02 April 2014

40 Bags, 40 Days, Recalibration

Progress has been slow in the 40 Bags in 40 Days project, because life has been busy. Even so, it's already shifted my thinking.

I counted March 18 and 19 as Day 11, with some culling in the linen closet. March 23 saw more progress. Day 12: I finally looked at the huge bag of notebooks and papers The Offspring brought home at the end of fourth grade; almost all of it went into paper recycling. Day 13: outgrown clothes. Day 14: toys. Day 15: An IKEA lamp with a too-dim bulb, sitting in a corner and never used. Day 16: a duct-taped sled, scavenged from the trash, back to the trash. Day 17: I finally framed my PhD and MPhil diplomas by putting them in the same frame with my MA. It's only been sixteen years. How does that count? There was a lot of packaging.

Meanwhile, what with one thing and another, I've lost some weight, and this morning I thought, "All my clothes are too big." I immediately imagined going shopping, but then the 40-bag purge project stalled the idea. Why lose all the momentum, all the space gained in closets and cabinets? Some of my clothes still fit fine, because sizes vary regardless of the number on the label, and different materials and styles are more or less forgiving. Plus, belts.

My hope with projects like this is to initiate a lasting change in habits. Last year's failed Ten of Tens was an effort to find some areas where I could move permanently in the direction of greater sustainability; if the 40-bag purge leaves me with an on-going aversion to shopping, so that I quit over-buying because stuff is on sale, that would be a great outcome.

Stay tuned.

01 April 2014

Disability Theory and Illness

I've been trying for some years to think about chronic illness through theories of disability, but it's a very problematic fit. I'm writing this post in the hopes that some of you my readers may point me to articles or books that might help me think this through... if they exist. And if I'm giving disability theory short shrift, I'd appreciate corrections as well.


A core insight of disability theory, as I understand it, is to understand disability not in terms of physical impairment but rather as social construction. This means, for instance, that a person who uses a wheelchair is disabled by physical environments that require stairs for navigation, not by the condition of using the wheelchair in the first place.

To some extent, I can understand my own illness as constructed by social environments. When I was first looking for my first job after college as a newspaper reporter, I applied for a position where, I was told, the newsroom was a smoking area, and if I were to work there, I'd have to live with it. I couldn't pursue the job because I wouldn't have been able to breathe. So the changes to US law making most indoor places smoke-free have a significant structural effect, enabling me to work and eliminating impairment as the relevant conceptual framework.

A few years later I applied for another job where it turned out the employer, who worked from home as a literary agent, had a cat. Again, I had to turn down the job. Keeping cats as indoor pets is another socially constructed phenomenon, i.e., it's not "normal" or "natural" that people should do so, but culturally determined: cats were probably domesticated around 4000 years ago, probably by Egyptians. On the other hand, cats are, well, natural creatures. Mushrooms are also natural, as are forest fires, at least some of the time. One of my worst attacks occurred while packpacking several hundred miles downwind of a forest fire, another after eating mushrooms.

The other side of arguing for social construction as the site of disability is that it downplays the role of impairment.

It would be one thing to have to forego the occasional workout; anyone who's ever had a cold can probably imagine not wanting to go for a long run while seriously congested. But when breathing difficulties affect even talking and eating, then the notion of "impairment" becomes crucially important, and a focus on seeking out medical resources to mitigate impairment becomes a critical first step.

Disability theory helps me to formulate ideas about how our culture constructs the notion of "normal" and renders invisible people who don't fit that construction. It helps me to fight back against the idea that medical patients should be passive objects in the all-knowing medical enterprise. (Feminist approaches to women's health were, in fact, instrumental for me in coming to that perspective.) But it doesn't help me work through ideas about how impairment, and reliance on medical help in managing impairment, fit within disability theory.

31 March 2014

Sometimes, Despair

Do I write a post about how hard it is, sometimes, to keep my chin up? About how aggravating it sometimes is, to have asthma that's triggered by upper respiratory infections and by multiple allergies, environmental as well as food, and is also around, year-round, as an underlying thing, and it's not always possible to "manage" and keep from flaring up, and sometimes I just get TIRED, from the medication side effects and the sleep loss and the on-going fatigue of having the disease in the first place, and of over-compensating all the time so people won't see me as being sick or sickly and writing me off? About how sometimes nevertheless I feel I am too sickly and I worry I'm just not doing my job effectively?

And above all else, how I curse the knowledge that I've passed the disease on to The Offspring and he will have to live with it his whole life, unless some day Medicine finds a cure?

But that all feels like whining, and complaining, and we in the kingdom of the sick are supposed to be above all grateful for all that the medical profession offers, not to complain about the side effects or the fact that only symptoms can be treated, because sometimes there's no cure, or when medical assistants treat you like meat (there aren't many of those, the vast majority of medical professionals at every level are compassionate and gentle, but the other few are oh so memorable), above all patient, patient with medications that don't work right, and patient with side effects, and patient when medications that do work well get taken off the market, whether because the drug companies can't make money on them or because the side effects turn out to be too dangerous, patient with the process, the endless rounds of doctors' appointments and medication refills and medical billing errors that will never end until I do.

