Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More K'zoo blogger meet-up business

UPDATE: Moving this to the top AGAIN so everyone sees it. The operative question is still where? -- though some good suggestions have been made in the comments. Also, some people are rallying have rallied for a dorm breakfast, and I think I have a plan that might make that work for those folks who don't know what any of the rest of us folks look like. BUT, some people who are protective of their anonymity might be uncomfortable in that setting. (Don't let me speak for you -- I'm just guessing here.) And again, see the new suggestion at the end of the comments (made by Deeni and seconded by Tiruncula) and let me know if that works for you. So other proposals/ideas are still welcome. Also, some of the usual suspects haven't said anything -- perhaps you're not going this year?

OK, in the last post, the vast majority of you said you could make a Friday breakfast. (Apologies to The Swain, but it seems there's never a good time for everyone. And since my maternal grandmother was a Swain, I feel especially bad.) Some of you have 10 am sessions to chair, speak at, and attend (silly people!), but no one seems to mind missing out on the plenary. (Side note: I usually go for a run during the plenaries, but the one time I went to one I fell asleep!)

Last year, having a longish, drop in when you want meet-up seemed to work, so we could do something from 8:00 to 9:30, giving enough time for everyone to get where they need to be by 10. Or if you crazy people are *really* morning people, we could start at 7:30.

What say you all?

Next issue on the agenda: where????? Does anyone know if the University Roadhouse opens for breakfast? And if not, is there any other breakfast place within walking distance for those on campus without cars? If that's not the case, we may have to arrange caravans. I'll have my car.

I briefly thought that if we started at 7:30 we could meet at the dorm breakfast, but then I thought, "How on earth would we find each other in that crowd???" I can see it now: "Excuse me, are you a blogger? No? What about you folks? No?..."

So, any ideas?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Marathon Post #2 1/2: All praise Fast Fizzy

In response to the comments to marathon post #1, below, my brother, aka Fast Fizzy, wrote in to assert that he is not hyper-competitive, as I said in my response to Heo Cwaeth's question, "What's chasing the Virago family?" No, he insists, he's just damn good.

And then he e-mailed me the following evidence that others are able to recognize just how good he is:

OK, I take it back. Fast Fizzy is not hyper-competitive.

He's hyper-competitive AND damn good.

And he has weird running buddies.

Marathon Post #2: The numbers and technical stuff

This post is for the runners out there and for those who are really dedicated to reading my blog. The rest of you might fall asleep. If you have insomnia, read on; if not, consider yourself warned.

So people keep asking "How was Boston?" There are a couple of ways of answering that, and in the next post, I'll get to the more colorful and atmospheric and experiential answers. But some people actually want to know the hardcore statistics and technical stuff. Not most people, but some. This post is for you. I've also divided it up into sub-topics for easy reference, in case there's something in particular you want to know.

The basics
I qualified for Boston with a 3:43:13 (also my PR - an 8:30/mile pace), but I finished Boston in 4:18:57, my slowest time ever (in 6 marathons total, run between 2000 and the present).

My training and condition on race day
Even if we'd had perfect weather conditions for the race, I wouldn't have had a stellar race or finishing time. At the beginning of my 16-week training, I started out doing a three-day-a-week training plan called "FIRST" that promised to increase speed and finish times if you stuck to it. (If you want to know more about it, go here.) It was an intense plan with hard speed workouts, tempo runs, and race-pace+ long runs. As it turns out, I just didn't have the base miles or the cardio-vascular fitness to keep up with it. I hadn't really run much in the previous year, since finishing the 2005 Columbus Marathon in 3:43 to get my Boston qualifying time. So my inability to do what was asked (either in terms of speed or length) in the FIRST program got me down. I switched to the Runner's World 3-day/week Beginner Plan (see a four-day/week version here), modified with longer long runs, based on the FIRST program. In other words, I trained to finish, not for speed.

I did all runs, including the long runs, at a 8:45-9:00 minute pace, because I was still hoping to finish under 4 hours, at least. But I didn't get many hill workouts into my runs, other than a few gently sloping ones here and there, because Rust Belt is a flat place. So I knew that a sub-4-hour marathon on the very hilly Boston course might still be wishful thinking.

