Thursday, November 12, 2020

Small things that are plaguing me

I appreciate the comforts of the modern world, especially infinitely downloadable books.  I like a hot shower and air-conditioning as much as the next person.  I even quite like Zoom for teaching and sociability; I like not having to pry myself out of my apartment!  I'm not a technophobe, I don't mind doing mildly technical stuff.

But my brain is NOT suited to all the annoying bits and bobs of doing business online in pandemic times and this is a list of the things that are currently plaguing me....

  • Google Drive, my inability to organize documents into folders therein, difficulty of setting to different levels of access, etc. etc.
  • Doodle - my longtime hatred, and increasingly a source of blocks on trying to arrange meetings for the endless committee and subcommittee work that is taking up much of my attention this year
  • Lionmail, Columbia's proprietary gmail - don't even really know how to save things into folders, the whole thing is an absolute mess, need to develop some kind of system (filters?) but don't have spare wherewithal
  • Concur - newly introduced reimbursement system, may make everything more convenient ultimately but setting it up is asking for attention I do not have to spare, strong suspicion my FRAP money is just going to go unspent this year as a result
  • Documents that need a human signature i.e. printing and scanning (or photographing - my home scanner is broken) - I got an Apple Pencil in the summer for my iPad and surely I could do this without printing but it will take half an hour of attention to figure that out (have still not used/set up Pencil) and I can't make myself do it. I woke to TWO requests of this nature, both on pieces of business I thought already done! I literally feel like stabbing a fork in my eye when I think about having to deal with this.
  • The impossibility of sending accurate scheduling emails in a time of pandemic - I think every single invitation I have sent in the last couple weeks has had some confusing glitch (day/date correct in book party invitation subject line but wrong date in email; wrong access setting for Google Doc with Zoom meeting scheduling; correct time in subcommittee meeting invitation text but wrong start time on Zoom meeting link).

My amazing RA Diana is going to give me a Drive tutorial next week after her dissertation chapter is distributed.  But frankly I can't concentrate while working at the computer, even at the best of times.  My brain is not made for this!  What a waste of time and attention that could be purposed to genuine  intellectual or administrative work, actually LISTENING to a student, etc.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

My six months

 We all count it from different days.  My shelter in place really started on Thursday, March 19.  I'd seen it coming - I saw the footage of Wuhan hospitals in late January and it was clear to me it was going to be "the big one" - but that's not the same as being able to envisage the transformations that would ensue.

I hosted a small book party in my apartment on the evening of March 5 - we had the windows open and the fan blowing from the window-unit AC, uneasily bumped elbows and so forth.  Given that community spread was already taking place in my Columbia community (people who'd returned from Italy) we were lucky, I think, that it didn't become a small super-spreader event.

Classes were suspended on the 9th, and Columbia asked employees not to undertake non-essential international travel, but I was hungry to see Brent (it was essential for me!) and I got on a plane to Cayman on the 11th as planned for ten days to overlap with the week-long spring break.  Each day the situation seemed more grave; we went to Fidel Murphy's for early happy hour on Friday as always, and the bar was deserted except for a handful of panicky servers looking at the collapse of St. Patrick's Day prospects and the likelihood that many of them would have to leave the island if shutdowns continued on the planned trajectory.

I wasn't supposed to fly home until the 21st, but on the 17th the Cayman government announced that the border would close on the 22nd; my flight was canceled and I hastened to get on the next flight back to NYC.  I wouldn't have gone to Cayman if it would have been an absolute disaster to get stuck there, but it is not desirable to be where you don't have immigration status and access to your real work materials in a time of pandemic.  Got a business class seat on Cayman Airways and was home late on the 18th.  As I left the apartment the next morning to lay in a few essentials (I'd been stockpiling cat food and toilet paper already before I went to Cayman), I felt something like a membrane stretch across my door, I had to press my way through it, and I saw that it was a very good thing that I run five times a week outside, a non-negotiable commitment for me, or else I would be looking at a serious exacerbation of mild agoraphobia.

I said goodbye to Brent at the airport on March 18.  I thought then that I'd probably be able to get back to Cayman for the summer months, but the borders have remained closed.  There's a soft opening for Oct. 1, but it's still only repatriation flights and you have to book through a government agency: I'm not sure whether or not I would get permission, though at some point I need to try.  We're still hoping to see each other in December, but there are too many variables to make more than a good guess about how and where that will happen.

In almost every respect I have been extremely fortunate through all this.  I have a secure job and can easily work from home.  I like being at home and am not itching to travel, unless I could suddenly be teleported to Brent's condo.  I have two funny cats who are excellent companions!  I've had harder summers.  And yet....

The start of the new school year has brought a sense of movement to my life that was sorely lacking.  Depression has been hovering, but it's mostly lifted (leaving me with acute anxiety, inevitably, but I can work with that). 

It is going to be a meaningful and rewarding year of work, I think, within just about manageable bounds.  I made a choice last winter that now looks prescient: once I realized I was going to be running my pilot Work Inside and Outside the University seminar and also chairing the Arts and Sciences Policy and Planning Committee, I decided to use up a semester of banked course release (I am operating in an extraordinarily privileged realm of academic life) so that I could teach 1-1 rather than 2-2 for 2020-21.  (The work seminar carries through for the whole year, and I was particularly worried about having in effect 3 courses as well as PPC chairing for the spring semester.)

 And this morning I printed out my book manuscript, the version I finished in January and haven't touched since.  I hired a developmental editor in July to give me a detailed edit letter, and she provided me with truly excellent comments and insights.  I had genuinely no wherewithal for it over the summer, all my energy was going towards getting from day to day (running and yoga were good, and so was the writing accountability group I was running every day, but mostly I just huddled in bed doomscrolling), and that didn't contribute to my sense of well-being. I always have a book going!  It may not be realistic to think I'll be able to work on it consistently this semester, but I am at least going to see whether it might be possible to have about forty-five minutes a day for it, five days a week....

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

NYC 69

Hmm, that's curious, I had a day 68 that was definitely published but now seems to have vanished....

COFFEEWRITING day 1 was a success for me and I hope for others as well.  First actual writing for Untitled Novel - that is good, its shape and nature were clear to me this time last year and we're at the point of "use it or lose it" (it gets superseded by other new ideas if you leave it too long).

I fell back on my favorite trick of textured paper, very soft pencil and an easy large hand....

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

NYC 48

Yesterday I taught my last class for the semester. It was a wonderful conversation and I am really going to miss these two groups of students - teaching things I care about a lot to amazing students has really made this last 6 weeks much easier and more enjoyable than it might have been otherwise.

That said, I am ready for an easing-off of the school workload. I have an amazing day ahead - I am going to use this week and next week to complete various undone work-related tasks at a sedate pace, things like drafting the rest of this report on course release policy, contributing some paragraphs to the proposal for a new writing studies concentration, reading a few dissertation chapters for Zoom meetings, etc. etc. I'm undecided whether to take the week of May 18 as spa week or use it to get set up for summer writing mode, but I suspect the latter - I shouldn't totally overdo it on yoga, quarantine invites overuse injuries and that is the last thing I need! (But I could do a lot of RESTORATIVE yoga....)

