I’m going to have to go on hiatus for a while. I’ve just gotten some very bad news (the ‘serious illness in the family’ kind of bad news), and I haven’t the heart to write much of anything right now. I’m not planning on leaving the blogosphere, and if the news in question is followed by more hopeful news in the upcoming weeks, I’ll be back sooner rather than later. But for now, I need to be quiet, and I hope you’ll still be around when I return.

The “single woman in a rural college town” blues

I still read the Chronicle of Higher Education from time to time, and a few days ago there was an article about the loneliness of the single woman academic stuck in a tiny town where everyone in her social circle is married. The pseudonymous Sara Bradshaw (is that an homage to Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw?) finds herself caught between a lack of social interaction outside the university and a lack of socializing within her department:

Rural Town … lacked theaters, museums, interesting lectures on politics, walking tours, good cafes, and even good bookstores in which I could while away a lazy Saturday. In place of those, the town offered only an eerie silence. I couldn’t even find a good nonacademic book group. I had never really understood how isolated certain parts of the country can be until I lived in one of them.

When I was not in the classroom, the silence became deafening and I became clinically depressed. I love to read and I love solitude, but like everyone, I need some social interaction.

My colleagues, on the other hand, often worked at home, and when they came into the department, they shut their doors and hibernated. Having spouses and families at home, they had no need to create social relationships at work. I found myself drifting with my only interaction being with my students or a clerk in the grocery store.

Sara M. Bradshaw, "The Bachelorette in Academia"*

Quite. And I think a lot of single female academics and post-academics** could tell a similar story. Consider wolfangel’s latest post, for instance. I think there’s a tendency among academics to assume that one’s job is supposed to compensate for any loneliness that comes along with it; that the life of the mind is the life of the disembodied intellect, as a friend of mine once put it. The article is being discussed both in the Chronicle forums, where a few readers initially responded along the lines of "She left academia because she couldn’t get a date? How lame!" But they’re outnumbered by the other readers who comment that they’ve found small-town academia lonely too.

At LISNews, several commenters were off-put by the conclusion, in which Sara Bradshaw asks her librarian friend Emily, "But you are so bright and you have such a passion for history, why did you ever drop out of graduate school?" Which is indeed irksome in several ways. But Emily gets the last word. She cites the lack of an "office culture" in academia as one of the reasons for her career change. Bradshaw has a startled moment of realization: "Librarians are more socially outgoing than academics?"

Now that I’ve been amongst librarians for a while, I can say that the answer to that question is yes. There are reclusive people and outgoing people in every profession, but, like Emily, I’m finding that I greatly prefer office culture to the lone-wolf researcher culture. And pretty much every librarian I’ve met so far has been welcoming and friendly. (Yes, I know, I’ve only been doing this for six months, and there were friendly people when I was in grad school too, but the difference between the cultures is nonetheless pronounced.)

I don’t know what can be done about the loneliness, though. I suspect the problem is larger than academia, that it’s not just about how there are always lonely people, that it ties in with the overwork and lack of community that Laura at 11D writes about when she calls for "a social revolution … with more men and women downsizing their lives and reinvigorating community life." I want to see that happen too.

* One small peeve related to the title of the Chronicle article: I can’t stand the word "bachelorette." I think it’s much cooler for single women to appropriate "bachelor," a la Greta Garbo proclaiming "I shall die a bachelor!" in Queen Christina (mmm. Garbo. Cross-dressing seventeenth-century style. Mmm.), without the cutesy diminutive tacked on the end. It would be nice to reclaim "spinster" from all that baggage attached to it, too. There just aren’t enough non-insulting terms for single women: "singleton" is too Bridget Jones-ish, and "quirkyalone" isn’t in wide enough circulation to be used without puzzling the hearer.

** Question for single male academics who happen to be reading this: is it the same for you?

O Canada

An editorial in the Toronto Star proposes a satirical solution to the SpongeBob SquarePants controversy:

I have a proposal that I’m betting Dobson and the Focus on the Family organization would go along with. What’s needed are more cartoon characters willing to promote intolerance. Maybe, with the right kind of deprogramming, some of the existing characters we already know so well could be cured of their acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. This might be a lot easier than trying to invent new animated heroes like, for example, Iggy the Ignorant Iguana, Kris the Kranky Krustacean, or Henry the Hamster of Hate.

— "Why no cartoon characters promoting intolerance?", Toronto Star, 1/24/05

While I share Rana’s reservations about "tolerance" as a framework, that line about Henry the Hamster of Hate is just too funny not to share. I love Canadians.

Blizzard envy

I’m sure that if I really lived there I would be kvetching about having to shovel and climb over snowdrifts, but still: I wish I lived in New York.

I love Virginia’s mild and sunny climate, I really do, but — all we got here was a measly inch or two of snow. I feel cheated.

Readings for a snowy Saturday

It snowed this morning, the kind of big heavy flakes that make audible contact with the ground when they fall. It feels like the snow days of my youth. I’ve been having a decadently late lunch of classic cold-weather food (grilled cheese sandwiches) and listening to the Met’s broadcast of their 1967 Aida with Leontyne Price. All in all, a very good way to spend a Saturday.

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading:

Greg Sandow on Handel, 18th-century excess, and how contemporary productions of Baroque opera aren’t baroque enough:

I’d love to see a production that reflected all this, that showed us what Baroque opera was really like. Of course, we could imagine that Handel didn’t want it that way, that he really wanted everything to be sober and dramatic. But there’s no evidence for such a belief (or at least none that I’ve ever read or heard about); I’d think that, to the extent that we can realistically judge his intentions, Handel expected to convey drama through the existing conventions of Baroque opera, which meant flamboyant craziness.

