From Alba to Albany

By the time this posts, I should be on my way via planes, trains and automobiles (not to mention the bus to the airport in Edinburgh). It’s hard to believe my fantastic year has drawn to a close. Needless to say, I have no wish to leave Scotland and already have my ticket back. My sweetie awaits.

The Fulbright has been a great gift. I have written so much and I have so much more to write. I will be burying myself in the work this fall and hope to have some splendid things to show for it.

I have new friends and new ideas and a whole new outlook. So much has changed and so much more will change.

Classes begin on Monday. It will be quite a shift to be back in teacher mode. Somehow it will happen, but I’m not sure how at this point. I’m sure the mere process of traveling will provide transition as it always does. The “no-time” of airports instantly takes you out of normalcy, so it will doubtless have that effect again.

I’m not looking forward to the jangling roar of constant commerce. I’ve been surrounded by small towns and beautiful countryside much of the time and very few harsh American voices. I’m dreading the political season and the seemingly non-stop vitriol from pig-ignorant zealots that has made people here shake their heads with disbelief (even as their politicians begin to take on the same madness).

It will be a test of my abilities that I have cultivated in the last few years to remain resilient and hopeful, to hold onto that indestructible happiness within me. It cannot be reliant on being in a particular place or with particular people: just me, wherever I am. And I think I will be able to do that. I miss my friends after all, even if I do not miss the country of my birth. Many of my friends have had great difficulties and griefs in the last year while I have been crowing in my happiness. I can do my part to help heal their sorrow. My Kipper has had a difficult year, too. I will be glad to see him once again.

All will be well.

Re-Imagining the Olympics

Image of Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Cauldron ©James Richmond

The 2012 Olympics are over. If you weren’t in the UK you might not have been aware of just how transformative these two weeks were. That I’m even talking about it is evidence enough. Like many of my geek and writer friends I’ve often found myself in the position of fighting against the popular attention to the millionaire sports industry.

But this was different. It took me back to something I lost long ago: a love of sport. I grew up with four baseball diamonds and a football field behind my house and a huge field beside it where we practiced driving golf balls. We had an archery target in our back yard. And every Saturday my family plonked ourselves down in front of the television to watch Wide World of Sports, where I first learned about things like hurling.

I played sports: it may surprise some of you to know that I have a letter in softball. We played baseball non-stop, mostly with abandoned equipment from the teams who played behind our house: lost baseballs, cracked bats, discarded bases. We all had our own mitts and I was always pleased when my older brother would choose me ahead of some boys, because I knew he was ruthless when it came to teams and chose the best player.

Where did it change? High school, where the social divisions were sharply drawn. I dropped off the tennis team to devote more time to studies. Then there’s the whole thyroid thing which eventually led to trading mine for a five inch scar on my neck. And sealing the deal was working the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Eleven hour shifts in the gift shop, non-stop work and no fun. I never wanted to hear the word again.

I did get to hold a gold medal. The woman who won the sharp shooting gold, a Canadian on her own in Los Angeles, wore it into the shop so we all gathered around her to ooh and ahh. It was heavy and beautifully designed. But I pretty much ignored sports after that. Easy to do with all the bloated hype around professional sports in the US; worse, the scandalous proto-professional world of college sports. Nothing makes grad students more bitter than a library falling apart and wrapped in plastic while a new bronze Husky dog statue gets installed in front of the sports arena.

I’ve slowly gotten sucked into real football over the years (Go Gunners!). Unlike American football, there’s usually plenty of action and it’s not all about the money (Man United cough). But what got me into the 2012 Olympics initially wasn’t the sports per se; it was Danny Boyle’s orchestration of the opening ceremonies. An intense demonstration of the power of narrative, it offered Britons a new vision. Unlike the canned catch phrases of politicians, this reimagining acknowledged the past and honoured the present. Watching it with the live commentary on Twitter I saw its effects take place as the cynicism surrendered to the magic. Boyle’s theatrical ritual used humour but also touched people through powerful images from childhood and ancient representations of the past (the tor, the maypole). And Evelyn Glennie!

