Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Two Challenges

Many folks make New Year's resolutions. But do you know when the urge strikes me? It's in the calm after the storm of Christmas, when the running around and stress lifts, and it's weeks and weeks before the semester begins, and you are feeling like you have a few weeks of grace.

That's how I woke up feeling this morning. Like there was a window of possibility. And so I'm issuing myself two challenges, and I'd be happy if anyone would want to join.

  1. Clean [Digital] House: I've said in this space that I do better with short- and medium-term achievable goals, so that's the I'd like to have some short-term goals, usually one a month. But before the year even begins, I'd like to have a clean slate, a little breathing space. So here is the first challenge: By December 31, organize my digital life, purging as much as possible.
  2. The Big Read: Every year, I have a goal of reading 24 + 1 books. The "plus one" ought to be a big, potentially intimidating classic that I've not read before; I take it a chapter a night, and gently work my way through it. This year's "big read" is George Eliot's Middlemarch. Join me beginning January 1. The plan is to read a chapter a night, six nights a week, and blog about it each Monday until we're done. 
That's it. Anyone care to join in?

(Oh, and if you're new here and would rather post anonymously, I'd recommend picking a pseudonym, so we don't have 8 different people named "Anon" posting.)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Planning a Return

Tentatively. In the New Year. Included will be a post-facto narration of my time in Blerg City during a moment of political chaos, and a weekly blogging of a chapter-a-day adventure through Middlemarch, which you are all invited to join in on.

And other random thoughts. As always.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

How to Right the Universe (Blerg City Edition)

In response to yesterday's Researcher's Worst Nightmare, I received a couple of messages along the lines of "What will you do?" My answer, for today at least, was to try to deliberately turn things around by eating cheese and going shopping. But even that turned out not to be as straightforward as one would hope.

I set out on a beautiful Blerg City Saturday to do errands. Local SIM card for phone: check. A couple of cheap spiral notebooks[1] for the archives: check. Then: shoes. Blerg City is awash in nifty-looking shoes that you can walk all day in. Here's what I ended up with:

Basically a high-fashion sneaker.
Universal balance well on its way to being restored, right? Except... that while trying them on, I managed to throw out my back.

That's right: I threw out my back while trying on shoes. The indignities of middle age know no bounds. So now, with a cute pair of shoes, but with no archive and a wonky back, I'm still a bit in the negative column in terms of how things are going thus far.

Fortunately for me, this weekend is also the final weekend of Blerg City's annual booksellers' fair. Dozens of bookstores and publishing houses all with booths in a plaza in the city's old center. So I (slowly, carefully) made my way there. And for slightly more than the price of one of those two shoes, I came away with five small books, and the balance of my own personal universe more or less restored.

Of course, I couldn't be content with just "in balance"; I wanted to end the day on the positive side of the ledger.

Cherry with chocolate flakes, in case you were wondering.

And so I had ice cream for dinner.


[1] I used to buy those moleskin notebooks. They are things of beauty in their simplicity and tactile perfection. But they are also damned expensive and the elastic on the band doesn't hold up. And they don't lie flat. So: practicality wins out over beauty: I buy sturdy spirals in small and medium, save a bundle,and don't feel at all bad about tearing out pages.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Waitress Nightmares for Researchers

I used to have waitress nightmares all the time. Those of you who have waited tables know what I'm talking about. For those of you who haven't: A waitress nightmare is when you turn around and all the tables in your section have not only been seated while you weren't looking, but somehow they've all been sitting there for 20 minutes, and their water is empty, and you've given some of them the wrong meals, and the others have gotten so incredibly fed up waiting that they've gotten up and left just as you were about to get to them, and how could this happen?

I always joked that my waitress anxiety nightmares were worse than any similar ones I had about teaching or comps or whatever. But every profession has one of these. Where you are actually good at your job, but in your dream, everything goes so impossibly sideways that it's ridiculous and you wake up half-sobbing, half relieved that it's not real.

Here's one for academic researchers: you are on a sabbatical or other leave that you hardly ever get, and you get up and get to the archive your FIRST full day there, jet lag be damned, because you know how short and precious your time is. And for once you have made a list and are totally prepared, and you even have a plan of this archive in the morning and that archive in the afternoon and you've done most of your advance work for the first time in ages, and then you get to the archive and sit in the reading room by yourself because the entire staff has gone on strike, indefinitely.

That is some waitress-quality nightmare-ing.

But here's the twist: This time, it's REAL. And I don't get to wake up and shake it off. I get to wrack my brains for what to do, now that I'm here with no access to the materials I planned to consult, and no way to get this time back.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Weekend Stockpiling

Once upon a time, I ran writing groups.

