Sunday, October 26, 2008
On the road agin
I’m doing a pair of speaking gigs early this week, first at Wright State University and then at Transylvania University. Hmm. It appears that I will have to grow back that ratty post-appendectomy beard before arriving at Transylvania. The author/speaker photo Wright State is using is more recent—I had it taken this summer. Here’s Nick’s response when he first saw it [in his Phil Hartman voice]: Hi! I’m Michael Bérubé. You may remember me from such books as “Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers” and “Public Access.” You know, that was a Very Funny Thing that Nick said. In fact, it made me spray seltzer all over the dinner table—and I didn’t even have a decent comeback. So I choked him.
Anyway, having helped to lock down Colorado and New Mexico for the Glorious Islamic Socialist Revolution last week, I’m hoping to do likewise in southwestern Ohio. The Kentucky part of the trip probably won’t help the top of the ticket, since Kentuckians seem to be exceptionally resistant to Islamic Socialism, but I’m hoping to help give Mitch McConnell a hard time. This time I’m traveling solo, and Jamie is home with Janet (and going to school as he should be, the truant!). I get back late Wednesday night.
I don’t usually travel this much, but I happen to be on sabbatical this fall. It’s a “delayed” sabbatical, because I was eligible for one last fall, at the start of my seventh year at Penn State—but last fall, everything was thrown into disarray by that fateful X-ray. When I’m not traveling (and sometimes even when I am!) I’m starting to think about getting into the beginning stages of how to conceptualize the preliminary outline of a book on narrative and cognitive disability. But right now I’m just hanging out in the Detroit airport and wondering what to eat for dinner.
Lately I’ve been having all kinds of logistics anxiety. This is weird. The job of the visiting speaker is an exceptionally easy and pleasant one: all you have to do is to show up on time, be prepared, meet with the various people and groups who want to meet with you, and be a good listener and interlocutor. Not all my campus visits have gone swimmingly; there have been times when I didn’t bring my A game and my B and C games were nowhere to be found. But only on rare occasions are these gigs anxiety-inducing, because all the logistics are taken care of on the other end—by your hosts, who are doing enormous amounts of fine-detail work to make the visit happen. When I was the director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, I had all kinds of logistics anxiety practically every week: sometimes I had anxiety dreams in which I was asked to introduce a speaker I’d never heard of, and found myself frantically trying to stall in order to look up the speaker on the Google so that I’d have some sense of what to say. Or I would dream that the lecture hall I’d booked didn’t exist. (There is some overlap here with my array of teaching anxiety dreams, of course.) And I can assure you that those anxieties were quite justified: Urbana-Champaign had a remarkably erratic taxi service (our local fleets were famous among IPRH staff for having failed to pick up one of our guests at the airport, and having deposited another at a random spot on campus in the rain), and I’ll never forget the year we had to scramble to find hotel rooms for conference guests because Illinois had moved “Mom’s Weekend” back a week, thus presenting us with a crush of visitors one ordinarily associates with home football games, or the year we had to juggle two Latino/a Studies conferences held on back-to-back weeks by warring factions in the field. Fortunately for me, the associate director I hired at IPRH, Christine Catanzarite, was the most logistically competent person in the world—and still is, to gauge by the wonderful prep materials and itinerary she mailed me last spring when I spoke at IPRH’s 10th annual conference. It was good to be the guest.
So two nights ago, I dreamed that I forgot to leave for this gig today, and left tomorrow by mistake. For some reason, I had hired a shuttle van to drive me all the way to Dayton, and I left in such a rush that I completely forgot my itinerary. So I didn’t have my contact numbers, and couldn’t let my hosts know that I would miss most of the day they’d planned for me. But that was OK, because I’d also forgotten to bring my cell phone. And a copy of my talk. It was like an extended nightmare of VISITING SPEAKER FAIL. This morning, I realized with some amusement, upon going over my itinerary, that this bizarre dream was just my busy little brain’s way of letting me know that I had forgotten to book a rental car to get me from Dayton to Lexington. So these are not free-floating logistics anxieties, apparently. These are extremely well-grounded anxieties.
One final anecdote on the logistics front. When I spoke at the University of South Florida last month, I walked into my lecture hall a bit early to check it out. This is a habit I picked up from my days as a struggling
musician drummer; I always want to see the room and check its acoustics ahead of time. Check, one two, check, one two. But imagine my surprise and delight when I found that the large, steep amphitheater they’d reserved for my lecture was already full—fifteen minutes ahead of time, in a room that held three hundred! Realizing that I would be speaking mostly to undergraduates, I quickly set about making all kinds of cuts and revisions to my talk. And now imagine my chagrin when I learned that all these undergraduates had gathered not to hear me but to attend a review session for a biochemistry exam. Apparently someone in biochemistry had double-booked the room. My heart immediately went out to my host, the indispensable Sherman Dorn, because this was precisely the kind of thing that made me lose sleep as IPRH director. But thanks to some quick thinking and deft negotiating on the part of Sherman and his colleagues, a new room for the review session was found within minutes, and the students packed up for their new location with very little grumbling or confusion.
I wound up speaking to an entirely respectable crowd of eighty or ninety. And I learned that there’s nothing quite like the feeling of watching two-hundred-something people get up and leave the room just before you’re scheduled to speak. Thanks to Sherman, though, for saving the day—and for arranging a visit that was, for me, both delightful and instructive.
I’ll be back soon with a pop quiz.