My friend and colleague Dr. Jeffrey H. Barker died suddenly in July of 2021. At the time, he was a few weeks into a one-year term as the 11th President of Converse University. Last week (Jan 25, 2023), Converse unveiled his Presidential portrait and celebrated his 20 year tenure at the university with a ceremony and reception. We also dedicated a tree–a Japanese Maple–in his honor on campus. I was asked to speak at the tree dedication. Below are my remarks.
I first met Jeff Barker on Valentine’s Day in 2007. I was on a campus visit—my first, and what would be my only—campus visit. I don’t remember much about that first meeting except that I was really nervous, and I was wearing a suit. I had never met a Dean before, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had no idea what a Dean actually did . . . I certainly didn’t expect to one day be a Dean myself, but here we are. Over time, Jeff Barker went from being my Dean and my colleague, to becoming a mentor and my friend. It is my honor to speak today in the presence of family, friends, and esteemed members of the Converse community.
Those who know me know that I am a book person. That means that I trade in language, in words, in text. When President Hopkins asked me to speak today, I immediately thought about a 2018 book by a writer named Richard Powers called The Overstory. Like the rest of Richard Powers’s work, The Overstory is about a lot of things—it is 500 pages long after all—but primarily, it is a book about trees and the relationship between trees and humankind. In fact, its opening pages are narrated by a chorus of trees, a variety of species all talking to and over each other: alders, poplars, oaks, laurels (no Japanese maples, unfortunately). . . and then the trees turn their attention to us, to people, addressing us directly: “All the ways you (people) imagine us (the trees) . . . are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much below ground as above.”
I focus us here on this quotation because it centers us on the act of seeing, of perceiving . . . which we often consider to be passive, something that just happens, rather than something we purposefully do. Here in the quotation, seeing is active and powerful, even violent (Powers uses the word “amputations,” after all). It’s something essential and vital, and it’s also something that we as human beings are oftentimes really bad at. It’s something that we do without thinking, and often without the sense of possible consequence. Not Jeff Barker.
One of Jeff’s gifts was that of perspective. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Jeff could do that.
He was something like a human kaleidoscope, able to consider multiple and often competing perspectives at the same time, sometimes 4 or 5 together: administrator, faculty member, student, parent, lawyer, community member . . . Being able to hold them all (or many of them all) in mind can be confusing, frustrating, and just plain exhausting—trust me, I know. But Jeff made it look easy. It really isn’t.
What I love about this tree, and the place that this tree now occupies on our campus, is how it embodies that very quality of Jeff’s. It is located–literally–at the center of many different paths, providing many different perspectives. If you look South, you’ll see the library, the home of so much knowledge in its stacks as well as the Center for Academic Excellence, an initiative that Jeff was especially pleased to support. It also houses the archive, the site of our history and our institutional memory. If you look North, you’ll see Dexter Hall, one of the oldest residential halls on our campus, the home for our students, or at least some of our students. If you look to the Northeast, you’ll see Wilson Hall, the heart of our campus: the locus of the dining hall, where we eat together, have sometimes danced together, and sometimes—when the weather has not cooperated—celebrated Founder’s Days and graduations together. It also houses the President’s office, an office that Jeff occupied for too short a time. To the West, you’ll see Carmichael. Carmichael houses, among other things, faculty offices and classrooms. Carmichael was also Jeff’s Converse home. Carmichael is where I first met him that day so long ago, and Carmichael is where he spent the lion’s share of his time on campus. I still look for his car in the parking lot and even now, I expect to see him through the window of 206.
Jeff loved Converse.
He often quoted the late JoAnn Lever with reverence; she said, “Converse is a special place.”
While there were elements of the physical plant that drove him up the walls and back again—especially in Carmichael Hall, he was devoted to this place, to her people, and especially to her students, to our students.
He was fiercely protective and unabashedly proud of our students and their accomplishments whether academic, artistic, athletic, interpersonal, or something else entirely. I can’t think of a better place to commemorate him as well as everything that he has given to us over the years than the intersection of these many paths to learning and teaching, to working and living, performing and celebrating—everything about Converse that he held so dear.
I am grateful to President Hopkins, to Jan, and to you all for being here with us this evening to honor our colleague, our leader, our friend Dr. Jeffrey H. Barker. Thank you.
I have spent my career at a small, tuition-driven, formerly single-gender university. My own department is small, and it will be getting smaller next year when Creative & Professional Writing split off from English and joins our School of the Arts. When I say small, I mean there are currently 7 of us—including me—and we’ll be 5. In other words, I live, metaphorically speaking, in a TINY tent that bears little resemblance to the departments that trained me or to those institutions that generally govern our profession: the flagships and Ivys and other research-intensives often held up as the standard if not the ideal—despite the fact that there are far more community colleges, regional publics, and tuition-driven privates in the United States than there are elite, prestige universities.
I want to poke a bit at the Big Tent metaphor because I’m not sure that it’s all that helpful. This is not my first or even my second encounter with such framework, and I can’t help but be reminded of other versions of the conversations, specifically those surrounding the Digital Humanities & Feminism. The metaphor is a curious one. It’s meant, I suppose, to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging, to encourage a broadening of communities and conversations, and sometimes that works. But inevitably, we are forced to grapple with a very basic question: who’s in, and who’s out (here I’m channeling Stephen Ramsay, who gave a rather infamous talk asking precisely this question at another MLA, this one in 2011)? When we talked about Big Tent DH, the questions were those of definition: that is, what is DH—do you have to code? When applied to Feminism, the Big Tent model also gave rise to questions of definition: what is Feminism: reproductive freedom? Equal pay for equal work? #MeToo? #TimesUp?
