Category Archives: Victorians Everywhere

If it’s a writing test, you better write

I recently heard a colonel tell a story about a young airman who complained about a running test that must be passed. The airman was worried that he was not prepared for the test because he did not regularly run. The colonel told the young man, when he didn’t pass the running test: “What did you expect? When you know you’re going to take a running test, you need to run.”

For those of us who read and write for a living, this is an alien experience. Even if Hannibal and his elephants were hot on my trail, I wouldn’t run. If I was going to miss a flight and have to wait a month to catch another one, I wouldn’t run. If I was late to an audience with the Queen of England, I wouldn’t run. It is now undignified for me to do such a thing. That sort of locomotion is indecent–but for the warfighter, I get it. They need some physical fitness and stamina. I bet I could pass a writing test. I can write on the computer for hours and hours and hours. I didn’t say it would be good, but I could do it.

Okay. I might run from this.

I get the metaphor inherent in this story of failure to prepare for a running test. It struck me. I wanted to be a writer from an early age, got alienated from the quest (seriously side-tracked), and then figured out: if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write. I also needed to do a lot of reading. And reading in the genre I proposed to write in I found was essential: essay, short story, haiku, limerick, sonnet, lesson, unit, semester-long or quarter-long course, whatever. I needed to know the genre inside out, make it mine, and then write in it.

I knew what I wanted and thinking about it wasn’t enough, I had to get out and run, I mean, write. So I did. Of course, if I hadn’t decided to write, I wouldn’t be able to now. And this is precisely why I do not run. I do not practice running. I don’t like it, but I also don’t aspire to be great at it, and fortunately, no teaching job I’ve ever encountered required me to pass a running test. But the metaphor fits. If you want to be good at something, do it a lot, learn to do it well, and then practice being good.

I haven’t read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a couple of years, though I recently dipped back into it for a writing project. In fact, Gladwell’s writing reminds me of Charles Dickens in some ways–whose works I’m diving back into this term (so delightful). I just read right along absorbing and remaining riveted until I realize I’m nearly finished and that I’ve been taken on a deep and wondrous journey. Gladwell is brilliant (Dickens, too). The colonel’s story reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in Outliers (if you haven’t read it, you must) on expertivity and how many hours it takes to get that. (Gladwell’s not the most dynamic speaker, but he’s got great ideas: see his TED talk about the Norden bombsight and his talk on spaghetti sauce.)

And now in a most horrific solipsistic maneuver, I’m going to refer back to some writing I did about this topic a couple of years ago, but it’s so perfect now, I’m just giving into the impulse to mostly take from that moment and edit just a bit. I was tempted to just use a few phrases, and then a little more, and then most of it, and so I caved. (I align myself with Oscar Wilde here and his thoughts on temptation: “I can resist everything except temptation” and “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”)

In the second chapter of Outliers (2008), Gladwell explains that great success, spectacularity (my word choice), comes from long-term commitment: in fact, at least 10,000 hours of time spent on task. (If you want to be a great runner, or pass a running test, you need to run!) (And dig this moment of serendipity: Gladwell’s latest blog post is about a race he ran when he was 14 years old.)

He writes, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” To illustrate his point, he uses several examples, but the most intriguing is his exploration of the Beatles and 10,000 hours. Before they hit it big, the Beatles found work in Hamburg, Germany where they performed live an estimated 1,200 times before 1964 (sometimes they played eight hours, seven days a week). To crunch numbers a bit: if they averaged eight hours for each of those performances, the hour count is at 9,600. This doesn’t account for other focused practice or experience. Surely, if we looked, and not very hard, we’d find another 400 hours along the way to push the Beatles well over the 10,000 hour mark. As Gladwell points out, some bands never perform live that many times in a career. He cites Philip Norman, a Beatles biographer, to support his conclusion about the band:

They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back…. They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers—cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.

Outliers is the third of Gladwell’s books which looks at the world from an unusual perspective. This one focuses on how success happens, how some people “win” and some people don’t—and why. He looks at factors such a birth, location, practice, and support networks. A fast read, this book is ultimately satisfying because having successfully spent some time reading it, you may be on your to 10,000 hours as an expert reader. (And that was also something I aspired to become as a young woman–an expert reader. I wanted a job reading–guess what I got? A job reading and writing. And this is only a smidgen of what I write.)

Gladwell’s second book, Blink (2005), concentrates on “the power of thinking without thinking.” This title refers to how choices are made “in the blink of an eye” by those who have the knowledge, the experience, the guts, or the need to make split-second decisions. Gladwell shares jaw-dropping examples of rapid cognition, what that means, and its implications of “blink” decisions gone wrong. One of the lessons of this work, he writes, is this:

Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars, or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point (2000), suggests in the sub-title that “little things can make a big difference.” In this book, he explores “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”; the book is a “biography of an idea.” He pulls from examples as widely disparate as sales of Hush Puppies shoes to criminal activity to educational television shows to the kinds of people who are at the forefront of tipping (connectors, mavens, and salesmen). Essentially, he is writing about trends and how we can comprehend their trajectories:

[T]he best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking… or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics.

After a couple hundred pages of lucid, cogent argument, who could fight against this notion: “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do”?

All three of these books were number one on the New York Times bestseller list. They are thoughtful, engaging works that pull together ideas and information in unusual ways. Read these if you want to think and be able to use that thinking to grow your mind, or, at the least, take part in toe-tingling intellectual banter. Some critics have argued against Gladwell’s theories—but isn’t that the point to theoretical discussion, the reason we take a stance on any issue? Everyone gets a chance to talk. Gladwell talked; now let’s hear what some other folks think. Get in on the conversation. And while you’re ordering his books online for the Kindle app in your iPad, check out the below, mind-blowing numbers.

After all this success, after years of writing, and just these three books, how does Gladwell himself stack up to his 10,000-hour rule?  How many hours has he written? Let’s look at some numbers, just to see where he is on the scale of 10,000 hours to spectacularity.

As a bestselling book author:

  • Three best-selling books (320+277+238=835 pages), at 15 hours per page (I’m probably grossly underestimating, but we’ll go with this for the sake of counting the beans including planning, research, writing, revising, copyediting, printing, and so on–all the beans, in other words).
  • For the math impaired (which would be me these days): that’s 12,525 hours.
  • So we know he’s got more than 10,000 hours writing books (at least 12,525).

As a staff writer for The New Yorker (since 1996):

  • 80+ articles in The New Yorker in 13 years (5,000+ words per article=400,000 words).
  • Let’s say there’s 250 words on a page: that’s 1,600 pages.
  • If each page takes 10 hours (we’ll go with less than for a book): we have 16,000 hours (and again, I’m probably underestimating to some extent given fact-checkers, designers, copyediting, research, writing, and all that–not that he’s doing all the work, but still, it needs to be counted as his learning experience, too–all writing is really collaborative).
  • Again, he’s well over his 10,000 hour mark, in magazine writing this time.

