The Price of Independence

Recently I was updating my Amazon author page.  Since this is purely a self-promotional place (my books aren’t exactly priced to move) I try to approach it with a sense of humor.  I need to be in the mood to write funny, and some followers of this blog often mistake what I’m doing when I try it here.  (Satire and irony, at least to me, have quite a bit of inherent humor.)  In any case, the trick with Amazon author pages—or any internet sites really—is being an “independent scholar.”  To both the academy and to educated laity, that moniker suggests you’ve somehow failed to impress the academic establishment.  No institution wants to claim you, and why should anyone listen to someone who “blows their own horn”?  If you sell enough books you’ll gain some credibility, but at these prices?

Still, I try.  The marketers and publicists I know all talk about building a platform (“shares” and “likes” help).  Platforms require a lot of planks.  One plank I recently learned about was JSTOR (a not-quite acronym for Journal Storage).  Well, I’ve actually known about JSTOR for decades but only recently have been able to use it.  JSTOR scans and indexes academic journals.  While that may not be exciting to the average layperson, for academics (and independent scholars), this is a great tool.  Prior to JSTOR you had to spend hours plowing through various indexes to learn what had been published on a certain topic.  Then you had to go into the stacks and look the material up.  And probably end up photocopying it.  JSTOR makes all of that obsolete with a few keystrokes.  The problem was you could only get in with your university’s subscription.

I stand and applaud JSTOR because they have now made it possible for independent scholars (we are a growing demographic!) to access 100 free articles a month.  Even though “independent scholar” often means you have a nine-to-five with no sabbaticals, that’s quite a lot of articles you can now access.  While I think this is a great move, I do wonder if it’s part of the writing on the wall for higher education.  Around the world universities (except those well endowed, or supported by federal funds) are having trouble staying solvent.  Knowledge is free on the web, until you run into that paywall at internet speed.  Well, at least for now we have JSTOR and access to otherwise inaccessible journal articles.  But that’ll have to wait until after work.  And after I update my Amazon author profile.


Phony

It happened right in the middle of a phone call.  The phone just died.  Well, honesty it had been sick for some time, but its departure was somewhat unexpected.  This is a landline we’re talking about.  Yes, I have an iPhone but I seldom use it.  Especially for phone calls outside the family.  I don’t want people calling me on what I consider a private number.  That’s what the landline is for.  Now, I had a call scheduled for later in the afternoon and I had to postpone it (via email—does anyone else see how strange all of this is?) until I could get a phone.  Since it was the work week the soonest I could get out was Saturday—I often have evening obligations after work.  So I ordered one online instead.

I was in a bit of a hurry, I’ll confess.  I don’t need a lot of features.  As long as it works for talking to others across a distance, I’m happy.  When it arrived I realized it didn’t have an answering machine.  Hadn’t thought of that.  The number of people who actually call me is quite small.  But if they are actual people I do like them to leave a message if I can’t get to the phone.  Then I remembered that answering machines used to be sold separately.  You didn’t need to have everything in one device.  Our modern way of living encourages that—keep everything together.  The phone in your pocket is a camera and computer and GPS all in one.  And more.  I’m more of a component guy.

Back when records were still a thing, my stereo was a component system.  Ostensibly because some components performed better for certain functions than others did, but really because some were on sale at Lechmere’s.  Nevertheless, the concept stuck.  I’ll admit that the all-in-one functionality is convenient, but I also think it becomes problematic when we have to buy more than we need just to keep up with the Joneses.  People are so reachable (with the exception, it seems, of many academics and contractors)—that we’re spoiled for choice.  In fact, it seems that the only polite thing to do is ask others how they’d prefer to be reached.  The telephone, of course, reaches into one’s private world in a way that email doesn’t.  I suppose that’s why many people are careful not to give out their numbers.  And if they do, we expect to be able to leave a message if they’re not home.


Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.


Peak Complexity

I remember being a kid.  Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex.  You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them.  Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving.  God is always watching you.  Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before.  You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration.  By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out.  I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.