I ran a few here, and those became unwieldy. So then I ran a few on Facebook, and those were better, though still a lot of work. I realized that I can run a writing group, or write, but I can't do both without going nuts. So I'm not running them for the foreseeable future.

Still, I learned a few important lessons. The first was write every day. Every day you are away from the work is a day to lose your place. Every day you are writing -- even frustrating days where you only write two sentences -- is a chance that you might find your spark.

Paradoxically, the other lesson I learned was that some days you shouldn't write. I learned this from having writing group members with families and children, who wanted to keep those weekends sacred. As a solo flier with no children, I literally hadn't even thought of this. But I quickly realized how important those two days were: not just to recharge the batteries, but to stockpile raw materials for the week to come.

So, this weekend I've been trying to follow my own advice, reading and taking notes. So far, I've read two articles about Blerg City's fish market. Tomorrow I'm going to dive into my scanned sources and find out all I can about the city's porters and bearers. And then, come Monday, it'll be off to the races, I hope.

I've got an ambitious goal. I'll need to blow well past my usual 500 words a day to make it happen. But so far, so good.

This is going to be the least relaxing summer ever.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

I have slightly less than 2 chapters to write this summer.

By odd coincidence, one of my M.A. students has pretty much the same feat to accomplish for their thesis. I wrote my student to inform them of this interesting fact. And I issued a challenge: Shall we do this together?

I'll let you know if xe accepts.

And... just as I was about to post this, I got a reply: turns out xe only has one chapter left to go... but also the intro. So we're on for racing to the end of our respective chapters.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Procrastivity, and Why I Need It

Over the past several days, I have been engaging in procrastivity: Doing somewhat important stuff in order to avoid doing the really important stuff. In particular: I've been combing through the many, many files that have not so much been filed as... grown like a tumor. A proliferation of files choking out other files, to the point where I have no idea what I have.

Today I went on the hunt for one particular bit of information -- something about a grain storage warehouse. And I found a file that described just what I needed. And I even remembered that I discovered this last summer during my research. Yes, I wrote it down.

No, I apparently did not write down the source.

Sometimes I wonder how I ever manage to write anything. What a mess.

But it's a little less messy every day

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Final Push Begins

Ladies and gentlemen -- all six of you who are still reading -- the final push has begun. Over half a dozen years ago, I began Another Damn Book. Currently, I have three draft chapters, one draft intro, one hot mess of a chapter-shaped object, and one chapter that is largely notional. By the end of the calendar year, I aim to have a respectable draft of the whole thing. And, with the semester, grading, and commencement behind me, and a summer and a sabbatical semester ahead of me, that process began TODAY.

This fall, I'm going to Blerg City to patch holes. Which means that I need all the chapters complete, if not polished, by September 1. This gives me precisely 3 months to patch up Hot Mess Chapter, and to write Sometimes an Adequate Notion Chapter.** I am not sure if I'll work on them sequentially, or intersperse them. But today I sat down with what I have for Hot Mess Chapter, figured out how to organize it, and my rough word counts (which are short, but may expand). I even figured out how to start it: It begins with a map.

Here we go...

**oh, and i need to revise a co-authored article and write a book review somewhere in there, too.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Slink off, or face the music?

Call this a lesson of midcareer. It could apply to any stage of my career, but it seems to have gotten worse, not better, as I advance and feel both flattered and obligated to say yes to the increasing number of invitations to do stuff.

Every semester, I try to start with a fairly clean e-mail inbox. For me, this means fewer than 100 messages in the active queue. But somehow, by a month in, I'm in over my head. And somewhere around week 6, I start setting the important stuff aside with the following thought:

"This is important. It demands my attention. But I'm being pulled in three directions at once, so I can't give it the attention it warrants. So I'll set it aside and answer it tonight. Or tomorrow. Or once I'm through this stack of exams."

And of course, by the time we get to tonight, or tomorrow, or when the stack of exams is finished, there have been 200-300 more e-mails, and 3 more urgent tasks, and the thing that demanded more attention than I could give it has gotten no attention at all. And I've completely forgotten about it.

That's right: the more important something is, the less likely it is ever to get answered.

And then, the end of semester comes, and I start to dig my way out. And I discover these things, and I realize that the person on the other end has no idea what has been going on this semester; they only know that I appear to have rudely blown them off. And then I have to decide whether to slink off or face up to them and ask whether they still are interested, even though it's 6-10 weeks later.

I've done this three times in the past week. Here are the results:

1. The person in question contacted me after I'd decided that the best thing to do was assume they'd given up on me, and hope that they forget all about me so the word doesn't get around. They asked if I was still interested for submitting an abstract. And my answer was an enthusiastic YES! and an abstract that I submitted within 48 hours lest I lose track of it again. All is, apparently, well.