He writes on his web site that he is contractually obligated to produce 40,000-50,000 words per year for The New Yorker.  Looks like he’ll keep getting better at what he’s already very good at (and I’ll have to work harder to find ways to end sentences without prepositions, or trying to write my way out of it by sticking in long parenthetical notes).

Imagine how many more hours we could add if we counted the nine years Gladwell wrote for The Washington Post. 10,000 more hours? At least.

Malcolm Gladwell has spectacularity. Without a doubt. Did his first three books reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list?  Yes. How often does that happen? Ask J.K. Rowling and Tom Clancy. (And he has a fourth out, What the Dog Saw, which is a compilation of his articles in The New Yorker.) Has he worked 10,000 hours to be good? Yes. And much more than that. Has he written thousands of hours once he was good? Yes. Has he continued to practice, even now? Yes. He’s still a staff writer for The New Yorker. He writes on his blog site. He speaks to a wide variety of audiences (millions through He practices wordsmithing all the time. He’s got spectacularity. He oozes expertivity. 10,000 hours worth of both, times two, maybe, times three.

If you decide you have to read Gladwell, begin with Outliers–it’s a great story of success. And I have to say it’s fairly easy to read a book about success by a man who’s done something unusually successful. Now for the hard part: get out your calculator and see what you’ve spent 10,000 hours doing. It’s not too late to get good, or even great, at something that matters to you and practice to stay that way. Or I suggest calculating how many hours you’ve spent on the Internet in the last couple of years. Feeling better now? I’m feeling medium.

Oh, and if you have a writing test coming up, you know what to do.

(Image source: 2nd look)

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Filed under A Writing Test, Interdisciplinariness, Victorians Everywhere

Grip the raven

Grip the raven. What does that sentence tell you to do?

That sentence indicates that whoever I’m talking to should “grip the raven.” It’s an understood or implied “you,” and an imperative sentence. Get your hands on the raven. Which raven I mean is in the photo below–it’s this raven. I mean “you.” Grip it. Grip it now.

Grip the raven! Now!

This is the stuffed and mounted raven that was owned by Charles Dickens named Grip. Yes. You read that correctly. (Victorians sometimes did this: stuffed a dead but beloved pet. They also made hair jewelry from the hair of dead–human–loved ones. I know. It’s so cringe-worthy.)

Grip was also the raven that was immortalized in Barnaby Rudge, published by Dickens in 1841. That book was reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe. And we all know about his raven in “The Raven.”

However, I’m not an American literature expert, so I didn’t really know that until I started poking around about Barnaby Rudge, a novel not often taught in British literature classes (to my knowledge), and a novel often considered one of Dickens’s less worthy efforts. (We’ll see. I’m teaching that novel in the spring term, 2012.)

The Grip you see here is the actual bird that Dickens owned, now part of the Gimbel Collection at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It was part of a large collection of Poe materials owned by Colonel Richard Gimbel (who also acquired a lot of Dickens realia and manuscripts and whatnot) which was all bequeathed to the library in 1970. Read more here.

In 1999, a librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cornelia King, explained why this connection exists:

Connecting Dickens and Poe... not a literary coincidence.

It’s no accident. Poe was a master writer. In my bones, I know he knew of what he did.

And like an infomercial (but, in this case, about writing and literature), I beg you to hang in there with this post because: wait, there’s more!

Poe reviewed a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems in the early 1840s for the same magazine where his review of Barnaby Rudge appeared, Graham’s Magazine (hugely important in American lit circles). The rhythm in “The Raven” is very like Barrett Browning’s in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (I confess, I don’t do a lot of scansion, but with a quick review of both–I can see a similarity).

Poe dedicated “The Raven” to Barrett Browning. She was flattered and thought him clever. Robert Browning loved the rhythm (and EBB did, too–not such a shock). She then mimics “The Raven” somewhat in her poem from the late 1850s about Napoleon III, ending most stanzas in that ode with: “Emperor Evermore.” That she was thinking about Poe when she was writing that poem seems like a colossal stretch (I haven’t found any letters which suggest she was), but what I like to think is that Poe was part of her history, Dickens was part of Poe’s, as she was part of his, too–both of them–and that because they were all invested in the same business, they were bound to sample each other and other artists, occasionally, to remix a bit here and there. To what degree this string of linkage was on purpose is a mystery unless each confessed to such influence in a letter, note, marginalia. But there are some things that are useful to say on such an occasion:

Writers read other writers and pick up a few tips now and again. These strategies or ideas or inspirations may be implicit or explicit. Writers may or may not be aware of what they are doing always. Inspiration at 3 am may be more like a remembrance of something lovely seen/heard/read before. Writers dip into the storehouse of knowledge when they write; they participate in a knowledge commons of a kind; and they collect the things that matter to them, ideas, words, phrases, rhythms, rhymes… then they write.

EBB often wrote with or against other writers (Byron, Dickens, Tennyson). It’s not strange that such a thing existed in literary production. It’s the kind of thing, though, that isn’t always apparent. It comes, for me, with time and as I expand what I know and how I know it.

I know what it is when I see it, though. It’s a collision of ideas when the ideas need to collide at a time when I need the result of that collision… boom. Best accept the collision or stand aside because here it’s coming.

I needed to know about Grip right now. I needed to laugh at the missing comma. I needed to find something fascinating to get me excited about Barnaby Rudge (it’s a novel about the Gordon Riots in 1780 for heaven’s sake). I needed to remember the way writers work and how writing works in mysterious ways for me.

I’ve been reading a long time now. I’ve been writing for a long time, too. And writing a lot lately. It makes total sense that such collisions come into my view as I wander around in English studies, in writing history, in British literature, in basic writing pedagogy, and across disciplines even (including geography). And this might be the best part of being a writer: being open to these sorts of collisions. “Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson says and writes. I like that. I believe in networks, and the commons, and being connected.

But I like to also think chance favors the open mind. Joseph Campbell wrote about openness a long time ago when he wrote about heroes with 1,000 faces (1948 or so). Heroes are champions “not of things become but of things becoming,” and that “myth is the penultimate; the ultimate is openness.” I think writers (indeed all of us) melt into a kind of commons, a source, (The Force in Star Wars–if that’s not too far-fetched for “you”–I mean, of course, the “you” who is gripping the raven while you read) from which we come, and to where we go, when we are open.

Openness is indeed the ultimate. It is the place we are in the 21st century. At the very least, it is where I am in the 21st century, and that may be enough.

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Filed under Interdisciplinariness, Magic and Writing, Reading & Writing, Victorians Everywhere

Dodgers around the world unite

Nope. I don’t mean the baseball team. Though I was thinking about them just a bit ago–what a sad state they appear to be in at the moment, by the way. Specifically, I was thinking about their name. They went through a few names before becoming the Trolley Dodgers and then just the Dodgers. It’s the trolley dodging that got me thinking.

