“Cool” in the rearview mirror: What everyone secretly dreads

Today, I felt particularly cool. It was a beautiful afternoon with that particular bright but subdued autumn sun, cool temperature, walking across campus, swinging my arms along, taking big steps, sporting my favorite blouse, wearing a ninja-like backpack, happy as could be. As I strolled, I said hello to my students, students I didn’t know, grown-ups who might or might not work at AUM–or who might be students–and I realized: I might not be cool.

When did that happen? I thought: maybe my students are like children who are embarrassed and shocked when they see their teachers at the grocery store. Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped to talk for a few minutes when others could see us chatting. Oh no. Was I uncool? Man. Why did my brain even go there? Nuts.

I might be cool, or not, but I'll never be as cool as this cat in "space-reflecting mirrored sunglasses cool."
I might be cool, or not, but I’ll never be as cool as this cat in “space-reflecting mirrored sunglasses cool.”

I felt so good. I’d just done something fun and had gone to a new place on campus I’d never been before: The Nest, a gorgeous gathering spot on campus with the coolest seating and sky-high windows. I was happy to not be dripping from the humidity and heat. I was just generally happy. I’d gotten a bit of work handled and ordered a couple of books online (always a joyful experience), exchanged fun-filled messages with a friend, FINALLY synced my phone with my computer AND my car. It was looking to be triumph all the way around. Generally.

But then I talked with a couple of students. They were fabulous, smiling and laughing, and I waved and walked over to them. They seemed genuinely glad to see me. Then I saw three more. They sort of responded. They all had ear buds in. I wondered if I talked too loud to make up for it as they looked slightly uncomfortable and eager to get away. THEN it hit me. I was having a conversation accompanied by a soundtrack. The whole time I kept thinking, I’m being a good professor, talking with my students, being seen on campus, smiling, being happy about my job and my life. THEN I thought: what are they listening to? Can they even hear me? Uh oh. Did I just get uncool? THEN it hit me. I might be old and uncool, like “how my teenager wants me to drop him off at the corner uncool.” You know? You know.

THEN it hit me. I don’t care. Cool may be so far away in my rearview mirror that I hardly recognize it, but that’s okay. I have redefined what cool is for me. It includes talking loudly when others have in ear buds. It’s my thing. THEN it hit me. That’s all we want, isn’t it? To be comfortable in our own skin, to find our own way to our own cool.

I hope that’s what I share with my students–that whoever they are, whoever I am, we’re all cool. Being uncool or not being cool enough might be something we all dread, but who said we have to live by somebody else’s definition of cool?  I guess everybody does that to some degree, but it’s time we stopped that and gave ourselves some slack, some love, some cool. #coolallthetime



Dickensian London: It’s complicated

The above title of this post is simple, but the Victorian era, indeed, all the of 19th Century, is vastly more complicated than “it’s complicated.” That feels very 21st century and sounds good to me, but a more apropos title might include several lines and link multiple ideas together.

A day in the life of London: with particular reference to the author, Charles Dickens, sometimes know as The Inimitable, and sometimes known as Boz, with the illustrator, George Cruikshank, for people who might also be reading or have read The Ghost Map.

Aside: I’m the editor and the author of parts of this because I intersperse some of my words with more of the words of Charles Dickens (you can tell when I’m writing and when Dickens is writing, I guarantee it)–This is me: E.D. Woodworth. But the major author of this post is, The Inimitable, Charles Dickens (Boz), and his illustrator is George Cruikshank.

There might not be a better author or illustrator to turn to than Boz   and his sketches of everyday life to understand what London in the early 19th century might have been like—even in the area of London that was plagued with cholera in the summer of 1854.

Charles Dickens in his youth, when he was Boz.
Charles Dickens in his youth, when he was Boz.

Dickens, early in his career in the 1830s, wrote a series of observations with George Cruickshank as the illustrator. Their collaboration was titled, Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. These short pieces (none over a few pages each) began appearing in newspapers and journals in 1833; they were then collected into two volumes in 1836. Though these sketches show life in London in the mid- to late-1830s, not much had changed for the poor in that crowded, rapidly growing metropolis by the time of the 1854 cholera outbreak.

Two short pieces in particular give the modern reader a sense of the Great City: “The Streets – Morning” and “The Streets – Night” (both part of the section of Sketches, titled “Scenes”). In these two scenes, Dickens shows us what might be observed while wandering through the streets in the morning: drunks staggering home, policemen standing on street corners, stray cats sneaking around. In an hourly rundown, the city moves from largely sleeping to wide awake, pedestrians start walking about, stores are opening, carts begin to rumble through the streets. By 12 p.m., Dickens has taken us through the multitude of people we might have seen during the course of a morning in London.

In “The Streets – Nights,” Dickens does the same sort of tour through London explaining mostly the joys and difficulties of those not blessed with great economic prosperity—through the evening and into the wee hours, closing his tour about “three or four o’clock” in the morning. We see families, merchants, shopkeepers, fishmongers, those going to the theater, the desperation of some, the efforts of some to forget their desperation, and all in between from unruly street boys to unruly gentlemen.

To go along with these sketches, Cruikshank created images meant to enhance the stories (several illustrations are included below; two sketches are reproduced in whole).

George Cruickshank, the illustrator for Sketches by Boz.
George Cruickshank, the illustrator for Sketches by Boz.