At the centre was the cauldron — I was amused to find it had been codenamed “Betty” and just love it.

“We’re normally designing buildings,” Heatherwick said. “It is like the biggest gadget that anyone can make in a shed but this shed is the most sophisticated shed in Harrogate. It was like the Bond gadget workshop.

“When we were thinking about the cauldron, we were aware they had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics had happened. We felt we shouldn’t try to be bigger.

“The idea is that, at the end of the Games, this cauldron will dismantle itself and come back to the ground. Each of those elements will be taken back by each of the nations and put in their national Olympics cabinets. Everyone has got a piece.”

The power of that image — and its lighting by the torch literally passed from the old generation to the new — lighted a new vision that so many people embraced and lifted the games from mere sporting event to a truly international celebration. The joy and the tears over the next two weeks resonated and not just with Britons. The radiant face of  Jess Ennis, the tearful one of Hoy, the embrace of Heather and Helen, the American women exploding as they won the 4×100 relay (not literally). All eyes were on Bolt as he raced to his expected victories, but how much more people loved him when he did the Mobot.

Go Mo!

Many writers have been inspired by sport; they released a newly discovered Nabokov piece on boxingJoyce Carol Oates has written on the sport as well. I’m not going to suddenly become all Sporty Spice on you. But I have enjoyed the spirit that suffused Britain the last couple weeks. As a few people said on Twitter, the crass closing ceremonies — full of glitz, supermodels, joyless musical reunions (when Freddie Mercury on video proves the most spirited performer, you know you’re in trouble) and the extinguishing of that remarkable cauldron — may have been the polite way to get house guests to leave, but I hope the joyful moments continue to echo in the subconscious for some time to come.

Read poet laureate Carol Duffy’s encomium for the games.

BitchBuzz: I Hate Top 10 Lists

My latest column for BitchBuzz, grumbling about top ten lists:

If there’s one thing I hate about the end of the year, it’s the proliferation of Top Ten (and Top 100 and so on) lists. Everywhere you turn, there’s another blowhard detailing what was really best about the last year or decade or even century. It really irks me.

To explain why, I have created my own Top Ten list in the hopes that the utter irony and chutzpah of this move will cause reality as we know it to implode or at the very least bore everyone so much that they swear off top ten lists forever.

As always, read the rest at BBHQ along with other fine pieces.

I’m just back from my travels, all of which went as well as might be hoped and with only minor irritations, which is fairly amazing for MLA. Dinner with Todd and Isabel at Eulogy was terrific, my breakfast po’boy at the Reading Terminal was delish, the panel went well and was well attended, lunch with Sandi was great — we caught up on all kinds of news — and then back to NYC and a bevvie with Karen at Grand Central — first time we’ve met in person, glad to find her just as delightful as she is on-line — and then up to Poughkeepsie where Robert picked me up and gave me a belated Xmas dinner and birthday cake. Quite a satisfying trip all around — made sweeter by the fact that it was my MLA swan song! Whoo hoo — I shouldn’t have to make another trip to the world’s most stressful conference™ anytime soon.

Kipper is happy I’m back, which he showed by wolfing down his food and immediately up chucking it. Ah, home. Now he’s staring at the radiator as if there were something alive in it. Not at all disturbing, no.

In Case You’re Wondering

This is what a tenure package looks like; this is actually Kim’s (who had loaned me hers as a model) because I only remembered that I was going to take a picture of it after I had turned it in. More or less like mine, though the tabbing is far neater. It contains the letter applying for tenure and promotion (the hardest part to produce), CV, all your year end reports, all your faculty data forms (another kind of end-of-year report), nine teaching observations, from other faculty members, and course evaluations from twelve different courses. The letter has to highlight what’s important in the hundreds of pages of data included in the binder, so the committee gets a picture of who you are as a teacher, scholar and colleague (assuming they don’t already know). I’m fortunate that at least a couple members of the committee know me personally and are acquainted with what I do. The problem of being a medievalist — what you do seems odd and often obscure to others.

