Size matters

When Y asked me to reflect on what elements or affordances characterized this past year as simply sublime, I was momentarily rendered speechless. Everything, I wanted to say – that is to say, nothing: no appointments on my calendar for days at a time, no mandatory meetings to plan more meetings (in between which no actual work is accomplished), long blissful stretches of time of silence and solitude (and not only when I was sitting Vipassana), no guilt when spending full days free from agenda with my spouse, friends, or family. A full sense of nothing. No thing.

The answer, it turns out, was far less philosophical. I relished my limited wardrobe, namely a predictable uniform of jeans in some form and a tee shirt whose sleeve length was determined by the weather. It was the denim, however, that was the linchpin, the signifier of time spent away from judging eyes, the reassurance of moving through the hours and on the streets on one’s own terms. Of course, in an academic environment, jeans have become commonplace (thank goodness!) and form the core of my work wardrobe, as well. Ah, but the freedom from a work wardrobe

My penchant for dwelling often in the comfort of denim showed when, last week while walking upwards of seven or eight miles between domicile and commercial enterprises, several times in fact, I was made suddenly aware of a sad reality. The year’s ocean crossings and multi-terrain, varied climate travels had taken their toll on these woven denim relics and had rendered all of my remaining jeans utterly worn (through). And then the other shoe dropped: I needed to shop for new jeans.

It has been years since I stepped foot into a store with the express purpose of purchasing a pair of jeans. I had taken a page out of my father’s book of “find something that fits and buy multiples” – and so I had done just that. Only now, the jeans stockpile was no more. (To be absolutely truthful, there are still two or three pairs tucked away on a shelf somewhere – or now, in a suitcase waiting to be unpacked having traveled back from Philadelphia to New York – that will do in a pinch, but they are one critical assessment short of the donation bag. When will I learn that trends are not for me?)

Syllabus planning, book writing, email responses, phone calls – they all took a back seat one afternoon as I steeled myself for the task at hand. The Center City crowds seemed overwhelming, so used to the quiet of my neighborhood had I become that constant chatter blended with car horns and diesel engines struck a cacophonous chord in my ear. Simply to escape the noise, I opened the glass door of the first store ready with anticipation to be enveloped in the icy cool blast of air conditioning, although it was less of an embrace than a full frontal attack by the air duct register hung above the main entrance.

My air assault was followed by a cloyingly sweet greeting uttered by a salesgirl with an oddly brusque looking face; she took on a completely different appearance when she smiled. This was not to be the place, I determined quite quickly and, with a perfunctory tour around the store, I skirted the glare of the first salesgirl and scurried out without so much as bothering to feel the fabric or decipher the code for the different jeans leg openings.

Similar scenes played out in three more stores, although I did manage to take a few candidates into the dressing room, only to be completely confounded by a) what passes for denim and b) the sheer lack of understanding on the part of jeansmakers about the meanings of words like rise and flare and straight as they pertain to the garment of their livelihood. In short, no luck.

I didn’t intend to purchase jeans from The Gap, nor do I intend this as an advertisement for the brand or corporation. But my curiosity and historical familiarity pushed me to pull open the excessively tall doors that are initially resistant and then, without warning and with encouragement of the spring hinges, augment the motion by swinging widely. It’s a wonder more people aren’t injured for just entering the store.

What happened next was swift, free from overthinking, easy. I tried on six pairs of jeans in a range of waist sizes, lengths and styles. One worked well, the same style name I remember purchasing nearly a decade earlier, but the length was a bit long. So I gathered up all of my things – because by this point in the afternoon on a day full of meetings, gym, and errands, I had acquired an additional few bags of various shapes and sizes that, in addition to my laptop bag, were hanging off of me – and avoided the wider abyss of the store by making a beeline for the jeans display and within a few seconds located the right leg length in the right style and size. Oh, if only that was the end…

I repeated this search and rescue operation two more times and in doing so came upon a strange fact: jeans of the same style, rinse, and size may have different material composition based on inseam. Length!

With the matter finally resolved, and with my new purchase tucked away between my sneakers and old gym clothes, I checked my watch on my left hand as my right found the metal handle to push open the large glass door. 97 minutes. That was the time it took to find a new pair of jeans and to be reminded that despite the industrial revolution and all the technical revelations in manufacturing, individual hands – thousands of them – are never far from the journey taken by the material goods in our everyday lives.

