Monday, September 25, 2006

Confirmation Number

I've decided to stay an extra day or two in this undisclosed southern location and so need alter my hold mail request so that piles of mail don't sit on an unguarded doorstep waiting for my return. I was relieved to discover that the US Postal Service website has a form for just this specific request. And then dejected to see that they quite reasonably want the confirmation number for the original request before they'll amend it.

I actually remember looking at that confirmation number and then grabbing a pencil and sorting through pages of articles, drafts of a funding proposal and approximately 3200 Post-It notes, all containing unlabeled numbers of various lengths, for my pad of Post-Its so that I could add to the growing collection. And Nancy, I just said no. My little historian's brain is not made for numbers. Some day I'll blog about why this is really quite tragic, but for now, let's just say that my brain refuses to register numbers as important and mark them for storage. It's a triumph to calculate tip at a restaurant. Between my three phone numbers (home, cell, office) and the three phone numbers of my six closest friends, combined with my social security number, my student ID number, my bank account number, and the damn +4 on my zip, I'm full up. So I rolled my eyes at all the post-its with all the useless confirmation numbers from the online bill payments and orders, and refused to take down one more blessed number.

And damn if I don't really want it now.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

A couple of weeks ago my mother asked me to take a picture of the study carrel I use in the library. She didn't believe it was actually that small and wanted proof. So I snapped this photo quickly on my way out of town. Now that I'm not there, I find myself looking at it and thinking that, though not a good picture, it seems so representative of my life in so many ways. While I'm away from it, I ache for it a little. And when I'm there? I both love and hate the small, dark space and what it demands of me. That something so still could represent something so roiling with passion is one of the things I love best about what I do.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Brain by Brain

A great post over at Center of Gravitas from a few weeks ago has me thinking about the political potential of history and about the importance, in a great big picture sense, of what I do.

I believe strongly, steadfastly in the potential history has to change the world. This belief comes from two places. The first is from personal experience. My sophomore year in college, I sat in a European History class and actually felt my entire world shift as I developed a new understanding of power, hierarchy, culture and my place in it. Because it changed my world so radically, I know that it can also change things for my students, and not just those few bound for academia. I know that understanding, say, the history of labor in the US can change how you relate to your job. Understanding how ideas about race and gender have changed can make it clear that these are concepts and constructions, not essential truths, and just like all ideas, how they are understood can be changed and manipulated.

The second reason I believe in the potential history has to change the world is because I believe, perhaps as much as I believe anything, in the power of critical thinking. I believe that any field that has the power to teach its students how to think critically about the things they hear, read, see or think has the power to change the world one brain at a time. This is invaluable. This is as important as anything I can imagine doing.

As optimistic as that all is, I also believe in history's ability to help maintain the status quo. Just as I've experienced history's life-changing potential, I've watched others use it to legitimate and maintain their grasp on a world view that is invested in maintaining hierarchies, oppression, and the world as Fox News sees it. New historical insights can rock our knowledge of how the world works at its foundations, but that requires that we be unsparing and a bit merciless in what they mean about us and our daily lives.

As a result, I think it’s important that historians (or other academics) not confuse doing powerful work with activism. Having a job that I love and that makes me feel part of something important does not make me an activist. Trying to give individuals the tools to think about their world in a new way does not make me activist. Activism is about directly engaging in tactics that will have an immediate impact on a community. Teaching history is not that. It is not immediate, it is not direct, it does not guarantee me anything but personal satisfaction and a lot of grading. And hope. History guarantees that I continue to hope.

I’ve heard academics say that choosing to work at a public research institution is a sacrifice done to benefit the masses who come to state universities for an education. I think this is, quite frankly, bullshit. If we believe that participating in an educational system run by the state and affording us the opportunity to make money while setting our own schedules (to an extent), giving us health benefits, an office, summers to ourselves and the ability to pursue research topics truly interesting to us is in any way a sacrifice for those less fortunate, then we lose all sight of the systems of privilege I believe I’m teaching my students to detect. Refusing to see those systems of privilege undermines the discipline of history as I know it at its core.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

My current location Elsewhere makes it impossible to Friday Blog my own photos this week, so I thought I'd link to my favorites from this week's postings on a few photo blogs:

Here's one from Photojenic: Lots of Lillies is another stunning example of the way the photos on this site capture light in a way closer to the way I see it than any other photos I've seen. I'd love to say something profound about it, but I'm left sort of muttering freakin' brilliant to myself over and over.

