23 October 2008

Follow Up

You know, I think I would go so far as to call him a cute guy.

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21 October 2008

This One Was Supposed to Be Light-Hearted

There's an attractive man here who is actually around my own age; I met him on Saturday.  I wouldn't go so far as to call him a cute guy, but he's certainly attractive enough to while away some time with.  So today, which was the first day after Saturday that I was at college for lunch, I put some rouge and some mascara before  I went to the refectory.  And of course he didn't show up!  How irritating.  I probably would have put the rouge on anyway, since I'm so pasty pale, but it's still irritating to feel that I acted out of my ordinary pointlessly.  Moral: don't put on mascara on the off-chance that a cute guy might show up.  Boy, that's one to take to your grave.

But this actually does raise a knottier issue (see?  this is why it's called "This One Was Supposed to Be Light-Hearted").  This man is reasonably sexy, and pleasant enough, but I already know that he's not someone I'd want to get involved with.  And, really, I am looking for someone to get involved with.  It's always been a puzzle to me how to negotiate that difficulty: that is, the difficulty of having immediate sexual desires even as you have long-term emotional desires.  If I want to have sex, that want is quite separate from my wanting to have a partner -- that is, it would be nice to be having sex with a long-term partner, but the fact that I don't have a potential such person around doesn't stop my desire to have sex.  What do you do?  Do you just sit on your sexual feelings, or deal with them yourself, until you find a partner?  That seems a waste of those feelings, to me, and thus in fact seems quite sad.  Or do you have sex with someone you don't really want to be with, which not only throws up all sorts of problems (such as, how do you tell them that?  do you?  how do you extract yourself in some way after the necessarily brief relationship has run its course?), but also is rather sad in its way, because it would be nicer if the sex came with an attachment that was more than simple physical desire.

My best friend told me once that thought is considered by some scientists to be an epiphenomenon, and it's complexities like this that make me believe it.  If I didn't have a consciousness/thought, I'd have no desire for emotional or intellectual connection, and when I wanted to have sex I'd just have it (and probably pretty much enjoy it all the time, since intellectual stimulation or the need to articulate preferences wouldn't be an issue).  But thought and intellect make me want partnership as well as sex.  And what's more, they give me the ability to trouble myself with these thoughts in the first place.  Thanks, nature.

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18 October 2008

Now Could I Drink Hot Milk

It's 11:30 and I'm all tucked up in bed, with a cup of tea beside me, wearing the  black and 
white dress I bought from Next yesterday.  The dress is a bit iffy, as it's got short sleeves and a scoop neck, but I teamed it with a black ballet cardigan, and it looks quite good (of course, since I'm in bed I shouldn't be wearing either dress or cardigan, but they were so comfy that I couldn't be fussed).

Speaking of ballet, I took my first class for four months on Thursday.  It took place in a room that has a cement floor, overlaid with wood parquet, and when you add no classes for four months to jumping on cement floor, you have extreme calf pain. The class was okay.  I've since found one run by the University Ballet Society, so I'm going to try that next week, also, and see which one I prefer.  Well, I'm going to do that if my calves will
allow me to.

This past week was a busy week.  I went to my first Cambridge talk - funnily enough, given by a man who's an acadend of mine, but about whose talk I knew nothing until I was informed by someone I was having lunch with.  In fact, the lunch itself was an event, as it was with someone I'd only met in passing, a really, really lovely woman who invited me to lunch as soon as I e-mailed her (and the lunch was great).  I went to the talk despite the fact that I'd heard it before, and in a way it's a good thing I did go, as it was about Byron and thus allowed me to make a few comments without looking clueless.  Afterward, I went out with the people who were going out for dinner, and we had one of my favourite kinds of dinners:  the kind where everybody has just enough to drink to be relaxed and rather more intimate than they'd usually be at first dinner, but doesn't drink enough to be scary or embarrassing drunk.  I had a great time; I hope it repeats itself at some point.

There are two more talks this week, and who knows what delights await me there?  One of them even involves the London Monster, a subject about which I read a book last Thanksgiving, I think, (although it may have been New Year's), and which, although it can't quite achieve "interesting" manages "pretty interesting."  The talk won't be about the Monster; actually, it'll be about satirical prints, with the Monster as lead-in.  Oooo!

