Professors Get Summers Off; or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Being a college professor would be a great job! You do a little teaching, and get the summers off!

— frequently expressed misunderstanding

To be clear: being a professor is a great job. Since I elect not to teach during the summer, I can devote more — though not all — of my time to research and writing. But the main thing I get “off” during the summer is a paycheck. Kansas State University last paid me on May 24th, and my next check arrives on September 13th. (Classes begin tomorrow — Monday, August 26th.)

As part of my continuing efforts to dispel the surprisingly pervasive myth that academics lounge by the poolside all summer, here is how I spent my “summer vacation” this year.

Conferences. I gave two conference presentations, gave two invited talks, and co-chaired (and co-organized) one panel.  All were different, and but one all were new material.  So, I also wrote these.

  1. “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance” at the 40th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, on June 14th.
  2. “How, Where, and Why to Publish Your Book” (invited talk) at University of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) on June 24th.  This was a longer and revised version of “How to Publish Your Book,” which I first gave on a professional development panel at a Children’s Literature Association conference some years ago.
  3. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): cover“‘He came up thinking fast’; or, How does Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon work?” (also invited) at the University of Winnipeg’s Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium on June 25th. This was a labor of love for me. It aims to be a tour de force close-reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, revealing just how complex such an apparently “simple” book really is. I look forward to expanding it for publication.
  4. “Whiteness, Nostalgia, and Fantastic Flying Books: The Disappearance of Race in William Joyce” at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, on August 12th. This will form part of a book called Erasing Race in Children’s Literature.
  5. “Keywords for Children’s Literature: A Roundtable Discussion,” co-chaired with Lissa Paul, at the Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, on August 13th. As I note in my previous blog post, this panel was devoted to conceiving a second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011) — should sales of the current edition warrant — that better takes into account the broader, international world of children’s books.

Cost. I picked up maybe 40%-45% of the expenses for conferences. In addition to the three conferences where I presented (mentioned above), I also attended a fourth.  Here’s how it breaks down. (Dates include travel.)

  1. Children’s Literature Association Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi, June 12-16. Not covered by the university or sponsor of event. Kansas State University provides funds for less than one conference each year. So, at this point in the year, such conferences are always self-funded.
  2. Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 24-28. All expenses covered by organizers of event. Canada makes available far more public funds for the Humanities than the U.S. does, and the organizers won financial support for the conference.
  3. Comic-Con 2013Comic-Con in San Diego, California, July 17-22. As an Eisner nominee, I paid no registration fee. But the plane tickets, hotel, and food (except for the Eisner Awards banquet, which was covered) were all self-funded. For what I did and learned there, see my reports on Comic-Con 2013.
  4. Biennial Conference of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Maastricht, Netherlands, August 10-14.  Kansas State University has a fund to which one can apply (once a year) to fund international conferences. I got lucky this year, and over 90% of the expenses for this were covered! (I will this week submit my receipts for reimbursement.) For a report on the conference, see “Dutch Treat.”

Writing. I wrote two new essays, successfully expanded a third, and completed a failed revision on a fourth.  (What do I mean by “completed a failed revision”? I’ll explain in a moment.)  I also wrote — or, really, co-wrote — a fellowship proposal.

  1. “Children and Comics” was the sole piece connected to any of the conference presentations. It’s a radially recast “Manifesto for a Comics-Children’s Literature Alliance,” and will — if editors Bart Beatty and Charles Hatfield like it — appear in The Cambridge Companion to Comics next year.
  2. “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood.” It would have helped if I’d paid attention to the email inviting me to contribute this piece to a special section on Sendak. I’d thought the journal asked for a 4000-word piece, and so I wrote nearly 6000 words with the aim of trimming it down to 4000. Then I checked the email, and learned that the request was in fact for a 1500-word piece. Oops. With the assistance of Karin and of editors at the journal, I managed to get it down under 2000 words. maurice Sendak: two Wild Things and Max
  3. “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” is a revised and expanded version of the blog post by the same name. A journal’s editor read it and asked me to work up a longer version of it. I’ve really enjoyed working on it because it’s more autobiographical than what I usually write, and because it allows me to articulate more fully a vision of why children’s literature matters to people of all ages.
  4. Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat“Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s” continues to trudge along, though is currently stranded by the side of a lonely highway, hoping a tow truck shows up soon. (I’ve written previously about this ill-fated piece.) One reader asked for some revisions. I addressed those. No problem. The other reader said revise and resubmit, and that… has me stumped. On the one hand, I feel that the other reader may miss the point (which, of course, means I need to be clearer). On the other hand, I feel that I am missing the point and am hopelessly out of my depth. I’ve done all I can, and am now turning to others for assistance. Happily, a brilliant scholar and gifted writer has very kindly agreed to take a look and offer some guidance. (Not sure if that person would want to be named in this blog, but if you’re reading this, I’m grateful!  Dinner’s on me at ASA!)
  5. Marie Curie Fellowship. I frankly think I’m a long shot for this. But, Mick Gowar and Zoe Jaques kindly invited me to apply. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of others at Anglia Ruskin University, it’s submitted. If I get it, it will help fund my sabbatical year and relocate me to England. Note to non-academics: Every seven years, we can apply for a sabbatical: you get either one semester at full pay or a full year at half pay. I’m going for the full year and trying to make up the difference.

Another note to non-academics reading this: I don’t think I get paid for any of the essays. I may receive compensation for the Cambridge Companion piece (I’ve yet to see that contract), but academic publications typically do not pay. At best, you get a copy of the publication.

Also, while I’m calling the above “writing,” there is of course also research involved. Most of this I did myself, though I also employed Shaun Baker to seek articles for me. And I consulted him and Mark Newgarden on the “Children and Comics” piece, since they know comics better than I do. Thanks, Mark and Shaun! And thanks to Michelle Martin and Erica Hateley for sharing unpublished work that I cited in the William Joyce paper. Indeed, thanks to everyone else who has offered ideas or assistance! (As I write these words, I reflect upon how much I’ve learned from others — and, while I strive to acknowledge that in each work, I am also aware that a list of credits would impede readers of this post.)

Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy

Teaching. I choose not teach in the summer, but I do have to plan future classes. Speaking of assistance, I’m grateful to the experts I’ve consulted with questions about the graduate-level African American Children’s Literature course I’m teaching in the Spring of 2014. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this. Some courses we teach because we’re experts; others we teach because we want to become experts. For me, this course is definitely the latter. So, thanks to Gerald Early, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw Smith, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for sharing their knowledge.

Kristin Cashore, GracelingThe Fall 2013 courses are both ones that I’ve taught before. I changed some of the books on the Literature for Adolescents class, adding: Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Francisco X. Stork’s The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and this year’s “K-State First Book,” Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. The Harry Potter’s Library course remains roughly as it did the last time I taught it (2011). I say “roughly” because this time we’ll actually get to use Pottermore, which was still in beta in the fall of ’11.

Reviewing and editing manuscripts.  As editor for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture series, I edited four books, reviewed two manuscripts, and responded to five book proposals. I also reviewed a manuscript for a children’s literature journal.

Only one committee meeting!  For an internal grant administered by Kansas State University.  I had to review the grant proposals beforehand, but still — only one meeting is unusual for an academic. I doubt any of my peers had just one committee meeting this summer.

Other writing.  There’s correspondence with editors, authors I’m editing, my agent (who is also a friend), friends, other scholars, students, former students, future students, and people who kindly invite me to come and give talks.  I wrote one letter of recommendation for a colleague applying for a fellowship.  And things I’m forgetting, I’m sure.

Barnaby, Volume 1Barnaby! In May, while visiting friends and family in New England (more on that in a moment), I visited the Ruth Krauss Papers at the University of Connecticut to seek scans of a bonus item we’ll include in Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 (Fantagraphics, 2017). In Cambridge, I  stopped by Harvard’s archives for some reconnaissance on strips for Barnaby Volume Two: 1944-1945 (coming from Fantagraphics next year). There were several email exchanges on this, and I’m still working to hunt down a few rogue strips. I edited one of the essays that will appear in Volume Two, talked to a journalist or two about Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (published earlier this summer), and am currently in conversation about having a book party in October in NYC. There are other Barnaby-related developments that I’ll wait for Fantagraphics to announce.

