Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Here beginneth the week of tea and murder.

Three times now, in the last two weeks, I have laid down to bed at night, only to experience (for the first time ever) heartburn so painful that it drove me out of bed, dressed again, and to the store at midnight to get OTC medicine.

This morning, after ingesting my usual double-strength french press of coffee before work (and god it was delicious; I make a truly excellent pot of coffee), I realized that this might be the problem.

So, for one week, beginning tomorrow, I am giving up coffee. As an experiment. As a substitute, I plan to drink green or herbal tea. And probably kill people.

Consider this your warning.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Getting Stuff Done (and its exact opposite)

Spring Break, I got stuff done.

I should explain: I am gold-star motivated. That is to say, you give me an opportunity to earn some completely meaningless recognition, to check of the maximum number of things, and I'll do it. I am much more competitive against myself than I would ever dream of being against another human being. To give an example: in the sixth grade, the math teacher gave us the textbook and told us that our grade for the year would be based on how many of the pages we completed (with a satisfactory grade). I can't recall now how she combined this with actual teaching, but I can recall that about two thirds of the way through the year I had handed her back the book and said, "I'm done. What do I do now?"

So then it will be no surprise to anyone that, when I decided that I wanted to not piss away my spring break, I decided to make a chore chart:

Seriously: I posted this on my refrigerator. Like I was effing ten years old.

And it will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that this worked. By the end of spring break, I had filled in 49 of the 54 boxes. BOW DOWN BEFORE MY PRODUCTIVITY. AS GOD IS MY WITNESS, I WILL NEVER BE UNMOTIVATED AGAIN!

And then, the following week happened. I have missed all three of my exercise classes (though one of those was on accident). I have gorged on sugar and caffeine. I have written a total of 1000 words, read no new books or articles, and watched the grading pile up. I think I washed my hair once. I have spent a lot of hours that I have no idea where they went. I feel psychologically greasy.[1]

Do I need a new chore chart? Is there no way, even at almost fifty years old, that I will ever overcome my need for a gold star in order to do anything more demanding than putting on my pants in the morning?

[1] Though not literally greasy: my hair is of a type that only normally gets washed every three days, so while only washing my hair once is definitely a sign of my general apathy, the visible result is not as bad as it sounds. I may have problems elsewhere in my life, but anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I have Objectively Very Good Hair.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Naming Your Own Terms

This is just a short post that begins with two anecdotes from this semester:

1. Person asks me to review a book that I'm actually interesting in reading. They say "we need it in six weeks." I say, "Sounds interesting but I have a number of projects that I've already committed to over the next several months. I could do it, but only if you can wait until August." They respond, "Perfect! Where shall we send it?"

2. Person contacts me asking me to blurb a book. I respond about commitments, say "Not available till July." Response: July will be great; do you want it in hard copy or pdf?

Something that both of these have in common: they both respond to my offer to get back to them about four times longer than they want... within 15 minutes.

Lesson from midcareer: When you are doing work for free, you have a lot of power to set the conditions. You can say no, but if you want to say yes, you can say yes on your own terms.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Setting the Table (Middlemarch, book 5)

I will confess, that I found book 5 a bit difficult to plow through, even with the extra time of spring break. I think that in many ways, this is what they call in TV series a “table-setting episode” — there have been a number of big transitions, including a couple of high-profile deaths, and now our friends (and enemies) in Middlemarch readjust. The adjustments at this point are minute, but one expects that they will be the foundation for bigger changes to come.

Dorothea visits the Lydgate home only to find Lydgate gone and Ladislaw visiting with Rosamund. She is disconcerted to find him there, and he is disconcerted that she has seen him in some situation where his attention was devoted to something other than her. Dorothea departs to visit Lydgate at the hospital, which she is interested in as a charitable enterprise. Rosy begins to suspect that Ladislaw adores Dorothea, and he confirms her suspicions by speaking of Dorothea in worshipful tones. Lydgate returns home that evening and tells Rosy that he thinks Dorothea will donate to his new hospital. Dorothea — no surprise — is taken with the idea of using her money for reform, and even Casaubon does not object. He does, however, continue to be suspicious of her, and in the midst of some feverish late-night work tries to extract a promise from Dorothea that she will obey his (unspecified) wishes unquestioningly once he has died. She suspects he is talking about his book, and fears being entombed in a worthless work project that will occupy the rest of her life, but decides overnight to consent rather than risk taking away the one thing Casaubon seems to be living for. But when she finds him in the garden to give her consent, she finds that he has died.

Lydgate is having troubles of his own: His hospital has been having funding problems for two reasons: the Middlemarchers loathe his chief backer, Mr. Bulstrode, and they mistrust this young newcomer has thought to come in and overturn standard medical practice thereby giving offense to the doctors of Middlemarch — and causing suspicion among some of their patients, who think him a quack for refusing to dispense medicines as the standard treatment. Rosamund expresses her own doubts about the suitability of the medical profession in general, but Lydgate insists that to love him is to love his profession, and she agrees not to quarrel with him on this subject. but we also learn that Rosy is pregnant, and Lydgate’s bill-collectors are, unbeknownst to her, beginning to call for payment.

