Back in the Saddle

Being back home from the big dig means a lot of things:

1)   I am back at my desk! I love my desk. I missed my desk. I can’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to my current work set-up, but I simply wouldn’t want it any other way and I so dearly missed having it. I missed the sunlight; I missed my giant window; I missed the comfy chair; I missed my dual monitor and raised laptop setup; I missed my external keyboard and mouse; I missed my giant external hard drive; and I missed not having to move everything around on a whim. So glad to be

In the course of my unpacking, this happened.  Because for me this is normal.

In the course of my unpacking, this happened. Because for me this is normal.

back sitting in one location when I’m working!

2)   Man oh man do I have so many e-mails to answer. I’m about caught up on all the things now; but it was dicey there for a few days. It’s incredible the amount of backlog you can build up, even when working triage between archive trips.

 3)   I might have gone a little theatre-nutty and accepted about a half dozen reviews in my first two days being back. This week I’ll be reviewing one show; next week I’ll be reviewing a different show and seeing a third show just for the sake of seeing theater… and I have a few more on the horizon coming up. I’m so happy that it’s theatre season again; and I’m so stoked to be back in the reviewers’ saddle (though I will admit, it was nice to see a show or two without a notebook in my hand while I was in New York!).

4)   I have so many pre-semester errands to accomplish. Some of them are amusing. Some of them are not. Luckily I timed my return such that I’d have a few precious days on campus before the hoards descend in multitudes. Picking up a parking pass for the semester is SO much easier when you can sneak in and out without anyone else being there. By the time the undergrads arrive back on campus, lines at campus security wind up being out the door and around the block (no joke) and I’m simply too ridiculously busy to spend two hours waiting for the privilege to hand them my money. Also: when campus is empty, I can use the quad for whip practice. Not so much once everyone returns from summer break.

5)   I have once more managed to fill this semester with exciting things. I’m TAing one class in the department and teaching a second. I am teaching my stage combat class again to the kids at Charlestown, and teaching my OSHER class again to my delightful continuing adult ed. students. I’m also fight directing at least two projects (with more on the horizon), finishing edits on a chapter for publication, continuing my work as an independent contract writer, and continuing my work with the Folger. Oh and writing a dissertation. And that’s just what I’m doing on the work front… My personal projects and leisure activities continue at a similar pace.

6)   Now I have to set order to the INSANE amount of stuff I documented over the

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I'm missing this view....

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I’m missing this view….

course of five weeks at some of the biggest archives in the country. I’m making progress, and the trip definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things that I really needed to consider over the course of this dissertation process. Also: it was fun to paw through archival material (if a bit frustrating sometimes).

7)   Back to running here means back to hill training. New York is very flat…. My neighborhood not so much. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess?

 Back to the grind!

Is the Raven Growing Hoarse?

Alright so listen. Sleep No More ain’t what it used to be.

I’ve been to the McKittrick Hotel three times now. The first was during its supposed short-term run WAAAYYY back in the spring of 2011. It was one of the most epic theatre experiences of my life; so creepy, so moving, so very creative. It was so awesome that I knew I had to take my best beloved to see it as soon as I could.

Turns out “as soon as I could” had to wait a few years; but we got there in the summer of

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

2012; just as Gallow Green (the rooftop bar addition) was opening up. He loved it; I loved it; we had a blast.

This trip, we knew that we had to go back in and see it again. There are just so many permutations of adventure to go through and so much to do inside the hotel. I hadn’t tasted nearly enough of the candy, and who knows? Maybe we could get a glimpse of the elusive sixth floor? He hadn’t had a one-on-one yet, and I knew I wanted to see more of the story. So the other evening we went.

I’m sorry to say that this once-epic experience has definitely gone downhill since it first opened; and not because the performers aren’t spectacular (they are) or the immersive environment isn’t receiving the care and attention it needs to stay immersive (it is); but rather because the crowds of people who attend the show are no longer respectful of the environment, the experience, or even fellow audience members.

