Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Addicted to Electoral Mapping

I've always loved cartography. I spent the better part of a month in the map room of the British library this summer, looking at Renaissance illuminated printed maps (Mercator thought there were camels in Siberia!), figuring out a way to work them into my last chapter, and my book in general. My book isn't about maps per se, but I wish it were. Literary landscapes have always appealed to me and I'm anxious to get back to working on space again after this book is finished.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that I am hooked on those interactive electoral maps connected to polling, the ones that help you predict who is going to win what race. The main reason playing with these electoral maps has become my latest addiction is because new polls come in every day and the numbers are different every time. My favorite map by far is Pollster's, which delivers the results of the most recent poll when you mouse over each state, and can also be changed to reflect the races for senate, house and governor across the country. Click on a state, and you get a line graph based on the state's poll history. It's fun to see the blue and red lines crossing back and forth. It is updated daily, sometimes hourly, so although its results are more up-to-date than the maps at the Times and the Washington Post, they also shift fairly frequently. If you like Pollster's state graphs, try fivethiryeight for more graphs and creative visualizations than you can imagine.

Of course as my mother and I discussed this evening, the actual physical space of the map matters not at all when translating polls into electoral votes. In other words, the geography of the map- it's very mappiness, if you will -is not the point of colored, clickable states. But I like the map just the same. I like being able to have the cursor meander from Virginia over to North Dakota, then down to Nevada. Pollster has N. Dakota leaning towards Obama, whereas the New York Times dubs it "Solid McCain Territory."

As of this moment, the Washington Post gave Obama a slight lead with 207 electoral votes predicted, the Times gave him 196, and Pollster has him at 272. When I check again tomorrow, the numbers will probably have changed for Pollster's map. It's scary and exciting and fun and totally, utterly addictive.

Yes, I know I'm a little nerdy about the map thing. But I do happen to have an excellent sense of direction- I once spent 6 hours cutting a crazy swath through the non-touristy parts of Venice and brought everyone back safe and well-fed. I have no sense of how this election is going to turn out. I'm lost. But as I mouse over the changing landscape of opinion, it feels for a moment like I do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Observations in October

It's starting to get chilly. The fall color is gorgeous. My heat has been shutting off intermittently for no reason and is really hard to get back on. Today the landlady finally hired a specialist who fixed a number of things and installed a fancy new thermostat. It seems to be working fine, but the next 24 hours are key. There is some sort of an animal in the attic, or was. My landlady sent her ex-boyfriend-turned-handyman up there and he cleaned up a lot of critter-refuse. So far it has not returned.

I gave a talk at Nearby University today for my early modern reading group- a talk on part II of my final chapter, the one I'm calling Chapter That Is Spiraling Out of Control. My audience was really gracious, sitting through all 45 minutes of me throwing various forms of information at them, including bits of history, philology, inventories, travel writing, commodities, and some Really Difficult poetic syntax and language. Their comments and suggestions were remarkably helpful and I'm blown away by the fact that they appear to have actually understood what I was trying to say. Maybe I need a new nickname for my chapter.

No more fellowship applications due for another two months. Yay! To take advantage of this small respite, I'm dreaming about throwing a "Great Depression" party. We could dance to early jazz, wear fedoras and boas, drink gin out of teacups, and party like it's 1929.

13 days left until the election.


That is all.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

"A Bracelet of Bright Hair"

I've been working with Donne's post-mortem love poetry for several years, and I always like to teach "The Funerall," "The Relique" and "The Damp" together, since each one imagines what happens to the lover's corpse after he has died. The first two poems describe the lover's corpse wearing "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" (Relique, 6) and "That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns mine arm" (Funerall, 3).

Today I decided it would be good to show students an image of a memorial hair bracelet along with some memento mori jewelry before turning to the text (who knows, maybe I'll inspire a student). I usually show a Victorian braided hair bracelet and locket with hair, since hair bracelets from the Renaissance are less likely to have survived. But I wanted to see if there were any earlier examples and so turned, naturally, to my dear friend the giant searchable database of images from the collections of the V&A, which houses one of the largest European jewelry collections in the world. This database of digital images, by the way, is completely open to the public. So I searched the collection for "human hair" between 1300 and 1700. And remarkably, I found these artifacts.

These are finished pieces of needle lace worked in human hair c. 1625-1665. Very few survive, as they were quite fragile. The V&A has a few, two of which have been photographed for the online database. They had a button on one end, and a loop or hole on the other, and were most likely worn as bracelets and made by women (the V&A cites "The Relique" as evidence that they were very likely love tokens).

The delicacy and ingenuity of the work is astounding. Both display birds and crosses, but the first piece is freer in style, depicting a dog, an owl, a stag and several species of flowers and fruits (click on the images to enlarge them). The animals have eyes, feathers, rendered muscles. The flowers and fruit have seeds, petals, shadows. The second has an oak and acorn motif. They may have been finished with horsehair, and some kind of resinous gum.

Both of Donne's poems imagine that the bracelet contains a portion of his beloved's soul, corresponding with the early modern belief in corporeal resurrection. In "The Relique," the bracelet functions as a kind of homing device, calling his beloved's corpse back to his grave on Resurrection Day. The idea is that since the body houses the soul, everyone's lost body parts would summon one another across the earth at Resurrection- teeth, skin and bones seeking one another out for reassembly like the dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel 37. This would be particularly arduous for Catholic saints, whose several body parts had been dispersed across the world as relics.

I had always imagined the "subtle wreath of hair" as a simple braid, never as something so gossamer, intricate, and figural. Yet it's easy to see why such a beautiful product of one person's handiwork might be thought to contain a portion of her soul.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Gun-totin' Obama Guy

I haven't posted here in a while- things are very busy for me this semester. I have lots of essays and grant applications due, as my last post intimated. And when I'm not trying to make these deadlines, I've got talks to write, search committee work, papers to grade, and volunteering to do. So my plate is full. I miss sleeping late- I did that this morning for the first time in two weeks. It was luxurious. But I felt guilty afterwards.

Yesterday I went out canvassing to a diverse, poor, working-class neighborhood north of the city. I only registered one person to vote, but I did meet a very pro-gun Republican who emphatically announced that he and his whole family would be voting for Obama this time around. His rationale was strange, so I'm repeating it here. First he quoted Bill Maher, calling the Republicans "Daddies" and Democrats "Mommies." He said that he felt Republicans were better for the country in times of stability, but that Democrats were better at "cleaning up the mess." (I guess that's what he thinks "mommies" do). He said he believed we need at least 12 more years of Democrats in the white house before it will be stable and safe enough for the Republicans to take over. To me, this sounds like he thinks Republicans are pretty incompetent over all. But I didn't say anything. Can anyone explain this logic to me?