And then, on top of being undertrained, I came down with a bad head cold a week before the race. Usually when I get sick -- and I rarely do -- it goes by quickly. But I'm *still* getting over this one. On the Friday before race day, I thought I was going to show up at the race expo on Sunday and ask for a deferral to 2008, which you can get for injuries and I was hoping you could get for illness, too. But on Sunday I was feeling a lot better and the energy of tens of thousands of runners at the expo, in my hotel, and around town, was infectious in a different kind of way. So I said the hell with the cold and planned to run.

The night before the race my cold entered the nagging cough stage and I barely slept. During the race, I suffered from an almost unbearable dry-mouth from the decongestants, and a constant thirst. The coughing ceased as long as I was running, but I think a lot of the aches and pains in my back (see more below) might have been from the night and morning of coughing prior to the race. Plus, any time I tried to eat my Gu energy gels, my nose would run and I'd be unable to breathe. I had 6 Gu packets with me, and meant to eat at least 3 during the race and one at the end, but ended up using only 2. Drinking water was also hard, and sometimes I had to stop to do, which brought the coughing back on. Argh!

My gear and its problems
A couple of days before my last long training run, I tried to get new shoes to replace my worn out old ones. I hadn't kept track of their mileage, but I was starting to feel sore in my shins and knees, which only happens when I have old shoes. But my local running store -- and there's only one in Rust Belt -- didn't have my shoe in my size. And it was too late to switch to a new brand to get it thoroughly broken in and make sure it was right for me. Had I been able to get the exact same shoe, that wouldn't have been a problem to break in, but a new style or brand would have.

I wear a Saucony Trigon in the "Ride" version and I'm loyal to Saucony (I've been through various versions of this shoe) because they work for my narrow heels, wide fore-foot, and need for room for my blister and callous prone toes. I'm a heavy heel-striker with as perfectly neutral a gait as you can get, which means I land on my heel and roll forward straight down the center. Other people roll out or in and need a different kind of shoe. (If you're a runner or want to start running and have never been fitted by a professional at a specialty running store, do so. Running in the wrong shoe for your bio-mechanics can cause injury.) Those of us with neutral gaits, and especially those of us who are heel strikers, need cushioning to help absorb the impact. My worn down shoes were definitely not doing that.

So, as a result, by mile 14, my entire back was screaming in pain. My legs were fine, and in fact, I don't think I felt the build-up of lactic acid in them at all this race (in part because I slowed down so much in the second half -- see below) but it felt like I could barely carry myself upright in the last miles. (Plus, my cardio-vascular fitness was relatively low given the undertraining.) At mile 14 I made the command decision to slow down in order to guarantee that I would finish, especially since I've had recurring lower-back problems in the last few years. And as you'll see below, I really slowed down.

The weather
It turned out not to be quite as bad as predicted. The winds got up to a mere 20 mph, and by the time the second wave runners started (and that included me), the rain cleared up. I think it rained again on us, gently, once on the course, but by that time I was feeling a little hot in my thermal outer layer and Coolmax base layer, so it was actually welcome. It got colder as we approached Boston, though, so I was ultimately grateful for the layers, the full-length running tights, and the gloves.

The worst part was standing around before the race, getting my shoes wet from the rain and muddy from the fields where the porta-potties stood. I kept mostly warm and dry with a disposable clear parka (which I continued to wear for the first three miles of the race, ultimately ripping in off Superman style) and a mylar blanket. But the wind kept blowing the hood off, so my hat soaked through and my pony tail and neck got wet, which couldn't have been good for me. As you'll see below, I did feel the winds at many points -- annoying, mostly while going uphill! -- but in such a big race, when you're a "pack" runner like me, there are lots of bodies around you to block it.

Amazing -- no blisters!
I don't get this. Most runners worried about wet feet causing blisters, and so many of them had plastic bags wrapped around their shoes, at least until the start of the race, and others wore get-ups that kept the top dry but kept the sole free so that they could run in them. I didn't have either and so my feet got wet, mostly in the hours before the race. And never once in the race did my feet hurt, and when I took my shoes off at the end of the day there wasn't a single blister or black toe. Compare that to my Columbus experience in *perfect* weather, where my right little toe turned into a giant blood blister and I lost the nail. Back in 2000 I ran a rainy marathon and also had blister-free feet. What gives?