For those who are unfamiliar, go check out my review of the first performance I saw to get cozy with the concepts that I’m about to discuss.

Never before have I seen so many half-masked/unmasked people wandering the halls of the McKittrick. While I hadn’t witnessed this phenomenon in previous visits, these days guests seem to think that the “wear your mask at all times” rule doesn’t apply to them. Additionally, I heard more cross-chatter from guests than I have in previous years. Try as you might to whisper, when there’s no talking allowed in the hotel, a human voice really carries.

Worst of all was the way that the guests behaved to each other. There was so much pushing, shoving, and other attempts to get to “the front” that I gave up even trying to follow performers about midway through the performance. The now famed “one on one” aspects of the performance seem to be a much sought after prize and McKittrick guests are willing to fight to be chosen. Several times, I experienced being shoved away from a performer so that someone could get in front of me in hopes of being selected for a one-on-one. Several other times I was standing in a mostly-empty room surveying a performer from a respectful distance when new arrivals would push past me to stand between me and the performer leaving the performer without enough playing space and me with a frustrated shoulder-chip.

I find this to be really sad. Sleep No More was a true pinnacle of theatrical experience for me, and to have it so ruined by others was a shame not just for me but also for the thespians who work so hard to keep this show running.

I think part of the problem is a real “hands off” attitude from the proprietors of the McKittrick. In an effort to keep the experience mysterious, Punchdrunk’s employees are notoriously tight-lipped about how to behave while inside the hotel. I understand that appreciating the experience is up to the individual, but a set of “official/unofficial” rules and regulations about how to treat other guests (and, by the way, the performers) would go a long way, I think, towards curbing the problems which led to my extremely negative experience of the piece.

I hate to say it, but if this kind of behavior continues from the guests, Sleep No More is going to very quickly lose interest for turned-off patrons who don’t want to literally fight to see the show.

In an effort to rehabilitate the Sleep No More audience, I offer unto the internet a few pointers about how to comport yourself while inside the McKittrick. I’ve crafted these with one thing in mind: that if we can help each other have the best possible experience, we can all enjoy the show for years to come.

1)   Spatial Awareness: while the SNM mask definitely cuts off your peripheral vision and creates a feeling of being alone in the scene, try to be aware of who is around you and how long they’ve been standing there. If you walk into a room with others already in it, try not to block their view (they were there first, after all!). Also, keep some sense of where your neighbors are when watching a scene. The actors can move pretty quickly sometimes, and you may have to duck out of the way to avoid legs, arms, or flying objects. You want to make certain that you have some space to do so, and that you’re leaving such space for those around you.

2)   Respectful Following Distance: even though part of the “shtick” is to be a part of the scene, you still want to give the actors enough space to do their thing. They need to be able to move around, get to the props they need, and even meet up with scene partners sometimes. Try to leave them enough room to perform when you pause to observe them. If you happen upon other McKittrick guests with a performer, don’t just assume that the space between the guest and performer is a “free spot” to stand; you might have just walked into the space that the guest specifically made for the performer to perform. Stand behind other patrons as much as you can, and try not to breathe down anyone’s neck.

3)   Right of Way: following performers around the hotel is definitely part of the fun; but if you see that there are guests already following an actor, try to trail along at the back of the pack rather than push to the front. The people who follow most closely have probably been following the character for some time and have a vested interest in the story that is unfolding; there’s room for everyone, but you wouldn’t want to scoop another patron on seeing the story that they’ve put so much time and investment into. This is doubly true if you’re a slow walker, or if you’re in a group. The actors move quickly and it can be easy to lose them without a vested effort; don’t block someone else from following through on what they’re trying to do. Fall into the herd and start following as well! As others peel away, you can have your turn at the front of the pack.

