“The Greater Idiot Ever Scolds The Lesser”

Man alive.

It’s Friday and on Fridays I am finished teaching at 8:50 in the morning. Yet today I have to stay on campus until 4:00. The devil you say! But it is true; one of my colleagues has planned a weekly meeting that happens on Friday afternoons. The utter tragedy of this is something that I think about at least once per hour every single day. At any rate, here I am. I have a stack of work to do and I’ll probably do it here in a minute, but first I will just enjoy my Friday and the sun coming in the window I am very lucky to have (many of my colleagues have offices in the basement).

Not having internet at home is a huge hassle but we are still feeling committed to it. If I am honest I will say that probably it will not last; nonetheless, “we are grateful for the time we have been given,” and there are moments, specifically in the evening, when I am so glad there is no internet in the house. Last night we lay at opposite ends of the couch, just reading quietly. My old man is reading Italo Calvino; I am reading a novel I have never heard of that was published in 1902 and that is called THE MILLIONAIRESS and that I got for a dollar on a table outside a used bookstore. I am on page 6 and it is already very racist.

Other books I got on sale during that same bookstore trip:
- the letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh
- the unpublished autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf (!)
- two more Portis novels I’ve never read
- finally found a collection of M.R. James’s ghost stories, which I have informed my husband he is to read aloud to me in bed at night

Grand total: $13. And they threw in a book about home cider making by Annie Proulx for free!

Due to having no internet, I make these “internet to-do lists” throughout the day, so that I can focus my internet time when I go to school or a coffee shop. The lists, I am realizing, are really revealing, of what, quite, I am not sure yet. But for example here is one:
- curtains
- when was Constantine emperor
- no hot water in bathtub
- upload syllabus
- names of hours of Divine Office
- youtube building a compost bin
- recitation tone vs. psalm tone
- St. Benedict
- craiglist filing cabinet

It’s kind of awesome to sit down with internet and blast through that list, checking those things off one by one.

I have now taught my first 3 hour grad seminar. It was not as hard as I thought it would be–apparently there is no limit to the number of hours I can talk ceaselessly for (as many of my friends could probably have told me). As I drove home I was thinking about how it only took ten years of extra education but now I can talk for three hours about Pythagoras, somehow. I believe it was only intermittently boring to my students, but that may be overly optimistic. At one point I said “‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,’” and my students nodded, and I said “did Benjamin Franklin say that?” and one of them goes “No, it’s in the Bible.”

We met a lifestyle guru who has not responded to my perhaps overly-enthusiastic email thanking her for letting us come poke around her amazing home. She is a friend of a new friend who lives in our new town. She is a master gardener, she cans stuff, she grows apples, she installed an extra-long clawfoot tub in her bathroom herself, AND she has the exact video projection set-up we are trying to attain in our own home. I had so many questions for her. She served us elderflower mead she got in exchange for delivering a cooler of someone else’s breastmilk to a woman who needed it. I want to live at her house. Anyway, we were talking about how we literally can not find a plumber to come do a job for us–they all say the job is too small and we live too far away for it to be worth their time, also apparently every plumber in this area is transitioning their business over to “heating and cooling” as it’s more lucrative, which is just crazy to me, because it seems like the demand for plumbers must be truly consistent over the years, like no matter what changes about architecture or technology people will always have toilets and bathtubs that they don’t know how to work. So we (mostly I) have been on the brink of despair, specifically because of this one seemingly-small issue we have, which is that we have hot water everywhere in the house EXCEPT the bathtub faucet, which is really one of the main places you need it, if you ask me. So for weeks now we’ve been taking these awful tepid European horse-baths, squatting in the tub and using the shower hose attachment thing, and winter is coming, and I just can not bear it, I can not.