And then I remembered a short film produced by a young man — a teenager — who I met at an academic conference. For his poetic take on hands, take 2:21 minutes and watch this (part of the DigMe video collection):

being bookish

my blogging has suffered a bit in recent weeks as my extra-sabbatical readings and writings have been a bit more demanding than i anticipated. i hope they will yield some potentially ponderous and interesting postings over here in the weeks to come. of course, you all can be the judge of that.

in addition to being book-bound, i’ve allowed myself to become a bit transfixed by fabulous finds on the web. i’ve already shared my love of Humans of New York (and i’m working on another post about that site because each visit — to the site, tumblr, or facebook page begets still more insights, musings, and intellectual tickles of joy), so i thought i might share a few other gems — one of which i found while seriously perusing a few thousand HONY photos, and the others that found me.

Underground NY Public Library — photographer Ourit Ben-Haim takes and posts photos of what people are reading while they ride the NYC subways. a truly excellent source of reading material to be found here. click here for the non-facebook website.

London bookshops do not disappoint — no, they certainly do not! this popped up on my twitter feed and i’m proud to say that i’ve visited more than half of these during my winter/spring in london. the rest will have to wait a bit.

Proustitute — even if you are not a Proust lover or connaisseur, you will appreciate this fertile literary oasis, brimming with quotes, poetry, photos, and connections to many other artforms, writers, artists, galore. including a link to the Proustitute-managed poetry site: Sharing Poetry, on which users share poems they like. more daily delights to be found via Proustitute’s twitter feed.

Writing Britain: the nation and the landscape — an article in The Guardian about British literature, British landscapes, and British authors. (does someone miss London? …)

A list of (apparently) the 10 Best Graphic Novels — also from The Guardian and happily includes the covers, which themselves make me want to reach into my screen and grab them immediately. i’m sad to report that i’ve read an appallingly low number of these (so low, that i won’t say how many.)

Susan Sontag’s Readers: Respond, Remember, and Re-read — in a recent discussion with a friend (about Sebald among other things) i wondered aloud whether Sontag fancied herself the Gertrude Stein of the 21st century. the word is apparently “tastemaker” — and a strangely Bourdieuian overtone seems to accompany much of the posthumous writing about her. this collection of essays offers readings on Sontag’s literary gifts, if you will, to film criticism. the authors talk about their favorite pieces, and in so doing offer an education on Sontag’s works for the reader. having read only little of her work earlier in my studies, and having recently “re-discovered” her a la Sebald, Aciman, and other writers with whom she moved, figuratively and aspirationally, i am occasionally surprised to find kinship with words she penned decades before, which only occur to me now. i am reminded of another moment in the same conversation (about Sontag and Sebald) when we talked about Picasso’s utterance upon encountering cave paintings from several centuries ago, “We have invented nothing…” humanity is certainly humbling.

and, because i found it in a paris bookshop window, this bit of photo-irony.

(in my future life, i want to work as the window display person in a book shop. hmmm… something swirling around in my head about sabbatical numero deux and shakespeare and company…)

when in rome…

Lines from “An Englishman in New York” swirl about my mind and the Geertzian invitation to “make the familiar strange” beckons with every “pardon” and “look left” written in yellow paint at pedestrian crossings. And with each passing minute in this lovely city I am struck by how much like “home” it feels. It was nearly six years before I began to view New York as a home, and while I’ve spent collectively less then two months in this town over the past 20 years, there’s always been a sense of comfort here — a form of comfort that is different than the sense of general adaptability I pride myself on being able to conjure up while visiting various lands. This is comfort of the long-term variety.

Thanks to Kate’s blog, I’ve learned about George Mikes, a Jewish reporter who came to London for a short visit but stayed for a lifetime — and I have been enjoying immensely his musings on English life chronicled in part in How to be an alien. I’m practically British according to Mikes’ assertions about the Brits’ penchant for consuming the hot stuff all day and night long, although I’m a walking stick and one pair of purple shoes short of fully fitting into his image of the Bloomsbury intellectual. But I’m here for several more weeks so there’s hope yet!

Today marks the second part of this overseas adventure. Yesterday I rode the tube to Heathrow to bid farewell to my trusty travel companion, and on the way back snapped a few pics with my ipad of the snow-covered suburbs.

