food for thought

My hands smell like tomato and red onions from my garden.  Yes, I’m home.  Feeling particularly happy, too.  I spent the morning working on the computer in my yard under the towering shelter of my elm tree.  One of the happiest places on earth (screw Disney — neither the World nor the Land have an elm tree).

No more long distance travel.

I like saying that.

I’m worn out and sick; the first thing that happened when I got home was a nosebleed, and it got more virusey until I felt like a stuffed, leaky balloon.  Spending two plus weeks on crowded public transportation will do that to ya.  But even with that, and even with the imminent departure (again) of Retrogrouch, I’m glad I went back to Europe, even with the suffering of travel, since I did quite a bit on my dissertation-turning-into-a-book and my second-book-in-gestation.

I can hardly complain — even though I don’t really get a vacation (despite what people believe — most academics work harder in the summer because they need to rush to do their research and writing on their unpaid time “off”).  It’s fascinating business, poking around in other people’s letters and perusing banned books in the name of science.  (Above: the science of Facebook procrastination.)

When I was a student, I had to get a special letter from my advisor that confirmed why I needed to use the British Library.  Now, I just sailed in and said I was a professor and I got my card renewed.  How cool is that. (I tried to take this line of argument even farther, noting to a colleague that I looked rumpled enough for professorial street cred so they didn’t even search my bag upon entry.  Alas, my street cred was yanked when they asked me to open up as we entered the library together.  Curses!  Maybe with tenure.)

The British Library Rare Books Reading Room is a fascinating place (it’s somewhere on the second floor of the building on the far left; the library is next to the Victorian behemoth St. Pancras station), populated with the oddest creatures.  There are magicians with leather-bound hand-printed books written from the bowels of English, and impeccably dressed young women studying new books impressively or flirtatiously, depending, and Mark Twain.  Yes, he’s there…with an Afro twice as large as life.  There are the very old men in patched tweed you’d expect with tracts and treatises, and frumpy middle-aged women preoccupied with giant, sea-monstered maps.  There’s a blond woman whose French letters spill over into your desk area.  You move her, distastefully.  And there’s an American Indian woman — that is, a woman of Indian descent who cries out with an American accent: “how am I supposed to read this?  This is nonsense!” in the microfilm room.  You look up, your eyes bloodshot.  You don’t know.  She’s right.

In the library, time stops for everyone but the library clerks.  The copy room monitor announces that the copy room will be closing in ten minutes, then literally watches the second hand sweep on his watch, declaring every two minutes that it will be closing in 8, 6, 4, 2… 0 hours, Greenwich Mean Time.  The librarians retrieve and reshelve books for the endless stream of fumbling patrons, so they get as eager as horses ready to return to the paddock when it’s close to closing time.  You have to beg for a book back because you forgot to note a page…even though the library won’t be closing for another 30 minutes.  They know time stops for us.  And they won’t let us forget it.

Before London, as you know if you read this blog, I was in Switzerland, discussing Joycean food.  Studying James Joyce is one of the best things about being an academic for me.  You’ll hear some haters, especially specialists of other areas of modern literature, hate on Joyce and the so-called “Joyce Industry.” If you listen to them, you will uncover a group of elitist robotic groupies churning out mountains of worshipful articles and books on our hero, James Joyce.

If you don’t listen to these miserable people, however, you might tune in to the laughing and wit and drinking and fascinating stories.  The Joyceans are a great mix of specialists — you will never see so many non-academics at another academic conference.  That alone says everything one needs to know.  The group never fails to be convivial, with nightly ad hoc dinners and bar outings.   And older and younger people mix in informal and productive ways, kind of a rarity in academia.  When we’re all together, we forget about all the daily humiliations and deprivations of being an academic and focus on the one reason we remain: literature enriches us.

We had a wonderful time talking about literary food at the Zurich James Joyce Foundation.  Inspired by a line in Ulysses about a Chinese hundred-year egg, a participant from Taiwan found some in an Asian market and prepared them with tofu.  We had a lovely workshop dinner at a restaurant on Lake Zurich, across a long wood bridge through an estuary from the village of Rapperswil.  And we dined on Indian food at our goodbye dinner.  Still, we found some time for Swiss specialties, not the least of which was the Voderer Sternen grilled sausage lunch.  How can one go wrong with a grilled sausage, hunk of bread, and plastic cup of mustard?

One of the nicest aspects of the Zurich workshop was our communal lunches at the Foundation.  Everyone shared the responsibility for buying, preparation, and clean up.  We dined like kings on cold cuts, cheese, bread, salad and sweets.  The espresso machine got a workout, as we caffeinated ourselves between sessions on topics like cocoa, meat, and biscuits.  My talk was on literary references to produce in Joyce’s works, and what exactly it meant to be buying things like peaches and pears and pineapples in turn-of-the-century Dublin.

One famous hater once said that to stop studying Ulysses was like a fall from grace.   Those words were meant as loaded, surely, but I read them as a simple convert.  I know the grace, gracefulness, graciousness of a Joycean gathering.  And for all of them, I am grateful.  There are many really terrible things about being an academic, but I feel very fortunate that I get to experience the very best of it, too.

So now, back in Eugene, I have about a month of hard work to finish several projects and spiff up my portfolio for the year’s round of various applications.  But I promise not to be too annoyed when yet another person asks me if I enjoyed my time off this summer!

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