And grateful for the opportunities Medicine affords to be ferried back, close, so tantalizingly close, to the kingdom of the healthy, sometimes even to travel within it and to pass as one who belongs, but never truly of it, because there's always the knowledge that one slip -- a label misread, a mistake by a waiter, a thoughtless smoker, an unanticipated cat, a virus making the rounds -- will eject me from the kingdom, propelling me forcefully back to the other shore.

Today, the kingdom of the sick is my sofa, surrounded by bottles of pills and glasses of water and medical paraphernalia and books and iPad and my phone. One of the pills will not let me sleep, and so all I can do is stay put, try to rest, try to let my body heal itself. I'm too fuzzy-headed to work, which is probably a blessing, because it means I can't try, but MUST rest.

And these are not first-world problems, exactly, but they are certainly problems shaped and formed by first-world privileges of various sorts, and even as I want to cry out with frustration and fatigue I remind myself of the vast network of privilege that has long kept me alive in these conditions, and still today keeps me relatively comfortable in the dealing with them. 

I write about life with chronic illness because I want to push back against those strong social currents that suggest that happiness is possible only for the healthy. ("Health isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing.") To push back against the not-so-subtle claim that we're in control, and if we fail at health, we're responsible and at fault. And I guess it's also important to acknowledge that it's not always possible to remain cheery. I have to admit to the despair that somtimes comes.

26 March 2014

Breath; Metaphor

Inhale. Breathe in. Draw into the lungs, e.g. smoke. Eat rapidly, greedily.

Exhale. Breathe out. Give off gas or vapor.

Inspire. Breathe in. Motivate someone to do something creative or difficult or new. Make someone feel good about a task, a work of art.

Expire. Breathe out. Cease to be valid. Get too old to sell. Die.

Gasp, puff, pant, gulp, choke, rasp, croak.

Wheeze. Rattling breath. The sound of a spluttering engine. A trick, if you're in the UK.

Suffocate. Have difficulty breathing. Be prevented from expressing one's emotions or personality.

Air. What we breathe. A mood, a manner, a quality. A breeze. Let air into a room. Broadcast, express publicly.

A breath of fresh air.

21 March 2014

What Professors Do: Spring Break

I'm working on a lecture I'll give at my own institution next month on "Digitizing the Humanities" in an effort to persuade the people at my own institution of the importance of investing in, practicing, and theorizing our digital future(s).

Increasingly, my own scholarly processes occur on-line.  I wrote a conference paper last year comparing the transitions from manuscript to print and from print to digital using scholarship -- articles and books -- obtained entirely on line and read entirely in digital formats. Arthritis has made writing by hand difficult for me for more than a decade, so there's no point in printing stuff out to mark it up, and these days I often read books or articles on iPad while tapping away on a computer.

Just to complete the digital loop, and for the sake of seeing if I could do it, I read the paper from my iPad rather than printing a copy to read from at the conference. For my non-academic readers who may be unfamiliar with this process, one of the things faculty do is go to conferences and read their papers to each other and then discuss them with each other and the audience. Our education system, in which faculty share ideas and habits of thinking with students in lecture or, ideally, small seminars, is another vestige of oral culture.

The dissemination of our ideas through oral delivery is a technology older even than the manuscript codex, one of a few lingering artifacts of the oral traditions of preservation and recitation of cultural memories that have shaped us as humans for millennia, even as we have shaped our cultural narratives through collective and repetitive telling.

As we move from printed materials toward digitally enabled methods of transmission and storage of uncertain sustainability and future, we also continue the shift from oral transmission of epic, lyrics, drama, political oratory, and education to something else, whether it's enabled by the (print and digital) technologies of writing or of audio and video recording.

What do we gain as we move to digital transmission of ideas? What do we lose?

We gain a lot of digital tools that enable faster answers to questions like, "What has been published about sexuality and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?" We also get to ask different questions, like "Do men and women use pronouns differently in this digital corpus of letters from the early modern period?"

We lose books as physical artifacts. We lose (at least as digital technologies exist today) stable arrangements of text and image on a printed page. We lose certain familiar physical, spatial relationships to books that have enabled our habits of reading, though as screens and the devices they're embedded in improve, the relationships between print and digital will keep shifting.

The transition from oral to written took many, many centuries, and as I've already suggested, oral transmission of ideas is not completely gone. The transition from manuscript to print took several generations, and handwriting is also not gone: school kids still write stuff out, some people still send each other letters through the mail, the check as a financial instrument isn't quite dead, and we still put our physical, handwritten signatures on tax returns and credit slips and passports.

Even though technological change seems to be accelerating, the transition from print to digital is likely to go on for a few generations. We need to keep asking these questions: what do we gain? what do we lose?


I've also graded a couple of sets of papers during my spring break, contacted a student's advisor, gotten a little more exercise than usual, caught up on sleep, and kept up with the usual routines of kid supervision, dog walking, and housework.

