Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Okay, so The Lake of Dead Languages was a good book, but not better than The Secret History. About halfway through I knew exactly who the villain was and then had to wait for the plot to unfold, which wasn't as fun as being totally surprised and mesmerized for the first half. And then the ending was corny, corny, Scooby-Doo predictable, happily ever after. Gross.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Can't put it down

It's my first week of summer, first week of my leave, kind of, (leave doesn't technically start until September) and so I'm alternating between feeling totally decadent and wanting to do nothing that has anything to do with my project, and feeling like I've already blown it and how will I possibly accomplish anything over the next few months if I don't even have the discipline to start rereading what I've written and remember where I left off.

Happily, I got sucked into a book so compelling, so dark, so suspenseful (maybe even scary) that I don't have to vacillate anymore. The choice has been taken from me. All I can do is read this book. I'm sitting at work, where I stopped in to have a quick meeting with my chair and pick up my laptop, which I had to leave overnight last night for some software upgrades, and rather than leaving and running errands, or answering my e-mails, or even reading blogs for a few minutes, I'm back in the book. I would have made it out of here within a reasonable amount of time if restarting the computer hadn't taken so long that I had to pull the book out to occupy myself for a few minutes.

I'm reading Carol Goodman's The Lake of Dead Languages and it borders on derivative of The Secret History, but since it doesn't have any awful bully boys named Bunny in it, (in fact, it barely has any boys in it at all) I think it's much, much, much better. It's set in a private girls' high school in the Adirondacks, a feeder school for Vassar. Of course the tortured protagonist/corrupting influence is a Latin teacher (they always are), who was once a tortured Latin student at the same school. There's goddess worship, implications of lesbianism, suicides (or are they murders?), a haunted landscape dominated by a deep, quiet lake, school secrets and legends and ghosts, a big, dark, isolated mansion, and, of course, lots of classical references. Totally delicious. What is it about declensions that turns normal kids into killers?

Speaking of lakes and mountains, GF and I are packing the cats in the car and heading off for two weeks in the lakes region of New Hampshire, where she is from. That means hiking, running in the woods, swimming, kayaking, playing tennis, reading, playing cards, etc., but no television, cell phone reception (except at the top of mountains), or internet access. Sounds good, right? So I won't be blogging on account of being a) blissed out and b) seriously disconnected.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Happy Bloomsday!

This is one of the holidays I always celebrate, no matter what, mostly by pointing it out to my students (if I'm teaching summer school) over and over and over. As in, "Let's look ahead at the syllabus. Oh, look at that, you have a paper due on Bloomsday!" Or, "If it wasn't Bloomsday, I probably wouldn't accept this late work." Or, "Yes, you may bring me gifts of cash and potted meats on Bloomsday."

Things you can do to mark this important day:
1. (an easy one) Sit calmly above your own rising smell.
2. Carry a bar of lemon soap in your pocket.
3. Eat kidneys and/or liver (you can do this for breakfast or lunch, but if at lunch, make sure you are in an unpleasantly crowded lunchroom. And you might want to get trapped in a political conversation that simultaneously irritates and bores you.)
4. Go to the museum, find a large statue of a naked woman, and ponder the oddness of anuses as you stare at her butt crack.
5. Masturbate at the beach. (You were going to do this anyway, weren't you?) Unfortunately, I cannot condone doing this while looking at a barely-teenaged girl with a limp.
6. Carry the following phrase in your head all day: met him pike hoses. Try to work it into casual conversation.
7. Drink a Bass. As you peel the iconic red triangle label off, worry about your wanton young daughter.
8. Visit a whore house. Find someone willing to put a leash on you and walk you like a dog.
9. Rememberyourfirstloveandhowhekissedyouandhowbeautifulyouwere

Have a good and hearty Bloomsday. You will, you will, yes, yes, you will.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Melancholy Professor/Rock Star Professor: Musings on a Bi-Polar Weekend

This was graduation weekend at my university. It was also my birthday weekend. But mostly, it was graduation weekend, as I had to do double duty and attend two separate college graduations. First up was the small college where I spent the first two years on this job teaching. For those of you just tuning in (or if I haven't actually ever blogged about this before) I teach at a big urban university which bought, and then sold three years later, a struggling liberal arts college in a nearby suburb. I was initially hired by the big university to teach at the smaller college, and then when the board of trustees decided to close the college, I transferred into the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the main campus.

