Dealing with colleagues and friends in the UK and the US, I am often reminded of certain words that have very different meanings - particularly the kind of words that come up in corporate/professional situations. They can be a particular challenge for English learners (as though English weren't complicated enough!). These are the ones that have popped up lately; feel free to add in comments if you think of others.
Recently an academic told me he had "pledged" to not participate in any all-male conference panels.
I wasn't sure how to respond: was I supposed to be grateful, as a female academic, that he was making this gesture? It seemed both condescending and smug. But I couldn't clearly articulate quite why it pissed me off until I read this piece in Jezebel:
If you want a change to be normalised, just do it. Don't ask for applause.
I've set up a kickstarter to promote the idea of boredom in our lives. And I already have a supporter! Do you need more boredom? See the project here:
I was recently fortunate enough to interview members of ICE's human rights group, who work tracking down war criminals in the United States. I wrote about it for TIME.
I've also written for the Chronicle, on teaching
and university finances
The Expendables 3 is coming out. I will confess I did see the previous two, but I doubt that's necessary to follow the plot.
I notice there is a woman in this one, getting main billing on the poster with all the men. Will this film pass the Bechdel test? I somehow doubt it, I suspect it's going to be the Smurfette syndrome.
The female star is Ronda Rousey. She is a mixed martial artist, which means she should be convincing in the fight scenes. (I've no idea her acting skills but it's not like anyone else in this line-up is Laurence Olivier). Also, at 27, she's young enough to be the daughter of most of the men in the film.
But where are the VETERAN female action stars? Where are Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver, or Michelle Yeo? Or Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Kate Beckinsale, Lucy Liu?
I mean, come on, Kelsey Grammer? A guy whose most action-y role so far was playing a psychiatrist who probably sprained his ankle hurrying to the box office for opera tickets?
I want to see Geena Davis (who has spoken out so much against the underrepresentation of women in film) as a bounty hunter.
The last three weeks have been a hectic whirl, of four countries and a nightmare of moving that I won't even begin to express.
In London I went to see David Bowie Is.... , a mindblowing exhibition. It's rare for any museum to put on a show about such a talented, fashion-shaping individual, but the way they laced different phases of his life (personal notes, clothing - lots of clothing - and drawings) was so involving, and the soundrack on the audioguide was brilliant. I have never seen anything like it—and I doubt I will again.
Meantime, my own scribblings have appeared elsewhere:
In Slate, I reviewed a book on the History of Neon.
And for The Australian, a book on the history of whale hunting.
And now through the miracle of technology, I can track the ship carrying my possessions from Munich to the Pacific.
Salon just published a piece saying that the gay rights movement has an advantage over the abortion rights movement, in that celebrities are willing to come out as gay, while few come out as having had an abortion.
This distinction can be parsed further though, in ways they do not: gay is an identity, having an abortion is an event - in a life full of other events.
Nonetheless, I said recently to my students that people will more readily admit to a drug addiction to an abortion. Most (especially the male students) seemed surprised by this. But it's obviously true: there is a tv show called Celebrity Rehab, not Celebrity Abortion Clinic.
I realise this is because abortion strikes at the twin axes on which women are most harshly judged. One: their sexual behaviour (if you need an abortion, you must be a slut having sex out of wedlock), and Two: their maternal skills (getting rid of a pregnancy is about as unmaternal as one can get). The women who tend to speak publicly about abortions are the repentant, putting it in the "terrible mistakes I made when I was young" category, not the "damn straight I did it and I'd do it again" school.
It's true that if women more willingly admitted to having ended pregnancies, this would have the power to overturn the debate on the issue: as politicians would realise how many women they know have made use of the right to choose.
In 1941, Desi Arnaz was an up-and-coming performer, with some Broadway and Hollywood credits, looking to become a headliner. He had married Lucille Ball the previous year, after they met on the set of Too Many Girls.
But when he premiered his song "Babalu" at Newburgh’s Ritz Theater, few in the audience would have known the significance of the date: December 17.
Babalú, first a Yoruba deity, crossed the Atlantic with his adherents when they were transported as slaves. As Santeria emerged in Cuba as a syncretism of African spirit worship and Catholic rituals, Babalú became one of the most popular of the Cuban Lucumí Santería orishas. He has been linked with Saint Lazarus, and now shares that Saint’s feast day of December 17.
