academia, baltimore

Show me the money

Yesterday morning, I was out walking the dog when I ran into one of my neighbors. He told me that his wife, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, had just scored a $57 million grant. I was thrilled and amazed by this news.

Later in the  day, I was brought to tears by a woman from McElderry Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, who told me she’d tried—and failed—to get a grant to fund a trip she’d organized to take neighborhood kids to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. This rodeo features black cowboys and cowgirls (is that really what they’re called?)—I’d never heard of it before. She (let’s call her Lisa) showed me pictures she took of the kids at the rodeo, the bronco riders, the kids playing back at home on the streets.

Picture of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo from Wish I could show you Lisa’s pictures instead!

“I’d been counting on getting this grant,” Lisa told me. “I thought I was going to get it.” But she didn’t. She was devastated.

Lisa had come to Loyola on a Saturday, as I had, to attend a workshop looking at ways for institutions to work better with communities. I was there by way of my new job at Loyola, which is all about figuring out how to connect teachers, researchers, and classrooms with communities. The workshop leaders, De’Amon Hodges and Caitlin Childs, suggested that institutions could lead better and accomplish more by “stepping back”: rather than swooping in like golden angels to “save” communities, institutions should listen to what the community wants to accomplish, responding to goals instead of needs, energies and capabilities and gifts instead of deficits and problems.

This approach, they  said, could break down barriers between institutions and communities and even lead, in De’Amon’s words, to celebration and “mutual delight.” It has an uninspiring name: assets-based community development (ABCD for short). But it’s  an inspiring approach nevertheless.

As I listened to De’Amon and Caitlin, and all of the people at the workshop, which included community activists, various Loyola people (including a few students), government officials & politicians, and people simply involved in their city neighborhoods, one thing really struck me. A big question people in the community have for institutions like Loyola is simply this: How can institutions say they are invested (in principle) in communities, when they don’t invest (in principal, i.e., dollars) in those communities? Specifically, to the people in those communities? Why is it so hard to channel institutional resources—starting with simple, cold, countable cash—to actual people?

This isn’t just about giving away money. It’s about exchanging assets. It’s about equity. If you’re going to study a community, why wouldn’t you pay the people you’re studying just as you would expect to get paid to participate in a medical trial or weight-loss study? If you’re going to ask people to give their time to tell their story or give you a tour of the neighborhood or supervise your students while they learn how to work with kids or with elderly folks or people recovering from addiction, why would you not pay them? Time, bodies, local knowledge, experience, even passion and desire: these are all assets, are they not? Shouldn’t they be recognized and valued, and made visible, as such?

This is, indeed, a conundrum. It brought to mind a meeting I had a couple of weeks ago with the director of our office of community service and advocacy at Loyola. We were discussing my budget (another uninspiring, but important, subject). She emphasized that we needed to find ways to pay community members directly, even though the university generally disapproved of this practice. I was initially horrified to learn of this. “We pay our community partners?” I remember asking.

“Yes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they remain whole, no matter what happens in their interactions with us.” Especially, when those interactions don’t work out as well as we hoped. Which inevitably happens.

I now understand this. But the stark necessity of it became clear to me yesterday. Lisa had told her story to our entire group, bringing us, as I said before, to tears. I introduced myself to her after the workshop ended, which is when she showed me the pictures. She had clearly brought them to the workshop because she needed to tell her story. She needed to show someone those pictures of the kids at the rodeo. This is what she needed to become whole: for someone to know.

She also said to me, “I came to this workshop today because I want to know, does Loyola know about McElderry Park?” This question stopped me in my tracks. Does Loyola know about this neighborhood? I honestly had no idea. I fumbled an answer about how I’d had students do service-learning at an after-school program in Collington Square, another East Side neighborhood which I thought was nearby (though I wasn’t exactly sure), and I knew we worked with other organizations in East Baltimore (though again, I wasn’t quite sure if any of them served people in her neighborhood). But I had to admit, I really didn’t know if Loyola really knew much about McElderry Park. Our efforts, frankly, are focused on neighborhoods closer to Loyola’s campus, and our relationships to specific organizations rather than to communities.

She pressed me further. “I want to know, what can Loyola do about this?” She picked up the rejection letter she had brought along with her pictures, a thin, letter-size envelope with a cellophane window and pre-printed postage, very official looking. “Does Loyola show people like me how to get grants like this?”

“Well, no,” I said.

But couldn’t we? Needn’t we? The dean of our business school told me a few weeks ago that she had helped orchestrate the establishment of a Kiva program in Baltimore (Kiva is a microlender that uses crowdfunding to fund small-scale entrepreneurs; they started in so-called developing countries but have started programs in economically depressed areas in the U.S.). That’s great. But are we just going to make the money available, or are we going to help people get it?

And how much money are we talking about? How much money can make a difference? During the workshop, De’Amon described his own foundation, The Learning Tree, which gives $500 to people with projects they want to pursue to benefit the community. During the workshop, he showed how even $500 can make a big difference.

