Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cataloguing and All That

When responding to Kristen's comment on Library Thing, and knowing that some of our fellow grad students are trying to figure out how to best handle the research process, I began to think about the whole cataloguing issue. Why is it that I find it easier to catalog stuff I find in the library or want to look for than books I actually own? I'm sure I am not the only one who has this problem.
Granted, often when cataloguing materials from the library, one is importing data (having done a search on, say, Toyen or Štyrský) and mainly has to make sure that it goes in the right places and that the import process hasn't massacred the diacritical marks. A certain amount of personalizing then needs to take place, as one comes up with useful keywords (NOT those endless Library of Congress headings--see the Clay Shirky article on that), which is to say something like "art" and "Czech" instead of "Art--Czechoslovakia--20th century--painting" and one also has to, ideally, note whether the item has been seen or needs to be found.
With books at home, somehow there is usually not quite the same impetus to catalog, other than a vague feeling that it would be a good idea to know whether one already owns something like Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air or Serge Guilbaut's How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (the sort of text one has examined at the library and supposes had better be bought one of these days). There is also the feeling that, if the stuff is all catalogued, we'll have something to go on if the house burns down or experiences a natural disaster (horrors!).
I am probably not unusually bad at cataloguing my own books. Sometimes I collect stacks of new ones and refuse to shelve them until they have been entered. This mainly creates an unsightly hazard on my desk or wherever they have been piled. If they are not on the desk, they are likely to tempt Ms. Spots, who believes that all items must at least be licked and more likely nibbled. Ms. Spots is very fond of books, as she wishes to share in my interests and finds paper products tasty.
More productively, during the pre-Prague packing process I catalogued what must have been several hundred titles (or so it seemed). This was rather tiring and impeded the packing, which was already slow enough due to my insistence on packing each box as perfectly as possible to protect the contents (sorry, that's how I was taught to do it, not that I have fully mastered this skill).
Unfortunately, there are all those anthologies. In some cases, it is enough just to catalog the anthology itself. If I only have one book on nationalism and architecture (or even just two or three), and am unlikely to assign much reading on this topic (but then, you never know), I am probably safe. But what about canonical articles that will have to be assigned sooner or later to droves of unhappy students? For instance, Clement Greenberg's article on kitsch. Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Carol Duncan's "Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting." Since I don't own a collection devoted to Greenberg's writings, there is no way of figuring out where Greenberg's articles are if they aren't separately catalogued.
This quickly becomes nightmarish. I gaze in horror at my copy of Art in Theory, (note, I only possess one volume, 1900-1990, already superseded by 1900-2000) as it contains hundreds of items that I might possibly want to assign. (Worse yet, the print on the table of contents is small. I hate trying to deal with this valuable compendium.)
On the research front, I am still trying to get straight which of Karel Teige's articles are in his collected works, which in Vlašín's 3-volume set of avant-garde writings, which have been republished elsewhere, which I've seen in the original publication and photocopied or transcribed, etc. After all, if I have access to the original publication, I want to cite that, but I want to look at the bibliographic comments in the anthologies. Each catalog entry has to be cross-referenced to the others, although it's true that I can sort by title.
Sorting by title does me no good with the writings of Jindřich Štyrský, as some of them have different titles in different places. I have to keep in mind that "Koutek generace" refers to the same text as "Generace na dvou židlích."
Ah well. However one does it, it's an ongoing process, especially the keywording. There's always the realization that everything should have been given a century or other time period, or that some items have not gotten listed as Czech or avantgarde. Life is short, cataloguing endless.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Library Thing

I recently ran across something that may appeal to some of my readers: an inexpensive online book cataloguing system called Library Thing. With Library Thing, you create a list of your books and categorize them in any way you like, and can see how many other users have the same book. You can also review and recommend books.
While I think my own cataloguing needs are met with Ibidem (I can include books, articles, those I own, those found at the library, those hunted for, and I can cite everything directly into my footnotes--all without ever having to go online), Library Thing is a different animal and will probably be more useful and more fun to the average passionate reader. It is well reviewed and users seem to be very excited about it. So, explore the site and see if it appeals to you.
To understand more about some of the concepts used in Library Thing (and other online "social content" services like Del.icio.us and Flickr) you may want to take a look at Clay Shirky's Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Once Is Never Enough

In doing historical research, it is apparently never sufficient to read anything just once. Somehow, no matter how carefully you read and take notes, there will invariably be something that later proves significant, but which meant little or nothing to you the first (second, third, tenth) time around.
A case in point: awhile back I ran across a mention of a couple of interwar journals that sounded like something I ought to look up someday, although perhaps not immediately. The name of the writer Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic was also mentioned, although I think not in direction relation to the journals (although he edited at least one of them).
When I met Nathan, he said he was working on the Decadent Moderní Revue, edited by Procházka and Karásek, and that the latter was especially interested in issues of gender and sexuality. It hit me that I had encountered Karásek’s name before; fortunately I actually remembered where and why it was of interest. (I had, in fact, encountered it in a more extended fashion elsewhere, but at that point I was merely intrigued that Prague had a Decadent journal whose editors were in touch with Munch’s friend Przybyszewski. Karásek’s name had not stuck with me.)
At this stage, it occurred to me that perhaps it would behoove me to investigate Karásek and the Moderní Revue a bit, as perhaps there was some connection between them and Toyen and Štyrský (or even the whole Prague surrealist group, although that seemed a bit much to ask).
Examination of late issues of the Moderní Revue showed that Jarmil Krecar (subsequently a member of Devětsil, but otherwise not a writer well known to me) contributed frequently. This did not tell me all that much, especially as I wasn’t ready to sit there and read all his poems and articles.
Since I spend a fair amount of time at the Pamàtník nàrodního písemnictví, I checked their finding aids for Karásek and discovered a thick booklet devoted to his papers. Moreover, the archive’s website informed me that he had left an enormous quantity of papers and art, which form a significant part of their collection and are still in the process of being catalogued (although, it seemed, Karásek had catalogued them himself and one could use those records).
At this point, I dragged Nathan to the archive. He found the card catalog for Karásek’s personal library, so I promptly looked up Toyen and Štyrský, with the gratifying result that Karásek had owned a good many books and pamphlets relating to them. (I promptly ordered these, in the hopes that they would tell me more than the card catalog entries had.)
For the most part, these books merely showed that Karásek liked to collect bibliophile editions, which was not news as I knew he had edited a journal devoted to this sort of thing. I was not sure why he had bothered to collect certain of these titles, as their bibliophilic interest was pretty much nil apart from that Toyen or Štyrský had designed the cover, but if he had acquired them for the sake of their designers, then why hadn’t he collected more of Toyen and Štyrský’s work? Toyen alone had worked on over 500 titles during Karásek’s lifetime, and I suspect Štyrský was just as prolific.
More interestingly, Karásek had quite a stack of the artists’ exhibition catalogs, at least one of which he had written notes in. This looked more promising, and I will be examining these more closely next week. Clearly he had at least attended the exhibitions; but did he know the artists personally and had his ideas had any effect on theirs?
This seemed like something that I might not be able to confirm in any decisive manner. I turned my attention to other matters for the weekend, like going through various old notes and transcriptions.
And so, this morning, there it was: in 1921, Štyrský wrote his friend Karel Michl that during his military service he had often gone to Prague to visit Karásek.
I had probably looked at this letter several times since transcribing it a year and a half ago, but the reference to Karásek had meant absolutely nothing to me because I didn’t remember who he was. It may be that every other art historian working on the Prague surrealist group has known for ages that Štyrský visited Karásek, but any reference to it had obviously not stuck in my mind. One generally only remembers facts that seem in some way interesting or useful.
I shudder, however, to think of all the material that I need to read and reread to answer the various questions that come to mind. Pretty much every time I reread something dissertation-related, I see something important that was previously meaningless to me.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Two Scarves

These are the two scarves I knitted during the Velké Bílovice conference. Like the one I made for Štěpanka, they're done in garter stitch using one ball each of Eros yarn. Depending on how much time I spend sitting in one place, I can do one or two of these in a day. I think, however, that this is all the Eros yarn I have on hand. (No, there's still a ball of Eros Glitz.) I might have to turn to working on the sweater I started last summer, which requires actually paying attention to what I'm doing. I don't know. Practically everything else I do requires paying attention. The whole idea of easy scarves is to accomplish one thing while paying attention to something else.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Dance Signage

Since I have only one set of folk ball photos to deal with thus far, here are photos of posters for three balls from Velké Bílovice. The posters were on a public notice board on the main street.

