Thursday, 16 December 2010

Mind your manners

I'm done!  As of about ten minutes ago, all of my work for the semester is finished!  That includes my seminar paper, one big exam, and a collection of my translations for the ridiculous workshop I have written about here before.  Done, done, done!  And, as usual, the moment of elation at finally being free to take a break has been quickly replaced by a discomfiting sense of aimlessness:  what in the world will I do now?  Well, for starters, I'll update this blog.

I've been thinking lately about manners.  What are they?  Are they a codified set of rules for conduct that remain the same, from the time your mother teaches them to you all the way through adulthood?  Or is it proper that they should degrade as we get older, and that the strict manners that we learn when we are young are simply intended to form our character at an impressionable age -- therefore, we can discard these manners when we become fully-formed adults?  I ask these questions rhetorically; I am staunchly in the conservative camp when it comes to manners, and it bothers me that I feel increasingly in the minority as I notice more and more frequently all sorts of rudeness and vulgarity in my daily life, not to speak of the evanescence of some basic niceties of etiquette.

I spend most of my day at the university, where I've noticed a general flaunting of what I consider to be basic standards of politeness and proper conduct in that environment.  Am I just old-fashioned, or is it in fact incredibly rude and classless to use foul language in front of, or towards, your professor (e.g., responding to a professor's correction of your Latin translation with the d-word)?  Or to leave class in the middle of a lecture to go to the bathroom, walking directly in front of the professor?  Or to eat during class -- whether a muffin, a sandwich, or -- are you kidding me? -- soup?  I observe all of the above on a regular basis.

I find it amusing to imagine what would have happened if I'd try to get away with any one of these offenses, even in its mildest form, as a third-grader, say.  I'd have been dealing with quite the talking-to from my teacher or a heart-to-heart with the principal.  For good reason then, and for good reason now.  Although I realize that I sound like someone's grandmother to say so, the basic principle underlying all of the rules of conduct we obeyed at school was simply respect for our teachers and, secondarily, our fellow students.  I don't think respect is any less essential when you're twenty-five than when you're five.

I'll leave this topic to rest here, because I don't like feeling my crotchety old lady self coming out, even though I know that in this case, she's right.  In any case, the holidays are a good time to make a special effort to be gracious, both in the special rituals of the season and in day-to-day interactions.  Let's all make our mamas proud.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

In the zone

Right now I'm enjoying the last few minutes of a peaceful, relaxing Saturday morning before I get down to business.  I'm sitting in bed with the covers pulled up to my chest, still wearing my flannel Christmas tree-print PJ pants, with a couple of issues of the Economist sitting to my left and a just-emptied coffee cup on my right.  I have a belly full of homemade coffee cake, and I'm looking out my window through the bare tree limbs at the water of Narragansett Bay, shining in the sun.  It's a wonderful Saturday morning indeed.

While I have no plans to divest of the flannel pants or take a shower anytime soon, I do have a firm resolution to be back to work on my seminar paper exactly thirteen minutes from now.  This is the project that has occupied my week, and as during every finals period, it has nearly wholly obsessed my attention.  Which is a bit of a shame, as it has put me a bit behind in observance of the Christmas season.  This week, my major accomplishments in that area have been taking down my Halloween decorations (I did hate to see the string of skull lights go) and attending Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  In this intense period of researching, writing, and generally doing battle with the anxieties imposed by my academic responsibilities, I need to be more careful not to get so far into the "zone" that I lose track of things that are more important (by which I don't mean getting the Christmas decorations up, to clarify).

I'd like to write more, but I am determined to stick to my schedule today, which means that my rear end must be in my office chair exactly three minutes from now.  Toes to the floor!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Thanksgiving redux

Tonight I happily took part in yet another Thanksgiving feast, this one with twenty or so colleagues who also happen to be excellent cooks.  I lustily scarfed down all of the foods the whole family missed out on last week, when, thanks to the stomach flu, chicken soup as about exciting as the menu got.  Between dinner and dessert, we all gathered in a circle in the living room, and each of us in turn shared with the group what he or she was thankful for.  My turn came up quickly, and even though we've technically just finished the Thanksgiving holiday proper and I should still have my list on the tip of my tongue, I got caught off-guard.  By the time we'd gone around the circle, I wished I could have another turn -- so I'm giving myself one now.  Here, then, are a few important things I left out.

1. I'm thankful that I get to spend nearly all day, every day, reading, thinking, and learning about subjects that interest me.  When I really stop to think about what a privilege this is -- people, I actually get paid to do this -- my mind boggles.  It's easy to lose sight of how lucky I am when I get caught up in what I might ungratefully think of as the "daily grind" of academic life, which does, after all, require that I spend a fair number of hours out of the week doing work and attending events that are a real, no-two-ways-about-it waste of time.  But, for the most part, my daily work is all for the benefit of my own intellectual development, in one way or another -- how many people can say that?