The plan for today:

7am Zoom with E., my Clarissa student in Korea
7:45am 40 minutes as 1:1 jog-walk in the park
9am Zoom Heidi's fascial flow yoga from Cayman!
9am-noon window for FreshDirect delivery of the groceries that didn't arrive on Saturday
4pm Zoom with K, my MA-essay advisee in Seattle

And best of all one of the novels that popped up overnight on my Kindle was the new Murderbot novel! If you don't know this series, you should check it out (here's the whole canon so far): they are funny and delightful and voice-driven in exactly the way I most like.

Friday, May 01, 2020

NYC 44

A good week for the most part. I did a dissertation defense on Wednesday that entailed a lot of work but made me feel happy that I was actually using my core competencies! It was sad to say farewell to Clarissa students on Tuesday, and I have only one more seminar meeting for the semester, on Monday. I am eager to be less busy - it has been a really demanding year even aside from the latest stuff, I need some lazy days of doing virtually nothing other than exercising and reading novels! - but I will miss these students terribly. Teaching has given meaning to these last weeks....

Now, YOGA.

I flew to Cayman on March 11 to spend spring break with Brent - Columbia wasadvising against non-essential international travel, and I was aware of the risks, but Brent is essential! And obviously though it is much better for me to be in NYC for long shelter-in-place it wouldn't have been at all a disaster if I got stuck there, I had brought all the rest of the books for the semester just in case. Brent and I had run over the risks: I was concerned about being a vector, since I was traveling from a place with widespread viral infection to a place that probably still had virtually none, but Brent noted that since cruise ships were still landing 10K passengers/day and that the added risk I brought was negligible.

I sort of "accidentally" went to a yoga class on the afternoon I arrived - I was anxious to stay awake (I barely sleep the night before that very early flight) and do something active for the day. It didn't seem unwise - it was a gentle afternoon class with people well spaced out. And on Thursday morning I went to work at Cafe del Sol as usual. As I thought later in the day Thursday, though, about my usual Friday 6am hot yoga class, I realized that it would be really irresponsible of me to go. Those classes are germ incubators, and can you imagine my sorrow and shame if a week later I was saying to myself "I am the cause of half a dozen cases that wouldn't have happened otherwise?" So I downloaded a hot 26 app and did the 60-minute version on Brent's screened-in balcony.

I was already thinking to myself - and I know I said it on social media - well, I can see that this is the thing that is finally going to get me to have a home practice, after almost 15 years of doing yoga fairly seriously but not consistently over time....

I don't know that it really counts as a home practice if I'm reliant on teachers still, but I am significantly further towards this goal than I was before we started sheltering in place. I've noticed how when I go somewhere, the two things I get set up right away are run routes and yoga classes - it was consistent across Oxford, Rome, Paris over these last few years, and I am always doing yoga 3-4 times per week (health permitting) when I'm in Cayman. I've been Facebook friends with Susanne (my favorite Oxford yoga teacher) and Bon (my favorite Trastevere teacher) since then; Bon tragically died of cancer.

I did a few Bliss online classes initially, but they pretty quickly had to shut down the studio, and though the online library of classes is nice to have, it's just not the same without a teacher at the other end and a group practicing at the same time. I also did a great class with my old friend Alex Auder! I do have one fairly major constraint, which is that I can't do much of the kind of flow class where you are doing a lot of downward dogs - starting last summer I was having foot problems as a consequence of back problems (first and temporarily in right foot, more permanently in left foot) and it's not good to spend so much time on the forefeet.

Susanne was the person I reached out to some weeks ago as I thought about getting yoga going properly again. She's living in Sweden now, but she's already well set up for online teaching and I decided to go for it. She has a 1pm/my 7am class Monday ("grounded flow") that I do (very limited down-dog for now), then private sessions on Thursday and Friday mornings, with Thursday being a more active class, Friday as a yin session.

Bliss is just now moving to live online classes. I didn't end up using the bank of saved classes at all, partly because I was too busy in April but also because live with a teacher is best! And I'm registered for Chantelle's midday flow class tomorrow. This is exciting - and Heidi's doing a fascial flow class Tuesday morning!

I have a tendency to go all in on things, I really can't overdo it safely right now due to back stuff, so what I am really thinking is going all in on yin. If you know me and you know the terminology, you will laugh with recognition when I say - I do not need more yang in my life, but I sure could use a daily infusion of yin! And EQUIPMENT is required for yin and restorative yoga - bolsters, blocks, blankets.

I have always loved this kind of yoga. It reminds me of early childhood in a Montessori school (and the first yoga I ever did was an Iyengar-based class at the Columbia gym. We used a lot of props - there was a skeleton that could be rolled out to show things anatomically! - and I think for that first semester the only three postures we learned were side angle, triangle and seated twist on a folding chair. I loved it....)

So - more yoga, more yoga SHOPPING (online of course). Very excited too about this new bright pair of yoga leggings - my favorite day-glow color.

Monday, April 27, 2020

NYC 40

Posting energy continues to be leached away by Facebook, good intentions notwithstanding.

So, the opening gambit for today's seminar (our second-to-last meeting of the Epic Histories seminar), which starts in about half an hour:

Benjamin calls the book "an obsolete mediation between two different card-filing systems": "everything essential is found in the note boxes of the researcher who writes it, and the reader who studies it assimilates it into his own note file." (a) Do you experience your own research and writing as essentially a card-filing system? If not, what other metaphor (of storage or of process) might be a better fit? (b) Keith Thomas, in the LRB essay you read for your footnote assignment, describes his own process in a way that resembles Benjamin's description. Not all historians, though, work after this fashion. Given that Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL doesn't invite comparison to a card-filing system, how might we imagine it instead? Think of a few possible images or metaphors that might convey the essence of Gibbon's kind of history-writing.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

NYC 36


Slept 9pm-4:30am, huddled in bed a while reading coronanews on my phone, did finally get up once it was getting light. Once the teaching semester is done, I have to start going to bed later again - 4:30 is TOO EARLY TO GET UP! Eating a bowl of mush now, will go out for an exercise walk momentarily, and then I've got yoga with Susanne at 9! And a day with NOT A SINGLE ZOOM APPOINTMENT - I have several work things I've been unable to make headway on because they aren't directly related to teaching and the day-to-day needs of students and others are using up all of my energy and attention, but they are not intrinsically offputting tasks and I am committed to making significant progress on at least one of them today! (A report on the theory and practice of how course releases are granted for individual service to the department and to Arts & Sciences and the university more generally.) We have a subcommittee meeting tomorrow so yes, it helps that there's a hard deadline, and once I get this one further forward, I can turn my attention to the Writing Studies Certification proposal that is my other important Thing....

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

NYC 35

Until the teaching semester is done (soon!), Mondays and Tuesdays basically need all of my available vim for my classes. Wednesday morning has a TINY bit the effect of a Saturday morning (not really, student appointments starting at 11 and pretty booked through end of day) and I have just read my friend Marina Harss's wonderful article about learning the Merce Cunningham solo through Zoom sessions. I might even give this a try myself in May - have been thinking that this summer might not be a bad time to try some beginner barre classes too....

This afternoon at 4:30pm EDT: Kaiama L. Glover and I will talk about Margaret's novel at the virtual humanities center. Join us if you can possibly bear another hour on Zoom!

