Thursday, January 31, 2008

One More Month...

One more month in which to finish the dissertation, given a goal of graduating this spring. Chapters 5 and 6 are almost done and 7 is coming along. In the ideal world, all three will get done by Monday. More probably, there will be some lag and 7 will get done sometime next week while I try to get 8 into shape.
Orion hasn't admitted to feeling sorry he's chewed on various cords over the past month, but he's been very pettable. Ms. Spots believes she ought to take precedence in all petting, but she doesn't push the issue too far.
I've been sitting in on an architectural theory course, which is its own form of adventure. At present, the undergrads are attempting to design temples based on the instructions given by Vitruvius. Some are assigned to do Doric and some Ionic, and this afternoon each group convened to discuss what they had figured out thus far. Since I'm not designing a temple (!), I spent the time flagging all the French translations I need checked before turning in the dissertation, but this allowed me to listen in on the discussion of the nearest group. There seemed to be uncertainty about what to do about the temple's corona. By the end of class, there were suggestions that perhaps the thing to do would be just to build a little marble temple rather than mucking around with a floor plan and elevation. Making one's own marble out of primordial silt seemed to figure strongly into this plot.
It all brought back memories of the time my friend Charley, who was an art history major, constructed a gothic cathedral in clay, with some input from me. As I recall, I suggested that it belong to adherents of the Albigensian heresy, as that might introduce interesting doctrinal variations into the construction and decor. I believe Charley went along with that, and that the patron saint was Martin since we were taken with the idea of his dividing his cloak to give to the beggar. (I am afraid we imagined Martin to be an obscure saint, which he was not. We could have chosen a much more obscure or local saint than that.) It was a most absorbing project, but the clay proved structurally unstable and the walls had to be propped up with cardboard in the end, alas.
The temple project also brought back recollections of having to do perspective drawing for my set design class. While I grasp the general principles of perspective drawing, and have for most of my life, our assignment required that we do our drawings with some sort of mathematical calculations (for the floor tiles and the vanishing point) that utterly baffled me. After wrestling with the project for some hours, I finally eyeballed where the floor tiles ought to be and gave up on the calculations.
The undergrads will be bringing in their completed temple designs next week. This should be interesting.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Moving Right Along...

Chapter 4 went to my advisor shortly after it went to My Sibling, and to my astonishment she had read it just two days later. (The fact that she also had a draft of my journal article to read probably moved things along.) While she requested more references to Toyen (the chapter deals with surrealist--primarily French--attitudes about women, sex, love, and gender), on the whole she seemed to think it was okay. She assured me that I need not fear that my committee would find my dissertation boring.
My Sibling is in the process of giving it the steely eye of the fanatical copyeditor, and will be sure to let me know of any and all unclear bits, stupidities, and failures to punctuate properly.
All this being the case, and my having had an extension on my journal article's deadline, I am wrestling with Chapters 5 and 6, which were supposed to be last week's project. These were originally one chapter, and there seems to be no way of shrinking them back to that size, but over the past year or so the pieces of these chapters have been reshuffled several times. Following historical precedent, then, I reshuffled them yet again today. (One can only hope that this will be the last time.) I have also written some new chunks about Štyrský's early 1930s projects Edice 69 and the Erotická revue, since one can hardly neglect these in any discussion of Toyen.
I am, therefore, filled with a perhaps groundless optimism that tomorrow I might succeed in finishing off Chapter 5 (for now) and that Chapter 6 might follow suit on Wednesday, permitting me to embark on ... hmmm... this week's project of Chapter 7.
I don't recall Chapter 7 seeming particularly near completion, as last time I had anything to do with it I was worrying about where to plant my discussions of surrealist literary precursors Lautréamont, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and Mácha and Deml. Well, actually it would be an exaggeration to call my remarks on Baudelaire and Rimbaud "discussion," but they do get mentioned, which is more than I can say for some of the surrealist precursors. I am reminded that, some years back when I gave a departmental presentation on my research, our medieval specialist enjoined me to be sure to pay close attention to the poetry. And, while she is under no compulsion to read my dissertation, I have concluded that 1) she was right and 2) I will never, no matter how I pursue the matter, really succeed in paying quite enough attention to the poetry (either in French or in Czech).
Fortunately, the matter of literary precursors takes up a rather small portion of Chapter 7 and there is some hope that whatever I did on the last edit may have settled them in permanent resting places. After all, they are only there in regard to their significance for the Prague surrealists not surrealism in general.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Radio, Radio

