January 5th, 2004

Better MLAte than Never

After days of fitful drafting, I've finished the long tale of this year's MLA.

This is one promise I meant to keep, even if it meant not posting for several days.

In the interest of saving space, I've concealed my masterpiece "behind the cut," as they say in LiveJournal parlance. For convenience, I've also provided a link to each day. But you can just go click on "Day One" and read the whole thing, if you're feeling brave or bored.

Be advised that this is an explicit and detailed account of my experiences in a setting rife with sexual deviants and potential terrorist sympathizers.

Think of it as a salt-lick for those who hold literary studies deer.

Day One (12/27/03)

I picked up Gideon from The Believer and McSweeney's at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport after a series of delays. Luckily, he didn't seem that annoyed that I was late. We commenced talking about our mutual interests almost immediately. I learned a lot about the doings at 826 Valencia. He learned a lot about how the MLA's annual convention works.

Interestingly, he had read so many of my Bad Subjects pieces so well that there wasn't that much for me to tell him about myself. For someone who takes the poststructuralist lessons about identity to heart, my mind is still convinced that I tell the truth about myself when I resort to the confessional mode. There are elisions and evasions, to be sure. But anyone who really wants to figure out what I care about and how I care about it can do so pretty easily if they follow Gideon's example. Or so I like to think. Whether others would find it as easy to memorize my not-that-interesting stories as Gideon did is uncertain. It was eery how much of "me" -- the self that accords with my ideologically conditioned sense of self -- he seemed to have internalized. Perhaps he will forget it when he's done writing his feature. I'd hate for his lively mind to be cluttered with my memories, the way my mind is cluttered with the memories of current and former acquaintances.

As we were nearing the end of the mountainous portion of the 8, Gideon turned on his digital recorder -- the same kind I have -- in order to commence interviewing me. I hadn't expected a formal interview, so I was slightly taken aback by the need to strive for coherence. Unfortunately, as we got closer to downtown San Diego, the traffic and twisty driving made it harder and harder for me to concentrate on answering his questions properly. I think I said some good things, but am also sure that there is more indecision, repetition, and general not-getting-to-the-point than there would have been in an interview conducted under less spur-of-the-moment conditions and/or with fewer distractions.

Upon finally locating the conference hotels, we went to register. Along the way we saw Greg and his friend I met at the 2002 American Studies Association meeting in Houston. We talked for a little bit. I asked if he was presenting. He told me that he was doing something on the last day. But when Tuesday rolled around, I couldn't locate his panel. I'd hoped to see him for coffee or drinks, but never seemed to get the timing right. I'll have to make it up to him the next time I see him.

After registering, we headed for the Presidential Forum on the situation of the university worldwide. Along the way, we ran into Eric and the folks he was with, including my former UC Berkeley compatriot Steve, whom I will always have a soft spot for, not least because of his contribution to Bad Subjects's infamous gun-decorated "Why We Strike" broadsheet from the fall of 1992.

The Presidential Forum did not go at all well. I'd heard Masao Miyoshi talk at length, and interestingly, about post-1945 Japanese art at the SF MOMA, so I was looking forward to his comments. But I couldn't understand many of the words he spoke and was confused by what I did hear. By the time he was calling for an approach to the humanities configured around the concept of "environmental justice," which he hadn't even discussed in the first 85% of his paper, I was lost.

The second speaker, Ferial Ghazoul from the University of Cairo, was a little more clear but also -- and this is no fault of her own, but of the structure of the forum -- confined herself largely to banalities.

As the forum was running over, we skipped Gayatri Spivak's paper and went to join Eric and his crew for dinner, since Greg had said that he already had plans. The ensuing barbecue was largely gristle, but the conversation with Corinne, who teaches Comparative Literature at a small liberal arts college in the West was grist for Gideon's mill. She enthusiastically told us about the three-week "road trip" class she had taught with a biologist on butterflies and Nabokov's Lolita. Sometimes the talk became too name-droppy for my taste -- I don't like comparing my reading lists with other peoples' very much -- but I learned a good deal and felt inspired to begin teaching again.

When I wasn't participating in Corinne and Gideon's conversation, I also got to exchange pleasantries with Steve, as well as a few unpleasantries. I learned that some of his Berkeley cohort had failed to get tenure and were looking for new jobs. And I got to relive the Joe Sartelle trauma in abbreviated form, since Steve knew me in part through Joe.