Who’s in? Who’s out?
All of these examples, including our own here at MLA exploring Big Tent English, seem to be based on the unspoken assumption that when it comes to tents, bigger is better. . . . Is it though?
Who’s in? Who’s out?
But before we can answer that, we need to address another even more basic question: What are we doing? What is the big tent for?
Ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about, whether DH or Feminism or English or the Humanities more broadly: what are we trying to accomplish? Why are we calling people in to our tent? As much as I’d like to think that this is all for a Gatsby-esque carnival of a party, that’s never really seemed to be the goal. Instead, I’m struck by something that Kathleen Fitzpatrick said earlier in the conference, which is that it seems impossible to talk about the state of the profession without talking about crisis. While I agree that it’s hard to think of a time when the humanities haven’t been in some kind of crisis or other, the crises—plural—of the last few years have felt somehow more acute whether we are thinking about challenges not only over whether what we teach (Why major in English or the humanities more generally?), but also howwe teach (CRT, book bannings, don’t say gay), who we teach first-gen students, new majority students, traditional undergraduates, Nepo babies, or the looming enrollment cliff that keeps your administrators up at night, and who even gets to teach as our field becomes ever more adjunctified . . .
We turn to Big Tents because we have this idea that more is better. And sometimes it’s true that more IS better. That is, there can be power in numbers. There’s something that happens when we have 50 people or 100 people or 1000 or 10K that can’t happen with 7 soon to be 5. Critical mass can matter (as we saw some 15 times over the last few days in the US House of Representatives).
Is it sustainable?
I’m not sure that it is. I’m also not convinced that it has to be. Tents after all, are meant to be temporary enclosures that can be moved around, pitched and taken down . . .
Which brings me to alignments—my keyword for this talk. Alignment is a term broadly used in various contexts: astrological, biomedical, mechanical, psychological, spiritual. In the most generic sense, it’s about the arrangements of parts to facilitate the workings of the whole. For example, when you get your car aligned, the mechanic checks to make sure that the placement and balance of the wheels are best positioned for the longevity of the vehicle. When you go to the doctor for back pain, you might find that something as simple as a sneeze (thank you middle age!) has caused your entire lower back to seize because over the course of days/weeks/months/years even, the movements of life have strengthened some things and weakened others, leading to imbalances and misalignments. Alignments are about positionality, about relationships between components to each other and to the larger system to which they belong. Sometimes these alignments are fixed and stable. Sometimes they’re more fluid. Sometimes they appear as one but are really the other. All can be useful, but only if we understand what we’re dealing with.
Who’s in? Who’s out?
When we talk about alignments in the context of #MLA23, I suspect that we’re not all imagining the same parts or perhaps not even the same whole. Some of us are trying to get jobs. Some of us are trying to get book contracts. Some of us are trying to make connections or reconnect with friends. Some of us might even want to think about authors or texts or literary frameworks. Some of us are still in graduate school. Some of us are on the verge of retiring. Some of us have job security; far too many of us do not. Some of us mentor PhD students and direct dissertations. Many of us don’t. We work across time zones and oceans and languages and even centuries. Maybe we’re thinking about building alliances with literary studies & rhetoric and composition & creative and professional writing, all of which have their own professional tents, by the way . . . but here’s the key question: to what end? Individual advancement? Increasing enrollments? Institutional security? Pedagogical inspiration? Research opportunities? All of these are worthy ambitions—but they are very different.
One of the blessings and the curses of being at a small school is that I have never had the option of staying within my department or my division or even my own institution when the time came for collaborations and coalition building. There are opportunities to be found it crossing disciplinary lines, not just within our fields but beyond them as well, whether to history or economics or philosophy or musicology or art history . . .
Being a Dean means being a steward of institutional resources; it’s probably the most fundamental part of the job. It is also, to me at least, essential to think carefully and specifically about what those resources are; this is highly specific to individual institutions. *My* most important resources are not fiscal: that is, even before the pandemic, money is not a resource I can do much with most of the time. There’s never enough. My most valuable resource, and I suspect—I hope!—I’m not alone here, are my colleagues both faculty and staff and our students. That brings me to my last point, which I think about all the time: what would any of this look like if we thought of administration less in the corporate terms of management and money (or its lack) and instead thought of it as a version of care? For what is a steward if not a kind of shepherd? And what is a shepherd if not someone who takes care?
As Tressie McMillan Cottom has said, our institutions cannot love us. Of course they can’t; institutions are systems and alignments, but they’re alignments and systems of people. People are what matter, not in the corporate HR version of resource management, which often isn’t about people at all. But people are why we do what we do, or at least, they are why I do what I do. Yes, I like words, especially words when they are in novels and poems, but it’s not texts that bring life to the tent or might ever give rise to that party I want to attend—not even Jay Gatsby. It’s the guest list; it’s the people inside. People are what matter, and we have to take care of them.
