Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A few loose thoughts on a rainy Wednesday

1. I've been home all day with Kid #2, who has been suffering from strep. Luckily Amoxicillin is pink; otherwise I don't know how I'd get her to down the antibiotic.

2. To those who say that medieval studies has a future that is anything less than blindingly bright, I say, Ha! The applications we've received for our medievalist position at GW have been astounding. There are many, many fascinating projects out there. I wish we were hiring ten scholars and starting an institute.

3. If you happen to have vegetarian friends who are celebrating Thanksgiving, do not ask them if they will be eating Tofurky. You will think that you are being original, and clever, but in fact several dozen legions of people will have already made the joke.

4. Karl Steel's A purposeless world, thank goodness! post came just in time for Thanksgiving, didn't it? More seriously, though, now that Clark Kent has embraced his Superman, let me announce that he has an extraordinary essay on animals and the human forthcoming in Exemplaria.

5. To return for a moment to Kid #2: one of those most frightening experiences I've ever had occurred last March, when as she lay sick with fever in my arms her eyes rolled back into her head and she began to convulse. I couldn't bring her back from whatever place she'd gone. Luckily it was a febrile seizure rather than a neurological disorder, but I still have flashbacks to that day.

6. Much talk on this blog lately has been about death, mourning, mortality, meaning. The most powerful ritual of remembrance I ever witnessed was carried out by my son, Kid #1. He was six years old, a first grader. In the course of that winter his best friend's mother had died (cancer), his young "uncle" had died (pneumonia), and his teacher passed away. The hardest part had been not being able to say good-bye. His teacher's death he took especially hard (she passed away over a holiday break ... she had been there, and then was she was gone). Morbidity seemed to be everywhere in a way that adults could scarcely handle, and I worried at his struggle with such mounting loss. I observed, however, that when some neighbors decided to have a baby shower for my wife (Kid #2 was on her way), he stole a pink helium balloon, attached a note, and launched it to the clouds. I asked him what he'd written. He said: "Dear Mrs M., I miss you. Good-bye. Love, your student, Alexander." As that balloon and its message dwindled in the sky, I saw what looked like a cloudbreak in his face. The hold that all these deaths had had on him loosened. Some of the joy that every six year old should possess returned.

7. Finally, to all those people that José F. Buscaglia-Salgado calls Usonians, happy Thanksgiving.


  1. I'll declare a moratorium on Tofurkey jokes if you declare a moratorium on 'Man of Steel' jokes.

    Perhaps Whalepheasantelopenfant?

    More to say on the other material when the Holiday gives me a break, and frankly, I'm hoping that it doesn't give me too many breaks.

  2. There was a news item in Australia yesterday about Terri Irwin taking little Bindi to a psychologist as she was worried Bindi wasn't sad enough after her father's death.

    "And he said, 'Why? Are you worried? That's what you are shooting for. That's what you want — a well-adjusted child who can handle a tragedy and see that life goes on.' "

    Bindi Irwin is probably a special case, given the intensity of the media coverage of her father's death and her own burgeoning career (check out the photo that accompanies the article), but it's an interesting question: can mourning be *too* successful (for the comfort of others, I mean)?

  3. Wonderful comment Stephanie - really applaud the sentiment and all that lies behind it. I really do. But I won't comment further on such personal matters.

    JJC - Eileen - Karl - if I continue to comment here (which is not that likely in the near future for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog) - it will have to be anonymously. If you don't want that - fair enough - it is your blog.

  4. Anonymous5:27 PM

    The holy grail of the culinary arts is to invent a tofurkey that actually tastes like turkey, which makes it an appropriate subject for blogging on this sight.

  5. N50: I defend (virtually?) anyone's right to comment pseudonymously. In deciding to give out my actual name, I've also automatically limited myself to a voice and to commentary that's not going to hurt my career, such as it is. I can't have the freedom that Dr Virago has, for instance, to comment on her university's various structural problems, and so forth.

    STrigg: excellent observation.

  6. Stephanie, great point. A similar observation is made by the film Garden State: what happens if the trauma that was supposed to ruin your life, send you into endless therapy, ensure that a life of medicated semi-consciousness was yours forever -- what if that trauma was actually coped with by its experiencer, who then moved along? As you point out, sometimes the real trauma is experienced by the bystanders, who don't understand how someone could possibly *not* need an endless parade of therapists to deal with something that is supposed to be so life ruining.

    N50: As to posting anonymously ... we'll miss you, of course.

    Anonymous: May you find your Holy Grail. But please don't share it, because it will taste like chicken ... err, turkey.

  7. Too busy to make a proper comment at present but here is something to cheer us all up.

    [ok - so pic of 3 medieval boys riding a fence-horse won't paste in - just imagine your Breughel instead]

    I can also recommend googling medieval jokes – for a page to cheer up K#2. I hope that she is on the mend (what would we do without penicillin?).

