2014: The Year of Barely Blogging

Ruby's Double Rainbow

I didn’t take this picture. The Woman Formerly Known as Goose snapped it on July 8 as we drove home from the animal hospital with our dying dog. We carried her to the car in the pouring rain. I held her in my arms in the back seat and sobbed uncontrollably as WFKG drove slowly through the storm. Ruby was still and quiet, as stoic in dying as I imagine she was during the three years she spent in a puppy mill. Oh, how we loved this sweet, strong, silent girl who came from nothing, gave so much, and was leaving us much too soon. As we drove into Takoma Park, the rain let up and the setting sun burst through the clouds, producing a magnificent double rainbow that demanded our attention, distraught though we were in that moment. WFKG pulled over. I jumped out of the car and started taking pictures. She stayed behind the wheel and got this shot through the front windshield. I love it for the drops of rain on the glass, as if the world were crying with us while affording us a consoling vision of unexpected beauty. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a good pathetic fallacy, but give me a break. My dog was about to cross the rainbow bridge, and suddenly there’s a double fricking rainbow in the sky! Who could resist?

A rainbow glimpsed through tears: I offer this up as my Photo of the Year because I reckon I’m not the only one struggling to find something nice to say about 2014 as it grinds — mercifully, inexorably — to an end. What’s to love about a year that brought us Ebola, Ferguson, and ISIS and took away Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Lauren Bacall (among many others)? How do you make sense of a year that brings legalized pot to Colorado, same-sex marriage to Utah, and a new Congress committed to repealing all of the 21st and most of the 20th century? You don’t, or, you know, at least I don’t. Or can’t.

2014 has been the year of barely blogging for me for a number of reasons. The short, dull, honest explanation is that I’ve been busy. I got legally married this year. Bought a guitar. Buried my mother. Started a big new job. Went to China. Worried a lot about the upward trend of my weight. I’m still in love with my new job, but I’m also still learning it and still wrestling with how blogging fits into it. As I assume new responsibilities and carve out new expertise, I feel a need to be cautious in relation to social media. My blogs have always been ambiguously connected to my professional and institutional identities. During this period of transition, that ambiguity feels a bit riskier than it has in the past. I’ve felt more comfortable blogging on personal topics, but I worry about alienating readers with concerns that might seem humdrum or, heaven forbid, dull. I’d rather die than bore you, darlings, so I’ve spent less time hanging out here and more time in the cozy confines of Facebook. (Along with my brilliant new colleague Alexis Lothian, who wrote early in the fall about how personal/professional changes shifted her online positioning.)

There’s more to it than that, though. I have a terrible confession to make. I’m not just spending less time writing blogs. I’m spending less time reading them as well. At some point in the middle of the semester, my Feedly feed got so full up that I closed the tab and just stopped checking. I guess I declared blog bankruptcy. The term infobesity has begun to resonate with me, and I don’t think it’s just because it hooks in with my concerns about my weight. It’s probably a bad metaphor for information overload, because it suggests that the problem arises from individual pathology or bad behavior rather than from a structural condition nearly impossible to avoid. Still, I’m recognizing that I feel weighted down by the news, information, and analysis that come at me every time I lock eyes on a screen — which is darn near every moment of my waking life. Often I click and click and read and read, and with every click I feel less clear about what I know, less able to compose and publish my thoughts. Some days I remind myself of Nicholas Branch, the CIA archivist in Don DeLillo’s Libra tasked with piecing together the secret history of the assassination of JFK. He spends fifteen years working in a room filled with books, documents, “theories and dreams,” studying everything because, “he is in too deep to be selective.” He takes copious notes but produces precious little in the way of “finished prose” because, “It is impossible to stop assembling data. The stuff keeps coming.” He feels disheartened, immobilized, haunted, but he persists, knowing “he can’t get out.”

How do we avoid the immobilization produced by information overload? Do we stick with the logic of infobesity and put ourselves on a strict information diet, knowing that diets, like new year’s resolutions, tend to fail? Or do we reject the metaphor and find a better one, one that might more effectively capture the structural conditions of what Jodi Dean terms communicative capitalism? I’m not prepared to shut this blog down as a way of demonstrating my virtuous commitment to info calorie consciousness. I’d rather find a way to revitalize it in 2015 by using it as a tool — a fine pair of flippers, perhaps — to help me and readers play delightfully in the sea of information rather than feel overwhelmed by it. Hate that metaphor, too? Then find me a better one, Madpeople. I eagerly await your suggestions.

Oh, and happy new year. Here is a picture of two adorable puppies looking like angels in a pool of morning light. Yes, they are mine. Their names are Mattie and Max. They are litter mates. And proof, perhaps, that a double dog dare is sometimes worth the risk. Double rainbow. Double dog dare. You see what I did there, don’t you?