Ladislaw continues to adore Dorothea, and she begins to suspect that she may have feelings for him as well — a bit of self-knowledge that, ironically enough, bubbles to the surface when she finds out that her late husband had added a codicil to his will to prevent her specifically from marrying Ladislaw after his death. Mr. Brooke and Sir James find it monstrous, as it casts a poor light on Dorothea, possibly raising suspicions in the community that this was what she had been planning. The both wish they could keep it from her as long as possible, but they disagree on Ladislaw himself: Sir James wants him sent away; Mr. Brooke is finding him too useful in his political campaign to let him go. But when Mr. Brooke turns in a disastrous performance at the political speeches — pro tip: only ONE glass of sherry before you give your job talk! — he sees an opportunity: Brooke resolves to give up both the candidacy and the paper, leaving Ladislaw unemployed and at loose ends. Brooke hopes that this set of circumstances, though unplanned, will prompt Ladislaw to go abroad, and away from Dorothea. Ladislaw is ambitious, but his adoration of Dorothea wins out, and he determines to stay.

The one thing that Dorothea does as the new mistress of Lowick is to decide to give her husband’s old clerical post to Farebrother, on Lydgate’s recommendation. And as Farebrother is preparing to take up his new post, his female relations urge him to take a wife. No sooner has he begun to contemplate the notion of Mary Garth than Fred Vincy shows up on his doorstep, begging him to intercede with Mary for him. Mary makes no commitment either way, but figuring out that Farebrother himself might be interested, knows that she must be definitive here and not give him hope; she replies that she has long felt affection for Fred, and could not throw it over so easily just because someone else came along in the interim. Farebrother takes the hint, and rides off, promising to convey her feelings to Fred, and to work to find him worthy employment.


We’re entering gothic novel territory here, folks. But before we head into what I assume will be darkness, let’s enjoy the themes from book five:

  • Sincerity and pragmatism come up in two situations: first, in the argument that Lydgate and Ladislaw have over politics. Brooke, has no real political convictions; he tells Ladislaw that what he wants from his young assistant in advance of the speeches is “not ideas, you know, but a way of putting them.” Ladislaw is dismayed, but also willing to make use of the tools at hand to achieve a good end, while Lydgate argues that real reform demands real reformers. Ladislaw is also, in a bit of a familiar touch, utterly cynical about the role of the press, noting that people read only what confirms their opinions: “Do you suppose the public reads with a view to its own conversion? We should have a witches’ brewing with a vengeance then — ‘Mingle, mingle, mingle, mingle. You that mingle may’ — and nobody would know which side he was going to take.” Ladislaw, I think, would be right at home in the current political climate, although perhaps not happily so.
  • On a true calling: The second time we see an allusion to sincerity and pragmatism comes in chapter 52, when Mary rejects the idea of marrying Fred if he goes into the church. What she wants is for him to find a true calling: “Fred has sense and knowledge enough to make him respectable, if he likes, in some good worldly business, but I can never imagine him preaching ad exhorting an pronouncing blessings, and praying by the sick, without feeling as if I were looking at a caricature.” Fred, separately, seems to agree, though he doesn’t have any idea of what that calling might be. But, as the narrator noted in chapter 46, “Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettantism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference.” She was referring there to Ladislaw, who had really taken to Reform with all the sincerity that his patron Mr. Brooke lacked, and found that working for a political cause truly appealed to his romantic idealism.
  • On self-fashioning: in the final chapter, moments before Bulstrode’s happy daydreams of future gentility are burst by the arrival of Raffles, the narrator remarks that “The memory has as many moods as the temper, and shifts its scenery like a diorama.” Mr. Bulstrode has decided to reimagine his past in a better light in order to slip more comfortably into a self-fashioned future. One might say something very similar of Rosamund, who, as the narrator notes, is “not without satisfaction that Mrs. Casaubon should have an opportunity of studying her. What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?” And Fred Vincy is trying to fashion himself to please others, but whether it will be his father or Mary Garth that he pleases is anyone’s guess. It certainly won’t be himself, because he has absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life, other than enjoy it from day to day.

Have at it!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Here's Why You Hate the Word "Webinar"


Awful, awful, awful.

But have you ever wondered why it's so awful? 

I think I've figured it out. Here's my pet theory as to why "webinar" sucks as a portmanteau: Because it's not a real portmanteau at all. The "web-" replaces "sem-", but "sem-" is not a prefix with a defined meaning that "web" is substituting for. The substitution is based on assonance. Which is fine if you are writing Old English epic poetry or a Tom Waits song, but not so much if you're trying to impart meaning.

Same goes for "webucator," which I have only seen one time, but which burned its way into my brain like sulphuric acid.


So: what other hideous edu-jargon do you hate and why?

(PS: my dad asked for more non-Middlemarch content. He made no specifications as to quality. Enjoy, Dad!)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Something New to Make Me Nuts

I've lived in Grit City Beach for 15 years. And I may -- MAY, mind you -- now have the financial resources to purchase a small home.