As you read, you’ll notice several things about Dickens and his writing:

  1. He tries to capture the way he hears people speaking. It can be hard to get through—but try reading the dialogue aloud. That can help.
  2. He tends to list things to suggest urgency or close quarters—look for these passages because they can be hard to read, thing after thing listed, but once you know what he’s doing, it’s easy to see what his purpose might have been, but more importantly what effect it has on you as a reader.
  3. He uses phrases and words that are unfamiliar to the modern reader—read through those words and phrases that you don’t get and keep reading to get the overall sense of what’s going on. You might need to look up a word or two, but it will be worth it. No other author is a better chronicler of London city life during the early to mid-Victorian period (1830s-1860s).
  4. He includes people from so many socioeconomic levels in his writing, but he seems to focus most on the economically challenged—as those are his His youth was filled with financial disaster and difficulty. As he grew up, he walked all over London at all hours of the day and night to see what he could see, burn off some of his abundant energy, and he learned all about London and how to survive as a result.
  5. There are two sketches here, but at the end you’ll find web sites for additional stories and information about London city life.

From Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens with illustrations by George Cruikshank

“The Streets—Morning”

The appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise, on a summer’s morning, is most striking even to the few whose unfortunate pursuits of pleasure, or scarcely less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be well acquainted with the scene. There is an air of cold, solitary desolation about the noiseless streets which we are accustomed to see thronged at other times by a busy, eager crowd, and over the quiet, closely- shut buildings, which throughout the day are swarming with life and bustle, that is very impressive.Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 9.41.15 AM

The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before sunlight, has just staggered heavily along, roaring out the burden of the drinking song of the previous night: the last houseless vagrant whom penury and police have left in the streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved comer, to dream of food and warmth. The drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched have disappeared; the more sober and orderly part of the population have not yet awakened to the labours of the day, and the stillness of death is over the streets; its very hue seems to be imparted to them, cold and lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of daybreak. The coach-stands in the larger thoroughfares are deserted: the night- houses are closed; and the chosen promenades of profligate misery are empty.

An occasional policeman may alone be seen at the street corners, listlessly gazing on the deserted prospect before him; and now and then a rakish-looking cat runs stealthily across the road and descends his own area with as much caution and slyness–bounding first on the water-butt, then on the dust-hole, and then alighting on the flag-stones–as if he were conscious that his character depended on his gallantry of the preceding night escaping public observation. A partially opened bedroom-window here and there, bespeaks the heat of the weather, and the uneasy slumbers of its occupant; and the dim scanty flicker of the rushlight, through the window-blind, denotes the chamber of watching or sickness. With these few exceptions, the streets present no signs of life, nor the houses of habitation.

An hour wears away; the spires of the churches and roofs of the principal buildings are faintly tinged with the light of the rising sun; and the streets, by almost imperceptible degrees, begin to resume their bustle and animation. Market-carts roll slowly along: the sleepy waggoner impatiently urging on his tired horses, or vainly endeavouring to awaken the boy, who, luxuriously stretched on the top of the fruit-baskets, forgets, in happy oblivion, his long-cherished curiosity to behold the wonders of London.

Rough, sleepy-looking animals of strange appearance, something between ostlers and hackney-coachmen, begin to take down the shutters of early public-houses; and little deal tables, with the ordinary preparations for a street breakfast, make their appearance at the customary stations. Numbers of men and women (principally the latter), carrying upon their heads heavy baskets of fruit, toil down the park side of Piccadilly, on their way to Covent-garden, and, following each other in rapid succession, form a long straggling line from thence to the turn of the road at Knightsbridge.

Here and there, a bricklayer’s labourer, with the day’s dinner tied up in a handkerchief, walks briskly to his work, and occasionally a little knot of three or four schoolboys on a stolen bathing expedition rattle merrily over the pavement, their boisterous mirth contrasting forcibly with the demeanour of the little sweep, who, having knocked and rung till his arm aches, and being interdicted by a merciful legislature from endangering his lungs by calling out, sits patiently down on the door-step, until the housemaid may happen to awake.

Covent-garden market, and the avenues leading to it, are thronged with carts of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions, from the heavy lumbering waggon, with its four stout horses, to the jingling costermonger’s cart, with its consumptive donkey. The pavement is already strewed with decayed cabbage-leaves, broken hay-bands, and all the indescribable litter of a vegetable market; men are shouting, carts backing, horses neighing, boys fighting, basket- women talking, piemen expatiating on the excellence of their pastry, and donkeys braying. These and a hundred other sounds form a compound discordant enough to a Londoner’s ears, and remarkably disagreeable to those of country gentlemen who are sleeping at the Hummums for the first time.

Another hour passes away, and the day begins in good earnest. The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour previously, is warned by Master (whom Missis has sent up in his drapery to the landing-place for that purpose), that it’s half-past six, whereupon she awakes all of a sudden, with well-feigned astonishment, and goes down-stairs very sulkily, wishing, while she strikes a light, that the principle of spontaneous combustion would extend itself to coals and kitchen range. When the fire is lighted, she opens the street-door to take in the milk, when, by the most singular coincidence in the world, she discovers that the servant next door has just taken in her milk too, and that Mr. Todd’s young man over the way, is, by an equally extraordinary chance, taking down his master’s shutters. The inevitable consequence is, that she just steps, milk-jug in hand, as far as next door, just to say ‘good morning’ to Betsy Clark, and that Mr. Todd’s young man just steps over the way to say ‘good morning’ to both of ’em; and as the aforesaid Mr. Todd’s young man is almost as good-looking and fascinating as the baker himself, the conversation quickly becomes very interesting, and probably would become more so, if Betsy Clark’s Missis, who always will be a-followin’ her about, didn’t give an angry tap at her bedroom window, on which Mr. Todd’s young man tries to whistle coolly, as he goes back to his shop much faster than he came from it; and the two girls run back to their respective places, and shut their street-doors with surprising softness, each of them poking their heads out of the front parlour window, a minute afterwards, however, ostensibly with the view of looking at the mail which just then passes by, but really for the purpose of catching another glimpse of Mr. Todd’s young man, who being fond of mails, but more of females, takes a short look at the mails, and a long look at the girls, much to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.