I got off the tube a few stops early and traipsing home via a few streets that were new to me. Thus begins two months of keeping myself entertained. On the docket: meandering walks, visits to youth theater programs, tucked away afternoon teas, and seminars based on the book that will hopefully be more underway than its current state. To wit, I am re-instituting my Nanowrimo schedule of writing many words every day and heeding my own writing advice. Because the days, they wait for no one.

big ben ticks and tocks
this one's for my sister.
a little piece of home
antique book store.

in the land of afternoon tea

a short post for now as eyes beg for slumber to combat extreme jet lag.

i’m having a hemingway moment. out of body and at home at the same time. i slept a total of 15 minutes on the six and half hour plane ride across the pond and barely stayed awake on the tube ride into town. but after planes, trains, and automobiles behind me, i walked into the tiny efficiency that will be my home for the next few months. the woman who is renting the place wasn’t kidding: 225 square feet. not a spare square inch anywhere. the living room is also the bedroom and kitchen; i’ve lived in tight spaces before, but nothing like this — far smaller than any of my previous abodes — and yet it feels full of possibility. i hope this feeling remains when the 16x14x10 brown cardboard box of book and notebooks (filled with field notes and musings of all types from the past six years) that i shipped over arrives later this week. yes, it’s time to kick book writing into full gear. and somehow, this micro-flat seems up to the challenge of motivating me to do just that.

for now, nap time. “kiss them for me” playing on the telly — a bit of cary grant never hurt anyone.

and then it will be time for tea.

nanowrimo – day 13

still in the cafe from earlier, someone still crooning above me — i can hear it now because i’ve taken the earbuds out that i put in to create an enclosed writing zone. i just got wind of the NaNoWordSprints twitter feed and did some serious word sprinting — over 1600 in the past two hours.

and so far, in between travel, subletting dramadies, becoming familiar with the comments about all of the home repair types in my area via angie’s list, i’ve managed to squeeze out what is shaping up to be an interesting story. and sometimes, the problem is not that i don’t know what to write — which is often true when i start an article or chapter: ever the struggle of where to begin! — but parts of the story are incredibly sad and just creep up on me, even though im the one writing this thing! so here i sit, working my way through my second pot of bombay spice tea, typing away when i start to get a little choked up. time for a break, i say.

so im taking this opportunity to give a little update about this kooky tale that is taking me on some interesting adventures and giving me pause about the very nature of the writing process. that is, every moment of this writing is pure joy. i can’t say the same for some other writing i’ve done. why is that? and i don’t feel the least bit guilty spending hours at a time weaving the intricate and multigenerational backstories of characters that have taken shape in my head. is it precisely because there is no guarantee that these thousands of words are ever going to see the light of day that they feel free to come flowing out of my fingers, in a series of keystrokes, onto the screen? maybe i should write with abandon more often…!

the word count at the moment is coming in at a little over 12,000. i have a bit more sprinting to do if i want to reach the coveted 50k word goal — and not to mention that whole other mess of writing im also supposed to be doing that is also due at the end of this month.

a few writing tips i’ve learned from my nanowrimo experience so far (that many of you probably already know and i am just coming to learn/remember/accept):

  • timelines are good — i mean here a timeline for what happens in the story as opposed to a writing schedule. i’ve written out what amounts to an entire family tree for these characters, including siblings, dates and places of residence, key events; much like ethnographic work invites us to do, but that can feel tedious when prepared for the purposes of writing an article versus telling stories.
  • if something comes pounding through your subconscious into your conscious mind, write it down for pete’s sake! even if you have no idea what to do with it.
  • write every damn day. even if it’s a few lines emailed to yourself on your very old smartphone.
  • word counts are strangely motivating.
  • give yourself a treat, or a few, for good word sprinting.
  • enjoy the story.

the awkward politics of going public

the ways in which adolescents make themselves known has long been a source of fascination for me, even (i suspect) from the time i was an adolescent myself. i would watch my peers preen for one another, show off the latest jelly shoes and bracelets, steal some unsuspecting boy’s jacket as a way to get on said boy’s radar (only to be blacklisted by same said boy as unstable and a jacket thief), stay after-school to clean brushes for the art teacher, or leave some artwork in conspicuous places (sometimes in the form of spray paint on walls or pen tattoos on desks). my own “get in trouble at school at your own risk/peril” upbringing gave me pause and kept me firmly in the “good girl” status throughout my schooling years.

