Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Podcasts, with a detour to Lucille Ball

I just learned from the post over at Historiann's that today is International Podcast Day, so Happy Podcast Day!

Historiann mentioned Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This, which I binge-listened to over this past month (all except the actual Manson family murder segment).  The old Hollywood ones are especially wonderful, although I'd like to add this to the most recent one on Buster Keaton:

Guess which famous redheaded TV star of the 1950s was tutored and mentored by Keaton and his director, Ed Sedgwick?

Did you say Red Skelton?  You'd be partly right.

The other redhead is Lucille Ball. Ball learned a lot from Keaton and Sedgwick not only when she was at MGM but also later, before I Love Lucy. Sedgwick especially was a father figure to her--she'd lost her own father as a child--but they both taught her a lot about comic timing and how to perform gags to best effect. Keaton was a genius, especially with props and physical comedy.

Before I Love Lucy, Ball and Arnaz had an act in which she interrupted his band by pretending to be a tramp auditioning with a cello.  From the inside of the cello, which she'd open up, she'd bring out a little chair and a lot of other props. This act was taught to her by a European comedian whose name I can't recall, but who taught her how to get the most from those props? Keaton.

Fun fact: when Skelton won an Emmy for his comedy show in 1951, he said, graciously, "You're giving this to the wrong redhead." 

Back to Podcast Day.

Here's a link to You Must Remember This.

Also worth checking out: Futility Closet, which has unusual stories from history.

BBC History Extra:

What are your favorite podcasts?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

You are not invisible. Put down the phone.

In "Stop Googling. Let's Talk," Sherry Turkle reports what she's learned about the ubiquitous habit of checking one's phone and what it has done to conversation, especially within families:
One 15-year-old I interviewed at a summer camp talked about her reaction when she went out to dinner with her father and he took out his phone to add “facts” to their conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk to you.” A 15-year-old boy told me that someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him — with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation. 
In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.
But doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking.
 Go read the whole thing; it's worth it.

The thing is, if you take out your phone because they* take out their phone, all of a sudden it's a phone duel and not a conversation. You both win, and the conversation loses. 

TL;dr. You are not invisible. You are a human being in a community of human beings. Put down the phone.

Or, as Sherry Turkle says, "Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking."

*I am trying out the inclusive "their" to see if I can do it.
[Edited because I sounded like the world's crankiest crankypants and am tired of being negative. ]

Friday, September 25, 2015

In which I am tempted to MOOC: How Writers Write Fiction 2015 from the Iowa Writers Workshop

I saw this at The Toast: the Iowa Writers Workshop is offering an 8-week MOOC on creative writing, and I am really tempted.

How tempted? I actually signed up to be on their mailing list the last time and got a notice of this a week or two ago.

Do I have time to do this? Absolutely not.

But I have wanted to find out more about creative writing for a long time. I have longed for the opportunity to write fiction or creative nonfiction without the abject humiliation of showing my possible writing to the creative writing people I know. Abject humiliation from strangers, on the other hand, would be fine.

I don't really want to do this under my own name, though, in case I am terrible at it. I'm pretty sure this was George Eliot's reason, too.  I wonder if I could use one of my aliases to sign up.

Writing inspiration, Hemingway word count edition

Figure 1. So Hemingway was a record-keeper!
Instead of "sit down and write," this has been a week of "sit down and drive, stand up and teach, walk down the hall and meet," etc.

I have a list of about 15 things to do immediately, divided up into writing, reviewing, teaching, and admin.

Guess which category is the one with nothing crossed off?

But just in time, the NYTimes has some writing inspiration: an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway's artifacts at the JFK Library.

Here's a little writing inspiration for your Friday:
He began the original draft of his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” which he finished in just nine weeks during the summer of 1925, on loose sheets and then switched over to notebooks. It wasn’t until the end of the third notebook that he wrote a chapter outline on the back cover (which also records his travel expenses and his daily word counts, something Hemingway kept careful track of), and some of the pages on display show him slashing out not just words and sentences but whole passages as he writes. “Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it,” Hemingway wrote later in an Esquire article. “That is .333, which is a damned good average for a hitter.”
Figure 2. Even Hemingway had to cut words.
Those are nice round numbers, but of course, Hem didn't have the Word Count feature. He kept track of his weight, too, writing it in pencil on a wall near his bathroom scales, and I'm guessing that the "fishing diary" in which he wrote an angry letter to Harold Ross of The New Yorker contains size, weight, and numbers of fish caught.