The mail itself goes on to the coach-office in due course, and the passengers who are going out by the early coach, stare with astonishment at the passengers who are coming in by the early coach, who look blue and dismal, and are evidently under the influence of that odd feeling produced by travelling, which makes the events of yesterday morning seem as if they had happened at least six months ago, and induces people to wonder with considerable gravity whether the friends and relations they took leave of a fortnight before, have altered much since they have left them. The coach-office is all alive, and the coaches which are just going out, are surrounded by the usual crowd of Jews and nondescripts, who seem to consider, Heaven knows why, that it is quite impossible any man can mount a coach without requiring at least sixpenny-worth of oranges, a penknife, a pocket-book, a last year’s annual, a pencil-case, a piece of sponge, and a small series of caricatures.

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 9.40.27 AMHalf an hour more, and the sun darts his bright rays cheerfully down the still half-empty streets, and shines with sufficient force to rouse the dismal laziness of the apprentice, who pauses every other minute from his task of sweeping out the shop and watering the pavement in front of it, to tell another apprentice similarly employed, how hot it will be to-day, or to stand with his right hand shading his eyes, and his left resting on the broom, gazing at the ‘Wonder,’ or the ‘Tally-ho,’ or the ‘Nimrod,’ or some other fast coach, till it is out of sight, when he re-enters the shop, envying the passengers on the outside of the fast coach, and thinking of the old red brick house ‘down in the country,’ where he went to school: the miseries of the milk and water, and thick bread and scrapings, fading into nothing before the pleasant recollection of the green field the boys used to play in, and the green pond he was caned for presuming to fall into, and other schoolboy associations.

Cabs, with trunks and band-boxes between the drivers’ legs and outside the apron, rattle briskly up and down the streets on their way to the coach-offices or steam-packet wharfs; and the cab- drivers and hackney-coachmen who are on the stand polish up the ornamental part of their dingy vehicles–the former wondering how people can prefer ‘them wild beast cariwans of homnibuses, to a riglar cab with a fast trotter,’ and the latter admiring how people can trust their necks into one of ‘them crazy cabs, when they can have a ‘spectable ‘ackney cotche with a pair of ‘orses as von’t run away with no vun;’ a consolation unquestionably founded on fact, seeing that a hackney-coach horse never was known to run at all, ‘except,’ as the smart cabman in front of the rank observes, ‘except one, and HE run back’ards.’

The shops are now completely opened, and apprentices and shopmen are busily engaged in cleaning and decking the windows for the day. The bakers’ shops in town are filled with servants and children waiting for the drawing of the first batch of rolls–an operation which was performed a full hour ago in the suburbs: for the early clerk population of Somers and Camden towns, Islington, and Pentonville, are fast pouring into the city, or directing their steps towards Chancery-lane and the Inns of Court. Middle-aged men, whose salaries have by no means increased in the same proportion as their families, plod steadily along, apparently with no object in view but the counting-house; knowing by sight almost everybody they meet or overtake, for they have seen them every morning (Sunday excepted) during the last twenty years, but speaking to no one. If they do happen to overtake a personal acquaintance, they just exchange a hurried salutation, and keep walking on either by his side, or in front of him, as his rate of walking may chance to be. As to stopping to shake hands, or to take the friend’s arm, they seem to think that as it is not included in their salary, they have no right to do it. Small office lads in large hats, who are made men before they are boys, hurry along in pairs, with their first coat carefully brushed, and the white trousers of last Sunday plentifully besmeared with dust and ink. It evidently requires a considerable mental struggle to avoid investing part of the day’s dinner-money in the purchase of the stale tarts so temptingly exposed in dusty tins at the pastry- cooks’ doors; but a consciousness of their own importance and the receipt of seven shillings a-week, with the prospect of an early rise to eight, comes to their aid, and they accordingly put their hats a little more on one side, and look under the bonnets of all the milliners’ and stay-makers’ apprentices they meet–poor girls!- -the hardest worked, the worst paid, and too often, the worst used class of the community.

Eleven o’clock, and a new set of people fill the streets. The goods in the shop-windows are invitingly arranged; the shopmen in their white neckerchiefs and spruce coats, look as it they couldn’t clean a window if their lives depended on it; the carts have disappeared from Covent-garden; the waggoners have returned, and the costermongers repaired to their ordinary ‘beats’ in the suburbs; clerks are at their offices, and gigs, cabs, omnibuses, and saddle-horses, are conveying their masters to the same destination. The streets are thronged with a vast concourse of people, gay and shabby, rich and poor, idle and industrious; and we come to the heat, bustle, and activity of NOON.

Illustrations: the first is called, “The Streets, Morning,” and was published with this sketch. The second is titled “The Gin Shop” from the sketch, “Gin-Shops.” Gin shops were widely visited by many London citizens—gin was cheap and a powerful alcohol.

From Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens with illustrations by George Cruikshank

“The Streets – Night”

But the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter’s night, when there is just enough damp gently stealing down to make the pavement greasy, without cleansing it of any of its impurities; and when the heavy lazy mist, which hangs over every object, makes the gas-lamps look brighter, and the brilliantly-lighted shops more splendid, from the contrast they present to the darkness around. All the people who are at home on such a night as this, seem disposed to make themselves as snug and comfortable as possible; and the passengers in the streets have excellent reason to envy the fortunate individuals who are seated by their own firesides.