A folk ball, presumably somewhat similar to the one we attended in Brno.

A firemen's ball (like in the movie?!)

A school ball with cimbalom band

New posters are still going up in Prague, but I suspect only the fanciest are showing up in the Metro and on public billboards.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Megan Photographs All

Just when I thought Megan had given up blogging, she has posted a perverse array of photos at Megan in Bohemia: Because I feel bad every time Karla mentions it... And here I thought we didn't get crazy until after leaving Peg's apartment. Um, I guess I forgot the interlude of posing for strange photos in the kitchen. They seem to have turned out in a most lifelike fashion. No wonder Peg brought out her book of Native American animal cards and had everyone pick a card to see which animal they were. (I was a squirrel. Well, I like squirrels. And they too can get a bit carried away.)

Highly Entertaining Synopses

I was recently sent the URLs to synopses for four allegedly forthcoming novels and one diet book. I feel certain that my readers will want to look at each and every one of them!
The Wail of the Wombat
The Scandal of the Ungentlemanly Cavalier
The Amazing Moa Murder Mystery
Curse of the Chihuahua Woman
The Bread and Water Diet

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Three Ways to Cook a Fish

My friend Philip reveals that his suite "Three Ways to Cook a Fish" was performed recently at the San Francisco Composers Orchestra opening season gala. You can listen to it at their web site.

From the program notes:
Three Ways to Cook a Fish is a suite of three dances originally written for oboe and "electronic gamelan." The "Three Ways" are not so much about particular recipes, but about modern approaches to cooking. Much in this work must be credited to the collaboration with dancer/choreographer Cheryl Koehler, and her dancers Marguerite Fishman and Ann DiFruscia. This piece makes use of 6-note (not quite pentatonic) scales, sonorous cluster chords to evoke bell-like effects, various "extended" oboe techniques (e.g., overblowing and multiphonics) and rhythmic ostinatos of various cultural derivations. Two interludes were added to give the pianist relief from ostinato duties.

Philip Freihofner began playing oboe in 7th grade, but quit in his senior year, due to chronic neck strains. During the layoff, he tried his hand at various musical endeavors, including sound design (He is particularly proud of some highly praised work at the Zellerbach Playhouse) and composing modern dance settings, culminating in a collaboration with Cheryl Koehler: "The Fish and the Fire" which played at the Julia Morgan and Cowell Theaters in 1993 and '94. While working on this project, he began playing oboe once again, and has mostly been writing music for oboe since. Phil composed an accompaniment for the 1920 silent German horror film, "The Golem," that is being toured by the ensemble "WiZARDS!" and he is now working on a commission for the 2006 SF Silent Film Festival: a Russian comedy titled "The Girl with the Hatbox."

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On Anonymity; Or, Hiding Your Light Under a Bushel

Recently it has come to my attention that a large number of bloggers not only post with a very small audience in mind (generally family and friends), but are actively opposed to the idea that anyone else will see their blogs.
I find this fascinating. After all, they are putting their material on the Internet, one of the most public spaces in the history of humankind.
Yet in the past week or so, I’ve repeatedly encountered people who want their blogs kept private. For instance, there are Fulbrighters who want only select people to see their blogs (and, being savvy people, most of them take steps to ensure that). An undergrad in a study abroad program was disturbed to learn that an educational blog had posted a link to the blog she envisioned as being purely for loved ones at home. An American working in Brno was disconcerted to find (months after the fact) that Jesse had linked to one of his posts about how things are done in Europe.
There is nothing wrong with making one’s blog or other Web page for a small intended audience, a niche market, if you will pardon the commercial jargon. In general, however, others will eventually find the thing. You cannot pretend that this won’t happen. The Internet is designed to be searchable. Internet culture stresses hypertext—that is, links to related material. Generally speaking, it is assumed that if you put something on the Net, you would like others to find you and link to you. The more links you get, the more your visibility rises in online finding aids, because many links suggest that you have valuable content—good information and images, entertaining writing, a worthwhile product.
Now, there are many things one can do to make a blog anonymous or hard to find. If creating the blog on Blogger, use settings that will keep the blog out of the directory. Disable RSS feed. More importantly, keep all references to your name and affiliations out. Don’t say anything personally identifying, or post any photos showing your face. Don’t write about topics that anyone knows you to be interested in, unless they are so widely written about and your views are so commonplace that no one could possibly identify the posts as yours. Most important of all, avoid using words; post only images, and without giving them identifiable file names. Because while some traffic comes through topic searches on Blogger, most of it comes from searches on Google, MSN, Yahoo, and the like. And, as the Blogger Help pages point out, you can make your site more anonymous and harder to find, but you can’t make it invisible (unless you can password-protect it, as universities do with content intended only for authorized viewers).
Well, you may laugh at the idea of a blog so restricted. But people create photo blogs which, if constructed properly, will not be found by too many outsiders. People also create anonymous blogs about their more intimate habits and fantasies, which, while very revealing and often widely read, do not tell the world who they are in any external sense.
This blog was intended to keep my friends and family informed and amused, and while I was initially surprised at the amount of other traffic it got, I had always known that the larger public could and would find it. It has always been written with the knowledge that to put something on the Internet is to publish it.
And, since it rapidly became clear that my readership is international and to some extent devoted, I try to make it easier for you to navigate and find topics. The del.icio.us tags at the bottom of each page and under most posts help you do that. They also bring in new readers who search del.icio.us or Technorati looking for topics like Prague, Toyen, Nezval, and gender. I link to sites that I think will interest my readers (some of these are also by my readers).
But if you have a site that you wish to keep under wraps, make it anonymous, hard to find, and above all, do make it as useless, boring, and forgettable as you possibly can. Otherwise, sooner or later you’ll see that some well-meaning soul has linked to you.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Twisted Spoon Press

I have occasionally mentioned literary works by some of the writers Toyen knew in Prague. For the most part, these authors are not translated into English.
What with the large English-speaking expatriate population in the Czech Republic, some of which does read literature, publishers here are making a greater effort to bring out Czech literature in English translation.
While quite a few publishers do a little of this, Twisted Spoon Press is notable for specializing in contemporary and earlier Central and Eastern European literature (mainly Czech).
Some offerings I can recommend include:
the symbolist writer Otakar Brezina's Hidden History (on aesthetics and the role of art, broadly speaking)
Karel Hynek Mácha's 1836 poem May, in a bilingual edition
Edition 69, which is comprised of Nezval's Sexual Nocturne and Štyrský's Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream, plus an essay by Brouk
Nezval's surrealist novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (complete with polecat-vampire, grandmother, priests, changelings, etc.)
There is a full list of titles here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Prague Wildlife, or Nightlife