On the way to our central San Diego motel -- a suite for the price of a room at the convention area, but 15 minutes away -- Gideon and I processed the evening and planned for the next day.

Day Two (12/28/03)

We woke up in time to go to the Starbucks at Claremont Mesa and the 805 for stimulation. The previous evening's conversation with Corinne had piqued Gideon's interest in the crisis in scholarly publishing, so we attended a good panel on that topic with professors and someone from a university press. I didn't hear much that I didn't already know, but the tenor of the presentations was enough to inspire anxiety nonetheless.

Gideon next wanted to attend a panel with one of those papers that gets mocked in newspaper accounts of the MLA. I was in the mood for something a little more low-key, though, so we parted ways. I figured that Eric might be attending the panel on Melanie Klein, since there would be a paper on Modernist objects, and I walked over to see it. Along the way, I ran into Eric and his friends Ted and Chris. Turned out he hadn't planned to attend the Klein panel after all, since he had plans to meet someone before his late-afternoon appointment. But I persuaded him and Chris to attend the first paper, which was the one that had seemed interesting to me. It wasn't very good. I just don't understand why someone as smart as this presenter clearly was could forget that a good paper consists of more than quotes of other people's work. Only the last bit, where he discussed Nella Larsen and Toni Morrison had some life and a taste of argument in it. I'm not sure it needed the frame of Melanie Klein's object relations psychoanalysis, though.

After we left the panel, the three of us went for a buffet lunch at the hotel. It wasn't that good, but at least it wasn't terribly overpriced ($10.99). It was nice to finally get to know Chris a bit, since I'd heard a lot about him from Eric. After Eric left to meet Astrid, Chris told me that he had sat in on John Bishop's "Literature and Psychoanalysis" graduate seminar in the spring of 1992. He remembered Sarah -- certainly a memorable person, but not necessarily for the right reasons -- and my then-housemate Josh. I recalled that Josh had written his seminar paper on Robert Lowell. It always amazes me how cluttered my mind can get with other people's pasts.

Chris and I then trundled off to the Convention Center. He went to a panel and I cruised the book fair, looking at titles with an eye to finding a publisher interested in the sort of stuff I do and stopping by old favorites. After years of just missing Eric from NYU Press, but always leaving him a calling card of some sort, I finally got to talk to him. I told him about the punk project. He seemed interested, in that intense, critical way that he has of seeming simultaneously interested and skeptical. NYU would certainly be one of my top choices, given the way the press is structured. They put books out quickly and well. If only the Bad Subjects book had made its way into more stores like Tower -- not Eric's domain, obviously -- our experience with NYU Press would have been perfect. Interestingly, they were debuting two titles in the "Cultural Front" series Michael Berubé edits, the one our book was on. Sadly -- or is it happily? -- they didn't have copies of the Bad Subjects book with them. Still, it was nice to see that the series was still viable.

After talking to other editors in my reluctant-to-talk-about-myself way for a while, I started to head out of the book fair and ran into Damon, with whom John and I used to play basketball in Hearst Gym back in the day. I always liked Damon a lot. Now a graduate student at the University of Iowa, he was dressed up -- a gray suit of anxiety -- as one "on the market," . Damon told me he'd seen my friend Catherine, whom I hadn't seen in years, and said that she was going to be having a New Year's Eve party at the Hotel Triton in San Francisco. Knowing that the New Year's Eve party was not an option for me, I was encouraged to hear that there would be a party for Joyce scholars that night which Catherine was slated to attend. My early years in the Berkeley Ph.D. program taught me that the Joyceans are much more fun at parties than most academics, so I made a mental note to bring Gideon along.

Walking out the door, I found Gideon, who was interested in a panel on academic freedom. The supplemental program listed Judith Butler as a late addition and he was interested in seeing her.

As I've mentioned before in this space and elsewhere, I really, really like Judith Butler. I like her work. And I like her presence. The latter is hard for someone that hasn't seen her in the right context to understand. Seeing Butler talk to a "lay" audience at a bookstore in San Francisco's Mission District about her book Bodies That Matter with Kim -- we just stumbled upon the event on a night out -- I was amazed at how effectively this supposedly super-difficult theorist was able to communicate with people who didn't know most of the points of reference in her writing.

When she reads from the page, though, she can be difficult to follow. Her prose is tightly packed. Pick a sentence in the middle of a random page and you probably won't be able to comprehend it until you have read the one before it and the one before that and the one before that etc. In other words, you can't afford to let your mind drift when listening to her present a paper.