Off outside momentarily for Wednesday's faster run intervals. It is still in the 30s today, that's sort of amazing.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

NYC 32

This past weekend I found myself in the grip of a much stronger urge than usual to spend money on things. It is ethically questionable (warehouse and delivery worker safety issues) and somewhat unseemly (22 million newly unemployed) but it was not to be resisted. One of the many extraordinarily lucky things about my situation in the current crisis is that I can afford this sort of discretionary spending still, and I am super-aware of my good fortune in this and other respects.

Very happy with this purchase! I paid my nice housecleaner for ten weeks starting in the middle of March, as it seemed inconceivable to me that she would be coming again any time before the end of May at the earliest. Yes, I am fully capable of cleaning my apartment myself, but I am not keen on it, and most of all I dislike using the vacuum cleaner, one of those ones that's like a stout little fire hydrant with a long proboscis. It's loud and it hurts my tender R lower back a little; I acquired and used a broom last week instead, but though it's good for grit, it's definitely not as good at capturing cat hair.

Andrea and Jane persuaded me I needed one of these! It really is genius: the cordless thing gets rid of a major psychological obstacle (plugging and unplugging in each room is a pain), the position you use it in is basically totally upright and puts none of the strain on lower back that the other one does, you can even see the stuff you've vacuumed up afterwards....

Saturday, April 18, 2020

NYC day 31

I was a drowned rat this morning after my run! 80 as 3:1 along the river, quite rainy and cold, especially frigid once I turned around just shy of the sanitation pier and found myself running into a serious headwind (cold thighs!). Hair held back with a barrette (an internet-ordered coronaccessory) as hair is much too long; it will happen sooner or later that I will give myself an extreme haircut, though I am trying to resist the urge to go full Furiosa....

The sequel: a hot shower, this.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Final assignments

Your final assignment, should you choose to accept it, is a 5-7pp. personal critical essay on a topic of your choice. I’ve written this up as a shared set of directions for both of my seminars in case seeing the other class’s essay options helps you think of something you would like to write about. You are welcome to adapt or abandon the questions I’ve written as you see fit.

Reminder: I’d love to see something from you in the way of final writing, but you will receive credit for the class whether or not you hand something in to me.

You’ll upload your assignment to Courseworks and I’ll send you a short email with comments before the end of May. I’ve included these hard deadlines because I don’t want you to feel open-ended stress about writing something for which you may not have the wherewithal, and I intend to submit the roster of Pass grades on May 22, but I’d be delighted to read anything for you in summer months if you find yourself working on a writing project of any kind and would like some feedback.

The term “personal critical essay” is possibly coined by me. It overlaps with the category called “creative nonfiction” and can be found more often on literary websites than in academic journals. These are some of its traits:

- Less formal in tone than an academic essay

- May quote a passage or passages from the reading, but won’t depend on extended close reading work or a fully developed analytic argument

- Personal thoughts and observations are welcome

- Getting your self into your voice on the page is to be desired rather than avoided

- May be structured as associative “musings” and probably won’t include conventional argument transitions

I’m going to share a few examples, though these are all at a higher level of polish and sophistication than I imagine you should shoot for if it’s your first attempt in this mode.

The first one, a lovely short piece for Electric Literature, was actually adapted from the final essay a student wrote for me when I taught the Epic Histories class in Paris – based on specific conversations we’d had about Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” and the students’ own habits and preferences, I wrote an essay question about what it’s like to visit Sephora in Paris, and got this amazing set of reflections in response: Sarah Anjum Bari on visiting Sephora under the shadow of the Arcades Project (read it here).

And I’ll give you two more links to essays written and published by advanced PhD students in our department:

Liz Bowen’s New Inquiry review of the film A Quiet Place (read it here)

Carina dell Valle Schorske’s Lit Hub essay on Gwendolyn Brooks (read it here)

Finally, an essay that we’re going to read for and talk about during the final meeting of Clarissa: See-Young Chu’s “Woven: A Refuge for Jae-In Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major,” published in Entropy. This is an upsetting one, and you should make sure you’re fortified for it before reading, especially if reading about sexual assault is triggering for you. You can find it here.

Epic Histories options

Original due date: Monday 5/11

New due date: Monday 5/18

1. Take one of Benjamin’s short chunks of text in the Arcades Project or elsewhere and use it as the epigraph for a personal essay about how we experience history in the time of covid-19.

2. We talked about several stumbling-blocks that made it difficult for Gibbon to write his own autobiography, the two chief ones being the challenge of how to represent a bad father given the bounds of decorum and the difficulty of retroactively defending a tendency towards religious skepticism that looked far more dangerous in the light of revolution in France. If you were going to set out to write your own autobiography, what would be the chief factor that would make it hard for you to tell an honest and fully represented story?

3. We switched from live to online meetings just before we moved on from Gibbon to Benjamin. How is reading the Benjamin of the Arcades Project different from reading Decline and Fall and/or Gibbon’s autobiographies? How is our online conversation different from the face-to-face ones we had for the first half of the semester?

Clarissa options

Original due date: Friday 5/8

New due date: Friday 5/15

1. Given that the novel Clarissa is so concerned with the problem of confinement, what was it like to read Richardson’s book in conditions of quarantine? Alternately, write a letter to a close friend in which you reflect on your current situation in a fashion that includes some thoughts about Richardson’s novel.

2. We talked about the “mad papers” and looked the typography Richardson the printer was able to use to supplement the textual meanings he created by way of words. Using a mix of visual and verbal methods (this might or might not be an essay!), create a single page layout, analog or digital, that integrates some bits of Clarissa and other texts you’re currently reading into a visual representation of your current state of mind.

3. How does a Columbia literature seminar create community? Is the physical classroom space essential, or do we find ourselves able to approximate many of its virtues on Zoom? If not, why not? How would you frame the virtuality of Zoom communication in terms of eighteenth-century epistolarity?

NYC day 30

Quarantine doesn't change the fact that Facebook leaches my energy away from blogging - it's just so easy to post a trivial sentence with a picture there! But I'm surfacing again here....

On balance I've been doing really well. I'm distracted by coronanews and finding it hard to get off the internet, also of course weighed down by the weight of global calamity, but my morale is good and my day-to-day life is quite similar to how it always is. April is probably the single busiest month in the academic year, and I've got a lot of stuff to do, but the workload is on balance mitigated rather than exacerbated by the move online, and my life is definitely easier when there can be absolutely no expectation that I should meet people face to face, especially for evening social commitments!

I had a low spell Sunday evening, but this week has been really good.

I thoroughly enjoyed my seminars on Monday on Tuesday (it's not really for the teacher to evaluate whether they were great classes or not, but I experienced them as great!).

A PhD student of mine got a job offer on Wednesday, always a prompt for joy but under these circumstances extraordinarily so!

My mother is doing well, and I had another really joyful conversation via Zoom on Thursday with a student who's been writing poetry in quarantine and shared some of it with me.

Running and yoga are both going very very well.

And various choices I'd already made about what I'm doing the coming year make it relatively low-stakes for me whether we're teaching online in the fall or not, so I've been able not to obsess too much about that (or whether we'll wait to start the fall semester till January? I'm not keen on that as I feel that the US is so disorganized and chaotic that the kind of protocols that let schools be open in China or Singapore are absolutely unenforceable here, and I think the following fall is more realistic for moving students safely back into dorms).