Interesting essay on British working-class autodidacticism, via Arts & Letters Daily:

While studying Greek philosophy at night, Joseph Keating performed one of the toughest and worst-paid jobs in the mine: shoveling out tons of refuse. One day, he was stunned to hear a co-worker sigh, "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of fate." "You are quoting Pope," Keating exclaimed. "Ayh," replied his companion, "me and Pope do agree very well."

Also from A&L Daily, a piece on great artistic endings from the SF Gate. I like their choice of examples. (Speaking of snow, that last paragraph of "The Dead" is very high on my list of Things I Would Give My Right Arm to Have Written Myself. And the rest of you? What do you wish you’d written?)

Speaking of endings, I’m almost finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and am caught between competing impulses to read as fast as I can to find out what happens, and to draw out the last section as long as possible. Here’s a favorite bit, from when the magician Jonathan Strange meets Byron, Shelley, and their entourage in Geneva in 1816, during the famous summer when Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein. Each of them writes about the other to their publisher, John Murray:

Strange … was unsettled by Byron’s domestic arrangements. "I found his lordship at his pretty villa upon the shores of the lake. He was not alone. There was another poet called Shelley, Mrs Shelley and another young woman — a girl really — who called herself Mrs Clairmont and whose relationship to the two men I did not understand. If you know, do not tell me. Also present was an odd young man who talked nonsense the entire time — a Mr Polidori."

… Having taken an immediate dislike to each other, they had progressed smoothly to quarrelling about politics. Strange wrote: "… we immediately fell to talking of the battle of Waterloo — an unhappy subject since I am the Duke of Wellington’s magician and they all hate Wellington and idolize Buonaparte. Mrs Clairmont, with all the impertinence of eighteen, asked me if I was not ashamed to be an instrument in the fall of so sublime a man. No, said I."

Byron wrote: "He is a great partisan for the Duke of W. I hope for your sake, my dear Murray, that his book is more interesting than he is."

Strange finished: "People have such odd notions about magicians. They wanted me to tell them about vampyres."

— Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, chapter 50

(Vampyres! And the later cameo by Byron — who appears briefly in a Venetian salon, exhibiting "the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression" to the women in the room and complaining that Strange is too dull to serve as the model for the main character in his latest poem — is hilarious.)

Best. Graffiti. Ever.

Seen on a wall in a stairwell in the Alderman Library today: a heart containing the words "I love Beatrice."

Next to it, in a different hand: "You go, Dante."

Underneath, in a third hand: "Meanwhile, Virgil feels dumped."

Then, from another contributor: "Petrarch only loved himself!"

And finally, in yet another hand: "Hmm. Let’s not forget Benedict."

There is hope for the literacy of the younger generation, after all. (And yes, I did take out my notebook and copy down that entire exchange. After the last line, how could I not?)

Context is everything

Me, age 21, after several winters in Chicago: "Wow! 27 degrees outside! It warmed up to the double digits! It must be an early spring thaw! Let’s go outside and throw snowballs at each other while we still can!"

Me, currently, after six months in Virginia: "27 degrees? It was 60 last week! 60! Oh my God the wind is going right up my trouser legs and why didn’t I wear my heavy sweater, fashion be damned, and is my face going numb? Could that be frostbite? And where the HELL is the goddamned BUS when we’re FREEZING TO DEATH out here?!"

Or, in other words, context is everything. It’s like one of those optical illusions where the two squares are exactly the same size but no matter how hard you look at them, one of them always looks much bigger than the other.

(It’s either that or I’m getting whinier and less cold-resistant with age. Could be the latter, now that I think of it.)

In other news, last night we had our first real dusting of snow, but it was all gone by morning. In an endearing display of optimism, the nearby Big Chain Houseware Store was selling plastic toboggans this weekend.


I should have known. The cure for blogger’s block is the spreading of memes. Specifically, this Poetry Meme spotted at Noli Irritare Leones. Here are the instructions:

Below you will find ten first lines of poems. If you recognize the line, leave it on the list. If you do not recognize the line, then replace it with the first line of a poem that you do know. Highlight your changes in bold.

   1. Had we but world enough, and time,
   2. I never saw a Purple Cow
   3. Body my house
   4. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
   5. Do not go gentle into that good night,
   6. What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
   7. I leant upon a coppice gate
   8. That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
   9. The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
  10. Hog Butcher for the World,

You can find all these poems at Poets.org using their first line search.

Writer’s block

I can’t think of a single thing to say. How lame is that?

I want to write something about folksonomies. There are thoughts in my head, but they won’t coalesce into anything postable. (Maybe later.) I would write about the wonder that is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice, but there aren’t the words for it. I would write about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I haven’t quite finished it yet.

I can’t even think of any poems to post in the Personal Anthology category. This is some kind of nadir of blogger’s block.

So here’s a question for you all: what helps you write when your brain just won’t get into it? Prompts, suggestions, amusing anecdotes about weird things you’ve done to invoke the muse, all welcome. Discuss.

Blog idea envy

I hate it when I have an idea for something amusing to post here, like, say, fictional character sketches to go with the wackier made-up names adopted by the senders of the spam that washes up in my spam-filters, and I receive a particularly fine example one morning (an otherwise unmemorable spam from one "Romeo Camp") — and then I realize that someone else has already had the same idea, blogged it, and done it much better than I could.

Maybe I could still write something about Romeo Camp, though. If not as a character, then possibly as a setting. Or maybe both.