When I chose it back in the early spring, I had two different meanings in mind: the digital and the professional. And I will return to those versions momentarily. But the more that, I thought about it, the more different versions spawned: mathematical, computational, social, electrical, neural, political . . . not to mention television networks, at least two films, a comic strip, at least one band, and a group of professional wrestlers.
But what do any of these have to do with modernism?
The short answer: nothing. And everything.
When Shawna Ross and I were brainstorming about this roundtable in the wake of last year’s MSA, I wasn’t sure that I would have much to contribute. I’ve been very fortunate in my own modernist projects. But the more I considered, the more I began to realize that in some ways, I have managed to build a career out of lo-fi modernism. In what follows, I’m not suggesting that you try to follow in my footsteps–even if that was something that you wanted to do (A BIG IF), it would be very hard to replicate. But I will offer a few suggestions.
First things first. While I was trained as a modernist in graduate school, and the majority of my writing concerns modernist figures like T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, my job until this summer was as an American literature generalist. I work at a small college that you have likely never heard of (unless we are friends). Our library is still catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal system and does not have the resources that spoiled me in graduate school.
So how does one “do” Modernism on a shoestring in 2019? It’s all about the network (noun).
In the most analog sense, it’s about people: us, your colleagues from your home institution, your colleagues from other campuses in the area, your friends from graduate school who have since dispersed to places around North America and beyond: Los Angeles, New York City, Knoxville, Columbia SC, Columbia MO, Columbus OH, San Francisco, Washington DC., Austin TX., Pittsburgh, Philly . . . .
Sharing resources has never been easier, and someone you know probably has access unless you need the archive (and sometimes, let’s be honest, you do need the archive). With more and more journals digitizing their back catalogs, Google Books and Hathi Trust, Humanities Commons, we–the collective we–have access to more information and more scholarship than ever before. A brief word of caution about Academia.ed–just don’t (we can talk about why later if you want).
Let me shift gears to the verb version: here we are–together. Take advantage of the connections to be made at sessions, in seminars, over coffee. Seminars, in particular, have been useful to me over the years both as organizer and participant.
Find the money. There isn’t always a lot of it, but there is usually some assistance. If you’re interested in DH, for example, apply for one of the MSA scholarship spots to attend DHSI. If you have a project that requires travel, apply for an MSA research grant, and see if the archive itself might have funding opportunities. See if there’s a way to get to your destination of choice–maybe your institution offers faculty the chance to travel with students? Maybe there are grants for supervising student research. Maybe the dean’s office or the faculty development committee has summer funding opportunities. If you are a contingent faculty member, things get more difficult. Are there ways to get conference fees reduced or waived? Could joining your alma mater’s alumni association get you access to their library resources?
What about the digital version of networking?
The internet has not only made it easier to share pdfs or essays and collaborate on writing projects, but it also has brought resources like the MJP, which should be common knowledge to this crowd, but which is still a tremendously valuable resource to anyone working with early 20thC periodicals. MAPP, ModPo, the open anthology project . . . and check out the digital exhibit while you’re here to see all the other terrific projects online (or going online).
And that brings me finally to the best and worst version of networking: social networking. Facebook. Twitter. List-servs. I’m not going to talk about FB because I’m trying to extricate myself from it, but as one of the moderators of the MSA FB group, you should know that it exists and often can be a good source of information about CFPs, collections, book releases (often with publisher discounts), awards and the like. MSA list-servs. Twitter. And here’s my provocation: You should be on Twitter. You don’t necessarily need to participate in #AcademicTwitter (though it seems like a useful resource), but follow @MSATweet and other modernists. Author Societies. Libraries. Archives. Other modernists at various stages of their careers. And many of them are incredibly generous with their time and their expertise.
It’s not hyperbole to say that I had been looking forward to the Boston Marathon for at least 18 months–since I qualified at Richmond in November 2017. After months of anticipation and miles of training, it was finally here.
I arrived in Boston on Saturday afternoon after an electrical storm in the Carolinas delayed our flight by about 90 minutes. I got to my hotel not long after, though the hotel where I stayed was not the hotel that I booked. I had booked a hotel that had to cancel my reservation due to renovations and had been rebooked to another location, which was really nice if a decent hike to the race activities. Perhaps I should have guessed that two of these things not going as planned might be the universe’s way of telling me that this might be a theme for the weekend. I didn’t.
After checking into my hotel, I made my way to the expo. The closer I got to Back Bay, the more people I saw wearing Boston jackets and carrying expo bags. It was a little overwhelming. When I got to Boylston Street, the crowded had doubled. I saw the finish line. I saw the bleachers. And then I saw the line of people waiting to get into the convention center, where the expo was located. It was sunny and warm outside, and I decided that if I was going to have to wait for an hour to get into the expo, I needed water, so I detoured into the mall that was connected to the convention center. I also wondered if there might be a second entrance from mall. There was. So instead of waiting an hour, I waited maybe 10 minutes.