Due partly I think to the morale boost from good seminar meetings but also to various other external tasks having been accomplished, I assessed things post-run on Wednesday morning and decided that what I really needed was a day off. For the last four weeks I've basically been working sort of all the time but so inefficiently that I am getting less done than usual. Decided to really just give myself the whole day, and it was a gift!

I took a long nap (had slept very badly - the early waking remains an issue), then read not one but TWO novels, new releases of the day before. I liked Joanna Hershon's St. Ivo very much - the writing is superb, the characters are interesting and not at all stereotypical, the choice to have short sharp cuts rather than more conventional novelistic development works very well (in some ways it feels more like a novella than a full-blown novel, or rather perhaps the scenario for a film - the technique of excision might be related to what Jenny Offill's been doing too, only it plays out in a completely different technical fashion here). Would also make an interesting teaching pairing with The Need on the grounds of shared emotional terrain.

It was the other book, though, that really spoke so directly to my heart that I might have cried at the end if I were a slightly different person! The book is Jenn Reese's A Game of Fox & Squirrels; a middle-grade fantasy novel, it is as suitable for the adult reader as anything I have ever read in this vein. A powerful and deeply moving book about the experience of being the child of an angry parent, and how that damage can be resolved by love. Read it! It's going on my top ten novels of 2020 for sure. It broke a spell for me, too: it was the first novel I read in its entirety since I've been back in NYC and sheltering in place.

Thursday was another rather unproductive work day - somehow just doing those few hours of Zoom meetings, plus morning exercise of course, leaves me completely tapped out for anything other. I had one truly pressing work task and two more general ones that I need to attend to sometime and couldn't touch any of them.

I held out till 9 for bedtime and actually slept from 9-5:30, which is almost like a normal night of sleep, albeit weirdly early for my natural clock. Felt surprisingly well rested - probably the first "regular" night of sleep I've had this week - and was able to sit down and complete time-sensitive priority task in a bit more than an hour of focused work. That felt really good, and I'm going to share it as its own blog post in a minute!

Glitch on yoga logistics meant I thought I had an 8:30 session but didn't really, so I've been able to write this post as well and will go out for my easy Friday run (40 as 1:1) momentarily. I have a dissertation chapter conference at 11 and still need to read the 40-page chapter but it is my coronadiscretionary thought that doing the run and only reading half the chapter will be more productive for all concerned than just reading the chapter and not doing the run. (I don't like to go out later because the park will be so much more crowded.) I can get more detailed comments to the chapter-writer later in the day if that's the way it goes....

Image: all of us yesterday.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

NYC day 24


Or, a love letter to Hartley Pharmacy.

It's the first time I've been in a store since the NYC shelter in place started.

(I have been into the small UPS store right downstairs from me a few times, first to send a big container of hand sanitizer to my mother - I'd bought two and she couldn't find any - and second to mail a couple copies of The Duchess of Angus to the folks who are going to interview me about it at live online events later in the month.)

(Also, Luc Sante's "Commerce" is one of my favorite nonfiction pieces of all time. Read it!)

My prescriptions were due for a refill, and I called them in yesterday. The pharmacist Tau is wonderful, knows all customers by name and really keeps an eye out for us, doing all sorts of helpful things the chain pharmacies really aren't in a position to do. You don't need a picture of the prescriptions themselves, but it was strangely exciting to do a little shopping!

My hair situation is unpleasantly out of control; this will help. (Usually they have electric hair clippers, they looked but there weren't any - the pharmacist is going to call me if they come in Monday's shipment. I ordered some on Amazon right away when I realized I had to cancel my upcoming haircut, but there are delays in shipment, and the situation is growing urgent....)

I've deliberately not been buying chips in my grocery deliveries - whereas I consider sugar a desirable and soothing luxury item, chips are just a recipe for mindless eating, and I do better not having them in the house. But this small bag will be a nice and appreciated treat!

The other big desiderata was a broom - I threw one away in last declutter but hadn't gotten around to replacing it. I don't mind cleaning but as well as not liking the noise of the vacuum cleaner (distressing to cats!), the way you have to lean over while vacuuming really jacks up my sensitive right lower back. So this is pretty exciting!

You will also deduce from the picture that Tau had masks behind the counter and sold me one of each kind, an N95 for if I end up needing to be around people for a little while and a washable cloth mask that may be lighter-weight for walking and running than the buffs I'm currently using.

(Actually decluttering is why I don't have any hair clips or ponytail holders either, or indeed a comb [I do own a hairbrush]; I've had short hair for the last few years and chucked all that stuff 2 summers ago when I was really getting the cupboards bare!)

The other local store I love is Pet Market on West End. Ditto put in an order by phone yesterday and it came just after I got back from the pharmacy. I am glad to learn that they have added the option at checkout (they have my credit card saved in an account linked to my phone number so that I don't have to give it every time I place an ordeR) of giving a tip to the delivery person. So grateful for all of this help that makes things easier and safer for myself - I don't take it for granted. Necessities (two twenty-pound bags of unscented Jonny Cat litter) with a small additional complement of luxury!

Friday, April 10, 2020

NYC day 23

Big accomplishment for the day: a great conversation online with Nicholas Frank of the Rivard Report about The Duchess of Angus.

And a lot of Zoom appointments, and I am now so tired that I don't have it in me to write even a word more....

Thursday, April 09, 2020

NYC 21-22

It's end of day Thursday, that to-do list doesn't actually look too bad, at least if you forget that there are two important things at the bottom (the course release committee, the writing studies proposal) that need some quality attention from me, and I've got enough Zoom stuff on the schedule for tomorrow that I don't imagine I'm likely to make huge inroads. It is the best I can do, at any rate!

Had a gloriously exciting thing this morning - my first online yoga session (one on one) with Susanne, my great teacher from the Oxford studio 3.5 years ago. Gonna have private sessions with her Thurs. and Fri. and join her Monday class as well, that will give me automatic willpower-free 3 yoga/week which will be very good. It's a really busy time of the school year even aside from the extra demands of the current situation, but I don't think that's putting on too much. Any time I'm NOT in NYC I find an amazing studio and go near-daily, but when I'm here I'm basically just too busy - and don't have an obvious one that covers all the bases right near me. Doing online private sessions may be my solution to the "but how do I do yoga regularly during a teaching semester?" conundrum....

This is Susanne's website. She's a really good teacher, and it's the kind of yoga I most like - gentle, strong, with much attention to alignment.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Border closures

The premier of the Cayman Islands has been a very effective leader these last couple of weeks. I am interested to see today the clearest hint yet, in this article from the Cayman News Service, what he's thinking about borders and covid-19 going forward. They initially closed for three weeks (I hastily got myself out a few days before that happened - it wouldn't have been a terrible thing if I got stuck there, but for almost every reason it was clearly better that I should be at home in my own apartment on US soil) - and now this:
He also revealed that the border shut down will be formally extended by Cabinet this week, and while it has not yet confirmed the length of the extension, it is expected to be until 30 May.

However, that does not mean that the port or airport will open then, as government will continue to extend the closure because of the global situation.

McLaughlin said, as he has before, that it is unlikely the borders will be open for visitors again for many more months. And even when they do open, given the expected global recession in the fallout from COVID-19, tourism in Cayman is unlikely to return to anything like what it was by next year.
It is a set of circumstances I can easily approach with fortitude, but it is strange not knowing when I will next see Brent!....

