Thursday, May 29, 2014

How on earth did I let this happen?

As longtime readers will know, I'm a late but enthusiastic convert to daily writing. I have been known to opine that writing is like any other exercise: you get stronger with daily practice, but weak and out of shape the longer you're away from it.

This week, I've been forced to confront what happens when you stray from your project for years.

How it happened: Back in 2010, I had a decent idea for a project. I did a whole bunch of archival research, transcribed a whole bunch of documents, saw a project taking shape. Over the next couple of years, I put together a few conference papers, and continued to spend a month of each summer in the archives, collecting (and sometimes transcribing) documents. But a strange thing happened: by the time I'd return from these multi-week collecting trips, I'd be exhausted. "I'll just give myself a week... or maybe two... to recover." Perfectly reasonable. But then, it's August and I realize that I've done no course prep whatsoever. "Okay, so I'll write a bit during the semester." And there would be another conference paper. But other than that, very little forward motion.

In the meantime, I forget what I've collected, to the point where I not only have little idea of what I have, and even less idea of where to find it. Was it on the work computer? The home one? Did I accidentally delete it? Why do my two computers seem to have two separate filing systems, and the document files don't always coincide? AAARRRGHHH!!!

All of which could have been avoided if I'd kept working on the damn thing.

So now, here I am, fired up with what I think is a really good idea for how to put this book together, and ten travel-free weeks to do it in. But before that can stand any chance of happening, I need to dig into what I have and try to make sense of it all. So far, I'm on day two, and I think I've got one machine sorted out. I'll be digging into the other one after that.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Regretting the offhand title of the last post

...because frankly, in light of the Isla Vista shootings, the thought of bullets of any kind is making me a bit ill.

Here's the deal with me: I'm not 100% anti-gun. If I ever retire to my dream cabin in the woods, and if it's in a region where there are Wild Things, I'll likely even purchase a shotgun myself and get trained to use it defensively and, if at all possible, nonlethally.

Having said that, I firmly believe that the "no restrictions" crowd is 100% in the wrong, and the Isla Vista shootings make it clear why. What we're seeing here is a toxic mix of unrestrictive gun laws, possible mental illness, and misogynistic entitlement. A person who was mentally ill and/or racist/misogynist/homophobic might indeed do some damage. But the fact that he was able to legally purchase 3 semi-automatic weapons made him ever so much deadlier.

This is not the "well regulated militia" that the second amendment speaks of. This is mass murder driven by misogyny and entitlement and made all that much easier and more efficient by the easy availability of rapid-firing weapons and a culture that equates their use with nationalistic mythos and control over one's own destiny. Too many things in our culture say this kid was doing the right thing. And that's what makes me ill.

BONUS LINKAGE: There are some good pieces being written in the wake of this lobe-melting massacre. Here's one I particularly like, addressed directly to men.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Random Bullets of Berks

Here I am in Toronto, halfway through my first-ever Berks and, as usual, I'm not getting enough sleep. I've been having a truly excellent time, meeting people whose work I've known for ages, but have never met in real life. This is my third conference in six weeks, and frankly, I'm exhausted. But I'm also inspired. Conferences have a way of doing that. Book ideas, blog post ideas, people to write... Thank the gods I'm not doing any traveling this summer.