The split times
For those of you who've already done the math, I ended up with about a 9:53 pace, I think. But really, I ran two half-marathons, the first in 1:57:38, or just under 9 minutes/mile (my over-ambitious goal pace), and the second in 2:21:19, or about 10:50/mile, the slowest I've ever run anything. Like I said above, I decided to slow down at mile 14, and boy did I slow down in some of those subsequent miles! I meant to keep it under or around 10, but it just wasn't happening. (If you want a course map, complete with elevation info, go here. Warning: opens a PDF.) Here's the breakdown:

Mile 1: 9:07
(Letting the crowds hold me back for an easy start -- I'm actually proud of this, as it's the first time I didn't start too fast.)

Mile 2: 8:43
Mile 3: 8:45
Mile 4: 8:44
(Look how evenly paced I am for these three miles -- this is also a minor achievement, as pacing is still something I'm working on. This also makes me cocky. Running is easy and I'm having fun.)

Mile 5: 8:55 (a gently uphill mile)
Mile 6: 8:49
Mile 7: 8:52
Mile 8: 9:11 (We're spreading out and the winds are more noticeable.)

Mile 9: 9:04
(Getting back closer to pace in the next two miles, despite the winds across Lake Cochituate)

Mile 10: 9:09
Mile 11: 9:14
(The last mile and half have been gently uphill, and the effects are starting to show in my time.)

Mile12: 8:55 (Ah, back on track at last with the help of some downhill running)
Mile13: 9:05
(Nice -- might have been slower if I'd stopped to "Kiss a Wellesley Girl" as their sign demanded -- wouldn't she have been surprised!)

Mile 14: 9:18
(As we enter Wellesley's main drag, we start to turn NE and the wind really hits us. Plus my back is killing me, so I decide to slow it down, take it easy. I wouldn't realize how slow I'd really get until after this.)

Mile 15: 9:47 (Well, at least it's under 10.)
Mile 16: 9:47 (OK, I could stay here, I think...)
Mile 17: 10:46
(Really? Crap! But wait, it get worse as we start to climb up the hills of Newton. They tell you about Heartbreak Hill at Mile 21. Somehow, though, I wasn't prepared for the three miles of hills *before* that.)

Mile 18: 11:15
Mile 19: 11:04
Mile 20: 11:39
Mile 21: 13:11 (OK, so I walked up Heartbreak Hill. Sue me.)
Mile 22: 11:13
Mile 23: 11:55
Mile 24: 10:54
(My hotel is right across the street. Sooooooo tempting. But at least I nudged myself back under 11 minutes/mile.)

Mile 25: 10:10
(By this point, my new friend Jody, whom I met at the pasta party, has caught up with me and rallies my spirits back to a less embarrassing pace. She is also a 3:43 qualifier and running under bad physical conditions -- a sore tendon -- but she smartly maintained a 10 minute pace the whole way instead of being unrealistic like I was in the first half.)

Mile 26.2: 11:16
(Just over 9 minutes/mile from the "1 mile to go" point marked on the road -- hooray!)

I nearly throw up in the post-race melee for the crappy amount of food the BAA supplies (boo! worst. post-race food. EVER) but I did it! And now I can get on the T back to the hotel at mile 24 and take a shower. When I got back, I noticed that I certainly wasn't the last to finish, as the course is still full of runners, some of them now walking.

Next time -- the spirit and atmosphere and characters that made Boston actually the most fun I've ever had in a marathon, despite my crap time.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Take that, Ivan Tribble! Or Marathon Post #1: My Colleagues' Responses

The academic bloggers out there remember Ivan Tribble, the pseudonymous scribe of two essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education Careers section, back in aught-five, who argued in the first that "Bloggers Need Not Apply" for tenure-track jobs in academe, and in the second that the bloggers who responded critically to his article were all just shooting the messenger ("They Shoot Messengers, Don't They?"). But as I argued back then (god, that seems ages ago), it seemed that the trouble with Tribble wasn't only that he had a thing against bloggers specifically, but that he also didn't like or didn't want to know about academics who -- the horror! -- found time to do things other than the teaching, research, and service for which they were being hired. So what does this have to do with my recent run in the Boston Marathon? This juicy passage from Tribble's second article is where the connection lies:

A number of respondents worried they could be mistaken [in a Google search] for an unhirable doppelganger on the Web. I can't speak for every committee, but ours had no trouble distinguishing our candidates from the semi-pro hockey players, quilt-store owners, marathon runners, and grade schoolers that Google turned up.
Uh, hello? Why on earth would you assume marathon runners and academics are mutually exclusive categories? Or that a marathoning academic was unhirable? Witness not only me but ProfGrrrrl (link goes to her training blog). (And as for semi-pro hockey players, cf. Michael Berube.)