Seuss TV. Also during that trip east, I taped an interview on Dr. Seuss with A&E Biography in NYC. I have no idea whether they’ll use the footage, but I had fun doing it.

headless blue musician, AmsterdamYes, I had fun. In May, I attended my twenty-fifth high-school reunion in Connecticut, and visited friends in New York City, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. That was great. In August, I went hiking with family in Switzerland (en route to the conference in Maastricht). While there, I also played with my niece (the subject of the Emily’s Library series). We read stories, played with a jar of buttons, and with Matchbox cars. I pushed her on the swing, and she served me many imaginary breakfasts, warning me each time “Be careful. It’s hot.” I also spent time with Emily’s mommy and daddy, my mother, her second cousin, and my cousin.  In Amsterdam, I also got to hang out with him and his partner.  He (my cousin) and I became reacquainted last summer after a 29-year gap. My family is spread out across the globe, and as we age I appreciate more and more the remaining time we have together.

My friends are also spread out around the planet. Since many are also academics or connected to publishing (comics, children’s books), conferences are not only learning experiences but a chance to catch up with people I care about.

They are of course learning experiences (see previous post), as are all of my travels. I visit museums and bookshops, walk along trails and through city streets, listen to and talk with people. While I sit in planes and trains, I read books, I read book proposals, I edit books, I write emails, and I write whatever the next thing is — the talk, the essay, the book.

It’s a great job, being able to learn and share what you learn. I’m fortunate to have work from which I derive meaning. Heck, part of my job this year was going to Comic-Con. Sure, it wasn’t free — but still!  AND I traveled to five US states and three other countries.*

I love my job.

But I don’t get summers off.

___________________

*  One of those countries and one of those states were strictly personal, not business. But that’s still a fair bit of travel.

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25 Years After; or, 10 Things I Learned at My High School Reunion

Philip Nel, fall 1987.I am not nostalgic for my high school years.  As a teen, I was acutely self-conscious, chronically insecure, often depressed.  Yes, I also experienced a wider range of emotions (including joy and laughter) during those years, but my dominant impression of teen-age-hood is gratitude at having survived it.

But I returned for my 25th reunion last week. After all, I did have a few close friends, and (via Facebook) have connected with a few others. How many more opportunities will I have to see them? So, I returned. Here are ten observations.

1. As adolescents, lots of people were insecure, full of doubt, consumed by self-loathing. This is not news, but it is affirming to hear others admit this. “I was so angry then,” one classmate told me.  Adolescence can be a confusing, volatile time.

2. Memory inheres in places. Many glimpses of the past. At the edge of an athletic field, I vividly remembered a conversation, one evening during the spring of my senior year. I know who I was talking to, can remember what we both were wearing, but have no idea what we were discussing. Walking past the Arts Center’s cement cavern, I remember its echo chamber where, we — the male a cappella group — sang earlier that same year, also in an evening. Standing almost anywhere on campus revived memories.

3. I can’t believe I once attended school here. Choate is an extraordinary place. It has an Arts Center, a Science Center, a Humanities Center, athletic buildings, classrooms, and dorms — all of which rival or surpass those in the best universities. I was a student here because my mother taught here, and children of faculty can attend for free. My parents otherwise could never have afforded such an education for my sister and me.

4. That most children lack access to such high quality education is morally wrong.  In addition to the school’s extraordinary facilities, the ratio of faculty to students at Choate is 6:1.  Most public high schools are at least 12:1, and some are as high as 22:1. In the past few decades, Choate made the decision to admit fewer students, in part (so I understand) so that it could achieve such favorable ratios. In contrast, at the national and state levels, government has been cutting funds to public schools, resulting in larger class sizes and worse ratios.

5. The Reunion Industrial Complex.  I suspect this is a phenomenon of elite private schools (and universities), but the reunion was a very swanky, very professional affair. There were huge tents on the Great Lawn (I’d no idea that lawn even had a name), catered meals beneath those tents, bartenders serving (free) drinks at all events, live music, and lots of waitstaff on hand. OK, it lacked ice sculptures, but the reunion otherwise had all the trimmings of a fancy wedding. It must have been very expensive. As one classmate remarked, “If they get a big donation, the reunion will pay for itself.”

6. Teachers made a big difference outside of class. This is a reminder to me, as a professor: often we help our students more as mentors than we do in the classroom. In another blog post, I talked about how the late Terry Ortwein’s decision to cast me in a minor role in Our Town allowed me to glimpse a different self: acting showed me how to shed my shyness and become more outgoing, confident, competent.

Of all my Choate teachers, my mother had the greatest influence on me. I had been languishing in public school until she began teaching in private schools (thus enabling me to attend gratis). Having arrived in kindergarten able to read and write, I found public school boring, never learned to study, and just coasted along — daydreaming, paying scant attention. This strategy worked well, … until it stopped working well, and my grades slipped. Public school culture emphasized getting by; private school culture emphasized not only doing the work but striving for excellence. Had my mother’s job not enabled me to attend private school, I doubt I’d have gone to college, much less graduate school.

The lessons of private school did not take immediately. Fortunately, John Ford, then a dean, allowed me to repeat my junior year at Choate. Doing so granted me the time to get my act together. (1) I was unlikely to pass three years of Russian, which I’d chosen as my foreign language. So, I switched to Spanish, completing three years’ worth in two years’ time — thanks to a semester in Spain. (2) I also started paying attention consistently, worked harder, and improved my grades to the point that I was able to get into a good college.

I’d forgotten that my Choate classmates sometimes wondered whether my sister and I were twins. We’re in the same graduating class because she started school a year early and I repeated a year. For many years, when people would ask me if Linda (who speaks five languages and runs marathons competitively) were older, I would reply: “Only in terms of accomplishments. In terms of age, I’m actually two years older.”

7. Professionally, many people have found their niche in life. It may not have been the job they imagined themselves doing, but they find it’s a good fit for who they are. Lobbyist, teacher, IT professional, intellectual-property lawyer, stay-at-home mom, personal trainer, actor, director of community relations for Google, Oscar-winning screenwriter, executive producer of The Life of Pi. Yes, those last few are more exceptional than typical. But a number of my classmates are quite high-powered people. It’s very impressive!

8. No one works 9-to-5 anymore. I often think that my 60-hour weeks, in which I work during evenings & weekends, are typical for an academic, but unusual in the rest of the working world. However, such a “flexible” work schedule (in which work expands to fill any available time) is normal in most careers. This is one reason that it’s hard for us to describe what we do. We are all of us multi-tasking, juggling life and work, constantly in motion.

9. Only connect. . . (yes, I’m quoting E.M. Forster). I of course enjoyed catching up with people who I knew, but I also enjoyed catching up with those I did not know. During the weekend, I actually made a few new friends — which, as we grow older, is too rare an occurrence.

10. As the song says, “The years go by, as quickly as a wink. / Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think).” I don’t mean embrace hedonism, but rather we are here now, and then we are gone. Several times during the weekend, I found myself thinking: It is good to be here, right now, in this moment.

I hope all of you fare well over the years to come, though I know not all of you will. I hope to see everyone in the future, though I know some of us will not cross paths again. I hope that you find meaning and purpose in your life, that you nurture your friendships and relationships, that you love and are loved.

*  *  *  *  *

The day after the reunion, I visited a friend whose job prevented her from attending. She was on call that weekend — she’s an M.D. who specializes in geriatrics. Or, as her spouse (an M.D. in pediatrics) puts it, “She has a 100% mortality rate.” Though that can be hard, it’s also very fulfilling. She (and sometimes her children) get to meet people in their 80s, 90s, 100s — people who’ve lived long lives and have stories to tell.

Except for one. She told me of a man, very accomplished in his field. I forget the precise job, and (for reasons of confidentiality) should alter the specifics anyway. But he was the president of a major insurance company or corporation, a very wealthy man. In devoting time to his career, he neglected his friendships and relationships. At the end, he lay there dying, not surrounded by friends and family — but quite alone. He turned to my friend, and asked “Is that it?” Then he died.

My wish for everyone is this. Live well so that, before you face that final curtain, you have something more to say.


Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988Image source: Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988.  Yes, back before the social media phenomenon of Facebook, the school each fall published a Facebook — for each student, a photo, name, address (both on and off-campus), and class year (or academic speciality, in the case of faculty).  The photo above comes from the Facebook of my final year at Choate.

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, and neighbors read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue to live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

Exactly.

