About three and a half weeks ago, our toddler, normally a Very Good Sleeper, decided that good sleeping would be a 2.5 year phase, one with which she was finished. She screamed and kicked her way through bedtime; once she fell asleep, just as *we* were settling into bed or even falling asleep ourselves, she would rise up as if from a horror movie (and for us it was very much a horror movie) and prompt sleep-destroying andrenaline surges on our parts by bursting into our room and announcing she didn't WANT to go to sleep. It was horrible. We hated life. We consulted our baby-sleep bible (we are committed Weissbluthians, and believe me, this book takes commitment--the guy is a terrible writer). Anyway, the toddler section reassured us with a couple of techniques and reminded us of the importance of sticking to our routine. I doubted it. Everyone doubted it. We bickered. We withheld the iPad (she didn't care). We fielded advice--wanted and unwanted--including (commonly) that she needed to be kept awake until 9 or 10 or 11 at night. The thought made us shudder: we didn't stay up that late. So we decided to stick with the method that we believed in, the philosophy of which is pretty simple: 1) sleep begets sleep; and 2) a routine is crucial. Tonight, after several nights in a row of improvement, I think it's safe to say that Weissbluth and his horrid prose didn't fail us. She is now leading us through the sleep routine, which in recent days (in response to the sleep-deprived hell of the previous two weeks) had become even more regimented and predictable. By 6:45, magically, she was asleep. We looked at each other in disbelief. We ran for our computers.
At this point I should stop and make an important caveat, lest I step into a fray I know better than to step into: I don't wish to claim that the "sleep-begets-sleep" applies to all toddlers or babies. The
point here is choosing an approach and having some patience with it.
Even that doesn't work for everyone, and I'm really sympathetic to those who continue to struggle in the sleep department. It's an awful, awful hell.
Anyway, sometimes the writing we do is an analogous (though perhaps quieter) hell. It's slow-going. The time creeps. Other stuff tries to distract. It grumps us up. Sometimes we give in and depart from habit.
But a daily routine with incremental effort is still the most likely to yield results. 1) Writing begets writing. 2) A routine is crucial.
These flyers are for English 297A: Sports / Ethics / Literature, a course I'm teaching this spring here at Penn State. (Knowing the school gives important context for the second flyer.) Full description after the flyers.
flyer 1: Let's Go.
flyer #2, with h/t to Academic Coach Taylor.This one captures the spirit with which this course originated.
flyer #3, aimed at the Paterno Fellows:
Flyer #4, for Schreyer Honors College Scholars, Paterno Fellows, and English Honors (with h/t to the computer setup in SHC's Atherton Hall (photoshop really is better):
And finally, the description as it currently stands:
Sports / Ethics / Literature
There may be no better time for engaging and developing
thoughtful approaches to sports and sports culture than now. Sports can tell us
a lot about the cultures that promote them. The coach, the athlete, the
spectator, and the gamer all stand as figures through which people articulate
and test their values and desires. Authors, too, have often turned to sports to
comment on the human condition. But far from being timeless or nonspecific, their
commentary reveals a good deal about how particular cultures form identities.
Novels from previous decades invite readers to think about the historical and
political development of gaming culture, dance marathons, or women’s baseball
leagues. A novel featuring a philosophical quarterback links football to
metaphysics, and a science-fiction story in which skill sets from past NBA legends
are distributed to new players by lottery offers potent commentary on race. In
short, culture can be read through sports and sports through culture. The
readings for this course will encourage students to reflect on social
interaction, human behavior, and ethics in the context of organized athletic
During a unit focused on Penn State,
students will spend time in the Penn State Sports Archive exploring the
institution’s history with regard to sports ranging from Archery to Wrestling.
Students are encouraged to petition for
this course to count for General Humanities requirement, or to honors-option the
Readings will likely include Don DeLillo’s Endzone,
Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses,
Don’t They?, Robert Coover’s The
Universal Baseball Association, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, John Edgar Wideman's Hoop Dreams, Barbara Gregorich’s She’s on First, and short stories by Jonathan Lethem, Toni Cade
Bombara, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace.
In the days leading up to the removal of the Paterno statue, my stance was generally agnostic. Or at least I thought it was. I agreed with folks like Russell Frank who calls the debates about symbolism "off the point."
