Sunday, April 29, 2012

Warp & Weft

"The direction of a big act will warp history, but probably all acts do the same in their degree, down to a stone stepped over in the path or a breath caught at sight of a pretty girl or a fingernail nicked in the garden soil."
--John Steinbeck, East of Eden

It's been a really nice weekend, and Steinbeck's notion of the direction of small acts and their effects on history has been on my mind since I read the phrase on Friday.

The big events and the small are always interwoven in our lives.  So, in a month, the second of the two girls I babysat for nearly 20 years ago, will graduate from high school.

In June of 2010, when I was moving out of my house in NJ, I realized I couldn't find an amber pendant a good friend had given me nearly 20 years earlier.  I hunted high and low and never found it.  

I found it today, on the floor of my closet in RI.  I thought it had been lost, but it was with me all along, somewhere.

I woke up this morning and my kitty cat is better than he has been in a month.  He's actually eating again.  They truly do have nine lives.

I've been watching the flowers bloom that I planted last fall.  It's been chilly, but now the cold nights are tempered with the knowledge that they won't continue much longer.

I've been eating the berries I picked last summer, and enjoying the jams I made from them.  In all of these small ways, intersections of past and present mark the day.

I've finally had the chance to go swimming again, and remembering how wonderful that always feels.

I think about what the spring and summer will bring this year.  The books, the thoughts, the old friends to be kept and the new ones to be made. 

So much to see and to feel in the tiny cross-sections of time.  The direction of acts, big and small.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Save The Frogs!!

"Marsh Frog at Sunset," Selena Vanapruks, 2011
Today is Save The Frogs Day!  The artwork in my post consists of selections from last year's Save The Frogs! Art Contest.

This year's contest runs until October 15, 2012, so if you have any artistic abilities (which I don't), draw awesome frogs and enter!

I feel particularly compelled to write about this because, truth be told, I was afraid of frogs when I was little.

Seriously.  They're green and bulgy and jumpy.  And they croak.

They still kinda give me the willies and I tend to stare at them in sheer horror.  Last summer I had quite a few of them in my yard, actually.

But I also know that they're extremely important amphibians and that they help keep the ecosystem running smoothly.  They eat the bugs that would otherwise eat us alive.  They eat the bugs that would otherwise eat all my plants.

They eat those damn meal moths.

"Don't Splat Our Habitat," Lauren Lucente, 2011
And the frogs are in jeopardy.  A recent ruling by a San Francisco judge indicated that the practice of draining wetlands endangers their habitat.

Really, it took a court order from a judge to tell us that? C'mon, people...

Meanwhile, the pesticide industry continues to attempt to dispose of its biggest economic rival:  frogs.

If we kill off all the frogs, after all, we can all buy tons of Raid and OFF! and Round-Up and eventually create disease-carrying, pesticide-resistant Super Bugs that nothing will kill.

And then the pesticide companies can charge us lots of money for pesticides designed to kill the bug problems they helped to create.

I'll stick with green and bulgy and croaky and jumpy.  I can handle the heebie-jeebies just fine, thank you.

If you'd like to do something (and you should), you can convince Congress to ban Atrazine by clicking on the link and filling out the form.

Atrazine pollutes the ground water and has been shown to chemically castrate male frogs.

Come on, guys.  You have to help. 

For the men out there: how would you feel if you went out for a beer one night and came home chemically castrated? 

I think you'd be pretty upset. (Brings new meaning to the notion of a "Girls Night Out.")

"Jeremiah was a bullfrog--was a good friend of mine. 
I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine.
And he always had some mighty fine wine."

Joy to the World.  Save The Frogs!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Read, Feed, Write, Repeat

"Well, here's your box.  Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.  Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts--the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full." 

Well, I for one think that every week should begin and end with a Read-A-Thon.  I've had a wonderful week, and I've decided I'm going to chalk it up to participating in the Read-A-Thon last weekend.  Why not?

First, I've started Steinbeck's East of Eden.  I do so love Steinbeck.  I always have.  The epigraph at the top of this post is actually his dedication of the novel to his friend, Pascal Covici.