So I asked Lisa how much money she’d applied for.

“$660,” she said. This number astonished me. It also made me recall my morning conversation with my neighbor about his wife’s $57,000,000 grant.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far from McElderry Park. In fact, the hospital campus forms the western border of the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and remains contested gang territory. Many blame Johns Hopkins directly for some of the problems suffered by the neighborhood. Despite that, residents have doggedly remained, turning vacant lots into community gardens, blighted properties into murals, publishing a great neighborhood newspaper—and, I discovered, taking their kids to the rodeo.

McElderry Park, photo by Rob Cardillo (


This juxtaposition got me wondering about the actual difference between institutional and community resources. So I did some research (that skill is one of my assets, right?) And here’s what I found.

In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine received over  $400,000,000from the National Institutes of Health alone. In the same year, demographic info on McElderry Park set the average home price at about $50,000, average annual income less than that. I’m not sure how much money is invested in the community in the form of schools, urban infrastructure, and social/community services, but I’m sure it comes nowhere close to $400 million dollars.

Research funding received by Johns Hopkins in 2013 and 2014 from the National Institutes of Health, from Johns Hopkins Medicine at a Glance 2014-2015,
2013 house values in McElderry Park, from

I find it interesting that the JHU graphic states that the grant money enables them to “study” over 8 million patients worldwide. Does that actually mean they are serving them, or just studying them? And I’m also curious to know, how many of those 8 million live in McElderry Park? How many of them aren’t being served because they can’t afford to pay? Maybe one of you reading this can provide some heartening answers.

Now, Loyola doesn’t get anywhere near this kind of research investment. But the disparity between the resources we have and the financial resources many in our community have access to still raises the same questions. We need to figure out a better way to get resources to people in the community who have ideas and energy and passion to make the world—their world, our world—a better place.

So, I have it in my head now to establish some kind of grantwriting workshop for community members, maybe bringing some faculty and students in the business school, but also writing, English, communication together to have workshops with people seeking grants. Nothing particularly glamorous, but obviously, necessary. Especially if they’re going to have any chance at getting those Kiva grants.

And, a coda. In this new job I am constantly reminded of community assets, assets that accrue to me and my own work. I mentioned earlier that I’d never heard of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Who knew that there was a black rodeo circuit—and that there’s actually a rodeo in Maryland every year featuring black riders and wranglers? I teach a course on the American West, and have always been interested in the unexpected ways that ethnic and racial minorities participate in American history and culture. Lisa gave me something great I can now bring into my course on the West, and maybe incorporate into future research. I’m chagrined that I did not even thank Lisa for this gift during our brief conversation. But I hope to make it up to her someday.




A cooler, a rickey, a cure for what ails you


I went to the Library of Congress this week to look at newspapers on microfilm. Amid the blur of tiny type, I ran across this little gem:



Now you’ll know what to drink if you’re summering in Manhattan or Manhattanville, Newport or Saratoga. Or if you happen to be attending a political convention. It looks like the “Mugwumps by way of drinks” have long outlasted their human counterparts.

I transcribed the piece below for your reading convenience. Enjoy, and let me know if you actually try out any of these cocktails! Speaking for myself, the champagne cup sounds like a refreshing antidote to a hot July day.

Favorite Summer Drinks in the City and the Seaside

New York World Sunday Magazine, July 11, 1897, p. 37

The man who goes to a summer resort and makes an error in the choice of his iced drinks commits a solecism which no amount of social prestige will balance. For example, let a man drink beer at Newport, publicly and openly, or even in the supposed privacy of his high-priced temporary home, he is literally done for by the ignoble act and may never hope to atone an ignorance which no moral qualities can qualify.

Therefore, if you want to do the swagger thing, find out the latest fad in summer beverages of the spot you honor by your presence and stick to the tipple of the place.

A man who takes his life in his hand and goes to Coney Island—and goes to the right end of it, which is Manhattanville, of course— should say good-by to his Manhattans and Martinis, assume a tired air and in a blasé voice call for a “Remsen cooler,” which is a thing of joy, composed of old Tom gin, lots of ice, a bit of lemon peel, sugar and plain soda. Of course, he may drink champagne at his dinner. The cooler is for the porch.

At Brighton dull care is relieved by the “Caledonia cocktail,” an insidious concoction composed of orange bitters, Scotch whiskey and French vermouth. It is well to begin late in the day on the Caledonia cocktail if you intend to make a record and not disgrace yourself. There is a rival to the Remsen cooler in a drink known at Brighton as the “Walton cooler.” It is a jangle of imported ginger ale, whiskey, cracked ice, a dash of lemon juice, sugar and fruits of the season. Walton coolers are delicious and not particularly deadly.
The “bath frappe” is the proper thing after your morning dip, and is fascinating to the eye and delicious to the palate. It is brought about by union of claret, green chartreuse, shaved ice, sugar and a dash of brandy. Excellent physicians are in attendance at all of the leading hotels in Manhattanville.