In the larger and better kind of streets, dining parlour curtains are closely drawn, kitchen fires blaze brightly up, and savoury steams of hot dinners salute the nostrils of the hungry wayfarer, as he plods wearily by the area railings. In the suburbs, the muffin boy rings his way down the little street, much more slowly than he is wont to do; for Mrs. Macklin, of No. 4, has no sooner opened her little street-door, and screamed out ‘Muffins!’ with all her might, than Mrs. Walker, at No. 5, puts her head out of the parlour-window, and screams ‘Muffins!’ too; and Mrs. Walker has scarcely got the words out of her lips, than Mrs. Peplow, over the way, lets loose Master Peplow, who darts down the street, with a velocity which nothing but buttered muffins in perspective could possibly inspire, and drags the boy back by main force, whereupon Mrs. Macklin and Mrs. Walker, just to save the boy trouble, and to say a few neighbourly words to Mrs. Peplow at the same time, run over the way and buy their muffins at Mrs. Peplow’s door, when it appears from the voluntary statement of Mrs. Walker, that her ‘kittle’s jist a-biling, and the cups and sarsers ready laid,’ and that, as it was such a wretched night out o’ doors, she’d made up her mind to have a nice, hot, comfortable cup o’ tea–a determination at which, by the most singular coincidence, the other two ladies had simultaneously arrived.

After a little conversation about the wretchedness of the weather and the merits of tea, with a digression relative to the viciousness of boys as a rule, and the amiability of Master Peplow as an exception, Mrs. Walker sees her husband coming down the street; and as he must want his tea, poor man, after his dirty walk from the Docks, she instantly runs across, muffins in hand, and Mrs. Macklin does the same, and after a few words to Mrs. Walker, they all pop into their little houses, and slam their little street-doors, which are not opened again for the remainder of the evening, except to the nine o’clock ‘beer,’ who comes round with a lantern in front of his tray, and says, as he lends Mrs. Walker ‘Yesterday’s ‘Tiser,’ that he’s blessed if he can hardly hold the pot, much less feel the paper, for it’s one of the bitterest nights he ever felt, ‘cept the night when the man was frozen to death in the Brick-field.

After a little prophetic conversation with the policeman at the street-corner, touching a probable change in the weather, and the setting-in of a hard frost, the nine o’clock beer returns to his master’s house, and employs himself for the remainder of the evening, in assiduously stirring the tap-room fire, and deferentially taking part in the conversation of the worthies assembled round it.

The streets in the vicinity of the Marsh-gate and Victoria Theatre present an appearance of dirt and discomfort on such a night, which the groups who lounge about them in no degree tend to diminish. Even the little block-tin temple sacred to baked potatoes, surmounted by a splendid design in variegated lamps, looks less gay than usual, and as to the kidney-pie stand, its glory has quite departed. The candle in the transparent lamp, manufactured of oil- paper, embellished with ‘characters,’ has been blown out fifty times, so the kidney-pie merchant, tired with running backwards and forwards to the next wine-vaults, to get a light, has given up the idea of illumination in despair, and the only signs of his ‘whereabout,’ are the bright sparks, of which a long irregular train is whirled down the street every time he opens his portable oven to hand a hot kidney-pie to a customer.

Flat-fish, oyster, and fruit vendors linger hopelessly in the kennel, in vain endeavouring to attract customers; and the ragged boys who usually disport themselves about the streets, stand crouched in little knots in some projecting doorway, or under the canvas blind of a cheesemonger’s, where great flaring gas-lights, unshaded by any glass, display huge piles of blight red and pale yellow cheeses, mingled with little fivepenny dabs of dingy bacon, various tubs of weekly Dorset, and cloudy rolls of ‘best fresh.’

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 9.40.45 AMHere they amuse themselves with theatrical converse, arising out of their last half-price visit to the Victoria gallery, admire the terrific combat, which is nightly encored, and expatiate on the inimitable manner in which Bill Thompson can ‘come the double monkey,’ or go through the mysterious involutions of a sailor’s hornpipe.

It is nearly eleven o’clock, and the cold thin rain which has been drizzling so long, is beginning to pour down in good earnest; the baked-potato man has departed–the kidney-pie man has just walked away with his warehouse on his arm–the cheesemonger has drawn in his blind, and the boys have dispersed. The constant clicking of pattens on the slippy and uneven pavement, and the rustling of umbrellas, as the wind blows against the shop-windows, bear testimony to the inclemency of the night; and the policeman, with his oilskin cape buttoned closely round him, seems as he holds his hat on his head, and turns round to avoid the gust of wind and rain which drives against him at the street-corner, to be very far from congratulating himself on the prospect before him.

The little chandler’s shop with the cracked bell behind the door, whose melancholy tinkling has been regulated by the demand for quarterns of sugar and half-ounces of coffee, is shutting up. The crowds which have been passing to and fro during the whole day, are rapidly dwindling away; and the noise of shouting and quarrelling which issues from the public-houses, is almost the only sound that breaks the melancholy stillness of the night.

There was another, but it has ceased. That wretched woman with the infant in her arms, round whose meagre form the remnant of her own scanty shawl is carefully wrapped, has been attempting to sing some popular ballad, in the hope of wringing a few pence from the compassionate passer-by. A brutal laugh at her weak voice is all she has gained. The tears fall thick and fast down her own pale face; the child is cold and hungry, and its low half-stifled wailing adds to the misery of its wretched mother, as she moans aloud, and sinks despairingly down, on a cold damp door-step.

Singing! How few of those who pass such a miserable creature as this, think of the anguish of heart, the sinking of soul and spirit, which the very effort of singing produces. Bitter mockery! Disease, neglect, and starvation, faintly articulating the words of the joyous ditty, that has enlivened your hours of feasting and merriment, God knows how often! It is no subject of jeering. The weak tremulous voice tells a fearful tale of want and famishing; and the feeble singer of this roaring song may turn away, only to die of cold and hunger.