All of which brings me back to my experience running Boston and the responses of my colleagues, including those who will be voting on my tenure. All my colleagues know I run marathons, and as far as I can tell they don't have a problem with this. Witness their responses to my Boston experience (which, by the way, required training almost entirely during the school year):
  • Awesome Supportive Chair said, "You're my hero!" and asked for pictures for the department newsletter.
  • One senior colleague asked if I had run a local marathon that was close to Boston's date, and when I said no, because I ran Boston instead, he said, "Wow! Congratulations! That's impressive!"
  • Fellow junior colleague Milton looked me up on the official marathon site during the race, tracked my performance, and sent me a congratulatory note -- all without my knowing until I got home. (I don't know why, but I thought that was really sweet.)
  • Senior Rhet/Comp scholar e-mailed me after hearing the weather report that day and sent her sympathy (she runs and does triathalons).
  • Another senior colleague routinely asked how my training was going, and his spouse saw me in the local park in the midst of one of my 20-mile runs and cheered me on. I told her I was thinking of calling it quits at 15 because I was aching, but she rallied my spirits and I completed the 20.
I could go on. But the point is, every department has a different atmosphere, and one of the ways I was wooed to this one was with the promise (by the senior colleague in the last bullet point) that people have lives here. And frankly, I think that's a good thing not only for faculty retention, but for the students, too. We can then model for them full, well-rounded, and healthy (physically or mentally) lives. (Besides, when my students know that I ran the Boston and graded their papers in the same weekend, there's less whining about deadlines and hard work. :) Te-hee!)

Of course, if I were doing poorly in publishing or meeting teaching and service expectations, my marathon running might then be a point against me. I think then my colleagues would have every right to be worried that I'm unnecessarily distracted and would be justified in saying in my annual reviews that I'm not meeting job expectations. But since I am meeting those expectations (at least at my university -- I don't know that I could do this at an R1) what I do with my free time is up to me.

That said, it was really hard fitting in even the most basic easy-level, three-day-a-week training this semester. And the training is starting to be a burden rather than something fun. I don't know if marathons are in my future or not. I may just run for fun and fitness for awhile and then maybe think about half-marathons and shorter races for the time being. The distance of the race doesn't scare me -- I'd still like to learn how to and train to keep my pace in those last four miles -- but fitting in those really long runs is hard. They just eat up so much of my weekend.

OK, future posts will detail the race itself, I promise. But I wanted to start with something that was more closely related to the character of this 'academic life' blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What I'll be saying to my classes tomorrow

As my regular readers know, I was very much away from news sources on Monday, April 16, until the early evening because I was running the Boston Marathon. I do intend to blog about that, but I really didn't want to come back to the blog with a triumphant post about the potential of the human spirit and body, as if nothing else happened in the world while I was away.

And I particularly wanted to write something about the horrifying shooting at Virginia Tech first, not because I think I have something terribly enlightening or wise to say about it, but because this tragedy is directly related to my world and to the subject and purpose of this blog, academic life in the fullest sense of that phrase, and I feel some sense of duty to say something. So I'll tell you what I'll say to my students tomorrow, whom I haven't seen since last Thursday. The following is more "writerly" and more lecture-like than what I'll actually say, but the substance is the same.

I want to start class by talking about Cho Seung-Hui and the death of 33 people at Virginia Tech University on Monday, because it matters to us. Cho Seung-Hui was an English major, but that's not the only reason this tragedy matters to us; had he been a business major I'd still be talking to you. He was a student, and his victims were students and faculty members, and so are we, but that's still not the only reason his acts and their consequences matter to us. Cho Seung-Hui and his victims were human beings, and for that reason, this matters to all of us, as does any act of violence, injustice, deprivation, and degredation, even the ones the news media doesn't cover.

