Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hello Goodbye Hello Goodbye

In keeping with the whole song lyric titles and courtesy of a total lack of originality and energy on my part but...welcome to my blog.

Well, it's official! 

In a few months we will be say goodbye to this:

And saying hello to this:

Moses has accepted his post-doc at Harvard Mass General and we're moving on up to the East Coast.

Ugh, Harvard? You say. Get over yourselves.  I know.  I can't help it that Moses is the smartest.

Despite my weeks (actual time week, maybe?) of preparing myself for this possibility by power twin activating it in the form of beaucoup de research and job applications, the reality of the situation is still sinking in.

I will write more once I've processed.

Until then I can tell you one thing.  Well two things. 

I will miss this:

And this:

But I won't really care because I will have this:

Saturday, April 26, 2014


When I started teaching college students, the First Year Experience Coordinator gave me and all of my colleagues a chart, which mapped the emotional ebb and flow of the average new, first time freshman.  They called it "The Rhythm of the Academic Year."  This chart was so good that it predicted student behavior to the month.

And sure enough, like clock work, every year whenever a student would come into office hours with a sob story about breaking up with their boyfriend or girlfriend from back home, I would think: holy shit, is it February already?!

So where am I going with this?  To the usual prolix, pseudo-introspective places.  Obvi.  Get with the program.

Well, I've been noticing more and more that my year has a rhythm. 

January is usually an entire month of holiday hangover,  in which I feel perpetually bored and listless. 

February in recent years has always been one of my busiest months and I am usually too tired to feel much of anything. 

By March, I've lost most of my January apathy but start to crave some sort of change. Being someone that doesn't particularly like change, this usually results in me fantasizing about the next phase of my life.

In April, I always seem to talk myself in getting bangs (that conversation is currently happening inside my head).

In May, I am mostly cheerful, mostly hopeful, and mostly ready for summer. 

In June, my base-line level of contentment is typically at a record high.  

In July, I usually have fun over the fourth of July weekend but then all of my hypothetical musing about the future catches up with me and I spend the rest of the month feeling anxious about the fall and money and pretty much everything under the sun.

I spend August mourning the loss of summer.  

I spend September celebrating the arrival of fall (and subsequently cursing the hot weather.) 

By October, I feel a palpable sense of anticipation (for what, I am never quite sure) and watch nothing but scary movies and Ghost Adventures on repeat (judge away, haters).  

In November, I try desperately to stave off the urge to listen to Christmas music but secretly start to feel really excited about the impending holiday season. 

December is always kind of a mixed bag of some of the highest of the highs (Christmastime, my birthday) and the lowest of the lows (everything leading up to Christmas: grading, deadlines, traveling, shopping, etc.)

So that is generally how my year goes.  Naturally, there are external factors that can disrupt this rhythm or alter it slightly and I can never quite tell if these aberrations are welcomed or unwanted cause I'm just easy, breezy like that.

But this year, I think I'm embracing it and only partially because I've grown tired of the bangs v. no bangs debate.   Current status: stalemate.  Shocker.

Anyways, do you remember that post back in January, where I taunted you with cryptic hints about some big news I had?  Duh.  Of course you do. I'm sure you've thought of little else.  Well, it probably comes as no surprise, especially given other recent insinuations, that I was talking about the possibility of leaving Los Angeles.

There has always been an expiration date on our time in Los Angeles.  The plan was to come out here for graduate school and then move back east or to the pacific northwest.  And sure, I've grown to love Los Angeles but it is pretty far from most of our family and I've always felt nervous about the idea of raising children somewhere where a modest one level-two bedroom house costs upwards of a million dollars and where good schools have the same rigorous admissions processes as ivy leagues institutions.

So we came here knowing we would leave one day, we just didn't exactly know when and that didn't exactly bother me.  Every so often I would feel frustrated by our lives in Los Angeles, mostly because it felt like as long as we were here our lives were in limbo, but generally speaking, I've been pretty content.

When Moses' time frame for finishing went from a year to six months to suddenly next month (and it was literally that abrupt), I knew that would probably impact the rhythm of my year, I just didn't know how much. The actual process of defending and the lead-up to it was so stressful and awful for both of us that we really didn't have time to process what would happen afterwards, even though we had already vaguely discussed the possibility of Moses applying to post-docs back in January (thus all those posts brimming with secret-keeping desperation).