I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation.  Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did.  The complexities, however, also come in other species.  I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities.  That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins.  (There’s a reason history appeals to me.)  Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture.  The same is true of jobs.  I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter.  You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.

Then big life events come in with all their own complexity.  The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity.  If there is, what happens when we reach it?  Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes?  Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back?  I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight.  By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once.  Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck?  I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out.  Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together.  If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect.  Childhood’s beginning.


Weathering the Sleep

Weather still has a tremendous, if incremental, effect on life.  Patterns where a repeating weather cycle seems stuck in place are a good example.  While not exactly uncommon in summer around here, thunderstorms develop during the hot and humid days.  Our current pattern is that thunderstorms arrive in the middle of the night.  For days in a row.  We had a few days in our current series.  Some of us can’t sleep through thunderstorms, not least because we have to get up and close the windows, pulling fans out, so that the water doesn’t invade.  This means several nights of interrupted sleep and rather unforgiving work schedules the next day.  Companies don’t often take this fact of the weather into consideration.  I’m not the only one yawning all day.

Of course, other things interrupt sleep as well.  Any parent of a newborn has those perpetually baggy eyes that we’ve come to associate with trying to get an infant to sleep through the night.  Work doesn’t smile on that kindly either.  Both of these (and many others) are very real human concerns regarding slumber.  HR, on the other hand, looks at the clock with a frown.  This sort of work ethic is particularly bad in America where work is a kind of sacred obligation (unless you’re a minor, rich, or retired).  You owe that time, no matter how sleepy you are or sloppily you may work because of it.  In my case it’s the weather that’s been causing my drowsy days.  I guess I shouldn’t have given up caffeine a few years back.

Weather, although it’s treated as a “neutral” subject, affects everything.  There are deniers, but climate change is real.  It’s measured across centuries and millennia, however, and our point of view spans only the few decades of our own lifetimes.  We come again and again to the myth that this planet was created for us rather than the more factual realization that we grew organically out of it.  Our civilization is complex and grows more so all the time, requiring less and less time in nature.  Nature isn’t predisposed to be nice to us, or to any species.  It’s a matter of balance.  So it is with the weather.  This massive atmosphere above us seeks to balance itself out but we’re making it hotter than it should be.  Many suppose that God will sort it all out, if, indeed, forcing a crisis won’t compel divine intervention.  I just hope the “man upstairs” has been getting enough sleep.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Irony

It’s a funny old world, as the saying goes.  I don’t deal, as an editor, with many agents.  In fact, having been in publishing for nearly a dozen years it’s only happened three times.  The most recent agent is one to whom I sent a pitch for Holy Horror and from whom I never heard back.  The book he sent me isn’t too different from what I was doing in said volume.  That’s the way it goes, you say.  Indeed, I don’t disagree.  But who doesn’t like a dose of irony in an otherwise stainless steel world?  As I’m reading through the proposal I see that it cites the interest in the subject because of the great popularity of the Religion and Monsters sessions at the American Academy of Religion.  I was responsible for getting those sessions started.

Since irony loves company, none of the people I recruited to get that session rolling read my blog.  I’d been meeting with various scholars over the years and started to notice a common interest in religion and monsters, which I personally share.  I suggested to one of these gainfully employed scholars that we should apply for such a session.  She agreed and we invited another gainfully employed academic to join us.  I wrote the initial proposal.  The session was approved (the proposal being helpfully revised by my colleagues) for three years running.  Now it was being cited as objective proof of an idea that this very agent had dismissed when I presented Holy Horror to him.  Our society very much thinks having a university post means you have something to contribute.  No post?  No interest.

