Trying to stay human in a world gone mad...

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Amid all of the horrible events that have been taking place recently, it's hard to feel good about the general direction of the world. The events of last weekend, and the response to it, are so sad, sickening, and predictable.

I hope people can retain their cool. 

 Let's not cave in to fear.


Really, though, the events of the past few weeks--and especially since the San Bernardino shootings and people's responses to them--have been particularly revealing with respect to who among our politicians can remain calm in an emergency, and who would freak out and panic. The folks who are crapping their pants and demonizing immigrants--especially Muslim ones lately--are the absolute last people that I would trust to run the country during a moment of peril. If this is how they respond to a mass shooting--something that is horrible for so many reasons but which, after all, happens on a regular basis in this country--how are they going to react during a genuine case of national emergency?

Up here at the Borderlands Lodge, meanwhile, I live in a contrast between the tumult of national and world events, and the tranquil place that surrounds me. Gallatin Valley, in which Bozeman is located, is surrounded by mountains on all sides. They're all part of what most people would call the "Rockies," but they all have local names, too: the Bridgers, the Spanish Peaks, the Crazies, and the Absorokas.  

I love these bluebird days under the Big Sky


When I came out here for my job interview in early December of 2008, the chair of the search committee that eventually hired me challenged me to memorize the four ranges as we drove in from the airport, promising me that I'd be quizzed on my way out. It turned out that someone else would end up driving me back so I didn't have to show off what I'd learned, but I was ready. 

The mountains are beautiful, but in some ways they can constitute a Berlin Wall of sorts for the folks that live here-- one that is mainly self-imposed. People who grow up in Gallatin County often seem to develop a "why go anywhere else?" type of mentality which can, at times, manifest into a real lack of curiosity about the world beyond Montana, let alone the United States. 

But that's actually one reason why I think my job is important, to be honest with you. For better or for worse, I'm often one of the first people, if not the first, to discuss with my students the parts of the world I work on in a professional way. It's a big responsibility, and it's one reason why I tend to go to work thinking that--no matter how bleary or grouchy I might be feeling--I'm doing something worthwhile.

Not everyone who takes my classes ends up feeling excited about these places. Some students dislike me and/or my classes. But it's exciting to see others become galvanized. A lot of my students come from small towns in Montana or thereabouts, and come to Bozeman with a real hunger for information about the parts of the world on which I work. So, it can be quite fun to see individuals--many of whom have no idea how smart they really are--developing an interest in these places and blossoming intellectually. And it's cooler still to see former students of mine do things like travel abroad to teach English after graduation, or else teach in the United States. 

Don't call it a 'vacation' 

I guess these are the sorts of thoughts that are on my mind as the semester comes to an end. I won't teach again until almost the middle of January. This is great for me, because I've got a ton of work to do. 

A lot of people mistakenly think that the time periods in which professors are not actively teaching constitute 'vacation.' Non-academic friends and relatives of mine chide me for my supposedly slack schedule. But there's a lot of work that goes into the non-teaching aspects of my position. Teaching is 40% of my job, but so is research, and I'm expected to publish, and also to obtain funding so that I can undertake my research in the first place. Breaks between semesters are also important times for updating my classes, or creating new ones.  

Along the Madison River in November

And because I teach a wide range of classes, I have to keep up to date on a number of regions. This fall I taught a 100-level class on the Modern Middle East and an upper-division class called "Eurasian Borderlands" which focused upon cross-cultural interactions in the Balkans. Next semester, meanwhile, I'm teaching "The USSR: Rise, Fall, and Aftermath," a class on Soviet and post-Soviet history, in addition to taking on our department's capstone class in history research methods. While I've taught the Soviet class before, I'm still tweaking it a little bit , and since this is my first time teaching the capstone I'll need to spend extra time working on preparation.  

Biking around town, November



I've also spent a lot of time this fall asking people for money. That's nice, in some ways. Filling out grant applications does help me articulate my interests in ways that help to develop my ideas more generally. But it also takes up a lot of time, especially as doing so forces me to really dive into the scholarship of a new project, something that I hope to do even more of once I dig my way out of the mountain of grading that I am currently working on. 

Traditions new and old

A lot has been going on lately in Gallatin County. One traditions that's been more recently invented is the lighting of Montana Hall on campus. I went down on Thursday of last week and checked it out. 

Nice, but maybe a wee bit too tasteful

It was a nice scene--they had hot cider and hot chocolate for visitors, and it was cool to have something like this going on at campus. But I gotta say--I was hoping for a bit more color in those lights. Maybe some figurines? A Santa's sleigh on the roof? All in all, it seemed a bit too subdued.

Next year will be better, I think

On Saturday of last week Bozeman had its annual "Christmas Stroll." I'd never attended this before. Basically, they close down Main Street so that people can mill around and eat things. It was fun. Toward the end, a flatbed truck drove down Main Street with a group of elementary school children and a man dressed as Santa Claus. The truck stopped right in front of us, and the children broke out into song with "Silent Night," all four (five?) verses of it.

Putting a bit of 'tac' in 'spectacular'


I grew up in a very secular community where outright references to religion during Christmas were uncommon--at least in the sort of public, municipally-supported way that I saw during the Christmas Stroll. So, at first, I didn't really know how to react. But I couldn't help being affected by the innocent sound of the kids' voices, especially in light of all of the horrible developments of recent weeks. I guess 'Rockwellian' is the term I'd use to describe it all, and I'm not talking about the guy who sang "Somebody's Watching Me," either. 

All in all, it was really quite touching.

Tree Chopping

I also had a nice time getting out of the house on Sunday. In Montana, it's possible to purchase a permit from the state to chop down a Christmas tree on public land. You can get them at hardware stores and they cost a whopping $5. 

I'd done this once before, a couple of years ago, with a group of Russians I know who live in Bozeman. We'd drunk toasts and had a small picnic in a forest just above Bridger Bowl to the north north of town. At the time I had no car, and therefore no means of transporting a tree, so I had only observer status for this activity back then. But now that I've got wheels, I thought it might be cool to chop down a tree and put it up at the Borderlands Lodge.


I started talking up the idea a couple of weeks ago. I proposed getting some champagne and some food and have a little picnic. Four friends--one of whom actually had experience chopping down trees--agreed to come with me. Then, the night before, we found out some other friends were doing likewise so we decided to join up with them. 

There was food, fun, and frolic involved, with plenty of alcohol and sharp saws and axes thrown in. What could go wrong?

Doing the tree dance

It was a good time. We went over to Hyalite Canyon south of town. One member of our party had a chainsaw, and created little stools for us to sit around the camp fire. There was good food and drink, not to mention sledding and, of course, some serious tree felling

The tree that I got, and which now graces the Borderlands Lodge foyer, was procured for what may seem like a small commercial cost. Nevertheless, the emotional and physical toll was more exacting, especially during the drive back. A lot of cars--including one from our party--spun out. It was pretty slick, but the Borderlands Lodge Limo was safe and secure, and hung onto the road tightly with its trophy-tree displayed proudly on the roof.  

And yeah, I know---it's kind of sad to kill a little tree like this. But buying a permit for $5 at a hardware store and then driving out into a national forest to chop down my own tree sounded like too good an idea to pass up. I felt that I had to do it at least once wanted to do it at least once, and this year seemed like as good a time as any to try. 

I mean, it's not like there's any danger of this becoming a tradition or anything, right?


Otherwise, I've just been finishing up the semester. Like a lot of academics, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to write, and especially to read over break. And ski. 

I'm in the habit of carrying around my camera and taking a picture whenever I see something especially pretty. Here are a few shots from recent weeks:  

Driving in Hyalite, south of town


Renne Library and Montana Hall


I love this part of campus

You know, before I moved out here I hadn't exactly been dreaming of coming to Montana. Like a lot of people in academia, I found a job someplace that sounded nice enough, but it was the job that I was mainly pursuing. I grew up in a college town and have generally liked living in them, but Montana seemed very...remote to me. 

And it is, and there are some disadvantages to being remotely located. It's an extra $500 or so to fly overseas, and sometimes even to get to Michigan and back a ticket can cost $600. This also means that I travel less for work, so I go to fewer conferences and am less in the physical, face-to-face mix of things than was the case when I was living on the east coast.

But I guess that I'm also coming to realize that being remote isn't always so bad. Maybe at the very least I can appreciate the feeling of remoteness, the "Berlin Wall" creating the illusion of actual separateness from the rest of the world.

It is just an illusion, after all. But sometimes it can be an appealing one.

160 librarians can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge.  

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