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Disengaging Theory

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So, like I said, I was at this conference during the past few days. I'm going back and forth over whether to write about my time there, because what I have to say will inevitably be taken up in ways I don't intend. But ah well.

A few things that you should understand. The conference was very small, more like a working group than a conference per se, and in that, it bore some resemblance to the Convergences shindig we put on a few years ago. Because the conference needed to be small, it was invite-only. And invitations went out to a lot of people whose work I admire, from both the comp and comm sides of the rhetoric aisle. For two days, we shifted seats around a circle, giving presentations on a range of topics related to rhetoric and theory. So far, so good.

Here's the thing. And you need to understand that this is most certainly not me looking for some sort of validation or compliment or disagreement. The thing is, I didn't belong there. At all.

I've been struggling to deal with this over the last few days, trying to come up with a good analogy that will get at what I've been feeling. I don't mean to say that I don't like, respect, and admire the people at the conference, because I do. I don't mean to say that I wasn't happy to see them, talk to them, and spend time outside the conference with them, because I was. But in terms of my paper, my contributions to the conversations, and my ability to follow those conversations, I no more belonged there than I did the conference on digestive disorders (!!) taking place next door. It was as though I was attending a conference in a different discipline or one taking place in a slightly different language than my own.

The best I've been able to come up with is that it was like watching an athlete trying to come back after a few years away from the game. You can tell that this person knows what to do, but the body just won't cooperate. It's kind of sad and embarrassing. So it was kind of like that, except that it slowly dawned on me as I was sitting there that I was the player. I understood what was going on around me, of course, but I didn't really have the same repertoire of texts to rely upon, I wasn't the same kind of writer, and I definitely couldn't have hit a fastball to save my life.

What's peculiar to me about this was that I don't think it really occurred to me ahead of time how much I didn't deserve to be there, and so I've been a little shell-shocked over the past few days. There was a time, 5-7 years ago, when this conference would have been like an oasis in the desert of the discipline for me, when it would have gotten me fired up and motivated to get back to work. And I suppose I vaguely thought that this would be the case even though I've drifted away from theoretical stuff in my own work and I'm at a place where it's not really asked of me.

This kind of scholarship has never been at what I would call the center of my field, but given my background and my social network, it's been much more central to my conception of the field. And so to discover that I no longer have the particular language, skills, or background required for it was more than a little humbling. And no, that's not an attempt to fish for compliments about how smart I am despite this--rationally, that's not a question for me. I know that I'm not stupid, regardless of how stupid I may have felt over the past few days.

But I've always just taken for granted a certain amount of foundational work that I did in graduate school--that I worked really hard at in graduate school. Studying with the people I did, and having the degree I did, and having the expertise I thought I did was part of my core academic identity, the foundation upon which everything else I've done has been built. And yes, I've moved in other directions, picked up other interests, focused on other texts, and so forth. But I assumed that at least some of this other stuff was still there, regardless of how deeply it's been buried.

What I found out this weekend is that it's gone, by and large. And if you detect a little self-pity hereabouts, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I've spent a lot of time over the past 12-15 months grieving, and that was my overwhelming emotion the final night of the conference, so much so that I basically left early to be by myself. Only instead of losing someone else, I felt like I lost a part of myself. And the truth is that this loss has been gradual and entirely justified given my personal and professional circumstances. Yet, somehow, I wasn't called upon to face it, and had to wait until the worst kind of performance anxiety nightmare situation to realize that I had no business being in that room, with those people, talking about those topics.

So yeah. That's how my weekend was. I don't know what else to say.

What's the opposite of meltdown?

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Having finally completed two major projects yesterday, I'm feeling much more chipper today, almost floaty. Not that I don't still have a huge pile of to-do in front of me, but they're all much smaller things, and so I've persuaded myself that I'm much more in control of my schedule than I have been for the past couple of weeks.

One sign of this is that I'm suddenly more able to post random things here, and to check Facebook and Twitter every once in a while. I'm asking the students in my course this semester to make changes to their personal media ecologies (add a tool, change a tool, etc.) for the semester, at the end of which they'll reflect briefly on those changes for me. And so lately, I've been more conscious of my own choices in that regard. If my brain's at the center of a bunch of concentric circles, I can just about place the various platforms I keep track of in each circle. The more circles I can manage successfully, the more control or contentment I'm experiencing at the time. For a while there, I was pretty much down to just email and Google Reader, but I'm slowly starting to divvy my time back out.

This is a good thing.

Aspiring to Adequate

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If there's something I learned last year, it was that, if I wait until I have something appropriately non-trivial to blog, I simply won't blog for a long time. So this is me, embracing the utter triviality of this entry. I'm back in the Cuse now, as of a couple of days ago, facing a mountain of a to-do list. Sigh.