NYC 17-20

Just as in normal times, the ease of posting to Facebook multiple times a day leaches the energy away from the blog! Staying light-hearted over there (lipstick, grilled cheese) so much as it is possible.

My Monday class went well, though 2 of 8 students couldn't be there. We had a riveting discussion of Convolute C of Benjamin's Arcades Project!

Nice Zoom chat this morning with a student in Korea who can't join the Clarissa seminar live but has stayed very involved with the material. She's just declared an English major - joyous news....

Light reading: The Stand, which somehow I don't think I ever read! Was slightly sorry to read the introduction and see that this is King's restoration of a lot of text that was cut from the original. Both as scholar and as reader, I am more interested to see what was initially out in the world (and there have been paragraphs here and there that cause me to speculate, with grim humor, that they simply couldn't - or at least rightly shouldn't - have been in the original published edition!). But yes, it's highly engaging....

More later perhaps, but I thought I'd at least get something down before the day bears down heavily on me.

Oh, and two things that caught my eye yesterday. A good Spec story about the devastating impact on universities like Columbia of the loss of revenue from medical faculty practice. Also, Kate Tulenko's Facebook post, text copied here: "This is from an obstetrician on Long Island. 30% of their asympto[ma]tic pregnant women in labor are COVID Positive. Health workers need to wear a full protective equipment for all patient contact.
“We started testing all patients on L&D a week ago. So far, in our weeks worth of data, 30% of asymptomatic patients tested positive. We are now wearing full PPE on L&D for all patient encounters.”" Sure does seem like one of the clearest indicators I've seen of true viral penetration in this area....

Friday, April 03, 2020

NYC day 16

I've had a lot of nights these past weeks where I slept a first shift (after a lifetime of insomnia I have finally found the perfect safe sleep drug for me, trazodone - it actually makes me for the first time ever feel sleepy at bedtime when I am tired, this is a miracle for which I am now especially grateful as otherwise I'd be cycling round a clock of 4am, 5am, 6am times after tossing hotly in bed for many hours), woke for a couple hours and read news online, then slept for another few hours in the very early morning. Last night I was actually able to sleep for 8 hours more or less continuously - I got through the middle of the night pee break without full wakefulness. Of course, those eight hours were 8pm to 4am. It will be good as dawn gets earlier and I can run outside super-early!

A surprisingly good day today, with lots of work things that were stimulating and fully immersive. Some email about rescheduling as online the book events that have had to be canceled, that's good (I am due a real Duchess of Angus post soon). Gonna have a drink now, read a novel on the couch and go to bed at 7:30!

(Even the idea of being able to take this picture and show MORE THINGS CHECKED OFF THE LIST did not get me to complete any of the more manageable tasks that remain undone. It will have to be tomorrow....)

A good recent light reading recommendation: a pair of haunting crime novels by the excellent Marcie Rendon. The first is Murder on the Red River, the sequel is Girls Gone Missing. They are pretty certainly the best new(ish) crime fiction I've read so far this year, with both writing and setting far above the usual and remarkable in kind as well as quality - highly recommended.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

NYC days 14-15

I was again just too wiped out by the end of the day yesterday to write anything - trying a new and probably better strategy of writing a short one in the morning instead!
I made a cumulative Wed.-Fri. to-do list yesterday, and seem to have only knocked a small number of things off it. That's OK....

Top (only) priority for today is finally finish that op-ed that I drafted a month ago and send out a pitch for it. I would like to do some Duchess of Angus publicity work over the coming week: I haven't had the concentration for it, but it is such a great book, I shouldn't just let it sink like a stone without fighting a little bit! Maybe tomorrow's post here will be a Duchess post.

Incentive to work properly for a few hours this morning would be to then really try and break away from 24hr internet news in the afternoon and do one or both of the following: (1) watch Nixon in China on the Met's free stream (it's not just watchable at 7:30 on the designated evening, i.e. last night, but available for the 24 hours following); (2) read Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel. It popped up on my Kindle on Tuesday, and though I've read only the first couple chapters, I deem it sufficiently riveting to have a chance of dissipating the corona news fog!

That said, I will provide a comfort reading rec for those in need. Amanda Craig had a Facebook post today about Joan Aiken, and though I think that the opening books in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series are surely her supreme achievement (plus of course the extraordinary short stores!), her romantic suspense novels for adults were books I checked out of the library again and again as a child. A favorite: Last Movement (though I wonder how its representation of a significant trans character bears up these days?). Of course if you want the simplest and most pleasant books in this vein, you should turn to Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground was a particular favorite of mine.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

NYC day 12-13

I taught Decline and Fall chapters 15 and 16 yesterday (Gibbon's devastating and possibly ill-placed attack on miracles!) and the chunk of Clarissa that includes the mad papers today. Both classes went well, I think (really it is for students to say, not me!). I am very lucky to be teaching small humanities seminars this semester rather than the big introduction to the major lecture I did in the fall - I mean, I'd still basically be, like, "Everybody passes!," but the logistics of trying to look out for students and keep them engaged would have been far more overwhelming.

Monday morning is my Policy and Planning Committee meeting, we were already in a budget crisis before coronavirus and now things are looking grim indeed. Two hours of that and then two hours of teaching in the afternoon left me so tired yesterday evening that I went to bed around 8:30, slept maybe 9-3, then woke wide awake and took advantage of feeling adequately rested to respond to some student emails that I've for some reason been having a very hard time getting to. Did get a couple hours more sleep maybe 5-8, then a mad scramble in the am to get my materials ready for class. I had hoped it would be easy to set up with iPad and laptop as dual monitors, it was not self-evident to the help desk guy either (but they are outsourcing now). Have ordered a monitor that is supposed to arrive Saturday - I can work with what I've got, but if I'm using screen share in a big way it would be helpful to have all the students' faces in gallery view on a separate screen. Toggling today was less clumsy than yesterday but still felt somewhat hapless!

Comfort reading recs #6 and 7: two series that concern the Church of England! The first of course is Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire (a must-read for academics in particular, since it seems that the 19th-century cathedral is basically the twin of the 21st-century university - even the character types are the same....). Second, Susan Howatch's Starbridge series and the spinoff St. Benet's books. These are books I can reread over and over....

Sunday, March 29, 2020

NYC day 11

I still need to reread for class tomorrow, but it was a pretty good day. Tidied up the three "real" rooms plus the kitchen in preparation for full-on Zoom work mode and teaching tomorrow. The living-room table is where the work lives when I'm not doing it (the three main piles are for the Epic Histories class, the Clarissa class and Duchess of Angus stuff). I normally sit at my desk in my study with my back to the window, but that's not great for video (backlighting makes face invisible), so I've been sitting on the other side of the desk. Now I've cleared up the stuff in the background (including putting away the massive pile of clean laundry that normally lives on a little white plastic armchair) and set up a standing desk thing to elevate the computer slightly for a more flattering view! Finished reading Clarissa pages for Tuesday but still haven't been able to get to grips with returning emails: usually I'm quite good about this, but they've mounted up and they all seem to require an emotional commitment I can't quite muster.

Comfort reading rec #5 (the third in the trio with Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones): Robin McKinley. If you haven't read her at all, Sunshine is a great one to start with (baking, vampires); I do love The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown although I agreed when I saw in some old interview that McKinley herself is a bit embarrassed by the first one especially (I think she said "it has a whiff of The Sheihk about it"!); her saddest and darkest book Deerskin might be my favorite of all. All of her books have very good animals in them....

