Music: Gillian Welch: The Harrow & the Harvest (2011)
Many months ago a couple of colleagues in my field invited me to join them, and a few others, for a week-long “writing retreat” in Maine. I had always wanted to do something like a writing retreat, threatening for some years to hole-up in Montana for a couple of weeks for bouts of hiking and writing; I leapt at the opportunity, which included super-cheap lodging in a house at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. Many summers ago I spent a week in Maine with my friend Eric (I went for a wedding, but stayed for the glorious company and weather). I’ve always wanted to get back to Maine. When I make my millions, I will either buy a summer home in Maine or Colorado. I’ve not quite yet decided, but, I have some time.
Initially I was somewhat worried because I was not super-intimate with the assembled Sugarloafers, most of whom were Iowa grads and shared a certain, distinguished advisor. I knew three of them mostly by their published scholarship, except for L., whom I’ve hung out with more frequently since moving to Texas. But this worry was unfounded; the leaders assembled a group that worked very well together (and even better, who cooked well together!) I think it’s fair to say everyone had a marvelous time, and managed to be quite productive as well. I managed to bang out a new article, which I sent off this morning for blind review. Others worked through publications; one of us sent a manuscript while we were still there; and another completed an invited essay.
Most of us arrived a week ago Friday, and we departed last Friday (and as I’ve detailed, getting home was quite a challenge). On the second day we discovered a local business titled the “Antigravity Complex,” apparently an indoor skate park and trampoline center. We decided to dub ourselves the “Antigravity Complex Kids” (every working group needs a band name) for fun; the name stuck. We didn’t have Internet access, but my iPhone worked, and so I had fun “checking in” at our camp and posting random photos of our working adventures.
Within the first day a working pattern just sort of emerged. Most folks awoke at nine or ten in the morning. We ate breakfast (bagels or cereal) and talked, drank coffee. By 10:30 or 11 folks scattered around the rented house with their articles, books, and laptops. We would work, and then around noon or one someone would start to make lunch, and everyone would come to a stop, and we’d eat and talk. Work would then commence again in the early afternoon until around three or four. Some of us would break for a walk; others would take to the deck to smoke. Some afternoons we went for a group walk, or to a beach at a local lake, or the store to score some cooking provisions.
Overall, it was a very relaxed environment. In the evenings, we would gather on the couches to talk. Some of us shared our work in progress; others talked through the challenges of the arguments we were making. I know that on at least two evenings talking with the group I had “breakthroughs” and stole more than a few good ideas from my colleagues for my writing the next day. We also played some board games, played some pool, even got a bit goofy on a night or two.
What I especially liked about this “working” environment was, well, was that we got to play. But also I every much appreciated the sense of intellectual equality. All of us were at different stages of our careers (I was the oldest and the only tenured one there), but it never felt like intellectually we were not all on the same plane. The discussions we had were smart, but collaborative. It’s one of the few academic-related environments in which I wasn’t made to feel like I had to perform (or like I was stupid—something those intense boutique preconferences and so on sometimes inspires). You know, like at a conference or even a week-long, sponsored workshop, one could feel like she is put on the spot, or had to “be smart,” or whatever. But in this environment, hand-selected, it was just comfortable just to say what came to mind aloud, however half-baked. I couldn’t have asked for a more collaborative and collegial environment for thinking about scholarship. And hiking.
As an academic, one often has to face a disheartening reality: you work all the time. Even with a family, while the baby is sleeping in the next room, a scholar is often in the study with her nose in a book or at the keyboard. This is the life we’ve chosen. So why not “the working vacation?” Really, the writing retreat idea is among the best I think I’ve come across. And I would recommend it, highly: assemble a group of people you think you would work well with—or a bunch of friends from grad school, or both—rent a house somewhere comfortable, and spend a week or two banging out a project or two. Sure, it costs money. But I can tell you nothing is more satisfying than hiking the Appalachian Trail on the last day before you go home, knowing you’ve written a good dozen pages or two of pretty decent material.
Listen to me colleagues: you really need to do this, for your sanity and productivity. I’m already scheming about next summer: I want to make good on that Montana getaway I’ve been thinking of for a few years. If I can financially swing it (which means I need to work a summer class), this should be an annual affair. A gallery of our amazing writing retreat is here. I only wish everyone I adore in “the field” could have come with us. My sincere gratitude to Leslie and Erin for roping me in this summer!
