#reverb10, day 31: Core Story

At last, today’s final prompt:

Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Bonus: Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)

There is absolutely a central story at the core of me, but I do not share it with the world. And am not going to start now.

This blog has intermittently focused more on the personal than on the professional, but even if you read all of those personal posts, I’m not sure that you’d gain much of a picture of who I am at heart, or why. That’s so in no small part because even where the narratives I relate have become personal, the project on the whole has always been a public one, bound up in the range of writing I hope to do across my career.

If there’s a central story in that writing, however, I think it has to do — has for years had to do — with the ways that reading and writing, of many different kinds, are changing in networked spaces such as these. The ways that reading and writing have become intertwined. The ways that we engage with one another through our writing.

This, in any case, is the direction I’m headed in the project I’m starting up. Reverb has been fantastic, in getting me writing here again, in forcing me to stretch my thinking to accommodate some prompts to which I simply did not want to respond. It’s been a form of enforced discipline that’s pushed me to remember that I often have things worth saying even when I feel I’m at a loss. Here’s hoping I can bring some of that discipline to the other kinds of writing I plan to do in the coming year.

Happy new year, all.

#reverb10, day 30: Gift

Today’s prompt:

Gift. This month, gifts and gift-giving can seem inescapable. What’s the most memorable gift, tangible or emotional, you received this year?

I’ve been given some pretty great gifts this year — not least, this amazing trip I’m on now; after nine fantastic days in Prague, I’m now in Dublin, and getting ready to go out exploring. The most important gift, however, has been my sabbatical.

Somebody stopped me when I said that out loud not long ago. “You earned this sabbatical!” he said somewhat indignantly on my behalf. Yes, it’s in my contract. It’s a term of my employment. And given the massive amounts of labor that go into fulfilling my end of that contract, it seems pretty reasonable to understand the sabbatical as something that I’m owed, just compensation for my service.

And yet. There are so many jobs like mine that don’t come with sabbaticals attached. Jobs in my category of employment at other institutions. Jobs in other categories of employment at my own institution. Good jobs, many of them, but jobs that make no provision for the periodic need of those who fill them to recharge their batteries, to learn something new, to bring what they’ve learned back with them.

So I can’t help but think of this sabbatical as a gift, which I am perhaps owed in some loose sense, but that I don’t deserve anymore than anyone else.

This time — the time to rest, to attempt to find some kind of balance, to think, to read, to write, to remember why I chose this profession, to discover what I want out of it in the years ahead, to contemplate what I want to give back to it — is an extraordinary gift, one that I hope I’m making good use of.

#reverb10, day 29: Defining Moment

Today’s prompt:

Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

So many possibilities here, but I feel as though I’ve already described most of them over the course of this month. There’s the big moment at which I got the call from the dean, telling me my promotion had gone through. There are the many small moments of sitting down to write. And there are lots of moments inbetween, moments of travel, moments of presenting my work, moments spent in meetings aimed at producing new collaborations.

Then there are the moments spent engaging with colleagues far and wide via Twitter, and these are the moments that I think have most defined this year. For much of the year, I’ve been away from home, away from my local community, and the folks on Twitter have provided me with both a conference without walls and a virtual neighborhood bar, keeping me connected both professionally and personally.

There’ve been several such Twitter exchanges that have meant a lot over the year: the supportive response to my late-night Franzen diatribe, the kind thoughts and offers of help when one of my cats was hurt back home, the encouraging retweets of whatever random ideas I’d posted. But perhaps the moment that most stands out came in May, when I fell ill while stuck in a hotel room by myself. I was really worried — afraid that I’d be too sick to travel home the next day, afraid that if I got worse and needed help no one would be around to know. So I turned to Twitter — probably oversharing just a tad — and got a flood of concerned response, especially from the folks in the area, who offered all kinds of help if I needed it. I was completely taken by surprise by the generosity in this outpouring, and reassured that, even if I was alone in the hotel, somebody out there somewhere would be checking in to see if I was okay.