The expo was really well organized, but it was also really crowded. Packet pick-up was easy and I appreciated that there was a space designated to try on the race shirt to make sure that runners got the right size. I hadn’t, so I also really appreciated being able to exchange on the spot. The rest of the expo, where various sponsors and vendors sample and sell everything from gels and Gus and energy bars to running shoes and gear and injury prevention tools like Normatec boots and TENS units. I got snagged by a guy selling TENS units, and before I knew it, I had electrodes on my shoulders, and I was sitting in a chair next to a complete stranger in the same position. I know a couple people who have these units back home, and they all really like them, so I was interested. I was more interested when I learned I could use my Flex Spending account. And then the sales guy threw in a pair of massage slippers. And then he offered us two for one. Somehow, I am now the owner of not one but two TENS units. After that, I left the expo because I couldn’t afford to spend more money. But I have since used the TENS, and it’s pretty awesome.
I stopped for dinner before heading back to my hotel room, and then I called it an early night.
The next morning, there was a Oiselle meet-up at the Goodr pop-up store. It was so great to connect with friends. I had been feeling very anxious and unsteady since getting to Boston, mostly due to the taper but also because there are just so many runners around, all of them looking confident and wearing jackets or tee shirts from previous Boston marathons. The question of the weekend was not “are you running?” but “is this your first Boston?” I guess it’s flattering because it suggests that I too looked like I could have done this before. . . and I had run other marathons before (Boston was the 5th), but even though I hit my qualifying time with a generous cushion, there was still a part of me that didn’t feel like I belonged there, that I wasn’t fast enough or fit enough or enough of a “real runner” to be at the start on Marathon Monday. The majority of my brain knows that those insecurities are bullshit. But thanks to taper crazies, that part had ceded territory to the fear.
All of this to say, it was really, really good to see my friends and spend time with people I know. I had a really good shake-out run with my teammates, enjoyed a (runner) celebrity sighting of Ryan and Sara Hall, and then wandered off to brunch with a couple of old friends and met a few new ones. We had a great meal and then wandered back over to Newbury where we had noticed a Runner’s World store that had a green screen photo booth set up. My friends were all trying on a particular hoodie, which was both really soft and on sale. We piled in front of the green screen and had a group photo taken of us in our new hoodies, snuck upstairs to catch a glimpse of Olympian and 2014 Boston winner Meb Keflezighi, who was giving a talk to a full house. I split off from the the group after that and made my way back to the hotel to get off my feet for a while.
Back at the hotel, I watched the end of the Masters and took an epsom salt bath. I’m not usually a bath person, but that tub was pretty terrific. I tried to take a nap, but I couldn’t fall asleep, so instead, I just laid around and tried to rehearse my game plan for the next morning. Eventually it was time to head back up to Newbury for an early dinner. And afterwards, my friend Dara, who is a Boston veteran, provided some important correctives to my plan. I hadn’t run a race that started at lunch time before, and as it turned out, I didn’t have enough food for breakfast and the many hours I’d be waiting around before my start.
Supplied with new fortifications, I made my way back to the hotel and went over the plan again. The weather forecast had changed. Again. And not in our favor. It was still supposed to rain. But now, instead of cold, it was supposed to be warm. Like 60s warm. And humid. Like 90% humid. Both of those are bad. Really bad. Particularly since it had not been warm and humid for the majority of my training cycle, so I was not acclimated. Everything was laid out waiting for me, and I had set approximately 14 different alarms to make sure I didn’t oversleep. I got a few texts from family and friends wishing me luck, and with that, I turned my phone to Do Not Disturb, and tried to sleep.
I never sleep well on race nights. This race night was no exception, though it wasn’t as bad as some in the past. At 4am, I got up and started eating. I got dressed, got my gear bag and did a final check. I got my shower cap and poncho in case it was raining, and I headed down to the lobby a little after 5am. It was really eerie. Nobody was up. The elevator was empty. The lobby was empty. The sidewalks were empty. It was raining, so I was wearing my plastic outer layer. I found the gear check and dropped off my bag. Then I got turned around trying to find the hotel where I would get the bus to the start. By this point it was super windy and rainy. I was grateful for the poncho and that I was wearing throwaway shoes because it was gross out. I was also glad that I had gotten a seat on a charter bus so I didn’t have to worry about what promised to be really muddy conditions at the start.
The bus ride was uneventful save that I found myself feeling very thirsty and wishing that I had brought more than a single bottle of water and my Roctane bottle for the beginning of the race. I frequently get cotton mouth this time of year either from my allergies or from my allergy medication. I had it this morning, and as a result, I couldn’t really eat the pretzels I had brought with me. Instead, I focused on the gummy bears and the banana. This would come back to haunt me later.
Finally, it was time for my wave to head to the start. We made our way through security to the Athlete’s Village, which was one big mud puddle. I lost the friend I was with on the bus almost immediately in the village. I had made a beeline to the water station. I found another group of Oiselle runners and hung out with them until it was time to head to the line. With just a few minutes left, I decided on one last pit stop and was on my own again.
I got to my corral as my wave was walking towards the official start line (if you have noticed that this is the third of fourth time I’ve said that I was heading to the start and then didn’t actually start, that’s pretty much what happened all morning long). Another teammate saw my top with our logo and introduced herself. We talked as we walked, and then we were jogging, and I asked my new friend Lisa where the start line was, and she pointed–it was just a few feet ahead, and then we were crossing it. There was no national anthem (or rather, there probably was hours earlier when the race started for the elite women but not for us), no gun or other loud noise. Not even a “GO!” (or a “go.”). It was little anticlimactic.
