Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Eve

I suspect that's the longest gap between postings since I began the blog. It's partly a result of the busyness of Christmas; partly the increasing need for naps and sleep-ins as the radiotherapy comes to the pointy end. Something new, and not altogether pleasant seems to be happening in the relationship between work and living and reading and writing, too.

A quick health update, first: I have five more big radiotherapy sessions to go, then eight shorter, lighter doses to be directed along the scar line. I was measured up for these before Christmas. I feared going into the CT tunnel again (I always forget till it's too late that I hate enclosed spaces and low ceilings), but this was more low tech. Lie on your side, Michael will draw on you with blue pencil, and then Andy will come in and make a tracing onto a transparent sheet then take a photo (I almost said polaroid, but it looked suspiciously like my own digital camera).

My breast is starting to resemble a roasted beetroot: pink and brown in patches, within a sharply delineated area which probably looks square on the infra-red grid when I'm lying down, but which on the body is curved into odd angles. I'm assured this will all start to fade as soon as the treatment ends, but right now it feels pretty much like sunburn. I woke in the middle of the night last night saying to myself, 'I don't know what to do with it!', where to put it in the bed, as if it were a detachable appendage. I had also been dreaming that Kylie Minogue paid me a visitation and delivered some wise words I was not able to remember. So I got up, had a chamomile tea, then went back to bed and slept in till 10.00. We had breakfast in bed (cereal, raspberries and blackberries) and made a plan for the day. Paul went to work in the garden and at his computer; Joel set to work on his new animation; and I lingered on reading Garrison Keilor's Love Me, about a Minnesota man who moves to New York and fulfils his dream working at the New Yorker until he develops writer's block and the magazine is taken over by the Mafia.

I'm sometimes asked what I'm doing, how my own writing is going, how much trash TV I'm watching. In fact, I spend a lot of time in the garden, feeding the goldfish and admiring their babies, and talking to Mima, my fifteen-year-old tabby. We have become very close over the last few months and have had many happy conversations on the couch in the afternoon sun or walking around the new garden and its fishponds. No trash TV: we are working our way through the West Wing on DVD in the evenings, and watching some very short cricket matches in the afternoon. I'm as keen for a 5-0 Ashes victory as the next woman, but it'd be good to see the English team defer their inevitable implosion till they get on the plane to go home, so that they could at least take the game into the fourth day.

But there's no real reason why I shouldn't be writing. I'm alert and sprightly enough for good portions of each day, and can find energy to blog, and read, and chat (and cook: Siena cakes, florentines and chocolate brandy balls for Christmas). But we have eaten dinner the last two nights with dear friends, all of whom are scholars and writers, and I listened with a kind of detached interest about their various writing projects. My own writing seems miles away. As far as work is concerned, I am just able to keep up with the little tasks that need to be done: ask Maria to organise a little seminar in honour of David Wallace for late February; arrange my travel plans to get to Adelaide earlier in the month; set aside some time for a meeting of our grant team next weekend to start re-writing our application for the ARC.

I guess the energy for writing will return when the current radiation fatigue recedes. When I think about it though, I didn't actually do much writing in 2006. I finished a big essay in February, and wrote a conference paper in July that I was very pleased with, but the rest of the year seemed to disappear in committees, the Headstart training program, and then the flurry of starting work on the NCS program committee then handing it over to Ruth and David and John when I became ill. I don't think I'm too worried about not writing. It's normally a source of great pleasure for me, and I have several projects on the boil, individual and collaborative, that I'm still intrigued by. Fortunately, I had lots of things in the pipeline (I've corrected three sets of proofs since I've been sick), so I'll still look ok on paper for a while yet, in terms of the research productivity that is such a preoccupation for us all now.

It's just the nature of academic life, that you can never let it go completely. I'm far from complaining: this is the other side of the coin that makes it possible to take time out for daily treatment and comprehensive sick leave without any threat to my job security or income. I'll just have to trust my own instincts, that the desire to write will return when I have something to say, and when I can read anything other than fiction for more than half an hour before falling asleep.

It's New Year's Eve today. We would normally be in the third day of cooking and cleaning and preparing for a big party, but prudently decided not to go ahead this year. We're going to open a special bottle of wine, climb up on the roof to watch the fireworks, and have an early night. Health and Happiness in the New Year to all.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The day I finally get the point about the chocolates...

Three posts ago I was noting the custom of leaving little chocolates in the lockers where we keep our gowns at the radiotherapy clinic, on the last day of treatment. The same day the assistants apologised for taking so long to get the machinery and the flat bed into place. It takes two or three of them to position me and the machinery properly: I have to lie flat with my arms outstretched behind my head grasping a bar, while also relaxing my right arm so it doesn't get in the way of the machine as it beams its rays up at me from below my right side. Sometimes I have to let go and bring my arm back then rotate it again with their help until I am positioned correctly. They then move the bed back and up and check and double-check the height and placing of the rays, reading the measurements back to each other and checking the infra-red grid on my body. The machine has to be programmed for its two positions before it can begin. (I guess they treat the breast from either side in this way to avoid a daily blast of radiation directly into the lungs and rib cage: this way it kind of passes through the breast. I'll never breast-feed again on that side, but hey...) Sometimes it takes a while to get all these measurements and co-ordinates perfect, and Sue apologised for the time it was taking. That's fine, I said, in my cheery good-patient voice: take your time and get it right. It's just that sometimes patients are feeling a little frail, they explained, and don't like being jerked around. I couldn't understand why you would mind waiting for these people to do their job properly on your behalf.