I’ve been working on religion and monsters for (conservatively) a dozen years.  I’ve written two high-priced books on the subject and I’ve received almost no traction in the field because I can’t put a university, or college, or seminary, behind my name.  I was formerly an associate professor, but who you are speaks louder than who you were.  Institutions speak even louder—much louder—than individuals.  The thing about privilege is that it works.  So in this funny old world I’m bemused to be watching my own idea helping propel a colleague’s case for an agent.  I’m working on my fifth book, and I sincerely hope this one will retail for less than thirty dollars.  That’s difficult to do without an agent’s intervention.  I know agents are swamped with proposals.  I know they’re very selective.  And I also know that the irony of being a biblical scholar interested in monsters will catch their attention.  Only, however, if you have an institution behind your name.  Funny, isn’t it?

Even the monster smiles

Online Research

Given my current lack of a university library, and my continued rapaciousness for research I’ve had to sample internet offerings.  There’s a reason academics are skeptical of the internet’s research reliability.  Just about anything you want to verify brings you up against a paywall where you can sometime buy an article you could read for free if you were a professor, for about $15 or $20.  The privileging of academic information.  (Hey folks, I give it away here!)  In any case, I often run into websites on the topic on researching that give “facts” with a breezy assurance that isn’t followed up with footnotes, making me wonder where they got their information.  Who was the publisher?  Who says they know what they’re talking about?  No wonder alternative facts rule the day.

One of the things I learned in the course of my doctoral work is that those three insignificant letters, if applied correctly, indicate that you know how to do research.  Earning a doctorate is often considered (and sometimes is) a matter of becoming a specialist.  Those willing to peel back the top layer realize that underneath what’s going on is a transformation of your way of thinking.  You can find facts, but you can also weigh them in the balances.  You take no one’s word for it.  Unless, of course, they’re published by a prestige press.  And even then, if the lesson really sunk in, you’ll have your doubts.  The internet is a frustrating place to try to find reliable information.  Oh, it’s great for looking up phone numbers, and even for getting directions.  Just don’t trust it with history.

Currently at work on my fifth book, I’m finding research somewhat of a hurdle.  I’ve reached out to local universities and they seem only to want to let you in if you’re an adjunct (which is considered a conflict of interest in my current post).  You’re therefore locked out of knowledge.  I recently learned that JSTOR may be offering a fixed number of free articles to independent scholars.  If so, that is a great and farsighted boon.  You see, the problem is you need to look at the footnotes to know which articles are actually based on solid research.  There’s a move afoot that makes academic presses shudder.  The move for free information.  It’s the business of academic presses to sell it, of course—that’s where the money comes from.  So I sit here facing another paywall and I wonder is wisdom can ever truly be free.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Independently

I’m feeling independent today, even if it’s only just temporary.  For the first time in four years it feels like I’m living in the United States again on our national holiday.  I’m actually spending this holiday weekend moving a family member.  That means drama—almost by definition.  It began two days before.  U-Haul sent us a text telling us our truck would be in the wrong city, over an hour away.  We called to correct the mistake and were told the truck would only be available five hours later than scheduled in the city where we actually were.  We had no choice but to accept.  The next day the saga continued.  We’d hired a local company to help us find a home for furniture no longer needed.  They arrived late, but there was a reason—the owner of the company had had a family tragedy that day and had to scramble to find help for the job.  They did a good job, though.  I’d use them again.

The day of the move our hired help called.  They were going to be late.  We went to U-Haul only to discover that their automated check-in software wasn’t working.  We had to stand in line for over an hour total before someone figured out they had to override the instructions so we could pick up the truck.  In the middle of this, the movers called again to tell us they still weren’t even in the state.  They were pre-paid a very pretty penny to help move the big items (we are small people, and I have a bad back; we need burly friends), but they would be several hours late.  We couldn’t put the smaller items on the truck when the big stuff was the unknown quantity, space-wise.  Hire-a-Helper, the company we’d used, sent a text saying our two hours were up and they were going to be billing a significant fee for extra hours.  The help had not yet arrived.

They turned up seven hours late.  We had arranged for help to unload on the other end, supposing that we wouldn’t have suddenly grown stronger or bigger in the intervening day.  Today, however, is our travel day—the one day we weren’t relying on others to do their job.  Our independence day, as it were.  We don’t need any fireworks.  Indeed, we hope for none.  All the careful planning collapsed under unforeseen circumstances.  But today we have the truck with the cool Colorado NASA image on the side and the open road. It’s quite cheering, actually. I’m always in the market for burley friends, but today it feels good to be independent.