Music: Ascii.Disko: Black Orchid: From Airlines to Lifelines (2011)
Much of what I know about humanity I learned living clichés like clothes and reading Sartre. Which is to say, much of what I have learned about people I have learned passing time in airports.
Returning from a relaxing and productive writing retreat with friends at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain last Friday proved challenging. I want to write about that week soon, about how working in the woods away from home was a welcome release, about how group living is a refreshing respite, about the challenge of a mannered non-bachelordom and shared laundry. But the memories of Friday have screened that pleasant sun, and I want to return to the glare and forget Friday, and the only way to clarity is through, to speak of the clouds. Over the course of twenty-four hours, in the fragile framing of physical exhaustion, one may be deluded enough to think he has insights—self-important insights, perhaps, but glimpses into the failures of composure and human dignity.
As a victim of flight cancellation, I’m one of millions. That plight is not important and downright mundane. But when you’re stranded in an airport, your senses of vulnerability are amplified; you notice things you would otherwise not notice.
As I was traveling, the senseless massacre in Oslo was reported on soundless television screens in the airport; I could only piece together what was happening by reading status updates on my Facebook iPhone application. What postmodern plight is this, that a cancelled flight would distress when something much more grave challenged the stability of what we knew as a momentary human decency?
In the thick and humid dark of early morning, after ten hours of anticipatory waiting, my friend L. thought to give our hotel room to a couple with a child. In that gesture, one that cut-through my weary selfishness, I stifled an impulse to cry, both from the guilt of my self-importance and in awe of the sacrificial gesture.
My friend L., who invited me to join the retreat, drove us back to the Portland airport from the Carrabassett Valley to catch a 2:20 p.m. flight into Dulles International Airport last Friday. We arrived at 3:30 p.m., and had a connecting flight to Austin at 7:30 p.m. We shared stories over the delights of airport food as L. texted humorous jabs with her husband in Waco, anxious to reunite with him after a week away in the boonies.
Large, LCD screens reported that our flight had been delayed to 7:40 p.m. Then 8:00 p.m. Later, finally seated in white faux-leather seats yellowed and browned by innumerable butts over decades, an attendant with thick, long grey-once-black hair announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to report there is a mechanical failure and flight [whatever-it-was] will be delayed. The pilot has refused to fly the plane.”
L. and looked at each other startled. Others murmured. “I’ve never heard of a pilot refusing a plane,” said a visibly retired and wealthy businessman.
Minutes later the attendant clarified that the airplane’s air-conditioner had failed, and that the pilot was concerned for the comfort of the passengers. The District of Columbia was experiencing one of the worst heatwaves in decades. The airport was sweltering and (disgustingly) humid from the perspiration of traveling bodies; the dated airport air conditioners simply couldn’t keep pace with the pace of the postmodern traveler. “United will make a decision whether to cancel the flight at 9:00 p.m.,” reported the attendant. “That’s all I know at the moment.”
Nine came and went; at fifteen minutes past the hour, in a sea of nervous faces, the attendant answered a telephone call at the gate podium. She was visibly nervous; she seemed to be thinking about what to say, as if the news she was about to report was unscripted. “Ladies and gentleman,” she said, “the service crew is still working on the air-conditioner. United has decided to push-back any decision on this flight until 9:30.” There were audible groans of disappointment. Wearied travelers jostled. A ten-year-old ginger-boy played his Nintendo DS unphased; his nearly identically freckled father, twenty years his senior, looked forward stone-faced. A 37-year old woman who had been traveling through Prague offered her “plug” to help recharge my iPhone, which was dying (I took advantage). A middle-aged man with a bright orange UVA t-shirt offered to get his two, pre-teen daughters sandwiches from Starbucks. My friend L. talked to a businessman; she revealed she and I were professors of communication, and he inquired further about what that meant, exactly (I ignored the trial of definition and ensuing discussion). And there we sat.
“Ladies and gentleman,” said the attendant over the loudspeaker at 9:40 p.m., “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that the air-conditioner is irreparable at this time. The good news is that United has secured another plane for this flight.” Travelers were both visibly annoyed and encouraged. “Unfortunately, the new plane for this flight doesn’t get in until 11:30 p.m.,” she said. There were more groans. “At your convenience, please move one gate over, to D8. We should be boarding around 11:45 p.m. The new time of arrival in Austin is 1:40 a.m.”