Should you wander to Saratoga you are certainly old enough to know that you go for the waters. The waters are excellent, but you will drink, if you wish to be in good form, a white champagne for your dinner and the “country punch” at odd times. The country punch is a mixture of maraschino and curacoa [sic], shaved ice, lemon and Medford rum. The country punch is a misnomer, and may prove a merry jest to you if you permit yourself to think for a moment that it partakes of rural innocence.

The “maiden’s dream” is a Saratoga favorite, and would seem to indicate a rather killing pace for the Saratoga maid. It is a delectable scheme worked out in rum, cordials (two or three), a dash of a favorite cocktail, dry gin, orange bitters and lemon juice. The “maiden’s dream” is a combination to lay bets on. Saratoga mineral springs are much appreciated after a course of country punch and maiden’s dream.

If you live to get away from Saratoga you will be pleased to know that a camp-meeting is in progress at Atlantic City, and that lemonade, ginger pop and root beer are yours to swear by.

Suppose, however, as a man of fashion, that you take your outing at Newport. As you value your future, so will you order your champagne or your champagne cup served during your elaborate dinner, and make no mistake, for you must order it with the first course and abide by it to the bitter end.

If you do a bit of golf you will refresh yourself with a “silver fizz,” “golden fizz” or a “Scotch high ball.” “Scotch high ball,” which is the golf drink much in vogue, is a combination of a long glass filled with cracked ice into which a glass of Scotch whiskey is poured and on to that a bottle of club soda.

Champagne cup should be made for a quart jug as follows: One pint champagne, one bottle club soda, one pony brandy, one pony orange curacoa [sic], all kinds of fruit in season, a piece of ice as big as you can get in the jug and, to top off, a fragrant bunch of mint.
Drinks are classified. The man of fashion and the chappie would never condescend to swallow beverages in favor with the politicians.

Political drinks change as regularly as their owners change their styles in hat-bands. There are straight political drinks that have a standing record, and a high one, and are composed chiefly of whiskey. There are also some political Mugwumps in the way of drinks.

For example, the “high balls” and “gin rickeys.” The Board of Aldermen devote themselves during the summer to the rural pursuit of gathering “gin rickeys.” They are active, it is said, in their efforts, and leave a barren field behind them at the end of a long summer day. The gin daisy is a plant that grows in a long glass. Orange peel is sowed in the bottom, a short teaspoonful of loaf sugar is added, some pounded ice and old Tom gin to fill up the glass, and the daisy blooms.

The “statesman’s cocktail” is a drink beloved indiscriminately by politicians high and low. It is made up by putting a dash of syrup into a big glass, equal parts of Hostetter’s bitters and vermouth and a filler of Medford rum. The “statesman’s cocktail” is said to be a convincing argument and speaks volumes for the power of politics.

When you have drunk your fill of all these delicious compounds and want to repeat, you may hie to Richfield Springs, and there you will be regaled with the sulphur water, which is the only drink at Richfield. It is fragrant—of sulphur. It is suggestive of a spot which shall be nameless, and it is excellent if one is in a reflective mind with a tendency to view the virtues of total abstinence with reverence.

research, writing

A writing retreat

Matt said he was trying to help me jumpstart my summer writing when he packed me off for a few days to our cabin in WV for a 3-day writing retreat. I think he was really just sick of being surrounded by all my books and needed a break from them—and from  me wanting to talk about them. Out here on my own, I can make as big a mess as I want, stay up writing as late as I want, and eat as badly and as erratically as necessary.

The scene inside: stacks of Stephen Crane and trusty Scrivener on-screen.

I’m devoting a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs to Stephen Crane. What? Did Stephen Crane ever laugh? you may be asking. The author of the grimly symbolic Red Badge of Courage (1895), the hopelessly deterministic Maggie: Girl of the Streets (1893)? The writer who described winter in Nebraska as follows:

Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea. (“The Blue Hotel’—my favorite Crane story)

I don’t know whether Crane laughed much himself, but some of his sentences make me laugh. In “The Open Boat,” he has his four characters, stranded on a 10-foot dinghy in the middle of the ocean, repeat the same existential question to themselves as they row, and row, and keep trying to row to shore: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

I can’t help it. This passage cracks me up. My students are afraid to laugh at Stephen Crane, but I think they should let themselves go. It might do them some good.

In my book chapter, I’m exploring the grotesque humor that marks Crane’s work from the very beginning of his career. Some of his earliest published—and unpublished—work feature exploding babies, pet dogs thrown out of windows (I admit that this story, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is simply horrifying and not comic at all), lots of incoherent drunkards, and people who generally stumble, directionless, through life.