Byte Fragility

A few weeks back—context is always important—I mentioned how a storage drive slipped off my sleek laptop and went insane.  That is to say, it stopped working.  Unfortunately at the time it was the only backup method I was using.  And since my laptop forced me to move a huge amount of data so that it could do its regular updates, all my vegan eggs were in one basket.  (I feel like a bit player in this drama sometimes—it’s really the tech people who are in charge.)  There were literally years’ and years’ worth of data on that slipped disc.  Since then I’ve purchased two back-up drives and I’m backing up onto older discs and drives that are still readable.  It cost more than I care to confess to recover most of the data.  Some of it is gone forever.

Although I can’t go into all the details here, the data recovery company I used—shout out to Tri-State Data Recovery—was able to recover about 99 percent of the information.  They were kind enough to suggest very solid-looking data backup systems so that a slipped disc could never happen again.  This all sent me back to my roots as an ancient West Asia scholar.  Scribes whose data still exists 4000 years later, simply got clay for free from the river.  The first writing material was the best.  I’ve quadruple backed up my recovered files now.  I’ve mourned some of the missing.  Still, I realize that if anything goes wrong I haven’t the technical skill to recover my ideas.  Or my photos.  They’re mere electrons.

I want to save trees.  I try to print only what’s necessary, but incidents like this reinforce my love of print.  Paper has its problems too.  Three years ago, when we moved into this house, torrential rains destroyed a couple hundred books in the garage waiting to be brought into the house.  Data were destroyed.  Granted, a flood can destroy clay tablets too.  In fact, if nature sets her mind to destruction there’s pretty much nothing we can do.  Just ask the dinosaurs.  Still, it disturbs me that all our data are so terribly fragile.  I write things down to be creative, but also because I can’t remember everything I want to.  If a drive falls off a slippery laptop not only does it make a sound, it also puts a dent in your bank account.  Down at the river bank, however, there’s clay free for the taking.


Highgate Cemetery Again

Vampires can distort your thinking.  For example, whenever I hear of Highgate Cemetery in London, my mind immediately goes to the Highgate Vampire.  (There was somewhat of a comment kerfuffle on that topic right here on this blog some years back that resulted in several comments being removed.)  Highgate is the amazing final resting place of a remarkable number of famous people.  Still, when I visited a few years back I couldn’t get the vampire out of my mind.  (A friend of mine lives a short walk from the cemetery and that made the visit possible.)  This all came rushing back when I saw a book on Highgate Cemetery up for review on Reading Religion.  (And hey, Nightmares with the Bible has been available there for free, for any interested takers!)

Given my current vocation, writing actual book reviews is considered conflict of interest.  More’s the pity, since that’s how I often managed to get ahold of expensive books back in the day.  I’m pretty sure the book advertised (edited by Marie-Therese Mader, Alberto Saviello, and Baldassare Scolari) has nothing to do with the vampire, but I can think of it no other way.  Highgate is an architectural marvel for a necropolis.  It is spooky, inspiring, and impressive.  When something happens in a place, even if the facts are in dispute, it takes on an atmosphere that reflects such happenings.  At least that’s the way it feels for Highgate.  I’d heard about the vampire incident before visiting, but didn’t have the details.  Besides, you’re only permitted in on guided tours and the docents don’t point out such things.

Nevertheless, having been there I still have an interest in the cemetery itself.  It’s odd in a way.  Nobody I know personally is buried there.  No ancestors, as far as I know.  It’s the sense of place.  I’ve written about this many times before—there are numinous spaces in the world.  Science may deny it, but even scientists feel it.  Some places transport you somewhere beyond just the physical dimensions of where your body happens to be at the moment.  Cemeteries are filled with the memories of lives past.  They remind us that our time is limited, and that we too will cross that numinous threshold some day.  We all contribute.  Well, I can’t review the Highgate book and I can’t afford to buy it.  I nevertheless suspect that there’s nothing about the vampire in it.  I’m sure it’s my thinking that has been distorted by vampires.