Unfinished items on the list: a couple of reports, letters of recommendation, preparation for next week's classes, and some reading for an article I'm working on together with a student. I'm about to power down for Shabbat, but I'll get to some of those on Sunday.

18 March 2014

Things I'm Cranky About Today

If you're following the news from US media, you might not know that Oscar Pistorius is on trial for shooting his girlfriend, apparently through the bathroom door, thinking she was an intruder. Meanwhile, eighty-five people die from gun violence in the United States every day (more than 30,000 a year), and you could conceivably call this a health emergency, but the Senate is holding up the most recent nominee to the position of US Surgeon General because... he supports gun control.

The smog was so bad in Paris earlier this week that they were only letting people drive every other day. Residents were furious and ignored the ban and it was called off after only a day. Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science says we need to cut emissions right now. But the US government isn't going to do a damn thing, and if they did, Americans would be screaming about their rights to keep up the same habits that have gotten us into this mess.

Meanwhile in North Dakota, fracking is bringing up more natural gas than the energy companies can handle, so they're just burning it off. Yes, natural gas burns cleaner than oil, but if you're burning a third of it at the point of extraction, it kind of throws off the emissions calculations. Also meanwhile, scientists have confirmed that fracking is causing earthquakes in Ohio, and are asking questions about the role of fracking in yesterday's 4.4 magnitude quake in Los Angeles, in which fortunately no one was hurt.

A high school English teacher has written a letter to college professors on what's wrong with Common Core. It's a great letter on the problems with the Common Core, but the ire at college professors is misplaced: we're not the ones advocating standardized testing, or making billions of dollars by promoting it -- that would be Pearson Education and a few other megapublishers with well-paid lobbyists in Washington.

Catharine Stimpson, former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at NYU, spoke out against the Common Core at the Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago alongside Diane Ravitch, at a session that was less well attended than it should have been -- but we do get it. We're also resisting a strong push toward the assessment of learning by standardized measures that seem to take Stanford and Harvard as the norm and can't attend to drastic variations in student preparation at the thousands of colleges and universities across the US.

16 March 2014

40 bags in 40 days

My friend Melanie from my home town posted a link on Facebook the other day to the 40 bags in 40 days challenge: Get rid of excess stuff that's lying around your house, one bag a day for forty days. A "bag" is loosely defined -- grocery bag or hefty or anything in between, whatever works for you.

Meanwhile, the New York Times ran an article claiming "you probably have too much stuff," and I was pretty sure they were right, about me as well as about many middle-class North Americans. When I lived in Shanghai in 1987, many families lived in one-meter-square apartments. They probably didn't have enough stuff. But those of us living middle-class first-world lives aren't likely to have that problem.

Yet my first thought was classic Manhattan one-upmanship: "I might have a little excess, but I don't have 40 bags of stuff to get rid of."

But then Melanie mentioned books. Hmmmm.

And then I thought, "there's no way I can do this on 40 consecutive days."  And so I decided I'd just count those 40 days as they come.  And if I clear out more than a bag on a given day, I'll count days for bags. And if I run out of stuff before 40 days is over, well, fine.

I should add that I'm not advocating a completely spartan life. I'm lucky enough to have met three of my four great-grandmothers; from one, I have a silver necklace, from another, a handmade doll, from the third, a set of dishes, silverware, and some furniture. Yet I buy stuff, mostly books, sometimes clothes, and many of our holidays are organized around gifts, i.e. acquisition of more stuff, and somehow it just accumulates.

Day one (March 6) : It took me around five minutes to fill a big canvas bag with books squirreled away in various corners of the living room and entryway.  Some were duplicates given as gifts, some I've been saving in case I want to read again. Ready to go.

A friend of Melanie's mentioned paperwork -- another thing I hadn't thought of.  I've got crazy piles of printouts of articles lying around related to essays I think I'm going to write some day... or worse, essays I've already published.

Day two (March 9): paper.  Not all the paper, but a big box went to the recycling bin. It's really freeing to think in terms of starting the project, but not feeling compelled to finish it on a given day.  I've made progress, and it may be days or weeks before I make more progress -- but that doesn't negate what I've accomplished.

Day three (March 10): the bathroom. Once again, it's helpful not to have to worry about completeness, but just get something done. Old sunscreen, expired medications, empty packages of OTCs. The FDA has helpful information on how to discard old medicine (note: don't flush).

Days 4-5-6-7-8-9 (March 15): four bags of books, a huge bag of clothing, and a crate of toys. Spring break is coming up, so it's a good time to drop off dry cleaning -- and asking myself if I really wanted to pay to clean a given item helped make decisions about keeping things, or not, whether well-loved and worn or not-so-loved and never-worn.

Day 10: The sister-in-law of the mom of a classmate of The Offspring's (phew!) is a second-grade teacher and would love the kids' books for her classroom. Yay! Yesterday's clothing went to the textile recyclers at the farmer's market, along with the compost.  Also: a pile of half-read magazines to the recycle bin, and I'm counting that as "a bag."

The break means I'll have time to go through some more closets, drawers, and shelves in coming days; I'll update, eventually.