LB Imaging is having a banner week. I've been having a hell of a time picking an image to link to. My imagination has been captured by his images of the ghost town at Bannack State Park in Montana (a series of photos that starts with this brilliant shot). But twice this week the site has taken my breath away with that sharp pang of recognition that comes from a photo that reminds you of home. Both Orange and Sunset Reflected made me homesick.

Finally, Kathleen Connally has captured the feeling of both flying and feeling rooted to the absolute miracles of earth in her Puddle Jumping with Morning Glory and has returned (thank goodness!) from a long absence with Spanish Window.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Kind of September

This week finds me visiting family in a far away, warmer place. This means that there are days that start earlier and end earlier, dinners that go on for many hours, trips to shop with mom and long explanations from dad about how he's marinated the pork on the grill or how to take a short cut on the way to the highway that will save me two blocks and forty-five seconds.

It also means that I am not at school. It means that I'm not teaching for the first time in four years. It means there are no clean notebooks and new pens, no well-intentioned spreadsheets and carefully-written lesson plans. For the first time in years, I'm not trying to learn 80 new names and make mental notes as to how to tell the four blonde Katies in my 4:00 section apart. I'm not having conversations with fellow teachers about the best way to convince reluctant students to speak or how we can possibly state our attendance policies strongly enough. There is a rhythm, a Septemberish rhythm, that is pounding fall days into new shapes, and I do not feel it.

I miss it. But I'm also thrilled. Next week, I'll take my first trip to a distant archive for research purposes. My writing is in free-flowing, rambling paragraphs full of sentences that I might not mean or believe. Sometimes my brain needs to try combinations of words and thoughts to see if they make any sense - sort of like making up a new recipe to see if it's at all edible when it's baked. This brings a bubble of possibility to my chest and I want to feel its promise. And I need this brain space to let a fairly amorphous dissertation take better shape.

I also need to miss teaching. I need to feel a little left out of September. I need to remember there are other autumnal rhythms that have meaning: the cooler mornings and darker nights, the occasional musings about still-distant holidays, the Halloween candy already taking up space on grocery store shelves. Today, my parents took me for a ride on their new boat and when we stopped at a little marina deli and filling station for gas, they discovered the store closes early now. There aren't enough boaters on the water on cool September evenings. Lives unfold in unfamiliar ways, just as my semester will unfold and my work will unfold. It's good for me to remember that not every September is predictable, to revel in this September's newness, and to store up a quiet list of things I can look forward to seeing again next year.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Veronica Mars

Warning: Spoilers Within.

I want to talk about Veronica Mars. Actually, I want to talk about it, write about it, watch it over and over. It’s a televisual addiction of mine, and I am not apologetic. A drama centered around a misanthropic teenage private eye is not the kind of show that inspires confessions of love on spec, but it has earned my love, and I will not deny it.

I was initially skeptical of Veronica Mars. I mean, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how many shows about smart, sassy teenagers does this world need? Apparently, one more. Apparently, the template is good for another series that uses the maligned teenager as a lightening rod for human emotion, foible, and triumph. I was skeptical. I turned up my nose. I was wrong.

As Buffy’s appeal was in its metaphors, Veronica Mars’s appeal is in extremes. Ironically, they make it believable. No, no-one I know was ever on trial for murder after handling a break-up poorly. But everyone I know has felt like they were on trial for murder after handling a break-up poorly. I don’t know anyone whose mother committed suicide and father was sent to jail in high school, but I did know a lot of teenagers who felt completely abandoned by selfish parents and circumstances beyond their control. And really, when you’re in the grip of extreme emotions, you often wish that there were extreme circumstances to justify them. You want proof that you have a right to feel like you just might die. Veronica Mars gives its characters extreme external circumstances in order to make clear just how extreme the emotions of betrayal, neglect, confusion, hate, love, lust really are, particularly when they are new to you. The result is carefully crafted, complicated characters that are completely identifiable. As Veronica says of Logan Echols (one of the most interesting, disturbing and—yes, I’ll say it—lovable characters on television) in the first episode, “Every school has its obligatory psychotic jackass.” And every school does. Maybe not literally, but we all know exactly who she means.

