Doctor Sycorax, I presume

Let's see, what have I gotten up to since last we spoke? Oh yes ... I became a doctor.

Not, admittedly, the useful sort of doctor who can prescribe medicines, take out your diseased appendix, or moderate your neuroses (although I feel I have from time to time performed that last cure for some of my students). I can't give you any advice about strange rashes that might recently have broken out all over your arms, but if you are being kept awake in the middle of the night with questions about the status of national theatre movements in the twentieth century, then by god I would be willing to point you in the right direction.

Yes, that is me in the center of the above photo, making my speedy way through a congratulatory line of professors from my department mere moments after receiving the diploma from the Dean of the Graduate School (the man in red in the bottom left). And, yes indeed, I am wearing a ceremonial velvet tam o'shanter, and, frankly, I think I am rockin' it. Not to mention the doctoral hood, which D insists I must wear as a hood over my head, in a manner which makes me look like something straight out of Tolkien (Sycorax the Cerulean?).

The highlight of the ceremonies? Well, perhaps it was a moment during the Graduate School's convocation when the chosen speaker, an expert on China, was reflecting on how little he knew about the country or its language when he first came to graduate school. At a certain point, he adopted a more somber tone to speak about his beloved mentors, who, he said, had themselves been graduate students in Beijing at the time of Pearl Harbor. With the outbreak of war, they were rounded up as enemy aliens and confined to internment camps. No sooner had the words "internment camps" left his lips, then my parents' cell phone went off. Embarassing? Excruciatingly. All the more so because my parents' ringtone is the sound of an exuberantly clucking chicken.

For a moment I wondered, in the recesses of semi-conscious thought, why I had never noticed that there was a flock of chickens in the courtyard of the Hall of Graduate Studies. Then, in horror, I turned around to see my father (who never carries the cell phone, and thus doesn't have that instinctive urge to turn it off at the start of solemn events), perplexedly patting his pockets to determine the location of the offending poultry commotion.

Or perhaps the highlight was the fact that I received my doctorate in tandem with a Beatle:

Sir Paul (or should I now call him Dr. Sir Paul?) was receiving an honorary doctorate in Music, and was subjected to an endless stream of terrible wordplay based on the Beatles canon.

Or, for that matter, perhaps it was the sight of the Forestry graduates, whose commencement headgear instantly made them my favorite of the professional schools:

Well, there are more tales to be told of post-commencement activities, including a visit to Mark Twain's house, but they will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, I will savor the exhilarating joys of trying to figure out how to spend the gift-cards to bookstores that I received as graduation gifts. Mmm... new books.

Delighted Listiness

You know how I love a good list - of books and of films, in particular. Seeing a "best of" list makes my hands just itch to take up a highlighter and mark off the ones I have already read/seen, and to formulate grotesquely idealistic plans for devouring the remaining works.

Thus the implicit challenge in the titles of the books 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die was the red flag before the bull of my list addiction from the moment the tomes were published. I have been pursuing the completion of both lists for years now, and have made some significant progress, especially in the films list, which I have been conquering in roughly chronological order (I have been stalled out since in the mid-50s, I am sad to say, since the great dissertation crunch of early spring.).

This obsession was lent a new fervor when, a couple of weeks ago, I encountered a site that contains a downloadable spreadsheet of the "1001 Books" list. I had a spreadsheet before, I admit geekily, but nothing like this. This sucker allows you to mark off the books you have read, and tallies them up for you automatically. You then enter your age, and it tells you - based on your gender, and with an actuary's grim sense of prophecy - how many books you need to read a year in order to complete the list before you drop dead.

I need to read 16 a year.

"That's not so bad!" my mother assured me.

"It's more than one a month!" I mewled in panic. "And some of these books are, like, $%#*ing Finnegan's Wake!"

So my zeal for the list has been revived. I added a slew of the twentieth century books to my BookMooch wishlist, and took stock of the immense pile of "1001 Books" I already own. I began to consider (savoring the experience like a gourmand lingers over a scoop of foie gras) what the most evenhanded method of attack would be. I recalled Mee's new challenge, which asks participants to tackle the list in sub-lists of ten, choosing one from every group of ten in a grouping of 100 books from the list. But I couldn't confine myself to any group of 100. Sigh.

So here is my new approach (we will see how long it sticks):

  1. Divide the list of 1001 into groups of 20, chronologically.
  2. Choose one book to read from each group of 20.
  3. Starting with the earliest group of 20, progress through my chosen works. When I reach and complete the most recent group, return to step 2.
Here is how the beginning of my new list looks:
  • Don Quixote - already halfway completed. Of course, that means I still have about 400 pages left to wrassle with.
  • Tristram Shandy
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho
  • Ivanhoe
  • The Charterhouse of Parma
  • Walden
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • Far from the Madding Crowd
  • King Solomon's Mines
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Lord Jim
  • The Jungle
  • Ethan Frome
  • The Age of Innocence
  • The Professor's House
  • Swann's Way
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Glass Key
  • Tender is the Night
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • Embers
  • Cry, the Beloved Country
  • The Memoirs of Hadrian
  • Watt
  • A World of Love
Summer, with all its travel, might prove to be a tricksy time to start this sort of a project, since lugging around tomes the size of Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy can be a bit of an unwieldy prospect. We will see how it goes, and whether I manage to keep up a pace of about a book and a half a month.