The question remains as to whether I have the emotional resources. I'll be doing this on my own, and that's both good and bad, in terms of organizing the whole process. Not to mention paying for it. But I thought that it might perhaps be amusing to view from the outside: "Book-smart person confronts the housing-industrial complex! Hilarity ensues!"

Here is my observation for the day: Why do so many condo-stagers paint the interior walls gray? Nothing says, "I want my condo to present all the warmth and charm of a high-priced chain hotel" quite like gray walls.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Submission and Rebellion (Middlemarch, Book Four)

A day late, but let’s get to it. Although this book is titled “three love problems,” I think that what really ties these chapters together is submission and rebellion.

The first of these comes from Featherstone. In life, his greatest — or maybe only — joy was making others bend to his will. Mary Garth was probably the only one who successfully resisted. Now, even after his death, Featherstone is making folks miserable, by making his relations attend his funeral. The first will is read, and most of it goes to Fred Vincy. But then the second will is read, and Fred gets nothing; it all goes to the executor, an apparent stranger, Joshua Rigg. The family goes off in a huff, and we only learn in book four’s final chapters who this Rigg is and why Featherstone has left him his entire estate. All of this apparently causes Mary Garth to feel some guilt (or does she? I have my doubts) about depriving Fred of his inheritance, though she tells Fred he’s better without it. Fred, deprived of independent means, reluctantly goes back to finish his education, possibly headed for the career in the church to which he is entirely unsuited.

We’ve also got the idea of wifely submission and rebellion, in two places. First, is the Lydgate/Rosamund marriage, which has happened all in a rush, with the Middlemarchers clucking in disapproval all the while. Lydgate seems to have thrown caution to the winds, as he spends himself into debt to set up the marital household. But he also is having some thoughts about how marriage works that are foreshadowing some possible disillusionment on the horizon: he has expectations of a docile adoring wife, with little thought as to what he needs to provide, other than someone to be adored. Is Lydgate on the verge of turning into Casaubon? That marriage isn’t working out so well, either. He becomes ever colder towards Dorothea under the growing suspicion that Dorothea disdains him as much as he secretly disdains himself. She teeters on the verge of hating him, but at the last moment collapses back into wifely solicitude.

  • Lydgate, looking forward to married life with Rosy: “Lydgate thought that after all his wild mistakes […] he had found perfect womanhood — felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, get keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s-breadth beyond — docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.”
  • Dorothea wonders of Casaubon, “And what exactly was he? She was able enough to estimate him — she who waited on his glances with trembling, and shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him, In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.”

And speaking of Casaubon in relation to submission and rebellion, is he on the verge of turning into the late Featherstone? Along with his growing knowledge of his own failings and his wife’s knowledge of those failings is the fact that he can’t seem to make Ladislaw — who has taken employment with Mr. Brooke, who has purchased one of the local papers — leave just because he orders him to. This all combines into a suspicion that Ladislaw is setting himself up to swoop in and marry Dorothea and claim Casaubon’s lands, once Casaubon has died of his heart condition. He begins thinking of how he can change his dispositions to thwart this imagined plan, telling himself that this is for Dorothea’s own protection. On obligation and its limits:
  • The narrator speculates on Casaubon’s opposition to Ladislaw’s new employment with Mr. Brooke: “He had disliked Will while he helped him, but he had begun to dislike him still more now that Will had declined his help.”
  • Ladislaw refuses to accept Casaubon’s directive for him to leave off his employment with Mr. Brooke and to leave Middlemarch entirely: “Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning.”

And there’s a more political submission and rebellion going on at Tipton Grange: Mr. Brooke’s paper seems to be a platform to launch him into politics as a reformer. This causes the Middlemarchers to cluck with disapproval yet again. But in this case, they may be right to do so, pointing out that Brooke doesn’t put any of these reform principles to practice on his own estate — something that is brought home to him in an encounter with one of his own tenants who defies his authority and promises that the reformers will come to sort out landlords like Brooke himself. 

  • The narrator, describing two views of the tenant lands on Mr. Brooke’s estates: “An observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman’s End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark-red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were close with grey worm-eaten shutters. […] the mossy thatch of the cowshed, the broken grey barn-doors, the pauper labourers in ragged breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn in to the barn, the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking […] all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a “charming bit,” touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time.”[1]

And finally, a bit of good, old-fashioned Mrs. Cadwaller snark, just because: “Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn’t have the end without them.” 

I think that's what I've got here. What will happen next? Will Lydgate turn into Casaubon? Will Casaubon turn into Featherstone? Will Dodo and Mary Garth form a feminist collective? And what of that paper with Bulstrode's signature that Mr. Rigg's stepfather unintentionally spirited away from their curt meeting? Tune in two weeks from now to find out when we return to discuss book five...

[1] And since this quote is also a good critique of the limits of Romanticism, let's have another, equally pointed one: Dorothea, to Ladislaw, who is on the verge of slapping a label on her ideas about what constitutes the good: “Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life.” You tell him, Dodo.