Those are the moments that have really given me a sense of the community within which I’m working, and it’s that community that has really defined my year — the folks I celebrate with, the folks I mourn with, the folks who virtually pat my shoulder when I’m feeling bad. The folks I learn from and brainstorm with every day.

#reverb10, day 28: Achieve

Yesterday’s prompt:

Achieve. What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.

I will confess that I’ve hit the point at which I’m just going through the motions on these reverb posts, in part because of some ongoing frustrations with the gooshiness of some of the prompts, but in part because they’ve accomplished what I hoped they would. I decided to take this on as a means of jump-starting my blogging again, in the hopes that getting the blog going might get me limbered up here, thinking seriously about the next few things I want to write.

And that’s happened: these blog posts have had nothing to do with the stuff I’ve got on my to-write list, but they’ve gotten things flowing in a way that’s been really productive. I know what I’m working on now, and what I’m working on next, and I’m excited about the direction things are headed.

As it turns out, the thing that I most want to achieve in 2011 is to develop a good sense of the next big project: both what it’s about and what shape it’ll take. And I think I’ve taken some good steps in that direction over the last week. So I’m ready to put the reflection aside and just get to it.

The completist in me won’t let me quit, however, particularly not with so few days of this reverbing project left. So, day 28. 29 to follow.

#reverb10, day 27: Ordinary Joy

Today’s prompt:

Ordinary joy. Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year?

Perhaps it’s just proximity, but I can’t help but think that this most joyful ordinary moment has to have come — repeatedly — during the last few days. The best approximation I can make of what that kind of joy might feel like is the sensation that I have when I’m really focused and clicking, just working on whatever I’m working on without any sense of interference.

Prague has been fantastically productive for us, in that sense. This is our third trip here, and the weather’s been a little on the cold and grey side, so we’ve basically just settled into our usual set of places to go here. We’ve spent pretty much every morning in the concierge lounge, writing away; we’ve gone to the same place for lunch more or less every day; we’ve taken long, amazingly deep naps; we’ve gone to the gym most afternoons; we’ve made the rounds of our favorite restaurants and bars in the evenings. It’s not at all what most people would expect from a trip here, and yet it’s been exactly what we wanted: the feeling of being somewhere else, but focused on our own stuff.

And that focus has come, quite brilliantly. I’m between writing projects right now, having wrapped up a couple of articles, waiting for a few revision notes and some copy-edits, and beginning to think about the next thing. I’ve wrapped up some administrative details, I’ve done some solid reading, and I’ve laid a course for the second half of my sabbatical that I’m really excited about.

The brilliant thing about this kind of ordinary joy — the joy of really getting to focus on the things I want to focus on, and to structure my time around that focus — is that I’ve got months of it ahead of me yet.

That, of course, is quite extraordinary.

#reverb10, day 26: Soul Food

Today’s — hey, it may be the 27th where I am, but it’s still the 26th according to the server — prompt:

Soul food. What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

Honestly? Everything. I’m slightly more than half Italian, and was raised in Louisiana, a family in which the equation between food and love was inescapable. Food is what we celebrate with, what we mourn with, what we console ourselves with.

As a result, we struggle with all the diet-related health problems, but we’re awfully happy.

In the spirit of the question, though, I could recount a few really extraordinary meals here — such as my pal Shhh’s utterly astonishing Thanksgiving feast — but for better or for worse, the things I eat that most “touch my soul” (and yes, I am trying not to wince) are comfort foods. And for me, comfort foods are those that achieve the perfect balance of carbs, fat, and salt, in a warm, creamy mixture.

Macaroni and cheese tops the list. Really good mashed potatoes are not far behind.

When it comes to these foods, some part of me will forever be eight years old. And given that I live mostly alone, responsible for no one’s eating other than my own, I fall back on these comfort foods more often than I’d like to admit. Especially when I’m stressed out, or unhappy, or lonely, or whathaveyou.

So be it. I try to eat as well as I can as much as I can, so that I can let myself indulge when I like. I’ve been blessed with good genes — the women in my mother’s family live very long lives, untroubled by high cholesterol or blood pressure — and my natural impulse is in general toward a fruit and vegetable and whole-grain oriented diet, so I’m just not going to sweat my mac-and-cheese addiction. It could be worse, and it makes me happy. Which is all anyone could ask for, I suppose.