long before j.k. rowling popularized the idea, i spent much of childhood and adolescence under my own cloak of invisibility. so quiet was my speaking voice, that in high school my teachers would admonish others who mumbled as belonging to “[my] school of speech.” i didn’t mind this because the alternative, it seemed, was to be typecast in the way some children are (when others are given — either unwittingly or intentionally — the creative space to be many things and try on different ways of being) as early as 5 or 6 years of age. i suppose i was typecast in a different way: the quiet one. at least until sophomore year in high school when i met my friend j who sat in front of me in the row closest to the chalkboard. and quietly she would write notes to me and i, cautiously — oh, so, cautiously — would write back, and not without the occasional giggle. it seems simple now, but the chalkboard back then really was a new modality with which someone was asking me to communicate and participate. sure, i was mildly reprimanded, but i’m pretty that my sophomore year english teacher was far more delighted that someone had gotten me to transgress anything in some way that she let us continue our “secret” communication.

today’s communicative landscape is far more multifaceted — i’ll spare both of us the trite listing of tools, gadgets, and platforms used by “today’s youth,” but suffice it to say that it sometimes makes me long for the days of the artfully folded note slipped between hands in a crowded hallway and just as stealthily unwrapped, digested, and relished as talk of hemingway or cosines filled the air all around the room. these artifacts of communication helped to create those alternative, special, intimate spaces within the busy and occasionally chaotic energy of a somewhat large, public high school.

today’s professional landscape, the academic terrain to be precise, can sometimes feel like the same crowded, high school. and all around are people doing what they can to be known, only the scale and scope of their endeavors reaches far beyond brick and concrete structure where many of us spend four years of our lives. do the archetypes so cleverly portrayed in countless movies about high school and other popular culture texts (some of which are listed here) — and which are at the center of more than a few scholarly inquiries (penny eckhert’s ‘jocks and burnouts‘, betsy rymes’ ‘conversational borderlands‘, and doug foley’s ‘learning capitalist culture‘ are a few that immediately come to mind) — hold true outside of the circumscribed temporal and spatial boundaries of secondary schooling? can we think of the class president, with her plastered on smile and eagerness to please while ruling the roost, who circulates currently in our midst? or the all-star, multi-sport jock with his/her proven track record of earning measurable accolades in seemingly unrelated endeavors — always restless, running 10 miles or writing an article, before the medal/ink from the last one is even cold/dried; adrenaline is never in short supply for these folks, it seems. then there are the ones who are given some moniker of royalty at one of the various group gatherings — often the proverbial triple threats who, like the all-star jock types, continue to move forward and laterally almost at the same time. they have become known, are known; how will they continue to be known, and for what? what is it the tangible fruit of this “becoming known”? is it personal or for the sake of the “team” which in some cases might be the communities that are at the center of these various projects and endeavors.

as a high school student, i dabbled in more than a few activities but my role in them is telling: sure, i was involved with the school play but save one small stint on the stage, i spent most of my time in the sound booth; and i practically lived and breathed the school literary magazine and very reluctantly included a few pieces of my own, but my real joy was laying out the magazine and watching the pieces speak to each other. my ‘crowning moment’ occurred during a state language competition in which i had to recite a poem in french — for an audience of one, because they called us in individually to perform our prepared pieces. i had practiced the poem — really a fable in poem form written by jean de la fontaine — for hours, perfecting my gestures, head movements, inflection of my voice in rhythm with the meter. (i believe i performed part of it perched on a chair. yeah, i was into it.) with the exception of this post, i don’t think i’ve ever shared this information outside of the people who were present that, which included our french teacher and the few students who were also involved in the day’s events, each of us budding francophiles.

this brings me back to the question that motivated this post: must we, as academics, cultivate our skills as performers as we figure out this gig? is it enough to go quietly about the work that moves us? publication is certainly one arena in which most of us do publicize our work, within the boundaries accorded to us by journals, conference review panels, and editorial boards. but the same gadgets and gizmos that are offering ever new platforms on which adolescents are telling their tales and hocking their (identity) wares, many of which i enjoy greatly, are presenting the same platforms for grown-ups to tell tales and hock wares.