Moses' top two choices are on the East Coast.  He has already done some interviews and things are looking promising, which is making a cross-country move seem all the more likely.

And it's exciting and terrifying but mostly exciting.

Now, I am positively dying to know what will happen.

I'm a pretty patient person with most things: waiting in lines or at doctor's offices, waiting for someone to get back to me about a question I asked them, explaining the same things over and over again to my students until they understand it.  I once even waited 45 minutes for a coffee that the barista forgot about, but this!  This I cannot be patient about.  Or surprises, which is why Moses has stopped telling me when he has a surprise for me because otherwise, I am just infuriating.

So our lives in limbo in Los Angeles have been thrust into a further state of limbo.

And now I be like: 
Keep you posted...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sorting 19th Century America Writers Into Hogwards

Not too long ago, my friend Ruth sent me a link to this article and casually and/or jokingly suggested that I do one for 19th century American Writers.

Now, when Ruth said "you should totally do this," I am nearly positive that she didn't mean: hey Wendy, you should actually do this and put it on your blog--everyone will love it!

But that is what I heard.

Because, reader, I was born to write this.

In fact, next to a description of the precise audience for geeky thought experiments involving Harry Potter and the literary cannon would be:

This white female.
And yes, 19th Century American Literature was my area of study in graduate school but that is not what makes me qualified to write this.  This just so happens to be the sort of thing that I would stay up until 2 o'clock in the morning arguing about with my siblings.  So yeah, I would say I am pretty familiar with the rhetoric on this topic.  Nerd alert!  Whatever, I regret nothing.

Now, if you have read Harry Potter, you are familiar with the Sorting Hat ritual but for the sake of my mother (and lone reader), who hasn't read the books in a while, I will begin with a refresher.

As you know, there are four houses in Hogwarts: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. The first order of business at the start of every academic year is to sort the incoming class of witches and wizards into their respective houses.

In preparation for writing this, I leafed through the first few chapters of book 1, 4, 5, and 6 (you will remember, of course, that Harry missed the sorting ceremony in books 2, 3 for various reasons and had left Hogwarts by book 7) to see which description of the different houses I liked the best.  I ended up settling on the first one from The Sorcerer's Stone:

"You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart;

You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil;

Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
if you've a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;

Or perhaps in Slytherin
You'll make your real friends,
Those cunning folks use any means
To achieve their ends."
Of course, there are plenty of other qualities that you can have that make you particularly suited for a certain house but I think that quote boils it down nicely to the most essential.

So let the sorting begin!

Emily Dickinson

Let's start with an easy one.  I wish I could remember which critic it was (or maybe it was her biographer Richard Sewall?) who said of Emily Dickinson: it must have been lonely to be one of the few true geniuses of the 19th century.  I think of that often when I think of Emily Dickinson because she was about as brilliant as she was mysterious.  Her poetry was leagues ahead of its time--only really publishable and palatable to the 19th century reader once stripped of all its idiosyncratic diction and punctuation.  Indeed, Emily Dickinson treatment of the writer's tools almost mirrors that of a modernist: her irreverence for the rules of grammar using nouns and verbs and verbs as nouns, her disregard for poetic custom and traditional rhyme schemes, her defiance of the limitations of the dictionary definitions of the words in her lexicon, and her peculiar and seemingly random (it wasn't) implementation of mechanics (like the em dash, which I learned from Ruth is so named because it is the length of a letter "m"--and in fact, is not some sort of tribute to Emily Dickinson).  It's no small wonder that her queer little stanzas left traditionalists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson scratching their conventional heads.

In his essay, "The Riddle of Emily Dickinson,"  critic Anthony Hecht contends that many if not all of Dickinson poems have a riddle-like quality to them:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One of things that makes Emily Dickinson so fascinating and one of things that she really only received recognition for once her poems were published in their original form is her cleverness.  She's smarter than you and she will certainly trick you.  Even in her candor, she is still often so cryptic as to baffle her reader, who in attempt to unravel the paradox that she presents, only discovers that their quest for meaning leads them in circles.

Yeah, that's right. You just got powned by the myth of Amhert.