2.  I am thankful to be hopeful about the future.  Personally and professionally, I have plenty to look forward to in 2011 and beyond.  While I am frequently amazed by how providentially my last couple of years here have unfolded, sometimes I forget to compare my current state of mind to the one I held not too long ago.  For one thing, I thought it pretty improbable -- not unreasonably, I still maintain -- that I would ever meet someone I would want to spend the rest of my life with.  It is amazing how much difference a hopeful outlook can make on the quality of daily life.

3.  I am thankful to have a wealth of vivid memories of places I've been and people I've known to draw on whenever I like, and sometimes involuntarily.  I've been fortunate to have traveled many places and to have gotten to know a lesser number of places extremely well, and it is an extraordinary gift to be able to return to an old familiar street, to put myself back in the company of an old friend or an interesting acquaintance, or to without even willing it be hurled across the country or across the ocean in my mind at the sight or sniff of an evocative image or smell.  No matter where I go from here, I'll bring all of my experiences with me, and I'm thankful for that.

There are plenty of other things, too, big and little, abstract and concrete.  It would take quite a few Thanksgivings to recognize and meditate fittingly upon all of the things I'm grateful for and should be more grateful for.  Multiple Thanksgivings, hm -- not a bad idea.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Like coleslaw wearing a seatbelt

The title to this post is taken from a translation we discussed today in my writing workshop, which I have written about here before none too rosily.  The coleslaw wasn't intended to be wearing a seatbelt, of course, but this is the kind of thing that happens in the absence of punctuation and sensible line breaks.  I don't intend to criticize the translation as a whole, actually; I only bring it up because in my half-crazed state of mind, as I waited eagerly for our last class session to end, this particular image struck me as plausibly symbolic for the way our class has gone this semester.  The seatbelt is the safe harness of legitimacy surrounding the class -- the reputation of the university and the creative writing program, the rigorous-sounding title of the course, the vaunted credentials of the professor.  The coleslaw is is the gloppy, disorganized, unglamorous, and totally unappealing reality inside the classroom, whose messy, sub-par reality -- one would hope -- cannot be held in place long despite the seatbelt's best efforts.

I hope my course evaluation, which I filled out as thoroughly as time constraints allowed at the conclusion of our class, will be part of the oozing to light of the past-date coleslaw of the workshop system at my university, but I doubt that this will be the case.  I am not naive enough to think that a professor who has survived for decades presumably doing exactly what he has done in our class (teaching philosophy is closely enough tied to one's personal character that it rarely changes significantly over the years, I suspect)  is likely to be ousted or even reprimanded thanks to a single scathing evaluation .  And single it will be:  I was surprised that I was the only student in the class apparently to take the evaluation seriously.  The others rushed out of the room under a minute after receiving the form, except for the one student assigned to collect them all and take turn them in, so I then found myself in the position of having to make this student wait for me while I spent whole five minutes or so saying my piece about what a disappointment the class and its professor have been.  I could have spent an hour, but for all the good it would have done, maybe it was a better use of my time to wrap up in short order and go meet up with the lovely person I care so very much more about than any of that nonsense.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

How I spend my light

I got something of an early Thanksgiving present on Monday from a professor who handed out a copy of Milton's Sonnet 19 to the class in a packet of poetry to be read over the break:

When I consider how my light is spent,
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite. 
It is silly, on the one hand, to say that I instantly related to this poem:  as I found out after doing a bit of reading on it, Milton wrote this about his own blindness -- the literal loss of his light.  But it reads equally well as a meditation on the frustration that comes with feeling an inability to do everything one wants to do, feels capable of doing and called to do.  When I read the poem, I was especially full of this kind of frustration (which, if I'm being honest, is never far away), and its conclusion gave me some peace by re-orienting me by the proper way to cope with this feeling:  realizing that the best we can each strive for is to use our individual capacities in a manner pleasing to God -- which could just as well be through standing and waiting as through struggling and striving.

 I'm reminded of this on this Thanksgiving day, with the family laid low by sickness and forced to abandon our plans and instead stand -- or sit, or lie -- and wait.  Although this hasn't been the holiday we all had in mind -- chicken-noodle soup instead of turkey, cranberry juice instead of cranberry sauce -- I've found that it's been easier than usual today to stop and count my blessings.  I have a lot to be thankful for, and as for today, I'm still at home enjoying time with the family, and things could be a lot worse.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I'll pass

By now you have probably heard about the couple in Minnesota who have set up a website where people can vote on whether they should abort their child, now at 17 weeks gestation.  The vote will close 16 days from now, two days before the last legal day for them to procure an abortion.  It goes without saying that this is unbelievably sick, whether or not this couple intends actually to hand over their decision to strangers and whatever their ultimate decision.

What is less clear-cut is what the appropriate response to this site should be for a person of conscience.  I have seen several pleas online, from people I respect, to visit the website and vote "no".  Still, somehow, I cannot bring myself to click that button and thereby participate in this disgusting scheme.  I understand the importance of being a strong pro-life witness, and I agree wholeheartedly with a number of messages to this couple posted on the website (which I have visited) by strangers concerned for the life of their child.  In any case, leaving well thought-out comments attempting to awaken these people to the value of life seems to me a far preferable response to participating in the vote.  Still, a large part of me is so revolted by this couple's whole project and the hype it has attracted that I regret even contributing to the flood of traffic to their website, let alone legitimizing it by attempting to engage with its depraved creators.

