Monthly Archives: December 2008

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Edith Wharton

“Then the populace closes in again, so quickly and densely that it seems
impossible it could ever have been parted, and negro water-carriers,
muffled women, beggars streaming with sores, sinewy and greasy “saints,”
Soudanese sorcerers hung with amulets made of sardine-boxes and
hares’-feet, long-lashed boys of the Chleuh in clean embroidered
caftans, Jews in black robes and skull-caps, university students
carrying their prayer-carpets, bangled and spangled black women,
scrofulous children with gazelle eyes and mangy skulls, and blind men
tapping along with linked arms and howling out verses of the Koran,
surge together in a mass drawn by irresistible suction to the point
where the bazaars converge about the mosques of Moulay Idriss and El
Kairouiyin.”

–E. W., In Morocco (1917)

Axé.

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New Year: In Which I Am Not a Suburban-American

In the New Year I will renew last year’s vows, namely, to engage in luxury, calm, and voluptuousness. I will call more regularly upon the spirits, who reside here in the breath of winter’s fiery hearth.

I

In graduate school one had to prove one was serious. One of the main ways to prove this was to say one would live anywhere. In the New Year I will say I am only interested in urban life. Perhaps I am not serious. Perhaps my attitude is  insufficiently sacrificada. But my problem as an academic has always been that in order to be one, one was expected to renounce being the person one needed to be in order to be one.

II

In Reeducation one had to change oneself, also. The main change was that you had to learn to feel the pall of death inside your chest. You had no right to the breath of life, and you must stamp it out. Despite these warnings I still wanted more breath, not less, and so I failed Reeducation. But I am as sure now as when I failed this course that it is in one’s own nature that one finds the breath of life.

III

Since Reeducation I have been intensely phobic about almost every aspect of academic work. I spend a great deal of my work energy calming my nerves around the fact of being here at all. This is because academia, for me, has not been a great deal more than a random, abusive workplace, located far away from the things which interest me in life. And in both academia and Reeducation, having an intellectual orientation turned out to be problematic.

The result of it all is that to stay in both I had to defer my own life and suppress my intellectual interests. This process of suppression is very violent, and that is why I am so phobic. Every day I have to deaden myself in order to go to work, and then reanimate myself enough to function. Being half dead and also  falsely animated, it is hard to produce well.

“You are steeling yourself like someone who is going to a torture chamber,” said a friend watching me get ready one morning. It was true, I noted, but I had not even realized it, because I was not even preparing for a difficult day.

IV

This year I will no longer say, except in public, that I like things I do not.  I will also work on getting over my  academophobia by hiding from it less. I will honor its causes, recognize that its roots are real, and then nurture my breath. I will say that it is wonderful I have gotten through things at all. I have already asked, why did you succumb to everything, and answered that it was because I was weak or weakened. There is no need to ask again.

V

I have these tendencies to self abuse and to claustrophobia as a result of trying to change my interests, desires, and tastes to fit in with academia, suburban life, and Reeducation. I try to limit myself in the proper ways, but it feels like suffocation and suicide. I then want to run from the scenes of these crimes and also from the self that feels shame of having suffered them and has not yet overcome their effects. I want to run to my stronger side, or to a side with no memory.

VI

What is it I want to leave? From what can I depart instantly? This year I will stop residing in the self that thinks it should be someone else. I will remember that it is not a personal failing not to thrive in the suburbs, or to have a taste for a different sort of life. I have been trying to survive by becoming someone else and only being myself in cyberspace, but this year I am going to stop.  That, I think, should help with the claustrophobia and activate the breath of life.

VII

Despite what I say in III and what others say, my issue has never been the academic world per se. It is the nature of my own daily life in it and my attempts to submit to it which bother me. The common answer is to adjust but there is a point at which adjustment becomes self-betrayal. It might be possible to live the same life minus the attempt at adjustment, and live it better.

VIII

Also despite what I say in III, it is worth remembering the list of things that actually set off my academophobia is very short. My problem is that those activities are my principal job assignment. It is unclear to me what to do about that fact in the immediate term, but I perceive that to remember how short the list actually is would help. And I am always amused that those who tell me most stridently that I need to adjust, do not want to hear what my job actually is – or wrinkle their noses if I do explain it. I am used to the things which shock them, but it is still terribly hard to live so far from town.

