Friday, May 20, 2011

Abundant recompense

It was a strange week.

I spent way too much time on the phone to my health insurance company trying to figure out things about sleep specialists and what would or wouldn't be covered depending on who I saw, and I also had my teeth cleaned at the dentist's, something that always causes me to contemplate the Francis-Bacon-like aspects of human embodiment!

Tuesday was ceremonially meaningful; I gave congratulations to graduating English majors and their families and handed out awards in the humanities at a college-wide event. I had meetings this week with a couple of my graduate students who have made the significant step forward from passing their orals (qualifying exams) and are beginning to work on dissertation prospectuses; on Wednesday I succumbed, horribly, to a sinus infection, but I also attended a very lovely party at the Century Associationin celebration of my emeritus colleague Martin Meisel's receiving an honorary doctorate from Columbia (and it was his eightieth birthday to boot!). These things caused me to reflect that I typically underrate the ceremonial; I am anti-ceremonial and something of a debunker in temperament, I much prefer to cut to the chase and I do not enjoy pomp and circumstance, and yet there is a place for them, there is some meaning in this sort of show of things...

Yesterday I had a really lovely lunch with someone I admire greatly and am hugely grateful to for what I've learned from him over the years, my dissertation advisor Claude Rawson; he was doing some work in the Berg Collection at the NYPL, and we had an altogether decadent and delightful lunch at Aureole (we both had the same very delicious selections from the prix fixe lunch menu: fluke ceviche with citrus, endive, avocado and shallots, roasted skate with pureed potato, spinach and capers and a strawberry macaron with lavender lemon sorbet and perfect little freshly baked thumbnail-sized madeleines).

Last night I started going crazy when I realized I was still getting, as it were, more sick and that I would be an idiot to do the triathlon this weekend that I've been so much looking forward to (I am looking to a longer-term goal of a race about five weeks away and cannot afford the bout of bronchitis that I risk by pushing myself under such circumstances); it was a bitter pill to swallow, that I really shouldn't do it, something that my state of health when I woke up this morning made very clear, and I was languishing in self-pity all morning despite having had what otherwise would be described as a very nice week...

It was clear, really, that literature was going to be the best remedy for mental insanity: the intolerable noise of the facade cleaning they're currently doing on my building finally drove me out of the apartment, and I hit the public library and got a good haul of crime novels, came home and devoured Karin Slaughter's Broken, which I thought was very good.

Casting around for what to read after this, I was saved from less good crime novels by the arrival from Amazon of my graduate school colleague Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy. I started reading, and I really and truly couldn't put it down; it's a pretty extraordinary book, I kind of think everyone should read it!

Like Oliver Sacks, Priscilla manages to write about a life of deficits and losses in a way that shows, without minimizing the associated difficulties and costs, the magical forms of recompense that come along with them; she also manages to pull off something that often makes me cringe, the attempt to articulate (as opposed to taking as given, which is what I do) that literature is meaningful in some large part because of what it tells us about life. "As someone who has lived to learn," Priscilla writes of herself (she is a Yale graduate and taught at Yale and at Vassar before becoming a literary agent), she found in her son Benj, who has never been diagnosed with a specific label but who has battled a wide range of motor and social deficits that leave him perhaps best described as 'borderline Asperger's,' her "greatest and most meaningful coursework": and the book is an emotionally authentic and intellectually illuminating account of what she learned as Benj's mother and how it changed her.

Really I probably have time to read one more book before I go to sleep, but it is going to be difficult to top that one!...


  1. For many years I scorned academic ceremony, but now, as I work in a milieu in which academic achievement is a huge big deal, not a given, I have realized what a privileged reverse-snobbery stance that was. (Honoring the first kid in the family to graduate from college is different from honoring Martin Meisel, but point being, yes, there is meaning...)

  2. here we are the living and the dead,
    I the Irish wanderer who lived in New york now loving hearing your words.

  3. It sounds like you have been busy so deserved a cracking lunch.. this one sounds amazing. I definitely live to eat!

    An interesting blog, which I have enjoyed reading so far. Follow me too at: x