This week was also a big week because it was the week that I was...interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education!  That's right, academic journalism fans, I was questioned over international telephone, er, signals about the authorship of Frankenstein and why it matters.  I believe I acquitted myself reasonably well.  At least, I didn't say anything embarrassing, or anything obviously controversial, and I don't think I said anything that will result in my never getting a job again.  I did say a couple of things off the record (as we academic celebrities in training say), but when I think of what I said on the record I'm not ashamed.  And the reporter was also interviewing Charles Robinson and Susan Wolfson, so at the very least my jejune remarks will gain some lustre from the company they keep.  The article will be out near Hallowe'en, and I'm sure I'll provide a link.  I only got interviewed, incidentally, because I posted a feisty message on the Romanticism listserv when the complete fool who believes Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein, John Lauritsen, wrote in for about the eighth time in four years to remind us all that Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and I just couldn't take it any more.  I did keep telling the reporter that I was by no means an expert on the book.

And finally, the week was also a big week because I bought a book I'd been admiring in Waterstone's for the past two weeks.  This little gem is called Pop Charts, and it is, in fact, a collection of pop charts - but not the kind of pop charts you think.  Here are two, for example:

And the whole book is like that.  As is always the way with these kinds of things, a few are duds. But, as is almost never the way with these kinds of things, most are very funny indeed. 

And now, suddenly, I'm exhausted.  So I'm off to bed.  Tomorrow I catsit for my nanny (sort out the grammar on that one!).

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15 October 2008

Cockneys of London, Muscadins of Paris...

...listen to me:  if you are involved in a relationship with one of your students, you are involved in a bad relationship.  If you are involved with one of your undergraduate students, or with one of your former undergraduate students who remains an undergraduate, or with an undergraduate student who was not yours but is still an undergraduate, and you yourself are a member of the professoriate, you are involved in a relationship that is really bad news.  If you are the possessor of a Ph.D. and the person you are seeing is at your college or university and is not yet the possessor of a B.A., you need to take a serious, long look at that relationship, consider its relative inequalities and power structure (however immaterial those may seem to you), and ask yourself if it is right or fair or would seem psychologically sensible if the person involved were not you.  Because, I assure you, the answer to those questions will be no.


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08 October 2008

Settling In

So yesterday was the first day of term.  It was also the day of the first meeting arranged by the Visitors and Newcomers Group.  I am, obviously, a Visitor and Newcomer, so despite the fact that I had grave misgivings (I've never been a visitor and newcomer who hangs around with other visitors and newcomers.  That seems to me to defeat the purpose of being a visitor, and it leaves one permanently a newcomer), I went; after all, if you're trying to make friends and settle, you should go everywhere where you might make friends.

So who was there?  Me and...many Asians!  And a goodly number of women with babies (plus two men with babies.  You rock, sirs!).  Plus the whole thing was run by women in late middle age to early old age.  The thing is, though, on my way there I pretty much figured the chance of this meeting's throwing me into a depression was about 90%,  so I was prepared when it threw me into a depression.

First of all, as my friend L. will tell you, I'm not a fan of groups, and I particularly don't like groups of women.  I was excluded by a lot of groups as a child, so now groups always seem to me to be a vehicle for exclusion.  Plus, looking at all these women organisers I thought what I always think when I see single women of that age these days:  Oh, God, is that how I'm going to end up?  Because what you see in these situations is women whose husbands have died or who are divorced.  Women who join things and get involved in a community with zest and good will. And so the impression one is left with, which is to some extent an accurate impression, is that all women are either divorced or left behind, and then you have to throw yourself into community activity to give you something to do.  But I don't give a shit about the community in that way - I don't want to help out visitors or lead tours of interesting things near where I live or give potlucks or lead a book group (can you see that?  "Now, let's take a look at The Eve of St. Agnes.  Is hiding in a closet and watching someone undress sexually acceptable, or is it just pervy?").  I don't want to be a doughty dowager whose husband died, or a woman who wears those weird Eileen-Fisheresque clothes and really enjoys her baking group:  I want to be a woman whose elderly and somewhat cantakerous husband is alive, or a woman who, frankly, gets fucked and has an intimate conversation with someone she loves on a regular basis.  But you go to these sorts of things and the impression you get is that in about five years that chance will be gone for me.

And I love babies, but I don't have one, nor do I want one.  

Plus, on a less emotional note, as is always true when I come to stay in England, I'm not really a visitor or newcomer.  I know what the weather is like; by this stage I know everywhere to get a cake in Cambridge; I know who David Tennant is and have been to the Hamlet.  I don't mean I know everything there is to know, but I'm on a weird cusp where I know too much to be a smooth fit with the visitors, but not enough to be a smooth fit with the residents.

So all in all the V&N thing was a downer.  I've decided to give them one more chance, because the next meeting involves a presentation on Cambridge gowns, something I'm interested in all on my own.  This suggests that it might be a better bet.

