Wednesday, July 21, 2021

10 x 50

1. My fiftieth birthday today.  

2. This year was a crucible! In the end I think I did come out stronger, but word to the wise, don't tell people they're resilient while they're still in the thick of crisis....

3. Stronger in my sense of purpose for sure.  Teaching, writing and advising/mentoring are my things.  There are a few issues I care a lot about and I would relax the "no higher admin" role to pursue them, but I did not thrive as chair of the A&S Policy and Planning Committee this year, my values aren't closely enough aligned with the present-day institution and I hereby pronounce that I will rule out any future path that points me seriously deanwards.  Wasn't sure about this a year and a half ago, am now, that's progress!

4.  I've only been department chair for a few weeks, but I think actually I quite like it, and certainly I consider it the normal responsibility of those who are in a position to undertake it, it's still effectively a faculty position rather than a position in university leadership.  I like helping people sort out the small things they need!  Also have hyper-competent DAAF who takes care of a lot of practical details I hate - i.e. I am surprised by how many people need forms signed, but Pam has already had a rubber stamp made and will do that or digital for anything I forward to her and get it back to the recipient.  Since anything that comes in an attachment or at a link that I have to deal with basically fills me with anxiety and dread, this is extremely helpful.

5. Two exciting birthday treats, obtained yesterday from Gelato & Co. at Camana Bay: fruit-of-the-forest "tiramisu" gelato with meringue; exquisite slice of sachertorte, which I know mostly from the novels of Eva Ibbotson.  

6. And a good run early this morning, and a good work day as well.  I had three biggish things and the one I cared about least was on the hardest deadline, I was aware that taking the whole summer OFF from work might be a good idea, but in fact my brain needs this kind of intellectual project to thrive so that wouldn't really have been a solution, not to mention just making me even unhappier about sitting on a big project I care about that was STUCK.  It is no longer stuck - the manuscript revision won't be done by the end of the summer (I have three more full weeks in Cayman with Brent, then two more before Labor Day, the latter will be I think mostly life reentry, full-on chairing set-up and writing the Norton Library Pride and Prejudice introduction that is due Sept. 1.

Pictured: use of new ReMarkable tablet to work on notes for new sections; working headings for the new preface and introduction for the book, which were the really crucial thing for me to work out this summer.  Drafted the new preface, now working on filling in bits and identifying holes in the new structure, this is good and I am committed to working on it steadily through fall and winter, if I do that I think it can be done in January and ready to send out (that is unless I decide I need to go down the rabbithole of Board of Trade archives...).

7.  Have decided I will join Chelsea Piers again in September - my back is so much better, I can ride my bike down there again and I really need access to that pool and more especially to masters swim.  Columbia pool did finally open a couple months ago but on an extremely limited schedule and I am not sure it's going to work for me.  ALSO realization of this year was that without being able to go physically to be with Brent I had absolutely no work-life separation, I live in a Columbia apartment 1 block from campus, working from home all the time.  Chelsea Piers was always my third place, I need that again!  (Good place to work on book too - contemplating how to fend off immersion in admin email till later in day - think this will help.)

8. This pandemic year was actually very good for my problematic back and my physical fitness in general - no human contact meant no bronchitis, so no illness-related layoffs; no travel prevented disruptions to daily routine; great yoga taught live online solved my NYC "can't easily get to the right studio" problem. Ramped things up when I got to Cayman, the yoga continues live and online, I run 4x and try to bike outdoors on Sunday (triathlon might be a gleam in my eye again) and at least one indoor ride (good new spin bike here, acquired because of quarantine needs, is helping this happen smoothly, plus Monday early am date with Lauren).  ALL GOOD.

9.  Still worse concentration than usual, I think. But much more functional than in May, I wasn't sure it would happen that quickly, the school year was so so so much more taxing even than it usually is.

10. OK that's all folks!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

June 24 update

Brains are strange, they are frustrating, they forget their own self-knowledge every time and it is always almost a surprise -- the very greatest relief -- when it turns out that no this state of distraction and anxiety and lack of focus is NOT permanent, I will be myself again if I am patient.

Which is to say it's June 24, and today is the FIRST day I am really feeling back to myself, as evidenced in my having gotten myself to the cafe for a morning writing session.

I cannot bear to go back through the trials and tribulations of my work and personal life from March 2020 through to May 2021, they were nothing compared to what many other people have lost this year but they were not really nothing, they were overwhelming!  Cut off from my partner by a closed international border, in the hot seat on faculty governance at about the worst possible time in the whole chequered history of Columbia Arts and Sciences, naturally prone to depression  and anxiety - yes there were bright spots, my students were amazing and my new version of the intro the major, prompted by the #BLM protests of summer 2020, might be the best class I've ever taught. And I didn't actually flame out and die even though I hope I never again in my life have to run regular 200-person A&S faculty meetings on Zoom.