Bootless (but Corseted)

I was all pleased to be without the boot any longer, despite the swelling today (pushed things too much yesterday, I guess — missing the whirlpool at physical therapy, sigh). But my trip to the orthopedist this morning resulted in another appliance, an ASO, which naturally I have already dubbed “the ankle corset” (nice lacing). Despite their claim that it “will fit in any type of shoe,” it could not fit in the slip-on Sketchers, so I had to go home and get the Chuck Taylors.

Here’s what it looks like all wrapped and ready to roll (minus the Chucks).

What it Is (Now)

More colorful now — not as swollen, at least in the morning. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the purples and blues, but I think you can get a sense of the omnipresent brownish hue of the whole foot up to the calf. The ankle tends to be more painful in the morning but more swollen in the afternoon; natural enough, I suppose after all that hopping around. I tried to be good yesterday, keeping it elevated as much as I could. Fortunately I had the Punk Rock Jukebox to entertain me while I was immobile. That’s really the worst part — being stuck in one place. I miss my morning walk, sauntering down to campus, or just crossing the room because I need something. Sigh.

I realize I’ve fallen behind on reviews, too. The second most irritating thing is how much time the injury has taken up. Two things to be sure to mention: Lynda Barry’s What it Is. I know I’ve talked about it before, but I should specify that this is the book to kick start your creativity. If you’ve read Barry’s One Hundred Demons or her decades-worth of comics, you’ll know just how magical her work is, but her latest is a how-to volume that weaves a good bit of autobiography into the lessons. Barry starts with recalling the freedom we all have as children, where we draw, sing and write without fear. From her own experiences, she retraces how that fear sets in (am I doing this right? is this really any good?) and how to break ourselves of those habits. If you’ve always wished you could be creative, this book will help you rediscover that you ARE. Warning! People who read this book and do the exercises tend to become excited and joyful.

I was absolutely bowled over by Aline Kominsky Crumb’s Need More Love. Long in the shadow of her more famous husband, Kominsky Crumb explodes across the pages of this gorgeous book in reprints of her autobiographical comics, narrative snippets, letters from friends, photos of herself (showing how beautiful she is) and her gorgeous medieval home in France. Like Barry, Kominsky Crumb’s work has often been labeled “ugly” and dismissed as inept, but it’s amazingly effective and brilliantly conveys the changing emotional states of her often dramatic life. As crazy as the events are, you often get the feeling that she plays down the drama somewhat — although the sequence of her throwing herself at poor George Harrison at the height of Beatlemania has been caught on tape. Her story is both completely singular and yet woven into the American 60s and 70s counter-culture, from Greenwich Village to San Francisco. She’s always frank about her feelings, mistakes and choices. Unconventional and neurotic, Kominsky Crumb has nonetheless carved out a life that allows her to create her art (I *love* her doll sculptures!), keep amazingly fit and maintain the relationships she needs to be happy. To get a taste of her unique voice, check out this interview at Phawker.

Given the Boot

Yes, I have been booted now, which is a definite improvement over the crutches and Ace bandage. I taught today — up and down to the third floor a couple of times — so my foot was quite swollen by the time I got to the orthopedist. Crutches are painful! It was easier to limp up the stairs. But he looked at the x-rays and said very bad sprain, torn ligaments (insert Marge Simpson noise, which is what the doctor did as he pointed at all my bruises), calcium deposits from previous injuries to the ankle and, yes, it’s true! A heel spur and plantar fasciitis, but only coincidentally.

So, I have the boot for walking around, I’m back to elevating and icing (or will be in a minute or so), and will be starting physical therapy to begin the healing process so I won’t be lame for ever. It’s a relief to know what is wrong instead of guessing, but it’s still painful (and inconvenient). On the plus side, my students and colleagues were very helpful to me today and I have already Sanrio-fied the boot (well, duh!), Hello Kitty on the left and Badtz-Maru on the right.