The University's sagging smile

The large public university where I teach, in the Washington D.C. area, has fallen on hard times because of budget difficulties. The local economy area is heavily dependent on tourism in the Capital, which has never recovered from the events of September 11th. The state's tax base has thus been seriously eroded. There is a huge budget deficit, and our new governor appears to be rather hostile to public education, vowing cuts. So the outlook overall has been subdued these months.

There have been hints and warnings from the administration for some time, but today, finally, we have a concrete list of budget-balancing measures from our Dean, handed down to us through our unit head. Here is what we are certain of at the moment:

  • No raises for anyone, faculty or staff, during the coming academic year. There were already no raises this year.
  • A tuition increase of 5%, effective immediately. A further increase next year is being debated, although it is considered politically difficult.
  • A 5% across-the-board budget cut has already been implemented, by draining the accounts that hold unspent grant money, money earned by departments from offering classes over summer or winter break, and so on.
  • This 5% cut will be made a permanent part of our budget next year, by eliminating money that is allocated to unfilled faculty positions and various non-teaching GA (general assistant) student positions.
  • The library's budget is being slashed, and many book orders and periodical subscriptions are being cut immediately.
  • We have been under a hiring freeze and a spending cutback for more than a year.
  • The cleaning staff has been "cut back" (meaning people have actually been fired), and offices are now being vacuumed and garbage taken out less frequently.
  • Shuttle buses for students, faculty, and staff who commute have been cut back.

Those are serious steps, but we as a community can live with them. However, even these cuts won't make up the full deficit. The next group of cuts that are being considered, and some of which will be implemented, include:

  • Closing down GA student positions.
  • Reducing services, such as xeroxing, postage, phone/fax privileges, etc.
  • No faculty searches (i.e., hiring) for next year.
  • One or more "furlough" days - meaning a pay cut masquerading as a "moratorium" on faculty salary.
  • Dismissing lecturers who do not have regular contracts.

This last proposal is the most dire. Of course, the unit head includes the requisite language, "I and the other members of the School administration are determined to do everything within our power to avoid any such reductions in staffing." But this is what we have all known was coming. It has subtly scented our dealings with each other for several months - the on-contract teacher vs. the off-contract teacher. Losing these people, apart from the element of humanity, will damage our language programs inordinately and make life much harder for those of us who remain.

There are eleven languages taught in normal college-level classes in our unit. Almost all of us either teach actual foreign language (although Spanish insists it is not foreign - the rest of us smile and say nothing) or literature in translation. We will probably lose Arabic and Korean immediately - so much for Donald Rumsfeld's two-war strategy. Over the longer term there will probably be gangrenous attrition in Italian, German, and Chinese so severe that those programs will fold. Chinese is already badly understaffed. Russian has had its Master's program killed without warning, and as of next year all its faculty will have to be deployed to keep just the First and Second Year courses open.

This term I am on leave, and I have been living in a state of stupid glee, doing only my own research day in and day out. I've enjoyed my time at this university, especially because the pressure has been low enough that I have been able to publish a lot and cultivate a number of very good undergraduates. I'm always cheerful around the Department, and being on leave has put me in a particularly good mood. Maybe too good. When I do come to school now (not often) I wander around , watching my colleagues bustle about trying to manage their courses at the beginning of the term, and I feel very pleased with myself because I don't have to do that again until next August. Oh, I feel like laughing at them for being so busy and serious. One of my colleagues is especially tense because she's covering an extra course for someone else, and I chirpily gave her some dense, dark chocolate I had been hoarding, with the advice that eating a tiny bit of it while preparing for classes would make everything go smoothly.

She phoned later to praise it as an efficacious medicine for the overworked teacher. But maybe these people are feeling more serious than I am because, being at school every day, they are more affected by the souring mood on campus. They're like a bunch of cucumbers left out in salt water for a week - getting pickled in spite of themselves. This week, both of our copy machines were out of order for several days, and a third machine that we were allowed to use as a backup failed yesterday. (Lack of proper access to copy machines depresses teachers terribly.) Today I found my daily commute substantially lengthened, because the shuttle bus I take has been cut without warning from twice an hour to once an hour - infrequent enough that I must begin to wait significant lengths of time to get home from school if I haven't planned well. The East Asia library has been asked to make an immediate and gigantic cut in its purchases and subscriptions.