So this lifestyle guru told me she has a plumber she loves. As she talked, it sounded more and more sketchy. “He’s rad. He’s retired, so he does work under the table. He won’t work more than four hours a day. He doesn’t care about codes or laws, he just kind of rigs up whatever you need. He’s super old, so when he’s working in the house you can hear him cussing and groaning as he kneels down or stands up. I don’t think he has email but here’s his number.”

We were skeptical, but as time went on we became more and more desperate. I mean, LITERALLY, we called every plumber in the area and they were all like “that sounds like a stupid job, no thanks.” We agreed that it was probably a really easy fix, but at the same time, we aren’t plumbers! We didn’t even know where to begin looking, to try to fix this issue. Googling it led to some extremely complicated explanations from plumbers online that filled me with anxiety. Back-flushing the system? All sorts of weird valves down in the basement leading to different parts of the house? That stuff is not for me, at least not right now.

Finally I called the plumber. Joe. “Joe? Hi! I’m a friend of Emily’s–”
“Oh, Emily!! I love her! What can I do for you?”

I explained my situation and he said could he come by tomorrow. I said no, but how about Friday. “You know what Friday is for me, dontcha?” “No, what?” [I was thinking, like, is it Yom Kippur or something] “It’s BEER THIRTY!!!”

Anyway he said Friday might work, and he’d call me back later that night. Then he never called. I was truly filled with sorrow; even Joe had betrayed me and now I did not know what I would do. I would have to go hunting around in the basement for some weird valve and I’d probably end up blowing up the house or something. Or we’d squat in the cold bathtub until late October when my parents visit and then somehow magically my dad would be able to fix it because we had a clawfoot tub in the house when I was growing up and he is handy. Or we’d just live with a cold shower/bath forever–which, incidentally, appears to be what the previous owners were doing?? I mean, why is this even a thing.

Just now, my old man texted: “Joe just showed up.”

Apparently Joe just showed up, never having called me back to confirm. He immediately fixed the tub and then DIDN’T CHARGE US.

Then he left, and my old man texted me “Joe rules.”

then five minutes later he texted me and said “actually, Joe didn’t fix it at all; the same problem is still happening.”

So we are back to square one. Back to reading the surprisingly passionate threads on DIY plumbing message boards, where amateur plumbers yell furiously at people asking questions about diverter valves. I would literally pay someone a thousand dollars if they could fix this issue.

why do people like setting up meetings so goddamn much

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New Life

We have all been laughing in the hallways of academe because we all agree that we spend the entire summer carefully getting ready for the new school year, and then by THE FIRST DAY of the new semester it is somehow already a complete madhouse disaster and everyone is running around and there are a thousand frantic messages on your phone and the people in facilities are like OH SHIT WE FORGOT TO ASSIGN YOU A CLASSROOM and your TAs are like NONE OF MY STUDENTS CAME TO SECTION and you suddenly realize you never actually uploaded the syllabus to Moodle and for some reason the air conditioning in one of your classrooms is just fully not turned on at all, complete with window ineffectually open onto the utterly sweltering 95 degree heat / 90% humidity day that suddenly plopped down on this town just in time for the first day of school. And your students are just absolutely demoralized by the heat, it is like a Carson McCullers novel, everyone sprawled and damp and with slitted eyes and using the syllabus to fan themselves, and really not responding well to your attempts to goad them into an argument by telling them about Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Finally you let them out 20 minutes early because sweat is pouring down your back and legs to such a degree that you actually become horrified that your skirt is becoming see through, which would be a really legitimate disaster from which you’d never recover.

