dual personalities

Month: March, 2020

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go…”*

…the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;

for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,

and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

They sang this hymn in the Morning Prayer service at Christ Church, Charlottesville, which I tuned into remotely as is my new Sunday morning routine. I do not mean to be disloyal to my own Grace Church, but it’s a nice change. Anyway, the words to this well-known hymn are perfect for our time. Read them all here.

So have you resorted to cleaning out drawers to amuse yourself yet? I have. I’m sure you can imagine the things I have found! Lots of snapshots from back in the days (the ’90’s) when we still used camera with film…

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… but survival cards for Southeast Asia?!

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…the Shakespeare Game?

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…and lots of half used candles (for emergencies) and coasters…so many coasters!

I also cleaned up the Florida room and moved all my plants out there.

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Ah, progress.

Besides all this sorting and cleaning, the OM and I went on an outing on Saturday to Lone Elk Park where we practiced social distancing with buffalo and elk.

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This drive-through park is perfect for this time of enforced isolation when the zoo and botanical garden are closed. Of course, lots of people had the same idea–the traffic was bumper to bumper!

Meanwhile the wee babes are hanging out at home, eating outside and studying remotely…

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…and you can picture me at the virtual salt mine…

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Take time to smell the flowers!

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*”How Firm a Foundation” attributed to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.

Highs and lows

As I’m sure is true for everyone, I am experiencing a variety of highs and lows these days. I oscillate between feeling grateful for my relatively good conditions and unavoidably anxious about all that is outside of my control. This weekend I felt quite low by Sunday afternoon and had to pull out all the stops to cheer myself up, including calling my mother for a second day in a row. She helpfully reminded me that on top of everything else I might be subject to some third-trimester hormonal swings. Touché, I say!

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This half-hearted attempt at a smile sums it up pretty well

Anyway, you can probably guess what the lows are. Mostly I miss the spontaneity that comes with the freedom to leave one’s house on a whim. I mean, we plan out our meals for 2 weeks at this point. There is no moment to say, “I’m craving guacamole! Go grab avocados!” And I read in someone’s personal essay on the topic (yes, the personal essay has really had a comeback in this context) that she felt like anticipation didn’t exist anymore. We don’t have things to look forward to, because we can’t plan anything! So there’s less last-minute whimsy fun, and no long-term planned-for fun. The closest thing we have is the thrill of productivity — I am still, of course, embracing my at-home to-do list! It’s sad how much I’ve embraced the joy of vacuuming — but I must say, that joy is fleeting.

That’s enough of the negative. We did have some highs…

DN’s birthday was last week, and I think I did a pretty good job making it feel festive. Who doesn’t appreciate a silly banner like the one below? We enjoyed homemade cinnamon rolls for several days, and wrapped presents (even if you have to use the dregs of the wrapping paper reserves) are always joyful. The fact of the birthday forced us to try to feel celebratory, and that was a good thing.

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We (haha, DN) also assembled the crib, and the nursery is feeling a little more put-together. How do you like Tintin as decor? I think it’s perfect and colorful.

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Do I need a crib skirt?

Last but not least, we retrieved a number of Steve McQueen DVDs from our basement. We enjoyed The Thomas Crown Affair first, which was comforting in its abundance of style. To watch something that was so of its era — so sixties — really took me out of the present moment! Next up:

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The Quiet Life

I’m having a hard time keeping track of the days. It’s Saturday, you say? Zut alors! We are managing well in our isolation but it has ruined my sense of time. Every day is the same: I drink tea, work on classes, take a walk, eat, read, sleep, and then start the process all over again. Occasional phone calls or online meetings add some color. It’s all very quiet and stress free and reminds me of something Shirley Jackson wrote in Life Among the Savages:

I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and — as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life…

Frankly, the quiet routine could get a little creepy. If you need some action but also want to learn something, here are a couple of recommendations. I think I’ve blogged about them all before, but there’s nothing wrong with revisiting the greats, right? All of the following are available for fee download at Project Gutenberg. A shoutout to my son, for I got the idea from his Melville Minute column.

