Blogs in Abeyance, with Associated Bituminosity
Definition of Abeyance:
A state of temporary inactivity.
Definition of Bituminosity:
You’ll have to wait for this. But not for very long.
An Outpouring of Written Words Demonstrates the Human Capacity for Change
When the lockdowns began in mid-March 2020, many organizations and institutions faced a stark choice: either reinvention, or major acquisition of mothballs and a good-sized storage locker.
Since the Center of the American West is a very sociable organization, reinvention into an arrangement without direct human contact would shake it to the core. And since its Faculty Director trailed at the end of the parade in technological capability and was not even in the parade when it came to keeping up with an unrelenting writing schedule, it seemed possible that the option of the mothballs and storage locker might prevail.
We thought about starting a newsletter. But this presented its own conundrum: with our transformed circumstances, since we were best known for planning and hosting public programs, we would have next to nothing to put in our newsletter.
Perhaps we could create a newsletter where we would tell readers the programs we would have presented if we had been able to hold events? We could go even a little further and describe how much the audiences would have loved these events if they could have attended them. At least, the name for this new literary genre was easy to conjure up: The Center of the American West’s Wishful Thinking Gazette.
But if the goal was to convey to the world that the Center of the American West had not gone dormant, then issuing a regular report on wishful thinking seemed certifiably counter-productive.
So why not a blog, appearing with new material every week?
The idea of starting a Center of the American West blog had come up for consideration in the past. But caution blocked my path. After adventurous years when I said whatever came to my mind, I had developed an unforeseen enthusiasm for thinking before speaking. If I took to making statements fast and frequently in a blog, I would soon demonstrate the accuracy of the saying, “Write in haste, repent at leisure.”
But with remote working and social isolation in the picture, I had to recalculate.
In 2020, when millions of people were making changes that they had never seen coming, I decided I would give blogging a try. After all, the custom had only been around for more than twenty years, so for a person who was not leading the parade in technological capability, I was actually moving really fast.
“Not my First Rodeo” launched on May Day, 2020. With two weeks off during the winter holidays, a post has appeared every week, proofread early on Thursday mornings by Kurt Gutjahr, Roni Ires, and Lisa Cooper, and made handsome and spiffy in layout by Honey Ashenbrenner, who announced its appearance in a Marketing Cloud message every Friday morning. Supplementing the “Rodeo,” “Did Anyone Else Notice?” began in late October of 2020 and has provided a new commentary nearly every week in 2021.
The bedrock goal was to make it clear that the Center of the American West had not gone dormant. Beginning in the Summer of 2020, frequent Zoom public programs, adopting our pre-pandemic format of lively interviews, added robust evidence that—rather than dormancy—the Center had opted for and achieved hyperactivity. Meanwhile, the Center’s project in Applied History, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, moved from in-person conversation to Zoom, giving me the privilege of constant consultation with gifted young historians.
In my pre-pandemic life, the phrase “Never a dull moment” had figured prominently in my responses when people asked me how things were going at the Center. In the last fifteen months, the phrase has never lost its relevance. In truth, at the end of many days, I have felt completely satiated with intellectual stimulation, ready to welcome a moment or two of restful dullness.
The unrelenting production schedule of blog posts was a central feature of that stimulation. No one could claim that every sentence in every “Rodeo” or “Notice” post crackles with insight and amusement. But there was something that passed for adventure in every stage of composing them, from getting struck by an idea (this sometimes felt almost physical—though never with injury!), all the way through to the “Whew!” sensation of sending off the finished text to the proofreading team early on Thursday mornings.
Never a dull moment. And, even more remarkable, never a missed deadline.
Until 2020, I had never even imagined that I could generate more-or-less readable words at such a pace. In the strenuous sport of sticking with a rigorous schedule, without a single failure to deliver over more than a year, this actually was my first rodeo.
A Website with a Wanderlust Not Shared by Its Principal Proprietor
After months of staying at home, lots of people are starting to travel again.
Proving that the world of material human beings and the world of digital equipment have become strangely integrated, the Center of the American West website has come down with a case of wanderlust. This website has had it with staying in the same place. It wants to rove, ramble, and even gallivant. Most of all it wants to migrate to a new digital platform.
But it didn’t catch wanderlust from me.
Given that I spent four decades making frequent out-of-town trips to give speeches and attend conferences, it would have seemed safe to predict that I’d be overcome with restlessness after fifteen months at home. But I am not making any sudden moves—or, for that matter, any gradual moves—to return to customs that were once the very definition of “normal” for me.
