Feeling particularly unmotivated, lethargic, and generally brain-dead, I humbly submit this list of things I can't possibly do (right now):
How can I possibly salvage this post? How about by turning it into a question: is there anything you can't possibly do (right now)?
Dr. Dregs and I ask ourselves this all the time, usually when we're consumed with a sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming urge to buy, watch, or listen to something (which has often been heavily advertised).
Because as thirtysomething professionals with disposable income (not that we have too terribly much of that -- after all, we work for the University), we are apparently one of the prime demographic groups that retailers/advertisers/broadcasters, etc. want to attract. Sometimes what's going on is way too obviously a series of cynical marketing ploys to encourage us to spend more money on crap we don't need, to take part in some nebulous "lifestyle" that winds up having about as much actual relevance, resonance, and meaning as the dust bunnies under my desk.
So although it sounded like a promising concept, I was very suspicious of MPR's plans for 89.3, the former WCAL, which they purchased last November from St. Olaf College under some protest from WCAL's fans. MPR announced not long after the sale that their plans for 89.3 would turn it into an eclectic pop mix of independent music and classics. They were doing this, they said, in order to attract a younger group of listeners to public radio, throwing in the rather patronizing idea that 89.3 listeners would eventually "mature" and start listening to 91.1 (news) and 99.5 (classical).
That rubbed me the wrong way, in part because of the implication that 89.3's listeners needed to wait for their tastes to evolve, and in part because I already listen to a lot of MPR (both 91.1 and 99.5). But 89.3 sounded promising enough (and enough to my eclectic tastes) that I had to give it a chance. The new 89.3 ("The Current") began broadcasting at 9:00 this morning.
Well, it's ten hours into day one, and I have to admit that this is some fabulous radio. This is the radio station I've been waiting for my entire adult life. Listening to it actually makes me happy. Lots of indie rock, some local music, with the occasional genre-crossing classic thrown in (Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima...you get the idea). Lots of stuff I've never heard by bands I know a little, and lots of stuff I don't know at all, but which excites and interests me more than anything I've heard on commercial radio in ages. All of this, and practically ad-free -- the typical MPR "sponsorship" messages are models of unobtrusiveness, compared to the usual run of ads on commercial radio. See for yourself: here someone has helpfully compiled 89.3's playlist from 9-5 today. Great stuff.
I used to dutifully pay up my annual membership in MPR. I let it lapse a few years ago, as the price crept up, and it seemed less and less like MPR really needed my feeble contributions. But if my money will help keep 89.3 on the air, I'll sign up again. If they keep up what they've done today, it will be worth every penny. Are we being targeted? Who cares, when it sounds this good?
Idly browsing the headlines at CNN.com, this got my attention:
New Findings Change Thinking on Human Sacrifices
Disappointingly, this isn't about cutting-edge research showing that human sacrifice is a wholesome pastime for the whole family. Apparently, archaeologists have gathered much evidence to support the claims of the Spanish conquerors regarding the extreme brutality of human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs and Mayans. Interesting stuff, on which I can't really comment intelligently. But I'm grateful to CNN for coming up with such an effective headline. Because of it, I've learned something.
Reading this made me try to recover my vaguely-remembered frame of mind during my junior and senior years of high school. Would I have been swayed in my college choice by such marketing tactics as ski trips? Reality TV on campus? In the late 80s, recruitment happened via glossy viewbooks (of which I must have received hundreds, unsolicited), meetings with alumni, and personal phone calls. That's how I ended up at Oberlin, a place I chose without ever visiting the campus.
Other schools tried to recruit me as well, but not with anything fun or entertaining. Their efforts ran more toward scholarship dollars and promises of intellectual stimulation in honors programs. Some of the schools I considered (and you know of which esteemed institutions I speak) simply provided a viewbook and an application. With their reputations, they knew students would come to them. No need to try hard to recruit when you reject 90% of your applicants.
The linked article states the obvious: it's a buyer's market in higher ed, at least for the vast majority of institutions below the top tier. Clearly, colleges and universities that want to stay afloat need to do everything they can to recruit students. But there's an ethical line that should not be crossed when it comes to recruitment, especially when your targets are (mostly) impressionable teenagers. Higher education already has an image problem. Whatever the immediate benefits for an individual institution, adopting the strategies of sleazy marketers who specialize in selling to teenagers just can't be a good long-term strategy for higher ed as a whole. Is it already too late to turn back?
