Suppressing coughs and sneezes
Thank God for Twitter
I really want to blog about this exhibit, which I saw yesterday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But I’ve been up sick since 3am and – probably because there’s a storm coming soon – I swear it keeps getting darker, not lighter. So I’m going to do the Proust Questionnaire instead. Spoilers: It’s mostly about Tina Fey. And painful earnestness. Read at your own risk.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
36 hours alone in an unfamiliar city
What is your greatest fear?
Waking up one day to realize that I don’t recognize or want my life
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Which living person do you most admire?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Unkindness. Also (oxymoronically?) tediousness
What is your greatest extravagance?
Coffee shops and juice bars
What is your favorite journey?
Saturday morning bike rides to the Georgetown AMC movie theater
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
To cover up stupid mistakes
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Really,” “f**k,” “Here’s the thing…”
What is your greatest regret?
The times that, through combinations of negligence and ignorance, I’ve hurt other living people and things
Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
Ross and Creature
When and where were you happiest?
On top of a rock at Joshua Tree National Park in the middle of the night with Ross, watching the stars and listening to the coyotes sing
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to draw accurately
What is your current state of mind?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
At the moment, I would just love to not have this cold anymore
If you could change on thing about your family, what would it be?
I would have my dad back
What is your most treasured possession?
A corn husk doll I made with Dad at the San Jose Children’s Museum
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having to carry two bags of groceries and my backpack on the Metro at rush hour
Where would you like to live?
What is your favorite occupation?
What is your most marked characteristic?
My easy smile
What is the quality you most like in a man?
A sense of humor
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Elizabeth Miervaldis Lemon
Who are your heroes in real life?
My grandmother, my stepmom, Heather, Tina Fey, Aunt Bevan
What are your favorite names?
Jane, Liesl, Liam, Martin, Jules
What is it that you most dislike?
How would you like to die?
Not in a plane
What is your motto?
“Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”
“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”
My first few drafts of this post began with laborious descriptions of the exact contours of my passionate belief in resolutions, but I nixed it. Instead: I have a vivid image of the kind of person/scholar I want to be in 2015. Here are some of the things I’m hoping will help shepherd her in.
Blogging I’ve done some of my favorite writing ever here on this blog, which is great. On the other hand, I’ve had this blog for a year and a half – my first post dates from September of 2013 – and I’ve only posted nine times. That’s not great. I want to spend more time in this space, not only because I find it generative to write for an audience (however imaginary!) and because dissertating is lonely work, but also because there’s a generosity about blogging that I love. Online spaces like In the Middle, Medieval Meets World, and Medieval Karl have hugely shaped my thinking and my writing, both academically and otherwise (indeed, what I love most about these blogs is how they merge the personal and the professional); if I can share anything of value, I feel like I should. Also, I CAN’T EVEN with Twitter.
Writing The great theme of 2015. Everyone in the world says to write every day, and I want to do that in as many venues as I can. Here. My journal. The blog I keep for R’s and my families. My dissertation, probably. On my ancient typewriter, just for the noisy joy of it. Twitter (*sigh*) In addition to all that, I have three conference papers to write and two articles that I’m polishing for possible publication, all of which will give me good practice for my next task…
Style … which is to find – or maybe just unfix? – my writing style. Someone I admire once described my writing as having a certain “grad school creakiness,” which hurt only because of how true it is. There’s a stodginess to my academic voice that I really hate, especially because it’s (weirdly!) mingled with a kind of breathless, italicized, adverb-heavy earnestness. Some of that might be fixed, but maybe I can change some of it by writing a lot, and in a lot of venues. On an even more personal note, I also feel that I’m just beginning to find my sense of style as a human making choices in the world. I want to keep working on that, too.
DC I’m planning on going on the job market this fall (a whole other thing for a whole other post), which is a reminder that one way or another my time here is almost definitely limited. I love living in DC dearly. I’m writing this from the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. But there are miles of this city that I barely know, and I’m hungry for more of it, so a major goal for this year is to get out more (even if it’s just to write in assorted coffee shops).
Generosity and Saying No I had this epiphany once where I realized that I was cutting short nearly every conversation I was engaged in, so sure was I that people would get tired of talking to me. Since then, I’ve tried to be more generous, more willing to privilege the benefit of the doubt over my own insecurity. I want to keep that up this year and to cultivate a generous spirit in other ways, too, including by saying no more often. I figure the less spread out I am, the more present I can be, able to give my time and attention when it counts.
Wish me luck, and the same to you. Happy New Year.
Last night I held a mouse while it died. I had just shooed away a menacing cat outside our local library, and not for the first time, either. A few months ago I rescued a sparrow from this same cat, carrying it home in a box supplied by a nearby friend. I hoped an evening’s worth of quiet at my house would help him recover from his shock, and it worked, I think; the next morning he hopped away into the bushes. The mouse wasn’t so lucky. He was alive when I picked him up and wrapped him in my sweater, but dead before I got home. He died from fear, I think, and for all I know my picking him up may have been what pushed him over the edge.