2. Emboldened by the forgiveness of one set of people, I reached out to another who had patiently e-mailed me twice with no response. I did this as I was getting to the bottom of my inbox: Profuse apologies; It sounds like an interesting project, but I couldn't do it on the specified deadline. Would they be interested in later? Response came right back: No thanks, and not happy with me.  gulp.

3. And then I found one even more buried, where I had actually begun a correspondence, then the whole thing had lapsed... on March 1.  Jesus. I'm a hot mess. I just tried the approach I tried with #2: profuse apologies, yes I'm interested, yes I could make the deadline, here's what I'd do.

We'll see how this goes.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Open Letter to the Entire French Electorate

Dear France,

Today, I read this in the New York Times report about your upcoming election: "The far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has suggested that there is an equivalence between the two candidates. Some two-thirds of his voters will cast blank votes or abstain on Sunday, according to an internal party survey.”

Mes amis, been there, done that: lots and lots of American progressives, disappointed in their choices, stayed home last November to send a message to the Democrats. As a result, we (and the rest of the world) got the world's most dangerous idiot as president.

I get that you're unhappy with your choices. What I'm saying is that you don't need to try it to see what happens. We got that covered.

Be smarter than us.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

"European Identity" My Lily-White Ass.


This week, my campus was targeted by a national white supremacist organization as part of a larger national campaign. We found our hallways, library, kiosks adorned with variations on this theme:

The poster in our hall. I've blurred the org. name because F those jerks.

So today, I had to go into two of my classes and address this. There was no internal debate. No should I/should I not -- none whatsoever. Not even for a second. First of all, the issue was a misuse of the very past I was there to discuss, and so it was required that I talk about this, and take a strong stand about the abuses of history. Second, if someone wants to complain that I'm using class time to say mean things about nazis, I'm cool with that. Anyway, I mentioned that these morons were basing their idea of the future being "ours" and belonging to "us" on a bogus claim of the past belonging to "us."

I may or may not have deployed the phrase "ass-ignorant." Reports vary. I am certain that I was shaking at various points.

A representative of our administration made a point about being a public university and thus respecting free speech. Which is true. What is also true is that outright lies are not co-equal with reasonable arguments. Just like it's not "airing both sides" to arrange a debate between a German historian and a Holocaust denier.

It's not so often that medieval history is on the front lines of the fight against nationalism. We tend to get characterized as "esoteric" or even "irrelevant" to the way we live our lives today. But not knowing allows these falsehoods to take hold. And we don't do ourselves, our students, or our society any good by trying to be apolitical in the face of something both historically wrong and morally repugnant.

We have a role to play. Time to step up, be loud, be unafraid and unapologetic. Time for historians to make sure they get right with history.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Three Things for 2017

When I remember I have a blog, I sometimes remember that I have a bit on my sidebar that is called "three things." The principle is simple: decide on three things you want to accomplish that day. They don't need to be huge, but they can keep you moving forward.

Today, I failed utterly to even put on pants, so there's that for a day.

But I have decided on three things I want to aim for in 2017:

  1. Finish my second book manuscript: I know from experience that a "finished" book manuscript will then need to go on to be finished a number of other times: a big revision, revisions for readers, page proofs... and that's if it's successful on its first go out. But I want something done this year. I want to look at 100,000 words that looks like a book.
  2. Read Don Quixote in English: a couple of years ago, I took a class with my friend La Professora and read the damn thing in Spanish. Have you ever tried to read a 1000-page novel in a language that isn't yours? Okay, how 'bout in a 16th-century version of that language? Now what about when the author, for purposes of the narrative, lapses into passages in the 14th-century version of that same language? The point I'm making here is that I only got about 70% of what was going on. But that 70% was enough to convince me that this was possibly the best novel ever written, and that I needed to read it in a format where I could get it all. So I've started on this. A chapter a day (chapters of DQ generally being about 8 pages long).
  3. Save enough money that I could conceivably put a down payment on a condo: I don't know if I'll actually buy said condo. Grit City Beach is expensive. And I'm closer to retirement than I am to my hire date. And who knows what life will bring me in the next year or so. Maybe I'll look at that pile of cash and decide to pay off my student loans. Or take it to the track. Whatever. But I want to have that goal to shoot towards. I won't name the number I have in mind, but it's largish.
As for the rest -- the stuff about getting up early and meditating and not letting my yoga practice slack off this year and ditching that one Really Bad Habit and being a better correspondent -- that stuff's all lurking in the background. But that's a lot to think about. This year, three things. That's enough.