De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
I've been doing a bad job of commemorating special occasions lately. Or maybe I'm doing a good job of not expending too much energy thinking about the past. Either way, I increasingly find my long-standing tendency not to look very far ahead complemented by a desire not to look very far behind.

But sometimes you just can't ignore the date. The Loma Prieta Quake in 1989 was a very big deal in my life, both because of what didn't happen to me that day and what did over the next two weeks.

Today I'll concentrate on the former. My friend Josh had suggested that we drive down to Jack London Square to watch Game 3 of the Bay Bridge series on the big-screen television there. This was a decade before mobile phones became a part of my world. Making plans was difficult and changing them even harder. I spent an awful lot of time standing at pay phones, typically in BART stations. Even so, things often went awry.

Josh was supposed to pick me up on Bancroft, in front of Eshleman Hall, around 4:30pm. Earlier that day, however, I'd committed to put flyers up for the organization Let's Elect the Chancellor. I believed in the cause, certainly. But I probably wouldn't have been so actively involved if Annalee and her partner David were not members of the organization. Although we'd broken up in June, while spending three week staying at my parents' house in Maryland, I was slow to find new housing. We still got along well enough as friends, so living together in her Berkeley apartment over the summer was't a total disaster.

It wasn't easy, though. She was starting to get involved with David, a friend of Josh's whom I'm had been hanging out with regularly for the past year. The situation was awkward. Because we were all pretty broke, though, and enjoyed each other's company, the three of us ended up spending a lot of time together engaged in an activity we collectively referred to as, "scraping the screen of life." Sometimes I had the impression that David wanted me around, whether because he wasn't sure he desired a relationship with Annalee or because he had sympathy for my plight, since I was obviously still in love with her.

Even after I moved out in August, I spent a lot of my time with Annalee. When David expressed interest in Physics professor Charlie Schwartz's cause -- he was always trying to get the Chancellor elected -- she eagerly joined him and I started tagging along. I'm sure she would rather have had me keep a wider berth, but I was thinking with my heart. Soon I found myself trying to prove how committed I was to the cause in order to impress David. It was an odd dynamic, to say the least.

At any rate, when we met in the middle of the day on October 17th to divide up the labor of promoting and organizing our next general meeting, I volunteered to put up flyers despite the fact that I had class that afternoon and was then supposed to meet up with Josh. So I decided to skip class. But instead of actually putting up the flyers, I sat around brooding about my unrequited love until I'd worked up a mental lather worthy of Werther.

By the time I collected myself, it was nearly 5pm. That, not coincidentally, was the time when Annalee's Early American Literature class let out. I'd known all along that she would probably be walking with a bunch of her classmates to hang out at Kip's. Rather oddly, David and I had taken to crashing this grad-school party together every week, soaking up the intellectual energy even as we wryly commented on our exclusion from the club. The only member of the class who made the two of us feel welcome, aside from Annalee, was the older guy in the Giants hat who seemed to revel in being a regular guy.

I decided, for reasons both selfish and stupid, to intercept Annalee during the post-class stroll across Sproul Plaza and ask for her help in putting up the flyers I had volunteered to distribute all by myself. Understandably, though, when I approached her amid the plane trees between Sproul and Bancroft, she was annoyed at me for intruding. I pressed the point for a minute, but then thought better of it and headed down the steps towards Lower Sproul.

I knew Josh would be waiting for me, yet opted to enter Eshleman so that I could at least claim to have done some of the flyering I'd promised to finish. If I'd had a mobile phone, I would have texted him to say I was running late. But because I had no way of contacting him, I just hoped that he wouldn't drive off.

That's why I was on the sixth floor of Eshleman, where all the left-wing groups were housed, when the earthquake struck. I was walking down the hall in the direction of the Bay. There was a non-structural sheet rock wall on my left and a much harder exterior wall on my right. At first the floor and windows started shaking as they had during the 5-something San José quake I'd experienced that spring. But then the whole building pitched so violently to the left that I literally fell into that interior wall. Luckily, by the time the building headed back to the right I'd collected my wits sufficiently to brace my fall -- there is no other way to describe it -- into the exterior wall with my hand.

Although I'd never been out on the high seas, I knew, instinctively, that this was what it must have felt like to traverse them in a large sailing vessel. And then I thought, "Buildings shouldn't act like boats; the whole thing is going to collapse." As it turns out, I was dead wrong. Architects want tall buildings to act like boats during an earthquake. Everything was happening according to plan. For a few seconds, though, I was trying to calculate whether it would be better or worse for me to be on the next-to-top floor in the event of Eshleman's destruction.