But there is something essentially comic about Crane. And that’s what I’m writing about right now. I’m planning to discuss some of the sketches I’ve just described, as well as “The Men in the Storm,” “The Five Blind Mice,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Monster,” and “The Price of the Harness.” I might throw “The Blue Hotel” in, too.

I took lots of notes and did a lot of freewriting, and returned home to Baltimore all set to do some proper writing.

While I was out in WV, I was able to get a few hours of gardening in, separating the mountain laurel shrubs I’d planted too close together in April, planting some lilies of the valley a neighbor let me dig up from her yard, and weeding. Lots of weeding. (Weeding helped me feel virtuous about taking a break from reading/writing.)

Everything is looking good right now. Each year things look a little less stark, a little more natural. It’s tough when you can only tend things every few weeks or so.

Can’t wait until the monarda start blooming! By then, I hope to have this chapter on Crane drafted.


Their Books of Zen

I cannot help but use this post to brag on my students. I posted earlier in the year about the “Journal of Zen” assignment I’d given my first-year students this semester, and they SO delivered. The culmination of the semester was that they had to create a book to hold and express their understanding of “zen” in their own lives– what brought them peace, revelation, happiness.

We spent a couple of days learning to make books in class, and they then selected one or more items from their journals to use as the basis of their books. They put their books on display, with “artists’ statements,” today, and then we all voted on which books should be included in the campus exhibit, which will be on view in the student center outside the Julio Art Gallery from Wed., Apr. 27, through finals.

Their projects were thoughtful and inspiring. The juried selection process gave them an opportunity to see everyone’s work and give props to their classmates. They learned so much about themselves—and one another!

I hope that they will keep these books and look at them every so often to remind them of things that can be so easily forgotten in the hurry-scurry of everyday life.

academia, research

This just in!


My first book, in all its academic glory.

Just this week, I discovered a new review of my first book. The book was published in 2002; the review was published in 2005—appearing in a journal I’ve never heard of before (Women: A Cultural Review)— and written by someone I don’t know, one Sarah Meer. The review was very nice (thank you, Sarah!), and I can now add it to the stack of two (2) others I know to have been published. Ever. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll find out about another review that was published in, say, 2006.

It boggles my mind that it’s taken ten years for this review to finally reach me. For whatever reason, publishers of academic books don’t seem to keep track of where their books are reviewed, or perhaps they do, and it just slips their minds to tell the authors. We are supposed to keep track of our own reviews. And reviews, as you see here, can sometimes (usually, actually) take years to appear. The wheels of academe sometimes move so slowly that it’s hard to tell they’re moving at all. To mix metaphors, I’m not going to waste my time watching the grass grow.

Of course, I seriously doubt that my book was reviewed all over the place and I just happened to miss it. But you do have to wonder if there are any others.

With a publicity system like this, who needs enemies?

It’s baffling, especially since academics increasingly need reviews to show that their work is being read and valued. Even more, given how long these sorts of books take to write, how hard they are to get published, and how few people read them, a review is like a little glimmer of light off in the distance, showing you you are not absolutely, entirely, and terribly alone in the desert.

Oh well. In case you’re curious, here’s the bit about my book. The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton, incidentally, is about a half-Chinese Canadian writer who adopted a Japanese-sounding pseudonym, Onoto Watanna, and wrote popular romance novels about geishas and the like (in the vein of Madame Butterfly) about 100 years ago. She was an opportunist and a poseur, but I argue that writers like her challenge us to rethink what it means to be an “ethnic” American writer, as well as what it means to have an “authentic” ethnic voice.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 8.45.37 PM

If this piques your interest, you can check out books by Winnifred that have been reissued—A Japanese Nightingale (co-edited by yours truly), The Heart of Hyacinthher fictionalized autobiography, Me: A Book of Remembranceand Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model … or you can read any number of works & stories I’ve collected into the Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which is stored on this site. If you’re just interested in her biography (she lived a very interesting life), you should check out Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, by my friend & fellow blogger, Diana Birchall, who also happens to be Winnifred Eaton’s granddaughter. Diana really brings Winnifred to life in all her burnished glory.

academia, writing

Full retreat

This is what my spring break (yes, it’s early!) has looked like thus far: me, my computer, stacks of books, in the library. Yep, that’s right: Profs Gone Wild!

I’ve been joined in the library this week by a half-dozen or so intrepid colleagues from around campus. We’re all trying to write. We’re all trying to shift gears from our day-to-day semesterly grind to devote some solid, untinterrupted time to our research.

Unfortunately, being on this retreat has reminded me—oh halcyon days!— of what being on sabbatical was like. Fifteen months of doing almost nothing but research. While the reminder certainly made me nostalgic, this week I also realized why I have such a hard time doing research and writing while I am also teaching. And serving on committees. And all that day-to-day semesterly grind-y crap.

