Category Archives: Personal

Signing off the Network

Military folks will recognize the thing I’m going to do here, so I’ll note that in doing so, I’m not trying to claim any privilege or inhabit any station that’s not mine. I’d like to honor a particular tradition by imitating it in a way, and in so doing honor the folks I’ve been lucky enough to serve under who’ve built and shaped that tradition. It’s a way, I hope, of calling attention to their service.

That word’s been important to me since my first hitch in the Army in the 1990s, and important again in what I’ve done in my second period of time working for the Army as a scholar and teacher. There’s a lot of stuff on my c.v. in the service category, and got recognized for some of that stuff this past Monday. But in my first hitch with the Army, I at one time had the call sign Strength Six Delta. That meant I was the Driver (phonetic-alphabet Delta) for Strength Six, the battalion commander of the 724th MSB, which had the motto, “Strength in Service.” Hence the Strength prefix. So I like thinking about that motto and my old call sign’s association with it.

The only times I used it with real frequency and regularity were when a lot of things were happening that involved a lot of people communicating really fast in the same loosely bound geographical location, which might sound to some of you folk like the way I use @preterite at events like #cwcon (the annual Computers & Writing conference). It’s not a bad parallel to draw, in its way. And in fact there was a whole lot of rapid-fire communication for me this past weekend, that started when I administered to my students the final Term-End Examination I’ll ever give here, at 0730 on Thursday morning. My four sections wrote for 3.5 hours, I did some initial preparation for the course director and worked on writing my evaluations of each student, we accounted for all final exams and final portfolios, and shortly after noon, I was off via car, train, bus, plane, and car again to this year’s Computers & Writing in Raleigh, North Carolina. As I was having dinner with four old UMass friends, I got my first call and series of texts from the course director with instructions about which exams to look at first when I got to the hotel, and from then on

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The Felt Bonds of the Social

I stood in a hangar with hundreds of others this afternoon. There were the doors open to the airfield and the cloudless haze-blue sky and the sounds of aircraft outside above the hushed murmur. I stood with the small group I knew, surrounded by others we saw in passing or lived nearby or talked to or dined with, but apart from the occasional hug or pat on the shoulder or back, there was still the Western reserve — maybe appropriate, given the official nature of the event — but still entirely different from the emotional intimacy I’ve learned to expect from the Afghans.

That’s been the thing that’s been hardest for me to learn here. Americans are schooled to sublimate our emotions, and I think those who work for and with and in the military moreso than most, although academics do it as well. When Americans work, we work. We’re blinkered by our on-task orientation, our email screens, our lesson plans. With the Afghans, I certainly didn’t understand that the first thing to do was to sit down and have tea, and that the second thing to do was to sit down and have tea again and perhaps talk about one’s family, and that what was most important was the respect and shared common feeling and emotional well-being of those with whom one would meet and talk and perhaps, eventually, work. I got more mileage here — perhaps fittingly — out of a five-minute story about my brother’s wedding than I did out of hours of discussing ideas about teaching, pedagogy, and writing.

That extends here in strange ways. Greg Mortenson has seen bad press lately for the apparent lies and corruption connected to the projects he’s written about in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Rory Stewart and Sarah Chayes talk about the apparent widespread acceptance of corruption in Afghanistan, and about the cavalier attitude toward some ideal of truth. I’m sometimes finding something similar. Afghans are amazing orators, especially when it comes to matters of pathos. What matters here is how you and your interlocutor feel about something: the facts are flexible. Questions of timeliness, validity, procedure, accuracy, cost, and accountability are all often secondary to the felt bonds of the social relationship. More than anything, the reciprocal ties of sociality are key.

It’s taken me three and a half months to start figuring that out; to start knowing that in practice. There are its corollaries: you respect the people you work with. As an American, you don’t argue with someone. You don’t make someone lose face. You accept someone’s hospitality. And if you’re going to build what you came to build, you can’t do it with weapons, or wearing body armor in your day-to-day interactions.

All of that has left me feeling unsettled, still, especially this afternoon in that hangar, when those bonds of the social were as quiet and solemn and solid as they were in our Western way, with those words about the enthusiasm sometimes forced and the determination with hearts sometimes heavy, and those words about having given the last full measure, and one by one people would stand at the call of their names until a name was called and no one stood, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another.

From There to Here

I’m on a military base in Kabul, Afghanistan, mostly set up in the small (9 feet wide by 23 feet long) barracks room where I’ll live until June. It took some doing getting here. I left our home in Highland Falls, New York, early in the morning on 8 January 2011, and showed up at the CONUS Replacement Center at Fort Benning, Georgia later that day. I’ll be necessarily vague on some of the details that took me from there to here, but after a number of days I traveled from Fort Benning and spent some hours in the air before setting down in Europe to refuel, and then a few more hours to an airbase in the Middle East that serves as sort of a gateway to various destinations in that part of the world, broadly considered. That was where I last posted from; that dusty place with the enormous wide-open sky, assembled semi-permanently in the desert out of concrete pads and hundreds of tents and various tan-colored trailers and shipping containers and generators and half-shells and diesel-powered floodlights and highway barriers, populated by transient soldiers and civilians and contractors and maintained mostly by people from other poorer parts of the world. Lots of waiting and checking monitors and standing in lines.

