Thursday, January 13, 2011


I attended my first MLA this last weekend. For those of you who don't know, the MLA is the Modern Language Association, the major organization for all things scholarly having to do with language and literature. Most people know it as the organization that told them how to make a bibliography.

For a graduate student of English Literature, it is the high court of the Gods, where meer mortals like myself go to have our fates handed down to us. In other words, it's the place where job interviews for English Professors happen.

Unfortunately, I was not myself there for interviews. Last year, I somehow managed to get myself elected to a regional delegate position within the organization's government. So when asked, I had to tell people I was there on "assembly business," the importance of which was greatly exaggerated by the special ribbon I wore displaying the word DELEGATE in gold stitching.

Basically, my job was to attend a six hour long parliamentary session, complete with Robert's Rules of Orders, where we discussed professional issues and voted on the official opinions of the MLA, also known as "resolutions."

One thing I can say with confidence about MLA is that it's massive. Before arriving, I was sent a map with a layout of the conference and places where guests would be staying. Group discounts for the conference were secured at eleven hotels, spanning the entire financial and jewelry districts of downtown LA. The proceedings of the conference itself took place in the combined meeting rooms of the Marriott and the Los Angeles Convention Center, both of which are enormous. I believe that the head count for the conference as a whole was around 8,000. So many professors.

Despite the horrors of MLA--the dramatic intensity of careers in the balance, the sense of being a small fish in an oceanic pond, the underdressed, the overdressed--I did enjoy the small world vibe. Every time I turned a street corner, I would run into someone I hadn't seen in years. It was like a city in a dream, completely filled with familiar faces. Thank god there is something to look forward to next year, and the year after, since this delegate position is a three year term.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


While cleaning out the closet today, Jen and I got around to sorting our pile of shoes that has been growing for several years now. Once we'd ditched or marked for donation what we didn't need, I challenged Jen to a friendly competition of Who Owns the Most Shoes, a competition which is only won or lost depending on how you feel about shoes. For us, and I'm speaking for Jen here, too many shoes would be frivolous since we pride ourselves as simple people who don't use or buy more than we need.

So let's see how well we live up to our standards. The final score was Jen's 16 to my 15. So apparently I only own one pair fewer shoes than my wife. Most men, I'm guessing, would be embarrassed by giving their wives a run for their money in the shoe department. After looking over my shoes, however, I think I've discovered a reason not to be. It seems to me that shoes only become excessive when their purpose is limited to matching outfits. In my defense, almost all of my shoes have a very specific practical function. My Bike shoes are for biking; my running shoes are for running; my winter boots are for snow storms; and my flip flops are for the beach, or days when I'm too lazy to wear socks. At least 8 of my shoes have such a purpose, leaving me with only 7 duplicates in any category for the frivolity of matching. One of these duplicates are my two pairs of winter boots, the stylish duck boots for work and the heavy, wool insulated work boots that I needed for Habitat in the winter. There's nothing excessive, or, for that matter, unmanly, about having armored foot attire for building houses in sub-zero temperatures... is there?

Admittedly, my shoe selection tends to the be the vainest in the Summer months. Somehow, I ended up with three pairs of different colored old navy flip flops, converse, and a pair of vans. Maybe I just need to admit that I have a shoe problem.

The worst part about having a shoe problem if you're a man, especially a rather tall one? Size 13s are not small by any standard, and most shoe stands and bags barely fit them, since they're mostly designed for the shoe hoarding needs of the finer, more petite sex. If only some genius would invent a multi-purpose shoe that could be worn all year, trotted out for any occasion, and strapped on for any sport, then all our problems would be solved. Or at the very least, someone would have invented a very ugly shoe.

In conclusion, I leave you with a little diddy from my childhood that occurred to me today:

Bobos, they make your feet feel fine.
Bobos, they cost a dollar 99.
Bobos, they are for hobos.
So get your bobos, for hobos, today.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Good Morning, 2011!

This year's resolution is to gradually lower my consumption of sugar and caffeine, while finishing my dissertation, at least that's what I came up with last night. But then I woke up this morning with the realization that my resolution breaks the first law of thermodynamics (if, as I'm assuming, that law can be applied to people). Apparently, I've decided to slowly shut off the flow of energy, while ramping up activity. Wish me luck.

For everyone else, and their New Year's Resolutions, Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010


My curiosity got the better of me today and I found myself on Wikileaks watching the notorious video known as "Collateral Murder" in which an American gunman kills a group of Iraqi civilians. Like any video featuring live footage of someone dying, it was terrible to watch, and I was left feeling callous for even having seen it. Once I overcame my gut reaction to the recording, it occurred to me that my callousness as a viewer was partly due to my lack of surprise that an event like this had taken place. To me, if the video proved anything, it proved that volatile situations such as Iraq (especially in 2007) create a set of conditions in which accidents, mistakes, and bad decisions often lead to the unnecessary deaths of soldiers, and yes, civilians.

The experience of watching this video left me very shaken up and uncertain about certain points of view which I, and I think many of us, take for granted. Foremost among these is the freedom of speech amendment that we hold so sacred in our society. Watching this video helped me to realize why, with so many supporters of a site like wikileaks, there are probably equally as many supporters for shutting down the site.