Terriers in a pool of light

A Love Letter to My New Job

Or, A Labor Day Post Quite Different from Last Year’s

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

Labor Day reflections. Western Maryland 4-H Education Center. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 8/31/14.

The summer of 2014 has been long and strange for me and horrifying for much of the world. I’m not sorry to see it end. Within a 17-day period in July, I started a new job, lost a beloved and relatively young (six and a half years old) dog, and lost my mother, who was not young and hadn’t been in good health for a long time, but still. And when I say that I lost them, I don’t mean I misplaced them. I mean that my dog and my mother died, within eight days of one another — while I was still trying to sort out the best places to park and pee in my new job. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, it did suck.

I don’t want to blog about the dying, though. I hope you won’t mind. I’ve done plenty of sharing on Facebook, and maybe some day I’ll find a way to blog about the powerful ways in which these two deaths, so proximate to one another in time, are linked in my heart-mind. For now, I’d like to blog about the happy part of my long, strange summer, the part that went beautifully when so much else was so achingly out of joint — the start of the aforementioned new job.

Classes begin tomorrow at Queer the Turtle U, but I’ve just gone through one of the busiest weeks of the year in my new position as executive director of an academic residential community that is home to close to 2,000 academically talented freshmen and sophomores. This past Wednesday, we welcomed our new cohort of 977 freshmen to campus with a convocation ceremony that featured some first-rate a cappella singing, the university president, and yours truly in the role of inspirational speaker, though I have a hunch our young scholars will forever remember me as the Lady in the Awesome Red Jacket Who Inadvertently Made Them All Think About Sex at the Same Time. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: Never forget that eighteen-year-olds are always this close to thinking about sex. Speak with caution. And laugh along with them when you push them over the edge.) On Thursday, we sent them all out at ten minutes past the butt crack of dawn to do service projects at thirty sites throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., a logistical operation on par with the invasion of Normandy as far as I am concerned. On Friday, we worked quietly in our offices while caffeinating heavily and patting ourselves on the backs that not a single teenager had been maimed or killed on Service Day. Some of us stayed late to hang out at a burrito slam (is that a thing now?) being hosted by four of our programs. On Saturday, I pulled my sleeping bag out of mothballs, gave a quick kiss to the Person to Whom I Am Legally Married, and headed off to a 4-H camp (see photo above) in the part of Maryland that is really West Virginia to spend the weekend with students and faculty in another of our programs who prefer to do their getting acquainted in the company of snakes, mice, and salamanders. In this instance, tacos were slammed. (Long story. Brief occupational lesson: The new job involves lots of social eating. Someone is headed back to her Lifestyle Adjustment Program soon for a quick refresher course before the buttons on that red jacket start popping off.) I drove home this morning, exhausted, stiff as a board from two nights on a flimsy mattress in a rustic cabin, grinning like a fool. Labor Day? I chuckled to myself. In this case, I think we should call it Labor of Love Day.

Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Feel cynical or superior. Or click back to that Word document of the syllabus you’ve been working at in a desultory way for the better part of the weekend. Or stick around for a minute or two and listen to an academic talk about something other than fear and loathing of everything currently happening in higher education. Don’t worry. I haven’t lost sight of the fact that there is plenty to fear and loathe. That’s just not my focus here.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. There. I said it. I know I’m still in the honeymoon phase of this new gig and that one day I’ll wake up and there will be reports to write instead of inspirational speeches and meetings that will make me wish I had food poisoning to get out of attending. I am also acutely aware of how fortunate I am to be in a big honking R-1 school chockablock with cool programs that need people to run them. Still, I don’t think my situation is all that unusual. Most schools have similar opportunities for mid-career course adjustments that can ease the dread so many faculty members feel this time of year. My advice to those for whom the dread is starting to feel unbearable? Look around you. Keep your ears open for opportunities. Put out feelers. Be open to possibilities that might seem unusual.  Unusual could easily turn out to be just right. That’s what happened in my case. I’d never been involved in a living-learning program. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to apply for my current position if I hadn’t been actively exploring what I might do once I stepped down from twelve years of running a small academic program. I was prepared to head back “home” to the English department full time and focus on getting promoted, but when this opportunity came up something told me I ought to pursue it. I was surprised by what my gut was telling me to do, but my gut has never steered me wrong. I listened to it. I’m glad I did. I love the energy and excitement of my new office as well as the commitment to working together to make great things happen for undergraduate students in their first two years.

I’m an academic, and I am having fun at work. Are you? If you aren’t, look around you. Maybe the best job you’ll ever have is right there on your own campus. Don’t just stand on the dock feeling surly or sad. Dive in — Summer may be over, but the water is still fine!

This post is dedicated to my dear pal Lisa, who lives on the water, recently became a dean, and is also in mad love with her new job. Lisa, my friend, you make me regret every No Dean Left Behind joke I ever made. If higher ed is in your capable hands, we might avoid the apocalypse after all.

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