I would normally write a long, ruminative post about the experience, but as I said, I'm pooped. So here, in quick bullet-points version, are some of the experiences and thoughts running through my head at this, the halfway mark:
  • Coming as it does at the end of the semester for most of us, and post-Kalamazoo for us medievalists, organizing a blogger meetup seemed to fall by the wayside. Fortunately, Belle from Scattered & Random thought to put up a "who's going?" post, so I got to meet up with her for a lovely and leisurely breakfast the first day, on a day when I hadn't any panels to go to until 1:30.
  • That first premodern panel... let me say, I'm thrilled to know that the Berks organizers have, over the past decade, started to include more panels with premodern content. And the first panel on women in premodern courts contained everything from 14th-century Jewish women to women in colonial Virginia. Now, the next step is to get organizers to realize that we've got enough interest that we'll need bigger rooms (see photo below). Though, happily, the overcrowding seems to be not a symptom of neglect, but rather the fact that the organizers hadn't anticipated so many people showing up for the conference, period. All the rooms were overcrowded. Uncomfortable and possibly hazardous, but a good sign for the field in general.
We're gonna need a bigger boat.
  •  Toronto is a great city. But holy moly, it's expensive here.
  • 8 a.m. panel Friday honoring the contributions of Carolyn Walker Bynum... with CWB as a respondent. And I'm once again inspired by a combination of intellectual firepower and personal generosity. These are the kind of people I want to be when I grow up.
  • The panel I chaired and did comment for was lovely, with some really interesting papers. My favorite thought-provoking quote from a paper: "Patriarchy doesn't need to be consistent to be effective."
  • Lunches, dinners, and all sorts of chance encounters with friends and professional acquaintances who I haven't seen in years = very nice.
  • You know what's gratifying? Meeting grad students and professors who have read my book and liked it. With as few copies as it's sold, I have sometimes wondered if anyone has read it at all. But they have, and it appears to be making a difference.
  • Remember that book project that I long ago got scooped on? It appears to have become a growing field of inquiry in recent years. You know what's cool? I no longer mind.
  • ZOMG. Giant crowd for the panel on rethinking key analytical concepts: "gender binary," "gender crisis," and "agency" all came under scrutiny. I scribbled like mad.
  • Convocation! With Tenured Radical, who was there to announce that she had taken on the formidable task of designing a Berks website that actually made sense (yay!). I mentioned to the friend with whom I was sitting that I needed to dash down after we were done to say hi to her. "Do you know her?", she asked me. "Yes, for about seven years now... it's just that we've never actually met." But now we have. And she's excellent. And within 15 seconds of meeting asked "Do you want to be on my communications committee?" Uhhh... But because it's TR, and the Berks, I'll probably say yes.
  • Great dinner with more fabulous premodernist feminists, including former commenter K and one of Historiann's regular commenters EJ, with whom I got to talk with for ages over Too Much Pasta. We talked about second books, mid-career crises, and learning how to set our own agendas for the first time in what may be decades. All promised as blog fodder.

 Also: there are 2,000 people here, and I'm eating way too much.

And there are still two days left to go...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

NOT from Student Papers: The Top Three Weirdest Things I've Heard About the Middle Ages

I'm in grading jail for the next 48 hours, though close enough that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and even justify a yoga class or two. But I've been trying to remind myself that a blog, like a garden, needs regular tending, and not just "too busy to post!" posts -- there needs to be some content.

So, for today's pathetic gesture towards content (and perhaps even some much-needed entertainment during grading season), here is my post on The Top Three Weirdest Things I've Heard About the Middle Ages.

And here's a switch-up: none of these come from student papers. Not a one.

Number Three: I posted about this one recently: the member of our campus' media relations office who wanted to interview me, but specifically wanted to talk about (a) What caused the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages, and (b) whether there was any connection with the Third Reich.

Number Two: The student who very enthusiastically brought up on the first day of class the idea ("I read somewhere...") that the stories about dragons came from the fact that there were places in the remotest regions of medieval Europe where pterodactyls had survived.

And the number-one weird thing: The ladies overheard in the coffee shop:

"Why did they call it the Dark Ages?"
"Oh, well it was because there was so much death and disease and warfare and violence."
"Really? I heard it was because there was this big comet that hit the earth. And the comet threw up a lot of dust and so the sun couldn't shine for a few hundred years. And so that's why it's the Dark Ages."

There. Those student papers don't seem quite so bad now, do they? Happy grading season, everyone!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book News: The Good, the Bad, and the Undetermined

The Good: One of the things I did at Kalamazoo was to write up a preliminary book proposal for Another Damn Book (now its semi-official working title) and make an appointment to talk with FabEditor about it. And the good news is that it went pretty well: he's interested in seeing it, he seemed receptive to the ways I thought it would be different from the first one (more of a classroom book, though hopefully with something for specialists in there, too!), and he had a couple of questions/suggestions for me to think about before I start sitting down to write it. The meeting also prompted me to commit to a self-imposed deadline or two.