I realized this week that when I am writing, a switch flips in my brain that basically makes me useless for anything but writing. On Monday, I ended the day, satisfied with the 6 or so pages I wrote, and came home with a stack of books but no backpack. Which also meant, no laptop, no notebook, no notes. (Luckily, no one uses the library during spring break, so I recovered backpack, computer, notebook, and all the next morning.) Then, after deciding on Tuesday that I wasn’t satisfied with those pages after all, I started over again, wrote another 8 pages, and went to bed, satisfied but exhausted. And then sat up bolt upright at 3am with a Great Idea and decided to start over again … at 4:30 am. And aside from a few breaks, I’ve been at it since then. A good 11-hour day of writing. If your brain isn’t a bowl of overcooked noodles after than, I’m not sure what it is.

I can’t do this and actually teach anyone about anything. I can barely dress myself this week. Luckily Matt is a good sport about all this.

I am starting to suspect that the reason why I have only been able to write in fits and starts, during breaks—mostly during the summer—is because that is, in fact, the only way I am able to write. Lots of academic productivity coaches advocate writing every day, even if it is just 30 minutes. I tried and abandoned this experiment on sabbatical, and my experience this week confirmed again that this method just doesn’t work for me.

I would love to know if it works for you!

teaching, writing

My book of Zen

It’s been a long time since I’ve last posted, but I have been writing–a lot. Over the past few months I presented a conference paper that I was asked to turn around immediately into an article (done as requested), wrote an academic book review, and written a piece of local history for the Bolton Hill Bulletin, my neighborhood newsletter (which I’m now co-editing).

I also witnessed, finally, the publication of an essay based on the blog posts I wrote last April and May in the weeks after the death of Freddie Gray around the corner from my house. I’m especially proud of this piece, “The Accidental Activist,” because it was solicited by The Concord Saunterer, a journal devoted to the study of Henry David Thoreau. I don’t study Thoreau—in fact, I engaged in a somewhat perverse resistance to Walden throughout my teens and twenties—so to be invited to comment on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in light of the events in Baltimore was gratifying, to say the least. (I also used the occasion to pay some penance for my earlier misdirected hostility toward Walden.)

And of course, I’ve been doing lots of other writing since returning to teaching after my year-long sabbatical. Handouts, emails, Tweets (see right), comments on student papers, lecture notes, committee reports and proposals: this is the kind of writing that sucks dry, drop by precious drop, anything that might have collected at the bottom of the creative well.

So it’s been hard to write here on the blog. None of this is a surprise, but it’s no less deflating.

But I have taken a cue from an assignment I developed for my first-year students this semester, and which, on a lark, I decided to do alongside them. The assignment is called “Your Book of Zen.” It’s inspired by the “moment of zen” with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of the Daily Show. All students need to do is to keep a bound journal and at the end of each day, briefly write about a “moment of zen” they experienced that day.

The moment of zen might be a moment of hilarity or intense irony, as it so often was on Stewart’s show, or simply a moment of balance. It might even be a moment of realization, an epiphany.

You might wonder why I have incorporated this assignment into a Gen Ed class called Understanding Literature, which, as its title implies, promises nothing but boredom. In it, students toil away learning the ins and outs of terms they thought they already knew “from high school,” as they like to say: metaphor, sonnet, symbol, synecdoche.

The scope and stated goals for the course already make it a tough sell. And the millenials I’m teaching, to tell the truth, make it harder. While they are very caring, and earnest, and kind, they are simply not very creative or prone to risk themselves, either psychologically or intellectually. Preserving their own safety, as so many have been talking about lately, is their modus operandi.

I am just as frustrated as any frustrated Gen Xer at the current state of things. But rather than throw triggers in their faces, or tell them to suck it up because life is hard, nasty, brutish, and short (and then you die), I wondered if there might be ways to lure millenials out of those “safe spaces” that have been built around them all their lives, to make risk-taking appealing rather than scary, something they might willingly choose to do, even want to do. I wondered if they would they risk their safety to experience the thrill of something new? To experience unexpected joy?

It seems to me that only by taking these sorts of risks can one actually understand literature. For that is what writers themselves do, and want their readers to understand: risk-taking. They risk their language, their emotions, their intellect: they flay themselves open and call upon the vultures to feed, and the next day, they do it all over again, all in the service of that moment of enlightenment, of realization, of coming-into-being, of zen.

(I am pretty sure I am totally misapplying the actual concept of zen here, but I hope you get what I mean.)

Maybe if they can see the zen in their own lives, my thinking goes, they’ll be able to see it in someone else’s writing or art. But mostly, I would just like for them to feel it for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Walden, now that I’ve actually learned to appreciate it, is where Thoreau says he went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” I want them to taste that marrow and savor it.

So far, we have only been keeping our zen journals for a couple of weeks. Most of the students still seem pretty baffled by the whole idea. But some, I can see through my skimming of their entries, are starting to get it. A few of the more well-adjusted, mature students are really seeming to enjoy it.