Misguided revisions to the academic calendar left me having taught my last class in mid-April, the semester was officially over before the end of April to accommodate two beefed-up summer terms, but of course all the admin stuff needed our attention not just to the end of May but into June.  Unprecedented degree of burnout for me, really almost indescribable if you haven't ever experienced it.  I flew to Cayman on May 21, when I booked it I thought I'd be fully done with school stuff and already transitioning to my own work, this was completely delusional.  I would be here for 13 weeks, I figured 3 for recovery (including the currently 12-day quarantine for vaccinated travelers) and 10 for FULL-ON WORK.

Halfway through week 5 now and I only yesterday finally struggled through my final Policy and Planning Committee task, the nth revision of the report of the subcommittee I chaired on pandemic workload and career impact.  I haven't done more than a few hours of work each day over these first four and a half weeks, mostly PPC and other lingering external tasks (I did have 3 2hr sessions restructuring my book manuscript when I realized how angry I was with my employer but also myself for letting this work sunder me from my writing).  What I have done is MASSIVE amounts of exercise, that fed my body and brain, it was actually a very good exercise year for me all round because I like not seeing anybody and streaming high-quality yoga from my home office and generally being left to my own devices.  But that will not ultimately sustain my SOUL, so....

... it was clearly related to having finally pushed through to the sort-of-end (really these things never end) of the committee stuff, but on my longer run yesterday morning I had a major insight.  I thought - why have I not started working in the morning at the cafe again?  That is my longstanding routine, that is what I couldn't have this past year (and what I tried to recreate for students and colleagues when I ran the COFFEEWRITING sessions last summer), I can never concentrate at home and at the computer, I need pen or pencil and lined paper at a cafe table!

And I realized that I still hadn't fully got my mind around covid-era change.  When Cayman had hard lockdown last summer, Brent moved his office computer ("the production machine!") home and kept working at home even after he could have gone back to the office.  Old timetable: Brent to office solo around 5am for backups, stop at Cafe del Sol to pick up coffee and protein shakes, home for regrouping as I also shower post-exercise and get my stuff together, then me hitching a ride when Brent drives back out to the office around 8 and having him drop me at the cafe.  

The new routine though involves Brent doing the early work at home and then a solo trip to Cafe del Sol for their 6:30 opening, at which time I am still either finishing early exercise session or unshowered and not yet ready to go.  BUT - if I just keep focused and get out the door sooner after 5am waking (yes it has been very nice just lounging on the couch drinking a seltzer for half an hour and peppering Brent with the occasional observation as he completes morning work tasks), I can be showered and ready to go by 6:25, and have the 90 minutes cafe writing time before I get all tuckered out by second (or in some cases third!) exercise session.

So I've got eight full weeks here still to go. (Returning to NYC a couple weeks before school starts because three months is long enough to be away and I will need to get various chair things up and running etc. before I am actually teaching and in lots of meetings again.)  I was really pretty much stymied in early June when I considered the 3 work things I wanted to do this summer.  The big one is my book revision, I care about that by far the most and yet it has no external deadline; the second is the Work Inside and Outside the University handbook, to be based on the pilot course I taught in fall 2020, I should really crank out a draft this summer because it's timely and it diminishes in utility if I sit on it too long, plus I have a fantastic RA lined up to help me with it.  And the one thing with a true external hard deadline is an introduction and notes for the Norton Library Pride and Prejudice, something I couldn't say no to.  HOW ON EARTH WAS I GOING TO DO THREE BIG THINGS WHEN MY BRAIN WASN'T WORKING?

But being done (at least for a while) with that report yesterday (and I  was dealing with minutes and faculty meetings and the unexpected responsibility of chairing a grievance committee that needed to meet multiple times and yes I did need to write the report for that too....), suddenly everything seemed manageable again. I dug out the old emails with the Norton Library info, whoa that's only a 5-7.5K introduction and very light annotation, that is SO manageable.  I'm waiting on confirmation of an appointment with Diana to get started on the Work IOU wrangling on Monday.  And I made it to the cafe this morning and wrote more words than is really advisable, it is such a relief to be back to myself.... 

the relief of return

Sunday, March 28, 2021

"Heads of the Colored People"

For class on Wednesday, please read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”  Here is the audio recording of that story. 

(The PDF also includes two other stories that I find especially captivating and brutal, “Belles Lettres” and “Suicide, Watch”; both of these are optional, but I think you will enjoy them if you have the wherewithal.)

My main purpose in lecture will be to give you some tools to name and notice important features of this story’s narration, terms that we will use to develop a fuller description of and argument about the story as a whole.