On the theme of women's achievements (and alienated computers)

I have been blog-absent for several weeks, to my very great regret. What have I been up to in this period of dead air?

Well, first the absence-motivating event: my computer lost the ability to recognize its own power cord. After the academic year I've had, I frankly sympathized with its general alienation from even the idea of energy. But this alienation left me sadly computerless and internet-isolated for a couple of weeks, as I sent it away to be repaired. The latter end of this period coincided rather disastrously with the densest grading time of the semester, so by the time my computer was returned I had a couple of piles of assignments waiting to be analyzed and processed. Still, if the eMidlife iCrisis of my wee laptop had occurred just a couple of months earlier, during the Final Dissertation Push, the psychic consequences would have been infinitely more dire. So I feel strangely grateful that the old thing held itself together for long enough to see me through my own crisis time.

In the meantime, I attended my tenth high school reunion. I went to what might best be described in hyphen-saturated terms as an achievement-obsessed, all-girls, mildly-religious school, a school which is rumored to have been the primary source of research material for Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that inspired the film Mean Girls. For most of the past ten years, amidst my college and grad school friends' tales of high school experiences defined by isolation and bullying, I had managed to construct quite a rosy mental picture of my own time in high school, one in which the term "academic rigor" made frequent appearances, the concept of "cliques" appeared not at all, and I fondly recalled the fact that I used to wear one of my several capes (I was a theater person, which naturally yields the corollary that I was, in a broader sense, a drama person) to school regularly without encountering any trace of public mockery or bullying. Would that I were so unselfconscious now.

It was only recently, while talking to a student who had attended our brother school (by which I mean the boys' school that was associated with our girls' school), that someone expressed skepticism about this rosy picture. His impression of my high school, which his sister was currently attending, had considerably more in common with Mean Girls than my nostalgic construct. Suddenly I remembered all sorts of things that might have been better repressed: the fights we had our senior year, for instance, about whether our "senior theme" should be "the military," a proposal which seemed to be largely motivated by a desire to parade about in fatigues hazing underclassmen. After that came the memory of having to repeatedly protest the addition of what Stephen Colbert might now call "On Notice" and "Dead to Me" boards in the senior lounge, on which members of our class could post the names of underclassmen who offended them, so that they could be shunned by the rest of the seniors. Or the recollection that we were so out-of-control tense about college admissions that we were actually forbidden to speak about where we had been accepted while on school property. Of course, boasting finds a way: as admissions letters trickled in, girls soon began driving their cars up the school drive with prominent college stickers affixed to their windshields and bumpers.

So I approached my reunion with some trepidation. What did I find when I got there? That there were myriad friends I had fallen out of touch with whom I was desperately happy to see. That I hadn't felt bullied in high school because I didn't have the slightest desire to be friends with the "mean girls." (And that these girls still didn't have even the inkling of a desire to engage in conversation with me.) That we were all fairly dispirited by the falling college admission achievements of more recent classes, but that this was because it seemed to us to represent a shift away from the academic rigor we all remembered (that part of my nostalgic construct, at least, was proved right), and a failure to recruit and retain the excellent teachers we had loved. That when a group of former high school acquaintances get together in their late twenties, the ring fingers of left hands attract an unseemly amount of attention. That, despite this attention, the "boys" at our brother school's tenth reunion seemed much more interested in showing off wives/girlfriends/fiancées, while we (by contrast) were busy flaunting our advanced degrees. That we are a highly, HIGHLY educated group of women. About half of my class showed up to the reunion, and I only met one person who was not in the process of (or had recently obtained) a degree higher than a bachelor's. She, to our very great admiration, was working on an organic teaching farm, and planning to start her own agricultural venture. And that, as my delightful friend E commented while we tallied up all the MBAs and MAs and PhDs and JDs in progress, "counts. I mean, really, doesn't it? She has a FARM!!"

In the aftermath of the reunion, D. joined me on the east coast, where he will stay with me (hurrah!) until shortly after my graduation in a week and a half. At the moment, I am with him in Philadelphia, where he has been called up to do some film work. I haven't set foot in this city for at least ten years, and luckily our hotel is smack in the middle of the historic district, so the last couple of days have mostly consisted of wandering desultorily around beautiful gardens and antique houses filled (bizarrely) with people dressed in Revolutionary garb who insist on calling me "Madam" and telling me tidbits from the biography of Betsy Ross. I hadn't quite realized (see how much I have learned from the anachronistic strangers!) that, when the maker of our first flag apprenticed as an upholsterer, it was not at all a common trade for women, since it involved quite a lot of very heavy labor. What's more, Ross owned and operated her own shop through several marriages, which was (according to my temporally dislocated new friend) virtually unheard of in New England at the time.

There's certainly more to be said, although I can't quite put my finger on what it is at the moment, but I have the vague feeling that this is rambling on a bit long for a single post (look how much bloggery I have stored up in my absence from you!). Other stories will have to wait for another time...