Many people in Cho Seung-Hui's world saw the signs of his mental instability and illness, and they tried to do something to see that he was cared for. According to what I've read in the NY Times and heard on NPR -- generally reliable sources -- he was referred to and even escorted to professional mental health facilities; the police were alerted; his roommates and classmates were aware that something was wrong; his teachers alerted various authorities and people who could help. He even had a prescription for anti-depressants. So why didn't he get the help he needed? What went wrong? Was Cho Seung-Hui too far gone to look after himself?

I have no idea, really. What follows is pure speculation. I wonder if the stigma attached to regular pscyhological and psychiatric treatment, especially for Americans, especially for men, had something to do with Cho Seung-Hui's not getting the thorough treatment he needed. Americans, and American men especially, live in a "boot strap" culture that values individualism, will power, toughness, self-reliance, and emotional stoicism, and reacts negatively to anything that is perceived as showing weakness, "unmanliness," or a need for others. I think college students -- women as well as men -- are susceptible to buying into this culture. You know you are. You don't seek help when you need it because you fear looking idiotic, or wussy, or, god forbid, needy. You tell yourself "I can handle this," when this is a 35-hour work week and a full course load, or a terrible break-up, or even grief at the loss of a loved-one. You convince yourself that you don't have time to grieve or deal with your problems, because graduation is around the corner and you have to, must, will, and shall graduate on time with the GPA of your dreams, and if not, you're convinced your life is over.

Listen to me. I am the poster child of misguided detemination and will power. I got a PhD and tenure track job; I run marathons; on Monday I ran the Boston marathon in 20mph winds and rain, with this damn cold. All good and admirable, right? But when my sister died, I took one freakin day off from my classes. Heck, it runs in the family: two weeks before that she was deeply apologetic that she couldn't after all make it to watch me run my hometown marathon, but she wanted me to know that she tried -- while she was dying of cancer.

But see, eventually I realized that for all the planning and training and determination, there are things that are out of my control, as well as out of yours. Loss is one of them. It's inevitable. Death's another. We all die. And certain conditions of mental and physical health are also out of your control. When my mother died and I couldn't sleep, no matter how "hard" I "tried," and when I was tormented by nightmares, I saw a mental health professional. And I kept seeing her until she decided, as a mental health expert, with my input, that I was functioning more normally.

If people ever tell you you need to seek help for depression or something more serious, get it and stick with it. A depressed or addicted or otherwise ill person is in little or no position to decide for themselves that they're OK, that they can simple "deal with it." There is no shame for seeking help for mental illness, any more than there's shame for getting treatment for a broken leg or bronchitis. These things are out of your control and your expertise, and that's OK. Tell this to the people in your life, too, so that they get it. Say it over and over again until they do.

I'm saying this especially for those of you -- men and women -- really taken in by the idea that you have to "handle" things on your own, that extreme stress is "just a phase" or "natural" for college students. But I'm especially saying this for the men, especially you midwestern men, because, in general, you're the least likely to get the help you need. It's not a weakness to seek help; spin it differently. In a culture that expects men to be stoic superheroes, overcoming that stereotype and seeking help actually takes a lot of strength.

Sorry to go on and on, but it matters. Is there anything you would like to say?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oh spite! Oh hell!

UPDATE: Make that wind gusts up to 50 mph and a wind-chill that makes it feel like 25-30 degrees. Oh, and did I mention I'm still getting over a bad cold?

So some of you may recall that I'm running the Boston Marathon for the first time on Monday. You may also know that I've had a busy semester and have only managed to squeeze in a beginner-level training plan and won't be setting any personal records (PRs) there. And many of you may know that Boston is a difficult marathon in the best of circumstances, so even if I were super-duper trained with speed and hill work as well as extra long runs, I might not come out with a PR.

As if all that weren't bad enough...have you checked the weather forecast for Boston on Monday? High temperature: 43 degrees. 70% chance of heavy rain. And winds -- my god, the winds -- from the East with predicted speeds up to 23 mph. And guess what general direction the point-to-point course runs? Yup, that's right -- East. (Well, OK, mostly NE, but still.)

Fuck. I'll be lucky to freakin' finish. My PR, the one that got me in this race, is 3:43. I'll be happy with 4:30 in this one, I swear.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Watch this space

To those of you who have added comments and preferences to the K'zoo blogger meet-up post below, I haven't forgotten about you. I just have to go back through all the comments, make some executive decisions, and then make a follow-up post, all of which I hope to do some time tomorrow night.