Thus did Henry James famously describe the peculiar beast of the nineteenth-century novel. James meant it as a criticism, but I have always had a special affinity for Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, and other purveyors of such epics. A lovely essay in today's New York Times touches obliquely on this idea. The author describes listening to an audiobook of that greatest of English novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch, over the course of a coast-to-coast roadtrip, and how the novel transforms and improves from being experienced in such a way.
The key thesis of the piece is how hearing a novel read aloud makes vivid its temporal character. This must be especially true of novels like Middlemarch, whose stories unfold over a period of years. Although I have always been a fast reader rather than a careful one, such novels almost demand to be savored. They are never a quick read, even for a fast reader. Their prose is so densely packed, with every word in every description seemingly so painstakingly chosen, that they practically force one to slow down and sense the passage of time that happens between their covers.
Film adaptations of such novels never quite succeed, for a couple of reasons. First, it's nearly impossible to effectively convey the passage of so much time over the two or at most three hours allotted to a feature film. Even successful screen translations of epic novels usually succeed despite their inability to impress upon the viewer the experience of time passing.1 Second, many large novels are large because they dwell so thoroughly (some might say excessively) on the innermost thoughts and feelings of their protagonists. This, too, is impossible to adequately convey on film; no matter how talented the actor, short of extensive reliance on narrative voice-over, the medium of film really offers no way to put across the richness of the character's inner life as laid out by the novelist. (This, incidentally, must be the reason why so many of Henry James's novels -- wonderful novels though they are -- wind up as such inert and uninvolving films. James's novels mostly do not qualify as "loose, baggy monsters" -- but to my knowledge, no author in the history of fiction has been such a master of interiority as James. Without the access to his characters' every thought and feeling granted by the written word, there is not much to make drama.)
But hearing a grand, epic novel read aloud (particularly in an unabridged version) over a period of many hours offers the best of all worlds, in a way: the listener, in a more passive role than if she were reading to herself, has the leisure to more fully imagine the events of the plot. If the reading is skillfully done, extra layers of interpretation can aid the imaginative process. (These are the same characteristics that must have made radio drama so compelling in the pre-television era.) And of course, the story is experienced over a relatively long period of time, just as if the listener were reading it herself.
Music is perhaps the art that is most obviously and fully bounded in time, something that has always both drawn me to it and frustrated me. The listener of a performance of a lengthy piece of music must have the patience to let the music unfold as it will, at its own pace. Naturally, performances and interpretations differ -- tempos change, so a piece of music does not always last the same amount of time. But the overall variance among performances is slight. As every musician well knows, there is a certain point on either end of the tempo spectrum where the music fails to make sense any longer; a piece simply doesn't work if it is performed much too fast or much too slow. This is something most people understand innately. Music presents us with the fact of its existence in time and offers us a take-it-or-leave it proposition: we can always turn the music off, or leave a performance in progress, but we can't have the full experience of the work without acquiescing to the music's temporal demands. It simply takes as long as it takes, and the longer the piece, the greater the sacrifice of time the listener must make in order to experience it.
Epic novels share some of that quality with music, even though temporal boundedness is not their fundamental condition, as it is with music. Still, to my mind, an Eliot novel has much in common with, say, a Mahler symphony. Both present their own worlds, fully formed, completely alien to the modern reader/listener, yet compelling enough to be completely absorbing, if you are willing to accept the terms the work imposes on you. I have always loved both big novels (those loose baggy monsters) and "big music" (whether Schubert, Mahler, or Shostakovich). Could the similar ways in which they impose themselves as temporal experiences be part of the reason why?
Perhaps it's time I revisited Middlemarch.
1I should say that I think that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films are an exception to this rule, particularly in their extended editions, where they manage to achieve to some degree the sense of time passing that is so palpable in Tolkien's novel. This hit me with special force last Sunday, when a group of us watched all three extended films back-to-back in a 13-hour marathon. Take that with a grain of salt, though: I've lived my life much too close to those books to be at all objective about the film versions, which made me cry for joy at how much they got right (even though I found plenty to criticize).
It's getting late. Very late. Okay, so not really that late for someone who normally goes to bed sometime after midnight, but late enough in light of how much work I have yet to do tonight. By some fateful morning hour (preferably no later than 9:00), I must submit a draft of the training manual that I've only been trying to write for the last month to the editors and prettifiers. (Is that a word? I guess it is now.) If they can rush through it, that will only just leave time to have it printed in time to hand out in next Monday afternoon's class, the first one on this topic.