But then PSU President Erickson's announcement--and the statue--came down today, and I realized my stance was not agnostic at all. Or better, this was one of those issues with roughly two solutions, action or inaction. And inaction in this case would have been a kind of action.
Sarah Koenig's amazing reporting at Penn State for This American Life has revealed time and again how administrators here are beholden to big money and (therefore) to football. This was one of the main takeaway points from the episode "#1 Party School," which connected dots between alcohol, football, money, and administrative decisions. The program, by the way, is worth a re-listen in light of recent events. It's almost eerie.
The removal of the statue was a necessary but still insufficient response to the Freeh Investigation's findings on the university's culpability in Jerry Sandusky's crimes. At the core of the university leaders' inaction on Sandusky lies the culture of football at Penn State. The people most upset by the statue's removal are--guess who?--supporters of football and of Joe Paterno. To leave the statue where it is would have been to maintain the status quo. To remove it (even if it is placed elsewhere ultimately and with proper historical narration and context) is a first step toward taking back the university.
Removing the statue is, at base, really no different from the removal of Gary Schultz's name from the child care center on campus back in November (Schultz is one of the administrators whose name appears frequently in the Freeh report). But it's pretty different for two reasons: 1) there was no outcry in protest (before the grand jury report, comparatively few knew who he was), and 2) no one waited around for a BOT meeting; most of his name got hacked down on the night Joe Paterno was fired. (I should note, as suggested by my letter to the Collegian the day before this happened, I was not at all agnostic about what should be done about Schultz's name on the daycare.) Before the maintenance workers came to sand down the sign and clean up, I snapped this picture.
In the middle of the chisel marks is a barely legible--because mangled--"U," a harbinger of things to come.
In recent weeks, a passage from Don DeLillo's End Zone has been rattling around in my head, but only in that amorphous, faint way that a novel you taught a decade ago (and haven't read since) can rattle. Those of you who know it know that the novel features an angst-ridden football player who bounces from school to school before settling into the one where the plot develops. He makes a stop at Penn State. The central image of this delightful passage is a plane flying "over the practice field every afternoon at the same time."
And then this morning I noticed a headline at the local paper's website--"Plane returns to circle campus"--and realized it was time to re-read the damn passage, so I ventured downstairs to our "stacks" and dug up my heavily marked copy. The passage, classic DeLillo, is downright breathtaking. I offer it here as something of a parable:
At Penn State, the next stop, I studied hard and played well. But each day that autumn was exactly like the day before and the one to follow. I had not yet learned to appreciate the slowly gliding drift of identical things; chunks of time spun past me like meteorites in a universe predicated on repetition. For weeks the cool clear weather was unvarying; the girls wore white knee-high stockings; a small red plane passed over the practice field every afternoon at the same time. There was something hugely Asian about those days in Pennsylvania. I tripped on the same step on the same staircase on three successive days. After this I stopped going to practice. The freshman coach wanted to know what was up. I told him I knew all the plays; there was no reason to practice them over and over; the endless repetition might be spiritually disastrous; we were becoming a nation devoted to human xerography. He and I had a long earnest discussion. Much was made of my talent and my potential value to the varsity squad. Oneness was stressed--the oneness necessary for a winning team. It was a good concept, oneness, but I suggested that, to me at least, it could not be truly attractive unless it meant oneness with God or the universe or some equally redoubtable super-phenomenon. What he meant by oneness was in fact elevennes or twenty-twoness. He told me that my attitude was all wrong. People don't go to football games to see pass patterns run by theologians. He told me, in effect, that I would have to suck in my gut and go harder. (1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.
"You're saying that what I will learn on the gridiron about sacrifice and oneness will be of inestimable value later on in life. In other words if I give up now I'll almost surely give up in the more important contests of the future."
"That's it, exactly, Gary." "I'm giving up," I said.
I have some recommendations to add to the Freeh Report. This could go on and on, as the initial draft of this post did, but I'll go with my top six seven. (JM offered #7 over lunch the day after I posted this.) These are in no particular order, but they would be added to the section dealing with University Governance and Administration.
1. replace all the stupid bathroom signs showing people how to pee on toilets with announcements about whistleblower protections provided by law in the state of PA, at Penn State, and in the U.S.