Our understanding of Thompson-Spires’ narrator will be clarified by some attention to the effect of the story’s densely figured network of allusions.  Though I was tempted to write you a module page that glosses every reference in the story’s pages, I rapidly abandoned that project as too time-consuming.  I will share just a selection here, for fun rather than because you need to follow the threads; taken together, this would give you a sense of the body of cultural references with which the story’s narrator is familiar.

Here’s a link to a PDF of William Wilson’s "Afric-American Picture Gallery" (p. 8) – note that these are prose sketches, not drawings. And here’s a great biographical sketch of James McCune Smith, author of the “Heads of the Colored People” sketches that give Thompson-Spires the title for both the story and the collection as a whole; I couldn’t find this text online, but here's a scholarly article that gives a good sense of it. This is now only very obliquely related to the story, but I can’t resist giving you this link to a book about the eighteenth-century "Lecture on Heads" that forms part of the earlier culture discourse on “heads” – note the fact that we really can’t separate periodical print culture from theatrical performances in a variety of settings.

Flannery O’Connor’s story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is an important intertext for the story’s conclusion, and so is Donika Kelly’s poem "Arkansas Love Story".  I’ll say more in class about intertextuality, and you can also check out this definition of mise en abyme beforehand if you like (all three references on p. 14).

A few other bits I like: Why the narrator snags on the fact that Brother Man’s birth name is Richard Simmons (p. 6); the 90s song "Say My Name" (p. 11); "Best of Bruh Man" clips from TV show Martin (the “wish sandwich” bit is right at the end).

Finally, two visual references for the opening pages.

Sonic the Hedgehog spikes (p. 1):

Tamaki Suoh, president of Ouran Host Club, the character Riley’s dressed as in the story (p. 3):


Friday, March 12, 2021

COVID impact

Pictured, L to R: Theresa, Helena and Caroline Richards in the late 1940s.  

You can't see it in black and white, but Theresa's hair is at the intersection of light brown and blond, and Helena and Caroline both have the most brilliantly red hair.

(When my brothers and I were little, my mother would tell us the story of how often random strangers spoke to her on public transit to compliment her extraordinary hair; she was puzzled because red hair was so strong in her mother's side of the family that it didn't strike her as anything out of the ordinary.  And yes I do think I have an unexpressed red-headedness gene....)

Fourth sister Penny had not yet arrived, but there would be four Richards girls altogether. Now there are three.  

Theresa was born in London on the night Coventry Cathedral was bombed, and the Blitz and its ramifications provided the conditions for Theresa and my mother Caroline's earliest childhood (my mother was born in a town I will not name because it is the answer to a common security question on the internet but to which she has no connection other than that her mother and baby Theresa were evacuated there during the worst period of bombing). 

Theresa's health declined significantly in her seventies, partly perhaps because of her aversion to the dentist (I don't think she had any teeth left in her mouth in her final years).  About eighteen months ago she moved into an assisted living facility outside of London.  She was quite happy there, with regular visits from her son and granddaughter and an enjoyable habit of having a gin and tonic at the end of the day.  The pandemic shut down visiting and I do not imagine this past year was easy for her, with communal dining shut down and virtually no opportunity to leave her room or receive visitors.  

I still don't know the sequence of events - I'm not sure anybody does - but she went into hospital some weeks ago with heart trouble.  And whether she contracted COVID at the home beforehand or it happened during her hospital stay, she got it and it hit her hard.  They stopped treatment finally and she went into hospice and struggled to breathe for another week before she died.

She was eighty years old.  On the basis of family aging patterns, there is every reason to think she should have had five or seven or nine more years of ticking along pretty happily with family visits periodically and a reasonable quality of life.

Her funeral took place yesterday. I watched it over the internet.

COVID impact.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Getting started with August Wilson

 It speaks to the nature of my workload right now that as I sat down this morning on the middle day of our one-week spring break, I decided to write the module page for the next couple weeks rather than doing any of the many other tasks that are perhaps more pressing!  As noted previously, I am going to keep this up once I'm teaching in-person again, but oh yes it does increase workload....

(Had to delete links due to formatting issues, but yes it's nice to be able to put them in blog-style!)


We will treat August Wilson's great play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone over the two weeks following the break. 

Reminder: no seminar meeting on the Monday immediately following spring break.

I've asked you to read act one for lecture on March 10 and act two for March 17.

I would like everyone to experience this play in its entirety, and I am lucky to be able to give you a really great way into it: this high-quality full audio recording of a "staged reading" of the play. 

(Recording courtesy of the personal archive of Wilson scholar [redacted] - I did pursue it via legal channels but came up short, and a mutual friend put us in touch.  A staged reading, by the way, is much cheaper to put on than a full production of a play; it doesn't have the same oomph, perhaps, but you get something pretty amazing for a fraction of the resources.  Here's a funny and helpful blog post that gives good advice for anyone who is wanting to put on a staged reading themselves, including an explanation of the distinction between a staged reading and a read-through or "table read".) 