Partly for my own good, partly for that of the lapine contingent, I tend to leave the radio on all day. This, of course, can only be done if there is a suitable station in the area, one which does not blast too much (or any) advertising at us.
While at times we listen to WQED (or as they now like to call it, QED), which is the classical station, I find that despite my fondness for classical music, I cannot take a steady diet of classical radio. This is partly because classical stations tend to program a lot of old favorites, and partly because I can't quite take the overwhelming earnestness of most classical announcers, some of whom really seem to be afflicted with a need to get positively swoony about the value of classical music. I never again want to hear the Moonlight Sonata several times daily, nor to hear about wonderful adagios or how classical music helps grapes ripen in the vineyards. Besides, all my favorite shows seem to play at hours when I'm not really anxious to listen, like late at night and very early in the morning. But we do like quite a few things about WQED, in moderation.
I have concluded, and the rabbits have not been observed to disagree, that WYEP is the best all-day listening. It is true that I am not wild about all the music they play, and while I am glad they provide a forum for literature and various other spoken programs of a public service nature, I find these distracting (although I am sure the rabbits find these very educational). But WYEP plays a wide enough variety of music that I only find one or two music programs a week better to avoid. It is true that ever since the premiere of the Bob Dylan movie (which I saw and liked quite a bit), WYEP has gone a bit toward "nearly all Dylan nearly all the time." But I usually like Dylan, especially as sung by Joan Baez. And, in addition to playing a range of non-top-40 popular music (mostly recent), they sprinkle unexpected sorts of things throughout the week. This means that I might wake up to the sound of Pete Seeger singing "We Shall Overcome" (it happened to be over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, but it could just as easily have been some other weekend). This afternoon I was surprised to hear Luboš Malina performing Czech bluegrass (I was less surprised to hear Czech bluegrass on the radio when Druhá trava played the Johnstown festival back in September). And this evening, although I was aware that it was time for Thistle and Shamrock, I didn't really expect to hear both Martin Carthy and Pierre Bensusan in one evening.
Hearing Martin Carthy and Pierre Bensusan brought back fond memories. My friend Patty and I used to go hear Martin Carthy whenever he played in Santa Cruz, and we have his autograph to prove it, although I have lost the Platignum fountain pen he signed with. I only heard Pierre Bensusan live once, in Cotati. At the time he was exploring throwing some South American touches into French folk songs. It was exciting, but I never ran across a recording of anything he performed in that manner. He seemed to go a bit New-Age after that and I don't know what he does now.
It occurs to me, for that matter, that my original reason for attending a Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade dinner was that I wanted to hear Pete Seeger live. At later dinners I got to hear Odetta and (not so musically) Molly Ivins.
The Spotted Pair doesn't have any idea what a fine education they get on that radio, whether it's the Friday-night organ music on WQED or the bluegrass program that's on WYEP right now.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Only Kind of Tortured

I am 29% Tortured Artist.
I know Art, I just don't live it.
I have some artistic ability, but it is probably a hobby and doesn't drive my life into a dark abysmal hole were I am alone and against the world.
OK, I admit it, I am not sufficiently tortured. (That doesn't give any of you the right to annoy me, however.)
But seriously, isn't Tortured Artist usually just suitable for the teens and twenties? I'm sure I fit the mold then. Right now, I'm tormented mainly by deadlines and by A Certain Spotted Member of the Household (originally nicknamed Naughty Boy) who believes he belongs in the bedroom chewing on Forbidden Items. Yeah, you just try keeping him out of the bedroom first thing in the morning when he's camped outside the door...