This, then, was not only graduation at the small college, but the last graduation ever for a college that had been around since 1868. It was a women's college until 1981 and retained that empowered, creative, women's college aura. Getting my first job at this school was a dream come true. I know, any job is a dream come true, but really. It was a gorgeous campus in a leafy, lakeside neighborhood. I wish I could find a better picture, one that would better show the rolling lawn, or the leafy trees, but this kind of gives you an idea:

The classrooms felt like what you thought college would be when you dreamed about it as a kid: big wooden doorways and windows, antique wooden desks, intricately tiled floors. The long hallways still have giant floor-to-ceiling mirrors on each end where students once checked their clothes and hair in the morning as they got ready for class. We had our faculty meetings in what had been the library for most of the college's life, with dark wooden walls, and a tiny circular staircase leading up to a cat walk that lined the outside edge of the room, giving the room an extra level of bookshelves. I'd sit in faculty meetings and get lost in the paneled ceiling, each pale green panel painted with a golden icon--a heart with a sword in it, a fish, a shepard's cane, and also some really bizarre and arcane symbols that I couldn't figure out. But what a great way to pass the time.

The ground floor was dominated by a chapel, as beautiful and intricate as anything I've ever seen in Europe. I loved going in there and thinking about the generations of students and faculty who had sat in there through the years and I tried to draw some of the energy of their prayers into me. I don't go to church, and my feelings about organized religion would need their own blog and kill the mood of this post, but one of my mother's sayings during my childhood was "never discount the power of faith," something a woman who briefly tutored me in Wicca a long time ago reiterated, and I believe it. If you stand in a place where people have prayed, and cried, and struggled, and believed, and if you let yourself be quiet and still, you can feel their energy.

The top floor, which was mostly abandoned during my time there, except for some art studios, had been where the nuns lived up until the 1960s, when the school became only unofficially affiliated with the order of the Sacred Heart. There was a rumor that it was haunted by the ghost of a nun who had killed herself because she was pregnant--you knew she was there if you smelt roses from out of nowhere. Big university had turned the nuns' rooms into storage rooms, and locked the doors. But sometimes, when I went exploring during downtime between classes, I would find an empty one with an unlocked door and I go in and try to imagine what it was like when it was someone's room. What would it be like to sleep and think and write in a room that high up in the trees? From the nook made by the dormer windows, I could see over the trees to the lake. The nuns' lockers where still there, lining the upstairs hallway, and some of them still had names pasted inside, or contact paper lining, or scraps of paper. It was quiet and dusty and magical. Sometimes I'd open what I thought was a closet and find a whole other room, or a set of stairs.