In the meantime, for your amusement: I just got an advertisement for online head shops posted in the comments to this ancient post (about my pot-smoking neighbors in my old apartment). It cracks me up, so for the first time I'm not going to delete the spam. But also, re-reading that post and its comments made me realize how much can change in a short while: Flavia was still La Lecturess, Bullock was still just the plain old "boyfriend" (and he commented on my blog! he never does that any more!), and I could refer to my parents in the plural and present tense (that one really made me sad). But one thing that never seems to change: my brother teasing me (in the comments or real life).

Friday, April 6, 2007

Learning a literary lesson for Good Friday

Yesterday I taught the York "Crucifixion" play from the York Corpus Christi play cycle, and one of my students (the one who came to office hours on Ash Wednesday with ashes on her forehead) asked me if I purposely assigned it during Holy Week. Nope, I didn't. In fact, two weeks ago I was looking up when Easter was this year, and until I saw a guy dressed as Jesus (and wearing an iPod!) walking across campus when I was on my way to class, I'd completely forgotten it was Easter week at all. And another student, in the midst of writing her paper for another of my clases, asked if I'd realized I'd appropriately assigned King Lear during Lent, given its bleak, penetential mood. No, again, I was unaware of the liturgical orientation of my syllabus. Apparently 12 years of Catholic school and over a decade of being a medievalist have not drilled the liturgical calendar into my head.

Part of my lack of awareness has to do with the simple fact that I'm not a practicing or believing Catholic (or Christian of any kind) anymore, and that the rhythms of my year are attuned to the academic calendar more than the liturgical one. (Though the historical correspondence between those two calendars has something to do with the coincidence of my fitting syllabus design.) But it also has to do with the rather narrowly focused, workaholic life I've had for the last month and a half. Today is the first day, including weekends, since late February that I didn't have to be up and working at 7:30 a.m., and that I got to sleep more than six hours. (That's a very good thing since I'm trying to fight off the cold that Bullock has so that I won't have it when I run the Boston Marathon a week from Monday.) In fact, I think last night's bedtime -- 11:30 -- was the earliest I'd had since late February as well. All I've been doing in that time is work, work, work, in that barely-keeping-on-top-of-things kind of way, where everything is getting done just in time, and some things that aren't absolutely necessary or deadline-oriented are slipping through the cracks (especially any of my research work not related to finishing the book production stuff). My only breaks from work have been my runs, and they've taken on the aspect of work, as well. (This is a subject for another post -- how to find running fun again.) It's not a lifestyle I want or recommend or receive my joy from. Though there is a kind of adrenaline rush from it, so much that's important and that matters -- or that's simply desirable -- gets sacraficed: a healthy diet, a social life, a clean house, even attention to my beloved Bullock and our dear Wiley. (Indeed I worry that I missed signs of his ear infection, though Bullock swears he also saw no scratching or shaking of his head or anything like that.)

So it's incredibly ironic that I taught the York "Crucifixion" the way I did yesterday. Because I know medieval drama so well I often go in to classes on any play without a detailed plan, just some ideas and activities rattling around my brain. With the "Crucifixion" there are two things that I always do, and I did them yesterday: 1) have students perform the section where the soldiers "struggle" to do their job nailing Jesus to the cross, lifting the cross up calvary (i.e., onto the pageant wagon stage), and raising and setting the cross into the mortice; and 2) draw students attention to the diction of "work" throughout the play (which also occurs throughout the cycle as a whole). In both cases, we discuss the meaning of what is seen and heard, as well as what is not seen and not heard. In the performance part I make the rest of the class get up and gather tightly around the performing space, as if on a narrow York street, and ask them to think about why it matters -- how it might be meaningful -- that most of the crowd can't see Jesus until the cross is raised, and that the soldiers describe their actions and assume what pain Jesus must feel, as opposed to having "Jesus" enact that pain and suffering visibly. And I usually draw a connection from this discussion of the visual elements to the discussion of the vocabulary of work by asking students to think of the people playing and producing this play and the rest of the cycle -- i.e., occupational guilds.