can those of us who preferred the corners, rich as they were, in our adolescence avoid participation in the centers if we want to thrive and do justice to/for/with the people with whom we work? do we sacrifice access (to potential collaborators, funders, employers) when we eschew the acts of making known in which some of our colleagues engage, that may (definitely) give us pause? are we naive to trust that good work will reach wide audiences?

i would be remiss if i didn’t disclose that i, too, tweet, blog, and use facebook, and have used these and other outlets to inform about and solicit support for youth performances and related events, to share fruits of collective labor, and to spread the word about friends’ and colleagues’ books/projects/causes/and other artifacts in need of wider audiences. so perhaps my own angela-chase-like reticence is what is both holding me back and also sparking the chagrin i experience when i encounter extreme-self-promotion*. there must be a happy medium, but in the meantime all of this talk of high school has made me hungry for a teen angst marathon. and speaking of angela chase


*the “extreme” in “extreme-self-promotion” has its roots in a phrase my mother once used when kindly requesting that i inform one of my younger siblings about the dangers of premature physical involvement while dating.  she called it “extreme physical contact.” i squirmed and later (many years later)  laughed, and now i wonder whether she might have been onto something… there is such a thing as too much too soon.

don’t judge me

“it’s summer. there’s not a lot on tv.”

“i like to be entertained while i eat my mystery-refrigerator dishes for dinner.”

“no one can see me.”

none of these excuses can quite fully explain away why i just watched an episode of “melissa & joey.” ok 2. maybe 3. but that’s it! i’ve always said that i don’t feel guilty about watching what others may label “the crappiest stuff on tv” because I have that very excellent cover of academic research that lets me call explorations of popular culture of various sorts research!  would it be stretching the truth too much to view these piece of television programming in the same way that i ask of my students — that if each engagement and interaction truly does hold educational potential, with education defined broadly, then wouldn’t the attempted-comedic stylings of sabrina-the-no-longer-teenage-witch and joey-call-me-whoa-from-blossom be fair game for the same assessment? truth be told, i did get a handle on the idea of futures as joey lawrence’s character — named joey, naturally — did bicep curls while filming a financial literacy-type podcast.

but as i sat, eating my reheated winter-squash-pea-penne medley from the other night, i was overcome with shame like never before. i suspect it had to do with a conversation i had with a more senior colleague last week who reminded me to “make every day count” — could i really be said to be living up to that bar if i willingly sat through arguably bad television? (ok, fine, four episodes!) these are the moments that make me wonder whether that over-hollywoodified image of people’s transformation upon learning they have a terminal condition has any truthiness to it. or at least whether it applies to me in any way. could i approach the sabbatical in the same way: that is, not in the morose sense, but in the dead-poets-society, live-each-moment, no-regrets, be-fully-aware, see-possibilities, no-time-is-wasted kind of way. or perhaps the better way to ask the question (since all of those hyphenated descriptors pretty much sum up how i already do live life, and that’s even before i had my dialogue with emerson) might be “how will i schedule my time in the days ahead, for the next twelve months, when i have significantly fewer demands on my time?”

i was reminded of just how precious the sabbatical is while talking with a member of staff at the program where my research team and i locate our project. he asked what i’d be doing during the sabbatical, and i briefly outlined the book projects and other writing i looking forward to spending time with and ideally finishing. he was nodding as i talked and when i finished he remarked, “oh, so you’re gonna be working. ok.” and then, after another pause he said, “that’s what i need, a sabbatical, to finish my book.” just then i noticed his first book  lying open, cover up, on the desk behind him. we continued to talk about writing retreats and time — that much-too-precious fact of life that, no matter what, cannot be stopped; and after much thinking i have concluded that if i were to have the opportunity to ask for a superpower, it would indeed be the power to stop time. to pause. to take a breath. and not worry that things were being missed, progressing, leaving me behind. that and the ability to be a fly on the wall. but mostly time-stopper. — and this exchange must have worked its way into my subconscious because that night i had one of my characteristic vivid dreams and the reality was so simple and so real: educational reform that included sabbaticals for teachers to pursue project such as writing a book, taking a class — truly cultivating their own flourishing as human beings.