My plan was to start slow, and I did–even with the downhill, and I managed to stay on track for the first several miles. But something was wrong. Around mile 5 or so, I felt kinda nauseous. It was warm and really humid, and I was already sweating up a storm. Sweating a lot is normal for me, but nausea is not. It worried me a little bit, but I tried to ignore it and focus on the crowds of people and their amazing energy. I told myself to relax my shoulders and relax my legs and just be steady. I took a gu and drank my Roctane (I had already drank some of this on the bus). Cruise control through mile 16–that was the plan. But every time I drank water or Gatorade or took a gel, my stomach reminded me that it was unhappy. “Shut up,” I told it. “This is Boston. Shut up. You are here. You are doing the thing. Shut up.”
By the 9th mile, I needed a distraction. The sun had come out, and the temperature had gone up (though there was a lovely breeze every once in a while). I had my phone in my Koala Clip, and I had my headphones in my pocket, but I hadn’t planned to need them. I needed them. So I pulled off to the side, slowed to a walk, and cued up a playlist. When I started running again, I felt better, and I managed to get to the half only a few minutes over my goal. By this point, I knew I would not hit my A goal, but I thought that my B goal was still possible.
But by the time I got to mile 14, I was really struggling. I had texted a couple of my running friends on that first walk break, telling them that I was having a hard time, but I had put the phone back into airplane mode afterwards. I knew that I had to make it to mile 24 to see my teammates. That became my sole focus. Mile 24. Duncan Donuts on the left. Cowbell corner. Just get there. It’s 10 more miles. You can run 10 more miles. My legs felt okay. My stomach did not, and it was getting worse.
By mile 16, the course started to get hilly. I was walking and running at this point, and on one of the walk breaks, I came up alongside a woman whom I did not know, and who was not on the Volée, but we made eye contact, and she said, “This sucks.” I agreed with her. We shared a few steps, and she said, “let’s run a little, want to?” I agreed and we ran together for a minute or two. I don’t remember how that ended, whether I walked or she walked, but it doesn’t matter–she was a really important bright spot in that afternoon.
Not long after, I saw a Volee singlet ahead of me on the course, also walking, so I decided to try to catch up with whomever she was. It was a woman from Seattle who was also having a really hard day. We commiserated and did a few walk/run cycles before she sent me on ahead.
Mile 24. Just get to mile 24.
I was walking up Heartbreak Hill at mile 18 or so, and one of the spectators yelled, “Don’t give up! You can do it! Don’t give up! Don’t walk! Don’t quit!” I wanted to yell back: “This is me not quitting!” Because it was.
I don’t remember much of this part of the race except that I was listening to music when I could (and sometimes I couldn’t hear it at all because the crowds were so loud), and around mile 20, it started to rain a little though the sun was still out, and at first I thought it was sweat (I was completely soaked at this point). By mile 22, it was raining. Steadily. I put my headphones away and soldiered on.
Mile 24. I have to get to mile 24. Dunkin Donuts. On the left. Mile 24.
And then out of nowhere, I heard my name. I turned to look, and I saw my friends. And I had run right past them without seeing them. I turned around and pretty much collapsed into an ugly-crying heap on my friend Allie. I have no idea how long I was there, but I did look up to see Erin, Erin, Andie, and Lesko. And they offered me water, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to stave off the nausea for much longer, so I declined, and I pulled myself together, sort of, and ran towards the finish with as much strength as I could muster. I was getting cold and the rain wasn’t letting up. But I had less than 3 miles left, and I knew I could finish.
I remember catching up with another teammate somewhere around mile 25 and trying to run with her for as long as I could. We talked about Birdcamp, and then I had to walk again. I found myself with a runner who had a lot of energy left and kept engaging with the crowds, getting them to cheer louder, and they did. I was also running near a couple people with Boston PD jerseys on, and there were lots of cheers for them. After what seemed like forever, I finally turned right on Hereford. And it was UP hill. I hadn’t registered that before. Thankfully it was short, and then I made the fabled final left onto Boylston Street. The crowds were so loud and I tried really hard to run strong to the finish, which seemed like it was receding with every step.
Finally, I finished.
I felt terrible. I was cold. I was still nauseous. I was exhausted and mentally spent. And I had to keep walking. I got my water, which I tried to drink. Walked more and I got my medal. Walked more and I finally got the space blanket to keep me warm. Walked more and I got a banana. Walked more and I got a bag of what I think might have been snacks (I didn’t look at the time and lost it afterwards). Walked more and finally got to the gear check, where I retrieved my bag of dry clothes. I really wanted to change out of my wet gear. But where? I put my bag down on a table to try to get my bearings, but at that point, I started to feel dizzy. Not good because I had another mile and a half to walk back to my hotel.
A volunteer saw me and asked if I was ok. I told her that I felt light-headed. She signaled to another volunteer with a wheelchair, who came over and then proceeded to wheel me to the medical tent. A few minutes later, I was helped out of the chair and asked to sit on a cot while my temperature, blood pressure, and pulse were all measured. Then I vomited. Up came the water and the banana. Once this passed, I was asked to lay down, and my feet were elevated above my heart, and they covered me with a blanket. They asked me a few questions about eating and drinking during the race and asked if they could draw blood to make sure my Potassium level was ok. I was dehydrated, so the blood draws were a challenge. I was stuck in my hand and then my arm. There may have been an IV bag (I have no recollection of this). The needle in my arm stayed in my arm. I stayed on the cot. They asked me if I could try to drink something, and I said that I would try. They brought me a cup of hot broth. My labs came back ok. They gave me a tab of something to stop the vomiting. They asked if I could try to stand. I did, and the dizziness returned. I stood there for a little while and then was asked to try to take a few steps, and after a couple, I knew I was going to throw up again.