I've also spent the past day or so planting, planting, planting, and I'm still nowhere near done.  It's too early for seeds and the garden, so I've been putting in the bulbs.  Nearly all of the 80 tulips I planted last fall came up.  This is good.  Now, I'm putting in dahlias, begonias, peonies, gladiolas and a couple more rosebushes.

C'mon, Spring.  Bring it.

I got feedback on my grant application, and although it wasn't funded--which isn't all that surprising since it was the first time I ever wrote up a grant proposal--the reaction to my ideas was generally very positive, so this has inspired me to resubmit it next fall.

It isn't always about getting the acceptance, it's about the process.

In the case of this grant, the process was quite unusual: I started the research that ultimately led to the proposal when I began dealing with a guy who kept trolling and commenting on my blog.

Usually, trolls are anonymous, but in this case, it was a guy I had briefly dated and then broke up with.   At some point, his then-girlfriend (long since his ex-) joined in.

It really turned into a pretty strange scene.  She obtained his email password while they were dating and continued to access his email account, even after they broke up. (Yes, I reported it to his email provider and gave them the evidence of her activity on his account.  Yes, he has since changed his password.) 

Ironically, if she had just stopped trolling my blog when she broke up with him, we would never have known what she had done.  I installed invisible tracking code and I caught her doing specific date-range searches on my blog postings.

Her search-terms always coincided with the dates of posts he had specifically mentioned in emails to me.  Because he had only ever mentioned the posts by date, not by name, and because the posts no longer existed when she was specifically searching for them, by date, weeks later, it began to be quite obvious what was happening.

I confess, I'd had my suspicions for quite a while.  Her activity on my blog always followed an email exchange I had with him.  I'd be out of touch with him for months, we'd be in touch once or twice, and immediately, she'd be on my blog again. 

She never simply read my posts, starting with the most recent entry.  Instead, she always went directly to specific posts whose dates always coincided exactly with the dates of the latest emails I had received from her ex-boyfriend.

When this continued happening even after they broke up, I knew it couldn't be a coincidence.

That's why I installed the tracking code and why I didn't say anything to her ex until I finally had proof of what she was doing.  Things she had said in an outraged voice mail she left for me last summer simply didn't add up. 

I permanently saved her voice mail message, actually, because it was so outrageous and full of veiled--and not so veiled--threats.  One of the advantages of being a state employee is that our voice mail system allows you to permanently store any message that's left at your office.  So that's what I did.

I've since found out that this kind of thing--hassling people on their blogs or via voice mail-- is something she does all the time, and that she's ended up in hot water on more than one occasion because of it.  She targets people she has an "issue" with, and then tries to intimidate with "private" messages or by attacking them anonymously online, in comments that can always be traced back to her. 

The upshot of all of this is, no one who knows her takes much of anything she says or does seriously anymore.  They either ignore her or pretend to agree with her, because they don't want her to start lashing out at them.  But no one trusts her.  It's pretty sad, actually.

Shortly before all of this unfolded, I sent her ex-boyfriend an email saying that I had her static IP address but that the code I installed couldn't track mobile devices, so if she accessed my blog's feed by cell phone I couldn't monitor it.

She immediately began using her cell phone to access my blog's feed.

I also told him that if she tried to comment anymore she'd get an error message.  After that, she stopped commenting on my posts.

So then, I knew.   What I didn't mention, of course, is that I didn't need to install code to track mobile devices: Blogger already registers page views by mobile devices and submits my feed's stats to Feedburner.

As part of my process of dealing with that (pretty unbelievable) turn of events, I began to do a lot of work on the internet and identity (social media, in particular) and that spun into work on the internet and privacy.  In addition to finding out a bit about the ever-emerging laws governing electronic communications, I also started learning HTML and Javascript and writing code.

One thing I have taken from all of this is that, if you're out there running amuck on the Web, you are in deep shit.  Nothing is private.  Nothing.   "Blocking" on Facebook or Twitter is a joke.  "Invisible" settings on YouTube Channels are a joke.