Initially, I, too, was a bit baffled. Students asked me what to write if they did not have a moment of zen on a particular day (millennials love rules) and I just told them to write, “No zen.” I wrote that myself a couple of times in the first week. But we have discovered together that if you give yourself enough time to think, and actually notice what you are doing during the day, it’s not hard to find a moment of zen every day. It’s a good feeling to have.

If you pray regularly, meditate, or already keep a journal, I’m probably not telling you anything new. Indeed, my Book of Zen assignment is a stripped down and secularized version of the five-step reflection process developed by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of my university: the examen.

The beauty of the Book of Zen is that it really only takes about a minute or two—literally—every day. In only a few weeks, I now find it one or two of the best minutes of my day. It is so good to end the day knowing 1) that something cool did in fact happen, and 2) that I actually wrote something.

Perhaps it’s ok that I’ve let long-form blogging slip these days. I decided to set aside a couple of hours this morning to write this entry, just to keep a foot in the door here, but I do so in part because I know I will not be able to devote a couple of hours to the blog for the next few months. In the meantime, I may post a few Book of Zen entries.

For instance, as I put this post together, I watched the sun gradually illuminate the stand of trees outside our little house in West Virginia, against a startling blue sky that only appears in wintry places. Deciding to write this post instead of getting right to work gave me a chance to see it. That’s my moment of zen for today. I already know it.

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Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: the ballad, at last

When I went on sabbatical a year ago last May, one goal I had was to write a poem each week, adopting a different form of poetry each week. As the weeks and months went by, I had fun writing lots of different kinds of poems– limericks and double dactyls and haikus to begin with, then sonnets, and so on. One form I tried and failed many times to write was one of the simplest: the ballad. Stock-in-trade of plangent singer-songwriters everywhere, I just couldn’t write one that didn’t sound trite or stupid. Funny ones, sure. But serious ones? Seriously.

My difficulty with this form made me gain measures upon measures of respect for all those songwriters. Sure, some really dumb ballad lyrics were helped along and probably carried by great melodies, a chunky guitar riff, or even some crazy funky drumming, but the words remain.

And then, there are the poets who specialized in the ballad. I’d already learned to admire these poets, but my experience trying to write this form– stanzas of four lines each, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and rhymed iambic trimeter– made me realize that this form, so easy to write, is one of the hardest to write well. My cap’s off to you, Emily Dickinson, who wrote over a thousand of these suckers, each one seemingly more simple yet more profound than the last. Here’s one that gets at the heart of the matter:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

I just couldn’t put the Weekly Poem Project to bed without writing a ballad. It just didn’t seem like I’d finished the project without having written one. This weekend, a line finally came to me, and I put a poem together. It is workmanlike at best, and maybe ends up benefiting from not taking itself too seriously, but it seems to fit the subject. The subject is my dog, Lucy.

She is totally unremarkable in every way, and is actually one of the dumbest animals I have ever known. However, I am very attached to her. And I will say– she does her job, which is basically to bark loudly at people who don’t belong in our house, and to remind me that life, in the end, is really just about eating, sleeping, and getting some attention. Many possibilities, I’ve discovered, dwell here.


My dog is not loyal, or wise.
She pricks her ears up smart
If there should be a beefsteak near.
In this, there is no art.

She eschews begging, not because
To do so would be crass.
It just never occurred to her
To send a hint, or ask.

She enjoys a rub behind the ears,
A walk is always nice.
Baths, she’s willing to tolerate.
She’s somewhat afraid of mice.

On questions of philosophy
She’s troubled not one bit.
This is why she gives me joy.
I count on her for this.

museums and archives, teaching

Field trip!

I took my Civil War in American Lit class to Frederick, MD, over the weekend, to visit the National Civil War Medicine Museum and to take a walking tour of local Civil War sites. Frederick, it turns out, was not only the town closest to Antietam, the battle that claimed the largest number of casualties in a single day– 20,000 killed, wounded, or missing–but also sits on what used to be two major crossroads: the old National Road running from Baltimore to points west, and what is now Court St., which ran from the Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. Our wonderful tour guide, Betsy Estilow, Professor Emerita of Biology from Hood College (located in Frederick), joked that you knew it was summer in Frederick in the years 1860-1865 because there were either Union or Confederate troops– or both– in town.

Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.
Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.

As a major town (then having a population of about 8000) near the action, Frederick was picked to be a hospital site as early as 1861. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, nearly every single church, school, and government building in town was turned into makeshift surgeries, recovery wards, and morgues. One witness wrote that Frederick had been turned into “one vast hospital.” So it makes sense that the city is the site of the National Civil War Medicine Museum. The museum, incidentally, happens to be housed in one of the first embalming “studios.” (Modern embalming techniques were one by-product of the immense number of Civil War deaths and the need to transport bodies by horse and train all over the country.) Here’s a shot from the museum, showing Betsy in action:

Tour guide Betsy Estilon describes life-- and death-- in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the Museum's most important possessions.
Tour guide Betsy Estilow describes life– and death– in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the most important items in the museum’s collection.