Peg, one of the incoming Fulbrighters, invited us all to dinner at her gigantic renovated flat in Josefov. Now, my apartment here is pretty enviable, but I wouldn’t call it quite in the luxury category. When I rented a room around the corner from Peg in the summer of 2004, it was not in one of the elegant buildings typical of Josefov, and thus each day I wondered what the apartments in the neighboring buildings were actually like. And I still don’t really know, because seeing Peg’s place reminds me that the frenzy of Prague apartment renovation means that one has no clue what could be inside any individual person’s door. In this case it was simply enormous rooms (ceilings that made my high ones look positively low and cottage-like) painted white and furnished with small pieces of modernist furniture.
Well, it was a great place to throw a party, and I am in deep envy of the sumptuous coppery curtains, which must have been about 15 feet tall. More to the point, Peg is a good hostess and made everyone feel right at home, and her spaghetti sauce hit the spot. Furthermore, there was a nice mix of old and new grantees, with several people bringing their mates or visiting friends. Conversation was very pleasant all around.
Of course, it would not have done to keep Peg up all night just before the new semester starts. Eventually everyone said their goodbyes and promised to return soon. But it was not all that late yet, so certain troublemaking characters (Alex is always in this category) were anxious to go out on the town.
It’s my impression that in Prague, as in other cosmopolitan cities, there is always someplace open at any hour, any day of the year. On the other hand, one has to ask “What am I looking for?” and “Where on earth might it exist?” Josefov is in a sufficiently tourist-ridden part of town that one can expect to find something open in easy walking distance, but it may not suit one’s fancy.
My recollection, from my days in Josefov, was that the neighborhood was simply filled with the kind of little night spots that would be no fun to go to by myself. Of course, some of them are not as exciting inside as they appear from the street. Jesse and I once investigated La Casa Blů, which bills itself as “tvoje spanělská vesnice” (!) and was a hive of activity when I lived in the area, and we concluded that it had tolerable Mexican-like food but could not be described as a Spanish village (and if it is a Spanish village, why does it picture what appears to be a Peruvian native?). But La Casa Blů was right in front of us and looked open, so we attempted to go in. No, the door was locked and the person who responded to our knock informed us that it was closed. On to the next place.
It was only about eleven o’clock, but relatively little seemed to be open. This does seem to be about the time the average pub closes. Those that we found seemed to strike Alex as tame. She seemed to think we ought to go to a club. From time to time she gets this mysterious urge, and, clubs being what they are, it is pretty hard to know whether they will be worth bothering with. However, we were all still wide awake, so there was general agreement that we could see if the Roxy was at all worthwhile. After all, it was right in front of us, and Hubert and Alex had gone to a contemporary music event there that they had enjoyed.
I was not optimistic as I stood in the foyer paying my cover charge. The music did not sound especially appealing, and the place had that typical dingy appearance I associate with clubs everywhere, which is to say that no one in their right mind would care to see it in daylight. Still, what is life without adventure?
We headed downstairs, and I had a curious sensation of dejà vu. I felt quite certain that this was the same club that Jesse and I had once wandered into with our friends Ross and Griša at about 2 a.m while celebrating the end of our language class. It had been pretty dead that night, however, so we had mainly taken some bad photos of ourselves standing there looking as dissolute as we could manage, and had then gone off in search of food.
Fortunately, things were somewhat livelier this time. For one thing, there were more than four people dancing, and more than fifteen people in the room. We got drinks and settled ourselves on a bench to observe the scene.
The Roxy, at least on this occasion, had a DJ playing some sort of endless remix of largely unrecognizable songs (generally with the lyrics removed), done to a monotonous thumping beat. In other words, utterly uninspiring, but quite danceable. This was accompanied by random and equally uninspiring images on a video screen behind the DJ and various flashing and rotating lights upon the dancers. As a former lighting designer, I found the latter aspect the most interesting; while it didn’t seem in any way new or remarkable, I thought it was effective as regards atmosphere.
One cannot really easily hold a conversation in this sort of situation, although people always try. As there were six of us, we were well able to converse in pairs. I am sure I missed some entertaining remarks. I was able to hear most of what Megan and Nathan said to me, although Nathan seemed baffled that I found his account of avian courtship displays humorous. I’m afraid that there just seemed something inutterably comic about sitting in a dark Prague nightclub hearing Nathan recount how some sort of woodland sparrow arranges its found objects by color and expects mates to be attracted to its piles of red and blue buttons, spoons, pipecleaners, and whatnot. I think that he was in some way relating these bits of natural history to an unfortunate recent experience he had had with his scarf, but perhaps I am confusing two separate anecdotes. He will have to accept my apologies for my laughing uncontrollably through the peacock, the woodland bird, and any other species mentioned. After all, it looks like we will be spending a lot of time at the archive together digging through Jiří Karásek’s vast literary and artistic collection.
Of course, some of us feel that the main reason one would go to a club is, in fact, not simply to have the same conversations one might have anywhere, or even to observe the fauna, but to dance.
I may be wrong, but I think that this was the first time I have ever been to a club in a group that was actually half male and half female. It seems that my previous forays have been in all or largely female groups, or as the only female in the lot. Initially, I think that some members of the group imagined that this boded well for our dancing. For that matter, the Roxy proved to be a venue that does not favor male-female pairs over any other combination, so it was not as though we had gone to a ball. We were free to dance in any manner we saw fit.
I am afraid, however, that Kelly and I were the only ones who managed to fling ourselves into the action. While we were not much impressed with most of the dancing around us, we had a fine time. We attempted to drag the others in as well, but for some reason they proved highly resistant. Apparently they preferred to watch us, as they seemed to find this most fascinating.
Eventually, some people (not dancers) grew tired of the club, and we removed ourselves to the Middle Eastern restaurant next door, which always seems rather deserted in the daytime. We lamented Jesse’s absence. Alex and her friend Michael departed, and the remaining four of us devoured our snacks and roamed the streets for awhile, since it is pleasant to see the Jan Hus statue when it is not encircled with throngs of people, but is a sort of dark shadow under the moon. With the help of Prague’s benevolent night tram service, by 4:30 Megan and I were sitting at my kitchen table having a last drink of water before falling into bed. And, judging by my perusal of the Nezval diaries, it was an evening that would have met with the approval of the Prague surrealists of 1935.

The Roxy when it is in a more formal mood.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Adventures with iPods