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

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Moomin Merchandise

Occasionally, publishers and authors send me children’s books. When time and interest coincide (alas, too infrequently), I review them and post my reviews here. More often, I write reviews of books I’ve bought. I do not review children’s-book-related tie-ins. I view such products with some skepticism, and have written critically about merchandising that targets children.

But I really like the Moomin products that Chronicle Books sent me — sent each of us Niblings, in fact — to congratulate us on the launch of our new blogging group. They’re adorable. Tasteful. Nicely produced. And, yes, they’re an appropriate gift for a group of bloggers who have named themselves after a minor character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

If you do not know the Moomin books, you will want to read this post before reading further.  Take your time.  I’ll wait.

Moomin Notecards (Chronicle Books)Back? Well, to continue: I find myself puzzled at why I feel more comfortable admiring my new Moomin notecards than I would, say, a package of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Why does it feel “OK” to blog about these Moomin goodies but not the latest Potter merchandise?

One could argue that it’s because Moomin marketing is less ubiquitous than Harry Potter marketing. There may be something to that argument, but the Moomins are hardly obscure.  Sure, people in the U.S. are less Moomin-literate than the rest of the world, but Jansson’s characters are globally recognized. There are books, animated cartoons, stores of merchandise, and even an amusement park (in their creator’s native Finland). So, I don’t think it’s just fetishizing a pop cultural obscurity. Moomins are world famous.

Nostalgia, then? As Julie Sinn Cassidy argues in “Transporting Nostalgia: Little Golden Books as Souvenirs of Childhood” (2008), the Little Golden Books “function as snapshots, souvenirs, or relics of an imagined ideal of childhood,” and are often marketed to adult readers as such (148). While nostalgia also underwrites Moomins’ marketability, I never read Jansson’s books when I was a child. I first read them in my mid-20s. My wife grew up on them, and — as my scholarly interests shifted to children’s literature — she introduced me to the Moomin stories.  So, for me at least, childhood nostalgia falls short as an explanation.

Moomin journal (Chronicle Books)To say that these items have been tastefully made moves us into highly subjective aesthetic areas, but the designers have created products with an aesthetic that closely matches Tove Jansson’s.  I’m sure that good design is one reason for their appeal, but it feels insufficient.

The answer comes, as it often does, from Henry Jenkins. My relationship to Jansson’s Moomin characters is that of what he calls the “aca-fan,” a “hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic.” I simply like the Moomin characters and stories. They make me happy, in the way that the Mills Brothers’ recording of “Funiculi Funicula” does, or Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon does. And Chronicle Books’ Moomin products are kinda cool.  If you’re a Moomin fan, you’ll probably enjoy these, too.

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A Brief Inquiry Into the Paradoxes of Academic Achievement

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)When I started writing what was then a biography of Crockett Johnson (back in the late 1990s), I thought: When I finish this, I really will have achieved something. Even as I wrote other books, I continued to think of the biography — which became a double biography of Johnson and Krauss — as The Big Achievement. Sure, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (my third book, published 2004) was OK, and, yes, the media attention it received was certainly flattering. But the biography would be the Truly Important Work.

So, you might (or might not) be asking: (1) Why make this distinction between the biography and my other work? (2) Do I still make this distinction? (3) And, now that the biography is published, does it feel as “Truly Important” as I thought it would?

1. Why make this distinction?

The degree of original research required far surpassed that needed for my other books. I interviewed over 80 people, investigated over three dozen archives and special collections, read everything written by or about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, and consulted additional hundreds of articles and books. I looked at birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, century-old insurance company maps, and Johnson’s FBI file. If I hadn’t gathered (some of) this information, it would be lost forever. Coping with the mortality of one’s sources is a big challenge for the biographer. Maurice Sendak, Remy Charlip, Syd Hoff, Mischa Richter, Else Frank (Johnson’s sister), Mary Elting Folsom (author who knew Johnson in the 1930s), Gene Searchinger (filmmaker who knew them both), and so many others taught me much about Johnson and Krauss. They have since passed away. If I hadn’t recorded their stories, that information would be gone.

The biography has been more challenging than any other project I’ve tackled, bar none. As I’ve observed before (probably on this blog, and certainly in the talk I gave last month at the New York Public Library), a biography is a jigsaw puzzle, but this puzzle has no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you’ll need. There are also the challenges of creating character, knowing which details to omit, and finding a narrative structure. Life has no narrative, but biography has to have a narrative. I have no training in creative writing, but — for this book — I had to try to think like a creative writer.

In sum, there are reasons that a biography takes so long to write….

2. Do I still make this distinction?

Dr. Seuss: American IconSort of. The distinction reflects a tendency to devalue the discipline in which I was trained — the sense that Dr. Seuss: American Icon, though it does draw on considerable original research, is ultimately “just interpreting texts.” In contrast, rigorous historical research, actually uncovering new information, is much more important work. But I say “sort of” because of course there are truly insightful ways of interpreting texts, illuminating formal strategies, transformative critical approaches — Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence is one such book. It’s a paradigm-shifter. As I’ve noted before, I don’t have the kind of mind that writes a paradigm-shifting book.

My strength is that I work hard. A biography plays to that particular strength — and perhaps this is one reason that it interests me. It interests me for other reasons, too (the “detective work” part, for example). But it is one intellectual arena where I can do something well: work really hard. Superior intelligence may elude me, but I can put in the hours! So, in some ways I still make the distinction (the amount of research, the box-less puzzle, etc.), but in other ways I do not.

3. Now that it’s published, does it feel like such a Big Achievement?

The response (mostly positive) has been a good feeling. In addition to nice reviews from Anita Silvey, Roger Sutton, Maria Tatar, Kirkus, and the Wall Street Journal, other Notable People Whose Work I Admire have been very complimentary. With apologies for the name-dropping, those people include Chris Ware (who also created the beautiful cover), Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, Lane Smith, Susan Hirschman, George Nicholson, and Michael Patrick Hearn. Given that Maurice Sendak even responded positively to an early, detail-clogged, incomplete draft, it is of course possible that these folks are simply being kind, and forgiving the book’s many infelicities (as I expect Maurice was). But I’m accepting their kind assessments as genuine because, well, it makes me happy to do so!

That said, as I’ve documented on this blog, the editing process was not entirely harmonious. Some cuts were good ones; others were not. My copy-editor was an historian by training; I needed a writer of fiction. My changes to her edits resulted in some errors, including (as one audience member pointed out at the NYPL last month) a typo in the first sentence. The press refused to change some errors I found in the page proofs (though it did change others). The paperback is priced not at $27, as I had originally been told it would be, but at $40 — this makes it harder to schedule signings because who buys a $40 paperback? These problems make me not want to think about the book at all.

I realize that I should let this go. Publishers introduce errors into manuscripts. Bureaucracies do not always function smoothly. Humans are prone to error, fatigue, and failures of judgment.

Fortunately, despite my irritations, the book does feel like an achievement. Given how long it took to write (I started in 1999), it is thus far my life’s work. It is a big deal.

But there is little time to dwell upon one’s achievements. There are new projects (such as The Complete Barnaby, volume 1 of which is due out early next year), tenure-and-promotion letters to write, letters of recommendation to write, (other people’s) book proposals to review and manuscript to edit, (my) conference abstracts to create and talks to write, planes to catch, meetings to attend, syllabi to revise, syllabi to invent, papers to grade, classes to teach, students to meet. Being an academic is a great job, the work is rewarding, and I feel privileged to do it — even though I rarely have the time to notice those rewards or recognize that privilege. It’s one of the paradoxes of being a professor.

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Stayin’ Alive

Yield to bicycle (sign)While riding my bike last Tuesday morning, a car hit me.  It was 7:45 am, I was cycling uphill and due west.  A car coming due east — blinded by the sun, the driver later told me — took a left turn and hit my bicycle on its (and my) left side.  Fortunately, neither of us were moving quickly.  She had slowed for her turn, and I can’t go as fast up a hill.  It’s also fortunate that I was standing up on the pedals.  I don’t know precisely what happened at the moment of impact.  I remember thinking: “Oh, #@$!! I can’t believe this car is going to hit me!” Next, I was getting up off the pavement, left knee bloody and right knee bruised.  My bicycle lay to my left, wheels and crankshaft bent, and left pedal broken.  I say it’s fortunate that I was standing up because I deduce that the car must have knocked me off my bike — when standing up, pedaling, less body is intertwined with bike than would be in the sitting-down-pedaling position. Thus, I found myself getting up off the pavement, and not from under bike or car.  More importantly, my bicycle absorbed the impact of the car.  My body’s (minimal) injuries derived from the pavement more than the car.