I wasn't sure what Gideon would think of her. Luckily, though, she was reprising a surprisingly blunt piece she had given at the American Studies Association convention in October in which she "deconstructed" -- here the word is appropriate, whether taken in its theoretical or everyday, conversational sense -- the language of Patriot Act I and Patriot Act II, along with a quote from Vice President Dick Cheney. What people who haven't experienced Butler's presence frequently fail to realize is that she has a great sense of dark comic timing. She speeds up and slows down her delivery for effect. And she has a wonderful way of quoting something so that you perceive the scare quotes.

The only problem with her paper is that it was astonishingly depressing. As she pointed out, the post-9/11 actions of our leaders are remarkably like the security measures instituted in the early years of Mussolini and Hitler's rule. The tragedy of 9/11 itself has functioned an awful lot like the burning of the Reichstag did for the Nazi Party. It's tempting to say that, if Al Qaeda hadn't existed, the firebrands in Bush's inner circle would have needed to invent it. I'll resist temptation, though.

The other two speakers were equally good. Miriam Cooke from Duke gave a chilling report on Campus Watch's war against the academic left, begun with an attack against area studies programs. And Ellen Messer-Davidow, who did pioneering research on right-wing groups in the early 1990s, detailed her recent experiences inside similar organizations. Interestingly, when Gideon and I were up front waiting for a chance to speak with her afterwards -- I thought Gideon might need an endorsement from a badge-carrying academic to get an interview, which proved the case -- Messer-Davidow told someone that she was always taken aback by how nicely the right-wingers treated her especially considering the infighting she is used on the left.

All in all, this panel demonstrated that the MLA is capable of staging effective political interventions that forsake empty rhetoric for helpful specific information and useful suggestions. I was particularly taken by Butler's call to endorse the defense of our legal system against the new laws and quasi-laws of the War on Terrorism

As we left the room, Gideon went with Messer-Davidow for his interview and I headed to the PMLA reception, thinking, rightly, that it would have free food and drink. I was supposed to hook up with Gideon and Eric there to process their respective experiences.

Everyone was late, though, and I found myself standing in the corner, watching people flirt lamely with the aid of their respective badges: "Oh, you teach at University X. What are the students like?"

Eventually, Eric showed up, along with Gideon. Ted and Chris came too, as well as Haun. Haun is co-editing a book with Eric and Steve (the one who went to Berkeley). Interestingly, Gideon knew him well too, since he had taken Comparative Literature classes at Stanford when Haun was there.

The highlight of the PMLA reception, though, was the man with the "DOD" badge. As Eric, Gideon, and I revisited the cheese table, I finally asked him what it stood for. "Department of Defense," he answered. I had suspected as much, but wondered whether I might be hallucinating after the previous panel on academic freedom. I asked him why he was at the MLA, to which he replied, plausibly, that he was a language scholar.

When he mentioned working at the Defense Language Institute, I told him Kim's story about entering the military without any sense of her intellectual ability and then testing so well that she would have been sent to the DLI, except that she didn't pass the security clearance. His response, oddly, was that she probably didn't miss too much.

After leaving the PMLA reception, Gideon and I accompanied Eric and his friends to the lobby, where we met up with other former and current University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) graduate students and Jane Gallop, who was advisor to many of them. We went for dinner at Scrappy's, an over-priced restaurant behind the hotel, adjoining the marina. The food wasn't bad, but very pretentious. The caesar salad, for example, came wedged into a vertical slice of toasted bread, as if it had been shot through it with a cannon. My duck on tagliatelle only came with about five noodles, which was probably a good thing, since the caramel-type sauce tasted wrong on pasta. At least the tower of tuna looked good.

At one point, I left the restaurant to find an ATM and ran into two Berkeley graduate students who recognized me and told me where the Berkeley party was -- Manchester Grand Hyatt, Southeast Tower, Room 1439 -- and urged me to stop by. Then, on the way to the ATM, I ran into Yuanyuan, who was coming to meet Eric. We hadn't talked much of late, so it was nice to chat with her on the walk back to the restaurant.

Once our dinner was done, Gideon and I said goodbye to the UW-M group and headed over to the Berkeley party. It was in Cathy's suite, since she's the Chair. The two rooms were packed tight. We could barely get inside. My claustrophobia almost got the better of me. And I felt bad for Gideon, since it was hard for him to find a point of entry for conversation.