This university has, in the past few years, made a great effort to improve its image and to raise its academic and support standards. Some of us think it's entirely hype, others are more willing to go along with the Administration and see where it all leads (and whether we can get some solid funding out of all these nice words). But any such "improvement", real or imaginary, costs money, and we are suddenly able to see that, with the utter ruin of the state budget, the University may also be forced to back to being what it has really been all along, a lackluster state school with a few above-average programs. And maybe that is what is really behind my colleagues' mood.

Perhaps I'm luckier than I realized to have this term to myself. It's not impossible that these cuts will lead to the elimination of the "Junior Faculty Research Leave" program that lets me have a full paid semester with no formal responsibilities this term.

If you're a student reading this, let me urge you to attack your schoolwork more soberly than ever. The prospects for getting a job in this economy must be intimidating, and no doubt your university is facing the same kinds of budget constraints that mine is. Maybe your tuition has already risen, or courses cut back. My advice: throw yourself more fully into your classes and other forms of learning. Make more friends, and make them with more varied kinds of people than you have before now. And take advantage of the greatest advantage of the university - the chance it gives you to educate and cultivate yourself, in the libraries, in the theatres, and in clubs. Preparation of this kind is the best way to get through times of enforced inactivity and seeming hopelessness. When the doors of the outside world do open up again, you'll be in a better position to take advantage of them if you've invested your time well during these difficult days.

last day-log entry: January 27, 2003 | next: February 1, 2003

It's not Halloween. It's January, for fuck's sake.

I was walking to work. The cold was penetrating, like sand and hate. Ten minutes from my house to the train. There's an intersection on the way, at Crescent St. and Hoyt Ave., that must be Collision Central. Every few weeks, fresh taillight shards and bumpers sitting on the road. The bricks under the fence of the house on the corner have been knocked through in one place. Once I saw an entire car door, complete with adjustable mirror, wrapped around the utility pole.

So I was past it, hunched, hands in pockets, when I heard it, no screech just a metal slam, and I looked back without thinking. The man getting out of the car nearest me, there was a pool of blood just staying on his head, comically bright red, like crayons, like you see in old Westerns and it looks incredibly fake, (and I feel like a damn tool wannabe poet saying this but it really was) gleaming in the morning sun. He kept yelling. Maybe he didn't know.

But there was someone else, in the passenger's side, impact side, that wasn't moving.

I turned back around and kept walking. I had to get to work.

Not until twenty minutes later, sitting on the subway, did it occur to me that I could have at least used my cell to dial 911.

I had to transfer trains. I got off underground, which is marginally warmer than outside. Waiting, longer than normal. What the Christ.

Across the platform, going uptown, people were clustered by a beam. I could hear their train rumbling near. A kid in a huge puffy jacket came flying down the stairs and knocked into them. This woman in front stumbled -- high heels -- and she fell down onto the tracks. So fast no one made a grab for her.

I could still see her, she got up, then the train roared in and I couldn't see her anymore.

Then while I was still staring at the chrome my train pulled up and I got on. I had to go to work. Why else was I standing there?

I get to work early, before my boss. I take the stairs all the way up to nine because there's a bunch of rooms I have to unlock on four and seven. That's a big part of my job, all the keys. Then I typically take the freight elevator back down and grab some breakfast.

But the freight's been really screwed up lately. It'll get there, and you can hear it grinding right in front of you but the door will not open. Or you get on and push 6 and it lets you off at 5. It can't even do simple math. Everybody on the floor is pissed about it because it's the smoke break elevator. Especially that crew of surly guys hired to replace the roof tiles.

So I was stabbing the button repeatedly with my finger when I heard a WHACK CLANG CHUNG, it was very musical, and just below me they started screaming. I don't know how many. One said shitshitshit over and over. It was so, so long to the bottom. I think they felt all of every second.

When my boss got in she saw my face and asked if I was okay, which, obviously, duh, yes, as opposed to some people, so I told her about it, of course, and about the other stuff.

She sent me home. I didn't even really need to be there. I guess I knew that.

This city is eight million mausoleums. I fell in love with a shiny coffin. I'd never tire of the skyline at sunset, but beneath it, there's something seriously wrong with the people, and now with me too. If I wanted out, that'd be easy. But I want to stay and fix it.

