Monday, August 22, 2016

Unassigned Reading Club: The Footnote

For most academics, there are two types of reading we do: Books we have to read, and books we read to relax. For me, "have to reads" include things for both teaching and research. "Relaxation reads" are real brain-in-power-down-mode novels, more often than not in one of the speculative fiction or fantasy subgenres, with an occasional award-winner thrown in there. Point is, I'm either working, or I'm off the clock.

But then there's that other list: the things that are smart, written by scholars for a popular audience, or journalists for a smart audience. Books that make you think, but that manage to do so without feeling like work. 

Often, what visually differentiates these books from the "have to reads" is a lack (or paucity) of footnotes. Which is what makes my choice for September particularly ironic: it's Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History. It's a book about the way knowledge is presented in written and visual form. I think. I haven't read it yet. And yes -- it does have footnotes.

In any case, my friend J and I were planning on reading this during the month of September, and then talking about it. So if anyone would like to join in, grab a copy (did I mention it's a slim volume, perfect for a quick-but-smart read?), get reading, and let's meet back here around September 30th.

Who's in?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Qualms About Being Qualified, or What the Hell Am *I* Doing Pretending to Teach Paleography?

Today, my friends, was convocation at my college. This can only mean one thing: the semester is actually going to begin. On Monday. Will a year have left me rested and rejuvenated? Or will it have rendered me utterly unable to cope? Only time will tell.

But... other than stupidly deciding that this was the year to Revise! All! The! Courses!, I've taken on an extra quasi-prep: for my two excellent grad students (truly, they are) I am organizing a paleography workshop. Just six weeks, I told them. You should not think this will prepare you for the archives, I told them. But it might, just might, prepare them to take a real paleography course from someone who's actually qualified.

Query now: I wonder if anyone is really qualified to teach a medieval paleography course. I mean, someone whose field is Manuscript Studies, perhaps. But a working medieval historian? Most of us work with one century, at most. We tend to specialize in two or three hands at first, maybe expanding that over the course of a career. But a paleography course runs the whole gamut. Who among us is specialist in Merovingian chancery script:

...and blackletter book hands:

...and whatever the hell this is:

(Oh. Wait. That's one of mine.)

Anyway, the point is that I need to realize that most people who have ever taught paleography have been in the same situation I'm in: confident in a handful of hands, vaguely competent in a few others, and ready to admit ignorance in some places. I guess I can live with that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Welcome to the Beehive

I need to start this story with the Bungal-ette. I moved into it in 2003. Imagine a wood-frame bungalow, built in the late 30s. Imagine wood floors and tile in the bathroom and kitchen and windows everywhere. Imagine it shrunk down to 500 square feet. Imagine it convenient to bike lanes, bus routes, coffee shops, and a body of water. It was a little piece of rental perfection, and was thus my home for the dozen or so years between when I was hired at Grit City and when I went off to my divine year at Fancy-Pants U. And though the owner and I got along famously, "no sublets" was a hard and fast rule. Thus, I knew that I would have to find someplace to live upon my return. And I was pretty sure that I'd get less and pay more -- prices are high here, and Bungalettes are hard to come by.

I am here to tell you that I had no idea.

In the scant year I was away, rental prices went up about 15%. In a single year. And the vacancy rate fell to below 3%. I looked and looked. One place wanted a two-year lease. Another didn't come with a refrigerator. Another was a whopping twenty-five percent more than I had paid only a year ago, for a smaller and less desirable place. And just about everything already had five applications in.

And then I found the Beehive.[1]