    I take it, from Karl’s comments, that continuing to use N50 is still OK – no passport id required from you after all. That's good to know.

  8. Karl--just a quick note to say that it is possible to use your real name *and* also comment on the university's structural [and other] problems. As much as some may like to believe it, there are not that many higher-ups who are concerned to quash the careers of those who are critical of their university administrations, more advanced professors, etc. Yes, there is pettiness everywhere, and the occasional acts of political malfeasance, but the fact of the matter is, you can say practically anything and truly get away with it--most of the time, no one's really paying attention.

    But the issue is not really [I hope], "what can I say and get away with it?" That would be putting the whole matter too tritely and making serious critique of our supposed "higher" institution merely a personal affair [or rather, an affair in which one only sticks one's neck out if it can be determined in advance there are no weapon-wielders nearby]. I probably harp on this too much, I know, but if there's anything worth saying, it ought to be worth risking something as well.

    Please understand that I'm not against anonymous blogging, per se, but I do get concerned when I hear reasons provided that strike me as discordant with what I believe are some of the principles of intellectual discourse in a free democracy, and please don't offer any lectures about how we don't really live in a democracy or offer anecdotes about persons who have lost their jobs for saying the right things at the wrong times and places--this has been and always will be the case. I know, too, as Michael Berube pointed out in Chicago, that there can be very good reasons, historically, for writing anonymously--in order to be able to critique a government, for example, that regularly executes people for speaking their mind, but we don't live in that place. Since academics, in general, are not at risk of being executed, exactly what is it we are so afraid of when we blog anonymously?

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Eileen - I have written about some of the things I enjoy about anonymity elsewhere. Quite apart from that I don’t see what difference it makes to give me a ‘real’ name and an identity. If you have never heard of me what difference does it make to you? If you have heard of me you and I will be trapped by my ‘reputation’. If you Google me you’ll only find my corporate id and these conversations tell you more about me than that does. If it is any consolation ‘Eileen Joy’ might as well be a pseudonym to me – it does not make you any more or less real to me. So many human encounters are not what they seem. Getting to know people is a process, labelling them with a name and a job description can be as misleading.

    Writing on the internet free of my everyday name gives me a creative freedom I enjoy and that would be undermined if everything I said was linked to my professional position.

    (I deleted the first version of this only because I messed up the markup)

  11. Hey N50--I completely agree with everything you say, believe me. My only real concern is with those who blog anonymously out of fear of some kind of reprisal for too-critical speech. There are lots of other reasons for blogging anonymously that I have no problems with, and of course I realize that the name "Eileen Joy" does not necessarily tell anyone anything *real* about me, nor does it necessarily lend my comments some kind of veracity, whatever that might mean. Again, I just worry about those who write under pseudonyms because they are concerned that there are certain things they can say *only* anonymously.

  12. Since academics, in general, are not at risk of being executed, exactly what is it we are so afraid of when we blog anonymously?

    Depends on the person, yes?

    Pseudonymity often allows intimacy and ease of friendship that the burden of what we present as our "actual" identity does not. For example, Dr. V has written about her feelings about her father in the wake of her mother's death, and I would imagine she'd rather neither her colleagues nor her students know about her difficulties or anger, but all the same, her online community, comprising a wonderful, enthusiastic group of academics, family, and associated people, all responded with kindness and, presumably, discretion. She's also turned to her blog's community to discover the best way to deal with a lying graduate student. Had she been blogging under her 'real' name, that student would no doubt have felt (justifiably so) betrayed; as it stands, even if the student knows who Dr. V is, he or she can take comfort that his or her identity has been effectively masked too.

    The reasons for blogging pseudonymously in the political world are legion. Whistleblowing is one reason. Duncan Black, aka Atrios, unveiled himself* only after he'd stopped teaching college Economics and become a full-time, uh, political person. I can only imagine that the tone he took on his blog--scornful, vulgar, unrelenting--would have been at odds with how he wanted to present himself as a teacher. We want, I think, to create a classroom in which the dominant mood is equanimity. Such a mood is far from appropriate, however, in the politics of the Bush era. If we'd rather our students not know too much about our politics--and I go back and forth on this (I tend, now, to keep contemporary politics far from my classroom)--but if we'd still like a public voice, pseudonyms are of enormous value.

    That said, true anonymity is impossible. The technology simply doesn't allow it, at least not without a lot of effort (remembering the talk on academic blogging by Lisa Spangenberg at Kzoo last year). We should all be careful, not because, of course, of the threat of being disappeared, but for the ease with which our (often necessary) indiscretions can be connected to us out here in the meatworld.

    * I'm struggling here with a way to get past language of presence/absence, true name/false name, because, you know, it just seems so pre-critical.

  13. Karl--your thoughtful comments are appreciated; I hadn't thought of maintaining that divide between expression in the classroom and elsewhere, for instance.


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