The Bad: While at this meeting, FabEd asked me, "Hey, weren't you also looking at working on a microhistory on X? Yeah, well... you should visit the Other Press Table..." And sure enough, stacks of a book that, while marginally different in topic and approach, is close enough on both counts to make my proposed next project an issue.  Gah! Recalculating...

The Undetermined: During the Q & A at the very last panel of the conference, someone way in the back row mentioned something about a case very much like the one that forms the basis for my would-be third-book project. Turns out it's the author of the book from Other Press. I congratulated him and told him I'd bought a copy. Then I told him about my back-burner project. Turns out that he is hoping to sell Other Press on the idea of a series, and is very interested in keeping in touch on this. But the crisis also got me thinking about other ways to approach and market this book, including the seed of a thought of the vague possibility about... publishing for the popular market? Shhhh....

Friday, May 9, 2014

I Love Kalamazoo

Goodness, but this may be my best Kalamazoo ever.

I should explain that the International Congress on Medieval Studies, as it's called, is a lot like summer camp for medievalists. There are somewhere around 2,000 attendees, and it's been even higher in the past. Many people stay in the dorms. In addition to over 550 panels covering multiple disciplines and stretched out over four days, there is a gigantic book display, movie showings, a standing-room-only 900-seat auditorium panel sponsored by the "pseudo society" in which folks give satirical papers (usually skewering their own research or things they're known to care deeply about), events and workshops, innumerable wine hours (featuring bottled beers and boxed wine) and a dance. There are plenty of medievalists who don't care for it because it's not considered a "serious" conference. But in some ways, that's what I like about it.

But there's plenty of good intellectual work going on here. I've been coming to this medieval studies conference off and on since... May 2000, when I gave my first paper here (and, incidentally, the first paper ever on the dissertation project that would become my first book). I've given 8 papers here total since then. Some have been very good, and at least one has been a clunker (fortunately, that one was scheduled for Sunday at 8:30 a.m., so no one was there to see it). It's a great place to pitch books, and to meet up in a short time with people you might not have seen for years: sometimes you arrange to meet up intentionally, but more often someone just turns a corner, and there's a happy smile and a hug and 15 unplanned minutes of catching up. It will make you late to the panel you want to attend, but it's worth it, and everybody here gets it.

I'm typing this at the end of day two, and I've been having a great time mixing the fun with the work. In addition to the many happy chance meetups, I've seen:
  • Two panels full of uniformly interesting papers on Mediterranean topics -- and all by grad students!
  • A panel on medieval charlatans, which I had to leave halfway through for...
  • A meeting with my publisher about the new book project, and he's interested in seeing it.
  • Breakfast with my dear friend Little Bear, who is smart, compassionate, and possessed of a wildly inappropriate sense of humor, even at 7:30 a.m.
  • An amazingly inspiringpanel on writing about the Middle Ages for non-scholarly audiences
  • Dinner (and lots of laughter) with a former M.A. student who's now cranking away on her doctorate 
  • A workshop on how to use an astrolabe, complete with demo models
Tomorrow is another day, this one even fuller than the previous ones. I'm not getting any sleep, but I'm having a marvelous time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Dorm Life, Kalamazoo Style

Every May (or every other May, depending), I go back to the dorms.

No, wait: "Go back" is not quite accurate, because I never lived in the dorms as an undergraduate. But here, at Kalamazoo, it's sort of a ritual.

For those of you who aren't medievalists, the International Congress on Medieval Studies (sounds fancy, no?) is held every May in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the campus of Western Michigan University. The school year gets out about a week or two before the congress, and then the organizers make a mad scramble to prepare everything, because one of the ways one can save money is by staying in the dorms.

Yup: I am writing this post under a buzzing florescent light, surrounded by whitewashed cinderblocks in a 10-by-10 room with two twin beds, two desks, a dresser, and one bathroom shared by adjoining rooms. So far, I have not been walked in on while using the facilities, but I figure it's only a matter of time.