Once, at the end of last year, just after they had announced the closing, an art history professor who had been there for at least twenty years, and who specializes in architecture, and had therefore been kind of the spiritual custodian of the building's layout and its history, took a few of us on a special tour. We went through old photography labs and art studios, into classrooms that big university hadn't touched, that had been the kingdoms of long dead professors. They still had signs on the walls and some furniture set up in ways that reflected the classrooms they had once been. My colleagues told me about these women, who had been old, old, old when they began their careers there, still respectful and maybe a little fearful of treading in their long lost colleagues' fiefdoms. We went into a tiny room hidden behind a stained glass window that housed the carillon (which hadn't been played for years), and finally, into an unfinished attic, where we picked our way delicately over boards and planks to a ladder that led to the cupola that sat at the top of the building. One at a time, we climbed up the ladder, moved the board the covered the hole at the top, and poked our heads out squarely in the middle of the cupola, just under the Irish cross. And from up there you could see 360 degrees around you, over the grassy land the building sat on, across the trees, and out to the lake, deep dark blue from so high up. While one person went up the ladder and looked out, the rest of us carved our initials and the date into the ceiling beams. At one point I remember looking up and seeing a colleague who had been kind of brusque with me since my arrival, maybe because that's just her way, maybe because I symbolized the onslaught of the big university on their world, but who I wanted to like me, because she was tough and smart and passionate, and as she rotated on the ladder, looking around as far as she could see, the wind caught her long hair and blew it up and around her face into the brilliant blue of the afternoon sky. It was one of those moments that are so perfect and so moving and so powerful that they are almost lost even as they happen, because you can't stop meta-narrating them and just experience them. But as I'm typing this tonight I see her again, see the wildness of her hair in the breeze--like William Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott--and I get a lump in my throat and have to squeeze my eyes shut to keep them from tearing. I knew I was someplace special, and I knew I had to leave, and I wanted, more than anything, to linger in the powerful, conspiratory kinship of that moment.

I left a few days later and moved my stuff down to the main campus where I settled in among new colleagues and new students and didn't really look back, because that's not something I let myself do, and I had a great year, taught intensely challenging classes, got involved in curriculum design, got swept up in the rhthyms of this new world. I loved my 20 minute commute into one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago, and the fact that the cafeteria always had vegetarian sushi, which became my standby lunch. I told myself I had to move down a year before the school actually closed because of my career (true: I needed to acclimate into the program which will hopefully tenure me) and because someone had to be there to help the small college students as they transferred into the larger one. And I did teach a lot of those students this year.

So I got up early on Saturday morning, my birthday, and drove an hour up to my old college, and by nine o' clock was sitting, robed, with my colleagues, under a tent on the front lawn of the school. It was already 90 degrees. The ceremony was passionate and tearful and brave as the students said goodbye, as they must, as they do every year, everywhere, and as my colleagues said goodbye, for real, forever, to a college and a building that had been their lives for their entire careers. Until big university came along, this little school had been relatively cloistered from the nastiness of academia. People came and they stayed; often they taught the children and even grandchildren of their former students. During a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the main building last weekend, I saw several generations of women who had gone to the school stand huddled on the front lawn, looking up at Old Main, and crying.

When the ceremony was over, the faculty lined up in a semi-circle and, as always, greeted each graduate with a handshake. Having been gone for a year, I was amazed at how many faces I had forgotten--I don't usually forget things--as students I didn't really remember hugged me and thanked me and told me what they were doing after graduation. It was emotional, but also a bit of a disconnect, mostly because I refused to go to the weepy place and focused instead on how much better I actually like teaching and participating in the larger college in the cool downtown neighborhood, and on how I was going to go to Target on my way home and buy a charger stand for the new ipod shuffle I got for my birthday. A lifetime of church-going teaches you to look serene and reverent while your mind plans and strategies and narrativizes. I drove away feeling little and lost. There was never a day I taught in that building that I didn't feel awe at its beauty, didn't feel touched by its spirit, didn't feel proud to walk its majestic halls.

Sunday afternoon was the big college of LA&S graduation, and, as this is already way too long, I'll keep it brief. I drove to the venue, a major arena just outside of Chicago (the last time I was in it was during Tori's Choirgirl Hotel tour) with a car full of new school colleagues. We had a good time processing recent administrative changes, talking about departures and lines and general, informational, but not too juicy, school topics. Then we pushed past the hordes of students into the faculty section of the staging area where everyone seemed a bit torn between robing and eating one last sandwich--who wants mustard on $800 robes? Then all the faculty lined up in a narrow, cement hallway and my friend leaned back and said, "You'll see why I dragged you here, you'll see." And then the line started moving, fast, faster and suddenly we emerged from the tunnel into the bright lights of a packed arena, to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, over and over and over; academic nerds, suddenly transformed into brightly robed super heros under the glaring lights and to the tumultuous applause of a sea of graduates in royal blue robes. The lines split and separated and went down separate aisles and rejoined, dramatically, at the base of the main podium as we marched up the risers, up to our seats facing the students. And it was magic, too. But a louder, more exuberant magic. An I-dare-you-to-be-cynical-about-this magic.