I am a dodger. Not exactly an Artful Dodger, but I am dodging a few things at the moment. (I’m finding that writing is a great reason to dodge other work. Who can blame me for writing? It’s my job.) I don’t think I’m the only one in the world who is dodging this very moment. Or it’s more like procrastinating, but I prefer dodging as it seems like a more active endeavor, like it might burn more calories than procrastinating… like dodge ball is more active than say, golf.

I must bob and weave some in order to juggle a modern over-committed life, but artful dodging? Not so much. But in the spirit of openness and clarity of purpose that this thinking has brought to my life, I embrace the fact that I try to dodge at all, and I, therefore, propose an international fraternity of dodgers. (And if some of us become artful, then so be it.) I know such an organization will hearten and uplift many a saddened soul who believes all dodging is evil, hiding their dodging from fear of judgement and reprisal. All dodging isn’t evil.

I propose that all we dodgers form an organization in which we can take pride that we dodge things: trolley cars, stalkers, ex-boyfriends, ex-spouses, angry students, fussy parents, fierce hummingbirds, soccer balls, demanding co-workers, hail, speeding cars in a school zone, robber barons, and so on. Before the group is officially formed, we’ll need to decide if we shall admit political dodgers or not (you know, draft dodgers, Republicans, Anarchists, the French, etc.). But no matter what, let’s get rid of the stigma of dodging already and separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the lambs from the sheep, the Romulans from the Vulcans.

The International Fraternal Order of Dodgers needs a motto.

How about this: Ever Thus Dodging, Ever After Dodging.

Of course, we’ll need someone to translate this into Latin. And we’ll need an artist to create a coat of arms. All the English majors dodging math classes can write the basic code of the dodgers. The accountants dodging English classes can handle the financial business of the group. (I’m thinking we recruit first at colleges because there is a LOT of dodging happening on campuses.)

What do you say? Are you with me on this?

Before I organize this group, though, I need to teach two classes for the next couple of months, complete an article with a friend, write another article with another friend, present a conference paper on geographic information systems and writing studies, attend a regional workshop for writing program administrators, finish the spring schedule, write a memo for the dean, write another paper for a group (I promised), give a talk on Dracula, ask for a change to our program web site, get going with some web guru work of my own, write for another two blogs, edit some writing, and do a whole heck of a lot of research. Oh, and I’m trying to finish reading a book I started on July 26.

How about this for a t-shirt? “Dodge This.” We include a blank box underneath so we can all insert our own particular dodgings. Yes. It’s brilliant. (I’m currently dodging a t-shirt design that is strikingly similar to this very thing. Thank goodness others haven’t dodged this work and came up with the idea. Real dodgers know to surround themselves with brilliant folk.)

Ever Thus Dodging, Ever After Dodging. Long live the dodgers, huzzah.

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Filed under Totally Self-Indulgent, Victorians Everywhere, Writing and Identity

You know me, Al… a letter to Alfred, Lord Tennyson

My dearest Alfred,

You know me, Al, I’m always missing you. Right now, I’m missing you very much. In fact, I think about you a lot. I care very much for you and especially your older brother, Fred. (I miss him greatly–I long to read his words again. It’s been too long, but I’ve been so very busy since I last had a chance to read his poems and letters, since 2009. It’s not the way I wanted it to be, but sometimes life has a way of changing our perfect plans.) I know part of the reason I miss you so (and Fred) is that I ran off with a few other British writers last spring and fall, and they were not as cool as you, but I didn’t ignore you entirely–I still read a great deal of your poetry over the academic year and had many good conversations about you with students and friends.

Still, I wish you were here to talk with; I’m dying to discuss love with you. In the last few months, I’ve talked to many of my women friends over port (your favorite) about love in the 21st century. I find that it troubles me when I read of your men and women who had so much drama–so many unsaid words–so much pain over lost chances–so much disturbance over love. You lived through particularly poignant loss, postponed love, endured financial difficulty as well as emotional and intellectual doubt. (Fred, too, suffered. It breaks my heart to think his dreams may have been crushed by your cousin–I wish I knew the details. Still I offer Fred my empathy. Julia, perhaps, felt the twist and pinch of family and social pressures which controlled her world and moved her to the action she felt she had to take. So it goes.) I’m keenly aware of how hard it is to be a Victorian man (or woman), and oddly enough, it often feels as if nothing has really changed since that time, at least not for me and some of my dear women friends. Having your perspective would be lovely–so don’t hold back, I want to hear exactly what you think–then and now.

Victorian manhood conferred great pressure; it was immense responsibility; the ball was mostly in your court when it came to courting. (Unless a woman had family to intervene on her behalf with your family to keep your acceptance or rejection secondhand, it was all about you you you.) The risk of declaring interest or intention was mainly yours. And so you had to put your whole being on the line for a woman you desiree, experiencing elation should she answer in the affirmative or spend years crying in your sherry should she reject your advances. Being a Victorian woman, though, was also extraordinarily difficult: how did a lady let a gentleman know of her interest? She could not do anything much beyond glances and subtle words spoken, usually, in the company of others… Letters could be exchanged, but the text must needs be circumspect. Unless a man was especially Holmesian about uncovering a woman’s clues, laid about regarding her interest in him, he might easily have missed the signals she offered.

In the 21st century, times have changed somewhat. Many men and women may not regularly deal with the older methods of relationship conduct (or just a few still do). You can see the break from tradition in the tweeting, Facebooking, or texting of the intimate details of one’s physical desires or photos of a personal nature. Or sexting. (The Victorians were grand porn producers–but that isn’t something I will talk about in this letter–though I’ll say this: they’d be all over Facebook and the texting thing. Over a glass of port and a smoke some time, we’ll talk, eh?)

No matter what we call this interaction between men and women in the information age–good or bad–social media and technology have changed the world of communication between the sexes. Girls call boys on their cell phones. Women ask out men for drinks and dinner. Everyone texts everyone. But not everyone, perhaps, adheres to all these ways of interacting, nor perhaps does everyone really appreciate an elimination of some kinds of gender roles. What is it to be a man now? What does it mean to be a woman today? I can hardly say most of the time. We may have more confusing love times than you did, Alfred.

Are there still men and women operating in the 21st century with something like a modern ideal of equality but a more traditional ideal regarding relationships of care? Oh yes. Indeed. Perhaps this is a remix of the Victorian and the now. Not such a bad thing perhaps–remixing is hip.