The other day Dawn informed me that she and Megan were going to go to get their iPods fixed, and did I by any chance want to come along. Apparently the new iPod Shuffle software is bad and ruins the device (how something like this could get out of beta, I can’t imagine, but Dawn said that after it happened to her, she found numerous reports of other people’s problems with it), and Megan’s iPod developed a mystery problem after she tried to add music to it from Alex’s computer (since she has no computer of her own to store music on).
My initial reaction was that I was happily sitting on the couch working and had no plan to go anywhere but the library. Still, I have been perturbed that when I take my iPod to Brno, it starts to show a low battery along the way. These batteries are supposed to last for something like twelve hours of use, not act weak after two. After Dawn pointed out that I should be able to have this dealt with free since the thing is still under warranty, I decided to go along and see how things went. After all, I have only a month or two left on my warranty and won’t be back in the US during that time. I don’t even use the iPod that much, or at least certainly not using the battery. I usually play it with speakers.
The service center proved to be just a few stops south of where I live. It was not specifically an Apple service center, but dealt with various brands.
I think the staff was somewhat surprised to see three women arrive simultaneously. Dawn immediately apprised them of her problem, since her spoken Czech is the best and my problem is pretty minor anyway. She did say the iPod was dead, which reminded me that Věra had told me firmly that in Czech one should not really say this of inanimate objects. (One of the seemingly few instances of an English idiom that isn’t the same in Czech; I am always amazed how frequently the two languages match up. Linguists, of course, will be able to provide a long list of idioms that are not at all the same.)
To make an unpleasantly long story short, we learned that in the Czech Republic you should not bring in anything for service without the receipt for its purchase. It does not matter if you have registered the item online with the company and can show that your identity and its serial number are legally joined, you have to show a receipt.
Well, Dawn had bought her iPod in Berlin, Megan and I had gotten ours in the US, and all three of us had stored our receipts in the US.
The employees assured Dawn that while she could take her iPod in for service in Germany or Austria without a receipt, it could not be done here. (Megan and I, meanwhile, had retreated to a couch by the window and given up the idea that we would get anywhere with this project.) Dawn attempted to persuade them that this made no sense when her iPod is registered under her name with Apple, but it was no use. Not surprisingly, she was furious. I will refrain from repeating her opinions about Czech business practices and about Apple.
Personally, I have not found that Czech business practices and employees are any worse than those in the US. I agree it is stupid to require a receipt for an object registered with its manufacturer, but my experience in the US has led me to have low expectations of customer service anywhere in the world. In general, my experience has been that it is unwise to take anything in unless it has really conked out (like Dawn’s and Megan’s iPods) and that when that happens (which is usually just after the warranty period ends, or the extended warranty if one of those has been bought), the technician tells you that a) nothing can be done; b) it will have to be shipped far away at my expense; c) it will cost more to fix than to buy a new one.
But… while I don’t know what Dawn and Megan will do, I am glad that my iPod still works just fine and that I don’t normally need more than two or three hours of battery. Perhaps I should offer up a sacrifice to the gods so that it continues to work nicely the rest of the time I am in Europe.
Incidentally, I recommend iLounge.com for information about iPods and their use. One can read endlessly there about best methods for digitizing music and how to choose the best case, headphones, speakers, and so on.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Nuda v Brně?: Travel in the Czech Republic=

OK, I can't resist this. Jesse has finally recovered sufficiently from Part Ib of the family visit to post to his blog, and these poems will tell you all: Nuda v Brně?: Travel in the Czech Republic= I don't know what this form of poetry is called, but I'll have to try it some day. I think that the German surrealists Hans Bellmer and Unica Zürn did a lot of it as they liked rearranging things.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Feeling at Home in the World

Today I bring you an excerpt from Rob Breszny's book PRONOIA IS THE ANTIDOTE FOR PARANOIA: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. While there are people to whom I doubt this applies (abused children, the malnourished, etc.), I think it is pertinent to those of us privileged enough to be able to read blogs.


[...] The universe is an equal-opportunity provider, conspiring to shower blessings on every one of us in the same abundance. But while the blessings may come in the form of money and possessions, they're just as likely to consist of other gifts that aren't as concrete.

Here's a hypothetical example. Let's say you have the gift of feeling at home in the world no matter where you are. The universe has determined that it's the exact skill you need in order to fulfill the specific purpose you came to earth to carry out. Having a prestigious job and big salary, on the other hand, might be exactly what you don't need.

The question of what gifts are essential revolves around your precise role in the universal conspiracy to perpetrate blessings.

The second meditation I'll offer you is a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: "Whoever has, shall be given more and more, while whoever has nothing, even what he has will be taken away from him."

Pronoiac translation: Whatever you choose to focus your attention on, you will get more of it. If you often think of everything you lack and how sad you are that you don't have it, you will tend to receive prolific evidence of how true that is. As you obsess on all the ways your life is different from what you wish it would be, you will become an expert in rousing feelings of frustration and you will attract experiences that assist you in rousing frustration.

If, on the other hand, you dwell on the good things you have already had the privilege to experience, you will expand your appreciation for their blessings, which in turn will amplify their beneficent impact on your life. You will also magnetize yourself to receive further good things, making it more likely that they will be attracted into your sphere. At the very least, you will get in the habit of enjoying yourself no matter what the outward circumstances are.

Bear in mind that you are a great wizard. You can use your powers to practice white magic on yourself instead of the other kind. The most basic way to do that is to concentrate on naming, savoring, and feeling gratitude for the blessings you do have--your love for your kid, the pleasures of eating the food you like, the sight of the sky at dusk, the entertaining drama of your unique fate. Don't ignore the bad stuff, but make a point of celebrating the beautiful stuff with all the exuberant devotion you can muster.

While appreciating the good in our own lives won't fix all that's wrong with the world, enjoyment of life is contagious.
To read other pieces from the book, go here or here. To buy the book, use the links to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, which are on Rob's homepage. Or use these direct links AMAZON or BARNES & NOBLE (I get no commission, I just like what he says and believe in supporting other writers.)
And now back to my dissertation, which is going along so nicely at the moment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Character Studies?

I see that a lot of the recent traffic to this blog has not been to the main page. Usually I think that's a good thing (after all, I don't think most of the posts are especially time-sensitive)--but it does in part explain the slow response to my last, experimental, post.
Well, before too much time passes, I will post a few photos that struck me as informative, characteristic, or in some other way notable.

Alex does not usually look like this, but all the same time it seems highly characteristic of her.

Nathan looking adult and not making a snow angel.

While I don't often see Megan with a camera, photography prompts her concentration. I am not sure how the picture she was taking of me (on the Fulbright bus) came out. Those of us in the back of the bus got a little hyperactive at times. In fact, on the way to the conference, Megan had cause to question the wisdom of sitting between me and Jesse and informed us that we are exactly alike. "You just don't stop, do you?!" she exclaimed, clearly worn out by our insane inventions. Actually, we were just a little (as my mother would say) too wound up that day. It must have been all that Moravian wine the night before at the folk ball. Or something.

I discovered this (from December) on the Fulbright web site. While Hubert, Jesse, and I don't look anything like this on a daily basis, I think it captures something characteristic about each of us. But if you got a picture of me looking similar to either of them, that would also be characteristic of me. Whether either of them typically smirks is less likely.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Do Introduce Yourself

In the near future I do plan to post a gorgeously illustrated account of the Brno folk ball, using everyone else's photos, but in the meantime it has occurred to me that it might be fun to ask my readers to introduce themselves.
I realize that for the most part you are a reticent group, at least online, and that some of you have not really figured out how to make the comment function work. But let loose for a moment (you don't have to identify yourselves fully, after all--see below for instructions).
Some suggestions for things that might be fun for me and other readers to know:
1) Are you a regular reader or just happened upon the blog today?
2) How did you find this blog--accidentally, by searching for something, by following a link from another blog, or because you know me personally?
3) What sorts of things do you like about this blog? Are there topics you'd like to see more about?
4) What's your line of work or study? What state or country do you live in at the moment? Where would you live or travel if you had unlimited options? What are some of your interests (if I know you personally, remember that other readers probably don't)? This could be anything--a favorite book, volunteer activity, etc.
5) Do you have a blog or other website that readers of this blog might enjoy, and if so, what's the URL? (Even if I already link to your site, it would be nice to include it again here.)
Of course, you don't have to do any of the above. You can always just say hi and type whatever comes to mind. (Or ignore the whole project.)
For those who haven't written blog comments before, note the small print at the bottom of the post that says "0 comments" or "5 comments" or whatever it might be at the moment. Click on this. You can now read other people's comments and add your own. To save yours, you do NOT need to join Blogger; choose Other. Then type in the Word Verification section, which proves you are a sentient being rather than a spam-robot. Finally, click Login and Publish.