After realizing that I was only a little scraped and bruised, and (alas) cursing at the driver (whose remorse quickly shamed me into apologizing for my rudeness), my next thought was: “Hey, I should be able to exercise again in a couple of days!  Excellent!”  (And I was able to.)  It took an hour or so for “Hey, I’m really lucky to be alive!” to sink in.

I mention this because, in reading Jesse Goldberg’s “Injuries and my fears of aging,” I realize my primary response to aging has been to exercise more and with greater regularity.  In my 40s, I exercise more than I did in my 30s; in my 30s, I exercised more than I did in my 20s. Why? The older you get, the harder it is to start exercising again.  I know that, if I were to stop, I would quickly lose a lot of ground.  As a cross-country runner in high school, I could take the summer off and, within a week, get back into shape.  I can’t do that now.

To be clear, I was not and have never been a great athlete: I got a varsity letter in cross-country my senior year only because I kept showing up (I never once placed in a varsity race). But, as an adult, if I exercise regularly, I feel healthier, I can do my job better, and I sleep better — well, inasmuch as a neurotic person like myself ever sleeps better (I have a hard time “turning off” at the end of the day.  Too much on my mind). The “life of the mind” — writing, teaching, research, service — isn’t designed for one’s health. We spend far too much time sitting at a computer, in meetings, in archives, at conferences, and on planes.  We spend far too much time sitting. One can even sit while teaching, although I generally do not.

Though keeping in shape allows me to function in the ways that I did when I was younger, it also doesn’t.  As I age, my body becomes more prone to injury.  My “exercise more!” response to aging also requires me to pay greater attention to my body.  For the last year, I’ve been seeing a chiropractor regularly, and — since my mid-30s — have had to go to physical therapy for the occasional injury.  I’ve had to adjust the way I run (calf-muscle troubles), and adjust the way I sit at the computer (neck troubles).  Before bed each night, I am now obliged to go through a sequence of stretches so that my body can continue to function as I would like it to.

Unlike Mr. Goldberg, I do not fear aging. I fear Alzheimer’s. I fear living in a permanent vegetative state. And, yes, I’m not looking forward to death. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s line: “It’s not that I’m afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  But aging itself?  As long as I have my health (or most of it), aging is fine. To paraphrase the cliché, aging is far better than the alternative.

In addition to leaving me very happily not-dead, the car inflicted no lasting damage. The driver kindly took me to the emergency room, where medical professionals examined me, treated the open wound, made sure I was OK.  Since then, my left knee has scabbed over nicely, and skin is growing back. The bruised muscle above my right knee (lower thigh muscle, really) is nearly 100%, and the post-accident muscle stiffness has receded.  The driver’s insurance paid for the damage to my bicycle, and Pathfinder (great local bike shop) has already repaired the bike. This was, without question, the best possible outcome of a car striking a bicycle.  I’m very fortunate.  (In sum: do not worry.  I am fine.)

In any case, this post is less about the accident and more about my (ultimately futile) attempts to slow the inevitable decline and fall of my body.  It’s about fighting aging via exercise.  I know will eventually lose this fight, but it’s a battle worth waging.

(And, yes, this blog will return to its more typical — i.e., not autobiographical — posts very soon.)


But first,… a few thematically related songs.

Abdominal‘s “Pedal Pusher” (2007) may be the greatest bicycling song ever.  Love this.

For another great exercising song, let’s turn to Darrow Fletcher‘s funky gem from 1977, “Improve.”

Since I took the post’s title from their song, let’s give a listen to the Brothers Gibb (two of whom are no longer staying alive, I’m sorry to say).  Here’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which was also released in 1977.

What’s that you say?  You’ve never heard the heavy-metal cover of “Stayin’ Alive”?  We’ll have to fix that now.  Here’s… Tragedy!

Wyclef Jean also did a great tribute / cover in “We Trying to Stay Alive” (1997) — which in the video, also has a nice homage to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”

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Summertime, and the Living Is Busy

Seth, Its a Good Life, If You Don't WeakenThe week’s chronicle of precisely how an academic (specifically, me) spends each summer day is now complete. Those who followed this admittedly dull exercise might have some questions. Those who couldn’t bear following it can save themselves both time and tedium by skimming through the Q+A below.

Q: How many hours did you work this week?

A: 56 hours, 15 minutes.

Q: Oh, come on.  Surely, you exaggerated your work hours.

A: Oddly enough, I did the opposite. About halfway through the week, I noticed that I was underreporting my time.  I did not go back and adjust my daily totals upward, but I was — in the latter half of the week — more willing to count as work both (a) work that was fun, and (b) work that I hadn’t fully realized was work.  To explain, the great benefit of this job is that it’s genuinely interesting.  I ended up not counting seeing The Avengers, but part of my job actually is keeping up with popular culture connected to comics and to children’s literature. So, I could have counted that. The parts of my job that are tedious are easy to notice as work, but the parts that aren’t tedious sometimes slip by unnoticed.  For example, I do write during a jog or in the shower — this happens in my head, and I write it down later.  While doing something mundane, I will often also be thinking of something connected to my work.

I also underreported a bit because that’s just what I tend to do. If I lose track of how many sit-ups I’ve done, then I just add another ten. That is, if I think I’ve done 50, but I’m not sure, then I’ll count myself as only being at 40, and keep going. It’s dispositional.

Q: Were you surprised by how much time you spent working?

A: Yes.  I spent more time working than I thought I would.  I believed that, during the summer months, I would actually spend less time working than I do during the school year — say 40-hour or maybe 50-hour weeks, instead of 60-hour weeks.  I did spend less time working than during the school year, but only by a little bit.  This surprised me.

More surprising is how difficult it is to track academic labor. There’s no off-switch. Lots of small tasks overlap with larger ones. One item temporarily interrupts another, which then leads you to a third before you resume working on the first. And thinking never stops.

Q: How’s life in the panopticon? 

A: One of the greatest things about having concluded this experiment is that I’m out of that %$#! panopticon. As I noted the last time I did this experiment, I do not enjoy living in a glass cage. I don’t like making my daily life quite so public. However, once I commit to something, I follow it through to the end. So,… I felt I had to continue until the week concluded. I hope this exercise achieved its (admittedly modest) goal of making summertime academic labor visible, but I don’t plan to do it again.

Q: But doesn’t living under the panopticon make you more productive?

A: Maybe. It makes you more conscious of how you use each minute. But it also makes it harder to relax, harder to take the time to think deeply. In some ways, the experience simply amplifies my neuroses.

Q: Oh, come on. Do you really think your week-long summer diary is going to change anyone’s mind?

A: Realistically, I think it unlikely. But academics have to try to explain what our job entails. The general public thinks we have summers off, and (since the vast majority of us teach at what are euphemistically called “state” institutions) are thus living it up on the taxpayer’s dime. In truth, we do work during the summers, and most of us do not get paid for that work. As noted in my first post, the university does not pay me during the summers. If I elected to teach summer classes, it would. However, as many “state” universities do, Kansas State University dos not classify time spent doing research or service as labor for which one should be compensated.  I intend that as a criticism of the system in general, and not of Kansas State University in particular. Indeed, I keep placing “state” in inverted commas because only 23%-24% of the university’s budget comes from the state. The state’s decision to divest from public higher education has left erstwhile public universities with little money for salaries or even for general maintenance. But, we live in a representative democracy, and the majority of Kansans voted for a governor hell-bent on cutting taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, but raising the cost of living for everyone else — all while creating massive budget deficits. This is neither sound fiscal policy nor sound social policy. However, these are the policies under which higher education (and all publicly supported social endeavors) must exist — or not.

Q: Still, though, being a professor is a good gig, right?

A: Yes, it really is. I’m fortunate to have work which I find meaningful. Any career is going to be more demanding than an ordinary job. Doctor, musician, teacher, lawyer, artist, paleontologist, writer — if it’s a career, it’s part of your identity. And we’re more willing to invest in work if it’s part of who we are.

Q: You certainly listen to a lot of different music.