I urged L. to the “pub” down the concourse for a drink. To my chagrin, the pub closed at 10:00 p.m., but I managed to get an order in before it closed. L. was a good girl and didn’t have a drink. She had purchased a Cosmopolitan magazine, portions of which we read to each other, in dramatic style, to entertain ourselves. The shear stupidity of the magazine’s “tips” and “confessions” was beyond what I ever imagined “pulp” to consist of these days: one “don’t” of bedroom etiquette is that you should not bite the head of your man’s penis during fellatio, although it is perfectly acceptable to play with his nipples. Also, a young man confessed he didn’t “get any” on a date because he rolled off of a bed during foreplay. Hrm.
The masses tried to assemble at D8, but the gate was small for the number of passengers on the plane, and L. and I ended up across the concourse, at another gate, next to an ever-growing line at a United customer service post. L. and I were sitting on the floor. “Are you in line?” asked a man. “No,” I said, “I’m just waiting for my flight.” After two more people asked me this question, I moved further down the concourse. The line at the customer service post kept growing, the questions as to my sitting intentions kept coming, and eventually I abandoned my post to standing so as not to be bothered.
Sitting on the floor across from our gate, L. helped another woman working on a word-puzzle in a magazine. I heard the attendant making an announcement at the gate, so walked over to hear, leaving my backpack with L., weaving through the huddled masses.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some bad news,” she said. I noticed her face. It was visibly unnerved. She paused with a knowing dread, like a character in a Lovecraft short story, only with a scarf around her neck instead of starched, frilly collar. “United has cancelled this flight.” It was midnight. A man screamed loudly, “What the hell??!!”
“I’m sorry. When I went down to the plane, everything was still a go. This news is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you,” she pleaded. She looked visibly pained. “What kind of customer service is this?” screamed a man. “Dammit!” yelped another man. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know why this has happened,” said the attendant. “I’m just as surprised as you. United will issue you all a voucher for a hotel,” she said. “But you need to go to customer service at C20. They will have your information there. Do not go the service post across from this gate.”
I watched the attendant. I won’t say that her face registered fear, but it did appear she was pained to report the news. She was weary, her long gray hair now frizzy with a swatch sticking to her forehead, glued by sweat. And in that moment, seeing her face, I felt a smidgeon of compassion. There was just nothing that she could do, and she wanted to do something, but there she was, in an impossible situation, and she knew it, and she wanted to avoid what could become—one could feel it—what could become a riot. I knew, like she did, that a riot was not likely, but we could feel the anger in the air. I felt a bit like I was it a situation comedy; I would have laughed if I had a second change of clothes in my backpack (I only had one change, and I already took advantage). The assembled slowly got up and ambled south on the concourse, toward C20, past the long row of glass brinks that refracted series of neon stripes in the color of a rainbow. “If you go to the customer service here, you’ll just be turned away. Please go to C20.”
Without any sense of haste I moved back to L. across the way, still working with a woman on her word puzzle, sitting on the floor. “United has cancelled our flight,” I said. “We’re supposed to go to the customer service at C20.” L. and the now friend-stranger were nonplussed. “What?” L. exclaimed. “Yeah, it’s cancelled. We gotta go,” I said.
We made our way to C-20; the line at customer service stretched down the concourse for at least two football fields. The shear length of the line was surreal; at least fifty-feet of the line consisted of a youth sports-team wearing yellow uniforms. Three customer service representatives were perched at computers, and there were at least two-hundred people waiting in the line before our plane-load joined the circus. “Look,” I said to L. “The line back at D8 is a fraction, I’m going there.” We decided we would each wait at both lines, pretending to be a couple. After I returned back down the concourse to the other customer service line, L. phoned me and we exchanged our confirmation numbers. While we waited, armed with my booking confirmation number L. managed to rebook both of us on a flight out the next day (or rather, that morning) at 9:00 a.m. on the phone. The only task, now nearing 1:00 a.m., was to secure someplace to sleep that night. The only way was a “voucher” for a hotel, and that required an interface with a United representative. “If you get to a person before I do,” said L., “be sure to get us two separate rooms.” The fact is that L. and I are friends and not a couple; we are both light sleepers, and I snore like a banshee. Strategically, however, we needed to pretend we were a couple to get through this.