It has me asking myself whether America is really on the side of freedom of speech, and if the majority of Americans are really ready to live with the fullest consequences of what that entails. The worst case scenario of full freedom I can imagine is one where wiki-leaks presides as the new media in which every atrocity and mistake that puts stable countries like our own in a bad light is paraded around at home and abroad. I can't but think that this would undercut our sense of safety, leading to a growing sense of panic and chaos in the decisions that we make. Isn't there a limit to the amount of real word carnage one can witness and process before before everyone starts to lose their reason?

On the other hand, there is the argument for free speech and the unlimited right to transparency in the affairs of all organizations charged with our safety and protection. This argument has always resonated very deeply with me, and it's one that W.H. Auden best articulates in the lines:

"Only the truthful have the interest to be just,/ Only the just possess the will-power to be free."

I guess this argument is the flip side of the government secrets position; the more we hide our wrongdoings, the less motivation we have to refrain perpetrating them ourselves.

The best I can do is simplify the question, really. Which morally bankrupt society do we prefer, the one where we live under the pretense of innocence, but live like slaves, or the one where our misdeeds stare us squarely in the face, yet at least we have our freedom?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I spent the last three days reading and finally finishing Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. While this isn't meant to be a criticism of the novel, it has to be one of the slowest reads in literary history.

One of the more amusing obstacles to understanding James's prose are his metaphors. As many people are aware, this is the register of language at which he's most comfortable, at least in his later works. In fact, it's pretty uncommon to stumble upon a description that describes an object or person directly. If one's not careful, reading James can result in an attack of Metaphor Hallucination Syndrome, a syndrome, which I'm just going to treat as a real thing, where the victim imagines metaphors everywhere. For instance, whenever characters in a James novel find their actions and behavior directed by someone else, James likes to employ the metaphor of a carriage, as in, "being in the carriage," (or "brougham," or "cab") of someone else. The problem arises when a character really does get into a carriage, and the reader, if that reader is me, spends a minute or two wondering whose sinister plan the character has just accidentally stepped into.

This is not to say that James, if you have the time, isn't rewarding. In no other writing that I can think of are the significances of events so thoroughly investigated. If James can teach us anything, it's how to be mindful of our experiences. Or as he liked to say, to be the kind of person on whom nothing is missed.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart

Last Christmas I had a revelation of Ebenezer Scrooge proportions. When academic jobs were hit as hard as any profession by the meltdown, my prospects (at least in the short term) for becoming a literature professor nearly vanished. As you might imagine or may yourself already know, this didn't feel very good at all. So when Christmas came I threw myself into the season like I never had before. My biggest solace of all was singing carols--in the shower, in the car, inappropriately when my wife wished for quiet. In the end I came out of it all, if not a Christian, a total convert to Christmas--an atheist for Santa, or, if you must have alliteration, a secularist for Saint Nick.

This year, I opted of my own free will to bring my parents to a Christmas eve mass at the local episcopalian church. It's a beautiful church, with a gorgeous service, and the singing and feeling of good will, despite my being an interloper, was deeply uplifting.

Amidst all this warmth, I couldn't help but spot the loners, especially when the Reverend mentioned the few who felt not joy but loss during the holiday due to strained or broken relations with family. It made me think of the people that I've loved, so closely as to consider them family, and yet know that I will never see or be so close with again. Maybe it's just a sign that I've broken the thirty barrier, but along with all the brimming, bursting presence I've associated with Christmas, I felt the absence at its center. It occurred to me then that that's part of the meaning; the birth is, after all, only made present to the extent that it is remembered across the vast abyss of history.

In a way, it puts last year into perspective. I took it all for granted until the moment I realized it could disappear so quickly. The thing is though, I wouldn't swap this insight for the world. It's brought a new passion and determination to my relations with the people, and yes, I'll say it, the "things" I love and that love me in return.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa's Little Helper

Lately, I've been looking up from my book or computer with the sense that things are happening all around me. A phone call here with breathless questions of "what do I bring, what do I make?" A wife sitting there, picking through a stack of cooks illustrated. As always, the full effect of holiday meal preparations hits me when half the work is already done. I just look on dumbfounded and in awe of all the work that's slipped beneath my notice, kind of like the drool collecting along my lip.

Jen recently had a similar realization that led her to comment that, "Christmas is for women." Thinking myself witty, I replied that "Christmas is for men." Joking aside, she's entirely right. I know perfectly well what I see when I look at a table full of food. As a runner, my mind starts up a calculation of the calories that I'll be replenishing by sitting down to this repast. Pork becomes protein, and cake sugar and starch. There's no appreciation in my conversions. But I can't help myself. I've got the taste buds of a gadfly. I'll say this though, it's a much quicker eat.

In the meantime, I try to help out where I can. It's my personal opinion that every decent chef needs a humorous sidekick to lighten the mood. So I stand by like Statler and Waldorf with an unlimited supply of unhelpful quips and witticisms. Because what is christmas dinner, if not a meal made with love, joy, and laughter. I sprinkle cupcakes with chuckles, entres with double entendres, and ho hos with ho ho hos. See, men aren't completely useless.