But now, I get it! I'm a third of the way through my treatments (12 down, 21 to go), and yesterday the thought of getting my cramping menstrual body up into this position was pretty forbidding. I asked if they could possibly treat me while I lay in the foetal position, and they very sympathetically said no and helped me up on the bed anyway, with just the right amount of understanding that acknowledged my unwillingness without letting me spiral into self-pity. So I understood that day that sometimes you don't want to be jerked around on the machine. And that some days a piece of cheap chocolate left by someone who's gone through it and come through is exactly what you want.

I'm very conscious that my case is a minor one, and that my residual good health is seeing me through this process with minimal damage. So far: a slightly re-shaped breast; two long scars that are healing well; some residual numbness under my arm that may or may not heal; a little rash from the radiotherapy that is irritating but treatable, and which will start to heal after January 17th. There are some more serious hormonal side-effects that will kick in after the new year, but really, nothing exceptional. I know that in comparison to a thousand other possibilities and conjunctions of illness, treatment, side-effects, social and emotional and financial contexts, my situation is excellent.

All the same, there's no doubt that emotions and impressions are heightened; and that I am experiencing an unaccustomed fragility that is sometimes emotional, sometimes social, sometimes intellectual. I can write, now, of a moment over a month ago, when I finally looked at myself in the mirror before a shower, with all the bandages and surgical tape removed for the first time. All I could see were the two long black lines of my surgical scars. Images from Caroline Walker Bynum's essays on the wounded, perforated and open bodies of Christ and the saints flashed through my mind and I started to black out; and caught hold of the bathroom bench just in time. I looked carefully at one of the scars today and was surprised to find it much shorter than I'd remembered it. How long is a scar? How deep is a wound?

Monday, December 11, 2006

An uncomfortable piece of surgery

Waking up to breakfast radio this morning, and the announcement of a conversation, later in the morning, with a speaker 'who's had a biography out'. Nasty...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

How we teach and write now

This is a question for all you literary/historical types.

For the little essay I’m writing on Piers Plowman, I’m reading around and thinking about the question of authorial and narrative voice, and thinking about the ways we can help students think about the voices in the poem. I’ve been reading David Benson’s wonderful book, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture, and am pleased to find he has been thinking about medieval public culture (using Habermas) in ways I know I am going to find useful when I eventually get around to working on the project and grant application whose progress I began this blog in order to chart. Oh well. Sigh. Being sick just means I have to go slower, is all.

I was very struck by this passage, on page 74:

“Piers is an interactive text meant to be applied to its readers’ lives. As such, it somewhat resembles a modern newspaper, which different readers will use differently, each one finding information or advice to suit his or her own needs.”

I find this a very evocative analogy, because it chimes with my slowly-germinating idea about the pre-history of public or mass culture in a manuscript era. I suspect, too, it is the kind of thing we often say when we are teaching, as a short-hand guide to students trying to make sense of unfamiliar works. And because it takes the form of an analogy, it is different from Kittredge’s famously ahistorical pronouncement about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as the first novel.

But there is perhaps an interesting issue to be teased out here, about the way we use analogy or other similar devices to explain the effect of medieval or pre-modern texts. I don't mean to raise the hoary methodological issue of "presentism". I'm interested in the rhetorical status of this kind of remark in what is a profoundly historicist study, after all.

Perhaps it's a question about the relation between pedagogy and scholarship. Have we tended to censor this kind of remark out of our writing, when we might use it freely in the classroom? Is that self-censorship lightening up? What do people think? How do we see the relation between our teaching and our writing?

Now that I think about it, I am reminded of a comment one of my students made after our discussions of Troilus and Criseyde this semester: he was a little disturbed by the easy and familiar way we were talking about the characters' personalities and sexualities. It's hard *not* to do this when you are teaching, though I would almost certainly not write in that way. Hypocrisy? Or respect for the differences between spoken and written discourse, between informal and formal contexts, between pedagogy and scholarship?

n.b. A few people have commented that they have found it hard to post a comment on this blog. I'm not sure why that would be, but if you experience technical difficulties, and would like to post, please follow the links to my homepage and email me (and signal whether you'd like me to post on your behalf).

Personal, professional and reproductive lives

Anyone reading this blog with an interest in how we combine the professional and the personal aspects of our life might want to check out Wednesday's post from Ampersand Duck, an articulate, but ultimately very sad tale about the tensions between a professional and a reproductive career. Alert: anyone who is currently pregnant and feeling vulnerable should probably skip this one.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Notes from the radiotherapy clinic

I'm settling into the routine of daily radiotherapy. The technicians are fantastically efficient, and if I get there on time, I wait only a minute or two before I'm called through to change into my gown, and then summoned into the treatment room. They mark me up (using the tattoos as a guide) under the infra-red light (I think that's what it is: same technology that reads the barcode on my library card), then leave me as the big machine moves back and forth over me for a short silent burst of radiation on each side of the 'treatment area'. It takes perhaps ten minutes in all, and then I'm free to go.