  1. The Iliad (I would recommend the Fagles translation, which is not available from Gutenberg) — one of the most perceptive accounts of war and human nature ever written. Contra DN’s literary take on the epic, to me, the very indecisiveness and changing moods of the characters are what make it such a brilliant portrayal of human experience. In war, as in life more generally, people sometimes feel confident and sometimes they despair; sometimes they love their comrades and sometimes loath them; sometimes they revere the gods and sometimes curse them. Our moods and the decisions we make change with our circumstances. If you haven’t read the Iliad, do! But read it with compassion for its characters and appreciation of the wise poet(s) who made them so real.
  2.  Caesar’s Gallic Wars. I’m teaching this right now and reading it for the umpteenth time. I can’t think of a better way to learn about leadership, strategic thinking, and political acumen than by reading Casesar. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because he wrote over two-thousand years ago, he isn’t relevant anymore. The man who wrote, “all bad precedents begin as justifiable measures” understood politics. Too bad our current politicians don’t seem to have read their Caesar.
  3.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. More than a time-bound condemnation of badly executed colonialism, this work takes on deeper problems of human nature and existence. It recognizes that civilization is but a thin veneer — an illusion that allows us to make sense of our world and believe that we control it. Read it, dissect its many layers, and bask in the Conrad’s lyrical writing.

Well, I think three is enough for now. I apologize for posting another list and no photos, but I haven’t done anything worth writing about.

Stay healthy and don’t let the isolation get you down!

What’s playing at the Roxy?

Thank you, Neil Diamond. You made my day.

Well, the week is almost over, and though we still can’t really leave the house except to take a walk, still it’s Friday and that means the weekend starts tomorrow. We’ll have a little more freedom to do what we want and not just sit at a makeshift work desk pretending to feeling guilty about (not) doing work.

I have been trying to think of appropriate movies to watch during this weird time and I’ve come up with a few recommendations. Here they are:

The Alamo (1960)–John Wayne stars as Davy Crockett and Laurence Harvey as William Travis, leading a small band of Texicans besieged at the Alamo.

Zulu (1964)–Stanley Baker and Michael Caine and 150 British soldiers defend themselves against 4000 Zulu warriors while besieged at Rorke’s Drift. 

Rio Bravo (1959) and/or El Dorado (1966)–Two films with the same plot directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne wherein a sheriff and a handful of volunteers hold off a rancher’s gang who want to free their boss.

Tremors (1990)–Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward attempt to save their small desert town from giant, carnivorous, subterranean worms who hunt via sonar and footsteps. They are helped in their task by local gun-enthusiasts Michael Gross and Reba McIntyre who supply a whole arsenal of firearms and munitions. 

55 Days at Peking (1963)–This film epic dramatizes the siege of the foreign legations compound in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Charlton Heston, David Niven and Ava Gardner star.

 We could also watch any movie which takes place on a submarine, because they involve people who are certainly trapped and submerged for long periods of time. Which is the one where they’re hiding on the bottom of the ocean and running out of air? That would be perfect.

Any other ideas?

Well, keep up the good work and chin, chin. It could be a lot worse. A lot worse (see above list).

What are you reading? Venality, pestilence, and joy edition

Today we have a guest post from DN, on his birthday! Our at-home festivities will be low key, but I thought it would be appropriate if we celebrated him by hearing from him on the blog.

“What are you reading?” is a great question for these times of quarantine, of course. In my case, I am finally able to keep up with the New Yorker subscription for which I ambitiously signed up after completing my dissertation. DN, on the other hand, has been toggling between Infinite Jest and The Iliad. So let’s see what he has to say!

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…I was already reading Infinite Jest when the virus traveled here. My father had decided to tackle it, and I wanted to talk with him about it, but my memory of the novel was hazy—I had read it maybe 10 years ago or more. Also, there is simply a lot of it. I am currently about halfway through, and I might write about why I appreciate it (and why it is unfortunately misrepresented!) when I finish. Because—teaser—it really is the ultimate novel for our times.