It turns out that more than half of the deaths in the Civil War resulted from disease, not battlefield injuries. Many believe that the diseases that killed the most soldiers was gangrene that set in from badly done amputations and the inability to control infections (the use of antibiotics to fight infection did not begin until after the war).

However, Betsy insisted that the majority came from diseases contracted in camp. Of the 1500 days of the war, she said, only 60 actually involved battle. So being in camp, and later, in prison, with poor sanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and what she called “immunologically naive” soldiers (i.e., those who hadn’t been exposed to many diseases, having come from the wholesome, unpopulated regions west of the Eastern seaboard) resulted in the vast majority of sickness, and eventually, death. The war’s major killers? More than the minié ball or the cannon, it was dysentery, typhoid, malaria; even measles.

The museum was full of great artifacts. Here are a few (though I must admit I neglected to photograph some of the more gruesome artifacts, including the mummified human arm, the torture-devices-cum-dental tools, and various tourniquets, saws, and such):

Clara Barton's folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Clara Barton’s folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
We've seen these! Harper's Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp.
Harper’s Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp. Coincidentally, I had just brought my own personal copies of 1850s-era Harper’s Weekly to class to show them what Civil-War-era magazines looked like.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure is also from the war, and another prized possession in the museum's collection.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure was also used in the war (those are actual blood stains in the bottom right corner of the image), and another important piece in the museum’s collection.

Other fun facts of Civil War medicine:

  • The American Red Cross had its beginnings in the war.
  • So did the concept of ambulances to quickly transport people to hospitals.
  • 15% of those whose legs were amputated at the hip (thus severing several major veins and arteries) survived!
  • Nurses were so desperately needed that some prostitutes were given the choice between jail time/fines and hospital service.
  • Civil War hospitals had a mortality rate of only 8%, comparable to modern-day hospitals.

After lunch, Betsy and another docent, Mike Hoffman (who is a professor at the Army War College, served in the JAG, and also worked for the Red Cross for years) took us for a tour of downtown Frederick. Before we left, I graced the class with a very, ahem, dramatic reading of Frederick’s own claim to Civil War literature, a patriotic ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “Barbara Freitchie.”

Professor Cole reading "Barbara Freitchie" and enthralling the class.
Professor Cole enthralling students with her performance of “Barbara Freitchie.” Photo by Jessica Ciampa (Thanks, Jessica!)

In the poem, the 90-something Barbara Freitchie, a staunch Unionist, refuses to be daunted by Confederates who keep taking down her flag. A real woman named Barbara Freitchie lived about 3 blocks from where we were standing, but apparently was probably not the woman who actually kept putting up the Union flag when the Confederates tried to take it down. Whittier, it seems, decided to conflate the real defender of the flag and a well-known local character. So it is Barbara who lives on.

Here are some other shots from the walking tour:

City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857).
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857). (Also brother-in-law to Frederick’s better-known hometown boy, Francis Scott Key. Who owned slaves. Do they tell you that when you learn about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school?)
A plaque commemmorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.
A plaque commemorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.

It was a very full day. But full in a good way. I got to know the students better, and they got to walk the streets traversed by Grant, Lee, and Jackson, as well as the thousands of soldiers and civilians caught up in the war who are the main subject of our course. That alone made it worth the trip– but what really made it special was that we all got to see how the town has lived with the war ever since.

While the town is full of monuments, museums, and markers, what was really striking to me was how invisible much of the history was. Without Betsy to show us sites and explain what happened, we would have just walked by. Thank goodness for Betsy, and all the public historians out there!



It’s been a tough couple of weeks. I remember that it was hard to come back from sabbatical the last time I had one 7 years ago. I tried to get all my ducks in a row before the semester started and to do lots of deep breathing to help ease the transition back to the whirlwind of the semester. But the first few weeks were, nevertheless, a solid wallop to the head.

I don’t remember being so damn busy all the time. But those who know me well attest to the fact that my “busy-ness” doesn’t seem much different from how things usually seem to be in my corner of the gym. Everything is going fine, but I’m really tired. Over the past week, I was either teaching or in meetings on campus every day, getting up at 5:30 or so on teaching days to do the prep that I couldn’t do the day before, & staying up to answer email & hit “like” buttons on FB before hitting the sack somewhere between 11 and midnight.

Today, on a Saturday, I had to help lead a field trip for first-year students I’ll be teaching in the spring. I was not excited about the prospect of having to be at school, again, at 9:30 am to lead a group of grumpy, sleepy first-year students on a 2-mile walk through north Baltimore neighborhoods most of them couldn’t care less about.

But it ended up being fun. And interesting. And I was reminded that I really love being around these young people.