Do Introduce Yourself

In the near future I do plan to post a gorgeously illustrated account of the Brno folk ball, using everyone else's photos, but in the meantime it has occurred to me that it might be fun to ask my readers to introduce themselves.
I realize that for the most part you are a reticent group, at least online, and that some of you have not really figured out how to make the comment function work. But let loose for a moment (you don't have to identify yourselves fully, after all).
For those who haven't written blog comments before, note the small print at the bottom of the post that says "0 comments" or "5 comments" or whatever it might be at the moment. Click on this. You can now read other people's comments and add your own. To save yours, you do NOT need to join Blogger; choose Other.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Writing the Dissertation

If I spend time writing the blog (and of course a novel or two in odd moments), going to the dentist, and socializing, how do I work on my dissertation?
Well, strangely enough, it’s easy. Not for everyone, I admit, but for me. And not easy all the time, but then just about nothing is easy all the time.
First off, I like my topic. That’s right, I do not get tired of Toyen or early Czech surrealism. I’ve been interested in this stuff for more than ten years, and have only gotten to spend much time on the dissertation itself rather recently, so I don’t anticipate major nausea setting in any time soon. The basic plan is to finish the PhD in the next couple of years, and what with the way that time flies as one gets older, dissertation overload seems unlikely.
Second, I like archival research. Some people find this character trait positively bizarre, as they regard the prospect of sitting in an archive or library all day as a horrendous form of torture, but then, I’m just strange. I find it exciting to dig through old papers, wondering what I might find. I feel a certain awe in knowing that I’m touching a postcard or manuscript written by an interesting historical figure.
Third, I like to write. We all know, in fact, that it is hard to keep me from writing. As a rule I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it. Unlike some people I know, I don’t think out loud very efficiently. While I do get some benefit out of talking things through with people, as they force me to see things in new ways, for the most part I have to write. I don’t know how a story will end until I write the ending. I don’t know how I will analyze data until I’ve written the analysis.
These things said, I wouldn’t claim that I am the most diligent or most efficient person in the world. Far from it! Several things, however, help me keep working productively with a minimum of effort.
First, I use bibliographic software. Really, I don’t see how any graduate student can live without it, but I have found that many do. (They should change their ways immediately and save themselves much grief.) Initially, I used Endnote because my university offers it at a steep discount. Endnote is a good product, but Endnote 6 and 7 (the versions I used) were not designed with my needs in mind. That is, the software is designed more for scientists and social scientists than for humanities scholars, so even though it will create citations based on MLA and the Chicago Manual, many of them cannot easily be correctly formatted. (You could say a work was translated by or edited by somebody, but not translated and edited by the same person. You could not list someone as the compiler, or say that X wrote the text “with” Y. There were hosts of these issues.) This meant that I just used Endnote as a place to store bibliographical information, not to create actual citations. Which was not so bad. What was much worse was that Endnote didn’t support several Czech characters and I was always having to type weird things like c^ to remind myself how a word was spelled. This really drove me mad while I was working in the archives during the summer of 2004, and led me to switch my dissertation work to Nota Bene, a word processor designed for scholars that has its own bibliographic software component, Ibidem. Ibidem is very flexible and I could even type in Hebrew if I wanted or knew how. It also did a good job of importing my Endnote databases, once I figured out what needed to be done.
Second, I take all my notes directly onto the computer. This does make me reluctant to read away from the laptop, but it also means that anything I’ve taken notes on is right where I need it. Sometimes I take the notes in Ibidem (which allows you to open special note-taking documents for each source), and sometimes directly into the rather unwieldy dissertation document. In the latter case, I footnote obsessively. When I later move around or consolidate those note-taking sentences, I won’t have to look at the source again to check the exact pages.
Third, I actually keep a lot of my sources on the computer. This is mainly because a) interlibrary loan books never arrive when one has time to read them and b) I was not about to lug a hundred pounds of books and photocopies to the Czech Republic. Instead, I ran my photocopies through a magic machine at school called the Digital Sender, which made PDF files of them. I also used the copy stand in my department to take digital photographs of quite a few books. This was time-consuming, but an hour or so to photograph a 500-page Czech-language small-font anthology is an hour or so well spent, as was the time it took to go through and enter all the articles in Ibidem. I can easily see whether I have something on my laptop or need to order it at the library here (or have it but would like to see it in its original context). I made all the photographed books into PDF files for ease of use. (Scanning would have made a better end product, but would have taken far, far longer.) I also download every PDF dissertation that might conceivably relate to my work. PDF files with very legible English, French, or German text can be “captured” in Acrobat, which means that they become searchable text and I can apply yellow highlighting and other note-taking features, which is a splendid thing. (Unfortunately, Acrobat doesn’t have a Czech capture module, although if I had Finnish text it would handle that.) So… if I’m at home or at the library and suddenly want to see what Nezval said about Toyen in his memoirs, I can look it up in an instant. Or, when I started looking at the Janský-Brouk lawsuit, and found it a bit baffling, I was able to find the disputed Brouk article immediately.
In a move akin to putting lots of sources on the laptop, I also tried to scan as many works by Toyen and other Czech surrealists as I could manage. Scanning is a slow process, so I have been gradually adding to my collection over the past three years. In Photoshop, I try to enter useful keywords for each one. The scanned images then get catalogued in an image database (I use iMatch for this, but Cumulus is also very good). I can search by medium, time period, or iconography, depending on how well I’ve done my cataloguing. Mainly, I can quickly look up works rather than wondering which book they were in and which library had that book.
As regards the writing itself… Well, I have one big dissertation document rather than separate ones for each chapter, which may not be optimal. When I work on novels, each chapter has its own document, but then, novels are different. I am more likely to write most of a novel chapter before going onto its successor. With the dissertation, I add incrementally to various chapters, and material sometimes gets moved around from chapter to chapter as I try to figure out where it fits best. Perhaps something seems to belong in chapter three, but might ultimately go into the introduction or the conclusion or some other spot. One does not advance to candidacy (ABD status) without having had one’s prospectus approved, and the prospectus is much like a book proposal, but the whole thing does change as one works. Furthermore, after reading one of Dawn’s books about dissertation-writing, I gained a better understanding of how to conceptualize chapter sections, so that led me to examine my tentative section headings, revise them, and start moving text into the appropriate spots. This made me feel so smart and productive that I went ahead and wrote introductory text for several sections, as, if a section is optimally 2000-2500 words, that’s like a short story, and that’s not a daunting length at all (yes, short stories can be longer or shorter, but most magazines prefer them under 3000 words).
So, that’s how I write my dissertation. I research and write simultaneously, I take notes in full sentences and usually in paragraphs, and I footnote as I go. Thus far, it’s gone pretty smoothly, so we’ll just hope that continues. Also, my dissertation relies less on archival sources than some, and hardly at all (we’ll see) on interviews. Every dissertation is different.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

How Do You Know You're an Adult?