These complicated characters are enough to make a decent TV show. But what I may like most about Veronica Mars, other than its steadfast belief that brains, not fists, are the ultimate weapon and that weapon can be wielded by pocket-sized blonde girls, is its belief in the viewer and the rewards for those who watch it carefully. Veronica Mars regularly drops in plot developments in the tiniest increments, forcing you to be patient and accept that you do not understand what’s going on just yet. You see the trophy wife removing hair from a shower drain at the end of one episode and it’s hours of television until you hear that a murder weapon has been found carrying hair belonging to the character who showered above that drain. And no-one jumps up and down and screams, “Remember! Remember the hair! It was weird then, but it makes sense now! How about a flashback! Let’s look at her pick up that hair again, huh?” You either get it or you don’t. And when you get it, you feel pretty damn smug.

The mysteries in this series are sometimes very simple (Who forged those drug test results? Who stole the high school mascot?) but they are also often very complicated, and Veronica Mars doesn’t always get it right. She spent several episodes of season two tracking a lead that did not, and would not, lead her to the killer of a busload of high school students. (And even here, the discerning viewer is rewarded. As Veronica trails a member of local organized crime syndicate who mooned the high school students before the bus crashed, the episode is named “Nevermind the Buttocks.” The mooners are part of a red herring, and the audience understands that to be true long before Veronica will.) The final two episodes of season one are two of the finest hours of television I’ve seen in years, and in one of them she solves one of the season’s pressing mysteries. But she’s wrong. And you don’t know she’s wrong until the finale of season two. That’s right – you have to wait through 22 hours of television to find out that things were not as they appeared. It doesn’t sit right at the time, but you imagine that her initial solution is right. You assume that, once again, someone in television has imagined the end of a plotline in a way that isn’t quite satisfying. Not every show can be smart all the time. So you let it go, you figure it’s all so damn brilliant that one misstep can be forgiven. But you've been taken in; you’re the bad detective. Some television shows are that smart. Thank goodness. I watch a lot of TV. Shows like Veronica Mars justify the addiction.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

City Mice

I've been trying for some time now to create a home atmosphere which is inhospitable, but not deadly, to mice. I'm exactly the kind of girl who can't stand the thought of dead little mouse families and wonder how they'll suffer if I poison them in any way. I'm definitely not the trap sort, as that would bring me face to face with my crimes. No, I'd just like them to stay away from my food, the dog's food, and, well, anything I might want to use in any way. I wouldn't even care if they wanted to come in and, say, sleep behind the washing machine when it was cold. I don't care if they're here. I just don't want them fouling up my stuff.

They have failed to see what a good thing they have going here. They are not taking my subtle hints, though they are very smart. I've never actually seen one of these little beasts. I did not even know they were around until this spring. One morning, I put on my hiking boots so that I could take the dog for a romp and found cat food in the toe of one boot. There are moments that make you question your sanity and make it clear to you that you might very well be insane and have no idea that's the case. On this morning I looked at the cat food and I looked at my boot, which I'd worn not three days before, and I looked again at cat food and then I looked around my living room to make sure I was, in fact, where I thought I was. I looked at Bug, the dog, and checked my watch. (I don't know why I checked my watch, but at the time it seemed like a good thing to do.) I thought over and over again, "I don't have a cat. I don't have a cat." I used to have a cat, but he doesn't live here now and this is what made the whole affair quite confusing.

It turns out that mice do this. It seems like a questionable move, but they actually take their tiny little selves on tiny little feet to one house—a house with a cat—and get themselves a piece of cat food or two, and then carry this cat food on tiny little legs across not at all tiny yards, comparatively, and then stash them in their little hidey holes in other people's houses. I'm betting houses without cats are preferable. Houses with dogs like Bug are fine. I recently found another stash of cat food all of six inches from where he lays his head at night. Apparently, he can't be bothered.

So I've now got a home that's just the right place for a mouse, and I have to find a way to keep them out. Really, if they'd stayed away from my shoes and my kitchen counters, they could have kept their sleeping spot behind the washing machine and we'd all have gotten along just fine. I used to live in a yurt in rural Oregon, and I had a similar arrangement with the mice there. They left my stuff alone and if they wandered where they shouldn't I just put them outside and we were all quite happy. But these city mice just don't know when to stop. So I guess I'm going to have to bring in the big guns in the form of my Country Cat. I dare them to steal his food.

Teaching Carnival

The new Teaching Carnival is up over at Workbook. And yeah, I'm ridiculously pleased that my post on Jargon is included, particularly considering the company. Clear your schedule and check it out, because the listed posts will suck you in. Be sure to take a look at StyleyGeek's evaluation of her student evaluations and jo(e)'s description of her student the falconer. Those posts are fantastic reminders of both the absurd and the wondrous in teaching.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging