About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A "Normal" Day

As I seem to be asked the question, “What is it that you do all day, anyway?” by a significant number of people on both sides of the Atlantic, I thought I should give some description of what a “normal” day looks like for me. Before I describe my own routine, however, I should like to quote an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised By Joy, to give a sense of how nearly (and quite by accident) I seem to have struck at his own ideal academic day—an indication, perhaps, that there might exist a Platonic Idea of the academic life in which both Lewis and I have participated. This passage comes from a chapter called “The Great Knock,” which describes the time Lewis spent preparing for his university entrance exams with Mr. Kirkpatrick of Great Bookham in Surrey.

We now settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the tap-room the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the out-door world; and talking leads almost inevitable to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one…who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it at Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs. Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. For eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirable. Of course not all books are suitable for meal-time reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and the Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose. At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is an essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock….Such is my ideal, and such then (almost) was the reality, of “settled, calm, Epicurean life”.

Thus Lewis. This Fulbright year is the equivalent of Lewis’ time at Bookham; thus, I need not yet (though certainly the time is coming) lament its rarity. Usually, I rise between seven and eight o’clock, shower, dress, and eat some breakfast. Somewhere between 8:30 and 9:15, I catch the bus and take it half-way from the dorm to the city. I then exit the bus and walk the remainder, typically about thirty minutes, to help get the blood flowing. I arrive in my office between 9:30 and 10:00, and, after setting up my laptop, I check my email and the news reports on CNN.com. Unfortunately, though the physical postman almost never knocks, his electronic counterpart throngs me incessantly, and I willingly oblige him. This is one of two facts that distinguish me considerably from Lewis. The other is my addiction to remaining connected with the news at home and around the world; by his own admission, Lewis never took a liking to reading the newspaper. Of course, he never had the Internet at his fingertips, though I hardly doubt that he would have scorned it with greatest obstinacy had it featured in his lifetime.

On particularly news-worthy days (such as today, being the day after an important number of primary elections in the United States) my perusal of the news sites may last until lunch time; if it doesn’t, then the remaining time until lunch is filled with reading of a more academic bent. Lunch is taken between 12:30 and 1:00 at the small Mensa (university-run cafeteria) a few blocks from my office in the basement of Fürstenberghaus, a building which houses the History and Archaeology departments, together with their respective libraries and several large lecture halls and smaller classrooms. After lunch and depending on the state of the weather (today’s dreary, damp, and cold overcast was not conducive), I may take anything from a short to a rather long walk; the shorter will accompany the worser weather and will be for the sake of renewing the blood flow; the longer will accompany better weather and will be for the sake of enjoying it. Upon returning to the office anywhere between 1:15 and 2:15, I settle in again with my books; depending on how I’m feeling, this may or may not be accompanied with a coffee, either the cheaper stuff from the Mensa or the more expensive fare from the coffee shop down the street.

This reading will take me until a quarter to six, at which time I will pack up my computer and whatever books I wish, and head down the street to the Lambertikirche, whose daily Mass runs approximately forty minutes from exactly six o’clock (the Germans being such punctual people, the priest has never failed to appear more than 10 seconds after the striking of the six o’clock bells). I then make the ten minute walk to the train station where I pick up the bus back to dorm, where I arrive at twenty minutes past seven. After fixing dinner, I eat while viewing an episode of The West Wing from my DVD collection, after which cleaning up the dishes will usually take me to about half past eight, at which time I put some good reading music on and settle into bed with a good book. Between 10:30 and 11:00, my eyes will begin to grow heavy, and I will close the book, turn off the computer and lights, and settle down to sleep.

It is as much for posterity’s sake as for anything else that I commit this mundane pattern to writing; I imagine that this time next year, I will look back fondly and nostalgically to this time of plenty of sleep, long walks for the sake of nature, and cozy reading unhurried by the demands of the graduate student’s schedule. For now, at least, I shall simply be content to pass the days whose abiding feature is best summed up with the German word Gemütlichkeit—an atmosphere of coziness, comfort, and contentment, of time passed without anxiety for the past or the future, of life lived according to its natural rhythms, free of stress and frenzy.

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