One of the topics a group of us got going on during the Fulbright conference was the question "How do you know you're an adult?" Alex has a supply of such questions, and apparently she had given this one to Megan to think over, so the rest of the people in the room (Jen and Derrick, Nathan, Kelly, and I) became intrigued as well.
We started off with Megan's joking remark that you're an adult if you carry a pocket knife. I suppose that this means I have ceased being an adult, because I've lost too many pocket knives over the years to carry them on a routine basis anymore.
But more seriously... what do people consider markers of adulthood? And what does being an adult mean to different people? Is it good or is it bad, or is it a mix?
(Legal markers of adulthood were rejected for our purposes.) We batted around the idea that you know you're an adult when you buy a house. We had, I think, a certain resistance to the idea of defining adulthood by real estate transactions, yet had to admit that buying a house is something we all associate with grownups. Children and youth simply do not buy houses. Of course, many adults don't either. But you have to be grown up to do it, or have an adult do it for you.
Concepts of responsibility came heavily into the discussion--our feelings about all those people who marry and/or have children when they are still terribly immature. Are you adult when you consider the possible consequences of your actions? Yes, but we all start considering consequences in childhood, and the process simply becomes more intricate as we grow up and realize how many possible consequences there are in life.
Becoming more responsible is an admirable aspect to becoming adult, but what about the fun things? I think it was Kelly who remarked that older members of his family once pointed out that YOU CAN EAT DESSERT FOR LUNCH IF YOU'RE AN ADULT. No one's going to tell you that you can't. (Well, usually. I told an anecdote about a complete stranger who once told me I mustn't eat cake for lunch because it was bad for me. This busybody could have guessed from looking at me that I rarely eat cake in the first place.)
Is it good or bad to be an adult? Several of us, especially the elder among us, are skeptical of the idea of being adult. We reject all those concepts of adulthood (still current with many people) in which being adult means giving up playfulness and a sense of wonder. If that's what being an adult is, we want no part of it. Still, as grownups we don't play in quite the same ways as we once did. On the trip to Lednice, we all had the chance to make snow angels. After all, Bram, who is eight years old, was out there making them with great enthusiasm. Both Nathan and I considered the idea and decided not to indulge that day. Both of us cited a desire not to tour the castle in icy clothes as a reason. But Nathan, who is younger than I am, also didn't want to embarrass himself in front of his colleagues. I had no worries about this. Had I been wearing my ski clothes, I would have flung myself into the snow instantly. The older I get, the more dumb inhibitions I throw out. (Even if I become less willing to walk around feeling cold and wet.)

Recently, a well-loved member of one of my e-mail discussion groups mentioned that he was turning seventy and everyone on the list was invited to the party if only we could get there on a day's notice. (I don't think too many list members actually live on his continent, otherwise I imagine there would have been quite a few additions to the guest list.) This announcement has prompted a charming spate of e-mails pondering the difference between chronological age and the age one usually feels. I suspect most people on the list are between the ages of forty and eighty, and in general people have referred to the sensation of usually feeling somewhere between eighteen and forty while wondering why their doctors and President Bush look so juvenile. I love it! (And this reminds me that I always say I want to be like my friend Jane when I'm "old;" the only thing at all elderly about her is her appearance.)
I know that I feel adult in pleasant, satisfying ways that are completely different from anything I felt in earlier stages of my adulthood. I think it has something to do with feeling more secure and sure of myself; that life has just as many adventures but fewer of them seem to involve any kind of meltdown. So we then wondered what sort of things are deeply satisfying to us and how these are the same or different at different ages.
I said that in fact I do really get the same kind of satisfaction now as when I was sixteen, if I write or draw or perform something that turns out well.
Megan, being an anthropology and politics major, became huffy and wanted to know about satisfying actions in the social sphere. As in, doing good for humanity.
Well, I doubt that I was doing any particular good for humanity when I was sixteen, or had any idea how someone of that age could do any such thing. I'm sure I occasionally made someone feel good about themselves, but the only thing that comes to mind is my much-later realization that I had made some immigrant girls feel welcome when I asked them to sign my yearbook and told them they could write in Spanish.
These days I do get satisfaction from knowing that I was able to help someone in a significant way, which happens fairly regularly when I teach. Each semester, I end up advising a few people about their academic choices, and listening to a few others talk through their personal crises. This isn't something I was in a position to do when I was sixteen.
I'm not sure any of us came up with new milestones for reaching adulthood, but we had a fine time talking it over. And here's a stimulating blog post I just found on a closely related topic: perpetually liminal: are we refusing to grow up? what does this mean?

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Wise After the Fact: Coretta Scott King's Memorial"

To change the subject just briefly, Susie Bright quotes a wonderful account of Coretta Scott King's memorial service and life.

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Presentation Curiosa

I suppose I should mention the topic of my Fulbright conference presentation. It ended up being titled "Toyen, Gender, and Eroticism in the Czech Context." Originally I had planned to introduce the wider interwar avant-garde group since my research requires that I acquaint myself with practically everyone, but that seemed too broad for a 15-minute talk, so I switched to presenting something closer to my actual dissertation topic. This meant that instead of showing lots of fun caricatures from Rozpravy Aventina,

I was showing images like these:

Untitled drawing, 1931

Horror, 1937

The Folding Screen, 1966

and this lovely 1935 collage by Štyrský.

They seemed to keep the audience’s attention, at least.
My presentation, though somewhat abridged at the end, seemed well received. The questions, however, surprised me a little. No sooner had I sat down than the woman behind me wanted to know whether I could prove that Toyen wasn’t really a man, because she looked “just like” the man next to her in one of the photos I had shown. (I’m not sure whether she meant the photo of Toyen sitting near Karel Teige and wearing a top hat, the photo of Toyen and Štyrský all dressed up at one of their shows, or the photo of Toyen and Heisler in overalls standing next to crates of paintings.) My interlocutor assured me that many men had successfully masqueraded as women throughout their lives, a fact with which I do not quarrel. (I said I had seen no evidence that Toyen was not female.)
Having had this question immediately after my talk, I’m not sure why I wasn’t chewing it over all through the next presentation. Perhaps I was too intrigued by Vivian’s discussion of Brožík’s portraiture. In any case, once the floor was open for questions, what should I hear but a person in the back of the room inquiring whether perhaps Toyen was intersexed (in common parlance, a hermaphrodite). Since many more people are born intersexed than is commonly realized, and since this was usually covered up in the past, did I have any medical proof that she was really a woman? After all, she did produce some hermaphroditic imagery!
Well, I would not like to belittle the problem of gendering the intersexed—an issue of which I am well aware and find quite interesting—but I had to reply that despite my lack of direct medical or photographic evidence, I had no reason to believe Toyen was not biologically female (Hana Ripková of the Fulbright office remarked here, with considerable amusement, that she was sure someone or other had photos to answer this question). Toyen was buried in 1980. Had she been a hermaphrodite, the news would have hit the streets the moment her body reached the funeral parlor.
Let me put it this way. With all due respect to transvestites and the intersexed, there is no reason to think that just because Toyen had (mildly) unconventional sexual interests and made art about them, she must therefore really have been either a man or a hermaphrodite. To propose this really harks back to the days when some people tried to pretend that women had no sexual interests at all.
As a biological female who has never been mistaken for either a man or a hermaphrodite, I can assure you that lack of conventionality is not caused by male sex organs.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Lednice in February

Some months back, Jesse and I paid a visit to Lednice, although I didn't take many pictures of the castle itself. Since Lednice is quite close to Velké Bilovice, we got to see a different version of the place on one of the midyear Fulbright conference outings.
It appears that this excursion was just about the only occasion I successfully photographed during the entire Moravian foray. (My fault, not the camera's. Actually, it is surprising the camera worked on the Lednice trip, as its batteries really hate freezing weather and usually refuse to work for any length of time.)

The grounds...

The castle...

The stables...

Hubert in his usual attire, which Megan and Alex would like him to launder or dry-clean...

Jesse recording nonfolkloric sights (has not to my knowledge been told to clean his jacket)...

Megan going prematurely gray...

Kelly in the greenhouse.