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bus Decorations

I didn't think I really had anything against the verbiage that decorates various Pittsburgh buses--for instance, I kind of liked the campaign that said "Welcome to the neighborhood" in a wide variety of languages including Czech.
I do not, however, like having this stuff take up so much of the bus window that I can't see where my stop is. I've already learned that when I take the 500 home, I'd better sit on the left side and watch obsessively for the lights outside Tazza d'Oro, which are the only night-time landmark near my stop, but I never thought I'd miss my stop on the 71A, as my apartment complex is pretty noticeable. Well... noticeable if the bus window isn't plastered over with text!
I admit, of course, that it is not all that unpleasant to walk a bit in my neighborhood, which is one reason I sometimes take the 500.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Still Life with Dissertation

Life in Pittsburgh continues to be nearly All Dissertation, All the Time. (This is, of course, not counting emptying the litterboxes and replacing phone cords that Orion bites into as many pieces as possible in an effort to thwart potential employers from reaching me.)
While I like working on my dissertation, even nearly all the time, I do not feel the same way about having to turn it in by the end of February if I am to graduate in the spring. I really detest this deadline.
Granted, the world will not end if I don't graduate this spring--I still have a year of funding left, and furthermore my department has instituted two Visiting Professor positions that give preference to its own ABD students and graduates. But I would not like to have to turn down an offer from somewhere else on the grounds that I hadn't finished when I expected to.
Finishing in the spring is entirely possible, it is merely a stressful prospect for a person who revises slowly and has a lot of text and images to deal with.
Grad students who do not deal with images really don't know how fortunate they are, time-wise. I have been scanning and photographing images for my dissertation for about five years now, so you would think I could hardly have any problem here, but there are always images one realizes one ought to get, or that somehow one hasn't gotten details about, or some stupid thing. The average art history dissertation uses several hundred images, and mine is no exception.
Once one has most of the images, there's the question of how to put them in order and caption them. Word-processing programs are not really all that great at handling high-res images and their captions. Neither Word nor Nota Bene really pleased me on this. Nota Bene at least admits that this is not its forte; Word likes to pretend it can do anything, but I've always had a lot of trouble getting images to stay where I want them in Word. For awhile, I was sticking each image in a separate Word file, but then it occurred to me that while I don't especially like using Powerpoint for presentations (it is not very art-history friendly, being designed for business), it might work just fine for this purpose since (due to copyright issues) the only persons allowed to see the images are members of my committee. (Yes, this is absurd, but that's how we're getting around the electronic-publishing aspect of dissertations and copyright. I will be happy to show my friends and family the images privately.)
Powerpoint does have its own peculiarities. It doesn't allow portrait and landscape orientations in the same file, for example. This is incredibly stupid, and means that I have to put the landscape-oriented pages in separate files. The committee will only see the printout, though, which will be properly collated. Powerpoint also has very few layout templates. In the 2007 version, it no longer has the four-image layout, so you have to make your own for pretty much everything with a caption at the bottom of the page. I created a couple of templates, but they aren't completely satisfactory.
Meanwhile, of course, the text still has to be cut and polished. I grew weary of cutting for cutting's sake and turned to polishing up Chapter 4, which is now in the hands of My Sibling for editorial comments. With luck I will finish off 5 and 6 this week (at the same time as revising a journal article, so let's not get too optimistic here). Ideally 5 and 6 would collapse into the one chapter they once were, but this isn't looking very likely. I think my advisor will have to start suggesting cuts if she wants me to get rid of entire sections rather than paragraphs here and there.
I wouldn't say there are hordes of amusing quotations in Chapter 5, but I will offer up the following:
"When the modern woman... strives fanatically toward equality with the man and uses the means of fashion to demonstrate her masculinization by suppressing the female and imitating the male secondary sexual characteristics, the sexual instinct is bound to be irritated and enter the dangerous field of perversion." (Curt Moreck)