Ever-Changing Skies

The weather is something we like to think is trivial.  We’ve got more important things to do than worry about it.  Yet even our most important ways of dealing with life’s issues have to take the humble weather into account.  The fact that I was awoken by a thunderstorm at around 1:30, and, given my schedule, thus began my day, perhaps has something to do with it.  And perhaps so does a conversation I overheard on a trip to Ithaca.  Now, upstate New York isn’t known for its cooperative weather.  In fact, the alma mater of Binghamton University includes the phrase “ever-changing skies.”  I was in a public place and a conversation was being had between two men who were strangers to me.  My ears perked up when I realized they were discussing higher education.

This should surprise none of my regular readers.  Higher education has been the stand-offish lover in my life.  In any case, as one guy was explaining to the other, he worked at Cornell University—one of the Ivy League schools—and he opined that the reason it had trouble recruiting faculty was, well, the weather.  Now, I’m one to sometimes take weather personally.  (I’m still wondering what the point of last night’s thunderstorm was.  Anything that wakes me after midnight essentially personally ends my night’s sleep.)  In any case, being one of those under-employed academics I had to think about this.  I’d be glad for a university post—would I turn one down because of the weather?  Is meteorological preference really that strong?  Especially since in polite conversation the weather is considered the shallowest of topics.

Weather is vitally important.  Perhaps because of its ubiquity we tend to overlook it.  Think about rain on a wedding day.  Or a moving day.  In the latter case it can be more than inconvenient.  Sports events can be cancelled due to weather (baseball is especially prone to this).  Extreme weather (which is becoming more common) can shut everything down.  Is is just me, or does every thunderstorm now come with a “severe” warning attached?  Weather is more than just inconvenient; our lives depend upon it.  Thoughts not unrelated to these were in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  I’ve only ever lived in rainy climates.  I realize many others aren’t nearly so lucky.  The drought in our western states is troubling.  Perhaps higher education might be able to rise above it?  Or will the most educated turn down jobs because of the inconvenience of ever-changing skies?


Picture This

For a writer with limited time, a blog seems like a good idea.  Years ago WordPress emerged as the premier site on which to host such a venture—it was free (but like all things in the tech revolution it would eventually start charging a subscription fee), easy to use, and friendly to your average Luddite.  Now that I’ve been doing this some dozen years you might think that coming up with daily topics is the difficult part.  Well, it is a challenge sometimes, I admit, but the hardest part is coming up with images.  Occasionally I have an image around which to base a post, but the fact is I’ve discovered several blogs because I was searching for an image.  So I started putting an image in each post.  So far, so good.

WordPress has evolved over the years.  It has become more and more commercial.  After so much space is filled on your site (I pay regular fees for both the space and for the domain name) you must upgrade.  The next upgrade available to me is “Business.”  This blog is purely an avocation.  Any writer who doesn’t offer online content these days, at least according to the marketers and publicists I know, will never write a break-through book.  From my own experience, agents won’t even touch you unless you’ve got a far larger following than mine (and I’ve been faithful for a dozen years).  Anyway, I don’t want to pay for a business plan, so I reuse a lot of images.  That is the most time-consuming part of posting on this blog. 

You see, I post each day immediately before work.  To search over twelve years of images is difficult on WordPress.  Many of my images are my own, and my phone names them “img” (which autocorrect wants to make “omg”).  Searching those in WordPress to find a specific image can easily take an hour.  Considering the time these pieces are posted, you get an idea of when I have to start.  Good thing I’m an early riser!  My relationship with technology is an uneasy one.  I appreciate content.  Producing it is an act of pure creativity and it’s important to me to do it every single day.  But work is non-negotiable.  Metrics apply.  Consequences for not meeting them can be significant.  Where is that image I thought would be perfect for the post I wrote?  I should’ve renamed them before using them.  But just this moment, work’s about to start.  Now, what am I going to use to illustrate this post?

