tragic flaw

We all have them, those personality traits or characteristics that we can’t shake no matter how many self-help books we read, conversations we have with friends, meditation retreats we attend… For some, the trait is being too closed off, putting up boundaries for fear of being disappointed or hurt or angered. For others, the opposite is true — those whose hearts leap out at the first sign of another human being, less than desperate for human contact, so willing to give kindness to friends and strangers alike. I have friends who fit both of these categories, and others for whom saying yes or no is near impossible; still others whose ability to listen to a story of yours was predicated upon the opportunity to top it somehow (Ok, I’m not friends with any of the latter any more.).

I used to think my tragic flaw was procrastination. Last minute is when I did (and still do) everything, it seems. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I working until the very possible moment, working on multiple projects at once — because, while saying “no” is not a problem for me, I can’t quite pass on something that feels right and true and what a friend calls “soul-giving” — and more often than not, working past whatever deadline has been determined. (It doesn’t help to have an overdeveloped sense of how made up everything is… thereby making deadlines seem even more arbitrary than they already are — yet all too real in their made up arbitrariness.) But in this past week, while mired in the aforementioned book deadlines and conference proposal deadlines and grant deadlines and teaching and meetings and email responses and the re-revving up of the reference letter requests and, and, and… an all too simple thought occurred to me. My tragic flaw isn’t waiting until the last minute, nor is it taking on too many projects (for which I only have myself and my very persuasive, overachieving friends to blame — you know who you are…) — no the problem is perplexingly simple: while I have learned to collaborate well, I have not learned to delegate.

Being a “boss” was never a role that appealed to me. It was a different spirit of a university that drew me in, initially. Anne Carson, in describing John Henry Newman’s view, notes that

This gives one great pause — the pursuit of a “useless” existence, and all the trappings that come with claiming such a pursuit, such as accusations of elitism and myopia in the face of a world so burdened in many corners with the mere struggle of survival. But “useless” in Carson and Newman’s estimation is not without purpose; it is without predetermined use.

In this spirit, collaboration exists not only with others, but with the words and ideas of others as well — the “getting lost with abandon” nature of falling into a text or conversation — the full embrace of how artist Tacita Dean describes the experience of reading Sebald:

“He takes you down these poetic cul-de-sacs. And you don’t care that you’re being led nowhere, of course, because you learn so much on the way.”

Is that what a university is for? To be a space where education can be lived, at least in corners and whispers (if not completely out loud), free from agenda or tethers? (I know, I know, I hear it… the preachy-bordering-on-whiny; bear with me.) In her essay, which is titled “The Idea of a University (after John Henry Newman),” Anne Carson continues her simultaneous explication and wondering about knowledge and universities, and because I like her way with words so much I will simply reproduce them here:

In its most beautiful sense, a university setting can be one that nurtures inquiry for the sake of inquiry — a place that embraces, for instance, an ethos of research that is inherently collaborative, collective, and participatory.

But ever at the ready are those elements of the “institutional apparatus” that do not merely maintain but also earnestly endorse the status quo — and it is surprising how much paperwork the status quo requires!

Instead of sitting for hours upon days with transcripts or field notes or revisiting video or in the company of curious adolescents (who never fail to remind us old adults about the true nature of humility), I find my days increasingly taken up instead with decisions about topics too mundane to describe even obliquely. These are the times that try muggles’ souls. Suffice it to say that if someone approached me with an offer to become a painter’s assistant in a seaside Maine town or work in a hat shop along the Seine, I would leave in an instant.

Delegation, it seems to me, requires a certain degree of detachment wherein the task supersedes the person as the valued object. Is there a way to delegate humanely? And do shipbuilders or surgeons even worry about such things? And is not this worry about delegation merely a manifestation of a “use”-driven agenda rearing its ugly head? What does it matter whether the way our department assesses students’ [insert learning objective here] matches or meets the expectations determined by [insert state agency here]? (Would it be terribly wrong if I filled in all of the boxes on all of the grids with a simple “Trust us, it’s good.”?) Wherein delegation so often, but not always, is in service of running a more efficient machine — Sebald’s own words come through here:


For a response — of the sort in which a weary traveler’s nod at a passing delivery boy is done so in recognition of the doing that must be done in the moment in which it is — I turn a final time to Carson’s essay:

An earlier draft of this post once ended with a worry about how one achieves the ability to delegate. But then I took a walk, sat in the company of people who soothe my soul, took another walk, and had yet more conversations with friends and texts (which have become like friends, themselves) and have arrived at the conclusion that I’m going to continue collaborating, learn to delegate in service of that collaboration, and that it may be quite all right to remain inadequate when it comes to complying with the status quo.