Alfred, you might learn a lot from this weird mash up of old and new that I’m writing about–perhaps if you are reincarnated and hanging out among us now, and confused about women, I can be of help to you as you try to write about love: a new Maud, a new Princess, a new Arthur, a new soldier (tell Fred, too–feel free to share parts of this letter with him)–what might men and women “look” like if you were writing today (I’d love to find out!). Or if this is a letter that can travel back through time to you (a Victorian spiritualist internet sort of thing), then you could consider this letter in your own context. Regardless of the time you read this, you’ll see how hard it is to reconcile the feminist “now” with the patriarchal “past,” but is not the meshing of philosophies for an individual, part of the rights we have worked so hard to ensure ever since women could first vote and attend universities? (By the way, a whole lot has happened in the 30+ years after you died. You might have enjoyed seeing what went on in the early 20th century, especially between men and women–not the Great War, of course, that was awful–but social change and economic development was remarkable. The whole science and religion conflict gets so much more interesting–I think you’d love Albert Einstein and know you’d love Stephen Hawking. You might even dig Hemingway–I’ll tell you more about him in another letter.)

Was the old always bad? Is the new always good? Could be that absolutes are always absolutely impossible. You sort of got that, didn’t you? (I haven’t forgotten your martial poems; you really got down from the fence on those puppies and caused all kinds of uproar–good on you, baby, good on you. Never let the reader know you entirely–keep ’em on their toes, hit it where they ain’t, hit and run, damn the torpedoes.)

Upcoming: some general thoughts for you to ponder that might help you understand how a modern woman could signal to you that she is into you. (Well, not you because of Emily, but you know that in your position as sage, you could do a lot of good for the modern woman, if you’d plant some poetic seeds). If, of course, a woman cannot possibly say what she is thinking out loud–some clues could be most important. And there are still lots of women I know personally who are ladies, not just females, and will not spill the emotional beans. (The below are not my thoughts alone, so it’s not just my voice here, though I am the writer–sort of like how you came to represent this or that in your time. It happens to writers a lot, and it’s a huge pain, but when we commit words to a page, we commit to allowing readers to read as they will. Part of the risk and the thrill of writing is not knowing how writing will be understood or used.)

These thoughts are not an attempt to reconcile the feminist ideal with the Victorian ideal of womanhood, which I think can’t be done, but rather it’s a conversation that more of us need to take part in, chat between centuries about what women want, need, are confused about, and wish we understood (and by the way, may Disney characterizations of women burn in hell–what Disney did with the fairy tale and womanhood is not just sad, it’s criminalesque). (Still can’t deny that Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth–I love it there. Hate the sin, love the park.) What’s up with men and women is a 200-year old conversation we can’t totally finish (actually, it’s a 2,000-year old+ conversation, but my letter to you must be a letter not a 14-volume tome).

Alfred, as you read, if you find all this confusing, believe me, women in the 21st century do, too. (And poor men, bless their hearts. To the 21st century man, women must seem like aliens really, in so many ways, especially all-the-way-grown-up women who are perched on some strange fence between these eras and notions of modern womanhood vs. ladylike behavior.) Who are we anyway? Are we Victorians still mired in fairly strict gender roles or 21st century modern humans who should have moved beyond the harmful dichotomies of polarized gender roles? Or is real partnership and equality never going to be possible? Or is that really what we want or need? It seems that a good partnership is a give and take deal that morphs over time as needed: sometimes 50/50, sometimes 60/40, sometimes 90/10 and even sometimes 100/0, but the ratio works out to around 50/50 over time. That’s all fine and good for the time when men and women are in the midst of a relationship. But I think the bigger concern here and now, for many women, is really about the beginning of a relationship. Isn’t that the tricky part, Alfred? I mean, you know me, Al; you know I think that’s the hard part, the great part, but the most difficult–so true for those of us who are a mashed up ball of the now and the Victorian period. What are modern folks supposed to be doing these days about embarking on the path to holding hands?

Again, let me just emphasize that this letter reflects thoughts by more than one woman with whom I have chatted recently–by no means, though, does this writing account for how ALL modern or Victorian women feel. Some women, like Marianne Dashwood (though fictional), are blessed/cursed with entirely open hearts and work with few restrictions emotionally (well, that was until Willoughby turned out to be a money-grubbing jackass). Mainly, we modern women want to state some things to you, raise some questions for us to wonder about, and create a conversation about how men and women deal with each other as it doesn’t seem as if the difficulties in the past that hobbled engaging in productive, satisfying relationships have been removed by the freedoms of the present. And you really get the men and women thing. Much better than Robert Browning, though I really like him–and adore his wife–I know you and she didn’t always see eye to eye politically, but I think you both got love the same. Robert wrote some really creepy men/women work.

Here are some things women want–hoping this will help if you need it:

  • We want and deserve the same pay for the same job.
  • We want you to open the door for us (and we’ll sometimes get the door for you).
  • We want you to put your hand on the small of our backs as you guide us lovingly to our seats, through a door, up stairs, around a corner, into a car.
  • We want you to stand up and offer the best chair to us.
  • We want you to stand ready to assist us as required.
  • We want you do things we don’t ask you to do but that need doing–and we want you to do those things in a proficient manner with manly grace.
  • We want to be nurtured and cared for as we desire to nurture and care for you.
  • We want to adore you and be adored by you.

Here are some things women don’t want:

  • We don’t want to chase after you.
  • We don’t want to call you (not every time).
  • We don’t want to ask you out on a date.
  • We don’t want to plan everything we do together.
  • We don’t want to be unkind to you ever–we want to be kind always.
  • We don’t want to assume any one thing is your job or our job (except, we love it when you woo us).

Little Victorianish? Yep. ‘Tis. Since we know such ideas place a great deal of the initial relationship building burden on men, we offer the following clues so that you, Alfred, and other men (like Fred) might know how we feel. (Or is it always going to be hopeless between men and women who do not possess emotional brazenism? Onward. We’ll give it a shot below.)

In the hope that men and women, Victorians and otherwise, can actually find a tolerable partner (without eHarmony and without the interference of overbearing mothers who believe every single man with a fortune must be in search of a wife), we offer the following that these clues might help men know if women are into them (some true in the 19th century, some only applicable now):