The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”. He is believed to be associated with epidemics—curing them, as well as bringing them down upon communities when displeased. In Cuba, thousands of devotees gather each December at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón.
The Spanish version of the song, written by Margarita Lecuona and performed by Arnaz, describes invoking the god with offerings of tobacco and alcohol, and lighting seventeen candles in the shape of a cross. He asks Babalú for protection.
Ta empezando lo velorio
Que le hacemo a Babalu
Dame diez y siete velas
Pa ponerle en cruz.
Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,
Dame un poco de dinero mayenye
Pa' que me de la suerte.
However, the English version published that year (lyrics by S. K. Russell) doesn't translate the story, but change it completely. The lyrics set the piece back in Africa, making the (implicitly white) singer an observer, not a participant in the worship of Babalú. It also refers to Babalú as a "Voodoo" god of love.
Jungle drums were madly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
A a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Godess of love.
Of course in December 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, audiences were also looking for a distraction. Arnaz’s music, and his long conga solo, would have been a welcome source of entertainment. A few years later “Babalú” became the signature song of his character, Ricky Ricardo, on I Love Lucy. That he chose to perform it first on December 17 shows that perhaps he was hoping for some protection, and luck, too.
I like Regina Spektor's music. But when I heard "On The Radio" the other day—being sung along to by a couple of girls—I was struck by the line "everyone must breathe, until their dying breath". Well, yes, I suppose they must. But where does this pseudoprofundity come from? (or rather who decided this was an ok line to go ahead and record? Cole Porter wouldn't have gone near it, Jimmy Webb might have but regretted it the next morning). But there seems to be a lot more of this kind of nonsense in music these days.
The popular singer-songwriter is a modern creature, dating only from the availability of sheet music and recorded music. Earlier singer-songwriters were troubadours, who adjusted their ballads to suit the audience, or related recent events—and what they performed generally wasn't written down.
Folk songs, which everyone knew, weren't written down either, and were probably written collaboratively over generations by Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
There were also people who wrote down songs that aspired to universal themes, about life, death, and God. Those songs are called hymns. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away".... more affecting than something about breathing until you stop breathing.
Once we got into the twentieth century though, people wrote (and recorded) songs typically on the themes of:
1. I'm in love!
2. The person I love doesn't love me, and it's a bummer.
3. My whole life's a bummer. Dead dog, no job.
4. Everyone's life's a bummer. Try to look on the bright side. (a popular theme in the Great Depression).
5. Commentary on blue-collar life and/or prison.
6. The apparent suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.
But songs that include the singer's (banal) pronouncements on the meaning of life started increasing since the 1960s (with the arrival of a new theme: 7. Stick it to the Man), and seem to have really proliferated today. It's one thing to get musings on life from people who've really clocked up some city miles, like Tammy Wynette, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Young, or Edith Piaf. But learning that "If the light is off, then it isn't on" (Hilary Duff), brings to mind the all-time-stupid of Des'ree's preference for toast over ghosts.
A song relating personal feelings, performed in the first person, can be one of the most moving art forms we have. "Love Me Tender" and "Cry Me a River" are aimed at specific, second-person recipients. But any listeners can imagine themselves either as the singer or the recipient. These songs paradoxically achieve universality by being personal. Many of us have acquired our emotional vocabulary through such songs.
However, when songwriters strive for universal observations on the human condition, they wind up sounding like fortune cookies. We don't experience life in general, but in specifics.
If you think I'm being harsh towards Spektor (and before anyone tells me that English isn't her first language, I'm pretty sure that "dying breath" stuff doesn't sound any better in Russian), she is clearly innovative musically, and this kind of lousy lyric lets her down.
That same song has the far more evocative passage:
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
pumping someone else's blood
This reminds me of another form of songwriting, the factory-like
production of pop and dance songs by Ester Dean to be performed by the
likes of Rihanna. The astonishingly talented Dean's feelings, her words, are put into someone
else's heart, filling someone else's album. In fact, she is able to step into another performer's persona, in creating a song to suit their image.
Of course, it remains to be seen which of today's singles become part of tomorrow's songbook. As Van Halen said, "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."