The interesting thing for me about all this record-keeping is that Hemingway never mentions it in A Moveable Feast (either version), although whole chapters of that book are basically writing inspiration and absence-of-food descriptions. It's not in keeping with Hemingway Image (TM), probably, but it's oddly inspiring to those of us trying to keep on track by keeping track.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading and writing all the things


When will I learn, oh, when will I learn that if I assign really long novels, criticism, and theory in a seminar that I have to (re)read them along with the students?

I am now officially convinced that reading on a screen has destroyed my reading concentration for reading books on paper, which is really sad, since I'd rather read on paper. 

It's more than the interwebz destroying concentration, though. I don't need glasses for the screen but do need them for reading on paper.  I can read endlessly on the screen, but my eyes tear up and get blurry after more than an hour reading on paper.  This is not optimal, to say the least.

But then you go to class, and you get to talk to students about the reading, and they say things that are insightful about the work or that reveal something about their thought processes, and it's fun.  There, I said it. It's fun to teach even though we're supposed to prioritize other things.


The writing has been disrupted because of running back and forth to campus so much for meetings.  I've been trying to do more of my own writing in the office by sitting at a table, which signals writing, instead of at the desk, which I associate with class work, email, and other tasks. The other day, I left the office entirely and went to a table in the library.

Melissa Dennihy's essay "How to Get Writing Done" at Inside Higher Ed suggests holding fast to a research day, which probably is essential for new assistant professors but might be difficult for associates and others who have a lot of committees. 

On the other hand, I've had several meeting requests lately that were the kind I associate with when my kids were toddlers and I used the psychology of the forced choice: maybe they don't want to get dressed at all after their bath and you ask them whether they want the blue or the red pajamas.   "Which of these two times [when I'm not available but the person requesting the meeting is] would you like to meet, Undine?" "Neither, but how about this time, when I am?"

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's your take on the Victorian Lady?

Figure 1.J. Herbin ink and some of my pens.
Recently, the frivolous corner of the internet has lost its mind over something even more inconsequential than the "blue-black or white-gold dress" controversy: Victorian Lady Sarah A. Crisman, who chooses, she says, to live as a Victorian in Port Townsend, Washington. This means dressing up, making your own clothes, lighting by kerosene, and so on.

There's an article on Vox,  a precursor article on xojane from a couple of years ago, and innumerable pieces like this snarky one on Deadspin that point out the things that get left out of this vision like, oh, slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, industrial oppression of workers, and all those wrongs that we are at least trying to right.

My most immediate reaction on reading the article when she mentioned ink "from a company started in 1670" was "Cool! She uses J. Herbin ink, just like me!" I have written with dip pens, although I don't currently own one due to an act of heroic resistance to buying one when I was in Research City this summer.  I cook and bake from scratch (cakes, bread, pizza, Yorkshire pudding, etc.) using cast-iron pots, so there's that.

But think about it: who among us doesn't have some vestiges of the Victorian age that we carry over into our lives? Isn't that what a lot of craft-people are actually doing with scrapbooks, quilts, and so on? We/they just don't write blog posts patting themselves on the back about living like the ancestors. And is this different from the many other acts of impersonation that populate television reality or reality re-enactment shows like Pioneer House or its brethren?

And who doesn't remember the implicit "Thank DOG I now have a sewing machine" in Ma Ingalls's voice when she had to do all that sewing for Laura's wedding in These Happy Golden Years? Okay, that's not what she actually says, which is this:
"[Pa] lifted the blanket away, and there stood a shining new sewing machine.
"Oh, Charles!" Ma gasped.
"Yes, Caroline, it is yours," Pa said proudly. There'll be a lot of extra sewing, with Mary coming home and Laura going away, and I thought you'd need some help." . . .
A long time ago, Laura remembered, a tone in Ma's voice when she spoke of a sewing machine had made Laura think that she wanted one. Pa had remembered that.(241-242)

And when Laura decides to sew the long seams of the sheets down the middle instead of using the traditional method, Ma agrees: "Our grandmothers would turn in their graves, but after all, these are modern times" (265).

Why, yes, Caroline Ingalls. Yes, they are. Caroline would have shooed Victorian Lady out of the house with her ever-handy broom. 

I think a lot of the condemnation that Victorian Lady has received is due to her smug tone, insistence that she's living as a Victorian rather than doing this as a hobby, and condemnation of the 21st-century's pace, as if she herself doesn't have a website and a business plan for monetizing her way of life. She's living a medical age of penicillin and pretending that she's not, so to speak.