The ceremony was long, and after a while the adrenaline rush died down and then I realized how lucky I was to be sitting between people I liked and could chat comfortably with during the readings and walkings across the stage and handshakings and waves of 1500 graduates. I'll go again next year. I think this kind of thing is kind of addictive--getting to wear your robes and be all Jude the Obscure, (only happy, and with living children) seeing your colleagues in theirs, being in a procession led by someone carrying a medieval mace.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Sparkle, Neeley, Sparkle

This working out in the morning thing is killing me. I want to like it. I do like it. I look forward to waking up early, because it feels like I'm accomplishing something just by being awake. And I love running along the edge of the lake in the early morning.

Scratch that.

I love being at the edge of the lake in the early morning, but the actual running part makes me feel weak and trembly and so thirsty I think my throat is going to close up just as I'm running under one of the charming, but kind of creepy on account of the homeless people sleeping alongside them, tunnels. But I trudge along, and I walk when I need to, and I tell myself that I'll be stronger soon and won't need to walk so often. And I groove out to my June '05 running mix. Right now I'm completely obsessed with Big Audio Dynamite's "E=MC2," even though they are the very band which turned me onto classic rock in high school, because I couldn't abide their stupid "the horses are on the track" song which K-ROQ played nonstop circa 1986. This is not to say that my taste is super highbrow. Would you still respect me if I fessed up to just how much I love the JLo single "Get Right"? It always comes on just as I'm running up this hill in the middle of the lake front park. I ditch the dirt path when I get to the hill because it works my legs differently. That's my official justification. The real reason I do the hill is because it's an excuse to slow down and because from the top I can see the harbor and the lake and the Chicago skyline. Just after I descend the hill and get going on the path, just where it curves under another bridge, I have to skip the end of the song, because the part where a female child's voice overtakes JLo's and finishes out the song is too treacly even for me.

As I get to the part of my run where there is harbor on one side, and a golf course on the other, narrowing the path and making it a little less scenic, "Barracuda" comes on. This makes me run fast for a little bit, because I want to be tough like Ann and Nancy Wilson. But then I get asthmatic and weary and I talk myself into walking. Just when I reach the half-point turn around spot, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" comes on. For a cheerless song, this totally cheers me up. No matter what, no matter how slow, I run the entire song. As I get back to the first of the scary bridges Sleater Kinney's "Jumpers" comes on, and I let myself slow down as I think, for the millioneth time, about how sad the song is (it's about jumpers, as in, off of bridges) and how stupid the lyrics are ("the lemons are like tumors. Little suns of sour").

By the time I get back home it's only 8 or so and while I'm super proud of myself, even sanctimonious, as my girlfriend is still deep asleep and maybe doesn't even know I've gone running, I'm also aware that the same headache I've had every day I wake up early and go running is on its way. And it's only 8. And I still have to go into school and play nice in a faculty meeting. And give my diva final. And I don't feel very sparkley.

Today we're having a high of almost 90, so I got up super early, in order to be on the lake path by 7 to avoid the heat. When I got there I saw three of my friends coming out of the water after a swim, on their way to the biking portion of their workout (they're training for a triathalon). I loved seeing them--the neighborhoodiness of Chicago is one of the things I love most about it--everywhere you go you see people you know. That and the glorious lake, which was pale, pale blue in the steamy morning heat.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Post-Memorial Day Weekend Quiz

It's memorial day weekend in Chicago and Margo is itching to get out of the house. Where does she go?