I expected to be there longer than I was, but there was a flight unexpectedly added, a military plane, and we sat facing center on either side of the cargo bay, hoping that the chains that held down the large armored vehicles between us would hold tightly enough on takeoff and landing. From there, another few hours in the air to land in the cold dark early hours of the morning at another airbase, one far less well-equipped to deal with travelers in significant number than the previous installation, where no one seemed to know anything about the various forms of transportation that might be able to take us from there to here. The flights were full, with nothing projected for days, and with the weight we were carrying, rotary-wing wasn’t an option, and so it took a number of phone calls and emails — a remarkably difficult proposition, with inoperative cell phones and mostly unavailable internet — to get us linked up with an officer who was eventually able to find a place for us in an overland armored convoy. (Part of the solution came from me calling home on the free phones at the USO coffee shop and asking the Orientalist to send an email from Highland Falls describing my situation to a member of the unit waiting for us in Kabul.) For that leg of the trip, I got up first at 4 o’clock in the morning to see if I could get on one flight, but couldn’t, and then there were two more toward mid-day, and then finally the surprise flight was announced mid-afternoon, which meant by the time that I found out I was getting on the convoy, I’d had about four hours of sleep and been awake for thirty hours.

The convoy was the first event that opened my eyes to what I’ve signed up for, at least in terms of the day-to-day exigencies of life for Americans in Afghanistan.

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Days Between Stations

I won’t miss Fort Benning. The soldiers of Alpha Company, CONUS Replacement Center made the best of a challenging job, and in doing so were professional and extraordinarily helpful. The civilians and contractors working the various clearance points were sometimes less so, interested more in what they were having for lunch than in rendering assistance; clerks rather than professionals whose definition of service was limited to getting your name off their lists.

CRC interior

My initial impulse would have been to characterize the accomodations at the CRC as spartan.

CRC exterior

That would have been inadequate, and that impulse reminds me how much I’ve forgotten of my time in the Army.

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Garden-to-Be, Garden Actual

Came today the first return on a few years of alternating sloth and work on the small patch of south-facing dirt beneath our kitchen window. When I moved into this house, that hundred and fifty or so square feet between the house and the driveway was thin and weedy, with occasional daffodils and tulips around the edges, monstrously huge hostas at either corner, and two large tree stumps. I developed a plan.

garden_large

With enormous and invaluable advice and assistance from my father and brother, the pergola-to-be suggested in the above diagaram became Pergola Actual. Below it, that patch of dirt remained an eyesore, until I took it upon myself to investigate, and upon investigating, found that the weed patch had rooted itself well into a thin layer of topsoil that covered a long-lost attempt at a brick patio, itself laying atop a thin layer of sand, some scraps of weed-block fabric, and then clay and rock beneath. In a fit of ill-considered industry, I tore up the brick would-be patio foundations of the weed garden. To this removal, the weeds responded enthusiastically.

1_overgrown

With prodding and assistance from the Orientalist, I weeded the remnants of the patio, and covered the remaining dirt in newspaper and plastic for the winter.

2_side_blue

Note that the Godzilla hostas and one of the tree stumps at this point remain.

3_top_blue

The tree stump required the application of a heavy-duty brass-ratcheted nylon web cargo strap to one of the towing pintles on the Orientalist’s vehicle and the judicious application of low-transfer all-wheel drive. Of the Godzilla hostas, two became eight and now further line the driveway with the assistance of a nursery spade, a mattock, and a digging bar.

4_trench_dug

After some graph-paper stagulating, we cut the trench for the new retaining wall. This involved demo of scant remains of an old retaining wall; scabbed-together bricks and mortar halfassery that was in keeping with the quality of workmanship and upkeep on the rest of the house when I moved in.

5_started_wall

Note the initial use of the bowed 2 x 2 as a simulacrum of a level. That didn’t work so well, and we wound up tearing out most of those courses and starting over.

6_finished_wall

On the other hand, the use of an actual, real-life level treated us well, as much of a pain as it was to make sure that (1) each joint between bricks was level, (2) each brick was level left-to-right, and (3) each brick was level front-to-back.

7_gardenful

And so now we have a garden with its wall and with its fruits, pole beans and okra and peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers and squash.

8_fruits

The Orientalist and I took our first small bites tonight: the green-tint pattypan squash, sliced and broiled; the pole beans, steamed; and cut small in a salad with balsamic vinegar and tamari, the cucumbers.

Julie Graham Remembered

I took Julie Graham’s “Rethinking Economy” seminar in Fall 2003. I blogged a lot of that seminar: I had just started blogging as a way to help me move ahead on my dissertation, and Julie’s seminar pushed me in extraordinarily productive directions, as did later the scholarship she pointed me toward — hers and others’ — and her amazing mentorship. While Charlie Moran gave me the foundations, the direction, and the careful and rigorous criticism, and Donna LeCourt helped get me to figure out how it all fit together and pushed me both to integrate the sources I was drawing from and to go beyond mere integration, and kept me on track with her thorough and regular feedback and challenging questions, it was Julie who really showed me where my project could go in the remarkable balance of hope, rigor, and insight that she gave to that seminar and to all of us she worked with. I couldn’t be where I am today in my approach to the relationship between composition and economy without the spark that Julie lit. Earlier this year, she’d generously passed on advice and an article about Piero Sraffa and immaterial labor from a colleague after I’d asked her for guidance, now six years after I took her seminar and four years after she served as the outside reader on my dissertation committee. I’d thought her cancer was something she’d recovered from; thought her generosity, insight, warmth, guidance, and more than anything her hopefulness about the work that her scholarship imagined, made possible, and realized in the world — thought that these things would be there for a long time to come, and that they might go forward.

And, in a way, they will. She will be much missed.