Saturday, March 28, 2020

NYC day 10

A reassuringly typical Saturday: I did my long run (90 as 3:1, with virtually no soreness in problem area of lower back/hip/glute/R posterior chain - still can't get over the near-magical efficacy of just putting a second orthotic in left shoe to counter leg length discrepancy), got into bed with my copy of Clarissa and promptly went to sleep for two hours. Haven't read as many pages as I'd intended to, but that's fine.

I was somewhat unsettled last night by the all-pervasive sound of sirens - I always hear them, I'm only about two and a half blocks from St. Luke's Roosevelt, but with so little other traffic and more covid-19 cases arriving in ambulances, it was pretty dramatic, and again when I woke up in the night for an hour or so.

Comfort reading recs #3 and 4. Two novels about music and dysfunctional families and love: Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows and James Baldwin's Just Above My Head. Really these are two of my absolute all-time favorites, and I am due for a reread on the Baldwin. Interesting to me that Baldwin and West are in some sense most admired for their nonfiction - Baldwin of course is much superior to West as a serious novelist, she didn't write another one that's really up to the standard of this. I contemplated adding a third rec here, Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing; it's my favorite novel of his, I do really love it, but I think it may be more of a niche book than the other two.

Friday, March 27, 2020

NYC day 9, with some thoughts on online seminar logistics

Moving forward with preparation for my first real online class on Monday. I'd been procrastinating on putting together the packet, but now that I've figured out a down-and-dirty technique (I am certain there is some more streamlined way to do it, but really this will work very well for now, one of these times when the fact that I'm lazy is really to my advantage!).

If you read my teaching logistics post yesterday, you already know that I'm offering a stripped-down reading option in that seminar for those who are having a hard time concentrating. Provisos: this was easy for me to do because (a) it's a small seminar and (b) I've taught the class once before, under circumstances that were conducive to keeping an unusually detailed set of notes. Each individual class will invite its own tailored solutions - I teach by looking closely at individual passages, so this should work really well for me.

(I partly saw it because of the wonderful session I had with one of my senior essay advisees on Wednesday afternoon. If what you want to do is look very closely through comments on a draft, the share screen Zoom feature is brilliant.)

For me, making the remaining weeks of the semester feel more manageable seemed clearly depend not just on reducing the pages but reducing format obstacles - all the student in this class really do have their books with them (and the critical readings are always online as pdfs), but I thought it would make sense to put the essential pages into a single PDF that you could, say, read on your phone lying on the floor if you felt like it. Otherwise they're reading pages not just from a primary source but from a couple different PDFs.

(If you are more adept than I, you can probably snip the relevant pages right out of those PDFs, but this is clearly easier for me for now. Never have I been more relieved that I am entirely slapdash rather than being at all a perfectionist!)

I'm planning to use the Zoom share screen feature to show each page we're discussing during class so that students aren't fumbling to find the right place, especially when I can't imagine most of them have dedicated desk or private table space under the current circumstances.


1. I upgraded CamScanner on my iPad (I've used it casually for photographing pages during archival research) to the Pro edition, which has much fuller functionality.

2. I used my beloved Brunnen book stand to prop up Gibbon and coursepack and photograph each page of reading (about twenty-five - I'm shooting to have weekly minimum reading doable in ninety minutes max).

3. I used the internal CamScanner feature to combine the page images into a single PDF.

4. I have a Windows laptop and had to fiddle a bit with easiest transfer of that file onto my laptop (Snapdrop for some reason wouldn't work for me), but emailing it to myself from iPad is simple and painless.

5. I uploaded it to Courseworks in a new folder that is basically going to be these "quarantine packets."

The goal here is to do what I can to foster highly efficient direction of intensive attention. One of the things I teach in all my classes is how to read smart rather than getting bogged down in large quantities of material (this especially matters if you're a slow reader), focusing on skills for how to know which parts of something you need to read more closely (a central question in my introduction to the major); in this case I am skipping that step altogether and taking the students straight to the parts that I consider really important and that we'll cover in class. These are the things I'd hope they might remember a year from now - it's not a time to ask them to slog through all the difficult pages and probably have limited retention of anything!

In other news, how many more days is "clean bathroom" going to stay on my secondary list of tasks before I give in and actually do it?!?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Comfort reading for day 8

I forgot to put this in my diary post, but I think that my next favorite comfort-read author is Diana Wynne Jones. Some of her books for younger children are very good reads (the Chrestomanci Chronicles are superb - Witch Week is my favorite - and would work well to read to the under-10 crowd). But my three absolute favorites are really written more for adults: which is to say, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock and (maybe my favorite of all - rec #2 for the week of comfort reading recommendations) Deep Secret.

NYC day 8

A delivery from CookUnity, another one from MaxDelivery. I did finally get a FreshDirect slot but it's not till next Wednesday.

A very good day for me actually but a tiring one. Woke at 4, realized around 5:30 that I really wasn't going back to sleep and that I should just get up. A non-run day, 50 mins brisk exercise walk. Busy morning of reformulating Gibbon, some media follow-up (!) from the Washington Post piece, the two-hour Columbia UP publications committee meeting (on Google Hangouts). I am exhausted and intend to lie down with Kindle soon in bed.

Epic histories remix

I had a very good concentrated spell of work this morning, the task being to revise the syllabus for my Epic Histories class and get the new information out to students. (I've promised them a digital "packet" as well - a single PDF with all the pages for option 1 - on the grounds that sometimes when things are overwhelming it's easier to just read one thing that you could even open on your phone as opposed to wrangling different books and digital files. Planning to use CamScanner - upgraded today to Pro and am hoping that I will be able combine individual page images into a single file within the app.)

Here's the new version of the rest of the semester. I've cut a few things altogether (Nadar's memoir! Benjamin on photography!) and given a bare-minimum option for those whose concentration is failing them. In going through my old class notes and the pages of the Arcades Project, I kind of fell in love with it all over again....

p.s. I think I got the idea of three different levels from the way you show poses as a progression in a yoga class!

Revised syllabus (spring 2020)

3/30 Option 1:

Decline and Fall 1:446, 1:471-74, 1:518-21, 1:524, 1:576-81
Pocock, “Gibbon and the primitive church,” 50-53, 66-68
Pocock, “Putney, Oxford and the question of English Enlightenment,” 44-46

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of chapter XVI

Option 3: original reading

Decline and Fall chapters XIV-XVI (vol. 1)

*J.G.A. Pocock, “Gibbon and the primitive church,” in History, Religion, and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750-1950, ed. Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 48-68
*Pocock, “Putney, Oxford and the question of English Enlightenment,” in Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 13-49
*David Womersley, “Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: Revision and Religion in the Decline and Fall,” from Edward Gibbon and Empire, ed. Rosamond McKitterick and Roland Quinault (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997),190-216
*B. W. Young, “Gibbon, Newman, and the Religious Accuracy of the Historian,” from The Victorian Eighteenth Century: An Intellectual History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 70-102

4/6 Arcades: an introduction

Option 1:

Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 13
Convolute C: epigraph through C6 (82-83), C4 (90-91), C6a,2 + C7,1 (95), 9a,2 (100)
Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” 7-11
Johnson, “Passage Work,” 82-84