1. To a cat show

2. To a leather market.

3. All of the above

Answer: 3

Yes, it's true. After a winter of lethargy and passive television watching, I finally dragged myself out of the house and welcomed in the summer in a big, structured, go-getter way, attending not only the annual leather mart at the International Man of Leather competition and show (it wouldn't be Memorial Day in Chicago without it), but, as well, the Cat Fancier Association's midwest regional championships.

I didn't really want to go to the leather mart. It sounded like a lot of naked butts, paunchy stomachs rolling over leather kilts, police uniforms, and hairy, hairy chests. And I had seen all those the night before, as I sat in a restaurant/bar watching busload after busload of out-of-state leather daddies and boys stream into the leather bar next door. And it would be hard to go downtown, and park, and what if I was hungry and there was no food, or what if my feet got tired.

But I was wrong. It was festive and fun and playful and I ran into way more people I knew than I would have imagined. The consumer-impulse runs strong, and my gf and I hadn't been there long before we, too, wanted to get in on the buying action. And while we don't really need a glass-topped dining room table with a cage underneath it, and we have just about all the rubber hoods we need, we started to want to buy something, anything. At one point gf actually tried to convince me that a metal chain necklace/breastplate would be kind of cool to have. I settled on a leather wristband. She got a wristband, too, and a "bar" vest, meaning it doesn't have buttons and isn't a functional vest (i.e. don't wear it out on the Harley), but is just for wearing out to bars, hence the name.

And while some of the guys were paunchy, and/or hairy, and while there were a lot of butts hanging out (which isn't the right word at all, because these butts did NOT hang--they were very fit and firm), the whole atmosphere was so body-positive and upbeat that it didn't matter. My friends went in their best chaps and vests and looked like younger, cuter versions of this:

Ironically, the CFA show, which I couldn't wait to go to, sucked. I went last year, before we got our second siamese, and loved it--I loved seeing all the different kinds of freaky, expensive cats I had been reading about, and I loved talking to the breeders, whose enthusiasm and knowledge about their breeds was completely engrossing. And I don't even care if I sound like a huge nerd for saying it. I was even looking forward to getting out of Chicago and driving up to Milwaukee. Kind of like a mini-road trip, with a guaranteed trip to A&W for bacon cheeseburgers and fried cheese curds and maybe, maybe, a trip to Mars Cheese Castle for smoked string cheese.

The road trip part was great, and the day did indeed include fried cheese curds. But the cat show smelled bad and was filled with weird, anti-social people. And I don't call them weird because they drove thousands of miles to sit in a stuffy, smelly, flourescent-light lit show hall at the Milwaukee Airport, patiently waiting by their cats' cages for eight hours at a time, eating hot dogs with sauerkraut and stale popcorn and whatever else they could find within the radius of the show hall. They were weird because they wouldn't engage with me, no matter how hard I tried to get their attention, asking polite, thoughtful questions about their breeding programs, or the habits of their particular breeds, hinting that I might like to buy one of their cats one day.

If it was me, and if I was trying to sell a $1500 cat that looked like this

I wouldn't be so sullen and crabby. (That's actually a bad example because this is an exquisite cat--if I could, I'd pay anything they asked for it.) Maybe they were tired, or had indigestion. Maybe they were homophobic.

One really nice man let us pet this cat:

The owner pulled him out of the cage and was holding him to his chest when the cat turned, and like a child, reached for my girlfriend, crawled into her arms, looked into her eyes, put a paw on each side of her face, and gently stroked her cheek. After a few moments he turned back towards his owner and held his arms out to be gathered back into his arms. He was an extraordinarly tender, baby-like cat, and the experience both moved us and kind of weirded us out. So we walked around the hall a little bit more, bought some new toys for our cats, and beat a path out of there, steadfastly avoiding looking at the scary persians dressed in bows and lace collars.