However, some texts are timeless. What compelled me to pull Homer’s Iliad from the shelf I’m not entirely sure, but I think I felt drawn to something whose scope was commensurate to the (epic, historical) present. And I was rather delighted to find chaos.

Epics famously begin in medias res. I always took this truism to mean that epics throw the reader immediately into the middle of the action. They work to grab attention right away. And this is true: the first chapters of the Iliad are action-packed. They primarily concern disagreements between Agamemnon and Achilles, the highest leader and preeminent warrior respectively among the Greeks. Agamemnon and Achilles squabble, debating whether or not to approach Troy at all, and the gods likewise bicker among themselves. Everything gets described in long ablative clauses, and everyone’s actions and countermeasures unroll line by line by line. However, what I did not previously appreciate about in medias res is how it also denotes a tangle of motivations. Reading the opening chapters of the Iliad, it is nearly impossible to parse why Agamemnon and Achilles act as they do. Each will make a long pronouncement about what they propose to do, and then proceed to do the exact opposite. It. Is. Infuriating.

For me, this frustration about human motivation leads to the conclusion that the Trojan War begins for no good, earthly reason. Rather, the war begins on account of veniality and pestilence—specifically, because a bitter Apollo decides to shoot plague-laden arrows into the Greeks, sowing confusion.

   He came as night comes down and knelt then
apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning. (1.47-52)

To me, what is most affecting here is the spatial and temporal disorientation. Apollo is everywhere—“apart and opposite”—and all the time—“did not stop.” And I was only a handful of days into self-isolation when I read those lines! Were we ever so young.

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Eventually the Greeks do go to war. I guess this is a decision, but really it’s more an outcome of circumstance. And in the middle of a tumultuous windup to war comes the invocation of the muse, which made me laugh out loud. This is a moment when the text takes a very deep breath. I want to include the lines preceding this moment so that you get a sense of how surprising this interruption of rhythm is:

These, as men who are goatherds among the wide goatflocks
easily separate them in order as they take to the pasture,
thus the leaders separate them this way and that way
toward the encounter, and among them powerful Agamemnon,
with eyes and head like Zeus who delights in thunder,
like Ares for girth, and with the chest of Poseidon;
like some ox of the herd pre-eminent among the others,
a bull, who stands conspicuous in the huddling cattle;
such was the son of Atreus as Zeus made him that day,
conspicuous among men, and foremost among the fighters.
Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos.
For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things,
and we have heard only the rumor of it and know nothing. (2.474-486)

Among the rolling verse describing human action line after line, the muses, set apart by punctuation, simply are. While the men are boiling over, the muses just abide. It really took my breath away, this unity of substance and form.

The Iliad is not all venality and pestilence; it has many joys, too. For example, the way that Hera, who supports the Greeks, expresses her exasperation with Zeus—currently in support of the Trojans and their king Priam—reminds me of certain choice work interactions.

Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor,
the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out
gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children.
Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you. (4.25-29)

Yeah look, Hera says, you obviously can create hardship for the Greeks. I can’t stop you. But don’t expect me to like it!

More often, the Iliad shows me a quiet truth that feels eternal in a small way. This is especially the case when it describes something about the natural world, for example, when, as an aside, it likens the Trojan elders to cicadas. Below, the elders are the substantive “these”:

Now through old age these fought no longer, yet they were excellent
speakers still, and clear, as cicadas who through the forest
settle on trees, to issue their delicate voice of singing.
Such were they who sat on the tower, chief men of the Trojans.
And these, as they saw Helen along the tower approaching,
murmuring softly to each other uttered their winged words… (3.150-155)

You know, now that I think about it, cicadas really are mysteriously old. And lofty. But subtle! I have just as much difficulty imagining old age.

Such joys are on nearly every page.

No TV and no beer make Homer something, something.

Well, I’m not there yet.

But, it has been a full week of social distancing for me. And my only social interactions for the past seven days have been during my attempts to virtue signal by ordering takeout from downtown restaurants within walking distance. I really can’t believe we have finagled a situation in America where staying home from work and ordering takeout makes me a hero. Because don’t think for a moment that I am not a hero for staying in my apartment.

