Sunday, November 9, 2008

Seems odd that we are almost to Thanksgiving. The amount of time it takes me to grade a set of rough drafts for a class I teach stretches out to feel infinitely longer than the amount of time it takes to get from Halloween to Thanksgiving. Where is my focus? Yesterday, I spent scattered moments throughout the day watching the most appalling horror movies on SciFi channel with my husband. The first featured an "abominable" snowman without snow. The film was entitled "Abominable" and the characters very clearly agreed about the creature's not being a "bigfoot," because bigfoots, unlike the abominable, avoid people. The monster pulled a woman through a 2x2 foot window waist-first. You could see her head and feet go through together, although it was very quick. Later in the day, another movie also revolved around an abominable snowman, this time called a yeti, who was terrorizing a group of students who survived a plane wreck in the Himalayas. Whenever the director wanted the monster to run or leap, the film seemed to speed up, so that the monster that was lurching around more or less realistically one second would suddenly and very jerkily leap ten or twenty feet forward. Then I caught the first part of a movie about some giant spiders at a ski resort which were less frightening than the movie's awkwardly developed romance between Vanessa Williams and some cocky, washed up ski champion. Finally, a movie about some British special ops soldiers on a training mission in a heavily wooded area. Since the moon was full, the forest was also soon filled with werewolves who organized themselves to feed on the soldiers. I enjoyed the werewolf movie more than the others, but only because the parts I saw never depicted the creatures full-on; instead, they appeared in fragments and fleetingly, as shadow or silhouettes. Things seem much scarier to me when I can't quite make out what they are. But, things also seem much less scary when viewed broken up through the tiny cracks between my fingers or with the sound off. I kept trying to get Oleg to tell me what he would do if a yeti were attempting to get in the house. He wouldn't respond, but I decided I would dump a bunch of water on the floor, cut the cord of my hair-dryer where it connects to the hairdryer, strip back the plastic to expose the wires, plug in the cord, and wait on the kitchen counter. When the yeti came through the door, I'd throw the cord into the water on the floor. Oleg said this would probably work. I have a number of intricate security systems about the house that I won't get into here. Not to foil yetis, of course.

My outdoor thermometer read 19 degrees this morning. I'm sure it feels colder, and last night my toes began to show signs of pernio, which I get every year. The wind blows all the time which supposedly makes the air feel colder, except in the summer, when it's 92 degrees and the wind feels like hell's door blown open. That is, if hell were filled with cow dung and fertilizer. A friend in Rhode Island says it has grown colder there, too, but she still has flowers blooming in her yard. Her kind heart may explain the flowers, but Rhode Island smells better than South Dakota in general.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Knee, My Loss of Speed, and My President

This is my most recent soccer injury. I have decided that this is a "moderate level quadricep contusion." I found that on the internet. The bruise is located just above my left knee (to the right in the picture), where I was cleated by a goalie in a co-ed game. He had no reason to be slide-tackling me. I still cannot bend the knee much past 90 degrees.