And there's nothing I can do.

And folding up fetal and crying and putting my fist into the wall and shouting: none of it matters. Time has helped me out in the past. Made me forget what despair feels like. But time isn't my friend today. I really like people. Hell, I love a lot of them. But they just die. And they always will.

And there's nothing you can do.

I just got my new copy of Braunbeck's new collection Sorties, Cathexies, and Personal Effects; my contributor's copy came courtesy of my having done the afterword. The CD-ROM was almost two years in the making, partly because a new story Braunbeck was to write for the collection turned into a new novel.

I think it came out very well.

Except for one teeny-tiny, itty-bitty thing that nobody but me will likely care about: I hate my author photograph. It makes me want to hide under my bed.

I'm much younger and thinner in the photograph. I'm actually wearing makeup. My hair looks good. So why do I hate it?

I'm dressed up to go to a goth club in San Francisco. Yes, I did the goth thing for a while. Yes, it was fun. No, that ain't me anymore.

I'm a closet goth now. I still dig the music -- Siouxsie, Bauhaus, Leatherstrip, etc. -- but I enjoy other music, too. Still dig horror movies and horror novels, all that. Still write creepy stuff that Gritchka wishes I wouldn't. Still like wearing black, but with all the cats it's just not practical.

I got into the goth scene through of one of my housemates, Steph. This was in the mid-90s when I had just finished grad school and was very depressed. Steph is a bubbly, social sort (perkygoth? You're soaking in it!) and started dragging me out to the goth clubs and to SCA events. I never really took to SCA much (though I got a few dates out of it, which was a good thing) but I have to say the goth clubs were fun.

I met a lot of interesting people while I was doing the goth thing. Yes, I also met a number of boneheads, but boneheads are everywhere; the goth scene doesn't have a monopoly on whiners or poseurs. There's a funny thing about being depressed; you can sit alone at home, or you can get dressed up and go dancing. The scene got me through a very bad time in my life; it gave me something to do, if nothing else, got me outside the claustrophobic confines of my own head for a while.

But, yes, I got sick of the club scene, as many people do as they get older. I got tired of being judged solely on my appearance by clotheshorses (hey, I can get that kind of shabby treatment in the mainstream, you know?) Playing dress-up was fun for a while, but I'm a jeans and tee shirt kinda woman.

And what it comes down to is that I hate being associated with something that's become a cliche. There's so much about my life that seems cliche that I can't control.

I'd sent the editor the gothy photo because that was the only remotely decent one I had (I don't photograph well). I found a more "normal" photo of myself later, which I sent him in several different incarnations, but which he apparently lost or mislaid.

Oh well. Everyone hates their pictures, right? And at least nobody could use this one to stalk me.

I'm going to cringe about this for the next several days, I expect, and then something new and far more embarrassing will come along for me to angst over ....

There’s nothing like spending nine hours cleaning up in Photoshop to turn your brain into mush. People speak to me, and I am incapable of responding with coherent sentences. When I close my eyes, I see myself clicking away dust and scratches with the clone tool. Tomorrow is my big deadline -- I have to get the photos to the graphic designer -- and I’m short 30 of the 240 I expected to hand over. I feel the weight of the deadline sitting on my shoulders, pushing me closer to the ground with every click of the mouse. I’m not good with deadlines -- in fact, I wonder just how I managed to talk myself into this line of work in the first place.

Meanwhile, all the keyboard and mouse action has left my right hand crackling with little pinprick shocks and my left hand almost numb (which I guess is better). There’s a woman in our office who was out of commission for over a year because of repetitive stress injuries at work, and I suspect I may soon suffer a similar fate. I don’t know what I’ll do without the ability to use my hands -- I wouldn’t be able to write, design or produce anything. This might not be a bad thing.

This has been one of those weeks when things keep piling up. The graphic designer is being difficult (and unproductive), the book I’m reading sucks, my boss is pissed off at me, my cable television is messed up (no technician until Saturday), and the antenna I bought at Radio Shack with my last $15 doesn’t pick up any UHF stations. Meanwhile, Pantaliamon is MIA because she’s trying not to miss a deadline, and the dog deals with all of this by ripping up anything he finds on the floor.