  • We make sustained eye contact; occasionally our eyes widen just slightly to let you know we want to take in more of you, or that we are open to your attention.
  • We ask pertinent and/or intelligent questions related to what you care about.
  • We consistently smile at you–the sort of smile that includes the eyes and the heart (pay attention–not everyone gets this kind of smile).
  • We frequently initiate communication opportunities (tweets, texts, FB, email, a nod of the head from our carriage as we ride through the park and run into you, and we allow our eyes to linger on your brougham after you have passed).
  • We regularly seek out physical proximity–we like being next to you. When playing Whist, we always seek the chair closest to you, and lacking that, we will take a seat near you to ensure you can hear our conversation, which will be witty.
  • Our body language mirrors your body language–we lean back when you lean back, we lean forward when you lean forward, we cross our legs when you cross your legs. We don’t do this on purpose or even consciously, but we notice when this natural reaction occurs and recognize it as a sign of our affinity for you.
  • We offer empathy, not sympathy. We feel what you feel because we are into you; we don’t feel sorry for you. We ache with your pain; we don’t feel bad because you are in pain.
  • When we temporarily part from you, we hug you, full on, with an additional moment of holding at the end (not so much in the 19th century).
  • Once in a great while we kiss your cheek, slowly swooping in to make contact; it’s a short, gentle, sweet, delicate kiss high on the cheek. The our lips linger just after contact–tantalizingly close to the cheek. Then we pull away–your lips could have been on our lips right then. Think about that. (For Victorian women, this may happen after a relationship has officially begun.)
  • We laugh at your jokes, and we mean it. We are delighted by you.
  • We watch you leave the room, and we wish you weren’t leaving the room.
  • We watch you enter a room, and we hope you are heading toward us, but wherever you go in the room, we watch you go there.
  • We look at you sometimes when you’re across the room; you catch us, we smile, we don’t look away. You do the same.
  • We choose to perform and be present for people everywhere who need that from us, but that doesn’t mean you are not special to us–you are. We perform and are present for you–if you pay attention, you can see how we give special attention to you (read this list a few times if needed).
  • We are easily silent in your presence–that also marks our esteem for you.
  • We respect and admire you beyond how we might feel about how cute you are. How can you tell? How can’t you tell?
  • We place a hand on your arm when we are talking and look directly into your eyes. This is very bold indeed, but sometimes we go to the bold place.

Caution must be taken with such information. One of these signs does not necessarily mean a woman is into a man, but over time, and with all of these signs in regular rotation, you may safely assume that there is a caring relationship brewing or the desire for one. Take notes, Al, and pass this on if you think this might help (be sure to tell Dickens about all this before he meets Maria Beadnell, if you can remember).

Alfred, please read this letter to Fred, just some excerpts. I do adore him and wish he would get a grip. (If I could travel through time to 1837 Italy to be sure he meets me before he meets his lovely wife, do you think he would adore me? Well? Obviously, don’t read this last part to him. I think he would adore me. I love cricket and Mozart and Italy. He would totally fall for me, right? I could overlook the whole spiritualist thing. Or I’d try.) Write soon and tell me what you think. I await your reply like a Victorian, stoic in some ways, resigned in some ways to Fate, but with all the impatience of a 21st century woman. Oh, just forget the penny post, text me. I want to know what you think right now.

Ever yours with respect and admiration–give my love to Emily–always your 21st century friend, E.D.

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Look in my eyes, man… I’m writing

Ever had Hammer fever? I suppose you have. MC Hammer was hot hot hot for a long while. Perhaps, he’s still hot because of “U Can’t Touch This.” That may be one of those songs that just keeps living on–itself something fine but the object of parody and nostalgia both.

Really, you can't touch this.

Everyone these days seems to have Bieber fever (or fever for whoever’s hot this minute–Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, etc.). I rollercoaster around in music hotness, being mad for individuals in music at different times in my life: Bobby Sherman, Frank Sinatra (young and old), Elvis Presley young), Micheal Jackson (young), David Cassidy, Rob Thomas, Robert Plant (any time), Madonna, Liza with a Z (just that one album, that one concert), Judy Garland, Bach, Blossom Dearie, Nina Simone, Alice Cooper, Mozart, Bette Midler and so many more.

It all depends on the moment and what the moment demands musically. I also do that with albums: American Idiot is one of my favorites. And bands. I don’t just listen to the same old thing over and over–I like some change, but a few albums own me: The Beatles’s Abbey Road and Help, Metallica’s Black Album, Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream, Supertramp’s Even in the Quietest Moments, George Michael’s Faith, Led Zeppelin’s How the West Was Won (used to be Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti), and anything by Peggy Lee or Tony Bennett. And I change playlists depending on my situation: one playlist for working in archives, one for writing on this blog, one for summer 2011, one for fall 2009, one for walking, one for this road trip or that road trip, and so on.

I owned this and listened to it 4,356,867 times, esp.: "I Think I Love You."

And I KNOW I do that with books, too: fiction, nonfiction, SciFi, mystery, poetry, and so on. I read as I am drawn to read not according to any grand plan, and I like to find new books by recommendation or serendipity–a fine book cover sometimes will suck me in. I just met a fellow Victorian sensational novel fan, and we plan to gab quite a bit about novels and novelists we adore from the 1860s-70s in the next weeks as we work together. I expect some of my reading, then, in the coming weeks will be trashy Victorian novels. I’m okay with that. In truth, I’m really happy about it. And I’m starting this particular reading kick with a modern novel about the Victorians: The Difference Engine (a SciFi alternate history book by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, published in 1990). I forgot it was coming to my iPad this week and was happily surprised to find it waiting for me. Going to start tonight.

And that is the beauty of Serendipity–the openness of it–the thrill of “what’s going to happen next? what music will I love tomorrow? what image will spark my imagination today? what text will spin me off into a new direction in the next five minutes?”  Serendipity has been strong lately–leading me to places that are both comfortable and deeply uncomfortable. Being in thrall to Serendipity means that you take what comes and you deal with it (you must always plan, of course, but you must know that plans change as they need to, and when you take your ship full ahead, one can surf the wash you create, but there can also be a wake behind the ship that is all about turbulence). Some of what comes is painful, and some is a little bit of heaven. Can it be both? Yes, it can.

Writing here in this blog? Same thing. Some great moments that I enjoy deeply. Some of the text horrifies me. But I will go public, nevertheless, with some of it, because it sort of feels, might could be, possibly perhaps actually be, that this could be good for me as a writer. This is my 30th post (or around there). Most of my posts are longish–from 1,200 to 2,500 words. I had one six-word blog awhile back. And while I love to write, I don’t write consistently in this blog. It’s not an every day sort of thing, but I really like to work out here, not short posts but longer posts packed with something weighty (or what feels weighty to me at the moment).

Here, I write about work, thinking, books, learning, people who inspire me, Writing Spaces (though I broke my oath to include it in every post here, no matter what… it just didn’t feel right to mention that amazing project in the bit about Elvis). Much of what appears here comes from somewhere else: a notebook, a napkin, a business card, an email (some printed out and stuck in the notebook), notes from conversations, or favorite quotes from a book, even ooh-la-la words I run across that I want to use someday. I use that notebook all the time, and then read through it to see if I might have had a writing-worthy thought once upon a time. Lots of my thinking from there bubbles up and comes alive here. One series of notebook entries I created while parked in home line, for what felt like two months, turned into drawings and an article that I enjoyed writing very much.