A: I do! I enjoy all (or nearly all) varieties of music. And I’m glad to have a bit more time to listen to music during the summers. So, let’s conclude with another song.  Here’s a song I discovered via Seth’s It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken. That book’s title references a WWI-era phrase which became the title of the song “It’s a Great Life (If You Don’t Weaken)” (lyrics by Leo Robin, music by Richard Whiting and Newell Chase).  Performing the song, here’s Lou Gold and His Orchestra, with a vocal by Irving Kafuman.

To experience the full tedium of this week’s chronicle, you might explore the links below, where you’ll also find another, equally tedious, week-long public diary.

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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Friday

The very last day of my summertime academic chronicle.  The work will go on, but I’m only recording a week’s worth of it on the blog.  If you’re just tuning in, for the past week (starting on Saturday), I’ve kept track of my daily activities in order to answer the age-old question: What do professors do all summer?  Tomorrow, I’ll offer a few reflections on the whole experience.  But, for now, here’s what I did on …

Friday, 18 May 2012

12:00 – 12:05 am.  Was so absorbed in the comics-and-picture-books essay that I didn’t notice the hour had passed midnight.  Am going to send to Charles Hatfield for his input.  I think it’s developed nicely, and (fortunately) remains below the 5000 words we’ve been allocated for this issue.  But, you know, one could always benefit from a second set of eyes!

12:05 – 12:30 am. Finished yesterday’s post.  Shared it with Facebook & Twitter.  Emailed Charles H. a copy of that essay.

12:30 – 12:45 am. Washed some dishes in sink, started dishwasher for others. Put away some of the books I was working with today.

12:45 – 1:30 am. Evening ablutions, bed, read G. Neri and Randy DuBurke’s Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (2010), which I’m considering for the fall’s graphic novel class (thanks to Gretchen Papazian for the suggestion!).

8:05 – 8:40 am.  Got up, checked email.  Enjoyed a brief video of niece Emily (thanks to sister Linda!). Logged into Facebook & answered an email there.  Read Francisco X. Stork’s essay on depression (hat tip to Jules Walker Danielson). Very good piece, whether or not you’ve ever struggled with depression.  Read it.  Also read Stork’s books.  I’ve only read two, but both — The Last Summer of the Death Warriors and Marcello in the Real World — are really good. I also checked out the schedule of Hillary Chute’s comics extravaganza. Spiegelman keynote tonight!  Going to watch on-line.

8:40 – 9:00 am.  Jumping jacks, stretched, etc.  Getting off to a later start this morning.

9:00 – 9:50 am.  Ran 4 miles, and did the exercises at the playground en route — one set of chin-ups, one of upside-down-push-ups.  I’m sure the latter has a real name, but I don’t know what to call it.  If anyone is confused and wishes not to be, I described the exercise on Saturday’s post.  Today’s was a more contemplative, slower sort of run.  Noticed a yellow and black… finch?  Small bird.  Saw four bunnies (technically, hares) during the course of my run, which is more than I’d’ve expected, given my late start. (Bunnies, a.k.a. hares, are nocturnal.) During the run, in my head, I also started to write the Sendak book proposal and table of contents.  This is one reason why it’s hard to keep track of work time.  I’m always thinking, and often such intellectual labor is connected to my professional work. Jeff Smith, Bone vol. 1: Out from Boneville

9:50 – 10:30 am.  Checked email, discovered that the scans of Jeff Smith’s art have arrived (in my campus mail box) from Cartoon Books.  Thanks, Kathleen!  This means that I can get the Moby-Dick-and-Bone article (co-written with Jennifer Hughes) submitted today.  Or, I hope it means that.  The only question I have is: will the journal’s website be able to cope with such a large image size?  Decided I should write down some of the book proposal before it leaves my head — though I don’t honestly think it will.  I think it’s incubating, and will continue to develop, whether or not I write anything down.  Spent some time writing down a few notes.  Realized I was hungry.

10:30 – 10:45 am.  There will be no post-running exercises today.  Breakfast & writing.  This is one way in which the scholarly process is similar to the creative process: you write because you have an idea.  You do not write because you know it’s a good idea or because someone will want to publish your idea.  You write because the idea is there and must be expressed.  As I noted in this blog’s inaugural post, I’ve had many ideas for books.  Nearly half of all my proposed books have not found a publisher.  I don’t yet know what will become of this one.

10:45 – 10:50 am.  Cleaned up some of the html in yesterday’s post.  I noticed that there wasn’t a space between each entry, and, in the html, discovered that “div” tags seem to be the culprit.  Where did they come from?  I don’t know.  I’ve removed them, and now the page looks fine.

10:50 – 11:00 am.  Responded to email (professional).

11:00 – 11:25 am.  Checked into Facebook.  Read this and this, both of which are related to my job.  From the first piece (a smart essay by Stephen J. Mexal) we learn that “When conservatives declare that English classes don’t teach literature anymore, what they’re really trying to do is deprofessionalize the profession of college-level English.”  We also learn that Andrew Breitbart continues to be an idiot.  From the second (a report on an academic Harry Potter conference), we learn that some scholars of older popular literature (Shakespeare, say) wish to delegitimize the study of newer popular literature and of books for children. The article also provides strong evidence that John Mullan may be a fool.  The article quotes Mullan as saying: “I’m not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups. … It’s all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study.”  He also says that academics “should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”  Hmm, “fool” is not quite the right epithet.  The word “ignorant” better describes Professor Mullan, as would the words “completely unqualified to offer such pronouncements.”

11:25 – 11:35 am.  Up next, after my shower: Routledge editorial work.  Figured out what I need to look at.  Have two items which require responses — these only date from earlier in the month, and both are revisions.  After I respond to these, I will be caught up with Routledge work.

11:35 – 11:45 am.  Responded to tweets regarding that asinine quotation from Professor Mullan, which prompted Natalia Cecire to share her Cecire’s First Law of Journalism About Academia. Natalia Cecire on media and academe

Too true.

11:45 – 12:10 pm.  Shower, shave, dress.

12:10 – 12:40 pm. Misc. email.  Thanks to Jules Walker Danielson, read Richard Michelson’s remembrance of Maurice Sendak.  Hadn’t seen this one!  Added link to bottom of this page.  Also wrote to see if I could purchase a copy of Hunger Mountain‘s special June issue on Maurice Sendak.  Wrote back to Jules, too.

12:40 – 12:45 pm.  Added another sentence to the comics-and-picture-books essay.  Thought I was “done” with this draft.  Apparently not. Ho Che Anderson, King

12:45 – 2:00 pm.  Lunch.  Started reading Ho Che Anderson’s King: A Comics Biography (Special Edition, 2010; orig. published 1993-2002), and in fact spent most of this segment of time reading it.  I’m considering this book for my graphic novels class.  It’s excellent.  The sole problem is that the hardcover costs $35.  I didn’t see a paperback.  I prefer not to assign hardcover books.  I made an exception once to assign Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, but that was much less costly.  And I still want to see Kuijer’s novel come out in paperback.

2:00 – 2:30 pm. Finally getting down to the Routledge work!  But… not doing well at it.  Falling asleep sitting up. Too tired to focus properly.

2:30 – 3:00 pm. Nap.

3:00 – 3:45 pm.  Energized by nap, was able to offer much more clear response.  One report done!  Also wrote another professional email on a different subject.

3:45 – 4:45 pm.  Responded to another Routledge piece.  Also, a little after 4, tuned into WFMU (on-line, via iTunes radio), caught Laura Cantrell hosting & playing records by Ana Egge (“Bad Blood,” “Hole in Your Halo”), The Mastersons (“Tell Me It’s Alright”), Lianne Smith (“Bicycle”), Chris Erickson (“All I Need”).  Really great alt-country.  Richard Flynn would enjoy this.  Also enjoyed Sara Watkins’ “You and Me.”

4:45 – 4:55 pm. Internet issues.  Rebooted the cable box & the wireless router.  Everything’s working except for my MacMail (and thus I cannot send my second Routledge report).  Can’t figure out why, but suspect that Kansas State University’s email is down again.  Tried rebooting.

4:55 – 5:05 pm.  Fundraising call from Obama for America.  The president has been more a politician than the statesman I hoped he would be.  However, I support the human rights of gays and lesbians (which include the right to marry, and to serve openly in the military), I appreciate his understanding that trickle-down economics is a myth (even if he failed to pursue repeal of what I now think of as the Bush-Obama Tax Cut), I support his efforts to reform health care (even if they did not go far enough and may well be struck down by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court), am glad he has gotten us out of Iraq (and wish he would also withdraw troops from Afghanistan, too).  In sum, if his record is mixed, he has had significant accomplishments, and is certainly better than Governor Mitt “I’ll say anything” Romney.  So, I made a modest contribution to his re-election effort — which, by my estimation, has about a 50-50 chance of succeeding.