Remember the early days?

Hybrids

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

Hybrids.  They’re everywhere these days.  From hybrid cars to the modified foods we eat, mixed forms seem to be in style.  I can’t think of myself as anything other than a hybrid.  A person not welcome in academia isn’t expected to research and write books, but I just can’t seem to help myself.  There a rare excitement in finding, and loving, a new idea.  Academic writing I can do without, but the writing up of ideas, that is intoxicating.  I’m afraid I can’t always share such things here since I don’t have release time for research and publication and it can take me considerable time to gather all my sources and write up the results.  Meanwhile I’m just a working stiff like anybody else.  A hybrid working stiff.

Describing the elation of a new idea is difficult.  Knowing that something nobody else has noticed before is coming into focus, and that someone might want to publish it is thrilling.  Okay, so many people find other things like sports or dangerous activities exciting.  That’s fine.  For me an afternoon in a museum or library can do it.  You see, after finishing a big project like a book, it’s normal for me to go through a slump.  People ask “what are you working on next?” and although I have many ideas racing along it can sometimes take up to a year before a front-runner emerges.  When it does, however, all bets are off.  Ideas like this can buoy my mood for days at a time.  Now if only I had a classroom to test them out.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie the other day.  Plays can be, and often are, mirrors of reality.  In high school we had to read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Although that was approaching forty years ago I still remember our teaching pointing out the real tragedy was that Willy Loman had real skills that were evident to those who knew him.  Circumstances, however, had compelled him to become a salesman.  There is a difference between a job and a calling.  Callings, however, are no protection against an economy based on greed.  Perhaps we’re all being channeled into salesmen positions.  Even if that’s the case, however, we know what brings us our sense of meaning in life.  Although there’s no inherent reason that a person can’t research and write on their own, it can be a costly and time-consuming venture without institutional support.  But a hybrid does things a little bit differently.  And hybrids are everywhere these days.


Candid Camera

Early on in the pandemic, various meeting leaders—whether Zoom or Teams—asked participants to put on their cameras.  The point was that, missing seeing other people at the office, the video feed was psychologically reassuring.  I get that.  I began working remotely before the pandemic broke out and I’m still reeling from being ahead of the curve for once in my life.  Does it always feel this giddy?  In any case, we’ve got to the point where many people simply do not put on their cameras, even in small meetings.  Since we are trained for diversity we know that some people simply don’t want us to know how they look on a certain day (or perhaps how cluttered their background is).  And that’s perfectly fine.  It does make me think how artificial work in the office is.

At least you could see this kind.

You put yourself together a certain way to be seen by other people.  In fact, we sometimes even put “dress codes” together for work.  I even had an employer once say dress was “business casual,” only wrinkles were unacceptable.  I don’t iron my clothes, so I guess that particular employer was warning not to let them sit in the clothes basket too long after taking them from the dryer (or clothes line).  In any case, now that we’ve come to realize we may not always look our best, we have an option to leave the camera off.  How many days commuting into the office did we feel this way but were given no choice?  Since leaving academia I’ve never had an office at work.  I was a midlife cubicle denizen.  I never liked the idea. Who looks their best after getting out of bed at 3:00 a.m.?

Being on view isn’t the same as working productively.  The pandemic has also taught us that going into the office is often not necessary at all.  If they supply the tech, which we’d need anyway, we will do our work without Big Brother watching over us all the time.  We’ve become, it seems to me, more humane.  Turning the camera off is a way of perhaps admitting I didn’t sleep well last night.  Or something’s really bothering me and I don’t feel like smiling falsely.  Or any number of other things that might put us in the place of wanting some space.  For once now we have it.  It is my hope that once things start to get “back to normal” that we will have learned some lessons.  We can treat people more like humans want to be treated and still contribute to the bottom line.  It’s amazing how much people will do if they’re treated like human beings rather than cogs in the capitalist machine.