Parting ways with Willie Nelson, I can wait to get on the road again. I cannot work up even a twinge of yearning for those many mornings when I would wake up in a hotel room and confront the same riddle: “Which city am I in, and on which floor of this hotel will I find the fitness room with the elliptical machines?”
Since March 11, 2020, I have awakened with the certainty that I am in Boulder and that the elliptical machine is in the basement. Here’s how co-dependent we have become: I believe that my elliptical machine would miss me if I went away for a few days. Worse, I believe that if I returned to my wandering ways, my cat would get a lawyer and sue me for desertion.
Attorneys looking for a client need not waste their time in trying to contact that cat. Her owner—oops, I meant guardian—is now a leading figure in the Homebody Pride Movement.
But the Center of the American West website is desperate to move, and I am not going to argue with it.
Whenever I argue with a website, I lose.
Bracing for a Phase of Blog-Deprivation
So the Center of the American West website is going to migrate.
Thankfully, I have no role to play in aiding the website on its journey. The technologically adept team members at the Center will make sure that the website has a safe trip, concluding with whatever sort of landing—soft or otherwise—that a website prefers.
While this journey is under way, my two blogs—“Not my First Rodeo” and “Did Anyone Else Notice?”—are going to take a break.
In an era when we have had as much as we can take in the way of health warnings, I have one more alarm to raise.
If you have become used to the reliable arrival of the weekly “Not my First Rodeo” blog post, and also accustomed to the almost reliable arrival of the weekly “Did Anyone Else Notice?” blog post, you are at risk of becoming “bituminous from long deprivation.”
In putting a spotlight on human eccentricity, one of Mark Twain’s many triumphs arose from his tribute to Mr. Ballou, an old gentleman (he was at least sixty!) who joined Twain on several prospecting adventures in Nevada. Mr. Ballou had “one striking peculiarity”: he was forever “loving and using words for their own sake, and independent of any bearing they might have on the thought he was trying to convey.” And so, when the prospecting party found itself burdened with horses that had no inclination to pull a wagon, Mr. Ballou diagnosed the problem: these horses “were bituminous from long deprivation.”
With new Center of the American West blog posts ceasing to appear, by late June, you may become bituminous from long deprivation. But if you hold steady until mid-July, your bituminosity will lift.
Or, to depart from Mr. Ballou’s distinctive frame of reference, “Not my First Rodeo” and “Did Anyone Else Notice?” are going to return, though they may not be exactly as you remember them.
In the meantime, should the deprivation of regular postings cause uncomfortable symptoms, treatment is at hand. While it is migrating, the Center of the American West website will not post new material, but it will remain accessible. The whole collection of existing “Not my First Rodeo” posts (all fifty-eight of them!), as well as the “Did Anyone Else Notice?” collection, will be available. Plus, recordings of the Center of the American West Zoom public programs will also remain in your reach, including Historians Imagine, Bipartisanship (and Friendship) Happen!, and an interview series with CU student veterans, called Memories of Service.
The Elves and the Shoemaker Achieve a Breakthrough in Labor Relations:
The Backstage Story of Blog-Writing
When I was a student, I wrote papers in a state of desperation, finished them in a panic, and turned them in with foreboding. Every time I wrote and turned in a paper, I reenacted the Grimm Brothers’ story of the shoemaker and the elves.
The shoemaker was very poor, and not very good at time management. So he would cut out the leather for a pair of shoes and then give up and go to bed. When he got up in the morning, the leather had been transformed into perfectly stitched shoes. These mysteriously produced shoes developed quite a clientele, and even as more leather got cut and laid out in the evenings, pairs of well-crafted shoes kept appearing in the morning.
How did these shoes get made?
More or less the same way my papers got written.
The shoemaker went to sleep, and the elves came out and produced footwear that people liked.
I procrastinated past any possible redemption, and the next morning, I would find that the typewriter, presumably staffed by elves, had produced written work that professors liked.
This would have been a perfectly pleasant system for success in writing—if I had not lived in fear that, on some occasion, the elves wouldn’t show up. Really, why wouldn’t these elves, dealing with very unsatisfactory working conditions, finally go on strike? Surely, at some point, they’d just quit.
“We have saved this person from failure innumerable times,” they would say to each other in solidarity, “and we’ve had it. The next time she gets herself into a pickle and thinks that we’ll show up and produce an essay worth reading, we’ll tell her, ‘Sorry, lady, but this time you’re on your own.’ And then we’re going to get the first good night’s sleep we’ve had in years, but we’ll wake up early just to watch—with the fabled elfish glee—when she realizes that we’re not going to bail her out.”
Years passed, and the elves kept showing up. But my reliance on them continued to feel precarious . . . until our relationship was transformed by the obligation to write a weekly post for “Not my First Rodeo.”