The only way to block people is to install invisible tracking software and write code.  You can only do this if you have access to your server or the ability to write and install the code on your own pages (as I could do here on my blog and on my other webpages).

You can't do this on Facebook, YouTube or Google Profiles.  If you block someone, and they still want to see what you're up to, they have several options.

If they're devious and lazy, they can just create a fake page.  This is actually against the community guidelines on most social media sites, and if you're caught, they'll slap you on the wrist for it.

If the fake page option doesn't appeal to them, they can simply connect with one of your friends.  I have pretty strict privacy settings, but even I allow "friends of friends" a certain degree of access.  If you "friend" someone you don't know, or if your "friends" "friend" someone they don't know, voila!  There they are, looking at your "private," "invisible" stuff.

On the web, "private" and "invisible" simply mean "available-to-nearly-everyone" and "still-visible-to-almost-everyone."

YouTube is perhaps the worst venue for anyone who cherishes their privacy.  Think about it: their slogan is "Broadcast Yourself."  If someone knows your username, you're toast.  YouTube won't allow you to change it, so you can't do much except close the account.

Webpages are cached: everything you comment on or "like," is always out there for the public to see.  Delete the comment if you like, it's still out there on a cached version of the page that can easily be Googled.  The same goes for all of your tweets on Twitter, particularly if you make them public.  You can switch your settings to "private" or "invisible," but whatever you've already put out there under a "public" setting, will always be out there.

And if the page or website or Twitter account you're commenting on or tweeting to is public, there is no way your comments or tweets will EVER be "private."  You're supposed to know that you're commenting in a public forum and in those instances, your privacy settings are moot.

If you know how to use the web developer tools in Firefox, you can actually query YouTube and get all the information you want about a user's activity, without actually having to go to their channel.

In my experience, if you block someone, all you're doing is ensuring that you can no longer see them.  It doesn't mean that they can't see you.

So, what should you do if you want to use social media?  Be open, but be careful.  Be mature.  Don't tweet or status update while under the influence of anything (including coffee).  Watch your mouth when you comment.  If someone makes you mad, it's best to just log off and walk away.

Why should you give a flying frigate?  Because if you lose your job or need a job these days and you have a volatile online presence, you won't find employment anytime soon.  Employers have the right to examine an applicant's "online presence"--they've been doing it for years. (I blogged about this last summer: see "Social Intelligence.")

Employers can search your email address, user names, whatever.  They'll find the fake profile pages, as well as the real ones.  Many companies hire consultants and specialists whose only job is to spend the day finding what you think is "private."

And if you think you'll just quiet down for a few months or behave yourself from now on, think again.  They're allowed to go back SEVEN YEARS.

It's governed by The Fair Credit Reporting Act.  All potential employers are required to do is to alert you of the fact that they are turning down your application on the basis of material they obtained as a result of scanning your online presence.  If they found something attributed to you that isn't yours, you can dispute it.  Otherwise, they are under no legal obligation to respect what you think is your "privacy."

It frustrates me, because I think people (foolishly) "trust" the Web, don't realize that there is absolutely no expectation of privacy in social media outlets and don't think before they post.  Either that, or they think, "I don't care!  It's my opinion!" but sooner or later, they care quite a bit.

One person I know began to care deeply when he awoke one morning to find all of his tires slashed.  Someone he had mouthed off at online had found his address and paid him a less-than-friendly visit in the night.

Facebook, Google, MySpace, YouTube: they don't care about "you."  It's a business.  Social media sites are businesses.  They want to make money.  That doesn't make them evil.  It just makes them businesses. 

In my experience, the people who are out there celebrating "free speech" and "privacy" are often the first ones to think it's fine to abuse the available opportunities to promote their own advantage or advance their own agenda (i.e., to make money).

Hence the recent change in my blog feed.  I apologize to any readers who were inconvenienced, but yes, the old feed no longer works.