When I was in junior high, some 25 years ago, I used to play indoor soccer 5 times a week. We'd have games starting as late as 11:30 at night. I played soccer until I was 19 and then didn't play again until I was 25. I stopped again and didn't start again until I was 33. I hate the way my body has gotten slower. Even when I'm in shape, I don't have the speed and quickness today at 38 that I had even at 33. When I was 33, I played indoor on three teams and was always getting hurt, which should have told me something. But I played with a 45-year-old woman who could run circles around the women in their twenties and I figured I should be able to do as well as she. During that period, I went to the emergency room for concussions on two different occasions, one of which came from hitting my head on the wall and the other from catching a shot on goal in the face. The second hit me so hard that I couldn't fully open or close my jaw for two days. The other time I went to the hospital was for my collarbone, which I thought I might have cracked. There is still a hard lump there. My legs are relatively short and muscular, which is why I think I have never had problems with my knees and ankles. When I trained for a marathon in 2005, I did have some illiotibial band tightness and pain, but I managed.
I was about 33 when I started to notice that I was aging. It's an odd thing, since I'd always heard people older than me joke and laugh about their bodies falling or drooping, cellulite and jowls developing, and so on. Certainly, there had been people whom I noticed aging in the face, their hair turning grey or white, usually friends of my parents. But I never noticed any sign of it in myself. There were a few mornings after long nights of decadence in college when I'd looked in the mirror and thought, wow, this is how I'll look when I'm 50, but things generally snapped back into place after a day or two. I don't have much vanity about my looks--I'm not unpleasant to look at, unless I'm crying or angry. But I am certainly nothing to start writing poetry about either. Still, as a member of a society that places such tremendous value on the visual qualities of most everything (except what cannot be seen), I am certainly conscious of how I look and try not to sicken myself or others with my appearance. What was my point? Right, so my body is getting old. I have a little brown spot on my hand that I know will grow into a liver spot eventually. And there are deep creases between my eyes, over my nose from glaring at computer screens and books and students all the time. I have two grey hairs on my head that appeared around my 30th birthday and even one grey pubic hair. The worst thing though are my legs, especially just over my knees. When I stand with both my feet on the ground, all of the skin and fat sort of settles above my knee. I am pretty active so it doesn't fold over or anything, but I can spot the beginnings of some puckers. In principle, I care nothing about aging; I try to regard growing old as part of living. Aged people are often quite beautiful, especially if they are content with their lives and have their health and are able to participate in something that interests them. Happy people, regardless of their features, tend to be beautiful--animation is part of it, but also happiness is pleasant to look at. In principle, then, I am not opposed to aging or to looking older, but still, one gets used to looking a certain way. And it seems like being older hit me suddenly and accelerated quickly. Really, I am more disturbed by how slow they've become than the appearance; I could attribute my short strong legs to my peasant heritage or something. But the slowing down: where's the burst of speed, the stopping and starting, the weaving and darting?

I was thinking about aging last night while listening to Obama's acceptance speech. Presidents always look much older after four years in office. Somewhere I saw before-and-after photos of several presidents--a magazine article maybe. It was striking how profoundly the stress affected the men's appearance.

While listening and watching Obama's acceptance speech on TV, surfing the web for images of knee injuries that looked like mine, and thinking about how quickly soccer-playing women and presidents age, I was also on the phone talking with a friend about the rhetoric of race, or what there has been of it, in this election. I am puzzled by the repeated use of the phrase "first black president," since the man is bi-racial. Is he "black" because he has chosen to affiliate with that aspect of his heritage over the European? Is it better to be "black" than bi-racial? More noble to claim African descendancy than to claim both African and European? If Obama says, "I am a black man," everyone nods. What if Obama said, "I am a white man"? Would that be equally acceptable? It would be agreeable to think so, but I am skeptical about the public's ability to err in both directions. Is he "black" because fathers are more important to their children's identities than mothers? Is he "black" because, as a nation, we still operate by some form of the "one-drop rule"? Is he "black" because for others or for Obama himself to call him "white" or even bi-racial would look too much like denying affiliation with a racial group that for too long has been denied full credit for its part in helping to begin, build, and keep this country going? Is he "black" because that is the least complicated rhetorical road for him to travel at this point in history? Well, none of this is all that much about Obama himself. I would have voted for him regardless of what racial identification he claimed or that others assigned to him. I agree with my friend Joanna, though, that it seems rather late in our history as a nation to still be having so much difficulty with the idea of bi-racialism or multi-racialism.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It is a good day for this country, a very good day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I was listening to NPR on my way home. The topic of conversation, only the middle of which I caught, seemed to be what listeners think about polling. So, this man calls in and compares two surveyers who recently telephoned him. The caller says that he viewed one more positively than the other, and the host asks why. The caller says that he didn't like the first, that it was a computer. He could tell that the program was designed to generate follow-up questions tailored to his responses. The caller didn't like it. Again, "why?" "I don't know," he says, "I just didn't. I can't put my finger on it. It just seemed so ersatz."

What does that mean? I know what ersatz means (although I'm not entirely sure the caller did), but what kind of "view" is that? Did this guy call up his radio station to share this opinion? Is it just me, or does it seem like we are so caught up in the notion that everyone should have an opportunity to say what they think that we've lost sight of the thinking that should precede the saying? Is it true that everyone's thoughts should be heard?