Hre's a short video clip of the reading we have in audio, though I think that the audio recording on it own brings the world of the play incredibly vividly to life - I'm looking forward to hearing what you think.  I rode in the back seat of a Carmel car service round-trip to Philadelphia yesterday to have a (FREEZINGLY COLD!) ninety-minute outdoor visit with my mother in her back yard, and I listened to it with my eyes closed and felt transported to another world - the only thing that would have been better would have been if I were actually lying down in a fully horizontal position...

So at a minimum, you could listen to the full play (it's a little over two hours) and leave it at that.  Ideally, though, you listen to it this week while you have a bit more spare time, perhaps in a single sitting or maybe in 2-3 forty-minute chunks, then read act one with your eyes and mind for seminar on 3/15 and act two ditto for seminar on 3/22.

There are two critical readings on the syllabus for week one, but I will suggest that you consider them optional.  I'll draw on them for the lecture, perhaps sharing a mini-anthology of passages, and your seminar leader may bring a paragraph or two to class for you to read together as a group, but please don't worry about them otherwise.  These are as follows:

  • an important theoretical discussion by Joseph Roach, “History, Memory, and Performance,” the introduction to his extremely influential book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance
  • the overture and introduction ("overture" being the instrumental introduction to an opera, oratorio or play ) of a really great book by Harry J. Elam, Jr., , The Past As Present in the Drama of August Wilson (the full book is available through the Columbia library system).

In the second week, I will ask you to read August Wilson's short manifesto “The Ground on Which I Stand” for discussion in seminar on 3/17.  You will also write assignment #5 for seminar that day (it's two full weeks after the break), and this assignment will be designed not by me but by your own particular seminar leader, so that they can customize the questions with a view to directing the discussion they'd like to have in class.

Bonus picture: my happy mother and myself in her back yard with high winds and temps in the 20s!  If you're not so lucky as I was to catch a glimpse of a much-loved person this week, fortitude, and I hope that the chance will come to you sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

"Dinosaurs in the Hood"

 I'm happy with this module page for my spring-semester lecture, and thought I'd share it here as a sample of the utility of depending more heavily on a Canvas site to teach than I usually do but also as an illustration of one very small part of why teaching online synchronously does seem to involve much more work than teaching as I have done it for many years.  I am going to keep this modality, by the way, when I'm teaching in a classroom again, but I worry about the pronounced trend whereby faculty workload always increases without there being anything that gives....

The class syllabus can be found here; the reading for this week is Danez Smith's chapbook Black Movie.  Caveat: the links to internal course readings won't work for readers here, I think, just the external links.


"Before Lecture #7: Black abundance"

When I write the lecture each week, I try to construct it so that if you've had a chance to spend some time reading the materials in the module page, you will get more out of it, but if you haven't yet looked at the materials, the lecture will still be welcoming and interesting.  The tightness of the interval between Monday seminar and Wednesday lecture, the state of fatigue we're all in, the fact that I'm only putting these words together on Tuesday morning - all these conspire to lead to me saying that if you don't have any wherewithal to read in preparation for lecture tomorrow, that's fine!

If your brain needs poetry this week, though, which mine definitely does, Danez Smith's Black Movie is one of the most galvanizing and beautiful and tragic and angry books of poems I have ever read, and I think you will find the time you spend with the poems in this chapbook extremely rewarding.

There are two poems I'm likely to treat in class at greater length.  The second is readily available online in text and performance versions, so that's perhaps the one to start with:

"Dinosaurs in the Hood" (39-40) and an indispensable recording of Danez Smith reading "Dinosaur in the Hood" here 

I am also hoping to look at "Short Film" (20-31), possibly the most devastating poem in the collection.  Here Danez Smith performs poem 2 in the sequence, "not an elegy for Mike Brown."  - the text can be found here.

Two more links for you: a great short piece where Smith writes about the influence on them of hearing the great Black Arts Movement poet Amiri Baraka on Simmons' Def Poetry Jam and a direct link to the clip of the show Smith refers to


We have an extended archive I'll draw on for lecture.  First up is Johnson and Blacksher's essay On the End of Slam.  You can also, if you're curious, follow up with Johnson's fuller account of Button Poetry and its problematic YouTube archive here, and Dwight Conquergood's essay "Beyond the Text" offers some useful theoretical terms for thinking about performance in relation to text in this and other contexts.  

The concept of "black abundance" comes by way of Kiese Laymon's Heavy, a book that can be read powerfully in tandem with Smith's poetry.  The other book I would assign if we were doing a seminar version of this course (and yes I think maybe I should teach one that would let this material expand for fuller treatment...) is Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped.

Mos Def's album Black on Both Sides is essential listening for my generation, and if you don't know it, you should.  If you wanted to listen to one track right now, you could check out "Hip Hop" and/or the sequel song "Rock N Roll"...