5:05 – 5:25 pm.  Rebooting seems to have worked.  I can send email again.  Wrote up some of the preceding.

5:25 – 5:40 pm.  Guitar.  Played a bit more of “Dancing in the Dark” (Springsteen) before hand forced me to abandon the effort.  It’s definitely improving, but just not as fast as I’d like.  Played “Run On for a Long Time” (traditional, Moby’s “Run On” samples the version by Bill Landford & The Landfordaires, but the Blind Boys of Alabama have a great version as does Johnny Cash [under the title "God's Gonna Cut You Down"]), “She’s Got a New Spell” (Billy Bragg), and “Bizarre Love Triangle” (New Order).

5:40 – 6:00 pm.  Professional email sent. Also started on submitting the images for the Moby-Dick-&-Bone article.

6:00 – 6:30 pm.  Tuned in to HillaryCon, in anticipation of Art Spiegelman’s talk. Finished uploading Moby-Dick-&-Bone article.

6:30 - 8:00 pm.  Turned full attention to HillaryCon, so I could watch as well as hear her intro & then Art Spiegelman’s talk.  Really fantastic conversation between WJT Mitchell and Art Spiegelman.  My hope is that — in addition to being broadcast — it has also been recorded.  I also took notes.

“I discovered the parody before I knew the original”

— Art Spiegelman on MAD

“It’s important to have work that isn’t easy to assimilate”

— Art Spiegelman on comics & the classroom (one of his concerns was that, in gaining legitimacy, and finding their way into the classroom, some comics [a.k.a. graphic novels] are written to be taught rather than to be art)

“If children like something, adults get very concerned and try to control it.”

— Art Spiegelman (this quote, for me, also explains any attempt to ban or otherwise regulate a popular children’s book)

“I learned to read trying to figure out whether Batman was a good guy or a bad guy”

— Art Spiegelman, in the context of comics now being seen as an aid to literacy (and also alluding to Toon Books).

“In 1908, you could easily earn $20 to $200 as a cartoonist. What’s amazing is that it’s still true!”

— Art Spiegelman, in a remark inspired by an 1908 advertisement he had projected up on the screen.

“The avant-garde of comics is moving very much into the visual side of comics.”

— Art Spiegelman, on where comics is headed in the future.

“I have to get past my schoolboy snarl and admit that it’s not only bad stuff that happens in classrooms.”

— Art Spiegelman, responding to a question about an earlier comment he’d made on having comics taught in classrooms

I know what it’s like to have the technology not work as planned, but Art Spiegelman’s frustration with the latest version of PowerPoint particularly resonated with me.  He had everything all ready to go on an earlier version of PowerPoint, but the new version (on the computer up on stage) removed the control he’d been expecting.  This is exactly why Microsoft products are so frustrating.  Each new iteration screws something up from a previous iteration.  It’s always one step forward and two steps back.  Or, to be more accurate, it’s one step forward, and the menu you need to take the two steps back is now hidden under a new category which you can find if you place your mouse over that word, or, as a short cut, over an entirely different word, or, etc. etc.

Let me also say that Chris Ware’s poster for the conference is a thing of beauty.  (Click for a larger image.  No, seriously.  You have to click on it.  It’s amazing.)

Chris Ware, Comics: Philosophy and Practice

8:00 – 8:20 pm.  Wrote up the preceding.

8:20 – 8:45 pm.  Responded to couple of Facebook items, but most of this time was devoted to professional correspondence (which, yes, is also personal because, as I frequently have mentioned in this chronicle, most of my colleagues are also my friends!).

8:45 – 9:00 pm.  Started drafting reflections on this week’s experiment.  Am counting this as work, but you can deduct it, if you like.

detail from Chris Ware's cover of my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (2012)9:00 – 9:20 pm.  Made Chris Ware’s cover of my forthcoming biography my “cover photo” on Facebook. He does such beautiful work. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I’ve never had such a beautiful cover for one of my books, and nor am I likely to ever again. Also looked at photos of my niece Emily, via my sister’s Facebook page.  And chose a couple of videos to end this day’s post.

9:20 – 9:30 pm.  Continued drafting some reflections on this week’s experiment.

9:30 – 10:00 pm.  Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop.  Kept drafting those reflections.  Also checked into Facebook again because I wanted to find an article I saw earlier.

10:00 – 10:25 pm.  More professional correspondence (some of which, yeah, is personal, for noted before, etc.).

10:25 – 10:45 pm. Couldn’t resist tinkering further with the comics-&-picture-books essay. And so,… I did. Evidently, I am not done with it.  Also more correspondence.  Received from Eric the list of Barnaby strips we have.  I now need to go through and figure out which ones we’re missing.

10:45 – 11:25 pm. Read more of Ho Che Anderson’s King: A Comics Biography, which is really well done.

11:25 – 11:45 pm. Correspondence.  My friendly email debate with Michael Patrick Hearn continues.  I don’t think either of us is convincing the other one, but it’s a conversation worth having (or I hope so, anyway).

11:45 – 12:00 pm.  Started dishwasher.  Looked at this photo of the comics “brain trust” at HillaryCon. Wish I were there!  Also: Preparing for bed!

Coming tomorrow: Reflections on this week’s experiment.

Total hours worked: 10 hours, 30 minutes.

I’d embed the Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love”  here, but YouTube has disabled embedding “by request” (by request from whom? Polydor posted the video).  My next thought was Serge Gainsbourg’s video for “Comic Strip” (featuring Brigitte Bardot), but embedding has also been disabled for that one.  So, instead here’s one of Gainsbourg and Mireille Darc lip-synching “Comic Strip” on French TV.

Or, if you prefer a song with a specific “Friday” reference, you might like last season’s Sing-Off contestants performing a mash-up of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” and Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night.”  Sadly, NBC has cancelled The Sing-Off.

What’s that you say?  You haven’t had your fill of banality?  Well, then, you might explore the links below.  If symptoms persist, please consult your physician.  Thank you.

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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Thursday

Welcome to te penultimate day of this week-long excursion into the summer work schedule of academics — or, really, one academic.  Me.  If you’ve come this far, I’ll presume you’ve read the earlier entries (links at end of this piece).  If you haven’t, the whole thing starts back on Saturday.  You might begin there.  Or find something more interesting to do with your time.  I wouldn’t be offended if you did.  Heck, (unless you tell me) I wouldn’t even know.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Dan Clowes, Wilson (2010)12:00 – 12:55 a.m.  Prepared for bed, checked Facebook & posted yesterday’s post.  Also posted it to Twitter.  Read all of Daniel Clowes’ Wilson. (I’ve fallen behind on my Clowes reading!  This came out in 2010!) Each time I teach my graphic novel class, I seem to assign a different Clowes: Ice Haven one year, Ghost World another.  Will it be Wilson this year?  Not sure.  I like it for some of the same reasons I like (and taught) Ice Haven.  It filters serious narrative themes through the format of a gag-driven comic strip.  The tension between form and content works really well.  I find Wilson’s misanthropy to be funny, though I suspect most of my students will be less amused — the humor depends, to some degree, upon life experience.  However, this is true of many of the works they read in that class  So.  Wilson?  Ice Haven?  Ghost World?  Something else? Will decide soon.

12:55 – 4:30 a.m.  Asleep!  I got to bed a little earlier.  Excellent.  Here’s a good end-of-day song — Fats Waller’s “The Jitterbug Waltz.”

4:30 – 4:50 am.  Awake.  Got up, added some items to tomorrow’s to-do list.  Tried to clear my mind.  Perhaps I should have posted this song (“Tired of Sleeping”).

4:50 – 7:30 am.  Asleep.

7:30 – 7:50 am.  Up, ate breakfast, read email, responded to comments on Facebook wall.

7:50 - 8:50 am.  Business correspondence.  Also, briefly checked in to Twitter, discovered a surprising number (3!) of retweets of yesterday’s chronicle.  Krauss and Johnson’s The Carrot Seed is on Anita Silvey’s Almanac today.  Hooray!  Also read Margalit Fox’s NYT obit for Jean Craighead George.  So, subtract 10 minutes from the “work” component of this slice of time, if you like.  (A lot of Twitter is, for me, work-related.  But it isn’t all work-related.  I mean, I’m not writing about “Weird Al” Yankovic.  Well, except when I am.)