The verdict: Ravenclaw

Nathaniel Hawthorne

To be honest?  Not my favorite.  I read The Scarlet Letter in High School and hated it.  I read The House of the Seven Gables in college and thought it was okay.  I read half a dozen other short stories by him and felt pretty meh-ish about all of them.  Sure his prose is dense but that's not the problem; it's his themes, his themes are so generic: guilt, retribution, evil, purity, snoozefest. Wake me up when you decide to bring something new to the table.  And he pummels you over the head with them too: Chillingsworth represents evil, get it?  Do you GET it? How about now?

Okay, to be fair, most fiction gravitates towards some archetypal dichotomy like good vs. evil--just look at our source text Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings trilogy--but both of those are fantasy and therefore render themselves unique and interesting in other ways.  I think what it all comes down to is that the most compelling literature to me is subversive in some respect and Hawthorne plays by all the rules, which I find entirely boring.

The Verdict: Hufflepuff (where all the blah characters like Cedric Diggory go to die).

Oh sorry, too soon?

Walt Whitman

I feel like the Sorting Hat might have a bit of a conundrum with Whitman.  In one of its songs, the Sorting Hat describes Hufflepuff students as the hardest workers, which was certainly true of Whitman. Whitman was nothing if not industrious.  After all, he kept revising and reprinting and revising and reprinting Leaves of Grass until he was pretty much bedridden.  There is also something about the level of detail and care with which he selected the binding and typeface and layouts of all his editions that is just so...marvelously obsessive.  And certainly reminiscent of the "unafraid of toil" students of Hufflepuff.

But there is also such an epic quality to Whitman's poetry.  Particularly when reading a poem like "Song of Myself," I feel at times overwhelmed by its grandeur, as if I were looking out over a magnificent precipice and experiencing the mixture of awe and terror so often conjured by the sublime.

"The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
     of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

The speaker of this poem shifts, it is a symphony of voices but each has a heroic element to it.  It declares, it sees, it fuses.  It melds the body with the soul at a time when such an idea was considered blasphemous.  It labors on passion and carnal desire and death and rebirth: "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/ If you want me again look for me under your boot soles."  What a powerful message of hope during a period when so many families' lives were marred by the tragedy of a lost loved one.

Whatever you may think of Whitman, you can't deny that writing a poem like that during such a conservative era took guts.  And you better believe that his work was met with a flurry of opposition and moral outrage. Even Emily Dickinson said he was disgraceful, but I'm pretty convinced at this point that she said that as a joke.

The Verdict: Gryffindor (after some minor debate)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am sure that this will be the most controversial sorting because Emerson is like all about transcendentalism, man: nature, spirituality, equality, the transparent eyeball...

But let's not forget that Emerson didn't exactly play well with others.  He once, not entirely unprovoked, called Poe "a jingle man."  Emerson also once wrote Walt Whitman (who at the time worshiped him) a letter praising Leave of Grass, but the second Whitman published that letter in part to tell the public "Hey,  people you respect like me!", Emerson started back pedaling; Whitman was not terribly popular and Emerson didn't want to be associated with his lewd poetry.  So Emerson started singing a different tune and became pretty openly passive aggressive about Whitman, publicly declaring that he was great American poet and in the same breath publicly shaming him for being a social pariah.  Yeah.  Totally not dickish at all.  And sure, he was pals with Thoreau but apparently, in his mentorship, Emerson was ever so slightly on the overbearing side and was so critical of Thoreau's writing that Thoreau burned most of his poetry.

On top of this, Emerson's writing is rife with egocentrism and self-aggrandizement.  Perhaps any philosophical doctrine is but let's examine his essay on "Nature."  One of the problems with transcendentalism and renogitiating the relationship between the self and nature is that the self will always be privileged.  It is center upon which everything else pivots: I need to appreciate what nature has to offer because of how it will benefit me.  After all, I'm pretty much the most significant thing ever: "There is no age or state of society or mode of action in history to which there is not somewhat corresponding in his life...He should see that he can live all history in his own person."  Ugh, get over yourself.