An hour and a half passes, and I finally reach the customer service counter. United agents were pulling people from the customer service lines to gates in close proximity, and issuing vouchers there. I was pulled across the concourse to a gate by a middle-aged woman of Asian descent. Her English was poor, and we had some difficulty communicating. After a few minutes she issued me a voucher for a hotel room. I stated I needed two, another for my partner.
“Why you need two?” she asked.
“Because I snore,” I said. The actual reason was because L. was waiting in a different line way down the concourse. But I did have her confirmation number.
After some minutes, the woman said, “she was not on your flight.” She insinuated I was trying to get a free room voucher.
“No, she was on the flight,” I said. I supplied the confirmation number again.
What happened next was astonishing. The representative went “blank”—she just shut off. It’s almost as if I could see a switch flip in her head: she was no longer concerned with helping, she just wanted to be rid of me and, apparently, my deceit. It was 1:15 a.m. “I’m sorry, your partner is not in the system. There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “Maybe they can pull her up at customer service.”
“But you pulled me out of that line,” I said. “At least you can put me back in the front of the line you pulled me from?”
“No, I can’t,” she said curtly.
“M’am. I waited in that line for an hour and a half, and now you’re telling me you cannot pull up my partner’s information on the computer. I don’t think it is fair to make me go through another hour in the line again. Can’t you direct me to the front of the line?”
Angrily, with a huff, she grabbed my arm and escorted me across the concourse to the front of the line. Within ten minutes I had a new agent, and within five minutes from that L. was by my side, with her boarding pass. The agent was entertained by the confusion, it seemed, and I won’t go into details as I’ve blogged enough. Basically we had to tell the amused agent that we wanted to go, since we would miss the hotel shuttle if she didn’t let us go. Apparently when we were rebooked for a new flight we were erased from the system in a way that prevented our getting a voucher for the hotel. The short story is that I was issued the very last hotel voucher (at least seventy people behind us stranded and resigned to sleeping in the airport). We arrived at our room at 3:00 a.m., I slept on the couch and L. in the bed (if you can call it sleeping—neither of us did anything more than shut our eyes for couple of restless hours). On our way L. wanted to give our voucher to a couple with an infant who were stranded. That didn’t work out.
Obviously, we managed to make it back to Texas on Saturday.
What I cannot forget about this (all too common) ordeal was the way in which the first woman to help me shut down, and how this compared with the attendant that announced the flight cancellation. The woman who announced the flight cancellation was visibly pained; you could hear it in her voice, you could see it in her face. She felt terrible. But the woman who helped me, she felt nothing like empathy. She was cold. She had managed to find that place of indifference and shot up a wall of steely fortitude. I remember saying, in response to this perceived way, “M’am, I’ll hug you if you help me, and I give great hugs.” I laughed at saying it, but she was not amused. She was like stone.
In retrospect, I recognize my feelings were exacerbated by exhaustion; it’s pretty incredible how existential a dramatic reading of Cosmo in an airport pub can feel when you are going on very little sleep. Still, it’s also amazing how some United customer service representatives can become so callous and unyielding . . . one can only imagine it is a defense borne of years of mismanagement, of terrible service, of ugly and angry travelers. Since dedicating myself to the academic lifestyle, I’ve traveled frequently; never have I had such an unpleasant experience, nor met airline representatives so unyielding and rude. Last Friday/Saturday was, unquestionably, the worst travel experience of my life.
But as L. pointed out, on many occasions, there is cause for hope. Despite the ugliness of some travelers and airline representatives, we came across some amazingly good natured people. Rog, a medical student, was down right giddy about his two-hour stay in a five star hotel, which he gushed about at breakfast. The people in line with L. were friendly and helped her pass the time. A woman from Nigeria, who now worked with the VFA in Indianapolis, told me stories about unbearable turbulence on the descent into DC. A man waiting in line with us from the National Guard told us stories about training exercises in triple-digit heat. To be sure, being stranded in Dulles was a miserable experience; but L. pressed me to think about the good of people in all of this, that they pressed through optimistically, that given the choice between anger and resigned slap-happy, most people chose the latter.
I want to think that when given the choice of tragedy or comedy, most of us choose the latter. I want to, at least, no matter how I feel.
Music: Peter Gabriel: self-titled (1977)
On difficult days like these, I look forward to coming home to my dog. His name is Jesús. When I rescued him from death row, his name was Paco. That name just wasn’t right. Jesús suits him much better, and he answers to it.