Since last October, I’ve cranked out 40,000 words maybe. And that’s only a rough estimate, and this is only one of the blogs I write in, and that number doesn’t reflect the texts I write that are not public online texts. Other (non-blog, non-work-related) texts have to be in the range of 50,000 words. I love to write. Love it. I write nearly every day, but sometimes not for days and days, then in one day, I’ll write 5,000 words. I write haiku; essays (personal, nonfiction, silly, fun); not many short stories anymore, though I enjoy those; and I would like to write a book about Victorian writing. Perhaps all the writing over the last year is partly a run up to that book. Maybe. I would love it if that was true.

Jackson Pollock's "Convergence"--what writing actually feels like most of the time.

I definitely have writing fever. It comes and goes, but it’s definitely fever. And I mean that in the best possible sense: urgent need vs. disease.

So what drives me? It’s deeply solipsistic to ponder upon my own writing and my own idiosyncrasies as a reader or music lover (and such a post might deserve categorization as “almost self-indulgent crap”–we’ll see). It’s just that I’m deep in my head at the moment–right before the term begins with deadlines aplenty.

In fact, I have a bit of a fever over a few September deadlines. It’s panicked fever sort of, but that’s not always a bad thing. Deadlines move me like nothing else does.

It also helps for me to think about how much I’ve been able to create in the last year or so, because if I’ve done that (though not that every bit is textual caviar), then I could possibly do the next things I must the coming few weeks. I never used to pay attention to what I wrote or how I wrote–I was just a writer since 1988. I changed how I saw myself that year and began to define myself as a writer. No matter what else I did, I was a writer. I am a writer. But I haven’t always thought so much about what that meant.

Writing matters to me. It helps me know who I am, what I believe, how I feel, what I think, make plans, and embrace what I cannot plan for. My writing, though, doesn’t always just matter to me–other people count on me: teaching partners, writing partners, students, colleagues at work, on various projects, and friends. I sometimes write text that is a culmination of personal conversations (see the letter to Alfred, Lord Tennyson–post-conversations with several women friends).

Occasionally, I come through like a trooper, a super trooper, for others, but I have crashed and burned. That’s not a pretty sight, but it’s usually a function of poor time management in the thinking phase rather than lack of ability to produce text (and that prevents me being able to produce the right text). It’s good for writers to reduce their processes to pieces and parts to understand patterns of production, habits, trends. THEN we can rethink what we do as writers if that’s needed (and it’s needed for me, a lot). I need guidance, for the writing I do for me and for others, even if that guidance comes from musing upon MC Hammer.

I love the part of “U Can’t Touch This” when Hammer sings: “Look in my eyes, man… U can’t touch this.” It reminds me of how intimate writing is–readers look into a writer’s eyes, a writer’s soul: look in my eyes, man, I’m writing for you. But you really can’t touch me, can you? You see in, but you may not get in all the way. There’s always a distance between us, between reader and writer.

I wonder if that’s what keeps us returning to the same authors over and over again–that close and yet not close relationship we develop? That’s just how it feels when I write–close and not close to the reader.  I’m looking into your eyes; you are looking into mine; I’m telling a story of something that matters to me; and you see that. I often think of one particular person to write to–I have a friend in mind or friends. We are connected then: writer and audience (even if you don’t know that I chose “you” as my particular audience). Such writing is perfomative and very personal.

If you listened to my playlists, you’d learn about me just as you would from reading my words. Everything may be rhetoric and everything may be an argument, but it also may be the case that everything is a story. But it’s never the whole story, is it? You just don’t get all the details ever–it’s always a mask as well as a revelation. But it’s always for someone–every text is for someone, isn’t it? A text might end up being for 638,945 people (rhetorical velocity), but it begins as a text for someone.

Look in my eyes, man, I’m writing for you.

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Filed under Almost Self-Indulgent Crap, Victorians Everywhere

Kool-aid and cyberpunk composition

There’s a Kool-aid served at Mamma Nem’s in Montgomery, AL that is the single most amazing liquid I’ve ever ingested; it’s called “Downtown.” A combination of cherry Kool-aid flavors, it’s thick with sugar and cherry-liciousness. I now have a jones for “Downtown” that is decidedly unladylike. I can’t even find the words to say how I feel about this drink, except when I get it, I suck it down like it’s salvation in a glass. Every time I drink it, and I try to get it often (the food is incredible, too), I can’t help but think of three things:

  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, a book I read as a very young child (which I should have never been allowed to read).
  • My best friends when I was very young, Christie and Carolyn (next-door neighbors with whom I drank a lot of Kool-aid–our favorite was cherry).
  • Jim Jones, his sad-bad-murderous-mind-bending business, and the phrase having “drunk the Kool-aid“–which refers to his sick and wicked ways that cost so many their lives (and also refers to the Wolfe novel).

And just this very moment, I realized my unfortunate use of the word “jones” and “salvation” in the first paragraph. If the shoe fits, wear it; or wear the shoe like you mean it. We are the accumulation of moments mashed up together until the moment when we are revealed to others–then perception becomes reality. Well, a kind of reality for someone. I would wish that perception to be a hazy one that always colors me in the best kind of light, like those special camera lenses and lighting that make one look ethereal. I say, I would wish that; if wishes were “Downtown,” then I think wishes might be worth something. (If life were like “Downtown,” I never would have grown up. Christie and Carolyn and I would be playing in our connected backyards forever, digging holes to China, swimming, and swinging, and laughing, dancing to records, jumping on our emerald early American couch in a Japanese house, running with scissors. No future, only the present.)

I must have too much time on my hands as this sort of weird rambling around in a blog is solipsistic to say the least (I write; therefore, I am), but deeply strange and fun, too–making connections from so many places and spaces in time and text. It’s a blast to write when the writing bug bites me. But is that a good thing? Perhaps I would have been less cursed with self-awareness, and more blessed if I’d had a whole lot less time for self-reflection (and lived in a cleaner house). For instance, if I’d been born a Victorian mill-worker I probably wouldn’t have had time to blog. You know what being a mill working in 1848 would mean: on the job at 10 yrs old, six days a week, married at 15 or 16 (if I even got married), 8 kids by 24, dead by 30. Guess I’ll just shut up now and move on.

I’m getting ready to teach a writing class for scientists and engineers. I am neither, but I do love science, and the genre that goes with it so nicely: science fiction. As I have been trying to work through my approach for this writing class (thank goodness I’m going to be working with an amazing teacher who will be a tutor for the course–I love working with people instead of alone), I finished reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). That’s right, I just read this in 2011. I’m sorry now I missed this when it was brand spankin’ new. I would have loved it back then–I would have gotten it, too. I was deep in the world of computers and math (a math major in the mid-1980s, if you can believe it, and took a BASIC class in 1985 maybe). More on this later as I crash into other events and ideas.