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Photos from Fulbright Excursions

Jen and Derrick have posted a very nice series of photos from the Fulbright midyear conference at A Year in the Czech Republic: February 05. There is a nice selection of shots from our trips to Lednice and the ancient wine cellar. They are entirely different than mine (which will follow shortly).
Susan has also begun a blog about her Fulbright adventures (she just recently arrived here and will be teaching about e-learning). She has some good excursion photos here and the blog itself, which looks promising, is here.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Midyear Fulbright Presentations

Since I didn’t take my camera to the Brno folk ball and haven’t yet gotten copies of everyone else’s photos, an account of our adventures there will have to wait. Instead, I’ll be non-chronological and go on to the Fulbright conference, which was jointly hosted by the Czech and Slovak commissions and was in Velké Bilovice this year.
The midyear conference has two major components: presentations by each grantee, and social time for grantees to get acquainted or renew acquaintance. As some grantees do come just for the spring semester (taking the place of those who were only here in the fall), they also had an orientation.
There are essentially three categories of grantee: the Scholars, who are professors or other similarly august characters; the Students, who have finished college and proposed some form of research or study; and the Teachers, who exchange places with Czech colleagues. Now, in actuality matters are more complex than this because Megan is in a special new subcategory of Student (new to the Czech Republic, that is) and both teaches and researches; and some of the Scholars teach while some just do research; and our group of Students consists largely of PhD candidates. And, furthermore, my grant is Fulbright-Hays rather than Fulbright, so my participation was optional. But overall there were three categories of presentation. So… Monday’s presentations were by continuing grantees who primarily teach (Scholars, Teachers, and Megan), Tuesday’s were by Students doing research, and Wednesday’s were pretty much anyone new, plus Hubert.
Overall, I thought the presentations were interesting and well done. In fact, I enjoyed presentations on topics that sounded as if they would be utterly incomprehensible to me, which is a tribute to the presenters’ lecture skills. The free-form discussion of second-language acquisition pedagogy that followed Monday’s presentations did get a little too long for me after awhile, but I was glad that the teachers had a chance to talk about the issues they encounter in either teaching the English language or in teaching students whose command of English is not sufficient for university courses taught in that language. (I think anyone who takes difficult courses in a foreign language is brave, but of course people do it all the time.)
The fact that so many people were able to discuss their projects extemporaneously, albeit often with the help of some transparencies or Powerpoint slides, was genuinely impressive. It is true that all but one or two of the grantees are accustomed to teaching, which I’m sure for most of us includes a good deal of lecturing, but I’m not accustomed to seeing so many people who talk so glibly in front of an audience. I’ve had a lot of excellent teachers over the years, but I would say that few of them have developed this degree of public speaking skill. Some of them read the same lectures year after year (yes, we always hear that this is bad, but it isn’t always if the lectures are well crafted); some of them speak too softly or too quickly; some of them are easily distracted by student sneezes and dropped pencils; and most of them never get through the entire syllabus.
Since we were told to regard this as a conference with papers rather than an exact repeat of December’s talk-for-ten-minutes-about-your-experience, Dawn and I agreed that well-scripted papers with suitable visuals were the way to go. Unfortunately, Dawn’s dead computer took her visuals with it, but as her topic was literary, this was less of a disaster than it would have been for me. She did end up having to translate some big chunks of German at the last minute, also not something I would care to have to do. Other than that, the student presentations went pretty well except for some oddities of timing. I am not sure what happened, as in general they seemed about the right length, but for some reason the presenters in our group kept being told their time was up or about to be up. I can only conclude that there was some error in the calculations regarding how many 15-minute presentations would fit in a given amount of time. This occurred at another conference I attended, where through administrative error my panel was allotted considerably less time than any other and although no one went overtime, there was no time for questions, while other panels featured speakers who rambled on for three times as long and had endless Q&A sessions afterwards.
The main thing, however, is that things generally went well.
I append some photos of the presentations, all taken (I believe) by Andrea of the Fulbright office. There are more to be seen at the Fulbright website.














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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dissertation Fun versus the Bus to Brno

While I was looking forward to going to both the Brno folk ball and the Fulbright midyear conference, when it came time to leave Prague, their timing did not seem very agreeable. Not only was I enjoying reading newspaper clippings relating to Karel Janský suing Bohuslav Brouk (at the PNP), making my way through information about early Czech feminism and Vratislav Effenberger’s writings about surrealism (at the Národní knihovna), but I was in the midst of fine-tuning the organization of my dissertation chapters.
I realize that not everyone would find these pursuits at all pleasant. My regular readers have discerned, however, that I am a bit peculiar.
After reading one of Dawn’s books on dissertation-writing, I had done a good deal of productive thinking about my (hypothetical) chapter sections. At that time, I moved around quite a bit of text, wrote new bits, and all that sort of exciting thing. I could see, however, that I still had chapters whose prospective sections were just not satisfactory. In some cases they were mere reminders of topics that needed to be addressed sometime, somehow, somewhere. In other cases, they seemed reasonable but in some manner incomplete or disordered. Consequently, last week I felt moved to address this issue further.
Not surprisingly, I did not really do much with the chapters that struck me as most in need of attention. Instead, I found myself fiddling around with the Introduction. As a rule, one writes the introduction to anything last, but I am not much attached to rules.
This lovely introduction was supposed to consist of something like a Literature Review, a section on Methodology, an Overview of Biography and Oeuvre, and a summary of the chapters to come. In other words, the kind of stage-setting tripe (if one can indeed set a stage with tripe, which sounds to me like something either out of a Naturalist drama or a contemporary work of performance art) that one is expected to shove into a dissertation before things get interesting.
I was willing to write an introduction full of this sort of thing; the older I get, the more my literary ambitions shrink, at least as regards academic writing. I am more and more inclined to leave my attempts at great literature for my fiction, and otherwise to simply give Caesar his due, or do whatever will fit the bill. On the other hand, it would be unthinkable to write something dull in my dissertation. Perish the thought. (Editorial note: I enjoy reading over my footnotes and bibliography, so we must consider dullness a relative matter.)
There was something unsatisfactory about my introduction, I felt. The Literature Review was not unsatisfactory, although it was not finished, but I felt unsettled about the rest. I moved the Methodology section about restlessly and found it unpleasing both before and after the biographical section.
Some benignant spirit prompted me to take a look at my friend Sylvia’s dissertation, despite the fact that it really bears scant relation to mine, as Sylvia wrote about twentieth-century Chicago school murals. (I think I had some vague notion of examining her formatting, since this was probably the first dissertation in our department submitted under the new Electronic Dissertation requirements.) Sylvia, I noted, had seen fit to combine her discussion of methodology with her chapter road map. This seemed strangely tempting.
I then noticed that the best bits lurking in the biographical section related to the ways in which Toyen has been mythologized by her contemporaries and by art historians. I had really not been sure where these fun bits would end up, as they seemed too exciting to put in the introduction, but it now occurred to me that addressing Toyen’s biography in this manner would be much more entertaining for me to write and would get across basic biographical data without causing my committee to cry out that I was writing mere factual, chronological, nonanalytical biography.
This seemed just too splendid for words, but then I am easily excited by small pleasures. Suffice it to say that I went at sticking together paragraphs that seemed to belong, and threw other material elsewhere in the hope that it would come in handy for some other purpose like clarifying Toyen’s relationship with Štyrský, or who only knows what.
Unfortunately, I could only get a certain amount of this sort of thing done before it was time to head for the Florenc bus station and give Alex and Dawn their tickets so that we could get underway to Brno.

"You Milk Snob!"

I've just returned from five extremely full days in Moravia. Here's something to hold all of you until I can write something about our adventures...