Almost always, through our discussion, students point out that the soldiers -- who speak and behave like craftsmen themselves -- are so focused on their "work" that they don't realize the consequences of their work. And they point out that the audience, because they can hear and see only the soldiers, and not Jesus, are in a similar position. And usually I move from there to the traditional V. A. Kolve reading of the dark humor of the play and its conjunction with the visual effects, how it potentially lulls the audience into identifying with the solider-craftsmen because they are men like them and their neighbors, and laugh with them as well as at them, only to be shocked into realization of their complicity in the Crucifixion at the moment of the raising of the cross. And then usually I talk about the meaning of that moment in theological terms, especially the idea that every sin atemporally participates in Christ's crucifixion, that although he is risen, he is also always being crucified, suffering for the sinners he redeems. Thus that complicity in the play's structure enacts a complicity in the historical crucifixion and in the theology of the necessity of penance and redemption.

But I didn't go that route this time. Instead, spontaneously, I turned away from the historically and theologically oriented reading of how a 14-16th century Christian audience might participate in this play and asked students to think about if there were any lessons here that might be more broadly applicable to someone who might not share the religious beliefs the original audience did. It took some leading -- and really, this was my reading more than theirs -- but ultimately I suggested that the play offers a lesson about work itself, one potentially as applicable to the original audiences of the play as to us. The solider-craftsmen are bumbling workers who do a terrible job in all senses of terrible: they do a poor job of things, they cause an extraordinary, almost ineffable pain that potentially provokes terror, and yet they also work part of God's plan, which is also terror-inducing in its awesomeness and ineffability. They do not know what they "wirke" in the York play's language.

But they are also intensely focused on the task at hand, at getting it done, to the extent that they can describe the pain it must cause without pausing to understand their role in that pain. (They are ironically well aware of their own "suffering" in the hard labor of lifting the cross, however.) They are blind to what the consequences -- both bad and good -- of their actions are, of what an obsessive attention to work, barring all else, might produce. And that's the meaning I thought this play might hold for readers and viewers who were themselves not Christians or not otherwise invested in the Christian penetential meaning of the play (or potentially a social meaning of the play for its original audience, in addition to its religious lessons). That's what I wrapped up class with, and I especially directed it to those students who felt otherwise alienated from such a religious play.

But it's not until later that I realized it was a lesson I still needed to consciously learn myself, that my lack of awareness of the fittingness of this play to the liturgical calendar is part of my own obsessive attention to the tasks at hand. The point is not that I should always be aware of the liturgical calendar, since, as I said, I'm not a practicing Christian, but rather that I really need to be more aware of the world around me, of major events that might be important to a lot of my students, colleagues, and neighbors (which also includes knowing when the big college football rivalry match-up is and avoiding wearing the wrong color on that day, and things like that). Heck, just remembering what day of the week it is and where we are on the academic calendar might be nice, too. And being able to deal with more than the task at hand, understanding what the consequences are of such hyper-focus, might also be nice. There are times when the work must be done and it's a little overwhelming, and March was definitely one of those times, but I can't let "when this is done..." become my mantra, or else I'll always be putting off the things that are just as or more important than work.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A wooly week

Please god, no more animal-related traumas and stress this week.

Beginning this past Friday (OK, so it hasn't been quite a week yet), the Virago-Bullock household has been struck with one hairy trauma after another, the first and the worst involving dear Wiley. As a result I've now been to the emergency vet four times and really never want to go back there again (no offense to the wonderful people there).

On early Friday morning, while I was in the bathroom, I heard Wiley follow me, excited to be let out for his morning pee, and then all of a sudden I heard what sounded like him falling, and when I came out, I found the poor thing collapsed on the floor in his own pee, unable to rise steadily. I thought it was a bad case of an arthritis flare-up and gave Wiley a peanut-butter coated aspirin. But as the morning progressed, and as Bullock and I tried to coax him to his feet to work the kinks out, Wiley didn't seem to get any more confident or better. At best, he stumbled, legs spread wide, to get from room to room or across the large bedroom. He wouldn't even attempt the stairs, which meant we had an 85-pound dog trapped on the second floor of our home, who was having multiple bathroom accidents from fear and an inability to control himself any longer, but who couldn't make it down the stairs on his own, and also wouldn't consent to being lifted. For some reason Bullock and I persisted in thinking it was arthritis, so we took turns staying with Wiley while the other saw to work-related obligations. But by the afternoon, I realized It was something else when I noticed Wiley's eyebrow twitching rapidly and his eyes darting back and forth from something more involuntary than fear. We had to get him downstairs and to the emergency vet.