At some point in here, I texted a couple of my friends and told them that I was in the medical tent. Both of the women who were in Boston offered to drop what they were doing to help me, and one of them came to get me. I’m especially grateful for this because otherwise, the medics wanted to admit me to the hospital (they didn’t want me going back to a hotel room by myself). Instead, I ended up in Dara’s hotel room with a hot shower, which was terrific, and a soft bathrobe. And a coke and a ginger ale. I was supposed to drink whatever I could over the next few hours, but if I threw up again, I was supposed to go to the hospital. I really didn’t want to go to the hospital.
I stayed with Dara for the next few hours mostly feeling terrible and trying not to throw up again. Finally, around midnight, I decided to rally and head back to my own room. We called down to the front desk for a taxi, and within a few minutes, I was on my way.
I lost the bag of snacks and my Boston space blanket, and I never did get the fabled 26.2 Sam Adams beer (though I did sample it at the expo). But I did get a big bottle of Pedialyte and some saltines, which was about all my system could handle. I lost one of my favorite hand warmers somewhere along the way. But I did manage to stop barfing.
At first, I was embarrassed by my time (4:24:55). I missed my goal by almost 45 minutes. It’s a personal worst by almost 10 minutes. I had expected to be able to requalify for next year’s Boston with this race. Nope. Not even close.
And yet. I gave it everything I had on the day. Maybe even a little more than I should have given. I hadn’t aimed for the medical tent, and I generally disapprove of athletes who push themselves to the point of injury. If I’m honest, one of the big things motivating me to finish the race was the thought of all of the people who knew I was running Boston. People I didn’t want to disappoint. People who would judge me for not being tough enough or strong enough or fit enough. What would they think of me if I dropped out of the Boston marathon. What would they think if I quit? Had it been any other race, I probably would have called it at the half. But it was Boston. It took me four tries to qualify for the race, and who knows if I will get another chance?
But I digress. That I ended up in the medical tent tells me that I couldn’t have done more on that day. I gave it all I had. I wish that I had more, of course. I know that the time was not a good reflection of my fitness or my running ability. But the marathon doesn’t care about those things.
As I performed my After-Action-Report, I know that I was mentally tough and that when it got hard, I didn’t quit. I’m proud of myself for staying in the fight. Also to the good, I did dress well for the conditions. I also did well drinking water and Gatorade on the course. In retrospect, I should have had more food and water on the bus in the morning. Taking such an early bus with my start time was probably not a good idea even though it meant a more comfortable wait once we got to Hopkinton. I probably would have been better served with a later departure time and more time in the athlete’s village, where I could get water and more to eat. The weather did me no favors, and I should have slowed down even more than I did early on. I felt like I was being conservative, but my watch tells another story after the first mile.
Also, I had way too much going on this semester. It started with back problems that sent me to PT for 6 weeks or so at the beginning of 2019. Between that and my pending promotion, January and February were really stressful. And then there was Vienna, which was great. But a transatlantic trip 3 weeks out from my marathon probably wasn’t the best idea. I wouldn’t change a thing except, perhaps, for my expectations. I’m a Boston Marathon finisher, and for now, that’s enough. In the med tent, I said that I would probably not do another marathon, but who am I kidding? I’m doing another marathon. Not for a while, but I’m not going out on that note.
I mentioned in the last post that the Blue class was inspired by three things: a film, a novel, and Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets. As much as I love Bluets, it’s kind of hard to talk about. One source of the difficulty is because it defies categories. It is prose, but it is not fiction. It has paragraphs, but often these stand alone. They are numbered. Sometimes there are clear connections from one to the next. Sometimes the transition is more associative, or what I guess must be associative, and sometimes there’s a clear change of topic. Sometime they read as epiphany. Sometimes they read as meditation. Sometimes they read as observation. And these are mutable, shifting.
I asked my students what they made of the form that the book takes, and they described it as a list. But a list of what, exactly?
Another source of difficulty, at least with teaching the book or even just talking about it with others is the deep resonance, even recognition, that some of the the moments inspire.
A Bluet is a plant with small four-petaled blue flowers. And when I googled it just now to find an image for this post, I was startled to learn that I have Bluets growing wild in my yard. They are dormant at present, it being the middle of winter and all, but while I have been secretly pleased by these lovely little invaders (they aren’t grass, after all), I never knew what they were. Now it feels a bit like kismet. Which is probably silly. And yet.
I began that paragraph to think about the book as a collection of flowers. Wildflowers to be more specific. Small, slight, delicate. Typically found in wooded places, fields, rock gardens. Solitary. Often encountered in clusters. But not always.
Some of Nelson’s critics refer to them as prose-poems but I confess, I’m a literary critic by trade, and I don’t know what to do with the “prose-poem” as a genre. So instead, I like the thought of each of these reflections as a wildflower. Somehow it makes more sense to me. They’re unpredictable and often startling and always lovely though sometimes in ways we don’t expect or can’t appreciate.