A recent look at Julia's blog led me to another interesting Prague blog, My Czech Republic Blog, written by Dana and Jeff Shanberg, who also run the Local Lingo site--a resource for those learning Czech. From Dana's Milk Snob post, I have learned to beware of saying I wanted any food item "normální." While I knew that instant coffee is usual fare for those who don't make their coffee what we might call "cowboy style" (grounds in the pot or cup), it hadn't actually occurred to me that requesting my coffee "normální" meant I would get instant rather than what an American might consider normal.
Dana offers several other disturbing uses of the word "normální" as well.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

"We Are the Web"

Rob Brezsny's latest newsletter quoted a portion of an interesting-sounding article on the history and future of the Web, so I went on over and checked it out.
According to author Kevin Kelly, just ten years ago no one--even the most forward-thinking--had any notion that the internet could become what it is today, a vast network of largely noncommercial, user-driven, ideas and information. ("Noncommercial?" you say. "You must be crazy." Well, web-commerce thrives, but as Kelly points out, early fears that the Web would be dominated by a few corporate giants have certainly not proven true. It's as easy to have a free blog or genealogy website as to sell stamps on E-Bay or buy used books on ABE.com.)
I wasn't really keeping close track of internet predictions ten years ago, but I was interested. I had put off getting email because for a long time you could only exchange email within your group, whether that was Compuserve, Prodigy, or the Well. It was in 1995 or 1996 that I finally signed up with Compuserve (by that time you could email people outside it and create your own web site), which of course was right before it lost out to AOL.
Kelly mentions the hyperlink prophet Ted Nelson and his Xanadu project. Ah yes, I remember hearing Nelson speak at a National Writers Union event in San Francisco. He was mesmerizing, although I can't say I understood everything he was getting at. It was right around the time we and the rest of the labor movement were losing the battle against NAFTA. Time flies.
Well, take a look at Kelly's article. I don't know if I buy all of his predictions, but his history and analysis are interesting.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Note Well!

As I will shortly be heading for the Florenc bus station to join the Fulbrighters on a Moravian expedition, my access to the internet will probably be limited or nonexistent for the next few days. I do have a nice collection of items to post, but if I can't get online, they can't be released.

Crowds in the Library

The Národní knihovna has been a hive of activity for some time now. One walks in and worries whether there will be a place to sit, or at least a place near an electrical outlet. This library crowding began in December, ceased utterly before Christmas, and then began again sometime in January.
Why is this? Do scholars need a warm place to live in the winter? Have the homeless acquired library cards?
The answer is, not exactly. The Národní knihovna also functions as the library to the Charles University, and consequently always houses a certain number of students who are working on their mathematics or ear-nose-and-throat homework. Or, for that matter, who are simply sleeping on their notebooks. Semester exams are in January, so in December the multitudes arrive, and in January they come back from visiting their parents. One enters the library with laptop and great trepidation about seating. (I'm not sure why this is continuing in February.)
It is true that when there are absolutely no seats to be found (and students will claim study spots, marking them with books and then disappearing for hours), the library staff puts a sign on the door. I’ve only seen that once.
There is, however, a shortage of electrical outlets for laptops. Kristen will laugh sarcastically at this since her library in Moscow is far less well equipped, but I can see that in the very near future the Národní knihovna will need to revamp the wiring in the main reading room. Currently it appears that each of the short tables by the windows has one outlet (these tables accommodate two people, so one person gets to use a laptop because the other half of the outlet supplies the table’s lamps). The long tables are less well provided; perhaps half of them have no free outlet while the other half has one. These tables seat about six people each, maybe more.
When I worked here in the summer of 2004, this was not yet a real problem. Even before school let out, it seemed that few people had laptops, so the main issue was to find an empty seat near an outlet, not that the outlets were all in use.
Since laptops are much more expensive here than in the US (or at least represent a much bigger chunk of someone’s income), they are not yet ubiquitous. On the other hand, more and more students are finding ways to get them. There are quite a few laptops in the main reading room these days. And the library has already found it necessary to post a sign warning patrons to use only the empty outlets, which is to say we mustn’t unplug the lamps for the entire table just to get one more laptop plugged in.
Meanwhile, the library staff continues to fling open the reading room windows in sub-freezing weather. As each window opened is about 3x4 feet, this produces an immediate arctic draft. Perhaps the real idea is to drive out the current group of readers to make room for new ones.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Beware, Bramboráčky!

Not everyone likes Czech food. This is, to me, a great mystery. When I look at guidebooks that bewail the allegedly dull and heavy nature of Czech cooking, I am astounded. True, it is not traditionally a vegetarian cuisine, but the flavors can be delectable, and a proper Czech meal normally balances its elements so that meat gets highlighted by the side dishes and beer. This is not to say that every meal is good or that every dish will be to one’s liking, but that’s true everywhere.
There are, however, certain quirky items that can only be described as an acquired taste. For example, fried cheese. How it ever occurred to anyone that cheese should be breaded and deep fried, I cannot imagine. In fact, I had never heard of it until American vegetarians who had visited Prague started raving about this wonderful stuff. Since I had never been served it in a Czech home, I concluded that it was a new invention designed to satisfy the influx of vegetarian tourists. Yet apparently it was not. I have now concluded that it wasn’t considered elegant enough to serve to guests. And, gradually, I have gotten to like it, although it is generally served with French fries and those are not something I normally eat unless I’m on some sort of long-distance drive. Leaving aside the French fries, fried cheese with tartar sauce is a tolerable dish.
There are also various odd appetizers designed to go with one’s beer. I have not tried many since I don’t usually drink beer between meals, but marinated cheese, while a bit bizarre, does go well enough with beer.
The snack that defeats me, however, is bramboráčky. These are small spiced potato pancakes fried in what must be a vast quantity of oil. The first time I had these was on a visit to a relative of some Czech friends. I have always heard that she is an admirable cook, and in fact that she continues to cook herself soup every day in her old age. On this occasion she had made countless bramboráčky. I recall thinking that the first one was simply divine. The next two or so still seemed pretty good, but the flavor seemed to deteriorate rapidly as I ate, and not through any fault of the cook. I cannot imagine how many of the things lay on the serving plate, but there were at least six of us there to eat them and I am quite sure I managed to force at least eight or ten down my throat before I concluded that I could not possibly stomach another one even if this meant a grave affront to the cook. The last few seemed thoroughly noxious.
Since I know that the first one was heavenly, it seems clear that the key to eating bramboráčky is to have very few at a time. After all, I do not always tolerate oil and fat very well, so there are many foods that quickly make me feel rather sick, such as alfredo sauce (alas).
I’ve gotten up the nerve to try bramboráčky another couple of times over the past nineteen years, but I’m afraid that these weren’t cooked with the skill of the first ones. The second time, they were nasty from the first bite, oily and badly seasoned. The second time, when Megan and I met a friend of hers for beer recently, they were edible, but still too oily, not very well seasoned, and rather limp. With the help of Megan and the beer, I got through most of the plate of four. By the time I got home, I was sorry I hadn’t gotten something safe like marinated cheese.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Burning Questions Update

We have answers to two of the day's burning questions.
1) I finished preparing my Fulbright presentation this morning, including the Powerpoint aspect.
2) Dawn's computer proved to have a dead motherboard (horrors!) so she went computer shopping this evening.
The question of where four of us will sleep Saturday night remains unanswered. Dawn did get a confirming email from the third place she had tried (the first two were full), but the email makes no reference to the address or directions. Nor, for that matter, does it actually clarify the name of the hotel or pension. Dawn was under the impression that its name was Hotel Vinarna, but clearly her analytical powers were impaired by the computer disaster, as why would a hotel name itself Wine Restaurant? Megan and I did attempt to search online for this mythical hotel, but turned up nothing. When I searched on the email address, hotelvinarna@tiskali.cz, I found that this is the contact email for several Brno establishments. The mystery deepens. Perhaps we will all have to sleep on Jesse's floor after the folk ball after all.