The strangest aspect of the party was one I should have been expecting but had conveniently forgotten to remember: the tension between those looking for jobs and those with jobs. Since there were graduate students there who started more or less when I did, on the market after years away from the academy (or not, in a few cases), I felt the pressure that comes with being lucky.

Thankfully, I got to see Catherine, whom I hadn't seen in a long, long time. She was happy to see me and I was happy to see her. And, since she has a job, there wasn't any tension. When I talked to her about her New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, I was flooded with envy. Oh, how I longed to be there with my old crew. Apparently, Mauri was slated to play keyboards with her new band at the party. I would surely have seen at least one of the Kevins, probably John, and some other folks as well. But it wouldn't have been the same, I realize. We can't be as debauched as we used to be a decade ago. And the same tensions would have been there too.

Catherine was very excited to meet Gideon and inquired about volunteering at 826 Valenica. I think that she spends her free time in the Bay Area still, in which case it wouldn't have been an idle fancy. Seeing her talk with him, I remembered her getting me excited about zine culture and the like during out first year in the graduate program. That interest is what brought Catherine to Bad Subjects for our second year in the program, a year I still recall fondly.

Meanwhile, Gideon had managed to strike up conversations with Dan and Trane. I always liked Trane, though I didn't know him well. And Dan is someone I always wish I talked with more often. Maybe I'll start. Afterwards, I told Gideon the story of how Dan had been an undergraduate English major at Berkeley, reading Bad Subjects with enthusiasm. It was so odd being at the welcoming party for incoming graduate students -- in what year was that, 1996? -- and having Dan know so much about me, Jillian, and Annalee already. A precursor to my recent experience with Gideon, obviously.

The most uncomfortable experience at the party was when one of the graduate students there, who I hadn't seen in many years, became upset at the prospect of Gideon including him in a feature story. He was adamant about not talking to Gideon "on the record" and even more adamant that I keep his name anonymous after leaving the party. This, of course, only provoked Gideon's curiosity. We speculated that he must have some sort of personal history with someone at McSweeney's or The Believer. But who knows?

I wish he and I had parted on less awkward terms.

I didn't really talk to faculty at the party, other than to say "Hi" to Celeste, whom I have had strong affection for since our defending-each-other in departmental basketball games and who was such a supportive placement director in the year I got my job.

I did have to give directions to the suite to Charlie, when he kept calling to ask where the party was. I told him to try the less postmodern tower, which was apparently enough. He said "Hi" to me as I was leaving.

And Abdul took the elevator down with me and Gideon. I never had many exchanges with Abdul when I was a graduate student -- though he gave me that A+ as an undergrad, when his reader wasn't sure my paper was good or not -- but always had the feeling that he had read enough of my stuff to have positive feelings towards me. We had a nice chat about the changes Berkeley has made in their interviewing approach and other matters.

By this point, Gideon was through and I was too. The Joyce party was probably still going, but we weren't. We talked a bit on the drive back, mostly about Mr. Anonymous, and then went quickly to bed.

Day Three (1/29/03)

This was the darkest day of the MLA for me. Kim woke me up with a phone call, which went well enough -- I stepped out of the room to let Gideon sleep -- but then we got in an argument during her subsequent phone call. I felt like she was putting pressure on me to come home earlier than I had intended to. Reading her most recent blog entry from the previous day had made me guilty about making her drive Old Red around, so I was predisposed to feel guilt-tripped. When she said, "Laura and Susan say the conference ends on the 30th," I had the impression that she was implying that I was staying in San Diego longer than I needed to, that I had led her to believe that the MLA went longer than it actually did. I was sure that I had gone over my plans multiple times with her and thus got riled up at her comment.

She insists that I was out of my head. To be sure, the absence of decent food and, in particular, the absence of protein -- I was eating way too many cheetos and the like -- had me in a state where I was likely to be more "sensitive" than is desirable. I was certainly too predisposed to recall previous trips to conferences when I had felt guilty for being away, for having "fun."

The fun part is tricky. On the one hand, it was "fun" to see old friends and acquaintances. On the other hand, the "fun" I derived was a lot of work, and accompanied by pressures that I'd rather not experience. In a sense, every conference I attend is like that. I may be having a "good time" in one register, while feeling burdened in another. It's hard to articulate this, especially to Kim, who has had so many experiences that were bad in every register. At any rate, our phone conversation got me thinking too much about the past and not enough about the present.