Once the shaking stopped, I exited via the stairway -- somehow, I remembered that elevators were a bad idea in case of emergency -- and found myself spilling out onto Lower Sproul, where a crowd was gazing westward, mouth agape, at the giant plate glass windows that fronted Zellerbach Hall. I asked someone what they were looking at. He turned to me stunned. "The windows were billowing like sails," he effused, "but they didn't break!"

Still jittery and not yet feeling wired with adrenaline as I would be a little later, I drifted into the Bear's Lair with a notion to watch the World Series. I'd completely forgotten about Josh at this point. Oddly, with the regulars sitting in their usual spots, the watering hole seemed surprisingly normal. I ordered a beer and sat down in front of the biggest television, still showing Candlestick Park. Then the soon-to-be-famous footage of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure came on the screen, with Al Michaels doing voiceover, and I realized that there wasn't going to be a baseball game.

I wandered out of the Bear's Lair only to find Annalee and David, who had gone to meet her at Kip's, standing along Bancroft with my friend Leanne. We exchanged a few words, collectively achieving what I would later identify as "post-disaster rush". And then Josh walked up, chiding me for standing him up. He'd parked the car a block away, after waiting quite a while for me, deciding that he didn't want to go to Jack London Square by himself.

Only later did I realize that my tardiness might have saved us from harm. Not having a car, I didn't know the Bay Area's freeway system very well. But when I looked at a map of the damage two days later, I realized that Josh and I would most likely have been on the Cypress Structure at 5:04pm had I gone straight to meet him instead of waiting to intercept Annalee. To be honest, though, this didn't feel like a brush with death so much as a brush with excitement.

In the weeks following the quake I found myself flooded with boundless energy and a willingness to take risks that was definitely out of character. Indeed, I was still riding the wave of post-quake adrenaline when I met my future partner on October 30th. I'm sure it was an important factor in moving me to respond to her flirtation instead of pretending that I hadn't noticed. And I know that it played a role in leading me to ignore everything I'd been taught about safe sex. But that's a tale for another day. . .

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Current Location: 85704
Muse: Forget You - Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

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Back when young people still paid attention to MySpace, I used to regale my students with stories of how I once had long talks about abstruse topics, such as the implications of post-structuralist thought for Marxism, with Tom Anderson, everyone's first friend on the site. Some of them actually believed the rumors that his identity was fabricated. I corrected them, noting that he had sent me a message back when he was first starting MySpace, urging me to participate. Despite my protestations to the contrary, however, I think a lot of them thought I was pulling their leg, if not about Tom, then about the fact that I had mentored him in cultural theory.

Anyway, I was going through my Pictures of the Moment album today, trying to boost my sagging morale by remembering how many good shots I've taken, when I came upon this image, obviously not my own work, that I posted once in an entry about my experiences with the graduate-student union at UC Berkeley and, further, as evidence that I had once sported locks capable of inspiring near dread, if not dread itself:

As I studied the image, suffused with nostalgia for Telegraph and Bancroft, not to mention the camaraderie of the picket line, I realized that the dark-haired man standing behind me, to the right of the balaclava-clad Kevin Cook, is Tom Anderson. So now you have proof not only that I was once a long hair, but that I also consorted with a pioneer of social networking. Take that Barack Obama, with your tenuous connections to the Weathermen. I will accept payment of respect in credits at Insound or, failing that, Amazon. Please e-mail me if you have any questions about the amount due.

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Current Location: 85704

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Today the Kansas City Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez broke the NFL career record for receptions as a tight end. And he's still going strong, as his fine stats for this past season attest. I guess this means that I will one day be able to say that I taught a Hall of Famer. Pretty cool. As I've written here before, he was also extremely nice and fairly studious, considering that he was going to both football and basketball practice when he was in my classroom. My favorite memories of Tony were actually from the hardwood and not the gridiron. The way he stepped up his play in 1997 after the Bears' leading scorer Ed Gray sustained a season-ending injury towards the end of the regular season was something to behold. There's no way that Cal finishes Pac-10 play with a victory over the eventual NCAA Champion Arizona Wildcats without him or prevails over those other Wildcats from Villanova to reach the Sweet Sixteen either. That remains my favorite Bears' squad and Gonzalez is one of the reasons why.