What it really comes down to, is that Emerson is only looking out for number one.  Take, for example, his essay "Self Reliance."  Here he argues for a self-made man: a man not influenced by external forces, who draws strength internally:  "It is only as a man puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail."  Sure this might be fine in theory--personal responsibility and all that--and there is nothing inherently ethic cleansing-y about this (mudbloods, anyone?), but again, the self is what is valued here above all else.  And who do we know who cares mostly about themselves...?

Oh, that's right...

The Verdict: Slytherin

Henry David Thoreau

After practically writing a bible on Emerson, I figured I should toss in a little Thoreau (ew, vaguely pun-y, sorry).  Thoreau is an interesting character. Walden is one of those texts that so often gets misinterpreted by dumb, self-righteous high school students--the very same who think Swift's A Modest Proposal is actually advocating that the Irish chow down on their own young--as a manifesto for how people should live.  But what they don't realize is that he's not actually suggesting that you stop your sexting and go live in the woods.  It's meant to be a thought provoking, almost satirical experiment.  In his first chapter on "Economy" he makes a list of living expenses:

House ................................ $28.12½ 
Farm one year ........................  14.72½ 
Food eight months ....................   8.74 
Clothing, etc., eight months .........   8.40¾ 
Oil, etc., eight months ..............   2.00 
In all ............................... $61.99¾

Thoreau is being silly here; he's poking fun at how we itemize and economize necessities, how we impose monetary value to things like shelter and sustenance.   In many respects, what Thoreau actually wants his readers to do is to reevaluate their relationship and reliance upon social and cultural constructions.

He's not afraid to attempt this task himself, which takes some courage, and might therefore make him a good candidate for Gryffindor.  But he's also pretty clever in how his approaches this project, which might make him better suited for Ravenclaw.  And while his definition isn't quite a rigid or as troubling as Emerson's, he is advocating for a fair amount of self-reliance here, which might even make him a good fit for Slytherin.

But, in the end, Thoreau is really just a wildcard.  So where do all the kids go who defy categorization but to the one house where they will accept anybody...

The Verdict: Hufflepuff

Frederick Douglass

Um, have you ever read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?  Yeah.  This one's kind of a no-brainer.

The Verdict: Gryffindor (obvi.)

Edgar Allan Poe

Poor Edgar Allan Poe.  19th century literary outcast and now namer of Britney Spears tours.  I feel like people just don't get Poe and I don't mean that in the way people don't "get" the emo black nail polished teens that have foolishly named him their champion. I think too often readers dwell on the darker side of Poe: the dead wife, the substance abuse, the sallow photographs, the mysterious death. As a result, I would wager that many would erroneous place him in Slytherin.  Yeah, I get it, "Is all that we see or seem/ But a dream within a dream" is some pretty bleak shit and Annabel Lee does die a fairly horrific death from consumption and Poe protagonists are more often than not freaks, psychopaths, or somebody straight out of the pages of the "guidebook to creepy boyfriends you should probably talk to your high school guidance counselor about." But, Poe is not full of malice and he's certainly not blinded by ambition.  Even when he was picking on the transcendentalists, he was mostly ragging on them for their dumb, unrealistic idealism.

The thing that you need to remember about Poe is that he was smart.  So smart in fact that his work inspired an entire movement in France called the Symbolist Movement.  So smart that his work redefined the Gothic genre and in so doing differentiated us from our neighbors across the pond and created something distinctly American. Which was precisely what everyone from Melville to Emerson had been calling for American writers to do.  But Poe actually did and, I would argue, much more successfully than nearly all of his contemporaries.

His work is shrewd, unconventional, and at times, downright strange (please see "Hop Frog" and I rest my case) but it does what all good literature is supposed to: it challenges social norms and perceived truths. How much of that can be said of similar beacons of sullenness like Twilight or My Chemical Romance?

Nope.  Next.
If any one of you is still in doubt of Poe's brilliance, I challenge you to read "The Purloined Letter." It is so multilayered in its cleverness that, on the first read, you will undoubtedly miss half of the subtle details that make it just so complexly ingenious.

The Verdict: Ravenclaw

Herman Melville

Two words: Moby Dick. The great American epic; a tale of passion, revenge, and obsession (possession? who knows) on the high seas, which inevitably makes anything seem more dramatic.  I am not sure if this necessarily came across in the chapter on cetology where Ismael catalogs and classifies different whales or the chapter where Ismael has some kind of transcendent moment while squeezing solidified whale spermaceti back into liquid but Melville was kind of a badass.  He worked as shipmate and even eventually as a harpooner on whaling ships and was even once involved in a crew mutiny (!?).  But you know, shit happens when you don't pay people for their services. Anyways, this dedicated (and highly dangerous) field research took some serious cojones.