In the past few weeks, I've been dreaming myself into some of my favorite reality/game shows. It's happened 3 or 4 times, I think, although I'm not always able to remember so well. A while back, I took over a failing restaurant (a la GR's Kitchen Nightmare), and last night, I was one of the last 5 or 6 on Project Runway. Now, while I like these shows, I like them in part because cooking and designing are things that I admire when done well, but for which I have little personal ability. So these aren't really hero dreams--I'm just me in the dreams, with my current skill set, and so part of the narrative is me trying desperately to avoid being discovered as the impostor I know myself to be.

I suppose the obvious reading is that I have some deep seated issues with overreaching my abilities, although I'm hard pressed to figure out why they should be emerging dreamwise right now. If they're about unpreparedness more broadly, then I suppose they're a little more understandable, given that I'm almost completely unprepared for the semester to have begun.

So there's that. And my lower back is really sore.

Allen Horst

There aren't a lot of words in me right now, but this is where I've been for the past week. While I was in Iowa earlier this month, my grandfather was having some health problems, but they were the kind of challenges facing anyone who's 90, the body being built as it is. A little more than a week ago, my grandfather was admitted for what was supposed to be a fairly minor procedure. Unfortunately, it didn't end up being particularly minor; after a major heart attack on Monday, my grandfather passed away in the wee hours Thursday morning.

Needless to say, it's difficult to separate out the echoes of last fall's visit to Iowa and my father's passing. It's becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember what a normal fall semester is supposed to be like. But that's just me.

There's a difference between parents and grandparents. The former come to know you as an adult; at some point, ideally, you cease to be the child. At least that's how it's been for me--I count both my mothers (and counted my father) among my closest friends. But I've been the grandchild of my mother's parents (my father's parents have both passed away), and so my knowledge of my grandfather comes through that lens. I know some of his history: my grandfather was a pilot in World War II, and later trained pilots, and he owned a car dealership for much of his life after that. I got my first car from him (a silver VW Beetle), and he always asked me about the cars that I drove. He was an avid golfer, and even when he wasn't really able to play anymore, he would go down to the club and play cards with his friends.

But those just feel like details. There's something about him that I can't quite find the words for--the word that folk used at the visitation was "gentleman." He worked hard, made friends easily, loved his family, served his country, and had great personal integrity. I don't know that he ever really understood what I do, outside of the fact that I'm a university professor, but I don't know that he needed to. The pride and love he felt for me, and that I have for him, lives in the deep core--as long as I was happy, he was happy for me.

And it's a different kind of empty that I feel this fall. It doesn't feel any better or worse--just different. If there's a silver lining, it's that I know that it'll get easier, but that doesn't make it any easier right now.

I did have the chance to do some scanning while I was in Iowa, so I'll probably toss up a flickr pool in the next few days. In the meantime, here are a couple of my faves...

My grandfather and me

my grandparents


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Back to the SYR, back to the office, back to the grind.

The last couple of weeks, I've been sort of ignoring everything that's been piling up, and this week is time to pay the price. Do I promise to get this site back off the ground? Well, I fully intend to get back onto the blogging tip. But you can't break what you don't promise, so we'll see how it goes.

Expect a couple of posts in the next day or so, though.

Hall of Rain Game

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Under the umbrella

Meant to blog this a few days ago. On Monday, I went down with some folk to Cooperstown, to see the Cubs and Padres play in the annual Hall of Fame Game.

Unfortunately, we had to sit through a couple of brief hailstorms before the game was finally cancelled. The picture above came during hailstorm number two. I did get a few pictures, though, which I posted to Flickr for your enjoyment.

Kind of a bummer, as I'd been looking forward to seeing the Cubs, and possibly getting an autograph from Greg Maddux, who is my all-time favorite pitcher. And I'd been looking forward to it for a couple of months now. A 90-minute drive in soaking wet clothes and temps in the low 60s? Not looking forward to that so much. Ah well.

That is all.


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Acknowledgments are one of those occluded genres in our writing. It's rare for us to have the opportunity to issue public expressions of gratitude, although if the general session at CCCC were more like the Oscars, maybe that would change. Not that I'm suggesting, mind you.

Anyhow, a couple of months ago, I contacted my press to see if they would mind if I changed my acknowledgments. The original was a fairly standard set of thank yous to friends, family, colleagues. With my dad's passing, I felt like I needed to spend a little more time thinking and writing about his influence on my life. My intention, once they agreed (which they did), was to spend that weekend drafting a new couple of pages to sub for the ones they currently had.