One o’clock! Parties returning from the different theatres foot it through the muddy streets; cabs, hackney-coaches, carriages, and theatre omnibuses, roll swiftly by; watermen with dim dirty lanterns in their hands, and large brass plates upon their breasts, who have been shouting and rushing about for the last two hours, retire to their watering-houses, to solace themselves with the creature comforts of pipes and purl; the half-price pit and box frequenters of the theatres throng to the different houses of refreshment; and chops, kidneys, rabbits, oysters, stout, cigars, and ‘goes’ innumerable, are served up amidst a noise and confusion of smoking, running, knife-clattering, and waiter-chattering, perfectly indescribable.

The more musical portion of the play-going community betake themselves to some harmonic meeting. As a matter of curiosity let us follow them thither for a few moments.

In a lofty room of spacious dimensions, are seated some eighty or a hundred guests knocking little pewter measures on the tables, and hammering away, with the handles of their knives, as if they were so many trunk-makers. They are applauding a glee, which has just been executed by the three ‘professional gentlemen’ at the top of the centre table, one of whom is in the chair–the little pompous man with the bald head just emerging from the collar of his green coat. The others are seated on either side of him–the stout man with the small voice, and the thin-faced dark man in black. The little man in the chair is a most amusing personage,–such condescending grandeur, and SUCH a voice!

‘Bass!’ as the young gentleman near us with the blue stock forcibly remarks to his companion, ‘bass! I b’lieve you; he can go down lower than any man: so low sometimes that you can’t hear him.’ And so he does. To hear him growling away, gradually lower and lower down, till he can’t get back again, is the most delightful thing in the world, and it is quite impossible to witness unmoved the impressive solemnity with which he pours forth his soul in ‘My ‘art’s in the ‘ighlands,’ or ‘The brave old Hoak.’ The stout man is also addicted to sentimentality, and warbles ‘Fly, fly from the world, my Bessy, with me,’ or some such song, with lady-like sweetness, and in the most seductive tones imaginable.Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 9.42.03 AM

‘Pray give your orders, gen’l’m’n–pray give your orders,’–says the pale-faced man with the red head; and demands for ‘goes’ of gin and ‘goes’ of brandy, and pints of stout, and cigars of peculiar mildness, are vociferously made from all parts of the room. The ‘professional gentlemen’ are in the very height of their glory, and bestow condescending nods, or even a word or two of recognition, on the better-known frequenters of the room, in the most bland and patronising manner possible.

The little round-faced man, with the small brown surtout, white stockings and shoes, is in the comic line; the mixed air of self- denial, and mental consciousness of his own powers, with which he acknowledges the call of the chair, is particularly gratifying. ‘Gen’l’men,’ says the little pompous man, accompanying the word with a knock of the president’s hammer on the table–‘Gen’l’men, allow me to claim your attention–our friend, Mr. Smuggins, will oblige.’–‘Bravo!’ shout the company; and Smuggins, after a considerable quantity of coughing by way of symphony, and a most facetious sniff or two, which afford general delight, sings a comic song, with a fal-de-ral–tol-de-ral chorus at the end of every verse, much longer than the verse itself. It is received with unbounded applause, and after some aspiring genius has volunteered a recitation, and failed dismally therein, the little pompous man gives another knock, and says ‘Gen’l’men, we will attempt a glee, if you please.’ This announcement calls forth tumultuous applause, and the more energetic spirits express the unqualified approbation it affords them, by knocking one or two stout glasses off their legs–a humorous device; but one which frequently occasions some slight altercation when the form of paying the damage is proposed to be gone through by the waiter.

Scenes like these are continued until three or four o’clock in the morning; and even when they close, fresh ones open to the inquisitive novice. But as a description of all of them, however slight, would require a volume, the contents of which, however instructive, would be by no means pleasing, we make our bow, and drop the curtain.

Illustrations: no illustration accompanied the original printing of this sketch, but the ones included here show some of the night time ‘activities’ Londoners engaged in—all from other stories in Sketches. Illustration #1: from “The Hospital Patient” titled “A Pickpocket in Custody”—pickpockets were everywhere in London in the 19th century. Illustration #2: titled “Making a Night of It” from the sketch of the same name. This sketch tells the story of two ‘gentleman’ who end up paying fines for assault, public drunkenness, and theft. Illustration #3: this one is called “Greenwich Fair” from the sketch of the same name—it shows people dancing at the Fair—quite an event of revelry in London each spring.

For Additional Reading/Exploration

Below you’ll find more information about Dickens’s London and specifically Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens with illustrations by George Cruikshank. The below links are from David Perdue’s “Charles Dickens Page,” an award-winning web site dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“See” London

Please take time to check out this map of London from Perdue’s web site: http://charlesdickenspage.com/dickens_london_map.html

Use this interactive map to see where Dickens’s stories took place, or significant locations in his life and the lives of his fellow Londoner’s. Each click will take you to an explanation as well as other links that will lead you to additional maps (current Google Maps of a location), relevant Wikipedia articles, definitions, as well as map from and of 1859 London. There’s always a “back” button to bring you back to the central map.

Sketches by Boz

The web site here connects to some general information about this book, includes a list of all the sections of the text, and a link to 40 illustrations from the book by Cruikshank: http://charlesdickenspage.com/sketches.html

The sketches:

“Seven Dials”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/seven_dials.html

“Omnibuses”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/omnibus.html

“Gin-Shops”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/gin_shops.html

“The Pawnbroker’s Shop”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/pawnbrokers.html

“A Visit to Newgate”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/visit_newgate.html

“A Christmas Dinner”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/a_christmas_dinner.html

“The New Year”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/the_new_year.html

“The Hospital Patient”: http://charlesdickenspage.com/the_hospital_patient.html

“Mr. Minns and his Cousin” (originally titled, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”—the very first story published by Charles Dickens in 1833): http://charlesdickenspage.com/mr_minns_and_his_cousin.html

Need to see the world differently? Close your eyes

Today, I taught a writing class in which I asked my students to close their eyes and just listen to me–not to open their eyes for one second until I told them it was okay. They also had to listen for their names, and when I called on them, do what I asked.