Meanwhile we bought this house and moved into it. It is really an adventure. For example, there is no hot water in the bathtub faucet. There is hot water in the kitchen sink; there is hot water in the SHOWER faucet. Just not the tub faucet. Can anyone explain this? We also don’t have a shower curtain situation yet, so we are taking horse baths squatting in the tub like dirty Europeans; it is terrible and no way for a good American citizen to have to live. For another example, the apple tree, which is such a blessing and something I have longed for for my entire life, is also surprisingly stressful. It is so big, and so abundant, and I also did not know that apples come in waves, like 500 of them ripen and fall and then another 500 come along. So we are absolutely inundated. I really can not express to you how many apples there are. The entirety of the yard is completely covered with rotting apples, such that you can’t walk around out there without slipping, and you can’t mow the lawn. Suddenly we have to put at the top of our already-considerable high-priority-home-ownership to-do list “PURCHASE APPLE PRESS,” because research has revealed that making cider is the best way to process a mass number of apples quickly. Get ready for some gifts of weird probably-not-very-good homemade hard cider, if you live near us or visit us! Home cider presses are $500. We also have to buy a washing machine. Today I have to hand-wash a bunch of my husband’s underwear so he will have something to wear to his job tomorrow. I am in charge of this not due to my gender, I assure you, but simply to the fact that I am off work today and he is not. I do not look forward to this task but I will do it stoically as did my foremothers before me.

We also need to build a compost bin. These are pretty epic projects that we don’t have time to do but that really need to get done SOON. We are digging a trench this weekend to bury apples in, that is how dire the apple situation is.

Also, does anyone have some good shower curtain advice? I want a thin, handsome, fabric shower curtain that I can wash. I thought if I got a nylon hotel-style shower curtain liner, that this would solve my problems, but the water actually comes through the liner in a fine spray and causes puddles on the ground!!!!!! HORRORS. So now I don’t know what to do. What is your shower curtain preference?

We have also decided, in a fit of emotional desperation, to experiment with NOT HAVING INTERNET IN OUR HOME.


This is a crazy decision.

1. We literally have to use the internet, for our jobs
2. If you don’t have the internet it is impossible to keep up with culture of all kinds
3. We watch all our movies using the internet

On the other hand

1. We don’t like the way our brains feel
2. We don’t like how much time we waste
3. We don’t like how fragmented our social life together has become
4. We want to read more
5. As professors, we HAVE to find ways of delineating between work time and non-work time; it just can’t be that we are “at work” 24/7, but when there is internet in the house we seem helpless to not respond to student emails at 10:00 p.m. or whatever

I really don’t know what is going to happen. We may only last a week; or it may be life-changing in a good way. Really anyone’s guess! Anyway I am at a coffee shop listening to white guy blues.

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When my mother in law was visiting, we went to a local tourist attraction which is a preserved/restored colonial village that is now the site of a world-famous boarding school where people like the King of Jordan send their children. The village part is amazing. You can walk an ancient footpath, past still-functioning dairy farms where the cows are milked by hand and laze around in a field all day lowing gently and swatting their nether regions with their weird gross tails. Ducks will quack loudly at you. There are 17th-century medicinal herbal gardens you can poke around in. You can go inside actual preserved homes that were built in the late 17th century, and walk around in them looking at the cupboards and furniture, all of which is fanatically era-appropriate. The kitchen fireplace bricks are scorched black as night from hundreds of years of broasting whole deers in there or whatever. The bedrooms all have period-specific bedsteads with straw mattresses and coverlets that were actually hand-embroidered in that very village, hundreds of years ago. It’s awesome.