"In our capitalistic circumstances we only hear that the stork brings children, but that's not true." (Marie N., in Tvorba)

"In Prague there are, as already stated, a great many inverts." (Moravská orlice as quoted in Nový hlas)

"The sexual question takes up almost the largest part of our magazine, because sexuality was, is, and will be the most newsworthy life problem and the whole world revolves around it." (Moderní hygiena)

And there you have it.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Book-Reader Quiz

We pause in our dissertation-frenzy to offer the following amusement:

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm

You're probably in the final stages of a Ph.D. or otherwise finding a way to make your living out of reading. You are one of the literati. Other people's grammatical mistakes make you insane.

Dedicated Reader
Book Snob
Literate Good Citizen
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wellness Is Relative

Over the holidays my mother, being interested in my well-being, inquired whether I would like to get the Wellness letter to which she subscribes. I said sure, why not, as I am reasonably interested in my health and in the general march of science (as it used to be called in less skeptical days).
I have now received two of these, and have even read one of them while collapsed on the couch after a long day of dissertation-improvement and gamelan rehearsal. I was mildly interested to learn that doctors now think we may need more vitamin D than was previously supposed (I daresay I could add some to the regime I so loosely follow) and that coffee is rich in antioxidants. But, as I lead an almost wholly sedentary life these days (plans to go skiing the first week of January were foiled by blizzards), my eye was caught by a directive that one should try to work up to doing 10-15 push-ups.
I have never cared for push-ups. I did not like them when I was ten and my feelings have not changed much. I believe my last pushups were done back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I did something like 100 in rapid succession for reasons that need not be revealed. But, reading that one should try to get to the point of doing 10-15, and being aware of my present dissertation-induced sloth, I wondered whether I was still capable of doing any at all. I had to find out immediately before further deterioration set in, and sprang off the couch (albeit with less flair than Orion, who does it with a sprightly kick of those elegant hind legs).
Orion and Ms. Spots were intrigued to see me get face-down on the floor, but I was gratified to find that I am still entirely capable of performing 15 pushups, although the last 5 were more disagreeable than the first 10.
Lugging books and other heavy objects regularly evidently keeps the arm muscles in surprisingly good shape.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Milton Wolff, 1915-2008

My old friend Milt Wolff died early this morning. We had known each other ever since I joined the Thursday's Child writing group in Berkeley, which had already been going for about twenty years when I joined.
Milt became one of my close friends, and I suppose I was one of the few people still around whose friendship didn't result from his having fought in the Spanish Civil War. I was interested in this aspect of his life, of course, but I wasn't really aware of it until I had known him a few years and we worked out a deal where I got to use his computer in exchange for editing his novel about the war. The book, Another Hill, was published by University of Illinois Press in 1994.
Milt was a complicated person, who attracted many people and irritated many as well. He taught me, by his sometimes unreasonable and pigheaded ways, how to fight back when told something stupid and unreasonable. Milt liked people who could stand up to him, and it was never painful to do so. I don't often have to tell other people that they're being stupid, but now I usually can if necessary.
Most of the time, however, we had a lot of fun together, talking about writing, life, and the various things that come up randomly in conversation.
I last saw him last weekend, when we knew the end was near. He had lost a lot of weight and gone off most of his medications, but although he was too weak to get out of bed without help, his mind was pretty clear. He was torn between readiness to die and a desire to get up, do some writing, and go out for a drive and some drinks. It frustrated him not to be able to do whatever he wanted, as he'd been able to do so almost to the last.
It's easier to say goodbye when the end is no surprise (he was, after all, 92), but it's still hard.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Architectural and Related Blunders