3. Consider the idea that transparency could mean involving more people--faculty, staff, and students--in decisions rather than merely informing them of decisions. (And please stop telling us how strong and great this place is. As writing teacher would say, show us.)
4. Consider filling vacant admin posts with outside hires, rather than promoting from within. The most thoughtful administrators I have spoken with recently on this scandal have been people who have been here fewer than 5 or 10 years. You want people who will respond to phrases like "The Penn State Way" with genuine confusion.
5. Stop using the phrase "The Penn State Way."
6. Hire a woman in a top position (preferably president), and stat. Preferably a hard-hitting feminist with a track record of taking principled stances. Maybe someone like Nancy Cantor. Whoever it is, if you don't like her, then so much the better.
7. This one is JM's, and I think it's brilliant: make a counterintuitive appointment to the athletic director post, an appointment that sends the message that the football program is not only in receivership but that it is subordinate to the university. Some names we generated included: Noam Chomsky, Kwahme Appiah, Murray Sperber. You get the picture. If you object that football is a business and these guys aren't prepared to deal with that part of things, appoint one of the Wall Street whistleblowers as assistant A.D.
My poet-friend Erin who is working on a fascinating collection of historical poems says that she researches and researches until she starts to hear a voice in her head. As a non-poet, I heard this description with equal parts intrigue and envy. It makes a certain amount of sense, especially with persona poems, that a voice, with all its cadences and beats, would need to kind of well up before beginning. And of course it goes without saying that the voice has things to say.
For the past few weeks, I have been reading for my next chapter, rooting around in primary texts, criticism, histories, not unlike Erin when she prepares for another poem. I had one of those Days of Avoidance yesterday--the first in awhile--where I logged no time on my research. Those are probably necessary; I've always thought so anyway. Just now, while I was pouring cereal, the chapter's first sentence began to congeal in my head. And while it's neither an earth-shattering sentence nor a particularly pretty one, it's a beginning. For all my training to tag the notion of "voice" with romantic associations, it remains one of the best ways to characterize what just happened. Words started stirring. It needn't be magical or romantic, but that stirring or welling means it's time to put fingers to keys. It doesn't mean the reading stops, but it does get moved to the side for a beginning.
There are a few things to say about the washed-out photo at left, taken with my iPad on a return flight from the RSA Institute at Boulder. The first is that I took it while reading the introduction to a dissertation scheduled to be defended in a few days. Reading a dissertation on a plane isn't all that momentous--people in jobs like mine do it all the time--but reading a dissertation while flying solo with a toddler is a major event for this mama. During the first hour of the nap, I rested. And then I found myself getting restless and then... could I? No. Maybe I can just reach down into my bag with my free hand. Yes! There it is. My wrists hurt like a mofo from having to hold it in the same position for an hour, and typing notes and making annotations was next to impossible, but I managed. The Bean woke up just as I wound down the last sentences of the introduction, delighted to see that she could switch the iPad over to the baby-appropriate counting app.
The second thing to say about this photo is that CGD, the author of said dissertation, wrote pretty much the whole thing with a baby sleeping in her own lap, having given birth, completed a job visit, and negotiated a job offer all within the space of (no joke) a month last winter. After the postpartum/post-job search (!) phase wound down, she had to write up the study she had been conducting for three years now (a really remarkable study of the rhetorical practices surrounding a watershed in Eastern Iowa). CGD posted onto facebook photo after webcam photo of herself in a room lit only by the glow of her dissertation screen, with the little--growing--bundle sleeping in a carrier or wrap or her arm. (We mamas get pretty fast with the one-hand typing.) By the time she finished, he--the baby--was sitting up gazing in wonder at the screen. As well he should.
One would expect a dissertation written with such speed under these conditions to be a little rough around the edges, at least typographically speaking. If the introduction is any indication, though, this one is as clean as a freshly diapered baby's behind. And the writing is so strong, the study so capacious and downright fascinating, I can't wait to post this and get back to reading it.
CGD, I promise I will post the requisite diss-with-whippet, but I wanted to post this one as well, as a visual response to your writing series, a further chronicling of the lives that share the spaces of our work. Way to go, mama.