I’ve been teaching one class already this summer which is really about intellectual collisions, creativity/innovation, and how knowledge/text gets made and shared. We’ve been reading/writing/talking about writing across/in/through disciplines and curriculum, open educational resources, open source software development, copyleft, teaching, learning, and everything connected to all that. We’ve worked through music, films, college education, secondary and elementary education, revolution, literature, piracy, our lives, our hopes, and our futures.

It’s been a big ol’ collision fest–or perhaps a demolition derby is a more accurate description. The “big bang” theory isn’t just a TV show or a theory for scientists. The idea, phrase, words pretty accurately describe writing studies, too.

So, as I write I’m drinking “Downtown” (have to always get a to-go glass upon leaving Mamma Nem’s), thinking about my job (teaching writing and literature), and wondering if I should re-read Neuromancer. A collision is a just-right way of thinking about these things, IMHO. I love science fiction and have read it voraciously as often as I could, in great spurts of energy, but rarely with any plan or regular commitment. Sad to say this was one of the books I missed reading, though I have known of it since it was first published. The mid-1980s was one of those times of grand sci-fi reading, but this never made it into my hands. (I remember a handsome red-headed young man insisting I needed to read it, but I must not have thought he was that handsome.)

It’s taken me forever to read it, too, once I started–in April, I think. I got the e-book version so I could carry it around with me on my iPhone or read on my iPad, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t put down. I put it down a lot. I was not immediately drawn into it, but it was definitely something I wasn’t willing to let go of. I had to know what was going to happen. I felt lost a lot of the time, partly because I didn’t consume it, but sipped it. I also felt like I was somewhere very familiar. Perhaps I inherited a post-Neuromancer sensibility from having read books by authors who came after this, authors who tried to insert their works into a genre that they felt was defined by Gibson. I knew cyberpunk was “invented” by him (and the term cyberspace coined by him), but what I didn’t really understand was that cyberpunk (as a thing) was invented because of this book, not necessarily within its pages, on purpose. Luckily, the book I purchased also included a stunning afterword by Jack Womack, a fiction and SF writer.

I was struck by several things he wrote–especially by his kinship with Gibson described in the most loving, deep, rich terms. I was touched by it–in the kind of way I am often touched by writers who own their craft and draw me in like I’m an arrow they can direct, pulling a bow string taut under me, and keeping me on edge or releasing me at will to strike exactly the target of their choosing. It was lightness itself, and yet, cut to the core of something very personal and private. Really not expecting that at the end of what I thought was a pretty hardcore riff on humans and machines and whether there is a difference. (And happily, reading Neuromancer brought me to The Difference Engine by Gibson and Bruce Sterling–how could I have missed this Victorian alternate-history steampunk book? I’m so losing my literary touch. Or maybe I’m just getting it back. I wonder if I can buy this book in under 30 seconds? Bet I can.)

I was driven to highlight several passages by Womack. (Bless the ever-loving hearts of the code folks who knew that I needed to highlight and write notes on texts I was reading on my iPad–I adore them with all my heart.)

These three sentences are the ones I liked the best:

  • “The past lingers in unexpected and unavoidable ways long after we believe it gone.”
  • “When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.”
  • “To be truly ready to confront the future–actual or imagined, societal or personal–and to live reasonably within it once you are ready, an entente cordiale must first be made with the past, and the past is always the more frightening of the two.”

How beautifully written… a small and elegant homage to humanity’s grappling with itself. And amen. I think I write about this sort of wrestling with the past all the time–I could be wrong–but it feels like that. It feels like I’m constantly trying to outrun being defined by what has gone before me. Although I can’t do that, I also don’t want my future to be defined only by things I cannot change. I believe in an open heart and that this can and will make a difference in a single life–which can also have a profound impact on more than one life. Remember John Donne? Don’t ask “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” We’re never really in this all alone. If we think so, we’re wrong. (“We” means “you” because I already know this.)

Maybe the past/future thing is why I’m wondering if I should re-read the book–it hit me as a book that was teetering on the sharp blade of regret. I taught a class using Blade Runner (1982) and Strictly Ballroom (1992) many years ago and I saw a lot of what I talked about for that class in this book (I really need to write about how I taught those two films as text for a freshman writing class). Both films center on fear, painful pasts, regrets, rebellion, and maybe a kind of freedom wrought by defiance. Regret: a word that can only define what is past.

It was as if I was remembering something as I was reading Neuromancer at the same time that the characters were also remembering. Their memories were harsh and hard and yet fuzzy and uncertain. As a reader, I was often uncertain. And still I felt as if I was remembering… as I read Victorianesque and Romantic worries not far buried beneath the surface maybe? Feeling my own regrets sharply? Remembering other science fiction novels/films? Remembering a hippie philosophy of the present and future based on mind-altering drugs (lots of drugs in Neuromancer)? Just what was I remembering? I don’t know. But it was both a stimulating and uncomfortable read for me–lots of memories of the past awoke to haunt me–not distinct but there for sure. I was invigorated by the reading as well–it felt timeless. I felt timeless and weighed down.

I want to write “I drank the Kool-aid” to say how glad I am that I read this novel, but it would be awful to just end with that–too self-serving, like Spock avoiding “Live long and prosper” when saying farewell to his future self in the latest Star Trek movie, and too icky with the Jonestown reference. (But isn’t that weirdly horrific in a science fiction kind of way? I can only really process that kind of death through a lens of non-understanding that comes with a fictional buffer. How could people really believe that mass suicide was a good thing? I can’t hardly believe it happened, though I know it did.)

And “drinking the Kool-aid,” though literal tonight, just wouldn’t be accurate. I’m glad I read the book, but it didn’t make me happy to have read it–reading this book made me think. I don’t often come away from books with that as the major outcome. Mostly I consume with glee or just to consume (a detective novel is about consuming for me, not about thinking). Thinking is hard. It hurts sometimes. I prefer to do as little of it as I can legitimately get away with.

I wouldn’t call myself a cyberpunkist now, not by any stretch of that word (though I did have a punk life once). I’m not even a cyberspace-ist. Just because I read this novel, and think it’s really great, I wouldn’t make those claims. But I am very much a science fictionist, and I am wondering now about how I’ve always taught writing. My writing classes have always been tinged with the past somehow and an embracing of the future–something science fiction always, something hero’s journey (you know it’s everywhere). I’m not sure I’ve ever taught a writing class without a reference to science fiction (or a literature class for that matter). How could I teach writing without science fiction–it’s the writing down of what we imagine the future could be. Is that not a leap of faith we all take as writers or creators of anything–that what we do, what we say, will matter after we are gone? And that somehow it re-routes the future? Do we not believe our present-day accomplishments will become things of a future we can only imagine? Do we not think the future is a lot like the present, only longer? Our present becomes the past that matters in the future. So I hope.