In one of the houses we took a tour. Each house has a designated retired historian who hangs out in there all day and answers any questions you might have, or leads tours through the house. On this one tour our group consisted of a bunch of middle-aged couples, one of which also towed along a fantastically bored teen. My husband and I were so into this teen. First of all, he was literally at least six foot five. He was enormous. He was one of the tallest people I’ve ever seen in real life. But, he was probably only about fifteen, so he didn’t know how to live in his body yet, so he was running into stuff, and tripping, and he didn’t fit into some of the rooms, and he couldn’t find anywhere to slouch. He was also so bored. He was so bored that his boredom became like this violent energy that slowly suffused the whole group and raised everyone’s stress level by 65%. His boredom was unmanageable and fierce; he wanted to die and go to hell, or kill someone, or break everything in the house, screaming WHO CARES ABOUT THIS MUSTY OLD JUNK. He leaned against a piece of furniture that was built in 1636: “Please don’t touch that!!” cried the tour guide. He leaned against the kitchen wall, putting his huge foot up behind him, leaving a footprint on a wall that Benjamin Franklin had probably had sex against. His older brother, annoyed, hit him on the leg and made him put his foot down. Meanwhile, all the middle-aged nerds in the group are utterly mesmerized by the tour guide, and are interrupting one another to breathlessly ask things like “and where did they get the thread for this needlework?” and “are these floors pine?” and “is this paint era-specific?” and “this is the shade of blue that they made using arsenic, am I correct?” and “would this cupboard have been used to keep food warm?” and “what fiber are these baskets woven of?” and finally the teen snapped, he couldn’t do it anymore, he walked loudly across the room, directly in front of the tour guide as she was speaking, banged against a table, rattled some 400 year old pewter jugs, bent down to his mother and whispered something to her, then stumbled out of the room to the front door, which was locked (to keep non-tour-related people from wandering in), so he started desperately yanking on it and jiggling the handle and beating his hand against the door. “What’s he doing??” asked the tour guide. The mother, embarrassed, said, “he wants to get out.” The tour guide was VERY annoyed. She said “well, I have to go let him out, because the door’s locked.” She walked slowly out into the hall and let him out. When she came back in, she was shaking her head and chuckling. Then the rest of the group started laughing. I pictured the teen outside, clutching his head and rolling about in the grass in a rage. How infuriating it is when you are a teen and adults are so interested in things like needlework. How dare your mother make you go to this absurd insane thing, what is possibly wrong with her, how can you have the lamest most crazy mom on the entire earth, why does god punish you so??? How you swear you’ll never be such a stupid old fart. Well, I’ve got news for you kid.

We never saw him again. Periodically during the rest of the many hours we spent in this village we’d be like “dang, where’s that bored teen? I hope he’s okay.”

Anyway, the coolest thing that happened in this village was when we went into a house that was built during the Federalist period, and was ritzier than the colonial house (higher ceilings, bigger windows, fancy curved stairway). We poked around in it for a bit, and I eavesdropped on the resident volunteer historian–a cool-looking old babe wearing a denim skirt, who was perhaps 70–as she told another visitor about how the mural on the wall supposedly depicted a scene from a native American village but was quite obviously based on the frescoes of Ancient Greece, and that that’s really the definition of “neoclassical.” “This lady seems legit as hell,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if she will be the person to finally answer some of my questions about bathrooms.”

For years I have been fascinated with the aspects of history that are forgotten and lost simply because no one at the time thought they were worth recording. “History” is battle dates and composition dates, sure, but it’s also, like, how did people have sex when the whole family plus random visitors all slept in the same bed, and how did you have your period when there were no tampons, and WHERE DID YOU GO TO THE BATHROOM WHEN YOU WERE AT A PARTY AT SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE??? Specifically I have wondered this about 19th century opera-going. It’s 1830, there is no electricity or running water, and you’ve got 400 people sitting in a huge building watching an opera for four hours, swigging champagne by the bucket and eating horrible 19th century food. Where did they all go to the bathroom? Was there a room filled with chamberpots? Nobody seems to know, although there are historical documents that will mention things like a French visitor to an Italian opera house fainting from the smell. But nobody in history ever sat down and was like “Let me explain in detail how we all relieve our bowels, because surely one day in the future it will all be done quite differently and they will wonder about us.”

So, I sidled up to this historian, and after a few preliminary questions about where the wallpaper had been hand-printed, and whether or not glass-making technology had improved between the Colonial and Federalist periods, I cleared my throat and said, “I wonder if you can answer a question I have had for many years…” Her face lit up. She was truly a historian! I said “…if it’s 1703, and I come to your house for dinner, where do I go to the bathroom?” And she didn’t miss a beat! She had SO MANY THINGS TO SAY. I learned a lot.