4)   Don’t “Game the System”: especially with the blog-o-sphere so active with how to get this one-on-one, or how to achieve that goal inside the hotel, it’s easy to go in with a desire to “win” the “game”. This attitude will only make you disappointed if you, for some reason, fail to accomplish what you set your mind to (which could easily happen depending upon so many different factors outside of your control). This experience is meant to be savored; not graded. Remember why you fell in love with the show in the first place and try to let the experience wash over you. Competitive drive will not only ruin your experience, but also that of those around you since it will make you more likely to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that deprive other guests of a good time. The point is not to “win”. The point is to enjoy.

5)   Trust: Trust that Punchdrunk has something in mind when they request that you not talk or take your mask off during the performance. If these rules seems “stupid” or “bad”, try to dig beneath that instinct and ask yourself why you find them to be so. If you grow nervous or scared, either embrace it as part of the experience or take a break in the bar for a while (the ushers, I’m told, are very good at helping you find it if you need it for this reason). Taking your mask off or speaking breaks the environment for others who, by the way, paid the same ticket price you did. Don’t allow your negative experience to ripple out. Also, trust that the actors see and take note of you, even if they don’t acknowledge your presence (they’re not supposed to, after all). Yes, there will be one person chosen from a crowd for a one-on-one; you do not need to make yourself the most “obvious” choice.

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

The actors are quite good at realizing who has been there for a while, and who has developed a sort of “rapport” with them. Attempting to push the issue is obnoxious.

When Punchdrunk uses the phrase “fortune favors the bold”, they mean that you should be brave, explore, and see what you can find in the hotel. They also mean that if, should an actor offer you a one-on-one or some individual attention, you should take them up on it. They do not mean “push your way to the front of every pack”; they do not mean “do your best to be everywhere all at once”.

Relax, have fun, and enjoy the show. That’s the best way to keep your behavior from preventing others from doing the same.

Adventures in Archives

In the last week I have managed to:

Find items listed in the card catalogue that it took three archivists and a reference librarian to figure out what these items might be, and that the library probably doesn’t have what I’m looking for anymore (though they obviously did at one point) but if these items were still, somehow, in the collection how I could fill out a call slip to maybe see what I wanted to see.

2014-07-22 10.41.32

Shot I took on my way to NY Municipal yesterday. Ain’t she a beaut’?

Fill out the call slip in the way the librarian told me to.  It did not get me my broadside, but it did get me a collection of clippings that were mildly useful so I’ll call that particular adventure a wash.

Find an item listed in the card catalogue which, when delivered to the desk, was in such fragile condition that I was not allowed to take the item from the desk but rather had to make a special appointment with a special archivist so that she could turn pages for me.

Find a series of items that was collected in so many different forms that the archivists had to bring me no less than three book cradles and two sets of book weights to figure out how I could view them safely without damaging or putting stress on the items.  These items, by the by, were included in a series of circus ephemera which also included all kinds of broadsides, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and crumbling papers arrayed in scrapbooks in what I’m certain made sense at the time they were put together but now, one hundred and fifty years later, is the most convoluted organization possible.

Find an envelope containing locks of hair and adoring notes from Edwin Booth’s groupies.  Apparently fan-girling is not a modern invention and, in the nineteenth century, was way creepier than it is today.

Procure and subsequently lose approximately fifteen pencils.

Increase my average daily physical activity by approximately 200%.  This is not hyperbole; my step tracker counted.

Make and cancel and re-make so many plans that I’m hoping my calendar remembers where and when I’m supposed to be at a given time because I certainly don’t.

Attain and attend appointments at all of my target archives and sift through so much material that I’m going to be reeling for a while.

And now, they’ve paged my next batch.  Catch you later!

The Big Dig

Today I’m working at the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the New York Public Library.

The Stephen A. Shwarzman building looks like a piece of Hogwarts right in the heart of New York City.

The building is open to the public most days during reasonably convenient hours.

I can’t believe I’ve lived most of my life in New York and never until today been into the library building.