Much of my morning was spent recovering from the morning's fallout. After dropping Gideon off at the MLA, I walked to Horton Plaza, the downtown mall blocks from the MLA hotels and convention center. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, but needed space.

Along the way, I made the mistake of patronizing an independent coffee house. It turned out to be a smoking emporium too, with a strong smell of tobacco and many water pipes for rent. The coffee was awful. I could tell by the smell and the heat of the cup. But I walked around with it, waiting for it to become drinkable out of some sense of duty. Even after 15 minutes, though, the first sip still burned my mouth. There's nothing I hate more than that dead tastebud feeling. Somehow it seemed the perfect punctuation to the morning's conflict.

Sitting down at a cybercafé inside Horton Plaza, I tried to regain my composure and get some work done. Most of my time was spent e-mailing, including two messages to Kim. Writing a depressed blog entry helped me to feel a little better. And then Jillian called to confirm our lunch date. Her voice cheered me up.

She met me at Nordstrom's in Horton Plaza and we then walked around for a long while trying to find a suitable place for lunch, talking about the usual topics and complaining about the lameness of downtown San Diego. Kim called me twice during our quest for food, which made me feel better but proved a little awkward, since Jillian was right next to me. It turned out for the best, though, since Jillian helped me to work through my bad morning. We ended up eating at a cheap, decent breakfast place that claimed to be, I believe, San Diego's second-oldest restaurant in continuous operation. Still, you expect more from a big city downtown than a 50s-style omelet.

After lunch, Jillian went with me to Starbucks to purge the bad coffee with mediocre coffee. Then we walked back to the hotel where she was to meet Asali and Netty. We conversed a little about the process of talking to publishers at the MLA with Netty and her husband. When Asali came, I said goodbye and headed back towards the convention center.

I wanted to attend the panel "Is Now the Time for Paul De Man" at 3:30pm, but had some free time to roam the book fair first. At one point, on my way back from making a call to Kim -- the cell didn't work well in the confines of the book fair -- I saw Gideon, moving rapidly to his next destination, and mentioned that I'd be at the panel. He said he would try to go. Then I ran into Eric and Chris, who were also going. We were excited.

Personally, despite the obvious problem raised by Paul De Man's World War II activities -- being young doesn't excuse a person for collaborating with fascists -- I still rank him with my very favorite literary theorists. His Allegories of Reading was the first book classified as "theory" that I ever bought -- I was writing about Rilke -- and one of first that I made practical use of, when I wrote my German honors thesis the following spring, in 1990. I still found the book a major struggle, but understood enough to see how carefully he constructed his argument out of the literary and philosophical texts he was analyzing. Reading the so-called "purloined ribbon" chapter on Rousseau's Confessions that closes that book in Steve Knapp's English 161 Literary Theory class, also in the spring of 1990, was a transformative experience for me. I loved the way De Man made you think he was making one argument, only to pull the rug out from under you and replace it with another one. I was -- and remain -- captivated by the idea that a piece of criticism could unfold like a story, rather than declaring all of its variables up front like some computer program. Unfortunately, it is usually only the Paul De Mans of this world that are given the freedom to write that way.

I remember being asked, during the first day of my campus visit at the University of Arizona, whether I would consider teaching De Man. "Of course," I replied without hesitation, not even entertaining the possibility that my answer would hurt my chances of landing the job. As it turns out, the person asking me the question is a great lover of De Man, so I gave the "right" answer. Realizing afterwards how I might have slipped up, though, I understood that his name is still a contested term in the academy, like "post-colonial" or "political correctness."

I hoped that the panel would address the status of his name and try to make it easier to work with De Man instead of for or against him.

Sadly, though, the panel was a disaster, at least from the perspective of someone trying to make the MLA look good to a non-academic. Paul Bové did a good job of introducing it. Gayatri Spivak was entertaining, if scattered. It was interesting to think, along with Spivak, about peasants in Bangladesh subverting Western agricultural intervention by planting multiple crops on the same land. Interesting, but hard to connect to De Man. I'm all for questioning the distinction between "real" texts and "real" events read as texts, but it's hard to get much intellectual traction when you have only the briefest anecdotes to go on. And Ian Balfour gave a workmanlike presentation. But no one took the time to engage in the sort of sustained close reading of a literary or philosophical text that was De Man's strength.