By that time Wiley was freaked out enough -- and perhaps desperate enough to go out and pee and poop where he knew he was supposed to -- that he let Bullock carry him down the stairs, while I held Wiley's head steady and kept him calm. As soon as we got him downstairs, he stumbled wildly towards the backdoor, and once out, he peed and pooped immediately, but also walked in circles and arcs. Clearly this was no arthritis. But the good news was Wiley's brain function was fine, because as soon as I said, "Wiley, wanna go on a car trip?" he staggered over to the car and jumped right in, tail wagging. Later, when things were calmer, Bullock and I laughed at this.

To make a long story short, it turned out Wiley had an ear infection that had caused a sudden onset of vertigo. Hence the inability to walk and the staggering in circles. He's been on antibiotics since Friday night, and now he's much better. He still lists to one side a little bit, and when he shakes his head or looks up, he loses his balance a bit, but he's eating, playing, going for walkies, and barking at other dogs, so things are pretty much back to normal. It took a day to convince him he could walk normally again, however, and at first he'd only do it on the leash. I don't know if he'll ever again come up here on the second floor, though.

The second trauma in this wooly almost-week was far less dire, but still not exactly what we needed. Wiley was still in the vet hospital (they kept him for 24 hours) and Bullock and I were eating breakfast, when all of sudden Bullock exclaimed, "Oh god, a mouse!" I turned around and there in our kitchen, perched on the edge of a drawer like he didn't have a care in the world, was a fat -- and rather cute -- brown mouse with a white belly. As cute as it was, however, it was in our utensil drawer! Ew! So traps were purchased, drawers cleaned out, items washed and disinfected, and the very next day there was a dead mouse in the same drawer where we'd first seen it. We got the old-fashioned snap traps and it seems to have done its duty breaking the little creature's neck and, we hope, ending its life quickly and humanely. I felt bad though, because it was pretty cute for a home invader.

But I felt much, much worse tonight on my last trip to the emergency vet. The first three were for Wiley -- Friday and Saturday nights, then a follow-up visit on Monday -- but tonight's trip was for another poor creature. Wiley and I were out in the back yard when suddenly Wiley started off on a run towards the front (a run! see -- he *is* getting better!). I called for him to Stop! and Stay! because he's not supposed to leave the backyard and I had no idea what trouble he was headed for. He's a very good dog and did as he was told and that's when I saw the most heart-wrenching sight I'd ever seen of an animal in distress. Moving across our driveway was a buff-colored cat dragging himself by his front paws. I took Wiley inside, got a spare towel we use for Wiley-related things, and went after the cat. When I approached him, he stopped and looked pathetically and weakly up at me and then put his head down on the ground. Picking him up and wrapping him in the towel was no trouble. He didn't cry, hiss, or fuss, and when I had him wrapped up and cradled in my arms, he seemed, in a word, grateful. I've never met a sweeter, more compliant cat.

I pretty much knew the outcome of this story the minute I saw the creature up close, and the vet confirmed it. The poor little thing, a grown male cat weighing only 6.4 pounds, had a broken pelvis, massive dehydration, the signs of long-term neglect, and possibly also one of the three fatal but common feline diseases. He was already near death; I just saved him from a slower one in tonight's snow and cold and gave him a little human contact, compassion, and affection in the end. Poor thing.

When we took Wiley to the vet on Friday night I was terrified that it was something life-threatening and that I'd have to make a decision for him and his mama. But Bullock, Wiley, and I were lucky that night. Instead, tonight, I had to make a decision for a poor stray who might have once belonged to someone, although he wasn't one of the neighborhood cats, all of whom I know well. Or maybe he was always a stray and just happened to be unafraid of humans. I just hope someone isn't out there looking for their lost pet.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Yes, I'm still here

Sorry for the silence, folks. It's been a helluva a weekend/early week here in our crib in Rust Belt, involving a very sick Wiley (he's doing much better) and also a mouse in the house, on top of the usual work and stuff. I've got stories to tell and will get to them when I can.

In the meantime, for those of you going to K'zoo this year, keep weighing in on the K'zoo meet-up post below, if you haven't already. I'm reading the comments and will post on the subject again soon. Spread the word and link to that post so that everyone who's going gets to chime in.