Yet as I look out my office window, I see cottony snow drifting down from the sky, and it relaxes me. In fact, I think if I stared at it long enough, it would put me to sleep. And last week, my gastroenterologist said I could wait until June to take my colonoscopy. Even with the stress, my inflammatory bowel disease is still remitting itself. So things aren’t going quite as badly as they feel -- all I have to do is wait for the weekend so I can collapse and sleep and push on ahead.

If I tried to describe all my troubles to my dead father, I’m sure he wouldn’t understand. “Don’t you just sit at a desk all day?” he’d ask.

And of course, he’d be right.

I'm in the middle of a miracle and I'm blown away. Ronnie...strange Ronnie, sad Ronnie, Ronnie who curls up into a ball in class sometimes got up in front of the class and told a heartbreakingly beautiful story. I'm so full of wonder that I'm almost numb. Here's the story behind that story:

Ronnie is autistic. Ronnie is from an extremely dysfunctional family. Ronnie's mom uses drugs and drinks..a lot. Ronnie flinches if anyone moves their arms in his direction. Ronnie comes to school unbathed and not dressed very well. Ronnie often has to take a nap at school because he didn't get any sleep the night before. Ronnie breaks my heart.

I'm a storyteller. It's my passion and bringing storytelling back into peoples' lives is my dream. To that end I go into classrooms and tell stories whenever they'll have me. I tell historical stories, funny stories, tall tales, fables, myths, anything that fits. I always encourage the kids to get up and tell stories of their own, and have had some success, but not much.

Today I went to my daughter's 4th grade class like I do every Thursday to tell stories. I made my standard plea for anyone in the class to come up and tell a story of their own...and I got a taker! Tim came up and told a great African folk-tale. He's a very unique boy, and did a great job. I was so excited. Then...Ronnie said he had a story. Both the teacher and I almost groaned. Ronnie rarely follows conversations. He either doesn't understand how to communicate with others, or he doesn't chose to. He's usually on a different track than the rest of the kids. We thought that Ronnie would forget what story he was telling, or that he'd go on and on, or that his story wouldn't have a storyline. We were very wrong.

Ronnie walked to the front of the class and sat down in the chair next to me. He began "This is a story I made up about how the swan saved the world." Ronnie's story was incredible! It had a great storyline, lots of action, wonderful characters, plenty of magic...and I sat there spellbound. Ronnie told of how the Leopard was always teased about his spots (Ronnie has alot of freckles), and how the Lion was jealous of his speed. He told about how the Lion plotted against the Leopard, to kill him, but the Swan overheard the plan and lured the Lion after her instead. She escaped by diving into a river, where her beautiful rainbow colors washed off, leaving her the pure white that she is today.

I need to learn more about Autism and how storytelling fits in.

Gather round gentle noders and I'll tell you a tale, nay, a saga of mighty deeds and terrible peril. Today in London (and Hertfordshire) it has been snowing heavily. The temperature is not particularly far below freezing, and the winds are light, but the sheer volume of snow had, unbeknownst to me, caused widespread transport chaos. Please note, for the following journey please imagine several minutes of trudging through trecherous ice and snow, with leg muscles increasingly stridently protesting and toes developing blisters, between each sentence.

At 5.45 pm I skipped happily to the Bushey Red Lion bus stop(note: exaggeration. We do not skip.), where I am informed by a fellow commuter in textbook private investigator garb that there hasn't been a bus for over an hour. Being wise to the incompetent ways of Arriva, (having recently waited 45 minutes for a bus which turned out to be driven by an elderly man who insisted I held my bus pass about an inch from his face- so he could see it) I shrug this off and wait. During this time a fat old woman makes a string of bold claims about calling friends for lifts and attempting hitch-hiking, none of which are made good on. Two kids walk past the shelter at one point and stop to scoop up snow. I notice that they are wearing their gym shorts on their heads.

Finally (after what was probably less than 20 minutes) a bus arrives. The driver lets us on and tells us how he's already taken two hours to get from Watford. We crawl forward through heavy traffic for what seems like an age, managing a few hundred feeble metres before the driver announces that he's not going to go all the way to Edgware and if we want to try it to get off now. Dutifully, most of us take him up on the offer.