Here's how it went: my former Pilates instructor asked the owner of the studio who had a friend who was moving from one unit to another in a subdivided house, and so the small upstairs unit would be available, and might I be interested? Well, it was indeed small -- 410 square feet, including the closet. And certainly a little more chaotic than my previous place, what with everbody living on top of each other. And there were a few things that Did Not Work that I knew I would have to fix myself or just learn to live with. And the previous tenant had done only a desultory job cleaning. It was not promising at first. But... it was next to the neighborhood I was hoping for. And both the co-owners (one of whom lives in a back unit) seemed pretty cool, and happy to have someone mostly self-sufficient and quiet, as well as to knock off over half of the deposit in exchange for the full day of pre-move-in cleaning I did. And though the unit kitchen can only accommodate one butt at a time (and that only if said butt is not dancing), and a living/dining room that could not fit an actual dining table, it also had a little corner nook under the eaves for an office and my bike. It was still biking distance from work,if in a neighborhood a bit less well maintained. There were wood floors. The other tenants were friendly, and the resident co-owner built conceptual art out of reclaimed wood in the backyard, and was the kind of person who would eventually offer to swap her preserved meyer lemons for my cranberry-apple chutney. The bedroom got tons of morning sunlight. It had a little working gas fireplace in the corner to provide the heat in winter. It rented for 50% below market, enabling me to put well over a third of my take-home pay towards my ever-optimistic house fund. And it was available.

Reader, I rented it.

[1] "Why 'The Beehive?'," you may well ask. Well, in large part because, with four units in the house plus two stand-alones and the owner's workshop/studio -- did I mention she's a conceptual artist? -- in the backyard and half of the units taken up by people who either are related to each other or have known each other for ages, all kind of on top of each other, it's a hive of seemingly chaotic but perfectly cheerful activity. And also, because there is an actual colony of bees that has taken up residence in the exterior wall just below the gorgeous bay window in my miniscule living room. The screens, fortunately, are sound. I checked.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Picking Up the Thread

I don't know why, but today seemed like the day to pick up the blog again. Wait: I do know why. More on that below. But first, what have I been up to in the past... forever? Well, since my last post, which was basically a bitch-fest about notarial documents, I've done a few post-worthy things that I hope to pick up on soon (if anyone still has me on their blogrolls... if anyone still reads blogs):
  • Finished a trip to Blerg City in which, for the first time, I had some fellow US researchers who are also friends, and so was not a complete hermit.
  • Procrastinated by poking around in a place where absolutely nothing of value to my project would be, and thereby stumbled on a Document That Explains Everything.
  • Moved back to Grit City Beach, discovered the abysmal state of the rental market, and ended up moving into The Beehive.
  • Had a lovely two-day roving visit with SquadratoMagico
  • Begun planning courses, even though two of them were only for-certain locked-in three weeks before the semester started; panic ensues.
  • Appalled myself by getting bent out of shape in a way that clearly has to do with some privilege issues I still have.
  • Began work as member of the organizing committee for a smallish annual conference (I'm in a minor role)
  • Quit smoking (again)
  • Signed up for a yoga intensive workshop
Anyway, that's a lot, and I plan to write about it all over the next couple weeks. But here's what made today the day: Today, I opened my book file for the first time in over three weeks. I'm the person who has said over and over that walking away from a big writing project for more than a few days is a bad idea, and will make it difficult to pick up the thread. Yeah, well: I'm discovering that for myself. Again. Today I managed to map out what I need to do next, and "wrote" a short section on what a certain mendicant has to say about merchants ("They're AWESOME!" -- yeah, that sort of surprised me), mostly by stringing together some quotes with a bit of connective tissue and analysis. And it felt good to add to the word count again. And I've looked into downloading a plugin that will allow me to read notarial files from home. (um.. yay?) But starting again after a long hiatus is hard.

This seems to be the theme now: relearning lessons about how slacking off for a day or two turns into a week, and month, and suddenly you're not writing, not blogging, not exercising, and smoking. Gah. So: today I try to pick up the thread. Let's see how this goes.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Litany of Complaint about Notarial Records

Someone tell me how to love notarial archives.

For those of you unfamiliar with this beast, these are (at least in my field) books of contracts. X acknolwedges a debt to Y, and promises to pay in Z amount of time. Q is giving R such-and-such an amount of goods of this kind to take to Far Away to sell and return with this other thing. Joe agrees to pay a dowry of this amount to Sue, and then 2 pages of legalese.

I know people out there who have written amazing books from these things. I have heard more than one say "there are treasures in there!" And I've been spending the last two and a half weeks going through them. I have to say, I'm not in love yet.