When it comes to digital and electronic communications right now, it's best to assume that, if it's not illegal for you to have or to access it, it's "public."  End of story.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Read-A-Thon Starting Line (And Then Some)

Well, I overslept a bit, so I'm off to a slow start, but I'm determined to stay the course and have fun. And read, read, read. What a beautiful way to spend the day. I'll put updates on this post as I go, so scroll down to see how I'm doing.

Here's hoping I remain coherent for at least 12 of the 24 hours.

For my fellow-readers checking my blog, here are a few things about me.

I'm reading away in New Jersey today.

The book in my stack that I'm most looking forward to... hmmm... it's like asking me to pick which one of my friends' children I like best, but I'll say Steinbeck's East of Eden. I saw the film version (the one with James Dean, of course) when I was in college and geek that I am, all I could think was, "I really want to read the book!"

The snack I'm most looking forward to: I celebrate all snacks. In all forms. Fruit, candy, cheese, whatever. And I drink tea more or less constantly, when I read.

I'm a literature professor, so reading is what I get paid to do. But I finagled a way to get paid to do it, because I love it so much. There's never been a time when I'm not reading.

It's my first Read-A-Thon, so I think what I'm most looking forward to is hearing from other people and seeing what I can accomplish.

Gotta go read...

It's 11:45 a.m. now and I'm chugging along on Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.

I decided to start with Plath, although it's certainly not the cheeriest thing I could be reading right out of the starting gates, because I've heard it talked about over the years and I've always been slightly embarrassed about the fact that I've never actually read it.

I'm enjoying it quite a bit. Plath is ironic and dark, obviously, but witty. She has just finished describing how everyone has been barfing their brains out because they all contracted ptomaine poisoning from the crabmeat-stuffed avocados at the Ladies Day luncheon.

My favorite line is the advice from her mother to "learn shorthand after college" so she'd "have a practical skill as well as a college degree."

"Even the apostles were tentmakers," she'd say. "They had to live, just the way we do."

It's about 6:15 p.m. now and I've finished The Bell Jar. I thought it was quite good, and I may blog about it again sometime soon. I actually preferred it to Styron's Darkness Visible, although it seems to me that Styron's work often gets more respect and attention. It shouldn't. Plath's work is better.

So now I have to figure out what to read next. I have Nicholson Baker's novel The Anthologist that a friend gave me a couple of years ago, so I think I'm going to give that a try.

I've read about 300 pages at this point, while taking breaks to eat and do the laundry and tell my kitty cat how wonderful he is. The weather has cooperated nicely today: it was warm and sunny all day, so Gide and I could sit on the patio together.

It's supposed to be rainy with maybe a thunderstorm tonight--again, good reading weather. Can I finish another novel by midnight? Save East of Eden for the overnight?

I've had a cup of coffee, and only time will tell...

11:00 p.m. and I'm halfway through The Anthologist, which is also very good and very funny. It's a novel about poetry and about rhyme, and the narrator is quite funny. So I'm definitely going to finish it tonight, and then see what I'm up for.

I doubt I'll make it much past 2:00 a.m.--that's usually the end of the line for me, but we'll see. I'll write one final update tomorrow morning, since I know I'm not going to want to log on and blog on again tonight.

As predicted, I fell asleep right in the middle of The Anthologist. But that's okay, because I'll finish it today, and then start on Steinbeck--because that's just how I roll.

The Read-A-Thon was a lot of fun. Clearly, I'll have to build up my stamina. After 10-12 hours of reading, my brain just gets mushy. I read a lot, but not in straight sittings like that.

And I confess, I began to get worried, because I know I'll have two stacks of papers coming in this week, so I didn't want to make myself so tired that I had trouble keeping up with work this week--it's the end of the semester, and next week is exam week.

So how much did I read? About 450 pages in 10 hours. I'll need to participate in a couple more Read-A-Thon's if I'm ever going to double that (and add four more hours). But I enjoyed reading other people's blogs and checking in on their progress, so I'll definitely look for the next Read-A-Thon in October!

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on! It was fun!