For instance, I asked one student, “Please name all the colors you can think of that appear in this classroom. No peeking.” She rattled off some colors. I said “Thank you” when she paused and called on another student. I asked him to name some additional colors. He did. I kept this up until many students had listed most of the colors I could see (or until I got tired of writing all the colors on the board). Then I instructed them to keep their eyes closed and tell me all the things that existed in the classroom. Chairs, the board, a screen, markers, desks, a door, windows, etc. Then I asked questions like: “Is there a television in the room?” “What colors are on the clock?” “Is there a camera?” “How many chairs?” “What kind of ceiling does this room have?” “Is there a podium?” And so on.

Then they opened their eyes and found what they had missed. (Not too much actually.) Then I turned away from them and asked, “What color are my eyes?” Blue! Green! Brown! (They’re a brown/gold color with flecks of green and amber. I think. You’d definitely say brown if asked as you were looking at me.)

We had a good laugh because why would a student ever notice a professor’s eyes? I asked them to close their eyes again and talk about my shoes, my glasses, my earrings, jacket, dress (everyone always gets the hair). Most got it all right, but we had been just practicing, so there’s that.

After we did all this, I asked them to make a map of the classroom. Some things to note: 1) Everyone always makes a map from the ceiling downward though no one is ever perched on the ceiling; 2) Everyone puts value on one thing or another and inadvertently highlights that some way by making it inordinately large (or devalues something  by forgetting it altogether); 3) No one has exactly the same map; 4) Some folks label extensively, some not at all; 5) Everyone always creates a map from the direction they are seated (seated facing the “front”–the labels are all written that way–looking from the “back” to the “front”). They share their maps with each other to see how they “see” the room. It’s always fascinating to watch how surprised they are when they see the differences/the similarities/the unique vision.

Then we talked about how maps are tools of communication. Indeed maps are metaphors, i.e., a map is a story.  Like writing is a way to share information with others. Writing is a kind of map that leads readers toward where a writer wants them to go, from Point A to Point X. It’s true that readers might take different paths, but the writer still needs to create a map that clearly lays out his or her vision.

Maps and writing. Together. Forever. We will never look at writing or maps the same way again.

When you need to see the world differently, close your eyes. Imagine what’s around you. How would you describe that space to someone who couldn’t see, to someone unfamiliar with that space? How could you make that space real through a story?

Before you can write, you must think; before you can think, you must see.

If you are in space, how you see our world might depend on where you are floating around. Boom. Thinking differently now, aren't you?
If you are in space, how you see our world might depend on where you are floating around. Boom. Thinking differently now, aren’t you?


Academic Robes: Why?

Why do academics wear robes? Because robes keep you warm, especially at fancy dress-up events in the summer in Alabama.

I have studied academic dress a bit as it fascinates me. Why do professors wear this garb? And why do we require students to do so on graduation? It is sober. It is somber. But not if it’s scarlet or royal blue or goldenrod. And the hats are not stuffy everywhere. Around the world there are variations of what professors or graduates of universities wear to commemorate an occasion or for other formal events.

I have a feeling I will always be sorry I didn’t get a PhD in Finland. They get to wear these hats:

Finnish doctoral hat. Epic.
Finnish doctoral hat. Epic.

The day before school: Finding grit

Every single semester when I reach the day before school begins, I am in a rush. I worry that won’t have everything organized or ready or tidy. I can’t think of a thing to wear. I hope I can be on time, look good, and do right.

One thing I used to worry about, when I was a little kid, was whether anyone would remember me from the previous year. I’m not sure why I thought this was a concern. Maybe because the school disappeared from my view, I disappear from its view and all the people in it. I almost never saw school friends over the summer. I almost always went to summer school. My parents didn’t think the school year was long enough, so every summer, I had extra.

There is no worse thing than summer school to a little kid. It was like a gulag in my mind. I did learn some fun things occasionally: cooking, knitting, crafts (ceramics, decoupage, painting, drawing, etc.). But I also took reading classes, math, typing, social studies. Torture.

I ended up with a wider variety of learning experiences and learned to work with a wide variety of people because I was forced into that lifestyle (the summer school was not at my regular school). And when I got to college, taking summer classes was a breeze because I sort of had always done that. Even though I learned to deal with my busy summer life, I always dreamed of having a whole summer off from school.

I think I’ve had three: 1983; 2008; 2015.

In 1983, I didn’t work AND didn’t go to school. It was truly magical. I travel across the US from Los Angeles to Vermont and back–one way through Texas; the way back through the MidWest. I went to Hawaii for about a month. I was tan and happy and young and free.

In 2008, I transitioned from one job to the job I have now. Also truly magical–a lot of pool time was had that summer. I was new to Montgomery, so I was on a mission to try lots of new places to eat, learn to navigate the city, and find all the farm-to-table markets I could find. More grown up and lots of responsibilities, but I still had fun.

In 2015, I didn’t teach, but I also didn’t have the summer entirely off. I actually worked pretty regularly, but I have no idea what I accomplished. There was a LOT of other stuff going on in my life. So. Much. Stuff. So here I sit the morning of the day before school in this sort of state:


To counter that, I try every term to have some of kind motivating theme to pull my classes and my life together. It helps me focus and sometimes helps my students focus. One semester is was pirates (specifically, the Pirates of the Caribbean film series). Another year it was MC Hammer and “U Can’t Touch This.” I think last spring, it might have been Marvel’s Avengers (though I didn’t push it in every aspect of my life). This semester to deal with my beginning of school sense of WHOOSH:

True Grit.