Our “urban hike” first took us through Guilford, the swanky neighborhood that lies immediately south of Loyola’s campus, sandwiched between Loyola and Johns Hopkins’ north Baltimore campus. I often drive through this neighborhood, probably a couple times every week, but have never walked it. I was amazed to find that there were enormous estates– gated, meticulously landscaped mansions–that I had driven by multiple times each week that I’d never noticed before. They were set that far back from the road. And this is a neigborhood that’s nestled in the middle of the city!

I always knew you had to get out of your car to appreciate urban areas, but was reminded that this is true for non-urban places as well.

Sherwood Gardens is a 6-acre park sitting smack in the middle of the Guilford neighborhood. Even though it is only 3 blocks from campus, I have never visited this place in my 15 years teaching at Loyola. Shame on me! It’s supposed to be most beautiful in spring, when the 80,000 (yes, that’s 4 zeroes) tulips planted by the neighborhood every year burst into bloom. (The neighborhood website has pictures of the show.) But it was plenty beautiful today. I will have to come back here when I have a few hours to kill on campus. Can’t imagine a better place to get some reading– or grading– done.

Dahlias blooming today in Sherwood Gardens.
Dahlias blooming today in Sherwood Gardens.
Sherwood Gardens, Baltimore, MD.
Sherwood Gardens, Baltimore, MD.

It’s a beautiful neighborhood. But it is also a troubling one. My co-leader on the trip, computer science prof Dawn Lawrie, is also my teaching partner in the Messina program, which has pairs of profs both teach and advise a group of first-year students over their first two semesters at Loyola. Before we embarked on our hike, she showed our students a map showing Baltimore’s de facto, neighborhood-by-neighborhood segregation correlated to housing prices, and today she explained that neighborhoods like Guilford actively excluded non-Christians and non-whites from Guilford through discriminatory lending practices and real estate covenants. She also pointed out how Guilford made many of their streets one-way– all streets leading out of, not into, the neighborhood.

On our walk, we saw one street that used to connect to York Road, a major north-south thoroughfare in Baltimore (and a dividing line between “white/rich” and “black/poor”) neighborhoods. The street has been turned into a dead end, with about 10 feet of “sidewalk”between the end of the street and York Road. I wish I’d thought to take a picture of this, but you’ll have to satisfy yourself with this Google Maps view:

York Rd. doesn't look like a major thoroughfare here (it's the street running from left to right beyond those brick columns), but trust me, it is.
York Rd. doesn’t look like a major thoroughfare here (it’s the street running from left to right beyond those brick columns), but trust me, it is.

I thought it was especially appropriate that the neighborhood had erected brick columns on either side of the dead end to frame a false entranceway into the neighborhood (This is an entrance! But you cannot come in! Gracious Southern hospitality epitomized.)

We then walked down York Rd., which turns into Greenmount Avenue, a street known for crime and drug activity as you keep going south toward downtown. We turned off before that, though, in the Waverly neighborhood. This was our destination: the Saturday farmer’s market, which runs year-round, rain or shine.

I did not take any pictures of the market today– too caught up with talking with Dawn and the students to adequately document the goings-on– but these images I slurped off the web are pretty consistent with what it looked like today:

15-09 waverly1

Most of the students didn’t buy anything. I heard later that some headed straight for Chipotle a few blocks away. But, whatever. My market bag was full of good things: maifun mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, some luscious peaches, green beans, pattypan squash, fuzzy little okra.

Dawn had arranged for our students to get transit cards, and we’d informed them how to take the city bus back to campus. At the bus stop, I encountered a couple of my students. These two let me take their picture:

My students Ashley & Jacqueline, waiting near JHU for the #11 MTA bus back to Loyola.
My students Ashley & Jacqueline, waiting near JHU for the #11 MTA bus back to Loyola.

The free Collegetown Shuttle showed up before the city bus, and we decided free was best. But we got on the wrong bus!

Before we knew it, we were careening east, instead of north. I talked to the bus driver and found that the particular bus we’d gotten on did not actually go to Loyola. Whoops! But I’d discovered our error in time. (Professor or savior? You pick.) We got off at Morgan State U and waited just a few minutes for the city bus that dropped us off right in front of the Loyola science building, where we’d started our hike this morning. (Whew! I’ve never seen Baltimore transit work so efficiently, but I didn’t say anything to the students. They’ll realize I’m no savior soon enough.)

It was fun talking to the students and getting to know them a little better. Dawn is teaching them all about robotics this semester, and I’ll be teaching them about how to analyze literature in the spring. I began the day dreading having to go to work, but left campus excited about having these kids in class next semester. Which, I suppose, is why we do things like these Saturday field trips at Loyola.

But I did reward myself for working on a Saturday. Instead of working this afternoon like I’d planned, I went shopping. For work shoes, but for shoes, nevertheless. I bought three pairs. I really need all of them, yes I do.