A train of commuters now heads on foot down a tree-lined avenue towards Stanmore. The traffic is gridlocked. On the approach to Stanmore station a middle-aged Japanese man loses his footing and for several seconds flounders in Looney Tunes style before successfully breaking his fall with arms outstretched and fingers tripodded out on the pavement in front of him, completely unscathed. Impressed with this, (after checking he's alright) I continue on my way and about a minute later slip on some black ice, falling in one deft movement onto the flat of my back. So I'm lying on an icy pavement, limbs flailing in snow angel fashion, while an audience of bored motorists looked on. Irritatingly, I am not dead. Throughout the journey I also suffer about five or six 'near misses' where I come within inches of losing my balance, the most nerve-wracking being while crossing Station Road, Edgware.

Arriving at Stanmore station I find that by this point, at least five of the tube lines have been closed. Press on to Edgware, fabled home of such stars as Pat Sharpe and Big Boy Barry. Someone has built a huge snowman outside of a kebab shop outside of Stanmore. On the way to Edgware, I help push-start some bloke's Jaguar. I finally arrive at Edgware Station and discover that all bus services are cancelled.

I am, basically, completely and utterly fucked.

After stopping to buy some chocolate and a drink, I bite the bullet and head off in the general direction of Mill Hill. I turn my phone off to preserve its dwindling battery power, so it can be called upon in the unlikely event that I can get someone to rescue me (driving is close to impossible and no minicab firms are operating).

Up until this point I have managed to follow the correct route, my non-existent sense of direction having not led me into a merry game of stupid and pointless backtracking (for once). But on leaving Edgware town centre I have a sudden feeling of dread as I see no bus stations, or any other recognisable landmarks, for a number of minutes. Looming up ahead at the end of the residential street I have chosen as 'definitely' the right way there is an unmistakable (and almost tangibly smug) dead end. Oh no! But as luck would have it, the dead end includes a small pedestrian walkway, which, miraculously, joins onto a main road complete with correct bus stations. That was a close one.

I pass through Mill Hill Broadway noting that the station is completely deserted. The Broadway pavement is the most slow going and trecherous so far. I reach the Mill Hill roundabout and embark on the final leg of the journey, which is the most anxiety-inducing part.

My route would be more direct that the backroads taken by the bus, but due to mainly following the motorway there were no familiar landmarks and the problem of taking the right turnings, etc. In the end, the main problem with this part was that it took so bloody long- by the time I reached the turning towards my flat, I must've walked miles, and was exhausted. And then of course, the road to my house seemed to take forever to get down. Most of this leg of the journey involved shallow downhill slopes, straight pavements and thick ice- I wished I'd brought a luge or sledge of some kind. I finally arrive, shattered, at my flat at 10pm. I now harbour grave doubts as to whether I'll be able to get to work tomorrow at all...

For the attn. of Ken Livingstone:

Efforts to develop multi-legged and hovering modes of transport should be redoubled immediately. Good luck with the congestion charge and the new vivarium.

All the best

Your pal, fondue.

The HAPPINESS Axiom (non-fiction)

"Can I bum a smoke?" I asked.

She handed me a cigarette.

"Thanks, April." When I got to the back door it was beginning to snow. It wasn't the blizzard or the flurries, it was the slow, fat snow. The kind at night that you can either watch the trails of it or focus on one noteworthy descent. It was beautiful. Like April.

She is a muse to me, but will never be a partner, an ex, or a wife. A friend only because I love her too much. I often sit speechless in front of her, thinking this and how disturbed she would be if I told her. How uncomfortably she would start to notice my eyes fighting to stay above her breasts. What distorted reply she would give when I told her she looked gorgeous today. Instead of terrifying her, or sitting in akward silence, I accepted her cigarette and slipped out back to breath. She is beautiful, but I love her beyond beauty, and tonite it made me want to get as far away from Connecticut as I could.

But where would I rather watch the snow fall than April's back porch? The most obvious place would be the beach, but this would require a strict discipline in snowy highway travel. In contemplate I also realize this plays deep in the Happiness Axiom. Fantasy (watching snow at the beach), is the ruin of true Happiness. Happiness isn't like in the movies, it is a movie. I tell you it's the best movie on earth, and when you see it, it will not meet your expectations. The movie will suck. Joy is not Happiness. Happiness is not joy. When I finally get to the beach, I will know how dark the shores of New London are at night, and how difficult it is to abbreviate a lifetime to a snowflake whose dancing you cannot see. This is also true of love. Maybe I would rather watch it from the street?