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of “Paris, the Capital…” and Sieburth

Option 3: original reading

Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935) (AP 2-13)
Convolutes A, C and P: “Arcades, Magasins de Nouveautés, Sales Clerks” (AP 31-61), “Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris” (AP 82-100), “The Streets of Paris” (AP 516-526)

*Richard Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” Assemblage 6 (1988): 6-23
*Barbara Johnson, “Passage Work,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, ed. Beatrice Hanssen (London and New York: Continuum, 2006), 66-86
*“Encounters,” from Peter Buse, Ken Hirschkop, Scott McCracken and Bertrand Taithe, Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided tour (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005), 1-12

4/13 Baudelaire I

Option 1:

Convolute J: J1,5 (230), J3,2 (233), J3a,1 (234), J41,3 (302), J44,3 (308), J51a,5 (321), J55a,5 (329), facing pages 332-33
Baudelaire, “The Sun”/Le Soleil,” “The Swan”/“Le Cygne”

Option 2:

Option 1 + further reading in Convolute J

Option 3: original reading

Convolute J: “Baudelaire” (228-386)
Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”

*T. J. Clark, “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” boundary 2 30:1 (2003): 31-49
*Max Pensky, “Tactics of Remembrance: Proust, Surrealism, and the Origin of the Passagenwerk,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, 164-189

4/20 Baudelaire II

Option 1:

The four spleen poems
Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” 182-85
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”

Option 2:

Option 1 + Haroutunian 62-67 (not on original syllabus)

Option 3: original reading

*Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” from Illuminations (155-200)
Selections from The Flowers of Evil: “To the Reader”/“Au lecteur,” “Correspondences”/“Correspondances,” “A Former Life”/“La vie antérieure,” “The Ideal”/“L’Idéal,” “‘I love you as I love . . .’”/ “‘Je t’adore à l’égal,” “Spleen” 1-IV, “The Taste for Nothingness”/“Le Goût du néant,” “The Sun”/“Le Soleil,” “The Swan”/“Le Cygne,” “To a Woman Passing By”/“A une passante,” “Gaming”/“Le Jeu,” “Meditation”/“Recueillement”

4/27 Baudelaire III

Option 1:

Convolute M: M3a,4 (423), M5,6 (427), M13a,2 (442), M16,3 (446), facing pages 447-48
Convolute m: m2,1 (801-2)
Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur,” 33-43

Option 2:

Add full Buck-Morss

Option 3: original reading

Convolutes M, m: “The Flâneur” (AP 416-455), “Idleness” (AP 800-806)

*Susan Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, 33-65
*Françoise Meltzer, “Money (La chambre double)” (selections), from Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 138-180

5/4 Knowledge, Progress, History

Option 1:

“Theses on the Philosophy of History”: IX (257), XIV (261), XVII (263)
Convolute N: N1,3 (456), N1,10 (458), N1a,8 + N2,1 (460), N3,4 (463), N4,2 + 4,3 (464), N7a,7 (470), N9,6 + N9,8 (473), N9a,6 (474), N10,3 (476), N15,2 (481), N19,2 (487)
Rolleston, “The Politics of Quotation,” 13-17
Arnaldo Momigliano, “Historicism Revisited,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 365-73

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of Convolute N and the “Theses”

Option 3: original reading

Convolute N: “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress” (AP 456-488)

*Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (253-64)
*Letter from W. Benjamin to G. Adorno
*James L. Rolleston, “The Politics of Quotation: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project,” PMLA 104:1 (Jan. 1989): 13-27
*Stathis Gourgouris, “The Dream-Reality of the Ruin,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, 201-24
*“The Angel of History,” from Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided tour, 95-104

*Arnaldo Momigliano, “Historicism Revisited,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 365-73

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

NYC day 7

A satisfying but very tiring day. I got through three of my four essential tasks and had several other Zoom meetings of various kinds; this was highly worthwhile! Those reading this may be thinking "gosh she is a shill for neoliberalism," but Zoom worked incredibly well for my meeting with one of my senior essay advisees: I made my comments on Word and tracked changes (yes this is more time-consuming, I prefer my usual scribble method), then we had it up on the screen and went through it together, it worked really well.

I found a nice little notebook on the shelves to use for daily to-do lists. Clearly there is going to be frequent carry-over of even essential tasks to the next day.
The day started with an excellent run and is going to end with novel-reading and a whisky on the couch.

I think that for this first week or so, I'm going to recommend just one absolutely tried and true piece of comfort-reading: books I have read again and again and think might arrest your attention for long enough that you can tear yourself away from the news cycle!

#1: Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift. All of Ibbotson's books are absolutely delightful; I read them again and again, especially when I'm so fatigued during a teaching semester that I don't know what to do with myself. This I think is my favorite - and there are lots more along very similar lines (that is a feature, not a bug...) if you pick this one up and like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NYC day 6

I had good intentions about doing some initial reading recommendations today here, but by the time I finished all the other important things, I was all tuckered out! Tomorrow, I think - I've got Zoom meetings with advisees starting around 3 or so but should have some morning time to do a real post here as well as taking care of one or two more logistical things for next week's classes.

It was a good day for me. I had a lovely 1hr as 1:1 jog-walk in the morning (having had quite serious chronic back pain for the last 3 years I finally figured two major fixes out about a month ago and the fact of running and walking without extreme soreness is really helping my mood). I did some rethinking for my Clarissa seminar (Richardson's million-word-long epistolary novel - one of my two classes semester is dedicated just to reading that book from start to finish) and had a great Zoom conversation with about 2/3 of the students in our normal time slot. The university extended spring break through tomorrow, so we didn't have "real" classes yesterday and today, but it was extremely good for my morale to see those faces and hear about how and where everyone is.

Ordered some hot-weather UV+ protective buffs for when the weather gets warmer. I'm using my winter one as a mask outdoors, for running, walking and errands (and yes, it gets washed after each use), but it's a bit scratchy and these ones will be better once I have them in hand.

Predictions are pretty much useless, but I'm figuring I'm home here like this for at least two months. Fingers crossed that I still get to exercise outside during that period!....

Monday, March 23, 2020

NYC day 5 (?)

I'm counting quarantine from Thursday.

When I was a small child, I was obsessed with the idea that if I just had a bathroom off my bedroom, I could seal myself off and float away in it like a little boat. My apartment is now that little boat.

The landmark days have come fast and furious.

On Thursday, March 5 I hosted a small book party for a friend. I didn't think of canceling it (it was perhaps fifteen people in my living room, not thronged), but I bought extra hand soap and paper towels and made sure everything was spotless so that being in a social gathering wouldn't provoke undue anxiety.

On Sunday, March 8, Columbia emailed us to say that Monday and Tuesday classes were suspended in preparation for a move online starting Wednesday. (Spring break was the following week and would give us additional adjustment time.)

I was following the news closely; Columbia recommended against non-essential university travel, but I weighed the pros and cons and did indeed fly to Cayman on Wednesday. My main reservation was that I was coming from a high-spread area to a low and that it might be irresponsible; Brent noted that since 10,000 cruise passengers were still coming ashore every day, the additional risk I might contribute was negligible.