First there is the handwriting. For my late medieval era, what we have are these scribbles. They remind me of the stuff you're writing in the margins when you're grading the 18th paper of the night, and then the student comes back two days later and asks you what it says, and you literally have no idea, even though it's your own hand. Yeah, they look like that. Plus faded. And kinda destroyed by insects and moisture. One grad school professor described the records she was working with as: "like they had been written in champagne on a cocktail napkin." That's sort of how I feel about these.

I've seen better. But Ive also seen worse.

Then, there are the abbreviations. The notary is scribbling this all down in his book, and will make a fancy copy later, but right now, he's doing something for his own records, so whole words are apparently a luxury.

Also: reading contracts is not exactly exciting. I've worked in court records, and there every document has, if not drama, then conflict. Something to animate it. This? I'm just not seeing it. There are interesting patterns to be found when you stack them up, but individually, they're pretty dull.

And finally, about that pattern: it takes about a gazillion of these things to see it. And I think this is my greatest frustration. I'm going through these godawful books, and I don't know what I'm looking for because I have to look carefully at everything before I can figure out what the patterns are and truly focus in on the ones that are going to be important for me, which will allow me to speed up a bit. Eventually.

Upon rereading this, I realize that these are the same complaints that I could have written the very first time I encountered any archival documents ever, back when I was a wee slip of a grad student. This is that, times twenty. I never realized how good I had it.

So: notarial archive folks out there: teach me how to love these? Because it looks like we're gonna be together for a while.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Quiz time! What Fresh Hell Is This?

"You have to look at, like, 200 of the things. And then, suddenly, you read the 201st, and you say 'Oh! So that's what's going on!' And then you have to go back and check the first 200 again."

This quote, over lunch, from Mr. 3D, my frère d'une autre mère here in Blerg City (yes I'm back).

Archive-based historians, what kinds of records are we talking about?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Dubious Investment Advice for Women**

**I am so going to get spam based on the post title alone. So comments stay open only for a week so I don't spend the rest of my life deleting posts by bots.

I love a good shoe. Truly, I do. In fact, today, I was walking -- nay, strutting -- through the library at Hogwarts, and in no small part because of the pair of boots I am wearing. They are comfortable yet stylish. They work with skirts and jeans. They are perfect, and I will cry when I inevitably wear them out and can't find another pair like them.

But today, in my social media account, one of those ads popped up. It was from a women's magazine, and it was promoting what its editors thought (or had been paid to think) were the shoes to have this season (Yes, some people buy shoes by season. We call them "wealthy people"). I clicked on it, and found what I anticipated: there was one pair that was reasonably attractive; the others seemed designed to scream out YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE ME BEFORE I AM TOTALLY UNIQUE NO NOT UGLY HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT YOU SHOULD BUY ME RIGHT NOW FOR $800 SO YOU CAN WEAR ME FOR EIGHT WEEKS BEFORE THE INEVITABLE KNOCK-OFFS HAPPEN AND EVERYBODY HAS A PAIR AND YOU HAVE TO DISOWN ME AND BURN EVERY PICTURE YOU HAVE WITH YOU WEARING ME.

For $990 this (and its mate) can be yours.

But it's not that -- the inevitable disposable fashion -- that caught my eye. That's a given, as is the eyeroll that is my standard response. It was the title of the post. Usually, it's something like "18 handbags you can't live without" or "12 smoothies that will change your life" or something equally hyperbolic. This one, however, was called "Sixteen Shoes You'll Want to Invest In This Spring."  And that title raised a few questions for me:
  • What is the projected rate of return on my shoe investment?
  • Is my shoe-investment tax-deferred?
  • Can I roll it over into an IRA?
  • What are the investment manager fees for my shoe purchase?
  • Will my employer match my contributions?
Oh, wait: by "invest", you mean "Spend the equivalent of 2.5 months' retirement contributions on a pair of shoes that will be fashionable for about the next 5 minutes because poverty in old age only happens to ugly people." Got it.

As the inimitable Twisty Faster used to say, this chaps my spinster hide. First, women are marketed beauty products with food to put on their faces to replace the food that they're not supposed to put in their faces; now, "investment" means "spend money on something whose value depreciates to zero in less time than it takes you to pay off the charge on your credit card."

What. The. HELL.