The other two papers were similarly problematic. I've talked before, and with considerable pleasure, to Harvard University Press's Lindsay Waters, who helped to create the solid-color University of Minnesota Press theory series in the 1980s. We had a delightful talk about his press's publication of Walter Benjamin's work on a rainy walk from the Experience Music Project to the pizzeria where the after-party for the 2002 EMP Conference was being held. And we chatted amiably about music at several junctures during the conference. I think he's a smart man. But his paper on De Man was oddly pitched. Structured around the metaphor of De Man as zombie, popping out of his backyard grave to haunt the MLA -- yes, the MLA was the family who had murdered De Man and buried him secretly -- Waters's presentation consisted largely of invective against all those perceived to be opponents of Theory. Martha Nussbaum was a target, Walter Benn Michaels -- and Princeton University Press, incidentally, which is publishing Michaels's new book -- a bigger one. The effect of Waters's polemic, from where I sit, was not to make Paul De Man or other figures associated with 1980s-style Theory more likely to be discussed in today's academy, but to widen the gulf between those who cling to the pastel pink and chartreuse days of yore and those who have moved on, whether by choice or necessity. Mind you, I write this as someone with a shelf full of books from the Minnesota series.

At least Waters managed to be passionate and free of jargon. Mark Hansen, by contrast, gave one of the least accessible presentations I've ever heard on "De Man, Media, and the Politics of Memory." Judging by his impressive list of publications, Hansen is no doubt a very smart man himself. Princeton hired him, after all. Eric tells me that his book is outstanding. But he should know better than to take the already extremely difficult, but close reading-centered work of De Man and apply it to the amorphousness of new media studies. I'm sure he had a point to make, but I doubt whether ten people in the jam-packed room got it. Hansen's prose was so full of coinings, so convoluted in syntax that it would serve as the perfect means of discrediting everything the MLA does. As I sat there cringing at each use of the "-esis" suffix, I was secretly hoping that Gideon had been delayed enough to miss Hansen's talk. The worst part was that, after talking in incomprehensible blocks of jargon for 2/3 of the paper, Hansen then decided to illustrate his point, whatever it was, by providing a glorified plot summary of Christopher Nolan's Memento, which -- surprise, surprise! -- turns out to have the perfect structure for explaining new media. I'm starting to wonder whether it's possible to make it through an academic conference these days without someone referencing Memento.

When the presentations were over, this debacle of a panel -- at least from the perspective of someone wanting the MLA to look good to a non-academic -- got even worse. The first speaker during the Q+A was someone who was clearly uncomfortable speaking English and had written out her two requests in advance of the panel. Predictably, they had nothing to do with any of the presentations. The second of these, "Please tell us what is new in your field," has to rank as one of the least useful queries ever made at the MLA. A little later, someone who found it necessary to announce his institutional affiliation with great volume and precision, proceeded to say, to Waters, that "it seemed like you were suggesting that De Man might return." Well, duh. I guess the questioner has never seen a zombie movie.

On the way out, I saw Gideon, who had seen everyone except Spivak speak. I tried to explain my disappointment to him, noting that the panelists had all failed to do the thing De Man did best: focus. We then headed over to the Chronicle of Higher Education reception, waiting outside until it was time for it to start. Gideon asked me to explain Waters's attack on Walter Benn Michaels. I wasn't sure how much to put "on the record." Thankfully, Gideon was familiar enough with Marjorie Perloff's controversial role at Stanford to understand how Michaels could be a successful scholar with a superficially liberal bent who nonetheless arouses the ire of his colleagues. I did try to explain the tensions between Deconstruction and New Historicism back in the late 1980s and early 1990s with reference to Michaels and Knapp's "Against Theory."

As I had hoped, the food at the Chronicle of Higher Education reception was very good, much better than at the previous day's PMLA reception, though perhaps not as good as it was in other years. Gideon managed to talk at length with someone from the Chronicle of Higher Education, who apparently had relatively harsh things to say about scholars in the humanities. I spent my time talking to Georgette, who has a Columbia Ph.D. and is lecturing at Barnard because she can't find a tenure-track position and might not want one anyway, because moving would interrupt her very important therapy sessions. The two of us also talked to a woman with a Ph.D. who is teaching a 5-5-5 load -- on the quarter system -- at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon, while trying to publish. Bleak.

After the reception, Gideon and I drove out to Little Italy to meet Jillian and her sister for dinner at a very slow and not-that-great "family style" restaurant. The conversation was good, though, and I was very glad to have more time with Jillian.