While I may have given the impression that my life is suddenly filled with gamelan rehearsals, let's keep in mind that the gamelan only rehearses twice a week, for less than two hours apiece.
Rather, I would say that my life has been much more full of tedious errand-running, mostly related to the likes of mundane medical matters and graduation-related paperwork. It is amazing to me how much time one can eat up trotting around campus delivering this and picking up that. I don't know how, but this sort of thing can result in my only getting in a couple of hours of work a day.
To be sure, while the exercise of walking around campus is doubtless keeping me from becoming as fat as Orion (jumping on the couch doesn't seem to keep him lithe and slender, I am afraid), it makes me aware of how poorly laid out many buildings are.
For example:
1) The office where one picks up and returns intent-to-graduate forms is tucked away behind two heavy doors. Between these two doors is a classroom. It must be very annoying for people in that classroom to constantly hear those two doors banging shut (they aren't the kind that are easily shut quietly).
2) The office where one picks up audit forms and does various other things relating to undergraduate courses is hidden up a flight of stairs that one reaches by going through a short, narrow passageway with a bathroom door on one side. There is always cross-traffic and oncoming traffic in this passageway.
3) The offices for the Russian and Eastern European Studies program are well enough hidden that despite having been going there fairly regularly since 2002, I still have to rely on signs to find the main door. And, when leaving the area, I still invariably start to walk into their lunchroom instead of going out the exit.
4) The main library does not believe it necessary to put signs by the elevator reminding one which call numbers are on which floors. I always, therefore, go to the top floor and gradually circle my way down hunting for the call numbers on my list.
5) On a related note, the library could certainly use a cloakroom. I realize that these have entirely gone out of fashion and no one believes it is necessary to leave coats anywhere when entering a building, but I get very tired of lugging coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and so on around as I gather a stack of books. While we are having an abnormally warm winter, it is still chilly enough that I do not want to go to the library without a coat or jacket.
6) Finally, let us not forget the many defects of the lovely Fine Arts building. I am not being sarcastic when I describe it as lovely; it is in many respects a beautiful building. But in other respects, I do wonder what drugs the architect was taking during the design process, or if the architect was experiencing senile decay. For example:
6a) Anyone who wants to enter the main stairwell to the left of the front doors is likely to collide with other pedestrians who are entering/leaving by an adjoining door, especially when floods of students are entering and leaving.
6b) It is likewise impossible to enter or leave the main offices (either ours or the Studio program's) when students are departing the auditorium; this would be akin to attempting to cross an urban freeway.
6c) The pillars in the Fine Arts Library (decorative or structural, I know not) are positioned exactly where the pedestrian wanting to go up the stairs to the balcony would normally walk. Since my carrel is up those stairs, I am reminded of this each day. Admittedly, most people don't regularly run up and down those stairs.
6d) Since the bathroom in the library is reserved for library staff, and since the other bathroom on ground floor is reserved for faculty, staff, and the handicapped, grad students using the library are obliged to run up or down several flights of stairs, out the library door, and up or down another flight of stairs (possibly crossing that flood of undergraduate traffic) to find a permissible bathroom. I am glad none of us seem to be too prone to digestive upset. Then again, this may explain why some people spend so little time working in our library.
6e) There are rumored to be elevators somewhere in the building, but I wouldn't know where to direct someone in a wheelchair to find them.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Back to Gamelan