As these posts kept appearing, the elves and I were at last able to negotiate a labor agreement that proved acceptable—even comfortable— to them and to me. They know now that I will never take them for granted, and I know now that they will never leave me in the lurch.
The elves and I have finally figured out how to trust each other.
For various books and articles, I have written acknowledgments stocked with many statements of gratitude to the people who have helped me. But those acknowledgments have always omitted the most important figures of all. At long last, “Not my First Rodeo” and “Did Anyone Else Notice?” have provided me with the occasion to offer a long overdue statement of gratitude:
Thank you, elves. I couldn’t have done this without you.
And now an odd request to all readers: please consider sharing the story of the labor agreement between me and the elves with all the nervous young writers you already know or will meet in the future. The story may just seem silly the first time an ambitious young writer hears it. But I can almost guarantee that the time will come, when it will deliver both inspiration and comfort.
“We Shall Never Again Be as We Were”
This post was going to be consistently cheerful in spirit, conveying the simple message that there will be a moratorium on Center of the American West blogs, and that they will return, though maybe with a different pacing, a different mission, and a different relationship between their producer and their consumers.
So I was aiming at cheer and simplicity, but that solemn and sometimes even ponderous American novelist Henry James kept getting in my way.
If I had been left to determine my own fate in life, I would never have read a word written by Henry James. But his books kept appearing on syllabuses. Every time I thought I had escaped him, another professor sent me back into a literary space that seemed perfectly designed to trigger claustrophobia. Worst of all, by the time I got to the end of his sentences, I had often forgotten how they began. If I suddenly found myself with time to reread a book purely for pleasure, the chances of me settling down with a Henry James novel remain very slim.
The impact of Covid-19 on the world has many tragic dimensions, but the impact also has many aspects that demonstrate the capacity of human beings to change in ways they never saw coming. In one of the most trivial of these demonstrations of change, I have been surprised by the onset of frequent thoughts about Henry James. This might be because his novels involve people encountering each other in close quarters, where even a small gesture or exclamation can devastate or heal, a situation that characterized the lives of many in the last year.
For other reasons, my preoccupation with Henry James accelerated when the number of infections and deaths from Covid-19 began dropping in most areas of the United States. When more and more people got vaccinations, and the idea that our lives might return to normal received more and more and more consideration, I found my mind locked in contemplation of thirty-nine words at the end of James’s novel, The Wings of the Dove.
Not because of the plot of the novel, which has little bearing on our efforts to determine if we are actually entering a post-pandemic era. But here, to provide context for the thirty-nine words that appear (with utterly uncharacteristic clarity and brevity) at the end The Wings of the Dove, is the world’s most efficient plot summary of a very complicated novel.
In London at the turn of the twentieth century, Kate Croy and Merton Densher are in love, engaged, and very short on money. When an extremely rich young woman enters their social circle, and when it seems very possible that she has an incurable illness, Kate enlists her fiancé in a scheme. Densher will court the young heiress and marry her. The heiress will die soon; Densher will inherit her fortune; and Kate and Densher will then have sufficient money to realize their dream and marry each other.
This scheme—mostly— works. The heiress is dead. Densher has his inheritance. But he has also found his conscience, an awakening that Kate did not see coming and does not welcome.
Here is the ending, a dialogue between Kate and Densher, thirty-nine words that will not stop playing and replaying in my mind:
Then he only said, “I’ll marry you, mind you, in an hour.”
“As we were?”
“As we were.”
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”
Whenever a public official or a commentator or a friend says, “We are getting back to normal,” I can only hear Kate saying, “We shall never be again as we were!”
I know Kate is only a fictional character but since she won’t stop intruding into my mind, I feel I have been given the right to speak to her directly.
“You are absolutely right, Kate: ‘we shall never be again as we were.’ We have been irrevocably changed by the pandemic. While few of us behaved as badly as you and Densher, we all did some things that were misguided, ill-thought-out, and very self-centered. But your words—“We shall never be again as we were”—carry multiple meanings, and those meanings cover the whole range from hope to despair.”
The impact of Covid-19 on the world has many tragic dimensions. But the impact also has many aspects that demonstrate the extraordinary capacity of human beings to change.
Even if we retreat to old habits of under-estimating our resilience and persistence, we can no longer claim that this is just the way we are, and who we have to be.
For those of us who have been given room to push past predictability and who have been spared lasting sorrow, when we join Kate in saying “we shall never again be as we were,” our next remark will sometimes be, “Thank heavens.”
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Old Store front image courtesy of: Pixabay
The Wings of the Dove book image courtesy of: Wikipedia
We will be back soon image courtesy of: Flickr