Friday, April 20, 2012

24-Hour Read-A-Thon

So, I signed up for a 24 Hour Read-a-thon for tomorrow, Saturday, April 21st. It starts at 8:00 a.m. and goes ... well, you can probably guess how long it goes for.

There's no pressure and it's supposed to be fun: participants try to read for 24 hours and post regular blog updates about their progress.

When we're not reading, we're reading: we check other participants' blogs, see how they're doing (whether they've killed anyone, collapsed in despair, gone blind, etc.).

With any luck, we catch them right before they do anything foolish.

You can take breaks, of course, to eat, get some air, recharge: whatever you need to do. And if you can't make the full 24 hours, that's okay too.

I'm quite the reader, but 24 hours is a long stretch. I think the longest I've ever read for is about 6-8 hours: I was stuck in an airport, waiting for a flight. I read about 2/3rds of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho that time.

I'm also not sure I can stay up all night. I generally need my (essentially futile) beauty sleep. I don't do well if I haven't slept. Calling me "cranky" doesn't begin to cover it.

But, that said, I have been known to burn the midnight oil over a book: after my dad died, one of my therapies was to find a book I wanted to read and then sit up from 9:00 p.m. until whenever, reading it.

There's something very soothing about being alone in the world late at night, reading. Those of you who know what I'm talking about know what I'm talking about.

Do I have a strategy? Yes and no. Do I have books ready? OH, yes. That's never a problem. I always have a bookcase or two lined with books I've bought over the past several years that I have been meaning to get to. I also have a Kindle, with a few downloaded items that I've also been meaning to get to.

And as always, I have reading to do for my classes next week, so this will be a way to get the homework done.

I think that, if I'm going to go the distance, I need to mix it up and not necessarily focus on finishing things. So I'm going to dive into poetry and essays and letters and biography, as well as straightforward novels. I'm thinking some short stories might also be a good idea.

Off the cuff, here's what I'm thinking. Famous books I've never read (or don't remember reading, if I have). Like Steinbeck's East of Eden. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Similarly, short stories by good short-story writers: Poe, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Parker.

I read Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, and remember it as being a pretty decent summer-read (for a literary geek, that is), so I have it on my Kindle.

I have a bunch of non-fiction on the Kindle, so I can check into that. I have a volume of Jane Austen's letters, and the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams. I have a biography of Abigail Adams and a biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

They read a lot, so I have a feeling finding out about them will make me feel like a slacker.

I have a book about the African-American migration to the North after the Civil War. I know it sounds dull, but I started it a while back and it focuses on the stories of several real-life individuals, and it's beautifully written. So I'll check it out again.

I have John Muir's nature writing, and the poetry of John Berryman and Robert Lowell.

I have a bunch of contemporary novels.

So what do you think, dear readers? Any suggestions of ways to occupy my time?

I promise if I read what someone suggests and I don't like it, I won't post a midnight rant about wasting my time reading a total piece of crap. I'll just quietly put it aside and take up something else...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wilde's Trials

As I told my students yesterday, I love Oscar Wilde's wit.

His life story, however, makes me sad. In 1895, Wilde was convicted of 25 counts of "gross indecency" and sentenced to 2 years' hard labor. Upon his release, he was forced to live in poverty and relative anonymity, under an assumed name, in Paris. He died of cerebral meningitis in 1900. He was 46 years old.

The trials surrounding Wilde's homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his affairs with other young men is probably one of the most famous events in the history of homosexuality in the 19th century.

"An Acte for the punysshemente of the vice of buggerie" was enacted by Henry VII in 1533: known as "The Buggery Act," it rendered the act of sodomy punishable by hanging. Anyone convicted under the Acte would also have their property seized by the government.

Even members of the clergy, if convicted, could be executed for buggery, although they could not be executed if convicted of murder.

The law was suspended for a decade, from 1553-1563, but then reenacted. While there is insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions regarding the number of prosecutions for buggery in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is evidence that prosecutions increased over the course of the 18th and 19th century, as sexual mores shifted.

