not to have a career (aside from some qualifications "to fall back on"). My mother hoped that I would marry a professor at the local university, live in a big beautiful old house, have some babies, and see her all the time. Many of my high school friends stayed in town for college, as did I, so I remained enmeshed in relationships it might have been better to leave behind sooner. In particular, my high school boyfriend and I couldn’t seem to stay broken up, in part because of the way our break-ups affected the dynamics in our group of friends. Having seen similar effects among some of my students, I think if I had stayed home, we might well have wound up married and unhappy. When I left to cross the country for grad school, I was terrified and at least part of me felt that I was ruining my life. The path of least resistance would have been to stay and do what I was brought up to do or whatever most of my friends were doing. And I chose otherwise. I’m proud of that. I have a life I made, not the life someone else expected of me.