Friday, December 31, 2010

Common rites

As I write this, the midnight hour sweeps round the world, ushering in a new year. It's a half hour 'til midnight here, and I'm the only one in the house who remains awake.

I'm remembering tonight the New Year's eves of my childhood. We'd spend the evening at my grandparents' house, a classic bright yellow, brick-porched California bungalow just a few doors down from our own home. Perhaps folks would drink a bit too much, but usually my sister and I didn't notice--we were drifting to sleep as my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles laughed at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

At midnight, we'd run out onto the porch, banging pots and pans with wooden spoons. Some of the older neighbors joined us in this rite. At some point during these years, my grandfather declared it was an old Scottish tradition to run around a tree three times at midnight for good luck. We're not a superstitious people, but we gave in to Pops's tradition, circling the block's palm trees.

Fang and I don't have any New Year's rites, though I suppose we will concoct some as Lucas grows more cognizant of the significance of a new year, and how in one moment we can be in (for the nation) a truly awful year like 2010 and in the next moment be completely free of it, at least temporally.

2010 has been a dynamic year for my little family. So that I might pursue a tenure-track job, we uprooted the family and moved to Boise. It's a move I don't regret, as I really do love my job and adore my new colleagues, but at least once I day I think of California and feel very much as if I'm in exile from where I ought to be. After all, California is more than just a place I was passing through--my family has deep, deep roots there. I suspect one day I'll return, though not any time soon, as I have lots of exploration and growth waiting for me here.

One of the things I've learned in my first semester here is that faculty here really do have a great deal of autonomy. I'm enjoying that tremendously, and I plan to write more here about how my teaching might change as a result of that independence. The expectations for my position really do seem to be wide open, and folks have seemed interested in whatever I propose. 2011 may, then, be a very interesting year intellectually.

On the home front, I have more work to do. We need more grounding in this place, as individuals and as a family. I need to help Fang find what he needs here—and that means both meeting physical needs and finding him greater intellectual and emotional fulfillment. He is, after all, a newspaperman in an era of newspaper extinction. What do you do when you're almost fifty years old and your entire industry disappears--especially if you don't have a college degree? Fang says he suddenly feels sympathy for hoop skirt makers, but I suspect under his humor there's a good deal of pain and perhaps even some fear about how he fits into our new life here.

So we need to spend more time together, to establish rituals and common rites, and to aid one another's intellectual, personal, and professional development in this next stage of our lives. I need to remind Fang that the advice offered to Seamus Heaney's narrator by the shade of James Joyce applies to both of us, even though our recent move was driven by my career, not Fang's:
‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

Here's hoping 2011 brings both roots and wings.

I'm heading outside now to thrice circle a tree. I'll take an extra lap for you and yours. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Friend speaks my mind

Chuck Fager, director of Quaker House, on the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell:
This change has two important effects, I think:

First, it will enable thousands of present and future soldiers to pursue their careers on their merits, which is only as it should be.

Second, beyond these individual cases, repealing DADT strikes an important blow to the identification of war with masculinity, with heterosexuality, with America, and all three with God.

This identification is idolatry, pure and simple. But it is all too widespread in American Christianity, and it is way past time for it to be broken up.


Someone who is close to me recently returned from six or seven months of service as a Marine in Afghanistan. He drives trucks for the military.

Earlier this year, family members were informed he had been involved in an "incident," but they weren't given details. Today I learned a bit more about the nature of this event.

I wasn't surprised to learn that a truck he was driving hit an IED. He regained consciousness in a helicopter.

Physically, he's allegedly recovered. But now that he's stateside, he has terrible PTSD. He can't sleep or drive, and even riding in a car is apparently too much for him. He cries a lot.

What's his family's response to this? They're criticizing him for not being sufficiently masculine. They can't make the connections among the Bush-era anti-terror wars they supported, the crappy economy made worse by Bush administration policies, this guy's joining the Marines because he felt enlistment was his one ticket out of Hellmouth, Arizona, and the total shattering of his life because of his service in Afghanistan.

The family's proposed solution is that he accept Jesus and go back to Afghanistan like a real man.

Fuck you, conservative America.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Band names inspired by grading my students' papers

  • Sketchy Secondary Sources
  • The Successionists* (a Civil War-era band)
  • Captain Obvious and the Weak Theses
Play along in the comments!

* Yes, multiple students managed to write research papers about the South's succession from the Union.

RBOC, Transitions (and Buried Lede) Edition

More quasi-random bullets, because that's all I have in me. (Now with subheads!)