The last execution for the crime of buggery took place in 1836. In 1861, the death penalty for the crime of buggery was replaced by imprisonment for a term of not less than ten years.

In the 1880's, social purity groups began to seek to control "male lust" (good luck with that). Their focus was generally on the treatment of young girls and prostitutes; they sought to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 and to curtail the operation of brothels.

Through their influence, however, The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in 1885. Section 11 of this Act stipulated that acts of of "gross indecency" were punishable by imprisonment.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act did not stipulate, however, what constituted an act of "gross indecency." It was interpreted as refering to male homosexual relationships, even if consensual.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde, already a well-known poet, novelist and playwright, began a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry (a famous boxer in his own right), was outraged and began to cause public scenes in an attempt to end the affair.

In February of 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left his calling card at The Albermarle Club in London, a club frequented by Wilde and his wife (yes, he was married and had two children), with instructions that the card was to be presented to Oscar Wilde.

This is a copy of the card:

Queensberry had written on the back of the card: "For Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite."

Yes, he spelled it wrong.

When Wilde returned to London several weeks later and was presented with the card, he decided to sue Queensberry for libel.

This was a disastrous move, to say the least.

Wilde repeatedly assured prosecutors that there was no truth whatsoever to Queensberry's claims, even though he himself knew that there was. Apparently, Wilde didn't believe Queensberry's attorneys would dig up young men from Wilde's past to testify against him.

Or offer Wilde's letters to Douglas as evidence.

When they did, Wilde had to withdraw the charge of libel, obviously, which he did in late March of 1895. That same day, however, Wilde himself was arrested and charged with 25 counts of "gross indecency" as (vaguely) defined by the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

The jury in the first criminal trial was unable to reach a verdict; Wilde was therefore free on bail for several weeks before he was retried a second time. On May 25, 1895, Wilde and his friend Alfred Taylor, were convicted.

In a little over three months, Oscar Wilde went from being one of the most celebrated wits in London society to a convicted felon, sentenced to two years' hard labor.

The transcripts of Wilde's trials are fascinating legal documents of a period of British history that, to most of us today, seems nearly unbelievable.

Great Britain repealed the buggery laws pertaining to same-sex consensual sexual relations in 1967.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Life For Rent"

"Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi­cine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain..."

--Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, re: the death of Abigail Adams, MONTICELLO, November 13, 1818.
This is my 200th post.

I decided to name it after one of my favorite songs (and favorite albums) by Dido.

It's been an odd time for me, because I've been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks taking care of my kitty, who is dying.

My kitty and I adopted each other nearly 16 years ago. I named him "Gide," after one of my favorite French authors. I was agonizing over a name for him while he was scampering around the house, and he hopped up on the bookcase and ran past my line of books by... you guessed it... Gide.

And so he was named.

I got him from the family I used to babysit for. Their daughter, who was two years old at the time, told me, "We have a kitten for you. You've got the little orange guy."

And since that time, I've had the little orange guy.

He's a link to so many people who have passed on in my life. Two of my friends from graduate school used to joke with me about him. Both of them attended my graduation from Brown and both of them have since died. One told me of the death of the other, and then a year later, he too died.

Neither of them was old. Both were younger than 55.

My kitty was with me when my dad died, and then my mom. He took care of me in ways that only a pet can: their devotion is wordless and, as Jefferson acknowledges, in a time when there are no words, it is the wordless compassion that is often the most effective medicine.

Ezra loved to hear stories about Gide. He always brought him a special toy when he visited.

It's been hard, realizing that my little orange guy and I are coming to the end of our time taking care of each other. He's been with me through a lot of difficult times. I had him when I was poor and unemployed and just out of grad school, and I have him now when I'm a tenured professor with all kinds of responsibilities and commitments.

I had him for nearly half of my 20's, all of my 30's, and on into my 40's. I know there was a time when I didn't have him, and I'll have to adjust to a time without him again someday, but right now, it's hard to imagine a time when I didn't have him--and when I won't have him.

So, I don't imagine it. I just live the day in front of me, and enjoy the little moments. Like the way he sniffed the warm spring air and seemed to smile at me when I sat with him out on the patio this morning.