Well, that was two months ago. I've intended to work on those two pages every weekend since then, and every weekend, I put it off. And off. And off. Here's the thing: I don't really write from pain. I talk it through. It's partly why this space has been as silent as it has for the past six months. I want to write something, but nothing that I can imagine writing is really enough for what I want to say. I talked about this problem with a couple of different friends today--talking about it is easy. Writing? Not so much.

And the fact of the matter is that, if I hadn't written a draft the other night, I would have continued to not write about it some more. It's been an odd experience that way. I have things I want to write--there's a couple of articles in me itching to get out--but I haven't really wanted to write. The connection is obvious, of course, but there's a little more to it, because while I know my dad was proud of me and what I was doing, there wasn't that much of a direct connection between the me who was his son and the me who writes articles, chapters, or books for the discipline. Not blogging makes more sense, because I know that he read this site.

Ah well. Like I said. I have a draft, and an idea or two about revising it. My guess is that getting this done will make it more likely that I'll come round here a little more. And maybe I'll finally get around to giving myself permission to write again. Here's hoping.

That's all.

2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

As folks round these parts know, I spent last weekend in Brooklyn, at the 2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the 31st of its kind, and the first within an easy shot by train from where I live. So a solving did I go.

And to be honest, I thought I'd do better than I did, so it was a little humbling for me, but it also just about guaranteed that I'll be heading back down there next year in an effort to improve upon my showing. First, let's talk results: after 3 rounds, I was ranked #365, and I climbed a couple of spots to #363 after the second set of 3 on Saturday. Sunday's puzzle dropped me a few spots to #370, though, which is where I ended the tournament. I was a little perplexed, because I thought I'd done better on 7 than I apparently did. But oh well. I've thought a lot about my performance over the last day or so, but before I talk about where I went wrong, charts!

Here's a table featuring my puzzle by puzzle breakdown alongside that of the folks who placed 1st, 100th, 200th, and 300th:

 P1P2 P3P4P5P6P7Total
#11230156519501190 16151990245011990
#1001180126518001090 7601865222510185
#2001180107013851090 630186522009420
#30011558501405770680 169021508700
Me9858901500895 580164516908185

Perhaps I say this just to comfort myself, but really, all that separated me from #300 was my performance on 2 of the easier puzzles. #1 was extremely easy, and #7 was a fairly typical Sunday-style NYT puzzle. Why did I do so poorly on them in particular? I'll get to that, but here's one more chart, featuring my scores lined up again a specific version of ideal scores. The way that scoring works is that you receive 10 pts for each correct word, 25 pts for each full minute you finish under the limit, and 150 pts for a perfect grid. Errors or blanks cost you 25 pts, plus of course you lose the 20 pts from the words crossing the rogue square.

Put another way, every 2 errors cost you a little more than 3 minutes of time bonus, and a perfect puzzle is worth 6 minutes of bonus. So here are my scores lined up with the score for each puzzle done perfectly, but with no time bonuses. In other words, had I gotten each puzzle perfect, and taken the full time to get them that way, my scores would have been those of the second row below:

 P1P2 P3P4P5P6P7Total
Me9858901500895 580164516908185
Perfect Me93010901350890 1090139015508290

By this measure, I didn't do too badly. A score of 8290 would only have been good enough to place 357th, and one person got that exact score. But I don't think I got any of them perfectly. I did keep track of my times, but it's hard to calculate from there how many mistakes I made without seeing the grids. The first error costs 25 + 20 points for the 2 words that are wrong, but the second error can cost 45 or 35, depending on whether or not it's in one of the words I'd lost with the first error. Ditto for the third error, but the fourth, if it overlapped with two other mistakes, could cost 25, 35, or 45. On top of that, you can't lose more bonus in error than you gain in time. So if I finish 10 minutes early, and earn 250 pts that way, but make 12 mistakes, only 10 of them cost me the 25 points--the other two just affect my word count. So I can't really reconstruct my scores with any accuracy.

What I can say is that I thought I did better on puzzles 1 and 7 than I actually did, I did pretty well on 3 (a 30 minute puzzle I finished in 8), and 2 & 5 (the 2 hardest by all accounts) kicked my tail. And I think that second chart bears this out. By my calculations (I did keep track of my solving times), If I'd gotten #1 perfect, I would have had 1180, 1240 for #4, and 2000 or so on #7. Another 800-odd points or so moves me up into the mid-200s. But I'm relying here on perfect grids, and I knew that a couple weren't, because I neither knew the name of an old San Francisco mayor nor that olid was a word for a disagreeable smell (that was puzzle 7). Take out those 150 point bonuses (and drop another 45 points for at least 1 mistake), and my scores on those puzzles become 985 (guess I only missed one on #1), 1045, and 1805, which are not too far off from how I actually scored.