This is one kind of grit.
This is one kind of grit.

I’d just watched a video on an unusual topic, education and grit, by Angela Lee Duckworth. I, of course, thought of the John Wayne movie (and the newer Jeff Bridges’s version), True Grit. I’ve always had a major crush on John Wayne. I mean, OAB (original American badass), right? But he was a genuinely interesting dude besides being a movie star. I appreciate his fascinating life (despite the Hollywood taint). I’ve seen ALL his movies, even the one where he plays Genghis Khan–a horrific film–and I adore his quirky manly acting style from when he was young to when he was old. He had some great moments, telling stories through his performance. I could name a few easily: The Searchers, In Harm’s Way, The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Cowboys, The Shootist, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Quiet Man, Big Jake. If I took ten more minutes, I could name many more, like: The Sons of Katie Elder, Hellfighters, Red River, The Green Berets, Fort Apache, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One of my favorites is True Grit. Partly it’s because I always loved the character Rooster Cogburn. I love that kind of character. LIKE: Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (another of my favorite stories with a down-and-out hero who manages to transform the lives of those around him with one last breathtaking good deed). Rooster and Sydney are both about rescue, redemption, resurrection. (Victorian literature is one of the areas I studied in grad school–so I tend to connect modern pop culture things to Victorian things always. I do that because I think who we are is because of who those were before us, who parented us, who grandparented us, who created the texts we read, the stories we tell, the films we watch, the music we listen to–so I reference, connect, synthesize and try to see the big picture. It makes me feel good.)

This semester, to begin, I think I could use a bit of grit. THAT will be the thing that gets me started, gets me through, and gets me over the finish line.

Unmitigated grit. Sheer grit. True grit.

Monster movies and getting ready for the semester: #thestruggleisreal

I like to throw myself into work. I like to lose myself in the things I care about. My job as a professor is one of the things I love to throw myself into. And, yes, it feels like jumping out of a plane every single semester. Or wrestling with an alien monster the size of a mountain. Or trying to make and maintain a “drift” with a co-pilot in a monster robot built to fight and destroy giant alien Kaiju. (Skip ahead to Pacific Rim references below if this obscure reference is making you crazy.)

I’m just in the middle of getting ready to start the term. My work begins usually about three to four weeks before classes actually start. I’m involved in composition faculty training, setting up a graduate writing center for a master’s program at a partner university; I’m getting my own classes clear in my head and writing the syllabi.

I used to think professors were on vacation right up until the minute before class began. I wish. Instead I’ve come to learn that most professors prepare long before a semester begins, often updating and innovating for a class up to two years before it’s ever taught. I spent two years on an honors freshman composition once. And for an upper division course on Charles Dickens, I started reading biographies and others works about a year ahead of when I was going to teach that class. Last summer I taught a British detective fiction class–for that class, I’d started reading about two years prior and ended up reading maybe 72 novels before the class got started.

I’m not saying that any of that was hard work, because I loved it so much, it wasn’t hard, but it was a LOT of work. I sort of thought professors just recycled their syllabi and course notes over and over again. I suppose some do–perhaps those who are focused on huge research projects at big universities where they lecture to classes of 500 students and  have teaching assistants work with the students in small groups and do grading by test/scantron. That sort of life never appealed to me. I want my teaching to be dynamic, new each time, driven by innovation, created partly by me, but also in collaboration with my students.

I found through trial and error that I work best in groups. I surely didn’t think that in college when I was forced to work in groups as intellectual torture (I thought). But as I worked in publishing, in curriculum development, in project management, I realized that no good work was done by one person–all great things were brought into being by many people. Like movies. Sure, you have a star or two or three and some terrific special effects, maybe, but thousands of people work toward an end goal of amazing entertainment.

I watched Pacific Rim last night for the umpteenth time. It’s a 2013 “monster science fiction action bunch of fabulousness” movie. I bought it on iTunes as soon as I could because I love this movie. I do sort of love monster movies. I really love science fiction. And I love many of the actors in the film, who act beyond who they are–as in Tom Cruise always manages to be Tom Cruise–but these actors, known to me,  managed to make me forget who they were as they became their characters. There are hilarious moments, but mostly, it’s a beautiful film. Not lovely like Out of Africa, but WOW AMAZING SPECIAL FX AMAZING. Oh my gosh, the colors, the hues, the darkness, the one red shoe, the neon blue goo shooting out of the Kaiju’s mouth. I could just watch it with the sound off. There are also some fight scenes between humans that are truly lyrical, so tight, not a wasted moment, so pretty. The best part for me is that no pilot in the giant monster fighting robots really works alone–they work as teams, letting their brains drift into each other’s so they can work together to defeat the crazy earth-obliterating Kaiju. (Really, it’s a 10 out of 10 in terms of it’s genre with a smartly wicked, unexpected ending. And I mean, just look at that killer poster: “To Fight Monsters, We Created Monsters” and “Go Big or Go Extinct”–Holy moly that’s good tag line stuff.)Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 8.38.18 AM

When I feel like I can’t get anything done, because the struggle is REAL, oh so real, it’s usually because I’m trying to work by myself. I watch a miracle of a movie to remind me that the best and greatest things are done by many. I find inspiration in the collaborations that are frequently the focus of great films (or even just fun films–see the recent Ant-Man–it’s all about collaboration). Then I seek out friends and colleagues to talk to, to brainstorm with. I may have to write this blog by my ownself, but it was with a friend that I thought of what I wanted to write and that I HAD to mention Pacific Rim as a metaphor for “the struggle is real” (and decided that I also needed to mention Ant-Man–such a classic example of not only collaboration but of a hero’s journey, too–squeee). The struggle is indeed real as I begin a new term, it’s real for movie-makers, it’s real for every student at AUM, it’s real for most humans.