It's as if I'm an undergrad again, staying up all night (or even two nights in a row) to finish a paper I put off for days, weeks, months, because there was always something more pressing or more entertaining to do. Why do I find myself in this horrific position? I swear it's not my fault this time.
Well, it's a little bit my fault, but circumstances really have conspired against me. First, I'm documenting and preparing to train functions that are only tangentially related to my job. I don't have a thorough understanding of many of the tasks I'm charged with teaching in the sessions I have to do next week, which means that writing painfully detailed step-by-step procedures and explanations is a real uphill struggle. Second, the limited building hours of my place of employment over the semester break put a serious cramp in my work style. I have sometimes been able to borrow a laptop, but not all the time.
Third, the new system I'm trying to document is not really 100% functional yet. Those who are charged with making it work right in time for our switchover at the end of the month have been giving their all to make it happen. But it's pretty hard to explain features and functions when all you can do is guess how they'll work once they're actually configured and behaving properly.
The crushing blow for my ability to complete this particular project in a timely fashion, though, has been the completely unforseen (by me, anyway) interruptions to my network connection at work by the Gopher Giganet upgrade project. Last Friday, my area was "upgraded." As of Friday afternoon, the technician had departed for the weekend along with all of his cohorts, and I and many of my co-workers in the library trenches were left with completely non-functional network connections. No email, no Internet, no library system. No way to work on my project. And no hope of repair until Tuesday morning, because of the holiday weekend.
So I did what I could over the weekend at home, but without system access, progress was difficult. Yesterday morning, back at work, panic was setting in, but all seemed to be well with the network, and I buckled down and wrote.
By yesterday afternoon, it was clear that whatever network problems had developed as a result of the "upgrade" had not been completely resolved. My connection was erratic, which slowed me down a lot. At the end of the day, I checked out a laptop and took it home (where access to the Net continues unimpeded). Worked late into the night last night, and planned to finish my training materials at work today. Arrived at work this morning only to discover that my erratic network connection was now a non-functional network connection. Waited around all morning and part of the afternoon for the problem to be fixed (all the while accomplishing nothing), and finally gave up and took the laptop home again around 3:00 this afternoon.
I have been working intermittently since then, but I'm so far behind now that it's going to be a long night. So I'm stuck, staying up until this is finished. I'm so not paid well enough for this!
Dorian Recordings of Troy, N.Y., an independent classical label that contributed mightily in the areas of early music (especially by American performers) and American/Latin American art music, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. There is no information yet on what will be the fate of Dorian's catalog. With any luck, it will fall into the hands of a company that will continue to make some of Dorian's unique recordings available -- but of course, there are no guarantees.
With the major labels having more or less abandoned classical recording, it's been independents like Dorian that have met what demand there is for new art music recordings. It's a shame they didn't make it. I hope that other quality independent labels don't meet the same end.
Arrgh. Stupid comment spam. I just spent 20 minutes deleting an assortment. Yes, it's a nuisance, it's annoying, and it clutters up my blog. For all of those reasons, I hate it. But I have to wonder: is comment spam ever successful in selling anything? I just don't get it. For the record:
So I say, knowing full well what a futile gesture it is, leave me alone, comment spammers!
Music programs in the public schools are under constant threat of elimination. This despite the numerous studies showing that children who study music have enhanced cognitive abilities and do better in school.
But even though the picture is bleak in many individual school districts, the Wisconsin School Music Association is forging ahead, having just broken ground in Waunakee (north of Madison) for the new Wisconsin Center for Music Education. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, The WCME "will be a state-of-the-art facility where music teachers and students from public and private schools and others can use the latest in technology to compose and record music, study using music education libraries donated by conductors and teachers, and borrow from the more than 5,000 titles of festival music for competitions."
The Center will offer Wisconsin students and teachers access to state-of-the-art music and recording technology, as well as an extensive resource library -- things that many districts would simply never be able to afford on their own. The new Center will also be equipped to deliver distance education and videoconferencing statewide.
The Center is scheduled to open in late July.
Okay, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for another Occasional Question:
What can (or should) I do with the following? I'd really prefer not to simply throw these things away, so I'm holding onto them. But lately, I'm starting to feel like a pack rat -- plus I'm running out of space. Your brilliant ideas, please?
Come on, you crafty people out there. I know you must have some ideas!
