History

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

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

snapshots

My bar trivia team, composed of four professors from four different disciplines, won first prize last night. We were gratified that in addition to knowing the obscure nerd ones, like how Caligula made his horse a senator or something, or that carving a design on a sperm whale tooth is called ‘scrimshaw,’ we also knew the pop culture ones, thus were not revealed to be completely out of touch assholes. We received ten dollars each and a single XXL t-shirt with two people fucking on the front. The drunk 22 year olds later asked me who Caligula was. Boy did they regret asking THAT question! (“That’s….DISGUSTING”)

I am annoyed because the dog keeps obsessively licking his elbows. He has developed unsightly callouses on his front elbows. The vet said it’s no big deal, just a thing that happens to some dogs. He licks them for hours and we yell at him to stop. Should we be exfoliating him? Now he is lying in the hallway like a wet log, for it is very hot.

It LITERALLY MAKES ME PHYSICALLY SICK to open up one of my fucking Word docs and contemplate actually doing any of the work that I need to do. I literally just said “I wish I had some errands to run.” Like Al Franken re-grouting the bathroom tiles in order to avoid listening to Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Tomorrow for my birthday I am going to eat Moroccan food for breakfast.

Yesterday I spent the whole day on campus scanning and uploading things to Moodle and it felt pretty great. Sometime over the summer a mysterious person has dumped three large boxes of unidentifiable stuff in my office, along with an old printer, and two coat trees. The box is full of things like camcorder cassettes with “intro to conducting” written on them in ancient ink. I have no idea what I am supposed to do.

Grant applications. “Reframe the project.” “Explain your intervention.” Bar trivia about scrimshaw is much more fun than this. CONSIDER THIS PROJECT………REFRAMED

“unpack that a bit”
“tease out those implications”
“proceed more dialectically”
“foreground this claim”

My secret fantasy other life is I just write rip-roaring feminist sci-fi novels and don’t have to frame arguments for SHIT

We took the dog to the vet and she called him “dainty” and I said “no, he’s PRISSY”

It is that point in the summer when I am starting to be low-grade stressed out by the constant chirring of whatever bug that is–locusts or something? Day and night, it’s ceaseless! And it lasts far into the autumn. Lord.

We are moving from a house with three large closets into a house with one small closet and we don’t know what to do with our work clothes. Before you suggest it, no, there is literally nowhere to put one of those racks you can hang stuff on. The house is 936 square feet and like 900 of those square feet are the living room.

I am ready to PACK and THROW STUFF AWAY and MOVE INTO MY HOUSE but instead my mother in law is visiting this week and I have to write these goddamn grant applications and figure out what to do with my piano. LORD HAVE MERCY

We now have something like six friends

Posted in Opinion | 1 Comment

my that fudge smells yummy

We had our anniversary the other day and I wrote this super tearful thing about my love for my husband but then deleted it because I don’t want to get a reputation for being sappy. But please know that it was VERY heartfelt and emo and that my love for my husband is profound. We have been together thirteen years! If our relationship were a child it would be menstruating by now, fancy that.

You should see him. He is such a shaggy old devil, with silver hair and white streaks in his beard. He looks like a crazy religious man on a mountain who’d point his arm dramatically and yell something about revelation. But really he is just a skinny old hound working on his syllabus from dawn to dusk; a religious calling of a different kind. He is the nicest, funniest, smartest hunk alive. I am so lucky I hitched my wagon to his star. Him and his robot face.

I’m at the coffee shop trying to work on this thing on narrative I’m supposed to write. It’s not boring at all, it’s interesting, and yet I still am having a hard time motivating myself to dig into it. It’s just those late summer blues, where all you want to do is wander around dazed outside and read Charles Portis novels and drink refreshing beer. We have a jam-packed week, with my mother in law visiting, both our birthdays, and various social engagements. Once my MIL leaves we have a week to pack and move into our new house. Then one week to get settled. Then it’s off to the races! The sellers asked us if we want their pole apple-picker. UH…..WHAT DO YOU THINK

I have with me a very heavy box I have to mail to Katy. For a long time Katy and I have had a deal where I subscribe to the New Yorker and she doesn’t, and so I give her my old issues when I’m done with them. At some point I started annotating them with post-it notes, telling her what to read and what to avoid, and giving some of my thoughts on the various subjects. Now that we live across the country from one another, it is harder to pass my old issues off to her. So a few times a year I send her a huge box of annotated New Yorkers and she deals with them as best she can. It’s turned into a real project. I pile them up over the months then finally when there are enough to fill a large box I sit down with my post-its and go through them. It is cool because in annotating them I revisit all of them. Oh yeah, this crazy article about the math guy! Oh yeah, this article about all those journalists who got beheaded, DON’T READ THIS ONE!

It costs about $40 to mail but it is worth it, because of recycling and also friendship. Several times when telling people at work about the band I play in I have used the term “life partner” to describe Katy; I think it’s an apt term.

This semester is going to be a real fucking trial by fire w/r/t my ability to grade like the wind. I’ve been steadily decreasing the amount of time it takes me to grade a paper, over the past five years, and this semester will be the ultimate test. I feel very strongly that you have to get papers back to students within one week, which is fast turnaround time but I’ve decided that it’s a matter of personal honor and so far I have never broken this rule. This semester I’m teaching two classes in which the students turn in a piece of writing almost every class. 20 students in each class, so that’s 40 things to grade, times at least two times a week in one of the classes, so that’s 60 things to grade every week for lets say 12 weeks. PHEW. My right hand is going to need a full 90 minute massage. There aren’t enough pens in all of Christendom to keep up with that level of grading! SHE’S CRAZY! Plus of course the delightful added burden of being expected to write a book and present at national conferences throughout this time. Well such is the life I have chosen. And on the flip side, I am giving zero final exams, and I also decided to have my grad students turn in NOTHING, EVER, and just do oral exams, so there’s that. Every little bit helps.

I don’t really mind grading. I complain a lot while it’s happening, but all things considered it’s a pretty satisfying chore. Unlike almost everything else I have to do for my job, it is a concrete task with a definite beginning and end. I so rarely get to have that experience of leaning back in my chair and being like “I FINISHED A TASK,” but you get that with grading. When you have to work all day every day, 6-7 days a week, on primarily nebulous and neverending stuff like “learn about the history of narrative” or “write a book” it can be nice to have some of those days devoted to a routine and concrete task where you don’t have to think too hard. Just pick up your stack of papers, your sack of pens, all the treats you use to trick yourself into staying focused, rub your “tension tamer” oil on the back of your neck, put on your most comfortable sweatpants and your 17-hour-long “white noise” iTunes genre, and just fucking go for it. The other thing is that now that I am baking bread more regularly, or trying to, I am realizing that grading is the perfect task to do while baking bread. Grade three papers, turn the dough; grade three papers, turn the dough; all governed by the timer beeping at you; by the time the bread is done so is your grading; what a fucking GREAT DAY that is! Pour a large wine and put on the Dire Straits album your husband hates so much and CHILL THE F OUT

I will be doing that every week! The payoff will be sweet, sweet bread

So I am looking forward to that.

I thought the new Wet Hot was great.

We’ve discovered this thing called CIDER JELLY where apparently you boil a gallon of apple cider for a thousand hours and then it turns into this gelatinous intense blob that is super sweet and super sour and doesn’t quite taste like anything you’ve ever tasted before, and also needs no refrigeration??? So that is a thing that happened.

My birthday is in three days. I am turning 38! Doesn’t seem so bad.

Posted in Opinion | Leave a comment