8:50 – 9:20 am.  Car swap with Karin (since we share a car, and since my left hand’s still not quite up to working the brake on the bike).  Also retrieved books from office that I need for the comics-and-picture-books piece.

9:20 – 9:45 am.  Prepared to mail a couple of packages (quite easy, since USPS on-line enables you to print out the labels at home).  Put them in mailbox for pick-up.

9:45 – 11:05 am.  To Manhattan Running Co. for lightweight windbreaker.  Then, to gym (which is right next door), where I exercised for 45 mins.

11:05 – 11:20 am.  Drove home, drank water, checked email (latter two not during the drive, obviously).

11:20 – 11: 50 am.  Shower + shave + dress = me, (more or less) presentable to public.

11:50 am – 12:40 pm.  Created codicil for will, modifying first article (Beneficiaries).  Gist of the change is that, should Karin predecease me, then instead of bequeathing all to my father, mother, and sister, I bequeath all to my niece Emily Calame.  (Obviously, if Karin outlives me, then nothing changes.)  Need to have Karin review this & then sign it before witnesses.  Also did some business-related correspondence.

Followed up again with Eric.  Until I receive required info. from Fantagraphics, I’m unable to pursue Complete Barnaby tasks for which I volunteered.  I realize, of course, that the publisher is working on many books and not just this one.  Still, though: bring out Complete Barnaby Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, fall 2012?) and Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple, Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012) at the same time, and you have cross-promotional opportunities.  Both publishers stand to sell more books.  An investment of time in this project now would pay dividends in the future, I’m sure of it.  I may fail in this endeavor, but I need at least to keep trying.
12:40 – 1:10 pm.  Read that Donna Summer has died.  The first songs of hers I remember hearing were “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”  Toot-toot, ahhh, beep-beep!  Broke for lunch.  During lunch, began rereading Bill Moebius’s classic “Introduction to Picturebook Codes” (in connection with my comics-picture-books essay).

op de Beeck, Suspended Animation1:10 – 3:50 pm.  Finished rereading Moebius, and wove him into the essay.  Also did other editing, re-read some of op de Beeck’s Suspended Animation (which I highly recommend), and developed a new paragraph around her “mode of production” definition (for the picture book).  Re-read Charles Hatfield’s “Defining Comics in the Classroom; or, The Pros and Cons of Unfixability” (in Tabachnick’s Teaching the Graphic Novel), and Perry Nodelman’s brilliant close-reading of John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing in “Decoding the images: How picture books work” (Understanding Children’s Literature, edited by Peter Hunt).

3:50 – 4:05 pm.  Email, including response to Eric, who still awaits Barnaby info.,… thus preventing me from helping move this project forward.  Though I will continue to try to make a fall release possible, I suspect that the planned synergy between the Johnson-Krauss bio. and Barnaby Vol. 1 will not occur.  And that’s a HUGE lost opportunity.

4:05 – 4:15 pm.  Email, and conferred with Karin re: picking her up and heading to bank (which is actually a credit union).

4:15 – 4:25 pm.  Guitar break.  Abandoned “Dancing in the Dark” (Springsteen, not Astaire) after a few bars because of the B-major barre chord (bothers left hand, which is slow in its recovery).  Played “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” (written by Nick Lowe, first performed by Brinsley Schwarz, made famous by Elvis Costello) and “Love Train” (the O’Jays).

4:25 – 4:50 pm.  Picked up Karin, went to bank (credit union), returned home.  Most of that time was spent waiting at the credit union.

4:50 – 5:10 pm.  Brought in mail, read email, wrote email to Jeff Smith’s assistant.  Had expected to receive images by now; had hoped to be able to submit them (and thus the entire Moby Dick / Bone article, co-written with my friend Jennifer Hughes) this week.  It’s all done,… save for those.  And the journal’s website wants me to submit everything at the same time.

5:10 – 5:30 pm.  Started adding literary works cited to works cited of comics-and-picture-books essay.  Have I listed the title?  In case not, the current title is “Same Genus, Different Species?: Comics and Picture Books.”

5:30 – 6:30 pm. Miscellaneous stuff, including printing out codicil & bringing it over (along with a CD I’m loaning Jerry) to Deborah Murray & Jerry Dees, so that they can witness my signing it and affix their signatures, too.  Wrote family to inform them of this legal change — which, as noted above, only takes effect if Karin predeceases me or if, say, a plane we are both on goes down over the Atlantic.  (Yes, I think about these things. Oh, I’m a barrel of laughs in an airplane, let me tell ya.)

6:30 – 7:50 pm.  Read Going Bovine to Karin during dinner prep.  During dinner, we watched the Stephen Colbert portion of a recent Jimmy Fallon program, and then talked about work, and looked at who is playing at Nashville’s Ryman auditorium (’cause Karin’s on their mailing list).

7:50 – 8:00 pm.  Professional correspondence — which, as I’ve noted on earlier days, is always partly personal (because most of my professional correspondents are also friends!).

8:00 – 9:45 pm.  Finished that bibliography for the comics-and-picture-books essay.  Tedious!  Answered an email or two.

9:45 – 10:25 pm.  Checked into Facebook, & read interesting things.  I should have made plans to attend Hillary Chute’s comics extravaganza in Chicago this weekend.  The roster of participants is truly stunning: Barry, Bechdel, Brunetti, Burns, Clowes, Crumb, Gloeckner, Kachor, Sacco, Seth, Spiegelman, Ware. And that’s not even a full list. Incredible.  The whole thing will be streaming on the conference website, starting tomorrow.  Gonna tune in, catch some of it, at least.  Also, enjoyed Robert Krulwich’s post on Richard Feynman, which includes this embedded video.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures10:25 – 11:05 pm. Added section headers to the comics-and-picture-books essay.  Revised, edited.  Re-read portions of Perry Nodelman’s Words About Pictures — Chapter 7, especially.

11:05 – 11:20 pm.  Discussed travel plans with Karin.

11:20 – 12:00 pm.  Worked more on comics-and-picture-books essay.  Maybe it’s done now?  It’s certainly better than it was last night at this time.

Total work time: 8 hours, 45 minutes.

For the song of the day, how about Pizzicato 5′s “Sweet Thursday”?  This appears to be a fan-made video, below.

What does the term “glutton for punishment” mean? I’m glad you ask. In your case, it would mean reading more blog posts on this same theme.

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What Do Professors Do All Summer? Wednesday

Starting on Saturday, I began blogging a summer-work-week in the life of an academic — specifically, me.  We are now up to day 5.  The goal is simply to show — in as much detail as I can — precisely what I do in the summer. Indeed, if all academics who have a blogs did this, perhaps we could put to rest once and for all the myth that professors “have the summers off.”  Well, it’s a nice thought, anyway.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

12:00 – 12:44 am.  Posted yesterday’s chronicle, and then realized that I’d failed to include a song.  Added the song.  Shared the post via Facebook & Twitter.  Composed the above.  Watched the first five minutes of Isao Hashimoto’s Time Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion since 1945.

Educational, elegant, and alarming.

12:45 – 1:45 am.  Prepared for bed, read another chapter of Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?  Why can’t I seem to get to bed before midnight?

1:45 – 8:00 am.  Ah, sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life.  And so on.

8:00 – 8:25 am.  Got up, did jumping jacks, stretched, checked email and Facebook.  Answered one professional email.

8:25 – 9:10 am.  Ran 4 miles & at playground en route did chin-ups (still only one set, due to hand) and upside-down push-ups.  (See Saturday for explanation of upside-down push-ups).

9:10 – 9:30 am.  Read email, checked into and responded to Facebook.  Read “Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major” — good news for English and other Humanities grads.  Hat tip to Libby Gruner.  And thanks to Gwen Tarbox, read publisher Weldon Owen‘s amusing (but also mostly accurate) chart, “How a Book Is Born.”

Weldon Owen, How an Idea Becomes a Book

(Click for slightly larger image.)

9:30 – 9:45 am. Email: professional correspondence.

9:45 – 10:15 am.  Post-running exercises.  Abdominals and modified push-ups (due to wonky left hand, done on fists instead of on palms or on weights).  Also answered one professional email.

10:15 – 10:45 am.  Breakfast!  Also business phone calls.