For reasons I don't quite understand (and am a little frightened to probe), I have long been both fascinated and amused by etiquette, its practice -- and especially the lack thereof. I have passed many a happy hour browsing the stories of astonishingly bad behavior and taste over at Etiquette Hell. I also occasionally check out the etiquette column "Ask Elise" at Indiebride, a site I discovered shortly after my own wedding which offers a welcome departure from the elaborate sticky-sweet and slightly creepy advice on other wedding websites.
Dropped by "Ask Elise" today for the first time in a couple of months, and along with Indiebride's typical episodes of overeducated brides thinking much too hard about a minor point of etiquette was this letter, from a woman who obviously comes from a very different world than any I know well.
The woman's complaint (she signs herself "Money Trouble") begins with what appear to be standard-issue complaints about her future in-laws: they give chintzy gifts, they don't do things like her parents do, and so on. But the letter rapidly turns into something else, in which the writer castigates her in-laws-to-be for not giving presents in kind: a gift of tickets to Hawaii (from Money Trouble and her fiance) is met with a cheap and tacky mug. You get the idea. Things really get rolling in the third paragraph, where MT reveals that in return for paying for the wedding, her family expects to receive lavish gifts from the groom's parents -- as well as a significant chunk of change (MT estimates around $30K) so the newlyweds can buy a home. This despite the fact that MT's future in-laws are obviously unlikely to spend anywhere near that amount of money, even though MT believes they could afford it (MT's fiance, incidentally, thinks the most they could expect from his parents is about $5,000. Obviously, that will never do). MT doesn't quite ask the advice columnist outright how to convince her fiance's parents to cought up the big bucks, but she comes pretty close.
Elise's response is a model of thoughtfulness and tact. She charitably ascribes MT's (to me) extravagant expectations to cultural differences. Still, she can't help but lecture a little bit: "There is simply no way to politely tell your future in-laws that they must make a thirty thousand dollar investment in your home, or even a five thousand dollar one. At bottom, you would do well to relax your expectations."
I'll say. If anyone had given us a wedding gift worth more than a couple hundred bucks, we would have been flabbergasted by their generosity. Our families are not wealthy, but I just can't quite get my head around the expectation that you'll be receiving $30,000+ wedding gifts. I don't doubt that many wealthy people do give as much, particularly to their children. But to expect it! There's one headspace I've never visited.
...thus spake the witty and decidedly unfoolish Thomas Fuller. But in this of all seasons, a Minnesotan (even an adopted one) must indulge her weather obsession:
It's January, so this was inevitable. In order to prepare myself to maintain a positive outlook during the impending episode of inhumanly low temperatures, I'm going to reflect for a few moments on the things I look forward to when the weather outside is frightful:
I could make a similar list (longer, perhaps?) of the various trials and indignities brought on by the bitter cold. But today I'm an optimist, determined to enjoy one of the extremes of this awesomely variable climate.
That is, as long as it only lasts a few days...
This portrait didn't hold much interest when its subject was known only as a random dead white 18th-century guy. But things have changed. The Berlin art gallery that has owned the painting since 1934 has just announced that experts have identified the subject as Mozart.
It gets even better, though. Not only is this a portrait of Mozart, it's very likely the last portrait of Mozart to be painted before his death. The painting supposedly dates from Mozart's last visit to Munich in October 1790. And as anyone who recalls the English version of Falco's cheesy 1986 megahit should know, Mozart died in December 1791 at the tender age of 35.
Am I imagining things, or does he look slightly unbalanced in the portrait? He also has a haggard look around the eyes, which makes him apppear much older than 34. Mozart's financial situation ranged from unstable to dire during the last few years of his life. Perhaps that was taking a toll -- along with too many other indulgences?
Rising student debt is not exactly a news flash, but the amount of debt that many graduates find themselves with is growing alarmingly, as detailed in this piece from the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune.
I'm struggling to pay off a healthy chunk of student debt myself, a little more than half of which I borrowed as an undergrad, the rest of which I borrowed to get through library school. But my situation is not nearly as bad as it could be: my sweetie had minimal student debt which he finished paying off several years ago, so at least we only have my debt to contend with. Lots of couples (and individuals, of course) aren't so lucky, as they try to pay off double or triple that amount of student debt, often on a single income.
The triple threat of the growing necessity of a college degree, reduced government financial support for higher education, and ever-rising tuition rates makes it pretty clear that the trend isn't going to reverse itself without some serious reform. Perhaps Congress will come to the rescue of overburdened students and parents, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for their solution.
