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.