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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fellow from Hell

You’ll notice that I haven’t done any blogging about my new surroundings in Durham - Chapel Hill - Research Triangle Park.  That’s partly because of my vastly underrated capacity for discretion: I don’t blog about my department back home, either.  It’s also because my one-month National Humanities Center gig arouses quite enough envy as it is. You have a what? And you do what? And that’s just Janet talking!  My friends and colleagues are even more incredulous.  “I so envy you,” said one dear old friend through clenched teeth.  “Hey,” I replied, paraphrasing the legendary Derek Smalls, “I envy me.”

When I returned to North Carolina last Friday from my 48-hour sojourn in State College, I thought I was all set for two furious weeks of good healthy productivity.  Daily workouts, reading for eight or ten hours, lots of peace and quiet, and—as a new feature for Phase II of the Fellowship—doing things at night.  You know, going out.  Now that I was a little more familiar with the area, I figured I could stretch out a bit and see what’s what around here.  I also figured, as I left the blowing snow of central Pennsylvania, that the second half of March would be beautiful and blossoming in these gentle climes, and that I’d be reading in my Center office, hanging out in coffeeshops, and checking out clubs in my short-sleeved shirts.  I left the overcoat and other winterwear at home, and traveled light for Phase II.

I have managed to “go” “out” and “see” “things.” On Friday I saw Jonathan Demme’s concert film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, about which I will be happy to blog this Friday, because it raises fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.  On Saturday I checked out this, because it (a) seemed like fun and (b) turned out to be at the Durham Armory, a five minute walk from my apartment.  But I thought it would be a bad idea to go hear this bunch, because they’d be playing swing, and I, as a lonely Traveling Humanities Fellow, would be hanging out and listening to the band while happy couples were lindy-hopping and jitter-bopping all about me.  So I got a ticket for these guys instead, thinking that the son-soukous fusion would make for a somewhat more rhizomatic kinda atmosphere.  Alas, I was a lonely Humanities Fellow after all, checking out the band while happy couples danced to the salsa tunes and made up any old thing for the Central African riffs.  So I hung out in the balcony and learned a few things about rhythms that I badly needed to learn about.  The Armory isn’t a club; it’s an armory.  And that meant that there was a good hardwood dance floor, weird lighting, and Snickers and water bottles at the concession stand.  But I had a good time, and walked myself home promptly at 1.

On Sunday night I caught up on The Sopranos, thanks to the hospitality of a gracious woman who took pity on my Sopranosless plight, and I was duly amazed at how goddamn funny the first two episodes are.  “Marvin Gaye” as a verb?  Bobby in the conductor’s hat?  And then, from the ridiculous to the sublime, Edie Falco at Tony’s bedside.  Oh.  My.  God.  There should be acting classes that specialize only in Edie Falco.  “Today, class, we will devote ourselves to Edie Falco’s facial expressions.  Next week, her arm gestures from the elbows to the wrists only.” Also, Ray Curto dying out of nowhere.  But then Gene Pontecorvo dying out of nowhere.  I can’t wait for episode three, which I’m going to have to watch next Friday, the 31st.

On Monday night I took myself to Caché, which turned out to be a three-minute walk from my apartment.  I saw it with five other people.  I’d presented my project to the NHC fellows that afternoon, which was profoundly nervous-making, so I thought I’d take myself to a controversial recent French film that’s so controversial and so French that it will come to State College only quand les porcs volent.  I could blog about that too, if only because the local alternative weekly’s review of the film was so thoroughly misleading and hamhanded as almost to ruin my experience of a reasonably thought-provoking (but not entirely satisfying) film, but first I’d have to know how many of you have seen it or have any interest in seeing it.  I wouldn’t want to get all self-indulgent on this here blog, after all.

Then last night I drove to Chapel Hill to talk to the new UNC chapter of the AAUP about academic freedom—that is, the real kind, not the stuff U.No. thinks he’s talking about.  That went well, I think or hope, but when I got back to the apartment I realized I’d left the Center at 4 and had tossed my belongings on the couch at 10.  How in the world did a 40-minute talk take six hours?  Oh, yes, they took me to dinner, and a fine dinner it was.  But I was completely drained.  Not so drained, however, as to forget to get a ticket for Stereolab’s show tonight at Cat’s Cradle.