Thursday night I realized I shouldn't go to Friday 6am hot yoga in case I was an asymptomatic carrier. Downloaded a hot 26 timer app and did a session on Brent's balcony. Started soft social distancing (worked at home rather than heading to Cafe del Sol), though we had early (deserted) dinner at Fidel's that night and picked up pizza from XQs to take to Gord and Enoka's on Saturday evening. But

The first Cayman death was announced later on Friday - an Italian man in his 70s, in bad health, who was rushed from his cruise ship to Health City for cardiac treatment. Health City closed down its hospital for two weeks to sterilize everything.

I was watching the news closely. My ticket home was for Saturday, March 21. It wasn't a disaster if I got stuck in Cayman (friends in NY urged me to stay there), but it equally wasn't a choice between two options - I am on a tourist visa there, and the health system isn't robust (patients with serious illnesses are usually treated in Miami, and the per-capita hospital bed count is lower than NYC; rationing would prioritize Caymanians).

On Monday, March 16, Cayman announced that the following Sunday, the island would close to passenger air traffic for three full weeks. Visitors would be prohibited entry from Thursday.

The next day, JetBlue emailed me to cancel my flight. I hastily booked myself onto a flight the next day, Cayman Airways GCM-JFK.

I was nervous, but it went incredibly smoothly. The airport was underpopulated. I had a mask from my friend Dr Enoka (I failed to press it down over my nose, I should have looked it up on the internet, I couldn't understand why it was making the bridge of my nose so sore!) and didn't eat or drink anything once I was in the airport. Last pee in airport bathroom, with soap and water handwashing, but underhydration sufficient that I didn't need to use the toilet on the plane (they are hives of germs at the best of times and I had a little bottle of sanitizer). I paid $150 for a business upgrade and it was almost like having my own little room - the seat next to me was empty and I could reach my legs out straight at a right angle to my torso and still not touch the bulkhead.

Taxi driver at the airport (it was maybe 8:30pm) said he'd been in the queue since 7am and I was his first fare. He was going to drive an hour and a half home to Long Island after he dropped my at my apartment in Morningside Heights.

So I'm counting from Thursday. Hard social distancing, a couple brief shopping trips. I'm running outside (and walking the 2 non-run days) with a buff as face cover and a pair of running gloves - it stops me touching my face and makes it less likely I'll get droplets on anybody else.

Without testing, none of us really know what's going on. I'm pretty sure that I haven't had COVID-19 already in its asymptomatic variant - I get lung involvement even with minor colds, and I haven't been sick at all since early January. Risk of exposure from when I arrived in Cayman on the 11th seems to me quite low.

I've brought Light Reading back to life so that I can write here for the duration. Facebook is ephemeral, chaotic. I would like a record. And I will be making light reading recommendations too.....

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

End of year, end of decade

My decades do run from 0 to 9 currently.

2010-2019? A decade of unrelenting losses.

The first and worst was Brent's beloved sister Wendy. It put us into a downward spiral of Ottawa eldercare worries, adding a third country and a huge amount of added stress to our already somewhat strenuous two-country life.

Brent's dad Chuck died in 2014. My mother's dear husband Jim was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at the end of 2014 and died a few months later after some brutal weeks in the ICU (here was my eulogy for him). Implausibly, my father died suddenly about two weeks later, and it was a "dog ate my homework situation" when for the second time that month I told my powerlifting coach that I had to go to Philadelphia in the aftermath of the death of someone very close to me. I wrote too many eulogies that year.

Time with our beloved step-grandfather Gene was always a gift, but it was tough watching him go, slowly, over the final six months of congestive heart failure. I wrote his obituary too: it's a little more than two years ago now and we are only just starting to regroup in the wake of his loss. Gene also left money that has put me in a position of financial security that I did not think I would ever achieve: I retain humility in the face of it and am very happy to be in a position now to fulfill the dream of my twenties, which was to pick up the restaurant tab for a table of friends or students without worrying about how much it costs!

Brent's mother had a series of strokes that took away first independence then movement and speech; she died in June of this year. Brent is still handling various estate business, but as a consequence of her death, he was able to spend his first Christmas at home in Cayman since he moved here in 2005.

At the same time - 2010-2019? A decade of rich simulating writing and fitness and friendship and family - a decade of enormous pleasures and privileges.

I wrote and published three books - a novel (I need to write another one of those soon or I will lose the thread!), a literary-critical memoir of my life as a reader, a short book about Jane Austen. I drafted another book that's close to done now and I had a surprise bonus book project fall into my lap as well: after Gene died, I got his and his wife's literary manuscripts, Margaret's novel The Duchess of Angus turned out to be an unsung masterpiece and will be published in a few months by Trinity University Press. See you at the San Antonio book festival in April!

I was still in the grip of triathlon at the start of the decade, had to back off training for my first Ironman the summer Wendy died, tried for it again the next summer but got horrible bronchitis after my peak training weekend and took a DNS, had a year off to regroup and then finally did really pull it off: completing IMWI in 2013 remains my proudest and most unlikely achievement!

Back problems started in a big way in 2011 and have plagued me on and off ever since; I am currently on a mix of running, yoga and swimming and am bent on continuing to regain mobility and running with less discomfort in 2020. My run coach is a voice for sanity and joy in my life, and I am extremely grateful for him and the community he has created.

I had amazing stints at the American Academy in Rome, at Balliol College, Oxford and at Reid Hall in Paris. I made friends in all three places and continue to pick up funny nice friends everywhere I go. Specially precious friends are Darren and Jane, who cared for Gene and Christine respectively in their final months. We could not have done all this without them.

Teaching continued to be one of the greatest pleasures of my life, and it was in this decade that it belatedly sunk in that the work I do as an educator is pretty certainly more important than the work I do as a writer. I was a reluctant leader in various institutional capacities, and there is a good chance I will be elected to chair the committee in 2020 that has most been driving me crazy and wiping me out over the last four months! (If I am chair I have more control over how it goes....)

I started teaching at Columbia in 2000 which means that I'm coming up on year twenty; from a professional point of view, I saw more change in the conditions of my work life from 2000 to 2009 than I did from 2010 to 2019, but really I've just been doing the same thing pretty happily since I started grad school in the mid-90s. The thought of two more decades in the same job is a little daunting, but the job changes as you age and grow, so I trust it will remain stimulating and sufficiently challenging!

I am at an interesting juncture in my professional life: there is a constant tug towards administration, but I believe that my temperament truly better fits me for quiet time alone, reading and writing and exercising and cuddling with cats. WHICH WAY WILL IT GO? Even I don't really know, though I am pretty sure that if I get the chance to back off significantly, I will take it. (But if someone asked me to be the dean of the graduate school, I would also find it hard to say no....)

My specific goals for the coming year: more consistent PT exercises, yoga and mobility work to improve baseline back functionality; work less, rest more. I really think my most important agenda for the year is to write much, much less - between fall of 2016 and now I have essentially written two books, a host of essays and introductions as well as the normal slew of work-related documents (tenure and promotion letters especially), and my brain needs a recovery period.

Brent and I will continue to live in two different countries - neither of us is movable, and having two separate establishments suits us both in many ways - but I believe we will be able to spend more time together (fostering cats while I'm in Cayman turned out to be the last piece of the puzzle, everything is better about being here now that I have lovely cats!). My own cats continue to delight me - Jose had a health scare this summer and every day I get with him now is precious.

I am certain that the new year will bring me more joy than sadness, and what else could I wish for?