When I first conceived of this class, there were three touchstones: Maggie Nelson’s luminous Bluets,Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and the French film Blue, the first in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy.
I freely admit that I am not a film person. I have never been a film person.
I like movies, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never studied film. Film as art object is not a familiar orientation. I watch movies the way that most people read novels: for the story. I like to think that I appreciate the visual elements of the medium, but these are things that don’t come naturally to me, perspectives that I’m not trained to appreciate, and details that I generally fail to notice. The same can be said, by the way, about other visual media: photography, painting, sculpture, but I digress.
All of this to say that I have watched maybe five French films in my life: Blue is one of them, and one that I wanted to revisit.
How? Why? What to say?
Blueness circulates through the film in both large and small ways. It’s present in details, like a manila paper folder or the ink that flows from a composer’s pen or the glaze on a large planting pot in the far corner of a room. But it’s also present in large ways: the swimming pool where the main character spends her time, the glass bead mobile which is the only object she keeps from her family home, the lollipop that she gobbles down in an attempt to swallow, quite literally, her grief from the loss of her family, the blasts of light which punctuate moments of impact. . .
Blueness here is a timbre. It’s a tone, visually but also emotionally. It dictates the choice of flute for the majority of the soundtrack . . . Blue sounds like flutes as opposed to brass or percussion.
“It’s very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labelled ‘the past,’ and, having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue” (This quotation is not from the film but rather from the end of Save Me the Waltz) but it’s echoing here despite the lack of reference to anything blue . . .
“Most of the time, we are content to cry out ‘fuck!’ as if pinched, but the function of our wall words in slightly more elaborate curses is more complex” (William Gass, On Being Blue 52).
I’m interested in the idea of “wall words.” That may or may not have a connection to blueness beyond the obvious (the obvious being that I encountered it in a book, On Being Blue, that I read for the Blue Class.
Wall words. Words as barriers, obstructions, blockages. It seems on the surface counterintuitive. Language is a means of communication, connection, construction. And yet, as the phrase wall words reminds us, it can also serve the opposite impulse, have the opposite effect. It can create distance. It can obfuscate–that right there is a case in point.
Wall Words. Sometimes we deploy them unaware. Mostly, I suspect, we use them intentionally. We reply them in an attempt to push people away, to thwart intimacy. Gass is particularly interested in curses: “fuck you.” Curses: language weaponized, single usage or repeated almost as a fugue. Crassness, crudity. Language meant to shock, to stun, to wound.
To circle back around to blueness, obscenity and indecency seem to be relevant. Gass finds a certain joie de vivre in his use of obscenity. Some of his more generous reviews read this as a celebration of sexuality. I’m sure that it was such in its day, maybe it is even still. I appreciate the way that Gass is trying to shock us into a different kind of thinking, to open up certain portals of perspective by forcing a confrontation with nakedness–both literally and figuratively. His nakedness is not the typical tasteful nude. There are, of course, no discretely positioned fig leaves or locks of hair. Instead he’s interested in the grit. In the offensive. In the obscene. Or at least what we usually consider obscene.
While his obscenity is, I think, intended to be playful, there is also an edge–a sharp one. His playfulness is aggressive, even violent. And yet, he gives us wall words, in both senses: the concept and its deployment.
And yet. And yet.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down. . .
Wall words. That something that doesn’t love a wall, it’s in me. Maybe it’s in most of us somewhere. (It’s pretty much impossible to think about wall words and not think about other kinds of walls in light of the current US government shut down.)
Frost wants us to ask: what are we walling in? What are we walling out?
In the time I spent with Gass over the last several days, I felt distinctly like someone he was walling out even as I wanted to be included in being blue. Who wouldn’t? On Being Blue figures blueness as transcendence; it is inclusive and accommodating. Gass’s lists of blue things have something for everyone. I recognized most of the literary references: Beckett, Pound, Larkin, Joyce, even William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, a deep-cut even for scholar of American modernism. These texts are my home, one of them anyway. But the phallocentrism of the essay (I don’t think he cites a single female author–at least none come to mind), the deployment of crude anatomical references–and the flaunting of their lewdness, the ugliness of the female objectification.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall That wants it down.
Week 2, and the answer to the question “Am I blue?” is a resounding yes. In the words of William Gass, “afflictions of the spirit–dumps, mopes, Mondays–all that’s dismal . . .”
I assigned Gass without rereading him. Not the first time, I’ve done this, surely not the last. The book is called On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. There are several reviews of the book from its 2014 reissue, all in prominent publications: The Guardian,NPR, the New York Review of Books . . .
Not once in the planning of the course, in the review of various materials that we might read or watch, or during various brainstorming sessions did it occur to me that one of the readings of blueness is as pornography, obscenity, indecency.
Sometimes things that come from out of the blue are curveballs. This one was. I should have known better with William Gass. And yet. Reading the assignment over the weekend, and within a page, we have references to blue balls and erections. Not much farther in, a quotation from Henry Miller. . .
Can one blush in blue? Pretty sure that if it were humanly possible without chemical intervention, it would have happened to me on Sunday.