To attempt to engage with them, to show outrage and beg them to let their baby live, is exactly what they want -- they could hardly have expected any other response in setting up such a forum.  These people are only going to hear what they want to hear, exercising control over the fascinated and horrified public while reserving the right to disregard the ultimate outcome of their poll.  I feel manipulated enough, having been lured to their website by sheer amazement at the evil it represents, without stooping to participating further.  Maybe in this case the best response is one directed away from these particular two people and toward society at large.  We need to take a hard look at what it is about our culture that can produce such a total disregard for the value of life.  I will pray for this couple's baby -- abominably dubbed "Wiggles" -- but also for all unborn babies and their parents, and for a change of heart in our entire culture.  Maybe the shock that this website has generated will turn out to be an impetus in the right direction.

Enough of the heavy stuff.  I have another divisive issue to discuss:  the relative merits of cakes and pies.  This weekend, I made my first pie all by myself, start to finish, crust and all.  It was utterly unrewarding.  I spent most of the morning in the stop-and-start process of making the crust -- making the dough, chilling it, rolling it, prebaking it -- and then, there was still the filling to go.  I had a terrible time getting the pumpkin custard to set up, and the crust turned out sadly overdone.

Baking cakes, by contrast, is nearly always a pleasure.  I often hang up my work for the night at 10:30 or 11 p.m. and head to the kitchen to make a cake, which will be baked and snugly sealed into my cake carrier before midnight.  The process of making a cake is all active time -- except for the baking time, during which I can get some reading done undisturbed.  If the cake is a success, wonderful!  It's been time well-spent, and I have a tasty reward.  If not, no great loss -- I've still had some steady, therapeutic baking time at the end of my day -- sans coating my kitchen table and likely the floor with butter and flour -- and it's really no great loss.  Besides, there's so much variety in cakes:  fancy cakes, coffee cakes, layer cakes, loaf cakes, cakes with fruit, chocolate, nuts, lots of butter, not so much butter, etc., etc.  I feel like an artist when I make a cake.  I felt like a maniac making a pie.

Tonight I soothed my pie-frazzled nerves by baking a cake I've had my eye on since last fall, a bittersweet chocolate and pear cake I saw on Smitten Kitchen.  It's one of the best I've made, and I don't think that's just the pie frustration talking.  From here on out, I'll leave pies to Mrs. Smith or whoever else cares to take the trouble over them -- I'm sticking with cakes.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Augustine, inside out

I made a start today on reading through the early letters of St. Augustine.  This semester, I've been reading the four dialogues Augustine wrote while in retreat at Cassiciacum, near Lake Como in Italy, in 386-87, during the time between his conversion to Christianity and his baptism.  The dialogues themselves are revealing of the inward turn Augustine took in his own search for Truth and which he advocated for his students, and the letters provide yet another intimate level of evidence showing this trend in his thought.

What struck me most today about these letters, though, is that, as personal as Augustine's investigation of his own mind and soul was, it also enabled him to achieve a remarkable depth in his interpersonal relationships as well.  As he shows in his famous prayer at the opening of the second book of the Soliloquies -- "Noverim me, noverim te (May I know myself, may I know you)" -- Augustine realized that self-knowledge could only be achieved through knowledge of God.  And what could be more universally meaningful, what could bind friends together more powerfully, than an understanding of all people as creatures made by God, in his image?  Keeping this in mind, it seems only natural that Augustine and his friends wrote to one another about their intense longing to be physically present together and to compare the findings of their soul-searching and to test their tentative conclusions against each other.  All people being equal and united under God, it only makes sense that friends should assist one other in their ascent towards Truth.

As I admired the intimacy of Augustine's correspondence and the import of the issues at stake therein, I inevitably recognized the general shallowness of my own correspondence.  For this, to whatever degree it exists, I take full personal responsibility -- I'm not tempted toward a tritely gloomy reflection on the detriment of modern media on our social relationships.  What an endlessly facile scapegoat technology can be.  But I'll avoid getting heavy on this point.

So, instead, the day's culinary highlights.  I continue to explore the new Essential New York Times Cookbook, and it hasn't led me astray so far.  Tonight, I had planned to try out Mark Bittman's Pork and Sweet Potatoes in Coconut Milk, but I had to sub in chicken at the last minute when I discovered -- the nose doesn't lie -- that my pork had gone off.  The dish turned out well anyway, with the coconut milk reducing into a thickish creamy sauce that I finished with lime juice.  I served it with Basmati Rice with Coconut Milk and Ginger, from the same book, which turned out to be a nice match as well as a good way to use up the rest of my can of coconut milk.  Tonight, after reaching my brain's limit in gathering thoughts for a new paper, I whipped up, finally, a batch of Dorie Greenspan's Great Grains muffins, which I've wanted to try for a long time.  I've flash frozen them to bake up tomorrow morning -- there's no better incentive to get out of bed than fresh muffins.  We'll see how they turn out.