In fact, I’d think it rather tragic if this flaw were to, say, suddenly disapparate

at the start of a long walk

i started writing a different post this afternoon, in part motivated by my umpteenth visit to moma this summer, in an effort to maximize my membership before i take temporary leave of the apple. that post contains musings on yesterday’s cleaning-packing-purging adventures, with a twist of recipe-rambunctiousness. that post will come, but this evening’s ruminations have turned my gaze in an unexpected direction — one that is both reflective, toward memory and also poised toward unfamiliar, or rather less-than-appealing terrain — brought on by almost simultaneous happenings around the world in which young people are at the center.

two instance in particular weigh heavily on my mind, both in cities that hold special meaning for me: the first is a series of attacks by young people on apparent strangers in philadelphia — here and here and here; and the second is the protracted and fiery set of events following the shooting of mark duggan by police in london, discussed thoughtfully and almost methodically here. i hesitate to reproduce these links here for fear that doing so may be read as another act of violence, or worse may affirm ill-conceived beliefs about young people and cities. this angst i feel is a mixture of responsibility (as a citizen and educator) and disappointment (at those who inflict such harm, but also at those who amplify rather than alleviate the conditions surrounding such situations). i was going to write here that these goings-on — no, to call them anything short of devastating incidents is being untruthful, because the truth of the matter is that these incidents, laced now with intractable labels of violence and destruction, make me angry. not only at the structural realities that so often become the focus of the aftermath of such moments, but at the opportunists who go on to make a name and stake a rhetorical claim before the ashes have settled. (another potential digression here involves frustrating musings about what may be called promiscuous ethnography wherein the book is written before the ink on the field notes has even dried; but i’ll refrain. for now.)

w.g. sebald opens the rings of saturn with this passage:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. An in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

while i don’t dare to draw a comparison between myself and this true wordsmith and linguistic activist of sorts, i do share the sentiment he offers above wherein having come off of “a long stint of work” — and i’m going to feel justified in giving these past six years (seven including my postdoc) of dangling precariously from the metaphorical pre-tenure string such a moniker — the sense of freedom is shockingly short-lived.  sure, there are days free of meetings and an excuse not to reply to messages that arrive in my institutional mailbox quite as frequently as i might have were i not at the ready with my sabbatical auto-reply… but with the tenure metronome no longer clanging loudly in my mind’s ears, i have no choice but to really listen to stories that i might have otherwise categorized under ‘back burner.’ namely, the tropes of violence that are hitting me in the face every time i click onto a news site, look at my twitter feed, or check even my personal email account. i should note that while i do work with young people in my ‘day job’ capacity and it is with their stories that i rest my research trajectories, i have long kept these tropes at arm’s length opting instead to illuminate other narratives, the lesser heard tales. the answer doesn’t seem to be a purging of one to take on the other completely, but rather an openness where there has largely been resistance. (keep in mind that these are ill-formed, rapidly evolving, nuggets of ideas. i reserve the right to recant completely and wholeheartedly!)

so, like sebald in his august of 1992, i embark in this august of 2011 with a more open ear and although i am likely to feel the weight of such discursive directions, i almost feel as if i have no choice. wouldn’t be wrong to intentionally ignore the stories that slap you in the face? this walk, i reckon, will be another long one.

as a side note, i wonder whether sebald was indeed referring to sirius, the “brightest star in the night sky” with his use of the colloquialism “Dog Star” — even as i write these words i instantly reminded that not only is nothing in sebald’s oeuvre an ‘accident’ (or hardly anything, is perhaps more accurate), but the celestial reference is especially delightful to me as it evokes one of my favorite characters from the harry potter series, sirius black.

“…but every end is a beginning.”

so last week a few things came to an end:

  • i finished the hunger games (and eagerly and voraciously dove into book 2; so in need of book 2 was i that i clicked on the buy it now button and had it instantly delivered via amazon kindle to my kindle for ipad. im halfway through book 2 — catching fire to be precise — and although im not exactly hating the ebook experience, i am longing for the affordances of the good ol’ paperback.)
  • i went with an earnest crew to watch the last of the harry potter films: harry potter and the deathly hallows, part 2. it was indeed deathly and strangely hallowed, as if the several hundred of us sitting in the imax theater in midtown at midnight as thursday bled into friday were treading on ground that while not exactly sacred, was ground that was indeed special and worthy of note. hallowed in a way that recognizes the build up, the hype, but most importantly the reality of having lived with someone’s fantastical worlds and words for over a decade. and the filmic ending of this series was indeed fantastical. i didn’t even mind the absurdly designed 3-d glasses resting on my face as i watched characters make their final pass on the screen, and listened as my fellow audience members sniffled, almost in unison, for pretty much the entire last third of the film.