I'm not there long enough really to meet other patients, but it's easy to see that we are all at different stages. Some are inpatients in dressing-gowns and slippers, some are in wheelchairs, some are accompanied by relatives, some of the women are wearing scarves and beanies. One elderly woman was helped to her taxi by a kindly driver. I'm still sprightly enough: it's too soon, I was told yesterday, to start feeling the fatigue that is the common side-effect of treatment. No one looks particularly gaunt or ill, though; and this is reassuring to me. Someone came in yesterday and updated us on the cricket scores from Adelaide. Today I leafed through the brochure from the wig company.

On the way to the treatment rooms, there is a bank of about seventy little cupboards, each with the name of a patient on the door. Inside is the gown we wear to treatment (so clever, to save the washing and I guess to keep it a little familiar), and yesterday, there were two mini chocolate bars. I asked who had put them there and was told it had become a convention at this hospital. A woman who was delighted to have finished her treatment left a treat for everyone else, and it has become customary. There was another there today. I haven't eaten them yet; and have started stockpiling them in the 'fridge. Something about respect for these gifts, perhaps, in not consuming them instantly?

Monday, December 04, 2006

And we like sheep... Ritual, music, summer (part two)

Over the last eight days, three radically different musical events. Last Saturday, the annual Return of the Sacred Kingfisher festival at Ceres, the environmental park twenty minutes' walk north along the Merri Creek. The festival celebrates the seasonal return of this beautiful migratory bird; but also its return to the creek after twenty or more years' work cleaning up the water of most of its pollutants, reclaiming the tip site for Ceres, and replanting the creek banks with native grasses and trees (yes, we miss the willows, but are learning to live without such "exotics", as they are called).

In some years the festival is well-funded; and it has won several awards. We've seen crowds of school kids taking part in processions of birds and insects; fire dancers and elaborate silhouette shows; ritual narratives of environmental destruction and renewal; political narratives of refugees and colonisation; massed community choirs; dance classes teaching us the "kingfisher boogie". One memorable year we saw a group of Aboriginal dancers and performers enacting Wurundjeri life prior to the invasion of the First Fleet (the local bicycle club, streaming white sails on flags above their bikes as they rode across the grassy playing area). Some way to the side of the campfire, not really part of the main action, we saw one man — fleetingly, unheralded — become a kangaroo. Sprawled on the grass, he twitched his head, and moved a paw to his ear. It lasted perhaps three seconds; and then the Fleet landed.

This year's festival had received no budget, and was thus a much more modest affair, though still structured around a cleansing rite of renewal and rebirth through fire. A singer conducted the crowd of several hundred people in a complex three-part harmony of the lullaby the farmer sings to Babe, "If I had words". As the sun went down, I thought I saw a flash of blue fire disappear into a tree. A visitation from the presiding spirit?

The next day Liz took me to a concert from the Gloriana choir: a program of unfamiliar and diverse music, including works by Brahms and Schumann, Anne Boyd's hypnotic As I crossed a bridge of dreams, and a Mass for Four Choirs by Charpentier. There were only about thirty singers, so that made only about one or two person per musical line. They sang beautifully, in an old bluestone church in Fitzroy. Liz found the Charpentier transcending; and I could see how it might be, but on this, my first hearing, it felt more like listening to an elaborate, absorbing conversation among friends. Heather invited us for champagne on the grass outside the church afterwards, in the last of the afternoon sun as the bluestone shadows lengthened.

Yesterday, another community event: a People's Messiah, performed by amateur choir and orchestra in a white Georgian church in the city, with four excellent soloists and an invitation to bring or hire a score and sing the choruses. I had gone to my first sing-along Messiah this time last year in St Louis, walking through the cold air to Graham Chapel at Washington University, and sung with some very serious and committed singers. The people around me started talking to each other only as we left; they were all singers in choirs of various kinds. Yesterday's performance was of more mixed musical quality; but people sang gladly under some spirited conducting; and an update on the cricket after the break: Australia was 3/187, so we could lift up our heads (o we gates!). Joel and I went with another family, but they left at interval: Lucien was tired, and Robbie had a bit of trouble working out why everyone was singing about liking sheep. This will become a family classic, I think: it's making me smile and chuckle even now. How lovely that translation is, though. The phrase "man of sorrows" has become familiar, but to be "acquainted with grief"? I wonder: is this emotional understatement powerful? or just startling in its unfamiliarity?

Joel and I had afternoon tea at the European: a rhubarb and tamarillo mille feuille that was downright architectural. Imagine cooking rhubarb so it is tender enough to eat, but firm enough to line up in neat geometrical rows and then cover with a crisp rectangle of pastry and then repeat the layers; and to build another little stack of rhubarb logs on the side of the plate. Well fortified, Joel sang snippets of Hallelujahs and sheep and a child being born all the way to the tram.

Sheep? Babe liked them, too.