I stood at the end of April's driveway and scrutinized each hallway of snow. No, I love watching it from the flood lamp above the back porch, each white speck punctuated against a black backdrop of trees. When I turned back toward the house, my footprints had been erased. Other than that, the metaphor is wrong. Unlike most love I've deviated, it is still a short walk back.

Tonight I drank for the first time since last Friday, so I felt very high school happy. I went to my friend's place and we drank a couple forties apiece. We talked shop for a while, the usual business, social commentary, and literature, then we went off to another friend's place to go clubbing.

As this was going to be my first clubbing experience, I was at first reluctant. Initially, I flat-out refused to go once I heard a half dozen annoying girls were going. After I had ~52 ounces in me, however, I decided to go at the last minute.

I verged right at the fork in the road, and at this my friends were pleased. We drove to the aforementioned friend's and she met us outside.

"You're going!?" she said.

"Yes." I say.

"O shit. It's a witch" exclaims my friend, the driver. Indeed, I think.

Following her are about six other females whom I recognize. Last comes an inoffensively offensive male who, while uninhaled smoke streams out of his mouth, exclaims an inaudible something.

"What the hell is this thing?" I say, referring to the, I hate to say it, repugnant conformity of the (I also hate to say) individual.

I got out of the car. I refused to spend the evening with this kid. I shudder to think of the strained conversation I would have had with him.

I walked home by myself.


Timing is everything.

A while back, I joined For the second time; I'd done so sometime in 2001 (I think), talking briefly to one woman but not meeting her, and never did post a profile of myself. Well, I've gotten further this time: I've posted a profile and a few pictures, and I identified three people as reasonable objects of potential acquaintancing. I wrote to one, and she quickly replied that her "life is a mess right now, you don't want to know me". Hmm. Another one I decided on further reflection not to write to after all. The third, I looked at every day and said to myself, "Self, you need to write to her". This went on for about a month, with Edward gently encouraging me every few days ("Have you written to her yet?")

So I finally got the nerve to stop being a mouse and initiated contact. She responded quickly and thus was begun a conversation, in which I was glad that she asked several questions at the end of each of her letters because that facilitated more participation from me. The conversation was to last four round turns. It presumably ended yesterday.

In response to one of her questions ("What made you smile today?"), I worked in, quite naturally, the fact that I'm bisexual. There are a few likely responses to that; the most probable one may be some variant of "Go away". And that is in fact what happened. Her reply displayed either a misunderstanding of something I said, or an unfortunate, but possibly not uncommon, incorrect view of what bisexual means. But the most significant part being that that ended our relationship as far as she was concerned. She also thanked me for the "wonderful emails" and wished me "peace, love, and joy always". That was nice.

Will I learn anything from this? I don't know. The dilemma I face, as do all non-heterosexuals but bisexuals particularly, I think, in the situation of meeting someone with intent to woo (eventually), is: When? When do you bring up this fact; this aspect of your being which, from one viewpoint, is vitally important and integral, but from another shouldn't necessarily matter that much.

  • Early on
    • The person says "Okay" or "That's nice" or "How interesting!" and you proceed on
    • The person says "Sorry, that's unacceptable to me" and that's that
    • The person gets some friends and they tie you up and leave you to die. (unlikely)
  • Later
    • The person says "Okay" or "That's nice" or "How interesting!" and you proceed on
    • They say "Okay. Gosh, I'm glad you didn't tell me that before we got to know each other; I would have ended it then and missed out on falling in love with you."
    • They say "Thanks for wasting n months of my life, you jerk"
    • They say "Why have you been lying to me all this time?" and slam the door
    • They start praying for the salvation of your perverted soul (you run)
The two outcomes relating to time are the genesis of the problem. You don't want either one of you to feel that you've invested a lot of precious time down a romance rathole. But it could easily happen that, if it comes out after you've learned much else about each other and a long time partnership is looking possible, that it will be seen for the non-issue that it should be (assuming the actual sexual relationship being contemplated is acceptable, rather than some hypothetical one that ignorant people might fixate on).

I don't know what the right answer is; absent a sudden telepathic ability, there probably isn't one. But the wasting of time, and concomitant aspect of rudeness, makes me want to continue to err on the early side.

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