No, the really big difference between me and the top honchos was the fact that I really struggled with 2 and 5. I finished 2 with only 30 seconds to go, and 5 I didn't finish at all. And here's the thing: they were the most clever puzzles. But I was so focused on speed and moving clue to clue that I didn't really sit back, take a breath, and figure out the clever ahead of time. #2 was a word ladder, with 9 clues corresponding to rungs on the ladder (first word VENUE, second word VENUS, third word MENUS, etc.). I figured it out fairly easily after the round, but during the round, I didn't think I had time. And #5 was a little more diabolical, with long answers starting with notes from the do-re-mi scale, but transposed. For example, the second long answer was MINTSTRIKE, a relatively meaningless phrase (Labor problems in Denver and Philadelphia?) until you realize that the phrase is actually "RENTSTRIKE" with RE transposed one step up the scale to MI. And so on through the puzzle. But in neither case did I really bother thinking about the theme, figuring that it would just come to me as I frantically scrabbled for individual words. When I came up for breath after each round, the trick was obvious. While the clock was running? Not so much. Instead, I obsessed over the crossing words, and got 4 or 5 of the long words that way, never understanding (a) how they fit together, nor (b) using that information to help me solve them. Inexplicably, I didn't even read the title of the puzzle ("Up-Scale" might have been--how you say?--a CLUE?!?!).

Ah well. I think that the key to my improvement, both in nearing perfection on the easier ones and completion on the harder ones, will involve not taking the clock quite as seriously as I seemed to on Saturday. I need to be a little more careful, yes, but mainly, I think that I need to realize that a minute or two sacrificed to the big picture would have netted me hundreds more points on the harder puzzles.

I did get to wish Will Shortz good morning, and everyone at the tournament was extremely friendly. It reminded me of a mix of other nerdy pastimes. It was something like the debate tournaments of my youth, but without the head-to-head competition (except at the top of the ladder, I guess). The sessions themselves were not unlike the SATs or GREs, and there was a little bit of costumery and localized celebrity, which put me in mind of a fairly mild con, I guess. There was a broad range of ages, and certainly more boys than girls, but all in all, it wasn't scary or anything.

I could have done better, but I guess I feel like #370 (out of about 700) is not a bad place to start. I'm planning on returning next year and improving my score, and now that I know what it's like, I think I'll be able to do so. As I told people around the office today, if there was another tournament this weekend, I'd go to it. I'm a little compulsive that way.

And I'm only a little ashamed to see that it took me this long to get to the fact that Friday night, I had dinner with Douglas and hung out with him for the first time in a few years. So yeah, good times.

Gotta run. I've only got 360 days to practice before next year's tournament, so better get to it!

Yes, that was a joke. Sort of. That's all.

Big week

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It is not the best week to be (slowly) recovering from back spasms. In a couple of days, we have our annual recruitment visit from prospective students (posts from years past on this process). The good news is that I'm heading into this event with more sleep than I've apparently gotten in years past. The bad news is that I've been getting lots of sleep because there's not much more to do than nap when you're lying on your stomach in bed with a heating pad on your lower back.

I thought I blogged about this, but just about everyone I tell is surprised, so apparently I haven't mentioned it. This year, inspired in part by Wordplay, I'm an entrant in The 31st Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which is happening next weekend down in Brooklyn. So while our prospective students are flying back to their home bases, I'll be taking the train down to NYC to prove just how nerdy I can be.

And actually, I'm looking forward to it. If my practice has been accurate, I'm probably not going to finish much higher than middle of the pack. I'm a little sloppy when I'm under the gun, and I have the same bad habit that sometimes plagued me on multiple choice exams--"how can that be a good clue for this word?!" I've been stepping up my crossword solving to maybe an hour or so a day right now, but other than that, I'm not doing anything special. No stacks of notecards with obscure names of rivers on them for me. Just me and my brain and a bunch of pencils.

If I think of it, I'll try and do a little bit of blogging from the tournament, but it'll depend on how social I'm feeling and how much I feel like putting words outside of the grid...

That's all.

The hard knock life

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I have all sorts of junk saved in Google Reader, just awaiting my commentary, but this week, I threw my back out or something. As anyone who's seen me can attest, I am not especially happy at the moment. And I can't sit for much longer than a paragraph, although it's getting a little better.

I have managed to find a position that allows me to work on crosswords, and I can prop the laptop for DVD viewing, but other than that, it's been a pretty weak week work wise. Weally.

K. Enough whining. I'll try and get back here soon, back permitting.



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