I have also ventured out to the Hy Vee. Today, I bought enough wine to get the 10% discount for six or more bottles.

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Now I feel prepared .

I am lucky for many reasons but one of them is that I have my craft room turned office so I am able to separate my work life from my home life. During the day, I try to minimize time out of my office–taking a break of lunch–so that at 5p, I close the laptop and move to my living room as I would if I were getting home from work.

Of course, like most people, I am stressed by all of this. And I look forward to the day when we return to normal (if that’s possible). However, I am also trying to find joy in the midst of my social isolation. For instance, I think we should all take a moment to appreciate that we are basically glazing over the awkward dress period of Spring where it is hard to know what to wear. It’s cold in the morning and often gloomy, but I’m always tired of wearing the same winter clothes by the time March/April roll around. Well, now, it’s just my leggings and sweatshirt and no one to see me. By the time I’m back at work, it’ll be fully spring and my wardrobe will make a smooth and safe transition.

So, I’m trying to focus on some positives…even if they are a bit of a stretch (like my pants).

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Sufficient is thine arm alone*

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.(Philippians 4:10-13)

We are learning in our present circumstance to be content.

As Paul Walker in his daily devotional writes, “Of course, life is full of vicissitudes. It always has been and always will be. Stock markets will rise and fall, airborne viruses will come and go. But God is constant. St. Paul tells us that ‘Christ is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.’ (Colossians 1:17) In Christ the center can and does hold and the bottom is solid as a Rock. ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.’ (Hebrews 13:8)”

Our church has been broadcasting its Sunday service online, but I have been tuning in to Christ Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and their morning prayer service. It is a nice change and I like their music minister, Sam Bush.

Meanwhile, the OM and I have been self-isolating in our house. I went to the grocery store and to an appointment at the hospital, but the OM has hardly been out of his basement cave from whence he works remotely. At least he is still shaving.

We haven’t seen the wee babes in weeks it seems, but they are well and staying hydrated.

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If the sun ever comes out again, I am going to get outside where it is looking like spring…

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…despite the fact that it snowed on Sunday! I worked for a little while cleaning up the Florida room, but it was too cold! Vicissitudes would be a lot easier to handle if the sun would come out!

And, hey, today is Steve McQueen’s birthday! He would be 90! So tonight, after my day of telecommuting, filled with Zoom meetings and such, it will be time to toast 🍷 Mr. McQueen and watch one of his movies. I watched Bulitt (1968) on Sunday after my usual end-of-the-weekend PGA wind-down (another sign that I am getting old–I find watching golf relaxing) when it was on TCM, because it is my policy to watch it whenever I find it on TV, halfway through or whatever. Decisions, decisions…

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I am content.

*”Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” by Isaac Watts

“Every day above ground is a great day, remember that.”*

I think Sunday is the day we officially lost it a little bit.

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Perhaps I got overconfident after our lovely Saturday. First of all, our power went out for a couple of hours on Friday late afternoon, which fostered a seamless break between the telework week and the weekend. A real sign from God to stop talking to my boss, you know? From there, we switched to relaxing mode. And on Saturday, we tackled house projects: lots of laundry, vacuuming, organizing the bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, baking yummy treats. It felt like a normal, productive Saturday at home!

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I highly recommend these.

But lo and behold, Sunday was when my irritability hit. I can admit that I am prone to a certain tone of voice that, as DN says, implies a “…you idiot” at the end of every sentence. I am working on it.

Well, I combatted my attitude by listening to a playlist of upbeat Flo Rida and Pitbull songs and hopping around the apartment while wiping down surfaces. Life changing! Now, Flo Rida and Pitbull might not be your cup of tea, but whatever the feel-good soundtrack, I do suggest you put it on at least once a week. The hopping helps too.

*Pitbull, from this gem about partying instead of paying one’s rent.