The rabbits and I arrived safely back in Pittsburgh, although they were unhappy about spending an entire day in their carrier, and have been expressing this by going on a sort of hunger strike. I was beginning to wonder if I would have to take them to the vet, but Orion has been eating a certain amount of paper (one of his favorites), while Ms. Spots has periodically been sneaking over and nibbling just enough greens and hay to keep her going. For some reason she seems to have decided that it is more reasonable to show her disapproval by fasting rather than refusing to be petted, and I suppose that this is all right, in moderation.
To our surprise, Pittsburgh was considerably warmer than the Bay Area--around 70 rather than the normal 20-30. Do we need such rapid global warming? Even today the temperatures were more what I would have expected for a warmish winter day in Berkeley or San Francisco.
All these practicalities aside, however, I am now enrolled in gamelan for the first time in many years. When I went today, I was rather nervous that I would have forgotten everything I had once known. After all, I last played not too long before my current teacher began study. For that matter, I learned Indonesian-style, by trying to follow what I was shown, and without the benefit of any information about theory or style. I was always getting lost midway through, although presumably I became somewhat more adept in my second and third years.
American gamelan teachers try, from what I've heard, to combine the experiential with some information of a more theoretical and musicological variety. I like the idea of this, but since few of us were new this semester, the first fifteen minutes or so of class were relatively alarming because those who had studied previously were expected to answer questions about the music. I only know Western music theory, and not a great deal of that.
Things improved once we began to play. The first instrument I was put on was not one I recalled having played before, but it was easy once I grasped how quickly I was supposed to repeat my pattern, which took awhile. Next I went to the saron, which I had often played. Remembering how to strike and mute the keys was no problem, but I wasn't sure how easily I would remember the patterns, as I don't do well with either numbers or memorization.
To my surprise, it was all much easier than in the past. We spent awhile playing a piece written by my former teacher, and although I had heard it before, I assume he wrote it well after my departure from his group. I caught on to the patterns with astounding speed, and although I made occasional mistakes, I didn't get lost. I was able to hear the relationship of the different parts in a way I hadn't before, and could use the other instruments as cues.
All in all, it reminded me somewhat of skiing, because when I took up skiing, I didn't regard myself as very adept at sports, yet the skiing came fairly easily to me. In this case, I always enjoyed being in the gamelan but wasn't a very fast learner, whereas now I was able to settle in and play without much trouble, in a meditative yet conscious manner.
I'm not sure exactly why it is that almost everything I've done in the past eight years, whether skiing, graduate school, gamelan, or even (to a lesser degree) speaking Czech, is much easier than I would have expected. Some portion of my brain must be functioning abnormally well (compensating, I suppose, for worsening ability to hold onto objects, remember what I was just about to do, and speak without jumbling my words).
It's nice to know that some parts of life get easier and easier and become much more fun.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Continuing to Slice

I was not in an energetic frame of mind on New Year's Eve, nor were certain of my "known associates," so my mother persuaded me that we should take a look at some of our slides, those things we were planning to scan except that the slide scanner we ordered never arrived.
I was all for looking at slides, but for some reason we got into a box that was mostly pictures from my first four months of life. While my parents thought these were pretty exciting, I cannot say that baby pictures are really of great interest to me, even if I am the subject. Unfortunately my birth seems to have diverted my parents from photographing their rabbit, who was much handsomer, and there were only two pictures of him in the whole batch. C'est la vie...
And, life being what it is, I have continued chopping my dissertation into smaller and more manageable chunks. It has lost at least 20 pages in the past few days, and (more important) become better organized. I'm not sure that we should think of this as any kind of bonsai operation, however.
The pruning process does cause me to pay close attention to quotations. For example, from today's chapter:
"They [Ivan Goll's group] define surrealism wholly in the Apollinairean sense as the transposition of reality to the sphere of poetry, the direct suspension of reality without ideology and abstract logic, without parasitic naturalism." (Teige)

"[The Surrealists] exalt masturbation, pederasty, fetishism, exhibitionism and, finally, bestiality." (Ilya Ehrenburg)

"Psychoanalysis confirms that art is a regression to infantile experience." (Nezval)

"Art today is harakiri on reality." (Nezval)

"They will all rise, the man-letter, the gnawed bone, the full stop, comma, altar, crutch, staircase, claw, stuffing, the man-coffin, whistle, shoelace, pebble, luggage, cubes of mist and man-sediment. There will rise liquid beings made of cotton wool, snake skins, feathered trees, in fragments, beings withering at the hip, stuck together from words, borne by the wind, full of pustules, nourished by ice, in outline, hollow beings, modelled in snow, in raw meat and in sand.” (Štyrský)

I don't plan to cut any of these.

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