#reverb10, day 25: Photo

Today’s prompt:

Photo – a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you.

This would, under other circumstances, be hard; I tend not to photograph well, and so freeze up in front of cameras. As a result, few pictures of me actually look much like me, or at least like a me that’s not in some kind of rictus of terror.

There’s one, however, taken during by Trebor Scholz during a digital media and learning seminar at the New School this fall, captures something that’s enough me-like that I’ve cropped it down to serve as my current gravatar:

When I first switched to this gravatar, I got a flurry of “ooh, professory!” responses on Twitter. And maybe that’s why it looks like me — the jacket, the glasses, the skeptical look. I tend to think it’s the plastic cup of red wine, though, and my pinky delicately extended from it.

Anyhow, that’s the only picture of me from this year — that I’ve found, at least, that I’m willing to share. Making me face photographs of myself doesn’t exactly put me in the Christmas spirit, so I’m moving on.

Have a good one, folks.

#reverb10, day 24: Everything’s OK

Today’s prompt:

Everything’s OK. What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead?

It’s almost as though someone’s been reading my advice to my past self. The fact is, though, that there wasn’t any one particular moment this year when I got the proof that everything was going to be okay — not unless you want to point to something as obvious as getting the call from my dean saying my promotion had gone through, which wasn’t really a moment indicating that everything would be alright but rather that it was alright, and in fact had more or less been alright for a while, if not exactly all along.

Anyhow, that moment is too easy, too conclusive. Instead, I want to think about the myriad small moments in which I find ways to convince myself that it’s all going to be okay.

The paradigmatic one of these came for me at some point late in college or early in grad school; I can’t remember which. In any case, I was staring down the end of a semester that was coming much too quickly, with a mountain of deadlines and term papers and exams and the like to get through, and looking at the list of what needed to be done, and the too-few hours left to me to get it done in, and a low-grade panic started to set in. It just wasn’t possible.

But something in me stopped and said, look. You’ve had lots of semesters like this before. And you always think you can’t get it all done. And yet you always do.

In fact, you have never not gotten it all done.

So draw a breath. You’re going to get it all done. It’s all going to be okay.

I go through this routine — making a list of what needs to be done; beginning to freak out about the list’s impossibility; convincing myself that it’s in fact perfectly possible — at least once a semester. And some of those semesters have been more difficult than others, but it’s all always turned out okay.

I now find myself going through a variant of this routine whenever I start a new writing project. I face the blankness of the text document or the roughness of what I thought was an outline but that turns out to be a few half-baked bullet points, and think, I’ve got no idea how to write this, what ever made me think I could. And usually the first day of working on the essay or article or whatever is miserable.

But the second day is almost always a little bit better. And at some point in the first week of writing, I turn a corner: some connection gets made, some point gets clarified, some small gesture appears that lets me know that even though there’s a lot yet to be done — some of which is just going to suck — in the end, it’s all going to be okay.

Those are the moments that keep me moving forward, the moments I need to hold on to. Just like facing down a miserable end-of-semester to-do list, facing down an empty text document is perfectly do-able. I do it more or less every time. The trick is just drawing that breath and pressing forward.

#reverb10, day 23: New Name

Today’s (yay!) prompt:

New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

This one’s short but sweet: I wouldn’t.

Here’s why: I like my name, and I have a very hard time getting a whole range of people actually to use it.

In the sixth grade, I decided I didn’t like my name, mostly because most people in Louisiana pronounced it as if it had three syllables (insert invisible schwa between the h and the l), so I persuaded everyone to call me by a severely shortened version of that name.

Which I then equally grew to hate, and realized how much I actually liked “Kathleen.”

But it was of course impossible to convince people who’d known me by the short form to give it up and go with the full version. And so I waited until I moved away from Louisiana, and only introduced myself as Kathleen, always.

Astonishingly, just about everyone outside Louisiana pronounces it correctly.