To Ross’ deep confusion (perhaps to yours too, dear reader), I brought the mouse home anyway, cradling its still little body with toilet paper in a box that used to hold earrings. I wanted a few things: to look at him some more, to give his body somewhere warm and safe to rest overnight, to keep him until the morning. I wanted to take pictures, too, not out of a desire to share them, so much (although I will share them, here), but more to record the overwhelmingly present and particular details of his tiny body. The velvety softness of his ears, his softly closed mouth (so much like my cat’s when she is sleeping), his distinct and delicate whiskers: I couldn’t get over the uniqueness of this little mouse. There is (was? The tenses of the dead are impossible) a white spot on his head, too, and it was this detail in particular that brought me to messy tears as I placed the lid over the box.
This morning I carried the box to my favorite park, thinking along the way of Marie de France’s “Laustic,” in which a different dead animal–a nightingale–ends up in a much more ornate box, the victim of a jealous husband. The thing is, even though the lai’s title means the nightingale, and even thought the body of the laustic is reverently handled, “Laustic” is not the bird’s story. The lai is much more interested in the rather flighty lovers, and even the nightingale’s reliquary can be read as nothing more than a symbol of their shallow romance. I thought about this as I carried my own little box; I’m thinking about it as I write. Whose story am I trying to tell? When I carefully placed the mouse’s body in a peaceful and private corner of the garden, who was I doing that for?
Does all this sound completely bonkers? It feels that way, a little. And yet this confusing, compulsive need to attend to this mouse’s death also feels like a logical continuation of something I’ve been struggling with all summer: as it happens, I’ve been working for a while now, and without much success, on a dissertation prospectus about animal death. I’ve been having trouble articulating my stakes in the argument, but without being sure why. Now I think I know. Carrying the mouse in my heart and hands over the past day reminded me of something I should have already known: as always, my stake in this project is deeply personal, intricately linked with my greatest sorrows.
I don’t often have trouble sleeping, but there are two topics that, if I allow myself to think about them at the wrong time, will reliably lead to sleepless nights. The first is animal suffering, and particularly projected extinction rates. The second is my dad, who is very, very slowly fading away from brain cancer. There is essentially nothing I can do to prevent either of these losses. There was nothing I could do to prevent the loss of the mouse, either (or if there was, I didn’t and don’t know it), and so that uniquely vibrant assemblage is gone forever. But I could do something with its body, and in so doing mark the passing, even just to myself, of something distinct from the world.
The stories we tell about the dead are not for them. Indeed, “dead” seems like an ecological misnomer, as the mouse, for instance, will go on to provide life for many more creatures (Karl Steel has written beautifully on medieval instantiations of this idea here). So, someday, will you. So will I. As species pass away, others will take their place, although probably not in such diversity. As I write this, the cat is probably beginning to think about sauntering to the library to find some other creature to kill. The powerful play goes on, and all that.
I believe in these cycles, and sometimes I’m even comforted by them. But I also believe that the thing that comes in between now and then–death–is a thing that should be noted, even if our attempts to do so are, ultimately, only for ourselves. I want to write a dissertation about animal death because I think the stories we tell ourselves about death matter, and that even if our motives in marking death are selfish–death does not matter to the dead–the sympathies we express by noting it are not. Medieval theological thought set strict limits on the different possibilities for human and animal afterlives. But then, as now, the actual moment comes to us all.
“Someone told me some secrets early on about living. You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed. No matter what it is, no matter what your job is, the more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did it, and I thought, Well, that’s a job I can be proud of. I’d be proud to have that job, if I had to go to work and say, ‘No matter what my condition or what my mood is, no matter how I feel about what’s going on in my life, if I can relax myself and enjoy what I’m doing and have fun with it, then I can do my job really well.’ And it’s changed my life, learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do. I’m not the greatest or anything. But I really enjoy what I do.”
Update! My dear friend Kathayoon Khalil, a zoo evaluator and PhD candidate at Stanford, just posted an article on Slate about her own experience at OZ. It’s beautiful and frank and well worth your time.
A few days ago my dear friend Amanda wrote this on Facebook in response to the news that one of the Oregon Zoo’s 15-year old tigers, Nicole (“Nikki”), had suddenly passed away:
“Love to my OZ friends. And perhaps especially to my Tiger Camp comrades.”
(More on Amanda’s post in a second). Nicole and Mikhail (Nikki and Mikki) were born, all black and orange stripes, on Halloween 1998 at a zoo in Michigan. The Oregon Zoo has a large and very popular camp program, accepting kids all the way from four to fourteen. Most of the camp levels are named after animals in the zoo’s collection: penguin, tiger, giraffe, rhino, otter, cougar. Like Miss Amanda, I worked in Tiger Camp with kids going into the first grade. For a while, we quietly called our classroom the Bengal Lounge (even though Nikki and Mikki are Amur, not Bengal tigers. Those distinctions were important to us at zoo camp).