IX

It helps to notice how well my research brain wakes up when I get to California, or the D.F., or Lima, or S. Paulo, or anywhere with cities, mountains, and seas. It will help to remember that the list of phobias is short and all the phobias arise from my working conditions, not my work. It will help to remember that I am phobic because of having lived in situations where it was dangerous to say no to things any sensible person, or self respecting academic would refuse. It will also help to remember that at the root of it all is my thinking I should be someone else. It is, of course, possible that I should be someone else – that I should be able to live without cities, mountains, or seas – but I have seen that it is not fruitful to try.

Axé.

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Another Past

The third section of this post is the one relevant to its title, but I have a few other things to say. Even before the first thing, and in preparation for tomorrow’s post, I announce that not only do I believe in living in VERY URBAN ENVIRONMENTS, I also believe in SURFING and BACKPACKING, this last at HIGH ALTITUDES. I further believe in doing these things as part of normal life, not at the end of a plane voyage. These opinions explain a great deal and I point them out to prepare my more assiduous readers for tomorrow’s post. I have been called superficial many, many times for having these interests and tastes, but I have determined at last that I am not superficial at all.

First:

Featured blogs for today are From Gaza With Love and Daily Routines. The first is heartrending and the second, fascinating. You discover how creative people organize their days. Each one is more eccentric than the last, and I want to read them all. (So far I identify most with the “Early Risers” and must clearly become one. The thought of putting off beginning work until afternoon is so depressing as to be scary. I read those routines and feel true dismay.)

Next: Notes from the MLA

1. People in S.F. for the first time kept marveling about how intercultural it is. I find it normal. I can finally relax. I am freed of that nagging feeling that someone is missing I get in many other U.S. cities.

2. Going from hotel to hotel to see different things, and especially threading yourself through the labyrinthine S.F. Hilton, is difficult.

3. The basement of the S.F. Mariott reminds me of an airport.

4. I liked the Spanish and Portuguese panels better than the English panels – except for the digital editing panels, of which I wish I had attended more – and became glad my line is not based in English (I sometimes wish it were).

5. I did not stay in a hotel but in an apartment from Craigslist. I am in it now. This comparatively inexpensive option is comfortable and very, very hip.

6. There were papers on poet friends of my parents, and retrospective panels on my former professors.

Finally: An Alternative World Fantasy

A friend in graduate school pointed out that the reason the university worked so well was that it had an enormous semi-secret corps of excellent assistant professors who were actually advanced graduate students, teaching up a storm at more levels than one realized and generating a great deal of research. I have now uncovered an old U.S. model of the academic ladder, in which that corps was no secret. Could a return to it help reduce student loan debt, the job crisis and the tenure trauma? Apparently the system was:

1. You do an old fashioned, fancy M.A. with a serious thesis, taking up to three years, during which time you are a T.A. with a low teaching load.

2. You are hired as an instructor, and this is a tenure track position. Via teaching, research and service you earn tenure, whereupon you are promoted to Assistant Professor. Not having the Ph.D., however, you cannot teach certain senior or any graduate courses.

3. If you do not wish to remain at this rank permanently, you go on sabbatical to take coursework toward the Ph.D. While working on your dissertation, you come home to teach. Your dissertation and the publications it generates as you write it gain you admission to the Graduate Faculty.

4. Your further work as an Assistant Professor and Graduate Faculty Member earn you promotions to Associate and eventually, Full Professor.

What do you think, Lumpenprofessoriat? Would this arrangement alleviate the current problems in any way? What are the various reasons why it would not work?

Axé.

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Limits of Modernity

I never get over missing the Western landscapes and Woody Guthrie’s song “Roll On, Columbia” never fails to make me nostalgic.

The video has majestic photographs, but listen closely to the song lyrics. They are racist, colonialist, anti-environmentalist, and although Guthrie would never admit it, they favor big business. These are some errors in modernization theory and perhaps in modernity.

Axé.

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On the Train

In Denmark this is the first day of Christmas. To get ready for Christmas back in the day you had to prepare many special foods, including rolled lamb sausage and pebernødder. On Christmas Eve there was rice pudding and goose with red cabbage. On Christmas Day there was an endless luncheon of pickles and things. On the first day of Christmas there were hens. Eventually there would be the best food item, gizzard soup (fowl carcasses, giblets, head, feet; the rest of the gravy, apples and prunes; vinegar, sugar, carrots, and leeks, simmer it all down).

Everyone had a bottle of Sandeman’s port in their cabinet except for a man named Stone (yes, Danes have names like Wolf, Bear, and Stone), who had rainwater madeira. The twentysomething crowd, born after the war, had secret stashes of Camembert. They spread butter very thickly on their bread. One Christmas OPEC was not selling us oil, so there was no driving and no heat. There were always real candles on the tree, which was otherwise decorated with cookies and garlands of nuts and raisins. Presents hung from its branches. “First we show the tree, then we eat it,” said the song. “Christmas lasts a long time, and costs a lot of money.”