Fortunately, however, the day got better.  After the meeting I went over to the library to do some photocopying, and also to have lunch.  In the tea room, which is also the lunch room, I encountered a mature student named Nicola, who was reading a Spenser article.  I introduced myself and asked if I could join her (I'm getting quite good at this, although I loathe doing it), and we had a very nice conversation.  When we left, she introduced me to her tutor, who was sitting across the room.  Upon hearing the name of my college, this woman asked me if I knew the English fellow, which I do not, and said he might ask me to teach!  She said this off her own whack!  Of course, I'd love to do some teaching, so I shall lie in wait for this man.  And just meeting this woman, who was jolly and open, made me feel better.  As did meeting the mature student.  Oh, and although the lunch wasn't that great, dessert was a jam and sponge pudding with custard that was absolutely sublime.  I don't know whether the sponge was deliciously buttery or the custard was deliciously creamy, but something in there gave it all a rich taste of warming fat.

I then spent the afternoon wandering about, buttoning and unbuttoning. Around about 3 I was filled with a burning need to have a vanilla slice (a Napoleon, my American friends). I love many things about Cambridge, but I'd say its major drawback is that vanilla slices are thin on the ground. As far as I know, only one place does them, and it closes at 3 (but then, I am a visitor and newcomer, so there could be more places, ones I don't yet know about).  I had to be content with a piece of chocolate chunk cake from the infamous Caffe Nero.  It has real chocolate chunks in its frosting, which is a plus, but even that couldn't really make up for the absence of a vanilla slice.

In the evening was the introductory reception for new fellows at my college, followed by my first formal dinner.  I put on my semi-formal dress, which was fractionally too small in the
hips (despite a week's dieting before the jam sponge eating), and a very attractive pair of bright red shoes I purchased from Marks and Spencer earlier this year.  The reception was very pleasant.  I knew a person there (a woman, incidentally), so I hung out with her and her friend and asked whispered questions.  One of those whispered questions was, "Why is everyone so old?"  Because everyone really was. With five to ten notable exceptions in a room filled with perhaps 75 people, everyone was well into his or her 60s. The answer is, because in order to be a fellow, unless you're a visiting one, you have to have done something very impressive or important, and usually people who've got to that stage are old.  Fair enough. And the little vegetarian dumplings were delicious.

After the reception (where, by the way, some man who was not old, but I would guess was somewhere between 47 and 55, kept staring at me but didn't come over) came the dinner.  The dinner was ALSO filled with old people.  (Please don't get me wrong:  I have no problem with elderly people.  It's just that since I've arrived in Cambridge almost everywhere I go seems to offer the same participatory group:  me and a bunch of pensioners.  Going to the cinema?  Me and a bunch of pensioners.  Going shopping?  Me and a bunch of pensioners.  Actually, writing it down I can see that this might be because Cambridge is quite a nice place to which to retire, and also because pensioners tend to be out and about on weekdays.)  Overall, however, it cheered me up from the morning.  For one thing, there were many married women there, and they were with their husbands.  And those husbands seemed to love them.  Good.  For another thing, the women were interesting, and they knew how to make something more than very small small talk.  At the V&N meeting, everyone was there for a purpose - to offer you information, to welcome you to Cambridge, to meet other V&N's - but here people were there for the purpose of having dinner and chatting, so the chat was, while still small, much more interesting.  I would say it reached the level of medium talk.

The dinner itself works in three parts.  The first part is the starter, the main course, and what  I would call the dessert but what my college calls the sweet (alas, prune and Armagnac tart.  Very dry.  Quite disappointing, as dessert [sweet, whatever] is my favourite course, and most eagerly anticipated, so when it's not good it's sort of a double blow).  Then everyone decamps to another room to stand up and have tea or coffee.  Then those who remain go back to the first room to have fruit and port (which is called dessert - at first I thought it would include cheese, so I was very excited.  But it did not.  There were grapes, though, and I do like a good grape).  By the time we got to dessert, everyone who appeared to be what my friend S.M. would call, "at the same position I am on my life timeline" was gone, and the only real young person was a man down the other end of the table. Up at my end were a bunch of elderly gentlemen.  Now, it is one of the mysteries of my life that elderly gentlemen love me.  And these elderly gentlemen were no exception.  Nicely, across the table from me were a couple of people close to my age, although they seemed to be proper grown-ups, so I was able to talk to some people more like me, as well as to the elderly gentleman.