After I wrote the Ten Commandments of Twitter for Academics, a whole bunch of Twitterstorians came out. We've now been keeping the history conversation going on twitter for over three years!
So here are some more for you to follow:@modernmack
Today I visited the Museum of Crime in Vienna, a wonderfully old-school museum. No interactivity here, or apologies to the squeamish. Tracing the history of criminal policing in Vienna since the early modern period, there are displays on numerous celebrated crimes for each period.
These are illustrated by (for the earlier periods), woodcuts, then newspaper illustrations (themselves entertaining, showing people being variously shot, stabbed, or thrown out of carriages in the best traditions of the sensational press).
But they also have various artifacts from some of the crimes. These include a mummified head, the skull of a multiple murderer which was said to demonstrate "abnormalities", plus fragments of clothing, murder weapons, and a guillotine. There are death masks, life masks, and wax models made of victims' chests showing stab or bullet wounds. There are even the skulls of two small children who were murdered by their father.
They have a photocopied leaflet giving some information (to call it a guide would be generous) - but the displays themselves are abundantly textual, albeit all auf Deutsch. Their English leaflet is itself an adventure in linguistic crime, which includes the sentence "Lively bloodcurdling ballads were distributed in ancient Vienna until the end of public executions in 1868, bringing a farewell to the idyll of the Biedermeier period". I've always found public hangings idyllic, haven't you?
What the museum does remind us are the graphic ways crime was reported in the past. Today, even as we hunger for more crime-focused stories (look at CSI, and murder mystery novels, many today with levels of gruesome detail that would have given Agatha Christie the vapours), the reporting of actual crime is ever more sanitised. At least in Western countries, we don't normally see photos of corpses or crime scenes in the paper.
One of the museum's displays relates to a crime in 1685, when the dismembered body of a woman was found (piece by piece, over successive days), and it was put back together and put on public display in the hopes that someone would identify the woman. Nobody did, however the tactic of displaying the bodies of unknown victims seems to have continued (we see both photos and newspaper illustrations of looky-loos lining up to gawp at the corpse).
The idea of putting a corpse on public display to aid identification seems unpalatable now, Even the Doe Network, dedicated to helping identify unknown (or "John Doe") victims, has identikit sketches of the deceased; not photos.
The museum also shows the evolution of police uniforms, and its displays cover celebrated crimes up til the 1980s. Towards the end, there is more about the development of forensics which is also interesting. The pictures here show a criminal's skull and a display relating to a couterfeiting case.
If you're in Vienna, and willing to look at this kind of thing, worth a visit. If you're of a gentle disposition, skip it and go to the art museum.
On Thursday I had the opportunity to walk through a house that is up for auction, near where I am living in Newburgh. I had been curious about this unusual property from the outside, and wondered about what the interior must be like. The answer is: in severe need of repair, but still retaining some of its best features, including the original wood panelling.
It has become city property due to non-payment of taxes, and they are auctioning it. This 1870 house was once a beautiful example of the city's heyday. Originally symmetrical, an early owner modified it to add the turret on one side. The rooms in the turret actually feature curved windows, with curved glass.
So the fate of this house will be decided by the purchaser. For someone with a passion for re-habbing (and deep pockets), this could be the one. From the back, there are views of the Hudson - this house has the potential to be a stunning home.
Whoever they are, they will join a growing community in Newburgh restoring these elegant properties. The city is keen to encourage these projects, and tax breaks and special loans are available for historic restoration.
The house is at 288 Grand St, and there will be further open house opportunities on October 5th and 12th.
Last week I was back in Cambridge to attend a friend's wedding. As I watched this marriage in a college chapel, I was staying in a guest room that had that Cambridge smell. The chapel was beautiful, and kneeling on that hard pillow with my back straining reminded me of so many evensongs.
I felt oddly nostalgic but reminded too of the reasons living in England again would be difficult. Cambridge remains as it ever was, a contradictory place. A short stroll will show you, by turns, elegant and trashy, beautiful and stark, crowded and still.
Seeing friends who have stayed on in academe—and those who have not—raised the usual contemplations of my career and what graduate school really does to people. But one of the things it has done for a number of my friends, including the one just married, is bring them together with their life partner.