I used to stay in the dorms as a grad student to save money: $35 a night, or less if you actually double up in the rooms (I don't). Since my earliest Kalamazoo presentation, my income has increased to the point where I could afford one of the off-campus hotels, but I choose to stay in the dorms anyway. Less money on hotels means more money for better food. Also, it's nice to be able to come back to the room between panels, change clothes, lie down for a bit, brush my teeth, whatever. I've learned to request a room in the hall that is perhaps furthest away from the action (not by much) but closest to the good coffee (though this time I'm at a room right above an area where people appear to be gathering to have a conversation just below my very window -- at this very moment, in fact. I must learn to be more specific).

In other words, I'm cool with dorm life for a weekend. And with several hundred of us here, it feels a little like camp. Though the accommodations do make me wonder about how undergrads staying in the dorm negotiate their more private assignations -- these dorm beds seem like anything but inviting.  I've even learned to think of the stiff towels that are provided as sort of drying and exfoliating all in one. But the blanket they provide... there is a certain sadness to those felt blankets, is there not? Thin, pilled, like dryer lint held together with ambient moisture and broken dreams.

But luckily I may be too exhausted to care. The conference is going well so far, and I have much to report already, but for now, I'm going to post this, sign off, and go to bed.

Just as soon as I walk downstairs and outside and tell those noisy kids to get off my lawn.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Kalamazoo blogger meetup(s)

Well. It seems that I went to update this post and accidentally deleted it. Crap. Well. Let's start again, with the updates.

First: I have discovered the way to beat the stress of ramping up to Kalamazoo: Play hooky a few days early if you can, and then spend a couple of days at the Michigan lakeshore. It helps to have a good friend (pseudonym pending, but I'm leaning towards "Smarty-Pants O'Mulligan") whose family has had a lake house for generations. Find one of those charming little tourist towns still in the off-season, and park your butt with a lovely latte and a house-made scone. Send e-mails. Block in your schedule. Breathe.

Second: the meet-ups! Another Damned Medievalist has gotten the ball rolling. She's got an evening one going Thursday night after 8:00, in one of the unused lounges in the Eldridge end of Eldridge-Fox. There will apparently be signage. This group tends to have a lot of early-medievalists, but interlopers (myself included, and also one of the greatest heroes of the Congress staff!) have always been welcome.

There's also going to be a less formal meetup going at Mug Shots Friday morning, with people drifting in and out between... oh, usually 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. By our Steve Muhlberger you will know us.  I've got breakfast with a friend that day, so will likely be showing up around 9:30, so I hope to see many people there!

Any other meetups scheduled? Leave them in the comments!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thoughts on the Roundtable Presentation as Scholarly Format

I'm participating in a roundtable on gender at Kalamazoo. I really like the roundtable format because it privileges discussion over presentation. We "presenters" are simply providing a bit of chum in the hopes of stirring up a feeding frenzy of sorts.

It's also an interesting way of organizing my own presentation. It's a lot shorter, unfootnoted, with only a couple of references to specific works, and is more general musings and hypotheses than actual arguments. I'm taking a position that might be one of the more marginal -- sort of coming at the topic sideways.

The really beautiful thing is that I don't have to attach to being right; I just need to be provocative. But I can't just be provocative for its own sake; I need to actually believe in what I'm saying. And you know, I think I just might. But this is the first time that I've done such a thing, so I'll have to let you know how it goes.

Anyone else out there have thoughts on this?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Awesome Stuff on the Near Horizon

Today promises to be a grueling day: Two meetings, one of which promises to be filled with pointless and unproductive negativity, which suits me not at all. Worst of all, these meetings (one of which was called with less than 24 hours' notice) are being held right in the middle of my writing group. I thought I'd miss an hour of it; now it looks like I'll be missing the whole thing. For meetings.

Also, it's unseasonably hot, and dry, which means I'm cranky and have a nosebleed.

BUT... better things are on the horizon, for lo: I have a full summer to write! Even better: I have my mojo back. Two weeks ago, inspiration struck. After years of wrestling, I know what my next book is going to be doing. I pitch it to Dream Press at the 'zoo in a week. That's cool. But even cooler: I'm excited to write, and I actually have the time to do so.

Hell, yeah!

So bring on that meeting! Bring on two! Try to suck me down into the swamp of negativity, if you dare. I'll just be hanging out on shore, doing the butt-dance.