But I still face a couple of problems with it. First, that there are more common variants of both my first and my last name, and at some point nearly everyone slips and uses one or both of those variants. I try not to be offended by this, but it’s irritating to become Katherine Fitzgerald when I’ve worked so hard on being Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

And second, though it’s been twenty years since I asked everyone to switch to my full first name, I simply cannot persuade some of the members of my family to drop the diminutive. Which they’ve now passed on to the next generation. It grates unbelievably, but again, I try to ignore it.

So no. I’m not taking on any new names, not even in imagination. Instead, I’m imagining a world in which everyone gets my actual name right.

#reverb10, day 22: Travel

Prompt the 22nd:

Travel. How did you travel in 2010? How and/or where would you like to travel next year?

Ooh, this is timely. I’m writing from the executive lounge of the Prague Marriott hotel, where R. and I are enjoying another of our vaunted working vacations. I know they make some people I know crazy — we should be out, doing touristy things! But neither of us is big on the touristy stuff, and given that this is our third trip to Prague, we’ve seen most of what we wanted to see. Mostly what we want to do on these trips is be elsewhere, to settle into the sounds and flavors of another culture in the way that we would if we lived there. (Okay, if we lived there in a fancy schmancy hotel with no real responsibilities.)

It’s my favorite way to travel: go somewhere, settle in, drink lots of coffee, write like a fiend.

But this year’s travel has also included a fair number of conferences and an exciting bunch of lecture trips to amazing places:

  • January: Resting up for what was to come, apparently.
  • February: A talk at the University of Michigan; the Digital Media + Learning conference at UCSD.
  • March: SCMS in Los Angeles (not exactly travelly, but I did stay in a hotel downtown); keynoting the NITLE Summit in New Orleans.
  • April: Speaking at a one-day conference on the digital university at CUNY.
  • May: The beginning of travel insanity, including an MLA Program Committee meeting in New York; a one-day conference at Dartmouth; and THATCamp at George Mason, followed by a two-day meeting in DC (interrupted by a very nasty stomach virus which I will not consider further).
  • June: An astonishing trip to Istanbul for an ESF-COST workshop on digital textuality, followed immediately by the cognitive dissonance of the Association of American University Presses meeting in Salt Lake City, followed immediately by the Association of Departments of English West summer seminar in Claremont.
  • July: A trip through New York in preparation for my fall sabbatical, followed by a trip to London for DH2010, followed by a brief return through New York on my way to Charlottesville for the Scholarly Communications Institute (where I mostly became famous for having lost my suitcase).
  • August: No travel per se, just a little moving-to-New-York thing.
  • September: Only a quick visit to see folks in Louisiana, which surprises me in retrospect, because…
  • October: Included a return to George Mason for the Archiving Social Media workshop; a lecture at the Rochester Institute of Technology, followed immediately by a Hudson River Valley retreat with the NYU Humanities Initiative, followed immediately by a trip to Gothenburg, Sweden for IR11; and a two-day trip to speak at Boston University.
  • November: Happily a more restful month, taking me only to Rutgers for a seminar at the Center for Cultural Analysis; followed by a trip to Haverford to keynote the undergraduate DH conference, Re:Humanities; followed by a one-day DC venture on college business.
  • December: Only the current trip, which began on the 15th with a holiday visit to Baton Rouge, has now taken me to Prague, will send me to Dublin in a few days, and then, in the first days of the next year, will find me in Los Angeles for the MLA.

The 2011 lineup already includes:

  • January: The aforementioned MLA, plus a three-day symposium in New York the following week.
  • February: Lectures at the University of Kansas and Duke University.
  • March: A talk at UIUC, SCMS in New Orleans, and, if I’m very lucky, a quick trip to SXSWi.
  • April: A talk at Vassar, and possibly one more awesome European adventure, if the planning works out.

Happily, being on sabbatical, I’ve been able to accept almost all the offers that have come my way, but it’s clear that I won’t be able to keep up this pace once my leave is over. So once I move back to Claremont — probably in early June — the travel should slow a bit. But I’m hoping to get one more good writing vacation in over the summer.