The intellectual atmosphere and forced proximity of graduate school is the ideal venue for academic over-achievers to pair off. This is such a recent phenomenon (in terms of when many top universities got around to admitting women), it remains to be seen what effect this will have on academe long-term. Perhaps the notion of the social spaces within academia will change. We have already moved on from the—once common—acknowledgment of gratitude in book or thesis to the "wife who typed my manuscript".
Strange days indeed, to still be at the very tail end, generationally, of the bachelor dons who once filled Oxbridge colleges.
In Newburgh, where I am now working for the Newburgh Historical Society, there are many people fixing up old houses.
Just across the street from the Crawford House (the society's HQ), the owner put up this sign, asking for input on paint choice.
Which paint color do you prefer? (I chose maroon).
It shows the kind of community spirit often demonstrated in places like Newburgh by those involved in restoration. It invites neighbours to feel invested in what's going on in their environment. Those improving a house are not just fixing up their own home, but adding something to the area.
Many more twitterstorians have appeared, here are some:
Plenty of movies and photographs (and vintage stores, and grandmother’s jewellery boxes) show us that clip-on earrings were very popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, when pierced ears became standard once again. But why did the custom drop off? Was it precisely the association of pierced ears with immigrants: that the arrival of large numbers of people from southern Europe, who tended to pierce the ears of their infant daughters, made the practice seem declassé to the WASP middle classes? This is just my stab-in-the-dark guess; I’d be interested to know if any readers have more information. (It seems to have dropped from popularity far too early for blood-borne diseases to have been a concern).
We know that in the classical world, Greek sailors wore a gold earring that they could use to pay the boatman across the river Styx, and the Song of Solomon mentions earrings. There is plenty of evidence of some women in the early modern period in Europe having their ears pierced (some earrings still exist, and portraits show at least elite women had them). But like so many small details of women’s lives, particularly those relating to beauty customs, we have sketchy evidence even of recent generations. *John Ayers, Missing Men, New York, 1932
I recently finished reading Caitlin Flanagan's Girl Land. She has copped a fair amount of criticism for this book here and there, and I think one of the main problems with the book is its description as a history of girlhood. It is nowhere near comprehensive enough for that. It is a rumination on twentieth century girlhood among middle-class white girls, seen through the lens of Flanagan's own childhood.
This aspect of her writing is what some people hate, the riffing on her own life. But I think it's when she's at her best. She is able to describe acutely some of the experiences of young girls and women. Although she's not a fiction writer, I would rate her alongside Alice Munro for her ability to recount female life in a way that produces a shock of recognition.
Of course, the reason I feel such recognition is that I lived a similar childhood. Although I'm almost a generation younger than Flanagan, we shared the same world of girl-dom: reading Judy Blume novels, spending hours alone in our bedrooms listening to music and styling our hair (and agonising over our physical imperfections). Interestingly, dieting and body-hatred are not issues she really delves into in this book. I guess she came of age just before the anorexia epidemic, which was in full swing by the time I reached adolescence.
Flanagan offers advice for parents of girls, which mostly boils down to keeping them away from porn on the internet, and indeed keeping them away from the internet altogether so they can develop their own imaginations. Although I'm well out of girlhood, the advice to stay away from the internet because it rots your brain is probably good advice for me too. So pervasive has the web become, I actually have trouble imagining how I spent all those long summers and afternoons as I was growing up.
I think that I was part of the very last cohort (among privileged white girls) to have the type of girlhood that Flanagan describes. I didn't have an email address til I went to university. Had I been born just a couple of years later, I would have had a laptop in high school. I suspect, sad as it is, that the kind of childhood she describes is gone forever.
Nonetheless, technology has a way of giving and taking: both often in ways unexpected. A glance at past predictions of the future show how far off they turned out to be (how's that paperless office working out for you?).
I have been asked several times recently where I think the future of digital humanities is going. I found myself clawing the air for an answer. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we never really know what's going to happen. Whatever we may hope (or fear) something different again is likely to emerge as new players enter the field.
Much like growing up, where we fear and hope for adulthood, and nothing ever really comes out as we planned. I hope digital humanities manages to keep its imagination growing, and develop in ways none of us expect.