I feel that there must be people in their late thirties and early forties lurking somewhere around here.  I'm not exactly sure why I feel this, since evidence shows me that there in fact no people in their late thirties and early forties lurking around here, and that there are no single people in this age range anywhere in Cambridge (I never see any.  Unless they look freakishly young or freakishly old, and thus I'm mistaking them for much younger or much older people). There's a tea for new fellows next Saturday, arranged so we can meet the senior members, so perhaps more people in this age range will show up then - or perhaps I'll see the proper grown-ups again.  Oh, and hopefully my neighbours will be there, and although my neighbours are elderly they're very nice, and very lively, and I like them very much.

Tomorrow night I'm off to a literature event, a lecture by an eminent theorist.  I've contacted the person who runs the Romanticism lecture series and arranged to say hello to him there. I wouldn't say I have high hopes for this event as a friend-making venue - I've learnt not to have high hopes of this at any venue anymore - but it does seem like the sort of place where I could conceivably encounter at least a couple of likeable people who are interested in what I'm interested in. And I finally had some cards made! So I can actually just hand over a card, instead of scrabbling around for a pen and a bit of paper.  AND I know what I'm going to wear.  So things are looking good.

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06 October 2008


Term starts here tomorrow, which means the streets are crowded with students.  What do they look like?  Well, I'd have to say they look...privileged.  Perhaps this is because it's Cambridge, so the people who come here are the best and brightest, or perhaps because it's England, and thus cool, so they've already put on their fall clothes, and people tend to look a little better-dressed in fall clothes.  Or perhaps it's because none of the loathesome habits of American student dressing seems to have permeated here:  no one wears tracksuit bottoms, or thongs, or baseball caps, or any of those things that make even the smartest look dumb.  And the women wear far less make-up.  Actually, that's quite interesting in its way.  By the time they get to about 30, English women just don't look as good as American women; it's really true.  But at this age they are much more naturally pretty, or perhaps just much more willing to trust to their natural prettiness.  So they wear much less make-up, and thus look fresher, younger, and prettier.

Anyway, the past few days have been rather slow.  I've stopped academic work for a bit, and I've been revising my novel.  This is hard work.  Uck.  On the other hand, it means I do a lot more writing.  In fact, thinking about this yesterday and today I calculated that between writing e-mail, writing letters, working on either the novel or the book, and writing this, I must write about 15,000 words a week.  Sometimes I sit in my room here and realise that although I've communicated with many people that day, I've actually only spoken to two.  It's weird.  Not bad, but weird.

Anyway, over the past week or so my days have involved a lot of travelling into and out of Cambridge to do little things -- what Byron would have called "buttoning and unbuttoning."  I got some business cards, but I didn't like the finished product, so the place re-did them.  I tried to buy a skirt, and a short sweater dress.  I tried to buy a hat.  I had to do some grocery shopping.  I needed to check and see if some books I'd ordered had come in.  I needed to buy some postcard stock to draw on and send to a friend:  buttoning and unbuttoning.  As a result, I've been following the same route into and out of Cambridge centre for the past seven days, and I've noticed one striking item.  I'd noticed it before, but only after seeing it every day for a chunk of time did I really notice it in all its vileness.  I would say it is perhaps the ugliest thing I've seen in my life.  Here it is:

Yeah, baby!  This is the Corpus Christi clock.  It's a new clock that's been placed in a glass case fronting the street outside Corpus Christi college.  They're proud of it!  They put it up where everyone can see it!  And see it they do.  People stop and stand in a little group -- there's always one out there -- silent.  They are stunned by its horribleness, and the reason I know this is because when I have said to them, "Isn't it hideous?"  they all say, "Oh, yeah."

This clock (which is huge -- probably six feet tall) was designed, paid for, and donated by a man who also gave the college money for a library.   He is a graduate of the college.  That thing on the top is a grasshopper (or as I like to call it, a grasshopper-fish-beast, although it is in fact a mixture of grasshopper, lizard, and stag beetle, named by its designer a "chronophage," or time eater).  As the clock pendulum swings back and forth, the blue lights you can see flash and flutter and settle, indicating the minute and the passing minutes, and the grasshopper's legs move back and forth, so it looks like he's galloping.  His jaw opens and closes.  In fact, the whole clock is a celebration of the grasshopper escapement, invented by John Harrison, the "humble Yorkshire carpenter" (so says Wikipedia) who also codified longitude.  The grasshopper escapement is a tiny hinge device that allows clock gears to turn without lubrication or adjustment, and thus its invention made possible both the watch and more accurate time-keeping.  Huzzah!  John Harrison.  But not so to the clock.  This is one of those items that is so ugly, and so useless, that it dazzles.  Did I mention that its only right once every five minutes? 