I took my epigraph for this post from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his longtime friend and political rival, John Adams, after learning that Adams' wife of 54 years, Abigail, had died.

I think about the way life was only a hundred or two hundred years ago: they endured so much, and so much of what we take for granted was simply inconceivable to them. Jefferson's letter is a testimony to that endurance, to what he learned about life and the inevitability of separation, loss and grief.

There's no sense in Jefferson's words of the injustice of it all, just a profound recognition that this is what life eventually brings us--immeasurable ills that can only be healed by time and silence.

This is the irony of living a life that isn't simply a life for rent. As Dido's song suggests,

While my heart is a shield and I won't let it down
While I am so afraid to fail so I won't even try,
Well, how can I say I'm alive?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Middlemarch Moments

I'm teaching a course on nineteenth-century British literature, and the major challenge of the semester in terms of sheer volume is George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch. Although most of the students are usually glad when it's over, I have to confess, I enjoy the novel--although I'm not sure I did when I was 19, of course.

I find that, as I get older, I see more and more of the kind of events and human qualities that Eliot describes in the novel and I find that, more and more often, experiences of my own take on a new resonance in light of the moral meditations the novel offers.

One of my favorite characters in the novel in this respect is Caleb Garth. Caleb is a good husband and father and a solid man of business, although this doesn't mean he has always been a successful businessman. At one point in his life, Caleb made some bad deals, ran up some debts, trusted the wrong people.

But he took responsibility for his failures, and slowly and steadily did his best. He wasn't always a good businessman, but he was always honest.

Consequently, one of my favorite scenes in the novel involves Caleb's exchange with a far less savory character, Bulstrode. Bulstrode is a very successful businessman, and a man of God. He has not always been honest, however, and he has used his religious fervor to excuse his moral failings.

He hides the truth about himself and faults others for their shortcomings.

Not surprisingly, the past begins to catch up with Bulstrode in the form of a shady figure from his past named Raffles. Raffles arrives on the scene in Middlemarch with a drinking problem and an eye for blackmail.

At one point, a sick and scarcely sober Raffles bumps into Caleb Garth and tells him all about Bulstrode's past. Caleb Garth has recently begun working for Bulstrode, managing an extensive property he recently purchased.

It's an excellent contract for Garth: he needs the money and, more importantly, he knows he can do a good job.

After listening to Raffles, however, Garth stops by to speak to Bulstrode and tells him he's sorry, but he won't be able to work for him after all.
He spoke with a firmness which was very gentle, and yet he could see that Bulstrode seemed to cower under that gentleness, his face looking dried and his eyes swerving away from the glance which rested on him. Caleb felt a deep pity for him, but he could have used no pretexts to account for his resolve, even if they would have been of any use. (740)
Shunning false pretexts and phony excuses, Garth simply tells Bulstroke, "I can't be happy in working with you, or profiting by you. It hurts my mind" (740).

Bulstrode is hurt and upset, of course. He knows why Caleb won't work for him anymore and he fears the loss of his business on two fronts: he knows Garth is an honest man and he fears Garth will continue to be an honest man.

Bulstrode doesn't want Caleb telling people the truth about him; he's afraid if people know about his past, they'll condemn him. He tries to persuade Garth to pity him, to see him as a victim of his own mistakes.

But Caleb Garth realizes that, in some cases, you have to protect yourself from people whose conscience may not be as strong as your own, from people who may have had good intentions and who may not have meant to do wrong, but who have done wrong nevertheless.

As Garth explains,
"I am sorry. I don't judge you and say, 'He is wicked, and I am righteous.' God forbid. I don't know everything. A man may do wrong, and his will may rise clear out of it, though he can't get his life clear. That's a bad punishment. If it is so with you--well, I'm very sorry for you. But I have that feeling inside me that I can't go on working with you." (741)
I like this moment in Eliot's text because it is a moment I myself recently experienced. And like Caleb Garth, I found myself feeling that, "As to speaking, I hold it a crime to expose a man's sin unless I'm clear it must be done to save the innocent" (742).