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Current Location: 85704

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This story made me sadder than I expected it too. There's the simple fact of having seen someone regularly for an extended period of time that makes that person's passing resonate. But it also works as an allegory for the fate of so many people who went to college and were "disciplined" into the margins or worse, not to mention of the Telegraph Ave. area itself, which has lost Tower and The Gap in recent months -- not a huge loss there, but a loss nonetheless -- and is now going to lose Cody's too. And you know how I'm drawn to texts that can be read allegorically.

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Current Location: 94720 (if only in mind)
Mode: nostalgic

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Today's "brown bag lunch" with our speaker Viet Nguyen was strangely emotional. Somehow talking informally about historical trauma led directly to broader inquiries into the nature of "pain," "guilt," "resentment," "shame," and "respect."

I add the quotation marks because, as I pointed out at one juncture, the words themselves are abstractions that level a host of distinctions.

Is the pain of having a kidney stone the same as the pain of giving birth?

I'm not speaking about quantity here but quality.

Anyway, I always enjoy making the Wittgenstein point that we can't really feel the pain of others: the only one who knows you're in pain is you.

The brown bag lunch was a really productive experience. I think Viet profited from it. Our graduate students, though largely silent, surely did. And I benefited enormously, in part because Viet talked about the difference between writing for a scholars and writing "accessibly" -- another trouble term, as he emphasized -- for a broader audience.

From his perspective, succeeding in graduate school and going on to get a good job and tenure required mastering a language, discourse that he never felt fully comfortable within.

I suspect that I feel a lot more comfortable in that space of theory. It's this sort of forum that makes me anxious, that I've had to learn to inhabit through trial and error. Unlike Viet, though, I've spent much of my graduate school and junior faculty energy trying to write my way out the space in which I'm most comfortable.

My reasons are political and personal. There is considerable overlap, though, because my interest in reaching people who aren't just like me -- masters of a discourse few can master -- derives from deeply held convictions and my vanity.

It's very nice to be read. And nicer still to get a sense of how you are being "read" by the people who read you.

Hearing Viet talk about shame and dishonor, I remembered the extent to which the reception of Bad Subjects on the third floor of Wheeler Hall, in "my" Department was conditioned by the resentment other graduate students -- and possibly faculty as well -- felt at our "getting away with something," writing the way we wanted to write before we had fully paid our dues.

They frequently seemed ashamed at our performance. But I wonder to what extent their shame derived from the desire to be in our place on the margins of the Department's institutional life.

Appropriately, I returned home to find that both Kim and I had been tracked down by the UC Berkeley English Department. We got matching copies of the Department's brand-new newsletter, full of information about the department and an implicit request for donations.

I'd give some money if I had it, I suppose. But the memory of being marked as "one of them" -- those who brought shame on the Department -- when an issue of Bad Subjects appeared on the table outside 322 Wheeler Hall is still fresh enough to produce some resistance to that fantasy.

As much as I defend UC Berkeley, as much as I defend its English Ph.D. Program, I never felt like I was completely integrated into the life of the Department.

I was happy, but largely because I was happy not to belong, to be an exception to the rule, to be a problem.

In the face of the "disciplining" -- used in a double sense here -- that graduate school was trying to give me, I valorized the marginal, excessive, undisciplined -- like Joe S, Annalee, Steven -- as both a locus and sign of resistance to the forces conspiring to make smart people meek.

I have SO much respect, though, for those people like Laura and Viet who have managed to get to a point of security in their professional lives without forgetting that they wanted to do something other than what they were supposed to do.

In a way, it's almost more courageous to hold that desire inside without letting it turn sour than it is to indulge it from the beginning.

And I have as much -- maybe even more -- respect for people like cpratt, who refused even as an undergrad to do the easy, accepted thing and opted out of academia without losing the esoteric interests and focused intellectual energy that define all good scholarship.

Or kdotdammit, whose life trajectory made the dream of academia inaccessible, yet still pursued higher education on her own, despite the cost in time, money, and stress. Her story of reading Foucault and company on the stairmaster at work while taking Carolyn Dinshaw's English 250 graduate seminar on "Queer Theory" has probably been my greatest inspiration for staying the course as a reluctant scholar.

It's so hard to hold on to the dream of knowledge, to keep learning new things at the expense of your sense of self.

I wish I knew what the best path was.

We make our own choices, but not under circumstances of our choosing, right?

Maybe I should have done what Viet or Eric did. Maybe I should have done what Chris did.

I've spent my entire adult intellectual life bouncing back and forth between those two extremes.

It's a good place. But is it the best place?

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Mode: beaten, well
Muse: Jenny & The Ess-Dog - Stephen Malkmus - Jenny & The Ess-Dog

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