I also can’t believe that I’m working in a private section of a public building which requires a special appointment, special passwords, and special knowledge of the interior workings of the system to access. When I leave the reading room to grab a drink of water or take a break, I have to walk across a beautiful rotunda filled with works of art that defy description and many gaping tourists taking pictures of them. When I return to the reading room, I have to go down back alley corridors, ring a special bell, and get a wave-in from one of the archivists because “she’s with us”.

Last night, while on the phone with my best beloved, I actually used the phrase “I’m in the

Hogwarts, I tell you

Hogwarts, I tell you

field…”. This makes me think of Indiana Jonesing my way through temples filled with traps and pitfalls all to find the Golden Idol of Treasure sitting atop some elaborate dais. This metaphor seems reasonably accurate to what I’m actually doing at the moment so I think that I’ll leave it that way. In case you get bored, just imagine me with my bullwhip and fabulous hat swinging my way through Times Square shouting “It belongs in a museum!”.

…you really won’t be so very far off from the truth.

….and now back to the big dig.

Scope

One of the problems of archival research is scope.

So you have a project. The project is interesting. The project involves a lot of dates, figures, places, etc. You do a search of an archive’s holdings on these various keywords and come up with a handful of findings that look like they may be pertinent. On paper, looking at this handful is totally doable within your allotted time frame.

But then you arrive at the archive and find out that one line of innocuous catalogue entry is actually representative of a collection which spans boxes and boxes of items; some of them large, some of them small, some of them will require a simple glance and reference picture, some will require careful reading. The collection is catalogued in a finding aid which, in itself, is approximately book-length and has entries for each individual item but those entries consist of a perfunctory three-word description which might possibly relate to your research or it could be a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole of really interesting stuff.

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

That’s the real problem: all the things that you could ask the archivist to pull are, in their own right, really interesting. They might be old, they might be antique, they might be related to whatever it is that you’re doing in a way that is so tangential that it might not even matter in the long-run but, being a thorough researcher, you have to document these findings and at least do enough looking-into that you can claim due diligence. So the one line of catalogue entry suddenly consumes hours (if not days) of your archive time and, in the words of Indie, “X” never marks the spot. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent following leads just to say that I’ve mapped the terrain.

This week, I’ve devoted attention to looking at materials that are probably not related enough to my dissertation to matter, but hat I had to look into anyway to rule out their collections from the greater body of work which might matter. The research treasure hunt is always fruitful in that you are constantly handling interesting things. This week alone, I found myself pawing through a batch of Edwin Booth’s cancelled checks, and a folder full of locks of hair given to him by various groupies, fan-girls, and sweethearts throughout the years (like I said…. REALLY INTERESTING STUFF but how are these things related to performances of Hamlet and Julius Caesar in the nineteenth century?).

I’ve also been pointed in the direction of collections that will require a great deal of time to sift through by archivists whose job it is to help researchers like me find things they’re looking for. These archivists know their stuff and the things they pointed me at are probably extremely fruitful. But do I really have time to read the personal correspondence of several prominent families spanning the course of about a hundred years in hopes that they will turn up details of the five performances I’m looking at?

Oh, yes, there are ways to narrow the field. In the instance of personal correspondence, I certainly have some target date ranges that I could look at. But I definitely didn’t allot time to look at these things (at least during this research trip) so do I have that time to do it? And can any of these things be found digitally so that I don’t waste precious time in a reading room looking at things that I could be looking at when I get home?

This research adventure has so far been extremely fruitful. So fruitful, in fact, that I’m beginning to worry about having enough time to look at everything I want to see (despite the fact that I have four more weeks in which to do it). I have begun to strategically rule out things that perhaps don’t need my attention (do I really need to see another portrait of Edwin Booth or yet another copy of John Wilkes Booth’s Carte De Visite upon which they based the picture displayed upon his “Wanted” poster after he shot the president?). I have also begun to prioritize items which are pertinent to sections of my diss for which I have fewer options for primary documentation (just you try finding materials relating to African American Actors in 1820).