now, before you judge me for having lame dreams, a) i already know that they’re lame; and b) sometimes, that’s where my best ideas are born. well, ideas for opening paragraphs to articles that is. ok, yeah, they’re lame. but lame or not, wouldn’t it be grand indeed? to have reform (or initiatives or whatever fancy word we want to use) be focused on supporting the creativity and imagination of teachers? what a different rhetoric would saturate the public airwaves if such were the case. either way, the exchange made me thankful for this time. yes, the tenure process was intense (and that’s all i’ll say about it for now). but i couldn’t let my 14-year-old-sabbatical-dreaming self down and sometimes that was motivation enough…

so you see, watching crappy tv need not always be a bad thing: provides perspective for the relatively low, low price of secret humiliation.

words, Words, WORDS!

i just spent the last hour flitting from blog to blog to twitter account to facebook page and back — all publicly available spaces of relative strangers whose writing drew me in and gave me pause: in a world where there are already so many words that have been formed, and so many still forming, what moves us to keep putting still more words out there? (yes, these are the procrastination-insecurities that prevent the words of my book from finding their way onto the computer screen… i hope that if i keep reading, the paralysis will transform into an inspired flow of narrative and analysis. i hope.)

in the meantime, here’s a sampling of some lovely spots i’ve just journeyed to and back:

DanielleJ.Me’s twitter feed – including links to pix of murals around philly, courtesy of the mural arts program

Thoughts from the Chronicle about bringing summer practices into your fall routine

Kate Shrewsday’s poignant thoughts on punchlines

A post from the SuperSerious Literature site on Novels with pictures them

Spiderwrite’s Sebaldian musings – including a tip about a recently published novel by teju cole that i promptly sampled via my ipad kindle app — in fact, i’m off to read it now!

ideas that leap off the page (literally)

is this what writing should do? words that work their way into our conscious and subconscious minds, connect with existing ideas to form new ones, take on a life of their own within and then beyond the page, beyond the written word into actions, practices, and new senses of self and others?

a friend posted this video to facebook and i have watched it a few times within the past 10 minutes, each time filled with more of a sense of urgency to get some of the words that are in my head onto the screen and on their way to publication — namely the stories (of teachers and programs and kids!) — so that ideas can beget actions can beget change. this is a tall order, i know. bordering on a touch of hubris to even suggest that words written in a cafe in south philly can find their way into the hands, ereaders, and heads of one or more someones who might be making decisions about kids and teachers. but why else take the time to write a book? or make a film? based on

but filmmakers, writers, researchers, teachers, activists — is this is not what they/we hope for? that our work in the world does not end with the immediate moment, even as each moment is itself significant — and that the desire to create something that others are a/effected by is, in fact, a truth of the work.

a nifty video, nonetheless. maybe i should spend the year learning how to animate and talk to people that way. and if bill keller has his way, we’ll all just stop writing books altogether!

…and we’re off!

i finally started reading the hunger games. all the words that have been used to describe it to me by friends who were enthusiastic in their praise — gripping, read it in one sitting, fantastic, great YA fiction, must read — ring true as do, however, these words: depressing, saddening, tear-jerking, heartbreaking, resilient, rollercoaster-of-emotions, anger, disbelief.

but read it i am and finish it i will and my yoda-esque notwithstanding, this book seems somehow like an appropriate text to read at the start of what i’m hoping will be twelve months of literary adventure of both the read and written variety. in some ways, this adventure began when i immersed myself in the writings of w.g. sebald earlier this summer while sitting in on my colleague’s seminar. i’ll devote whole posts to this wordsmith at a future date — largely because i have been affected by this writer in a way that i haven’t been in a long time by someone’s words on pages — but i mention him and his writings here as a strange but not entirely unrelated partner to suzanne collins’ adolescent protagonists. i am struck by how both authors use the specific to amplify the horror which in many ways, in their respective realms of reality, has become normalized. what are human beings willing to live with? and when are they moved to change?

i have been carrying these questions with me for several weeks now, and as i prepare my mental calendar to begin “work on the book,” i know that these questions and others — about humanity, our basic obligation toward one another, and the human capacity for compassion amidst the urgent calls for innovation — will continue to linger in my consciousness and find their way onto the pages containing stories about young men and a few young women and their teachers and mentors who commit themselves daily to the work of teaching and learning across boundaries, in between borders, and in the face of structural changes and budget cuts that seem to be stripped of any humane proclivity.

for now, however, katniss awaits…