The “I am ridiculous” factor

Because I’m trying to get back into writing regularly again… Terry Teachout has started a parlor game proposed by a friend:

What great artists (or famous people) could, and
couldn’t, say the sentence “I am ridiculous”? Washington no, Lincoln
yes. Milton no, Shakespeare yes.

I’ll bite. This is the all (pre-20th century) poets, all the time edition:

Edmund Spenser no, Sir Philip Sidney yes
Aemilia Lanyer no (with a question mark), Ben Jonson yes
George Herbert perhaps no, John Donne yes
John Milton no, Andrew Marvell yes
John Dryden no, Aphra Behn yes
Alexander Pope yes, Jonathan Swift very definitely yes
William Wordsworth no, Lord Byron yes
Percy Shelley no, John Keats yes
Alfred, Lord Tennyson no, Robert Browning yes
Emily Brontë no, Christina Rossetti yes

Jury’s out on Blake and Coleridge. I think the Pre-Raphaelites are a collective "no." It’s interesting how little of one’s response has to do with specific works. (Although that one line about "my mountain belly, and my rocky face" has a lot to do with why I would put Ben Jonson into the "yes" column.)

Efforts at speech

At the funeral, everyone kept telling me that I look like my dad. The odd thing is that neither he nor I could ever spot the likeness. I remember how we once talked about family resemblances and he said that he didn’t think I looked much like either him or my mother, and that probably I’m the spitting image of some ancestor from another century, but we’ll never know. My eyes are definitely my mother’s, but the rest of my features are harder to identify.

But now, I’m seeing resemblances all over the place. My tendency to worry and fret and be pessimistic comes from my father’s side of the family (not just him, but generations of Scottish Presbyterians). But he also gave me my taste for movies and theater and visual spectacle of all kinds, and a lot of my sense of humor comes from him as well. My love of language is from both of my parents, jointly; my mother’s family is full of Scrabble-players and makers of terrible puns, and she read to me every night of my childhood until long after I could read on my own. My father told me long, elaborate stories when I was growing up, and when I was too old for stories he talked about books with me and gave me his back issues of the New Yorker. My wavy hair is like his, and so (according to family friends) are some of my characteristic hand gestures.

It’s hard to tell how much of us is in the DNA we get from our parents and their parents, how much is in our upbringing and the circumstances that shape us, and how much is random or inexplicable. One of the things my dad’s friends gave me was a sheaf of research he’d been doing on the Scottish side of his family; he’d gotten all the way back to an ancestor born in 1771 in Lanarkshire. Someday I may go there to see where my great-great-great-great-grandparents came from.

I think I’m starting to see now why people have children. It’s as if somehow, if you can see how your parents and grandparents continuing, even in something as small as the shape of an eyebrow or a tilt of the head, you haven’t completely lost them, even if you’ll never see them again. And you hang on to that, because you have to.

It’s still difficult to write anything, but when I think of where I got my fondness for spinning words together, it helps, somehow.


There will be posting here again, I promise. There for a while, it felt
like I’d lost the ability to put words together; every time I tried to
write a sentence, all that came out were little staccato phrases, short, stark,
void of everything that sounded like me. Thankfully, that hasn’t lasted.

While I’ve been not posting, I’ve been making arrangements for next
year. Back at the end of April I was offered the chance to stay on for
another year here at UVa, and I’ve decided to take the offer. Which is
a huge relief, because I just couldn’t handle more job searching and
then moving this summer. Instead, I’ll get to stay where I am for the
time being, carry on with a couple of ongoing projects, and work with some very interesting people I didn’t get to work with this year, as well as some very interesting people I did get to work with. Stability seems to help.

Oh, and I’m going to ALA in Chicago at the end of the month. Anyone want to meet up? (Tangognat?)

On silence

This is very hard to write, much less post. But you’re probably wondering why there haven’t been any posts here lately, so I thought I should explain why.

You may remember that I mentioned an illness in the family several months ago. The family member in question was my father, and there for a while, we had a lot of cause for optimism. But last weekend, he unexpectedly got worse, and a week ago today he slipped away, very quietly, while I was still thinking he’d be all right. I hope that none of you out there ever have to receive a predawn phone call from a hospital.