There's no point in privately slandering others. As Garth points out, perhaps they are trying to get their life clear and simply can't. If so, we should feel sorry for them. If not, we should get away from them.

Caleb Garth does both. Giving someone a second chance when they have come clean publicly and made amends and are trying to get their will and their life clear is one thing; giving someone another chance when they simply want to erase the past and privately excuse themselves--in your eyes and in their own--is another.

It's a complicity of conscience that we all face at some point, I think. It's very hard, wanting to believe the best about someone but realizing that you simply can't risk being dragged into the kind of errors they've made in the past.

Eliot is very wise in her reflections on moral influence. It isn't simply bad behavior that can shape our moral character. Those who tolerate bad or immoral or unethical behavior put us in danger as well. It isn't about exposing their wrongdoing, unless it's necessary to protect the innocent, it's about limiting our own exposure to them.

It's about not pretending to condone something we know we could never condone. This is harder than it might seem--doing what's right often is.

It's about not pretending we don't know when, in fact, we do. What we do with that knowledge is up to us, but we simply can't behave as if we don't know it because the minute we do, we've begun to travel along what Eliot's narrator will identify as a "perilous margin":
We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.(832)
Our achievements should never be shabby, our consent should never be dull and if our misdeeds are to be insipid, then we're better off making the effort to be better than that after all.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Respect Life

An Idaho Forest Service employee posed for a picture alongside a wounded wolf that he trapped.

The wolf was being used for target practice when he arrived: that's why the snow around the wolf is red. The employee joined in on the target practice and subsequently posted the picture online.

People like this shouldn't be working for the Forest Service. Please sign and help to hold him accountable for his cruelty.
"For this reason was man created alone, to teach Thee that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes to him as though he had preserved a complete world." --The Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

Monday, April 2, 2012

Busy Hodge-Podge

For the past ten days or so, my life has been the embodiment of the old adage, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person to do."

I've been teaching a new course on the literature of Central Eurasia (pre-18th century), so that has kept me busy, but in a wonderful and interesting way. It's given me so much to think about--which is never a bad thing.

Like this famous Persian miniature, "The Feast of Gayumars," attributed to Sultan Muhammad.


Although you can't see it on the web image, the detail of this miniature is absolutely astounding: you actually need a magnifying glass to see it. For instance, there are faces--different faces--drawn into every single rock. The trees show every single leaf.

All I can think is, this is an artist with the skill of a neurosurgeon. Their fine motor skills are definitely not the same as those of the rest of us. I love that such things can happen in life.

I presented at a conference this weekend, and found out a couple of fun facts. For example, I found out about "leading strings." In the 17th and 18th centuries, these were hooked around children to keep them upright when they were learning to walk. Rembrandt depicted an image of a child in leading-strings.

Sort of puts the whole contemporary debate over parents who use a "leash" on their child into a new perspective.

The thing I like most about being productively busy is that, while some people spend their whole lives trying to find who they are and what they want to be, other people find who they are and what they want to be through doing.

And the rest of us are all the richer for it.

An odd side-note: on the drive into Providence this weekend, I noticed something funny that perhaps speaks to why it might be useful to consult an English professor before putting up billboards or advertisements.

On a billboard promoting Ron Paul, it announced the Republican primary on April 24th and included pictures of What's-His-Name and the other What's-His-Name, both crossed out, alongside a picture of the Texas Wing-Nut with his (in my opinion) trademark goofy smile and unfortunate ears.

In huge letters it said, "DON'T VOTE FOR THE LESSER EVIL!" "VOTE FOR RON PAUL!"

I must admit, I chuckled to myself. I suspect that the poor Ron Paul supporters who put up the billboard have absolutely no idea that they have just indicated--in larger-than-life lettering and for all of I-95 to see--that out of the various Republican candidates, Ron Paul is the greater evil.

Granted, I was driving... say, 65 mph... so it's possible I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure I saw it correctly.

Such is the stuff of life.