On the Working Vacation

As I posted a while back, I’ve been on an extended European trip this summer, beginning with several conferences, followed by a pretty blissful four-week stint in Prague. As week four begins today, and as I see this trip beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit on how it all went, and how to carry some of this feeling with me back home.

When folks have asked me lately how my vacation has been, my instinct has been to say “great! It’s been super productive!” Which causes people to blink, or shake their heads, or otherwise give me the you’re doing it wrong look.

Perhaps it’s true that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never been terribly good, though, at doing the things one is supposed to do on vacation or on a trip to a new place. I’m not a sight-seer. I don’t feel compelled to visit the national landmarks and museums. I do, however, like to sit still, to let myself really be where I am, and to let my brain wander where it will. Where it will wander, when given the chance, is often to reading, or writing, to new projects or new directions for in-process projects.

For this reason, for me, the “working vacation” is not a contradiction in terms, not a capitulation to the always-on logic of the new economy. It’s one of the best ways for me to retreat from the busyness — or the business — of the day-to-day and focus on the things that matter to me, whatever they might be.

My time in Prague has been a working vacation in a most literal sense: most of my time has been charged as vacation, but some of it has been charged as remote working. I’ve kept up with a much-streamlined version of the things going on in my office, I’ve handled some small much-delayed tasks, and I’ve used the rest of my remote working time to focus in on one large day-job project of the sort that I would never have been able to get to during the normal 9-to-5, a substantive chunk of writing that required distance just to get space on my agenda.

The rest of my time has been spent on my own projects. I’ve drafted an essay, I’ve begun sketching out another one, and I’ve read a lot. And for the first time in eons, I’ve found that reading scholarship has been just as much fun as reading fiction.

I’ve had fantastic meals, and I’ve slept a ton, and I’ve spent time hanging out with friends and watching television series that I missed. But being able to be just selfish enough about my time to restart my reading brain again has been really exciting. That self-directedness has made this time both enormously restorative and enormously productive — and perhaps productive precisely because it was so restorative, and restorative precisely because it was so productive.

In a week, I’ll be returning to the more socially-oriented aspects of my job, and I’ll undoubtedly discover just how much of the usual business my colleagues kept out of my inbox while I was gone. I’m grateful to them for that, and to my boss for the willingness to negotiate this working vacation with me. I’m looking forward to returning to the office with renewed energy — and hoping to find ways to maintain the space for creative thought that I’ve had the luxury of rediscovering this month.

Summer 2013

Having wrapped up a whirlwind spring, in which I successfully got through the craziness of buying an apartment in NYC, got myself more or less moved into it, closed down my California office and shipped everything east, and attended a ton of conferences and meetings and gave a bunch of other talks — and mostly managed to keep things at work moving forward in the interstices — I’m now off on my summer adventure.

Like last summer, I’m on the road for quite a while, starting with a spate of bouncing from conference to conference and concluding with a nice long period of being still in Prague. Unlike last summer, however, I am staying in Europe for the entirety of the trip, and not bouncing back to the US until it’s over.

Sadly, this means that I’m missing several US events that I’d like to be at — most notably AAUP and DH — but the physical toll that my mid-tour return stateside took on me last year was way too high.

So this year’s schedule is a good bit less insane than last, and I expect it to be terrific fun:

And so far, so good, on all fronts; I arrived in Geneva this morning, hopped a fairly easy bus transfer to my hotel, had some breakfast and struggled to stay awake until my room became available, and then crashed for several hours. This afternoon, got a bit of work done. Tonight, an early dinner, a good night’s sleep (please please please), and on to OAI 8 tomorrow.

Showers of the World

I’ve been on the road for a little over two weeks now, across three countries and nine time zones, and while I have a host of more serious topics for discussion originating from this trip, the one that’s most concerning me at the moment is the extraordinary variety in the ways the world has for devising showers that go wrong.

There was the one in Germany whose (mobile) shower head kept graaaaaadually turning to the right. Reach up and nudge it back left. Find yourself standing pressed up against the glass partition again just a few moments later.

There was the one in Portugal that was subject to what must have been 40 or 50 degree variations in water temperature, with no warning whatsoever. One moment you’re enjoying a nice temperate rinse. The next you’re scalded. Ten seconds later, freezing.

There was the one in Nashville whose water pressure was on the cusp of giving up the ghost. The sense of standing under a half-full watering can was all too vivid, especially as pressure changes in the building would result every so often in that already weak flow dwindling almost to a stop.

But the one that takes the cake for me — perhaps only because I’ve just gotten out of it — is the one here in Los Angeles, whose (non-mobile) shower head is mounted at eye-level. My eye-level, and I am not a tall person. Rinsing the shampoo out of my hair required a tiny bit of limbo action.