It makes me think of that moment in When Harry Met Sally when Carrie Fisher says to Bruno Kirby about his wagon-wheel coffee table, "It's so awful there's no way to even explain to you how awful it is."  That's exactly how awful it is.  It's speechlessly awful.

In any case, the one part of it that is not awful is the inscription underneath, which the picture doesn't show and which no one ever mentions.  It is, "Mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius," which comes from 1 John and roughly translates, "The world passes, and also its desire."  In its strictest sense "concupiscentia" means "greed," but as the English word concupiscence (lust or lascivious sexual desire) suggests, it more elastically means "fleshly desire."  I think I'd translate this passage, "The world passes away, and so do its earthly desires."  Until I finally looked the phrase up on the internet the "Eius" threw me:  I thought it referred to the grasshopper.  But now it makes sense, and even without religion the sentiment seems interesting.  And compared to the clock that surmounts it, it's veritable pearl of Latin beauty.

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02 October 2008


Thing I love about Cambridge No. 5,766:

The Cambridge University Library is what you might call a unique building.  That means you look at it and think, Why would anyone who wasn't Albert Speer design that 
building, and why would anyone build it?  It's very wackiness, however, gives it a curious charm.
This has nothing, though, on the charm of what is housed within.  For Cambridge has what is definitely a unique book cataloguing system.  The books are arranged by year.  That's right: although given subject areas are separated (so that science is not with English), after that the books are filed according to year of publication.  And by size:  all the small books go in one area; all the regular books in another; all the oversized in another.  And they're not filed by title, or sub-topic, or author's name, after that.  To be honest, I can't quite figure out how they're filed after that.  My theory is that it's by month of publication, but I don't think that can be it, because when you get up to the new century (i.e., now) books from 2006 will often be next to books from 2003.  So at some stage the month theory stops working, and apparently the year system breaks down, too.  

Even this system, though, pales in the face of the cataloguing for the English faculty library (which is a kind of sub-library, located in the faculty building, filled with books only about English and American literature).  There, the books are arranged first alphabetically by area, and then by period, with the alphabet line and the timeline rising from the basement to the top floor.  So all the books on American literature are in the basement (because they are A), and all the books on British literature (which includes all literature that isn't American) are on the first floor and above, with books on contemporary literature located in the heavens on the top floor.

I love both these cataloguing systems.  Each of them has its own logic.  Divide it into American and British, then divide it by period, then subdivide within each period by author.  That makes sense. Divide by year.  That way, if you can't remember what a book is called, or who its author is, but you can remember its year, or vaguely its year (and I do frequently remember this), you can just go to the year bay and look till you find it.  Sure - why not?  (although my theory about the year system is that it was started back when 25 books were published per year and that seemed an astronomical amount - no one could conceive that it would ever rise to 2,000, and by the time it did the cataloguing system was "the way we do it.")

And I think I may also like these systems because they force me just to open my heart to them. Apparently one of the last people my university sent on a fellowship to Cambridge was quite snotty and horrible because she thought the way things were done was often foolish - and, more importantly, was irritated by the supposed foolishness.  But my feeling is rather that if you're able to work with it, just accept it. You want to catalogue your books by year?  Well, that's just as plausible as by author name, I guess.  More importantly, once I know they're catalogued by year, I can work with it.  Sure, why not?

So I am enchanted by the Cambridge book cataloguing system.

I'd have to say there are two things that my Sure, why not?-ness doesn't work with, though.  The first is bicycle helmets.  Almost no one here wears a helmet, so I spend all my time thinking, "Put on a helmet!"  I want to hand them all copies of the awful, awful court transcript my dad sent me of the "testimony" of a man brain-damaged after falling off his bike without a helmet, which convinced me to wear one.  And in a university town!  Of course, I feel that way in America, too, so perhaps that doesn't count.  That leaves me with one thing:  popcorn.  The cinemas do salty popcorn (as well as sweet, which I think is gross, so I don't eat it), but there's none of the warm grease Americans know as popcorn butter. Let me tell ya, people, popcorn unclothed is dryyyy. So I do wish they would bring over the buttered-popcorn concept.

Having said that, I'll also say that this week I did some rare-book-buying.  The town seems to have two rare book stores, but I've only been into one so far.  That one has good stuff in the window, which is mostly why I go in.  Anyway, last week they had in the window what is now in my room:  a tiny 1847 Book of Common Prayer, and its accompanying book of lessons.  I would estimate them at about 3.5 inches by 2 inches (roughly quadragesimo-octavo, for my textual studies-loving friends).  Here is a picture of them next to my mouse:

Is it me, or are those books mighty cute?

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