Driving down the road, I get a feeling That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday*

As you know, we traveled to West Virginia last weekend despite the growing threat of Covid-19. It was kind of a weird trip, though we managed to have fun. We stayed at a cozy little airbnb in Buckhannon, a small college town in the central part of the state, where the virus has not yet appeared.

photo taken from the airbnb site

The weather was cold and rainy but we made the best of it. We visited a couple of antique stores, one of which doubled as a beer and wine store — a clever combination no doubt intended to placate tag-along husbands (is that a sexist remark?). We enjoyed poking around, though we didn’t buy anything.

We ate repeatedly (3 times!!) at a nice little cafe called Fish Hawk Acres that features local produce and mighty good coffee. And, yes, we did hear John Denver’s “Take me Home Country Roads”  (I’ll spare you the Youtube embed but the link will take you to the lyrics). Do you think the West Virginia radio stations have to play it a certain number of times a day?

Fish Hawk Acres, the most happening place in Buckhannon

When we weren’t eating, we explored the town and discovered this fanciful edifice, complete with crenelated tower!

The original structure, built in the 1860s, was brick, but when banker and entrepreneur William Post purchased the property in the 1890s, he added the tower and the stone facing, among other “improvements”.  I’d love to tour the interior, wouldn’t you?

Buckhannon is home to West Virginia Wesleyan University, a pretty collection of brick buildings. This is the chapel.

We did not tour campus because it was full of students packing up to go home and we didn’t want to get in the way. Like most (all?) other colleges, WVW has closed due to the virus and will offer courses online for the remainder of the semester.

Venturing out of town, we visited a wildlife park, where we got to stretch our legs and view a small assortment of  animals, including this black bear (the lump in the background near the outcrop) busy digging a deep hole.

Originally, we had intended to take our time coming home and to explore rural West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But you know how it is, the best laid plans, etc… We drove home in one day, starting in rain and a pea soup fog/clouds through the Allegheny Mountains. The driving was not fun and this photo does not capture the worst of it.

10 AM on a sodden Tuesday

Still, we made it home — and so far, so good. We have not exhibited any symptoms (keep your fingers crossed) and there are still no cases of the virus in our county. We are self-isolating as best we can for fourteen days, but everything is in lock-down in any case. I’m busy moving my classes online and I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Somehow I doubt that students will be super motivated to do their work.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, all three of our sons are working from home now, although son #2 is under shelter in place orders in Idaho.  Evidently, the virus arrived at his remote location via attendees at an international ski convention, and it is spreading fast. The area arts scene, which my son covers for the Idaho Mountain Express, has entirely shut down, so he has started doing a lot of the paper’s copy-editing and is also writing a column suggesting what to read, watch and listen to during quarantine.

You can read the article more easily here. A Gentleman in Moscow was a truly inspired book choice and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next. Do you have any suggestions?

No church tomorrow as it is closed for the foreseeable future, but that’s no reason to avoid worship. Time spent in prayer is never wasted. Prayer calms the nerves and helps us focus on what’s important. Remember, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

*John Denver “Take me home, country roads”

“Confusion to our enemies. Good luck to our friends.”*

Well, I have to say this telecommuting is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially considering we thought we could get into our offices on Friday, but now the situation is changed yet again and so on and so on. I am stressed to the max.

But what can we do but keep smilin’ through?

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So I will continue to self-medicate by watching my favorite movies and reading good books. Last night I watched My Darling Clementine (1946) which was on TCM. It is really a Top Ten best movie. (It was named the Best Foreign Film of 1948 by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. They got it right.) Good medicine indeed. Right now I am reading Hilary Mantel’s new book The Mirror and the Light and it is terrific. It is also a timely reminder that times have always been crazy and politics has always been a cut-throat business (literally in the 16th century).

‘I neglect no precautions,’ he had said. ‘The times being what they are, a man may enter the gate as your friend and change sides while he crosses the courtyard.’

Also, I thought this quote from C.S. Lewis was awfully good:

The war [WWII] creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”

Found here–read the whole thing.

So keep smiling. You have a nice place to telecommute from and Rice-a-roni in the pan.

*Thomas Cromwell in The Mirror and the Light