I’m happy that those last two were here in the U.S., so that this isn’t just some ugly Americanism I’m beset by. I suppose it’s probably not much better that it’s just a sign of how spoiled I’ve gotten by the apartments I’ve gotten to live in for the last several years.

But I will note that this does all have me wondering what I might possibly find in Prague…

Pynchonesque

I need to begin this post by thanking Julika Griem for inviting me on what I hope was only a first visit to Frankfurt’s Goethe Universität; it was a privilege to be able to speak there, and I hope to be able to return very soon.

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted, only half-jokingly:

The two buildings that make up the IG Farben Haus are just magnificent, masterpieces of 1920s German architecture — a slight whiff of fascism in their monumentalist aesthetic, yes, but nonetheless spectacular.

And that these buildings are occupied not by the engineering faculty, or by the law school, but by the humanities, is pretty remarkable.

I couldn’t have realized, however, that my little Gravity’s Rainbow joke was going to have what might be considered some Unforeseen Consequences. I got about ten minutes or so into my talk, when the enormous speakers mounted on the wall behind me erupted in a torrent of German-accented English. Something about thanking the speaker, and taking some time now for discussion.

For an instant I thought I was being cut off, but why, and by whom? It turns out, however, that there was another talk going on in the building, in a large lecture hall on the ground floor. A talk by an economist, apparently, being given to a bunch of business people. And while the speaker’s microphone was properly wired, the mobile mic being used to amplify audience questions was piping those questions not only into the lecture hall but into a number of other rooms as well.

Needless to say, my talk ground to a halt. My mortified hosts ran downstairs to get the economists to straighten out their little broadcast problem, but they’d locked the doors, so no one could get into the room. And after some banging, the sponsors of the talk said that they couldn’t understand why there would be a problem, as they’d brought in their own equipment.

After a question, the broadcast would fall silent, and I’d try to start the talk back up, only to be drowned out by another amplified question a few minutes later. The good news is that the Q&A downstairs didn’t last very long; after about 20 minutes, I was able to resume my talk without further interruption.

But there’s something deeply allegorical in all of this: questions about negative interest rates and the problems raised by taking on debt insistently interrupting a talk about new models of open online authorship and its relationship to the gift economy; business people infiltrating university spaces, and then locking the doors behind them; economists bringing their own presumably better equipment into humanities territory, and then refusing to believe that it could possibly be malfunctioning, drowning out every other conversation.

But then I’d hate to read too much into it.

Ha.

In what universe did I think I was going to get any writing done on my flight?

As it turned out, we boarded an hour late, and then sat on the tarmac for an extra hour after boarding, so by the time we took off I was too exhausted to do much of anything other than read a few pages of a novel and watch some moving images on the little screen in front of me.

Overall, however, the journey went as well as it could have. I arrived in Göttingen with both self and stuff intact yesterday afternoon, and am now happily engaged in a fantastic workshop on forms of popular seriality.

I will hope for an opportunity to do some of that writing I was thinking about soon.

Departure

This morning is filled with the millions of details required to get self and stuff out the door and on the road for the better part of seven weeks. It’s the always enervating start to what’s bound to be an exciting, energizing trip.

The good news is that the small blogging binge I’ve been on here for the last several days has done the thing that I’ve had to remind myself of more than a couple of times in recent years: it’s made me receptive to the things that cross my consciousness that might be worth writing about, and it’s limbered me up a bit so that the writing can happen.

So I’m looking forward to spending some time on today’s long flight doing a bit of writing, and to doing even more when I get where I’m going. One has to depart, I suppose, in order to arrive.

Itinerary

I finally managed to purchase the last of my summer plane tickets yesterday.* I’ve got a bunch of travel coming up, most of it work-related, but part of it including a bit of actual vacation — the first one I’ve taken since the notion of “vacation” actually came to have some real significance in the structure of my year.

For those of you following along at home, here’s the schedule, which begins, I am alarmed to say, a week from today:

  • 6 June — fly from EWR to FRA (arriving, of course, 7 June)
  • 7 June — train from FRA to Göttingen
  • 8-9 June — workshop on Popular Seriality at Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
  • 10 June — all quiet, save one meeting with a grad student
  • 11 June — travel from Göttingen to Darmstadt Frankfurt to give a talk at the Technische Universität Darmstadt Goethe Universität Frankfurt [Ed 06.09.12: Glad I figured out where I’m going in advance!]
  • 12 June — return to Göttingen to give a talk at the Göttingen Center for Digital Humanities
  • 13 June — train to FRA; fly from FRA to OPO; some manner of transportation that hasn’t yet been described to me from OPO to Guimarães, Portugal
  • 14-15 June — the 16th International Conference on Electronic Publishing, a.k.a. “ElPub,” at which I’ll give a keynote and participate in a panel discussion
  • 16-17 June — two days off! In Portugal!
  • 18 June — ridiculously early flight out of OPO to FRA; FRA to EWR; EWR to BNA, a.k.a. Nashville, where I will promptly collapse
  • 19-20 June — ADE/ADFL Joint Summer Seminar east, where I’ll be giving a talk and leading a discussion group
  • 21 June — BNA through IAH to LAX
  • 22 June — talk at the Hypercities NEH Summer Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities at UCLA
  • 23 June — the point at which I expect all systems to fail: LAX to EWR to FRA to PRG, a.k.a. Prague, where it will be 24 June and I will be a twitchy mess
  • 24 June-14 July — VACATION, WHEREIN I WILL ONLY DO THOSE THINGS I WISH TO DO, AND NOTHING MORE
  • 15 July — PRG through MUC to HAM, a.k.a. Hamburg
  • 16-20 July — DH 2012 and associated meetings
  • 21 July — HAM to EWR

And then I’ll be back in the office on the 23rd, no doubt a bit dazed and disoriented, but extremely happy.

—–

*So I bought that last plane ticket (EWR-FRA-PRG-HAM-EWR) and was all whew, finally done with the travel arrangements! Only to get an email two hours later from the woman booking my travel to attend a three-day workshop at Michigan State at the beginning of August. The moral of which story is never, ever, believe yourself to be done.

Nothing to Be Done

We’re at the airport, on our way back to the US. Earlier this morning, as we were checking out of the hotel, I took one last look around the reception area, which was much emptier than it had been at any previous point during our stay. Past one sitting area, I spotted these two paintings:

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Wow, I thought. Amazingly dramatic faces! Real personality. And such… hopelessness. Odd choice for a hotel lobby.

So I turn the opposite direction, toward the reception desk, and see a matching pair of paintings behind the desk.

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I was trying to be subtle here, and so the bottom quarter of the paintings is lost. But you get the idea: the same bleakness, the same deep character. While the first set of paintings are of equal width, though, the second set are quite different; the painting on the left, of an older man weighed down by suitcases, is much narrower than the one on the right, of a man sitting on a bench. And yet they’re tied together, I slowly realized, by the scarf the man on the left is wearing, which is blowing into the frame of the painting on the right.

But wait. It’s not a scarf. It’s a rope.

It’s… Lucky. And Pozzo. And Didi and Gogo.

How utterly astonishing, to stay in a hotel whose lobby walls are waiting for Godot.

Homeward Bound, At Least Sorta

Today’s our last full day in Dublin; tomorrow morning, we head to the airport to fly to Newark, where I’ll then kill three hours before hopping on another plane to Los Angeles for the MLA.

There are all kinds of ironies — or, perhaps, coincidences, unfortunate bits of timing, and plain rotten luck — involved in this next segment of the epic journey I started back on December 15. That the second, domestic segment of the trip will only be about an hour shorter than the international segment, of course. That, on the other end of the flights, I’m going to be 35 miles from my actual home, and yet will never get to see it. But mostly that, this year of all years, when I’m living on the east coast, the conference is being held practically in my backyard out west.

And I’ll confess to having a little bit of difficulty getting myself geared up for the trip. The pre-Christmas visit to my family in Louisiana was lovely, if hectic; Christmas in Prague was astonishingly wonderful (particularly for a second such experience); Dublin has been great. I’ve had some moments of great productivity, and moments of great relaxation. I’ve seen and heard and eaten and drunk wonderful stuff.

But I’m tired. Tired of living out of a suitcase. Tired of hotel beds and recirculated air. Tired of not being entirely in control of what I eat and when. I long to go home, unpack, make some tea, and just sit in my own space.

The irony, of course, is that the space that is currently mine, at least in some sense — the studio in New York — is no more my home than any hotel room, really. But it’ll be home enough, once I manage to get back to it.

Between now and then, though, MLA! I’ll be around Wednesday through Sunday, and will hope to meet up with some of you there.

Christmas Eve in Prague

The Christmas market in Old Town Square has a smallish stage set up at one end; this stage is used throughout the Christmas season for performances of various kinds. Four years ago, when R. and I spent our first Christmas in Prague, we caught a dance recital, among other such performances; this year, we happened upon a mobile carillon being played.

But as four years ago, the most magical moment in the square came Christmas Eve, during the performance of soloists from the Czech national opera. I’ve posted a couple of brief clips from the performance (one and two), but this one is the moment that caught my breath: when the conductor turned to include the audience in the final song.

It’s difficult to tell from the audio here, but everyone around me is singing. Everyone.

Merry Christmas, all.