  • I'm finishing up my grading for the semester. I'm down to the single digits on my lower-division students' research papers, and then I have their final exams as well. I hope to finish tomorrow, and then submit grades on Friday, assuming I can figure out the LMS gradebook.
  • That means--yay!--I've finished my first semester on the tenure track. Two course preps down for the year, and two to go--though the next two should be significantly less time-consuming than this semester's.
  • One of the students in my public history class said she thinks she's found her calling as a public historian, instead of the schoolteacher path she had always imagined for herself. She's had a really rough time of it lately for reasons that have nothing to do with her academic ability, and it's nice to see her really come into her own as a critical and creative thinker who's willing to try new things. She also discovered her classmates valued her for her informally learned knowledge of local history; they dubbed her "Boisepedia." She talked to the department's internship coordinator today, and I'll be writing her a letter of rec for what sounds like a good position for her.
  • One of my lower-division U.S. survey students wrote me a really nice note that went a long way toward soothing my I'm-not-a-papered-historian impostor syndrome. She explained she had hated history since fourth grade because that was when she first received a B in any subject, and that my course marked the first time she had been invited to engage meaningfully with history rather than memorize dates and consider only privileged people's histories. She said she now "loves history as a subject" and wants to study feminist theory. Also, there's this: "Most importantly, you helped my writing. I never thought that a history teacher could better strengthen the papers I write. I learned more from you than my [redacted] class. You showed me to come to my own conclusions about the sources I had, not let the sources guide my paper. I will apply this in any future writing I have to do. . . So thank you, Leslie, for making history important to me once more." Her note makes me sad about the state of history in K-12, but for now I'll just enjoy the warm fuzzies.
  • I'll be teaching a section of the capstone writing course next semester. Apparently the seminar raises a tangle of issues about students' patchwork preparedness for historical research and writing. This course has, I'm told, been designated one whose products are to be used for assessing the efficacy of the history department in teaching its majors to think critically and write well. In theory, I suppose I should feel some pressure about that. Still, I'm approaching the course more like Icarus than Sisyphus; we'll see how long it takes for me to plummet to the ground, my wings destroyed by my own hubris.
  • I'm teaching a graduate course next semester called "Introduction to Applied History." I applied for a grant to partially subsidize mobile devices for students in the class, so up to 15 of the students (so far there aren't 15 registered for the course) will each be able to buy an iPod Touch at a 50% discount. We'll be exploring the possibilities engendered by existing apps, sort of a "small pieces loosely joined" approach to local digital public history.
  • We'll also be contributing to a very, very large project I began to organize this week. It's a wiki for Boise. It will be modeled on the absolutely fabulous Davis Wiki, but we'll be doing some structured experiments on public history themes as well. I'll also be watching to see what happens when we give members of the public a relatively easy-to-use platform and invite them to create pages on topics of interest to them, as well as edit others' pages. I'm still working on some domain-mapping issues and getting the site ready for launch, but I'll share the link with you when it's ready for a soft launch. There's also some grant writing I need to do related to this project, so it will keep me very busy next semester.
  • I'm really happy here. Like crazy happy. I like the students and adore my colleagues.

Research and Writing

  • Goal #1 for the new semester: Revise an article that was deemed very interesting, but "not a good fit" for one journal, and submit it to one (which I've already identified) that is both a better fit for the article and, really, for my work more generally.
  • Goal #2: Gather and process materials for another article. This will likely involve travel to archives in Northern and/or Southern California.
  • Goal #3: Use materials from Goal #2 to craft a chapter to replace one in my dissertation. I'm aiming to have a draft of a book based on my dissertation by the end of summer 2012.


  • I attended Friends meeting again, and I'll likely be going again this Sunday, er, First Day.
  • I've been adding blogs by Quakers from across much of the Friends spectrum--from liberal, unprogrammed Friends to orthodox plain folk--to my RSS reader. I've also been lurking on the forums at QuakerQuaker.
  • As I wrote in my initial blog post about recent developments in my faith journey, what I suspected would happen did indeed come to pass: some folks are seeing my attendance at Quaker meetings as a sign I'm going to be "born again"--that Friends meetings are but a first step toward my permanent embrace of their own denomination. This is incredibly frustrating for me--like I-want-to-scream frustrating because of the arrogance and presumption.
  • In case any such people are reading this blog, allow me to say this: I'm committed to the Friends for now. If that doesn't work out, I'll likely take some path through Unitarian Universalism, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodists, with a seasoning of Daoism. Any church that uses the phrase "Bible-believing" as a primary way of differentiating its members is not even on the list. I don't mean any offense to friends or blog readers who attend such churches; it's just not my path, and I don't want anyone to have any delusions that it ever will be.
  • Another sign that the Friends General Conference may be a good home for me: the yearly meeting takes place at my alma mater. Out of all the tiny towns in the U.S., they pick one that matters tremendously deeply to me. I haven't checked to see how the meeting jibes with my summer teaching schedule, but the seed has been planted. . .