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  • my dear little sister’s single life was officially decreed to be over when a dhoti-clad priest declared her to be now, and forever more, the partner/consort/companion to her new husband. this was the first time i noticed the following 2 things at a hindu wedding ceremony: a) a priest who performs a wedding ceremony with a healthy side of schtick; and b) the range of meanings, implicit and explicit, embedded throughout the 2+ hour ceremony. a small sampling:

1) to the bride: no matter how many children you have, always keep your husband at the forefront of your mind. and if that’s not clear enough: even if you have 10 kids, treat your husband like your 11th.
2) to no one in particular: it may just seem like this is just a boy and girl and a priest doing something religious up here on the stage while people may or may not pay attention, but what’s happening up here is important. (at this point, i think he turned and look explicitly at me as if to say: “stop distracting your sister! she is supposed to look demure and chaste, not sassy with a smirk on her face!”)
3) to the audience: marriage is performed over a rock because a rock symbolizes strength and you want marriage to withstand many different forces and pressures. it’s not just a rock for no reason! i mean, it’s a rock, sure, but do you know why it’s a rock? think about it. (at which point, the handful of people sitting in the first few rows who were paying attention and spoke tamil were howling with laughter.)

but like emerson notes in his essay “circles,” endings are always followed by beginnings; such is the wonder of a circle, of life as and existing within circles. i like to think of each of us as moving constellations, encountering one another’s constellations and thereby creating new ones for us to engage, ponder, and possibly even disengage; but like a circle, we move forever onward. and back. and so on.

so the trilogy progresses — and the others were right: this one is a “read it in one big chunk” kind of read. i feel like i’ve gotten through the toughest part which is the very premise for these books.  now it’s just a cheer-fest to the end, whatever that may be.

the hp books and films, although finished, also represent possibilities for new beginnings. as this article suggests, these books and the films and the rest of the transmediated franchise have provided enough “sentence starters” to last several lifetimes!

some may erroneously conclude that a wedding and marriage is the dissolving of an individual into the making of a pair. in contrast, i take a cue from khalil gibran’s poem “on marriage” and his 2nd stanza in particular:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

this new beginning is one of many i hope she and her husband will encounter, sometimes together and sometimes alone, but always in support of one another. in harmony, but not necessarily the same note; in tune, but not always the same chord.

…to 11

there is a restaurant in my adopted hometown that is known primarily for its vast beer collection. i first tried a raspberry ale there and it was also the place that i was introduced to boursin cheese and a varied menu of burger toppings. now, some may roll their eyes at the prospect of a vegetarian caring about burger toppings, but as said vegetarian i am both particular about my toppings and appreciative that this restaurant chose to serve the better tasting gardenburger brand. but this is not the point. the point, or perhaps something a bit closer to the point has to do with a comment that a friend made last night while we were hanging out at a new neighborhood spot (in my new-temporary-might-be-semi-permanent town) and enjoying cold beers on a cool evening. the rain had brought the temperatures down considerably and the outdoor patio was teeming with a virtual cornucopia of locals, varying in shade, dress, language, posture, and, yes, drink. (i do love the city.) in front of me was a chilled stella in the “fancy glass” — the waiter tried to give me the ordinary glass, but if i was going to have a beer after not having had one in three or four years, i was damn sure gonna have no qualms about making my preference for the fancy glass known. i didn’t stop drinking beer for any specific reason other than i stopped liking the taste.  truth be told, i’m not sure that i ever enjoyed the taste in the same way i appreciate and actively seek out the tastes and textures of other drinks. but last night, sitting under a large red umbrella, a cold beer seemed to fit the bill perfectly. my hands were unconsciously taking in the curve of the glass, the gold-colored rim, even the fine wrought iron lattice pattern of our table top on which the beer sat in between sips.

my friend was was describing his recent trip to france — magnifique indeed! — during which he visited the chartres cathedral, located a little south of paris. hearing chartres brought back memories of my own visit to the looming structure. i can’t remember now who had suggested we visit, but i’m glad that i followed the recommendation to find the “old english guy” who gives tours. for three hours this white haired man enchanted us with stories of chartres, making it plainly evident that he and it shared quite an intimate relationship. my friend noted that not only was he not overly impressed by the cathedral, but upon hearing a story about rodin’s fascination with the place — legend has it that rodin stood in front of chartres for days, not caring about the rain and forgoing food as he was mesmerized by this artifact of mortar and brick — this same friend wondered how realistic such a scenario was or ever could be. i took him to be asking a larger question — crudely put: have we all gotten so cool and presumptuous that we not only don’t take the time but that we do not care to linger slowly over something long enough for it to truly awe us.

i felt sheepish instantly. i realized that i maybe spend too much time in the land of wonderment. i think perhaps this is why i feel an extreme kinship with this henry james quote that i recall often: “the moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably world unto itself.” but have we gotten too cool to even try? can we not imagine the possibility of cranking the amp to 11? even if a sarcastic smile creeps across our face as we think it.

so in the spirit of seeking out more blades of grass, i am eagerly awaiting tonight’s premiere of the last harry potter film! i am bubbling over with excitement, in part because i discovered harry and his magic and fantastical friends when i was a graduate student. i grew up, academically speaking, with the language of spells and potions and fantasies of shipping myself off to a place like hogwarts where people got me. ironically, perhaps, looking closely at blades of grass, in various ways, has helped me to create a space where i finally am starting to feel like i might belong. and in the meantime i’ll just keep cranking the amp and see what happens…