I have similar questions about student evaluations. Students are not experts in the subjects they take in school, and they are not pedagogical experts either; for the most part, they have never taught, and despite what they would claim, they do not even have that much experience in the classroom--at least not compared to the person teaching them. They don't know what is effective in a broad sense. All they know is what they "like." We are so committed to giving everyone a "say" and making everyone feel as though his or her opinion is valuable, no matter what, that nobody dares to ask whether every opinion really is significant. There don't seem to be many people who have informed reasons for liking, disliking, supporting or not supporting things. And it is scary that, on the basis of whatever whim or dyspepsia or arbitrary bad association, everybody gets to vote, evaluate, and speak out. If I were running for office, I would endorse a public service campaign to promote more thinking and less speaking out.

I guess you don't have to be a card-carrying Derridean to know that this blog needs to end immediately.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright. My husband is catching walleye at a nearby lake. The phone call came this morning from a friend of his. They had caught four "keepers" in an hour of fishing. The husband was out of bed and gone in a flash.

I am inside looking out my office window. I've been composing a job recommendation letter for a graduate student with whom I work. He's a great guy and a promising scholar. Just received email from another student. She's finished next week's reading early and wants to get a start on her next paper. We won't be discussing the book until Tuesday, but she wants me to email my thoughts on the characters and events to her, so she can begin work. Earlier today I wrote a long blog about my graduate student years and erased the whole thing with one click. I felt awful for having wasted an hour writing when I could have been working. Working?

Have I mentioned that "It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright." It's Saturday. I feel guilty for not working. I want to reply to my student: "Sorry, I don't work on Saturday." Or: "I am only teaching that book in class--not once to you in email over the weekend and then again in class next week." It's nice that she's so committed. An "exceeds expectations" teacher would probably meet her for coffee this afternoon and have a discussion about the book. Before I got the email, I was reading the "balancing life and work" forum thread in the Higher Chronicle. This is the thread where some faculty go to complain about their jobs and support one another in trying to muster the gumption to quit. One writer says that she has already quit and now feels much, much better. I have already quit, too, but I really don't feel that much better. I still feel manacled to the computer and guilty when I'm not doing something job-related. I constantly have to remind myself that I can relax, find something enjoyable to do, keep the work contained within certain hours. I don't need any more lines on my cv.

I'll be voting on Tuesday. I'm afraid my parents are both voting for McCain, and just thinking about it makes my heart race. I was mulling over whether I might be a Federalist in the car the other day, and Thoreau's words on voting kept coming to mind. He wrote that to vote is pretty much a game of craps, that no choice of moral importance can be made in such a way--at least not for people who feel deeply invested in a question. Thoreau writes, "All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voter is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men" ("Resistance to Civil Government" Thoreau).

What Thoreau says about the character of the voter's not being staked is true. In some sense, we are not supposed to care too much about the outcome of a vote; after casting our ballots, we are encouraged to let go of an issue and let the process do its work. The vote substitutes for my continuing identification with a stance or my moral connection to a decision. I put my preference in the vote and send it out to join the other votes, punchcards. My vote goes into a box and separates from me. Hours later, a decision emerges. The social contract which impels/implies my consent dictates that the decision, the output, be accepted as my law, even if, as Thoreau points out, that output is morally repugnant to me. As a citizen in a republic, I agree to respect the system that allots power to a majority. But the republican form adheres to the majority decision not because the majority is right or wise or moral, but because the system of accepting its decisions is expedient. I wonder if voting itself may be worse than amoral and, in truth, immoral, since it forces a buffer between my knowledge of what is morally right and my ability to live out that knowledge. "Cast your whole vote," Thoreau writes, "not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." These are brave words, but it's difficult to conceive of what they would look like in action. I've read and seen movies about the people in this country who won't pay their income taxes because, as they argue, the federal government has no jurisdiction to collect taxes on individual income. Nothing ever seems to come of the claim or the resistance--except jail time for the tax-evading individuals. When the Patriot Act passed, one might have expected to see a movement of some sort, but nothing significant emerged. Elections are sometimes called quiet or peaceful revolutions, and certainly they can bring about changes. But I think Thoreau is right to recognize that the changes are morally neutral in as much as they reflect no decision of right and wrong and may be immoral in that they separate decision making from moral responsibility. I will vote, but I am not very excited about it.