It took me a long time to get my job at OZ. My college-era interview skills were truly, comically terrible, and it wasn’t until my third summer that I landed a job as a sub, which led to three more full-time summers and a year-round position working in the overnight program. With the possible exception of graduate school, I’ve never spent so much time pursuing something. But from the very first second of my first round of interviewing, I knew I would love working in that place, with those people. And I did.
Working as a scholar in critical animal studies, I come up against critiques of zoos all the time, and my feelings about zoos are complicated. I worked in education positions at another zoo and an aquarium after OZ, and while both of them were fine, I found each of them insufficiently focused on conservation education. What’s more, the culture of those two institutions was such that I never really learned much of anything about the animals as individuals. At OZ, it was a point of importance and pride to really know these animals. Many of the camp staff members had gone through the Zoo Teen program, and some of the staff had even been camp kids themselves. These people had spent years – sometimes a decade or more – around these animals, and as a result we didn’t just have facts about them. We had stories about Akim the giraffe, Conrad the polar bear, Nikki and Mikki. We knew their names. We could tell them apart. And not just charismatic megafauna, either. I’ve forgotten them now, but I remember making a point to learn the names of a pair of recently acquired Egyptian spiny mice. We introduced these animals, told their stories, shared their names with the kids in our care, and it really did seem to make a difference. More than once I’ve (unintentionally, but, I hope, productively) made a first grader cry with the information that Amur tigers are endangered, that there’s a possibility of a world without creatures like Nikki.
Amanda, who taught me nearly everything I know about teaching kids about animals, described this sense of intimacy beautifully in her Facebook post:
“It continues to amaze me how special it is that while we spent thousands of hours educating nearby, we were growing to know magnificent animals by name, personality, and behaviors. They are/were our colleagues in education as much as anyone. That is so poignant to me and shapes all that I believe about the animal kingdom, zoos, and conservation. Nikki was pretty special in my heart. Hugs, dears.”
As it happens, I was talking about the OZ tigers earlier on the day Amanda posted this. Nikki and Mikki came up because someone asked me what my essay in postmedieval was about. I always talk about the OZ tigers when I’m asked about that article, because even though I don’t mention them or the zoo at all in the paper itself, they were crucial to my thinking about it. My paper is about the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist working in the thirteenth century. Villard drew a lot of things – architecture, faces, wild men, insects, and a cat cleaning itself. One of his most controversial drawings, however, is this one of a lion, which is accompanied by the caption “contrefais al vif” – drawn from life.
Scholars have argued for a long time over whether or not Villard actually drew this image. After all, it doesn’t hugely resemble what we all “know” lions to actually look like, especially when compared to the accuracy of Villard’s other images. I chart an alternate path through this controversy, arguing that Villard’s lions represent a moment of encounter with a dangerous object, a strange, ultimately unknowable, predatory other. Although I never put it this way in my piece (and maybe I should have), I’m really arguing that Villard’s drawing is of what it feels like to be near a predatory cat, something that -thanks to Nicole – I know a little bit about.
Camp starts early during the summer, and when I was working at the zoo I would arrive around 7am. I loved the zoo in the morning. The grounds weren’t open yet, so there was a sense of having the place just to us, the staff. The animals are also generally most active in the morning. Some days I’d stop for a meditative moment to watch Gus and Julius, our Stellar Sea Lions, dive and surface, breaking the stillness with their loud exhalations. Other mornings I’d pause in front of the gibbons, watching them swing around on unbelievably long arms (longer by far than their legs) and listening to them scream at each other in their characteristically climactic way. But I never missed walking by Nikki and Mikki, as their horseshoe-shaped enclosure was on the way from the admin building to our classroom. On many of these mornings Nikki or Mikki – sometimes both – would watch me as I walked around the long perimeter of their home. This focused attention from a predator never failed to raise the hair on my neck, and I know I wasn’t alone. I’ve heard other camp staff talk about this same feeling. Years later, Villard’s lion – with its fiercely intelligent face and direct gaze – powerfully evoked a sense memory in me of crisp summer mornings and the goosebumps that come from being potentially prey. I could never have written the essay I did – really, I wouldn’t be doing any of the work I’m doing now – without the years I spent around those extraordinary, individual animals.
Anyway, zoos are complicated, the relationships between humans and animals are complicated, and I don’t pretend that even the Oregon Zoo of my rosy-hued memory is without some darkness and injustice. There’s a lot of magical thinking in this blog post, and I understand that. But I nevertheless feel a need, however clumsily, to say this: thank you, Nicole. Thank you for being alive, for the moments of charged intimacy and uneasy eye contact, for informing my academic work and meaning so much to so many first graders. It could very well be that my feelings about you aren’t important at all to anyone else, but here they are. You mattered to me. I remember you, and always will. You are missed.