We’ll get through it by looking outside of ourselves for help, support, and inspiration. That always work–and that’s never a struggle.

“So it goes”: Yes, it certainly does

“So it goes” is a famous line from a Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five (1969). It’s a repetitive phrase to indicate, I think, the world is hard, horrible things are going to happen, and we’ll just get on with it somehow. I write “I think” because that’s what I’m taking from it–my personal own bit of Truth I have invented as a reader to bring me comfort. It actually indicates a death each time Vonnegut uses it, that death is beyond our control. I just re-read the book this summer (I had forgotten a lot of what it was about). “So it goes.” (I did remember this phrase, but not the details of it.) Nice to have the depth back from my re-reading of this book.

1972 Cannes Award winning film of Slaughterhouse Five. I didn't even know this existed.
1972 Cannes Film Festival award-winning film of Slaughterhouse Five. I didn’t even know this film existed. Why haven’t I seen this? Why didn’t I know about this?

Re-reading a book can do that for me–take me back to the first time I read it, deepen my appreciation for the writing, the ideas, open new paths for thinking to me. And I try hard not to remember endings for that reason. I like to be surprised by a book again. Most of the time, re-reading something good isn’t painful, and mostly rich.

But here’s what’s weird: I don’t recall ever reading it before AND paying attention to the whole title:

Slaughterhouse-five, Or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-dance with Death.

How was I so oblivious as to miss this before? I have no idea.

(Aside: Google “dance with death” to get some interesting images for this–some are NSFW or children. Try “children’s crusade” too, for some great images and connections to historical events that will blow your mind. Then, read the book and try connecting all the dots. HOLY MOLY–you’ll love it. Or not. So it goes.)

BUT I can tell you this, I have been known to miss key moments, text, or events, even when the THING is happening right around me. For instance, I didn’t know about the British Petroleum oil disaster had happened and that oil was flooding the Gulf of Mexico until about six weeks after it happened. I was practicing radio silence, working on something I must have thought was super vital at the time, and I had unplugged. And again, it’s not the first time I’ve done that. Once I lived without a television for seven years (pre-Internet). Once I didn’t go to the movies for five years. Once I lived without the internet, cable, or television for a couple of years (recently). I just got fed up with always being “on.” Sometimes, I just like to be a human without any cyborgish connections to machines.

This looks like the copy of the book I might have read in the 1970s, or 1980s or 1990s, whenever it was I first read it. Who knows? That was a long time ago.
This looks like the copy of the book I might have read in the 1970s, or 1980s or 1990s, whenever it was I first read it. Who knows? That was a long time ago.

A few years ago, my best friend and I went on a writing retreat to New Mexico which was an unpluggy experience, though I didn’t know that was going to happen. I really didn’t know anything about the trip–just where we were going, what time we needed to be there and that we would be writing. I totally trusted that my friend was doing the right thing for me. When we got there, the lodge we were staying in only had internet in the lobby (strike 1); the workshop would be conducted entirely USING PAPER AND PENS (strike 2); there was no pool (strike 3). When I heard all this, I looked at her like she had betrayed me to the very core of our friendship. I would have no connection to the world; I would have to write on paper with some ancient writing implement; I would be getting zero sun time.

I got over the tan thing quickly, and the internet thing quickly, too–I tend to want to unplug anyhow–but the paper and pen thing was hard. I hadn’t written with paper and pen in a long time. I was actually a little intimidated by that. I thought it was going to be slow and boring and hard and that I couldn’t do it and would embarrass myself and my friend and my ancestors and my family and all the children I would ever have or know and I would never have a job again, ever.

But I thought, “so it goes.” I need to writer-up and do this thing. I need to trust that this will be okay. I need to believe I’ll do something wonderful and amazing and that this will be something I will, not only get through, but end up loving.

And so it went. I was writing on paper with a pen in a day or two like I’d never stopped. I loved it. I filled up page after page of notes, ideas, writing to prompts of others, jotting down feelings, snippets of conversation overheard, things I’d said I thought were clever, plans for the future of my writing… and most important of all, I thought, I need to include some handwriting in every class I teach. We are too plugged up to machines, and phones, and computers, and tablets, and watches, and fitbit equipment that invades our very physical selves, and we desperately need something that’s old tech to help us counter that intrusion, slow down our thinking, take time to consider.

Yes. This.
Yes. This.

That same feeling of uncentered unbalanced-ness I felt when I had to rethink writing on that retreat was how I felt when I read Vonnegut’s book again this summer. I slowed down to read about Billy Pilgrim (please note the last name of this character and give it the attention it deserves). I won’t say much here about the end lest I become a spoiler, but the book is part war story, part anti-war story, part science fiction, part Everyman, part sad, part crazy, part love. I had forgotten the chaos of the book, and I had forgotten the meaning of “So it goes.”

And I noticed the larger, longer, bigger, badder title, too. But it wasn’t on the front of my very recently published paperback version. It was partly on the cover of the first publication of the book–only the part about “the children’s crusade” actually. WHAT?

Original cover of the book from 1969.
Original cover of the book from 1969.

I know. See the plot summary above. That should be enough to either intrigue you or turn you way from the book forever. But I do love it for several reasons: 1) So it goes. This reminds me to not get so darn serious about my life and my loves and my worries and my dog and my dripping kitchen faucet. 2) It’s weird. I love weird. I like straightforward and happy, too, but this is an excellent novel of weird and uncomfortable everything and how life is hard and strange and how the worst experiences can bring out the worst in us and the best in us and challenge us and make us cry and make us laugh and drive us to keep going no matter what or give up entirely. 3) Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is funny. And he writes real good. Doh.

[image sources: amazon.com and impawards.com]

Writing about AUM and teaching and learning