Or maybe it's a fear that, like some other re-enactors (see Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic) this kind of cosplay will encourage the erasure of historical evils.

But the counter-argument is this: Victorian Lady obviously has plenty of money to indulge her hobby, and what's the harm?

What's your take on her decision to cosplay (or is it steampunk?) by "living" in a different era?

Friday, September 11, 2015

A bright spot or two

This was one of those weeks when some kind of Fool Translator Device inside my brain made every statement come out as halting and idiotic. 

Everything came out wrong, or so it seemed. When I made a joke in the department meeting, I had to say, like Foghorn Leghorn, "I say, that's a joke, son!"--but not in those words. 

I misnamed files, sent out files with errors in them, and all the while cringed at the promised work that I wasn't getting done. I stumbled over words in front of the class. You know how you can be writing on the board and all of a sudden the word looks strange to you and you can't be sure that you're spelling it right as thirty pairs of eyes bore into your back? Yup.

Even writing was giving me trouble.  I need to use a better word than "humble-bragging" in an essay, but that's the only one that comes to mind, so it's still there.

I thought caffeine was supposed to make you sharper, and I need to drink tea or Diet Coke in order to stay awake during the long commutes on a narrow and twisting road. The VW Bug that drove me off onto the shoulder this week as it passed an 18-wheeler in my half of the two-lane highway is just the latest example of why keeping alert is important.  This level of caffeine makes me sleepy all day and up every hour at night, however, and it's my theory that that's when the Fool Translator Device gears up for the next day.

But then on Thursday, behind on everything, behind on and barely finishing the novels I was rereading since I'd assigned them, it all worked out. We did group work in one of the classes, and as I walked around, students were eager to talk with me about the topic their group was researching.  We had good discussions in another class--high-intensity but with a lot of laughs, too.

And the edited Laocoon manuscript came back to me nearly a month early, with nice comments about how it really didn't take much editing and was a pleasure to read.

So after most of a week that had me saying "what's the point?" and feeling that I couldn't do anything right, these two bright spots turned it around.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Writing inspiration: by popular request, the Excel writing spreadsheet.

Thanks to Sisyphus's and anonymous's requests in the comments to the previous post, I thought I would talk about the Excel spreadsheet I use to keep track of writing.

First of all, here's what it looks like:

1. The first three columns are pretty obvious: Month, Date, Day.

2. The next two columns (4 & 5) are the beginning and ending word count.

3. The next column (6)  is a total word count for the day, based on a pretty simple Excel formula (B5-B4, and so on). If I'm editing and have a negative word count, I put in a zero. That's not accurate, but it's more happy-making than seeing the total go down.

4. The number of pages column  (7) is just the word count total divided by 350.  I know that counts a page as 250 words, but if you're using a proportional font like Times Roman or Cambria, 300-350 is more accurate. I usually keep this scrunched up so that it doesn't go to 8 decimal places.

5. The Task column (8) says what I did, rather than what I intend to do.  An intention/aspirational list of things to do always makes me less productive, so now I just record what actually got done.

This is from January, when I was going over the footnotes and manuscript for the millionth time before sending it to the press.  You don't see a panicky note about "Write MLA paper" there because I presented part of the book instead of writing something new.

6. The right-most column with nothing in it is actually the most satisfying one; it's the "Sent" column. When something gets sent, whether it's a letter, a manuscript review, a recommendation letter, or whatever, it gets noted in that column.

Other notes:

  • I don't use a lot of color, but days when I'm on campus are tinted in one color, and days when I'm away on trips are tinted another.  
  • There's a running tally of words for the year down at the bottom of the Total column. 
  • Every year, I rename the spreadsheet, make the appropriate adjustments for dates and days, and clear the rest of the contents. 
  • I keep notices other items on another page of the spreadsheet: to-do items like manuscript reviews, letters of recommendation, upcoming papers to write, etc.
Paul Silvia, of How to Write a Lot fame, keeps a spreadsheet in SPSS that is simpler than this. From p. 41, here are his categories:

Month / date / day / words [total] / goal / project / year
  • I didn't bother with "year," because it's pretty obvious that it'll be the same year for 365 days.  Maybe SPSS doesn't allow the same flexibility as Excel and he has many years on the same page.
  • Silvia's "Goal" column has two settings: "Met" and "Unmet." The idea is that you assign yourself a project or a number of words for the day and assess whether you've met it or not. I tried this, but it was too discouraging on bad writing days. The simple number totals work better for me. 
Anyway, this is a combination external record and conscience that nags just the right amount, so I've kept it going since 2011.