From there it was back to the hotel, where Gideon typed up his notes and I watched an interesting performance on public TV in which various singers with Washington Opera ties performed in what appeared to be a large sporting arena. The aria from Verdi's Don Carlo, "She Never Loved Me" was especially good.

Day Four (12/30/03)

I got up early to prepare for our departure. While Gideon slept, I went to the breakfast buffet and ate some real food -- it's a sad day when the fare at the Marriott Residence Inn seems like a healthful improvement -- while reading USA Today. Then I returned to the room and reminded him that we needed to leave early enough for me to make it to Eric's panel.

As I already noted in my last entry posted from the MLA book fair, Eric did a great job. It was really nice to see so much of our team-taught course on postwar French and German culture transformed into a polished performance. I was especially happy to see the way he used Sartre's famous essay "Existentialism is a Humanism," building on our class discussion and taking the results in a new direction. Chris's paper was more far-flung, but made good use of Jean François Lyotard's book The Inhuman, which is a big favorite of mine, as well as a nice quote from Wyndham Lewis about the effect we have on machines. Kriss's talk on Pasolini's theory of cinema was hampered by the absence of the DVD player the hotel had promised to bring, but still very interesting. I always like thinking about intrusions of the author/director into the flow of narrative.

Since Chris had gone first on the panel and his topic was not so easily linked to Eric and Kriss's papers, no one addressed a question to him. I had my hand up to ask Eric something, but decided it was time to do the polite thing and asked one of Chris instead. It took me a long time to master classroom etiquette -- too long, really -- but I can at least apply what I've learned to conference settings. Nobody wants to be left out.

From the panel, Gideon and I dashed over to the book fair. I found a few good things. Despite the shake-up at Stanford University Press not too long ago, I liked their range of new titles the best. I especially liked the pleasingly white books in the "Cultural Memory in the Present" series. After I'd made my purchase, I asked for a bag, noting that it would pain me to be seen carrying it. At first, the person helping me was confused, then noted my Cal baseball cap.

"I'm pretty removed from that world," she said. "I came into class one day and saw that someone had written "Go Bears!" on the board and thought they meant the Chicago Bears. I suppose Stanford people think about Cal the same way that people in the United States think about Canada."

After remarking that this reply, far from indicating a remove from the rivalry, actually constituted the perfect condescending response that UC Berkeley people expect from those down on the Farm, I added my own rejoinder: "Well, if we're Canada, you better keep a close eye on your beef supply."

My favorite score of the book fair was a new collection of Todd Haynes's screenplays for Far From Heaven, Safe, and Superstar for about a dollar, though getting two Mike Davis books for free was pretty sweet too.

Purchases in hand, I sat down to post my last blog entry and wait for Gideon. He had been waylaid by a fifty-something gentleman from some university I can't remember who was looking for a place to publish his novel and other short pieces he had written. When I finally located Gideon, he was worse for the wear. That sort of pleading, self-serving mode of address is hard to stomach.

Gideon and I stopped for Moroccan sandwiches and mint tea at a really fun café in Little Italy on our way to the airport. It was by far the best and one of the cheapest meals of the trip. By this time, though, our conversation was lagging. He was coughing a lot more and clearly needed to get to bed.

Traffic into San Diego airport was delayed by security checks, but I eventually dropped Gideon off with a hearty goodbye and headed downtown to fulfill my parental mission: "snowglobe."

The ones in the Hyatt and Marriott were awful, so I had to look elsewhere. And then I saw a likely location, across from the Santa Fé Depot: the Museum of Contemporary Art. What better place to look for a good "snowglobe" than the gift shop at an American art museum? Five minutes later, I walked out with a snow-less, blue-liquid-filled rectangular "globe" with a plastic surfer inside who will, at the appropriate tilt, land in the tree on one side of the landscape depicted therein. Score.

From there, the highlights were few. I drove through downtown and into what appeared to be an "historically African-American" neighborhood that looked a lot like Oakland or Vallejo, with plenty of beautiful early 20th century homes amid squalor disguised with sunlight and palm trees. Still, I liked San Diego better having seen a real older neighborhood that was distinct from the suburbs and downtown.

Dinner was at Cracker Barrel in Yuma, which wasn't that bad considering.

I arrived at midnight, just in time to help Skylar get a drink of water after waking up and give her a kiss goodnight.