Jesús is a twelve pound toy Xoloitzcuintli or “Xolo” (pronounced “show-low”), a native breed of Mexico. The breed is dubbed “primitive,” which is just dog-world speak for “older than most.” Folks here find him unique, however, his breed is not that rare the further south in the Americas you go. (Most sightings of the chupacabra are actually of Xolos.) How I ended up with him, like many strange and novel things in life, orbits a “break-up.”
Until three years ago, I didn’t understand the human-dog bond; I didn’t know how it worked. I’ve grown up with dogs, most of whom bit me (little, yappy dogs); I still have a scar on my face from a Scottish Terrier, and I remember a Doodle bite, and a dashound named Luke getting run-over when I was five (he also bit me). I liked the dogs my folks had when I was a kid, but I was always allergic to them. Whenever I played with the dogs, I was overcome with allergies. This reaction probably stood in the way of the true bond.
But then came Jesús.
I’ve been doing purebred rescue for Devonshire Rexes and Sphynx cats for almost ten years—the supposedly “hypoallergenic cats.” I adopted one of each when I was in graduate school because they didn’t set off my allergies and writing a dissertation is lonely business. I eventually got involved with rescue (at the request of a friend/breeder), and so . . . there you are. When I was in a relationship with someone I loved very much, we were having troubles, and I was asked by a rescue agency if I could foster this hairless dog, and I did, and the girlfriend fell in love with the dog, and . . . the story sort of tells itself. (I mean, at least we didn’t make a baby, right?) We broke up a few months after I adopted Jesús. Of course we did. And she was really the primary caretaker or at least the main lover of the beast, and now here I was, single with this “teenager” dog whom had been abused and was not housebroken. (To this day, if you take off a belt he cowers and shakes.)
Our first seven months together—the man and the dog—were rough. Jesús had a number issues. He had a back-door accident on the couch, which led to a $400 cushion replacement. He really liked to chew up my night guards (I’m a grinder), and we went through three (also $400 a piece). He barked incessantly. One night when playing on the bed, he literally peed in my face. I bought a $200 package of dog obedience training sessions, so that I could teach him not to jump up on people. After the third session—the one in which the trainers said, “small dogs are harder”—the one in which I came home almost in tears, I gave up on the training (it’s my fault—my not having the patience to train and doing things wrong, but all the other dogs were responding to training; I had the punk one.) The point is, having Jesús was becoming something of a full time job, in addition to my own, er, full time job.
A love affair with this dog I did not have. In fact, I started to think about adopting him out to someone with more patience and skill. I spent thousands of dollars repairing what he had destroyed. And he seemed constantly frightened of me.
But as he aged, he mellowed. So did I.
The bond happened on February 14th, 2008. I had a very bad day at the office. My boss had just relayed the news that, for a third year in a row, I was going to be passed over for a promotion for reasons political and not in our control. I was, to say the least, heartbroken and confused and upset. It’s one of those days in which you don’t remember how you got home—I’m sure I drove, I’m sure I was responsible, I just don’t remember the moments between leaving work and arriving at my house. I’m sure I poured a stiff one when I entered the door, and I don’t remember the dog greeting me. My self-pitying was singular in its determination.
I plopped on the couch and just laid myself out. I remember letting out an angry howl, and then starting to cry. Not a Hollywood cry, not some operatic expression of over-the-top grief, just a trickle of natural emotion, all the while recognizing that I needed to do it, that crying was a good thing, that the catharsis was the very thing called for, in that moment. Let it out; recover. Move-on. But let it out I must.
So I’m there on the couch (new cushion and all), my head resting on the arm. Here comes Jesús. He hopped up and walked on me, and I remember for an instant thinking this little guy was the last thing I needed (I’m sure he has a pile of poop in the house waiting for me to pick up). He crawled on my chest; I was on my back. He rested himself on my chest and put his paws around my neck, and just sat there. Staring. He was looking into my eyes, no doubt watery, with his little, black-beady eyes.
He got it. He didn’t know what “it” was about, but he felt it. And he was trying to console me in his own doggy way.
This dog, this dog whom I had struggled with for seven months, who had been an expensive force of destruction, was there spread-eagle on my chest, his arms around my neck, and then he laid his little snoot on my chest and sighed, his dark watery eyes mirroring my own, as if to sigh in return.
It was a moment. I will always remember this moment as the one in which I finally understood why people love their dogs.