  • I've been watching The Wire. Fang has all five seasons on DVD, and I'm one episode from finishing season 4. It took me half a season to appreciate the series, but now I give it my highest recommendation. The writing and character development are impressive.
  • Because of how busy I've been, this year's Christmas shopping is being (literally) brought to us by Amazon Prime. How I adore that program!
  • I need to get back with the Weight Watchers program. After initially losing 15 pounds, I've put a few pounds back on because I became lax about counting points. I eased myself back into it today by having meals that I know are reasonable, but I didn't count the points. Tomorrow I'll begin accounting for points again, which will initially be a headache under the new points system, but I'll adapt.
  • Lucas went in for his annual well-child check-up, where he was treated to five separate vaccinations. I had, finally, the new Tdap vaccine for adults. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know I had some whooping cough fun earlier this year; I was also diagnosed with pertussis a few years back. The injection site on my arm is still sore, so I can only imagine what Lucas's legs must feel like, as he was due for another round of DTaP, chickenpox, and MMR vaccines; a polio booster; and--according to his records, though I vaguely remember him already having one--his first Hep A shot. The clinic staff were terrific, though; the entire sequence of vaccines--administered by two nurses synchronizing the injections--took less than 45 seconds. Still, it's not easy to hear him howling with every new stab of the needle.
  • I went to a birthday party with Lucas last night and connected with some more local parents. That's a very good thing.
What are you up to these days? Toss me some random bullets in the comments.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Public Service Announcement: For Folks on the Job Market

A good friend is hiring for a position in her organization. She instructed her assistant to run Google and Facebook searches on each applicant.

I present, then, an object lesson in why folks on the job market need to set their Facebook wall posts to be private. Here's the most recent update from one applicant:

And yes--as the applicant in question might say--THAT SHIT'S REAL.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Because it's time for a meme, dammit

How long could you survive chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor?

Created by Oatmeal

(Velociraptor quiz as seen at The Seacoast of Bohemia)

The Teenager Audio Test - Can you hear this sound?

Created by Oatmeal

Clearly I haven't been to enough concerts.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

More brilliance from Stephen Colbert

It gets really interesting around 2:50, and absolutely brilliant at 3:50.

For once, I'm grateful I speak cultural studies. Colbert's writers are awesome.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tip/Wag - Art Edition - Brent Glass
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Monday, December 06, 2010

Post-Structuralism Explained


ART THOUGHTZ: Post-Structuralism from Hennessy Youngman on Vimeo.

I probably should mention it's NSFW--unless you happen to work in the academy.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


Cross-posted from TerraFirma Creative

Here's the prompt for Day 4 of Reverb10:


How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?
(Author: Jeffrey Davis)

When I consider wonder, I think primarily of two things:

  • being in awe of, or delighted with, something in the world.

  • being intensely curious.

These are two of my favorite states of being.

I think these two poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins artfully capture my own sense of wonder. Go ahead--read them aloud to get their full effect.

God's Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Do you know what makes those poems different, other than their lovely imagery? Their sound, their diction. Hopkins tried not to use words derived from Latin, and the result are poems rich with Anglo-Saxon sounds and rhythms, sounds from a time and place that's foreign to me.

And so: wonder.


Words are how I cultivate a sense of wonder in my life. I notice things, and I try to put them into words: November, the last orange leaves still snagged on twigs, coated by a heavy dusting of snow. Mountains rising suddenly beyond the city, glowing that western-dry-grass gold in the last sun. Iowa, and its threat of sky. Tracks of unfamiliar mammals in the backyard snow.

Sometimes I fail. And that really underscores the wonder of a thing--when I can't adequately capture a moment in words.

Wonder for me comes when reality exceeds my expectations, at the seam of the urban and rural or natural worlds. Boise has been full of these moments: a badger in the yard. The first snowflakes I've seen in a decade. A river behind my office; a giraffe beyond that, peeking over the zoo's fence.

Negative capability

That's what John Keats called that state "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." For me, wonder engenders negative capability—it happens when I've transcended that left-brain moment of "how does that work?" and shifted into the right brain's "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" It's the moment beyond questioning, a moment of beholding. A moment of contentment.

Even though I'm reflective by nature, it can be hard for me to just sit silently with things. But sometimes what I'm building—be it a lesson plan, an article, a business, a happy childhood for my son, a personal theology—needs that moment of reflection, needs that space where I can observe in wonder at the thing-in-itself, the untouched thing before I've tried to fix or alter it. It's a space where I don't need to worry about reaching after fact and reason, where I'm fine with uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts.

And you?

Where do you find wonder?

Photo by William Warby, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pssst. . . Look over there.

I'll still be blogging here quite a bit, but at the moment I'm also trying to build up a blog on the relaunched website for Fang's consulting biz (in which I am a very occasional partner and collaborator).

It's a very non-businessy business site, if I do say so myself. Très Leslie. (I need to get Fang writing over there, too, but he needs some WordPress tutorials first.)

I'm doing the Reverb10 thing over there, in fact. Go check it out. . .