10:45 – 10:50 am.  Aggle Flaggle Klabble!  Watched brief video clips of my 13-month-old niece, Emily.  My sister just sent ‘em!  ♥!  Which reminds me: dear readers, watch for a new installment of Emily’s Library in the next week or so.

10:50 – 11:00 am.  Made doctor’s appt for a physical on Monday, at which time I will also inquire further about left hand (I did get it checked out after the accident, but it’s recovering more slowly than I’d like).  The 10-minutes’ time here, incidentally, reflects the need to coordinate my schedule with Karin’s (since we share a car).  I would bike to the appt., but the left hand still isn’t up for biking.

11:00 – 11:50 am.  Shower, shave, dress.  Also answered one business email, and wrote two more (both re: Complete Barnaby).  So, let’s say 25 minutes to ablutions and the other 25 to work.

11:50 am – 12:35 pm. Back to the comics/picture books essay!  Edited & revised what I did last night, added some new examples.  Oh, and a little more business email.

12:35 – 1:25 pm.  “Lunch break!  Lunch break!” (as Lucy says in A Charlie Brown Christmas, when Snoopy arrives with his supper dish).  Also finished Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?  It is, as her mother says near the end, “a metabook.”  It’s as much about Fun Home as it is about her mother.  It’s more interior than Fun Home, which (for me) in part accounts for the many references to Virginia Woolf.  While Fun Home will continue to be taught in undergraduate and graduate classes, Are You My Mother? will more likely appear in the graduate seminar, as a companion piece to Fun Home.

1:25 – 1:40 pm.  Some business correspondence.  Also, Jules Walker Danielson sent me a link to this Rolling Stone snippet, which includes the following video.  At 1:42, you will hear rapper El-P say, “Rest in peace, MCA.  Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak.”

How many children’s authors get name-checked in popular songs?  There are several examples in which Dr. Seuss makes an appearance (R.E.M.’s “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” O.C. Smith’s “Little Green Apples,” to name two).  A moment like this suggests the degree to which Maurice Sendak is embedded in our cultural consciousness.  His passing is a major event, acknowledge not just by fans and friends, but people from many walks of life.  I think, too, that, taken together, these many tributes tell us what Sendak signifies in the popular imagination.  (See my page of artists’ tributes, the New York Times‘ collection of artists’ tributes, The Comics Journal‘s page, and then the links at the bottom of this page.)  I should write about this.  We children’s literature people need to organize a panel on Sendak for the 2014 MLA (the 2013 MLA is already set).  Someone needs to edit a collection of essays on him.  Me.  Or if someone else is already doing this, then I need to contribute to it.

1:40 – 2:24 pm.  My mind is on Maurice. Kristy (from The Comics Journal) has just sent me the marked-up version of my Comics Journal essay (I adapted and abridged it for my TCJ obituary.)  I’d asked to revise the piece in light of his passing.  Since I am thinking about him, I decide to do this now.  Such a genius, such a loss. In his honor, I’m listening to Mozart’s Wind Serenades (K.375 & K.388) as I revise.  During this process, was interrupted by two different telemarketers.  Are their charitable organizations that respect donors’ rights to privacy?  If so, I’d be interested in learning who they are.

2:20 – 2:24 pm. Updated Sunday’s blog post with small parenthetical & responded to my sister’s comment on same.

2:24 – 3:24 pm.  Revised TCJ Sendak piece.  Listened to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet K.581 (“Stadler”), Quartet K.378, and Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Viola K.498 (“Kegelstatt”).  Sent it back to Kristy at TCJ.  I think we can now call it done, at last!

3:24 – 4:30 pm.  Back to the comics/picture books piece, starting with a brief analysis of the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me, and then on to Will Eisner! Chris Ware! Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich! Crockett Johnson!

4:30 – 4:35 pm.  Watched the (brief) video of Emily aggle-flaggle-klabble-ing several times. Karin thinks Emily’s glottal sounds reflect a German influence. This seems possible, though I haven’t listened to enough non-German babies babbling to either verify or refute that hypothesis.

Lane Smith, It's a Book4:35 – 5:00 pm.  More work on the comics/picture books piece. Ian Falconer! Lane Smith! Wanda Gág! Leo Lionni! I’m quite pleased with how this piece is turning out, if I do say so myself.  Also: this is the kind of intellectual labor that I find particularly rewarding. I can (and always will) do administrative tasks, but the thinking part is most interesting.

5:00 – 5:15 pm.  Responded to a few comments on the blog.  As all of these conversations were academic in nature, I’m counting this towards the day’s total “work time.”  I note also that I’ve had a tendency to underreport work time because I often forget that the fun parts of my day (such as conversation with a colleague) include work & work-related matters, too.

5:15 – 5:35 pm. Guitar break!  Left hand is improving — able to do those E-string major barre chords a bit better today.  Played: Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love” (and, yes, I know it’s only Wednesday), the Brecht-Weill composition “Mack the Knife” (lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein, made popular by Bobby Darin), the Ventures’ “Walk — Don’t Run,” the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care,” and the biggest hit of the 1890s — “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Made for Two).”  Incidentally, if you’ve never heard Blur’s cover of that song, check it out.  My own version oscillates between traditional and a slightly more football-hooligan-esque (i.e., Blur-like) rendition of the chorus.

5:35 – 6:35 pm. Iced my left hand (something I also did yesterday after the guitar-playing, just for good measure), and paced around the house, thinking: if one were to edit a collection of essays on Maurice Sendak, who should be in it?  Came up with a tentative list of names, plus several ideas for a co-editor.  Also would include extracts from my interviews, perhaps at the back.  Had idea for second book on Sendak, which would go into UP Mississippi’s Conversations with… series, and thought about which interviews should be included in such a series.  Also, it’s always worth remembering that I have far more ideas than I’ll ever be able to act upon.  So, I need to be judicious in choosing my projects.  Currently, I only have one book (well, series) under contract — The Complete Barnaby.  In sum, I would like to do this, and I will make enquiries.  However, the most important thing is that someone should do this.  It doesn’t have to be me.  But it should be done.

6:35 – 7:15 pm.  Checked into Facebook. Among other things, read Michael Patrick Hearn on Maurice Sendak at Monica Edinger’s blog (Educating Alice) & added the link (to bottom of this page). Wrote Jules back (re: the name-check of Maurice Sendak by El-P, above).

7:15 – 8:25 pm.  Read Going Bovine to Karin, watched the only Daily Show we’d yet to see from last week, watched a bit of Rachel Maddow.

8:25 – 10:15 pm.  More on the comics-and-picture-books essay.  Am I nearly done with this revision?  I might be.

The Carrot Seed10:15 – 11:00 pm.  Wrote back to Jules Danielson (again, check her excellent Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, the best blog about picture books).  Oh, speaking of good children’s lit blogs, I was delighted to see The Carrot Seed make Betsy Bird’s poll of the top 100 children’s picture books.  Sure, it should be higher than 100.  But at least it’s there!  She calls it “picture book haiku.  Not a word out of place.”  Also started to compile list of essential Sendak-books-that-I-don’t-already-own-copies-of.  And, yeah, ordered a few — all out of print — via AbeBooks.com.  At present, I own around 35 to 40 of the over 100 books he illustrated.  I don’t need them all, but it seems to me that a children’s literature scholar can never have too much Sendak!

11:00 – 11:40 pm. Back to comics-picture-books essay, briefly.  Then wrote back to Michael Patrick Hearn, whose tribute to Maurice Sendak you really must read.  Then back again to the essay.  I think it might now be done.  I’m not sure.  I want to re-read parts of Nathalie op de Beeck’s book, which I’ve left in my campus office.  I also need to compile a list of all the literary works to which I refer.  And re-read Moebius’s classic essay, which informs what I’ve written but is not specifically cited anywhere — same is true of Nodelman’s Words About Pictures.  It’s an influence, but might be acknowledged.

11:40 pm – 12:00 am.  Set up tomorrow’s post. Put some books away (books I’d been writing about). Washed dishes.  Started dishwasher.

Total work time: 9 hours, 30 minutes.

Right!  Time to conclude with a little music. From Disney’s Enchanted, here’s Amy Adams introducing (and then performing) “Happy Working Song.”  Dancing rats and cockroaches!  What’s not to like?

What, you say?  Even after reading this, there’s still not enough tedium in your day?  Well. I can help you there:

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