*

Now there is a conference I could go to in Deutschland, which we call Tyskland in Danish. It is too expensive, but we must enjoy the fantasy while it lasts.
It is at the University of Bielefeld, in Westphalia, near Hannover. By train Hannover is the gateway to Denmark. But Bielefeld lies on the traditional train route Paris – Köln (Cologne) – Bielefeld – Hannover – Berlin – Warszawa – Kiew/Moskwa. Nowadays, if I had the cash, I could calmly buy a ticket and actually ride that route.

The USSR existed when I used to spend time in Europe. Going to Denmark from Spain, Hannover was a major interchange. Trains left in the evening, and German passport control officers would wake you up sometime before dawn and stare at your papers. Later in Hannover you could see the enormous Russian trains announcing their route: BERLIN – Киев – Москва. Even Berlin was deep in the forbidden lands then.

*

I never got on one of those trains, of course, but onto a German one. I would find a Danish speaking compartment to sit in. Danish customs officers would come on as we moved across the Dannevirke and into Jutland. They would stick their mild heads around our door and say, I see you are all Danish. Welcome home.

Axé.

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Lumen Christi

This is also my birthday, and it is an excellent day to work for peace. Among other things let us consider working to free Muntazer Al-Zaidi (especially since Bush has “no hard feelings”) and to get out of Iraq, Barack!

I am feeling interestingly light. Here comes part of the 2007 Christmas concert given at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Saint Mary OF THE PEOPLE, in Rome.

Here is the Piazza del Popolo, where the church stands, with its lion fountain.

Axé.

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On the Docks

A few days ago I was standing on a New Orleans wharf watching the ships come in, and just after noon today, Pacific Standard Time, I will be on a San Francisco dock waiting for the Larkspur Ferry. If you fly to San Francisco from Houston this morning, you may see me on the plane. I hope it is not one of those notorious MLA flights.

Standing on docks in San Francisco is a very traditional thing to do. One of my aunts did it in 1917 to welcome Emma Goldman. Another aunt went down not much later to pick up my uncles, white Russians arriving from China, and put them on a train bound for Harvard University. A few years later my parents were children, and Memphis Minnie sang this song.

That old ‘Frisco train makes a mile a minute
That old ‘Frisco train makes a mile a minute
Well, in that old coach, I’m gonna sit right in it
I’m on my way, to ‘Frisco town

You can toot your whistle, you can ring your bell
You can toot your whistle, you can ring your bell
But I know you been wanting it by the way you smell
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

There’s a boa constrictor and a lemon stick
There’s a boa constrictor and a lemon stick
I don’t mind being with you but my mama’s sick
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I would tell you what’s the matter, but I done got scared
I would tell you what’s the matter, but I done got scared
You got to wait now, until we go to bed
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

If you was sick, I wouldn’t worry you
If you was sick, I wouldn’t worry you
I wouldn’t want you to do something that you couldn’t do
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Well, if you want it, you can get it, and I ain’t mad
Well, if you want it, you can get it, and I ain’t mad
If you tell me this is something that you ain’t never had
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Look-a here, you get mad everytime I call your name
Look-a here, you get mad everytime I call your name
I ain’t never told you that you couldn’t get that thing
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I woke up this morning about half past five
I woke up this morning about half past five
My baby turned over, cried just like a child
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I got something to tell you, I don’t want to make you mad
I got something to tell you, I don’t want to make you mad
I got something for you, make you feel glad
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Look-a here, look-a here, what you want me to do
Look-a here, look-a here, what you want me to do
Give you my jelly when die for you
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I got something to tell you, gonna break your heart
I got something to tell you, gonna break your heart
We been together so far, we gotta get apart
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

There was no Golden Gate Bridge and no Bay Bridge, and you went to Chicago and New York by train. In Berkeley my grandfathers took the streetcar down to ride the ferries to work.

On weekends my grandparents went out dancing in San Francisco. If you missed the last ferry to Berkeley, you had to take the late one to Oakland. This ferry had potted palms, a dance floor, and a jazz band. When you landed, there might still be streetcars running. If not, you rode home luxuriously by cab.

In this video you can see what it was like to arrive in San Francisco, by ferry from Oakland or Marin, in 1940.

F E L I C E S
F I E S T A S

Axé.

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