I always teach students (or I better) that the world will be a better place for their having been in it and been able to articulate and communicate their ideas to others. I’m an idealist who’s never lost my idealism. It’s gross, I know, to admit that because the world is filled with such horror sometimes, but truly, aren’t things better when we can know, and perhaps understand, another person’s views, another people’s beliefs? It’s my job to share this notion with students–that writing counts, that communication has to happen, that connections matter. In all my classes, writing or literature, undergrad or grad, this is the thing–that we can and must speak to each other through text of some kind. We create the future, or we let the past create it for us. Am I really saying that? Is that what I really mean? Maybe.

And perhaps that’s the best way I can get ready to teach scientists and engineers about writing for the rest of this summer–be aware of what you carry around from the past, think about how you craft your present, and let the future be something you can imagine filled with grace and great deeds. Why not? Why not teach students that writing the future is what writing can be all about?

I believe the future of my life will be about writing, teaching writing, helping to create writing things in a commons, like Writing Spaces (now with a gorgeous ebook: Web Writing Style Guide–from writing to publication in under four months–take that Houghton Mifflin, if you even exist anymore). The future of the book is “e” and WS is making it happen. Hope for the writers; hope for the future of the book for writers.

Now that’s more like a proper ending to a blog that begins with Kool-aid, bulks up on science fiction, and ends with something like a mini-teaching philosophy (and works in a quote by Dan Quisenberry, a gloriously clever relief pitcher in the Major Leagues and later, a poet).

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Filed under Interdisciplinariness, Surprising Information, Victorians Everywhere, Winning is Everything

The academic sting, or gambling in the academy

I just starting watching The Sting. I’ve seen it many times, but not anytime lately. I recall loving it, as well as the soundtrack, and the clothes, the scenery, the horse-racing (that was really only a means to the con)–all of it. A dear uncle had a box at Hollywood Park, where I spent a lot of time learning to read a racing form, play to a hunch, and trust an odds-maker or two. I started betting when I was ten (some adult would place the bets, but I did all the work). Sometimes, Uncle Bob and I would share a bet if we both had a strong feeling about a horse. Once we bet a horse at 20-1 to win–and we ended up taking everyone out to dinner. I actually told the waiter to give me the bill, then my uncle slipped me half the cash for the bill. I’m not sure I ever felt so grown-up until I was actually grown-up.

The first thing I noticed about the movie was Paul Newman’s eyes and Robert Redford’s smile, of course–they were stunning. Who didn’t love them in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? It was a great movie–still is, so is The Sting.

The second thing I noticed was that the sting they perpetuate, a wire game, is quite elaborate with lots of people involved and precise timing mandatory for success. Would I be wrong in comparing their process with writing an academic paper? I don’t think so. Morally wrong, maybe just a little bit to make the comparison, but I don’t think I’m technically wrong.

Let’s be clear: academics are not trying to spread misinformation for monetary gain or revenge* as in the film, but the process involves a lot of time, oppressive (sometimes) research, extensive planning, understanding one’s audience, finding the right “media” for presentation, gathering resources from near and far, and so forth.

(*Paul Newman’s character does say, “Revenge is for suckers. I’ve been grifting thirty years and I never got any.” But this doesn’t mean revenge ain’t at the heart of what’s going on.)

Or is all of this strolling around in horse racing, the 1930s, and confidence men just another way my rose-colored glasses allow me to see everything in terms of my job(s) in the academy (the Victorians were no slouches when it came to con games in and out of literature)? Could be. I do tend to allow whatever I’m doing to shade my world, to funnel knowledge or information to me, based on a current focus. That’s what happens when one lives open.

When I taught a class on Dickens, everything came up Dickens. Every week, Dickens was in the news or in a magazine or online (newly found letters, a old ring discovered, a revival of a play based on a novel, etc.)  That semester, if I’d gone to Las Vegas and bet “Dickens” at roulette, I would have won. If I’d gone to the track and bet on a horse named “Dickens,” with 30-1 odds, he would have won by a nose, for sure. It will happen again, just as it does with every class I teach, writing about Star Trek, writing across the curriculum, educational writing… doesn’t matter, that’s what I see for the whole semester. Maybe if I started teaching the same classes over and over again, that would stop happening, but I doubt it. I think it’s more about me than the job I do. So. Thank goodness I’m a teacher and not a flim-flam artist. I think I wouldn’t be very good at the latter. (Or, as I told my students in spring term when we were studying mystery, maybe I’m so transparent and open because I’m the world’s greatest spy ever. Mystery solved.)

Flim-flamming is not an accepted academic endeavor (unless, of course, you are Thomas James Wise and think you can bamboozle the world), and that’s NOT what I’m saying. I am saying that academic work is a bit like gambling. You study and work hard and read constantly and deeply and teach and hunt and dig and research–you are betting, gambling, that the work you do matters and that someone cares what you have been doing. It’s a chance you have to take that the work you do has relevance. It can be as scary and risky as a con–or so I assume. (I have never engaged in that sort of work–so I can’t say for sure, though, truly, grad school felt a lot like that, or so I assume. I mean, I couldn’t have been the only one sitting in a class in a doctoral program waiting for the PhD goons to come knocking on the door to say, “Excuse us, the admissions folks made a mistake. Elizabeth, you’ll have to come with us. We’re going for a little ride.”)

The academic sting is all about the audience, the purpose, the guts of what we do as scholars–our sting isn’t a bad one, but it is a game of persuasion, a business partly based on our trying to find the right ethos to keep working, writing, creating and being part of a community. But we can’t get away from the persuasive part, can we? “I’m right, see all this work I did–proves it”–that’s what we do. We argue for our point of view, rightness, justice, teaching this rather than that, reduced class sizes, the process method of teaching writing, interactive teaching, collaborative endeavors (the commons), technology in the classroom, open education (which is totally right, by the by, like Writing Spaces), etc., and when we get our way, we can be as delighted as some grifter conning some mark (all the characters in on the sting in the movie are SO happy when they “win”). Only I hope we’re all doing it for ethical, good reasons and that our results do no harm (though, frankly, administrators know how hard it is to stay idealistic in hard economic times–shoot, in any times, good or not so good).

One of the petty criminals mentioned as a possibility for inclusion in the big sting operation is “The Big Alabama in from New Orleans”–okay, that doesn’t make sense, but I kind of like it as I’m from Alabama now, and New Orleans has terrific food and music. I never heard that before because I wasn’t IN Alabama before and hadn’t been to New Orleans before I saw the film for the first time. Lenses.

Like any gambler, then, I keep on doing the work for my academic sting, and baby, it’s a whole lotta work; it’s extensive and elaborate: I have to read all the time; write constantly; stay in touch with what’s happening in my field(s); do research; think; revise my writing; do more research; let my thinking out for a romp through this blog; and hope that what I’m doing will matter. I can’t help myself: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth, and I’m addicted to the academy.”

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Surprising Information, Victorians Everywhere, Writing and Gambling