First of all, there were of course outhouses at private homes, and people probably used those at least during the day/summer. At night, if you were sleeping in the house, you had a chamberpot, which you’d empty in the morning. I knew all this. But I specifically have always wondered about the social aspect of visitors using the bathroom late at night, or in wintertime, at someone else’s house. It’s the kind of thing that never is even alluded to in an Austen novel. Nobody’s ever like “Well, I must go use the outhouse, I’ll be back in a minute” or anything. These houses of course don’t have bathrooms–as you walk around them you’re really struck by it. It’s such a basic aspect of a house these days, but these preserved homes have no bathroom at all, no room that could have even served as a pretend old-school chamberpot room or anything. That’s why renovated ancient houses often have such weird floor plans, because people had to, like, stick a bathroom somewhere that used to be a bread closet or something. Back then you took a shit in your actual bedroom, or outside in the yard, and that was it. OR SO I THOUGHT!!!!

This lady said that actually, one thing that had really blown historians’ minds when they started actually delving into these kinds of old villages and houses and trying to really catalogue what went on in each room, etc., was that they discovered that it was very common for people to have COMMODES IN THE DINING ROOM.

I said WHAT! She said I KNOW!

She said in this village alone, in 13 of the 17 houses or something, they found commodes in the dining rooms. Meaning, a nice wooden chair with a tub underneath it, that you sat in to take a shit. IN THE DINING ROOM. I said, “what, behind a screen or something?” She said, “nope! Just sitting in the corner.” I could not even form questions. “So…..people would be eating dinner, and then you’d just get up and go sit on the toilet in front of everyone???” she shrugged and made a “WHO KNOWS!” gesture. She said her personal opinion was that it was probably semi-private. Like the commode was there, but you didn’t use it in front of everyone–rather, it would be more like, once you retired from the dining room into the parlor, for your brandy and pianoforte, then if you needed to relieve yourself you’d leave, go back into the dining room, and use the commode. Even so, this is beyond mind blowing to me. To think that when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and the Bingley sisters are verbally jousting ’round the dinner table there is a TOILET POSSIBLY FILLED WITH HUMAN SHIT three feet away from them, and that later, after Darcy has commented on Elizabeth’s competent but not flashy skill at the piano, there perhaps came a moment when Elizabeth was like “excuse me please,” and went through a door (which couldn’t be locked) and sat on a toilet in the dining room (while servants were coming in and out cleaning up?? What?). I know Austen is 19th century and this lady was talking about 17th and 18th century homes, and I shouldn’t be conflating eras, but the technology seems like it’d be the same regardless, like until you have running water, you’re just taking a shit in the dining room whether it’s 1703 or 1820.

The historian reminded me that conceptions of privacy and hygiene are profoundly cultural, and change dramatically with the times. I of course know this–I brought up Alain Corbin’s wonderful book about the history of smell in France, and we talked about bathing for awhile (“Why would you bathe, when it’s 10 below zero inside your house? It’s crazy!”)–but I don’t know, something about actually taking a shit more or less in front of other people just does not gibe with my impressions of the social life of these past eras. Like, women can’t show their ankles but they can take a dump in front of everyone? The Bingley sisters are scandalized that Elizabeth walks across a muddy field but they don’t bat an eye at her peeing loudly into a ceramic tub while they’re buttering their scones? That seems weird.

Anyway it was so delightful that this lady had so much specific, material evidence at her fingertips. It was like she’d just been waiting for someone to ask her about 17th century toilets.

I asked if any of the commodes were still in place in the village and she said yes, one of the houses still had the commode installed in the dining room. We rushed over there but it was locked and we’d missed the tour. We peered in all the windows trying to see the commode but were unsuccessful. “I WANNA SEE THAT TOILET” my husband yelled.

Tragically, I think even the bored teen would have been captivated by this whole sub-plot, but he wasn’t with us!

The wages of sin is death

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