It didn’t help that on Monday and Tuesday, the area was treated to forty-degree temperatures and a bitter, driving rain that sometimes arrived in the form of pellets bouncing—literally bouncing—off the car windshield like a new form of precipitation that wanted to be hail but succeeded only in being brittle-gelatinous.  And last night, as I drove back from Chapel Hill in the drizzle and the gelizzle, I was tailed for a few miles by Psycho Cabbie, who kept flashing his lights at me and climbing into my trunk for no reason I could discern.  I checked my lights, my speed, my radio, my armpits—nothing.  It was annoying, and just a tad ominous.

Still, today I woke up nice and early, before 7, refreshed . . . but vaguely apprehensive.  Maybe I’d been here too long.  Maybe I missed Janet and Jamie too much.  Maybe I was really Kevin Finnerty, a solar heating systems salesman from Arizona.  But something was wrong, something was awry.

I got to the Center at 9 sharp (for once!  you all know I’m a night person), read about two-thirds of The Book I Am Currently Reading, noodled around email a bit, and then decided to go the gym and clear my head at about 3:30.  I’d assigned myself eight books for the month, a long-overdue book review (done!) and a smattering of piddling professional tasks.  I was nearly done with book six, and everything else was gradually getting done, too.  I was checking off one thing after another: to do?  done.  To do?  also done.  And yet I felt weird, tenuous, almost spectral.  Surely an hour in the gym would straighten me out.

And as I backed slowly out of my parking spot, looking cursorily over my shoulder around the truck to my right, I felt a deep, muted crunch.  My heart stopped.  I’d hit something!

No, I hadn’t just hit something—I’d hit another car, the car of someone who was leaving the parking lot at that very moment.  What in the world?  In three weeks here, I’ve never seen another moving vehicle in the NHC parking lot; I’ve never arrived (and I’ve never left) at the same time as somebody else.  And today, I’d gotten in so early, and parked so close to the Center, that almost no one could have been driving off from my right: there were only about a dozen cars to my right, which is why I’d looked over my shoulder so quickly. . . .

Yes, well.  The driver of the other car just happened to be the Director of the National Humanities Center, Geoffrey Harpham.  That’s right.  I hit the Director’s car.

This is, I believe, the twenty-eighth year of operations for the National Humanities Center.  Each year, the Center hosts about forty scholars.  We’re talking about more than a thousand fellows over the course of a generation, scholars nationally and internationally renowned—and yet, from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 2006, not one of them has managed to hit the Director’s car in the parking lot. Until now.

Geoffrey invented new forms of sociability and magnanimity on the spot, pointing out that the panel I’d crushed was the smallest panel on the car, and that my view was surely blocked by the pickup truck, and that he himself might have been driving too close to other parked cars.  “Oh no,” I said.  “This is all mine.  I’m . . . so . . . sorry.” But I was beyond sorry.  I was mortified.  And I still am.

Geoffrey’s front right panel was crumpled, and he found he couldn’t open the passenger door.  “Oh, god, that’s a serious repair,” I said when I saw the damage.  Geoffrey demurred, but I pointed out that all of us with $500 deductibles know full well that all body-shop work starts at $500.  And even though my car was moving more slowly than I walk, there was no getting around the fact that force equals mass times acceleration, and the “mass” part had made a real mess of things.  As had the driver of the mass.

In other words, folks, in my brief tenure as a short-term National Humanities Fellow, I have truly distinguished myself.  And let this serve as a warning to all you Humanities Center Directors out there who might be so foolhardy as to invite me to join you someday: I am a Dangerous Professor.  I will hit your car with my car, and then I will cover my head in my hands with shame, crying that if only I’d managed to live in North Carolina for nine more days without hitting any other moving vehicles, I would have been fine.

My timing is impeccable, by the way.  The NHC Trustees arrive tomorrow for their annual dinner.  Eminent scholars, university presidents, heads of foundations.  And the Director of the National Humanities Center can’t open his car’s passenger door.

Just shoot me now.

Posted by Michael on 03/22 at 08:30 PM
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