Add to this derring-do, Melville's unflinching commitment to his writing, despite the critical (and financial) failures of most of his work.  It takes a certain boldness to refuse to compromise your artistic vision by catering to public preference even when you know it means your work will be met with apathy or even contempt.  Especially when you and your wife and your kids kind of have to live off the fruits of that labor...but integrity first!  No one who has ever read "Bartleby the Scrivener" could confuse that as a text to please the populace.

Melville, like so many other writers of his time, was also deeply self conscious about the need to distinguish American Literature--to make it distinct and decidedly un-British.  But like Poe, I think Melville was one of the few who was relatively successful in doing this.  Moby Dick in many respects still remains the quintessential American novel. And to accomplish that, reader, takes a fierce independence that contemporary bestselling automatons like Tori Spelling and E.L. James only wish they had.  Or maybe they don't because it would probably mean that they would be poor.  Where am I going with this?  Oh yes.

The Verdict: Gryffindor

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Oh there she is.  The little lady that started the big war.  It certainly had nothing whatsoever to do with economics...but moving on.

When I was initially putting this list together, I had a bit of a hard time determining who to include and who not to include and I am going to level with you here, reader, Mrs. Stowe didn't exactly make the first cut. But then, upon deeper reflection, I decided that I couldn't leave out one of the most significant writers of the 19th century, even if I don't find her quite as interesting as Melville...but that's my patriarchy brainwash talking.

The cultural impact of Stowe's most famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin cannot be understated.  This text was revolutionary, a best-seller, a game changer in the abolitionist movement and although Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs are better written and more successful in achieving the same goals as Stowe, you can't deny that Stowe brought this rhetoric to masses like no other.

Writing Uncle Tom's Cabin during such a pivotal time in American history was undeniably noble but Stowe lacks the impulsive, hot headed nature so often associated with Gryffindors.  She was deliberate and steadfast; a life long activist, crusading for equal rights for women and minorities even into her old age.  She was also a prolific writer and mother to like a billion children (real number 7).  I'd say that would involve some considerable hard work and patience.

The verdict: Hufflepuff

Louisa May Alcott

So we started with one of my favorites and we are ending with one of my favorites.

Louisa May Alcott is easily one of the most underrated American writers. In part because she is most readily associated with Little Women, which is a children’s novel and children’s novels are pretty much always relegated to the margins of the literary cannon (despite it being some of the most significant and most provocative literature out there).

All of Alcott's work, even the seemingly most wholesome, is highly subversive.  She was writing at the height of the cult of true womanhood, which restricted woman to the private sphere and required them to be pious, pure, submissive, and domestic.

Alcott's heroines had none of these qualities.

Take Jo March from Little Women; Jo is a passionate, opinionated, tempestuous tom boy, who runs, cross-dresses, cuts off all her hair (for noble reasons), pursues a career, and jilts suitors.  Initially Jo was supposed to end an old maid, but Alcott changed it for fear that her readers would disapprove (old maids at the time being a thing of pity and scorn: like, if you were an old maid, you failed at life).  I personally would have preferred for Jo to end up alone, instead of the with the Professor (a relationship I never understood), but let's stay on track.

During her career, Alcott also published a number of short stories anonymously or under a male pseudonym. These became the collection Behind A Mask, which anyone who knows me has inevitably heard me talk about incessantly.  The female protagonists of these stories take it step further: they are con artists, tramps, free spirited foreigners, and revenge enthusiasts.  These woman take what they want and do what they want whenever and however it suits them.  And here is the most radical thing of all:  Alcott makes us root for them.

Writing such brazenly transgressive heroines was undeniably brave, especially considering just how oppressively stringent the gender norms of the 19th century were for woman.  Sure, she was cunning (and careful) about how she did it--often under the covert of genre or pen name--but it was courageous none the less.

The Verdict: Gryffindor

So there you have it.  Please direct any hate mail generated by this list to: And just see what happens.