What really bugs me about all of this is that as unavoidably bad as the debt situation is for many students, some of them insist on digging their own holes. The wife of the man featured in the News Tribune article seems like an obvious case in point. She has borrowed over $100,000 to complete a doctorate in what the article refers to as "anthropology and religion" -- and she's not even finished yet. It goes almost without saying that her earnings expectations are not high once she does complete her degree, yet she continues, presumably adding to her debt in order to do so.
I don't know these people, and I know it isn't wise to judge their choices based on a few paragraphs in a newspaper human interest story. And I'm all for following your bliss, for doing what you feel in your heart of hearts you are meant to do -- but at some point, doesn't reality have to be reckoned with? This couple (who has two children, by the way) appears to be sacrificing their family's financial security and well-being so that one of them can chase a dream. Perhaps she's a brilliant scholar and will find nothing but glittering career success and a meteoric rise to the top of her field. But if she isn't, where will that leave them? According to the article, the couple is already deeply pessimistic about their chances to do something as basic to financial stability as buying a house. Not a good sign.
At what point do you have to take a hard look at what you need to do to achieve your dream career and decide that it's too much? One college friend of mine had a maxim to which he swore he would adhere as he chose his post-B.A. educational path: if you have to pay for graduate school, you probably shouldn't be there. What we didn't realize as naive undergrads was that there are fields where grad students have no choice but to pay their own way through. Still, I think there is a grain of truth in my friend's m.o. For many of us, it's too easy to watch the loans pile up in the service of what we think we ought to be doing. But in 21st-century America, some paths really are too costly to take.
As long as we're on the topic of GRE preparation, let me refer you to Sheppard Software, where all kinds of free web games are available to help you learn geography and expand your vocabulary. The "Learn SAT/GRE Words" quizzes have not thrown me any unexpected curves, but the "Expert Word List" quizzes provide a much stiffer challenge. I've taken four of them, and I'm averaging around 75-80%. These are pretty humbling; I know many of the words, and some of the others I know I knew at some point. But some of these words are either totally new to me, or they're words that I remember encountering maybe once or twice in context but have never really been certain of their meanings.
But I'm just putting off the inevitable...does anyone know of any free online SAT/GRE math quizzes?
So I may have finally come around to a decision to apply to a new graduate program and pursue another master's degree, this time in Higher Ed Policy & Administration. Why do I want to do this? Well, because I'm interested in the subject matter, it's almost free (there are a few relatively minor tax implications), and having another advanced degree could help me professionally. Sounds like a pretty good idea, no?
Unfortunately, my original GRE scores hail from 1994, the fall of my last year of college. That means they have long since expired (they do so after a paltry five years), and the only way I might be admitted to the graduate program of my choice is to (shudder) take the GRE again.
I don't exactly fear the GRE; standardized tests of all kinds have always been good to me, and I did very well on the GRE ten years ago without studying so much as a single vocabulary word, geometry figure, or logic problem. But things have changed since then, and not necessarily for the better. First, the analytical section of the GRE has been replaced by a writing section. This doesn't really worry me, since I'm fairly confident in my ability to write passably well off the top of my head (evidence of this blog aside), but it is something new that I haven't done before. Second, my math studies (such as they were) are now ten years further in my past than when I last attempted the GRE. This means I will have to prepare at least a little bit, or risk an extremely embarassing result on the math section. Finally -- and this is my biggest objection -- the GRE costs $115. It really rubs me the wrong way that I will have to cough up a hundred bucks in order to prove that I am capable of graduate-level work when I already have one master's degree and have previously been admitted to the University of Minnesota Graduate School.
And then there's always the possibility that I will take the GRE and discover that I've killed even more brain cells in the last decade than I think I have. How much did my mental capacity decrease over the course of my twenties? Taking the GRE now will give me proof in hard numbers. Yikes.
Well, I can rant about it, entertain whatever crazy fears I want, and bemoan the injustice of the situation, but the fact remains: I have to take the GRE if I want the privilege of spending more time in school. And I do want that -- I'm hard-wired to want it. So I'll pay my hundred bucks, study my math, and do what I have to do. Wish me luck.
So, another extended period of silence has elasped while the holidays passed. Here are some highlights from my last week and a half:
Of course, I was also lucky enough to receive an assortment of thoughtful gifts from friends and family while enjoying the company of all. After the last week or so, I'm starting to think I just might survive January after all. Happy new year!
View 2004 edition
March 19, 2006-October 4, 2006
August 22, 2005-March 18, 2006 (on hiatus)
May 7-August 21, 2005
March 29-May 6, 2005
March 3-28, 2005
February 4-March 2, 2005
January 4-February 3, 2005