Nearly everyone loses their parents at some point in their lives, but I wasn’t expecting to lose one of mine before I turned thirty. I’ve been away attending to administrative matters and helping to arrange the funeral, which was yesterday. I would say that it provided some sense of closure, but I’m still numb.

There aren’t any more words. There will be, eventually, but now I can’t write anything else. In large part because writing it makes it more real.

Greetings from an undisclosed location

I’ve arrived at the hotel where I’ll be staying for tomorrow’s job interview at Further School (as opposed to Nearer School, where I interview next week). I don’t want to say more about where I currently am, since the details of job searches are sensitive information, but I will say that the weather’s absolutely beautiful, and there is an excitingly unfamiliar view from my hotel room. Also, I spent the airplane flight reading an interesting mix of articles and thinking unusually coherent thoughts about technology and information overload. (Unusually, because flying generally makes me feel wooly-brained even when I haven’t gotten up before dawn and then dosed myself with Dramamine.) I may post some of the resulting thoughts later on, when I get back to Charlottesville.

So: greetings from my secret undisclosed location, and now I must return to practicing my job talk for tomorrow morning. Anon, anon.

Good luck…

with the interview, Dorothea!

Personal anthology: Wislawa Szymborska

Because it’s been ages since I posted anything from the commonplace-book…

Four A.M.

The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

Empty hour.
Hollow. Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours.

No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants.  And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

— Wislawa Szymborska (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

I first encountered this poem in a free paraphrase by Edward Hirsch in the New Yorker, which began like this:

The hollow, unearthly hour of night.
Swaying vessel of emptiness.

Patron saint of dead planets
and vast, unearthly spaces receding in mist.

Necklace of shattered constellations:
soon the stars will be extinguished. . . .

and ended thusly:

the scorned hour, the very pit

of all the other hours,
the very dirge.

Let five o’clock come
with its bandages of light.

A life buoy in bruised waters.
The first broken plank of morning.

I can’t decide which version I prefer.

Saturday opera blogging

I came home from a midday expedition downtown expressly to listen to the last Met radio broadcast of the season; this weekend it’s La Clemenza di Tito, and we’re now at the intermission. How fabulously dark the end of Act 1 is. The audience digs Anne-Sofie von Otter, and so do I. There are other mezzos whose voices I like as well or better, but I have a soft spot for Anne-Sofie because she was one of the reasons why I got into Mozart’s operas in the first place. Around a decade ago, my college roommate splurged on the James Levine Nozze di Figaro (with A-S. von O. as Cherubino) and put it on first thing most mornings as the two of us brewed the day’s first pot of coffee and staggered through our morning routines. After a while I noticed that I’d taken to warbling "Voi che sapete" and "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio" in the shower, and then I saw my first Don Giovanni at the Lyric, and the rest was history.

You know, even though the so-called "Mozart effect" has been shown to be hogwash, there’s nothing like an afternoon listening to La Clemenza to make one feel much more capable of dealing with life, the universe, and impending job interviews. (Now if only I didn’t have to spend part of tomorrow tweaking PowerPoint slides…)

Real life gets suddenly busy

I have two job interviews in two states a couple of time zones apart, both coming up in the next two weeks. It’s amazing how news of this kind arrives in multiples. I’d be wondering why my (metaphorical) stock mysteriously went up overnight, except I know that the logical explanation is that I’ve been sending out job applications in bunches and getting replies in bunches. (I got two skinny envelopes in the mail within a few days of each other recently, too. But one of them I’d been expecting and the other was perhaps the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever received, so even though I’d really wanted the job, it didn’t sting as much as it could have.)

To-do list: finish prepping job talk for interview #1, plan presentation for interview #2,  reflect on where I want to be in five years, and remember to take deep breaths.

(Addendum: Why oh why, during the season in which I most needed a lightweight interview suit, did the Mysterious Cabal of Fashion Trendsetters decree that the big thing for spring would be "Everybody in Seersucker"?)

Art meets science

I meant to blog this amazing New Yorker story about the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters, conservation, digital imaging, and supercomputers, but, preoccupied by other things, I forgot. Fortunately, Ramage spotted it too.

Also from Ramage: GoogleMontage, a site that creates instant photo-montages by automatically combining images from Google when you feed it some search terms. Here’s mine, using the search string "memory theater":