But despite the phallocentrism of the essay, which I don’t think has aged especially well, there were moments of virtuosity in the essay. Gass speaks of the ways that “a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that. A single word, single thought, a single thing, as Plato taught . . . We catch them and connect” (7). And what am I doing if not that same enterprise, just in public, with an audience or a group of collaborators, co-conspirators . . .
A few other quotations:
“Words have been thought to have magical properties. They can, we are assured by authorities, persuade, snare, frighten, bless. They can stimulate, damn, anger, kill, caress. If signs are not the same as the things that they designate, they are at least an essential segment” (21).
“blue is our talisman, our center of thought” (33).
“A color’s unity is inherent, however, since it is insistently, indivisibly present in what it is. Furthermore, every color is a completed presence in the world, a recognizable being apart from any object” (74).
“Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere, in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, cover fruit and boxing out of clay . . . . Blue is, therefore, the most suitable color of interior life . . .
“Because blue contracts, retreats, it is the color of transcendence, leading us away in pursuit of the infinite” (75-76).
“Blue, as you enter it, disappears. Red never does that. Every article of air might look like cobalt if we got outside ourselves to see it. The country of the blue is clear” (86).
Is blue my favorite color? A question from a student–kind of random–maybe they did notice the shoes yesterday. Or the blouse today. Is blue my favorite color?
That answer was confusing to the class. What does that mean: “Sometimes”? I wanted to quote Whitman: I contain multitudes. But that doesn’t really answer the question. What’s your favorite color? Blue? Purple? Green? I don’t know. It depends. Which blue? How do I feel? What is the occasion?
What I can say is that I tend towards to cooler side of the spectrum; I mostly favor blues, violets, purples, sometimes greens. I change my mind. Sometimes my favorite color is blue. Sometimes it’s violet or emerald or a particular shade of fuchsia-like pink. Lately, I’ve been wearing a lot of yellows and oranges (primarily in an attempt to not get run over by a car). And then there was the period around the Kavanaugh hearings this fall when I wore black pretty much every day for a solid month.
For today’s class, we read poems: “Fragmentary Blue” by Robert Frost, “Lapis Lazuli” by W. B. Yeats, “High Windows” by Philip Larkin. Blue in nature is exceedingly rare. As James Fox has written in Bonham magazine, “The color accounts for less than four per cent of plants, five per cent of flowers and eight per cent of fruits. And though there seem to be several blue-looking birds and fish out there, only two of the planet’s 64,000 vertebrate species possess genuine blue pigment.”
Fox’s essay uses Frost’s poem as an epigraph. Frost’s poem, and Larkin’s too for that matter, both point to the intangibility of blue–not the intangible nature of color, but blue as a representation of something else–the afterlife? Heaven? Or the broad expanse of sky that stands in for those concepts. . . All of this to say that blue is multiple and abstract and complicated when linked to concepts like the hereafter, whether we read a sacred or a secular connotation.
Ultimately, I think what we are after this month is a web of connections. I’m still trying to figure out whether this is an exercise in excavation or in creation. Or both (or neither).
I’m teaching a new class. It’s on blue, as in the color. This idea was born in a Canadian taxi on the way to the airport one very early morning in June 2018. I’m not entirely clear where it came from–I guess you might say it’s a bolt from the blue? It started with Maggie Nelson’s incandescent Bluets, a book that took and continues to take my breath away. From there it spiraled outward: Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; Wallace Stevens and Pablo Picasso; W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin. Krzysztof Kieslowski. Hannah Gadsby. . . .
When I got to the airport, it was still stupid o’clock early. So early that the security lines were not open yet, so I did what any academic with an idea knocking around her brain would do: I pulled out my book and started to write it down and brainstorm. I don’t always yield to the impulse, but I’m glad that I did this time around because otherwise, the idea might have slipped back into the ether from which it came. . . instead it stayed with me.
A few weeks later, I started pitching. I’d been looking for a new course for our January intercession, and this blue idea might just work. The first version of this was a bit hesitant: “This is either really great idea or a really bad idea . . .” and to be completely honest, I’m still not entirely sure. . . but here we are six months later.
A funny thing has happened over the interim: blue things have started coming out of the woodwork.
Today's snippet: In this dynamic, I'm surrounded.
The rushing juice is subsided by my observations
of matching socks.
You got blue shoes.
I got blue shoes. . .
You don't really want this.
You chase excitement, but it doesn't mean that much
And in eliminating some regrets, you create others.
"F. A. B. (The Flattery of A. Brockton)"
That’s a song lyric from a band out of Nashville called Love Circle Logic. I did some low level promotions for them in the mid-1990s in grad school. I sometimes wonder what happened to those guys. They were crazy talented but also really nice. I was just some girl who hung up their posters and came to the shows at one of the bars in town. It was a time when I was kind of lost. In eliminating some regrets, you create others. In any case, this song has stayed with me. You got blue shoes. I got blue shoes. We are all birds.
I am the Dean of the College of Humanities, Sciences, and Business *and* a Professor of English at Converse College, where I specialize in 20th and 21st Century American literature. I love to run. I’m a crime fiction junkie, a rabid Steeler fan, a decent fantasy football manager, and can put together a respectable March Madness bracket. For a while, I was a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education blog ProfHacker (my posts are archived here). In my spare time, you can find me running and probably listening to an audiobook, walking my dog, feeding a cat or two, or, just maybe, taking a nap.