I’ve also tried to start pacing myself; it would be really easy to burn too hot too fast on this. Brain work is taxing and I find that I come home simply exhausted at the end of the day (never mind the entirely new and exciting running possibilities that Riverside and Central Parks have opened up to me and I’ve taken perhaps too much advantage of). I also find that I’m really excited for more; that I’m doing exactly the work I hoped to do; and that I fight back imposter syndrome with every day that I walk into that reading room like I know what I’m doing.

….even if I only kinda know what I’m doing and a lot of this is figure it out on the fly. Hey, we’ve all gotta start somewhere!

A New York Minute

There really is nothing quite like being home.

It’s been many a year since I’ve spent any significant time in New York. Twenty four hours have been enough to put a smile on my face at the most mundane of things: bumping into tourists in Times Square on my way to an important dinner meeting, correcting tourists’ directions when they are completely lost because they’re one street south of where they think they are, iced coffee that doesn’t taste like it comes from a franchise (sorry, Dunks, you’ve got nothin’ on NY), random iced hot chocolates from Jacques Torres on my way from one archive to another.

Oh and the archives! This morning I spent some time at the beautiful reading room of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New York Historical Society. Big, airy, lofty, and just covered floor to ceiling in art, this was such a glorious place to weather the stormy New York morning. When my eyes got bleary and I simply couldn’t look at any more advertising pamphlets, I took a walk over to the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public library to check out their card catalogue and begin to page my requests.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

So far, I’ve found a lot of things that will be useful, and several dead ends. Dead ends are actually a huge relief because they mean that I don’t need to continue a line of inquiry. Turning up stones is sometimes hard work and if you find too many salamanders, your menagerie overflows. This morning was so fruitful that I was beginning to worry about the carry capacity of my tanks. This afternoon has definitely been an exercise in page the material, read the material, be glad that you’re a thorough researcher and forget the material.

In between, I’ve scoped some plays I want to see (In addition to the requisite Shakespeare in the Park and Sleep No More viewings, I think a trip to Newsies is in my near future… especially because it’s set to close in August), taken a run down Riverside park, had a real NY bartender make my real NY cocktail without giving me funny looks about how oddly specific I was being in terms of my instructions, and eaten food that I had never even heard of before it was on my plate.

Again, this is only day one of a five-week trip. I’m happy to be home, and excited for my continued New York adventures (including the consumption of bagels…. Though I can’t do it today because I’ve already blown my frivolous calorie expenditure with aforementioned frozen hot chocolate concoction).

Also: for the record, when you’re away from home long enough even its quirks that drove you nuts when you lived there become endearing. I’ve had to dodge a serious of pretty serious rainstorms with strategic application of libraries and bars for the so-far duration of my stay and haven’t thought a bad thought about it yet other than, “Oh, you New York!”

Yup. I was fiending for some Billy Joel and water with a bit too much fluoride to be well and truly practical.

And now, I think they’ve paged my materials. Back to work.

Type A Problems

One of the best things that I do for myself is take notes.

Okay, this might seem self-explanatory, but frequent and persistent application of the basics can really get you through research’s tough problems.

Of course I take notes when I’m reading. How can you read something that you hope to retain and not take notes? In fact, I often read things so quickly that I will forget I have read them unless my notes are copious, well-organized, and well-labeled. Since the dissertation is… you know… a BIG GIANT RESEARCH PROJECT REQUIRING A LOT OF RESEARCH, I’ve extended this one step further.

I’ve started taking notes on my notes.

Yup, that’s right, I’ve gone one more giant leap down the type-A rabbit hole. In science, being able to reproduce your results is extremely important. As such, scientists copiously document (and even publish) their research processes. This is one thing that I think we in the humanities can attempt to duplicate. The research process needs to be something that you can map, at least for yourself. I need to know where I have been in order to sustain where I am going and not just trace and re-trace the same old habitrails day in and day out.

So I started a research journal. I have started to record which databases I query on a given day, the search terms I use, and hyperlink any findings. I note what was useful, what perhaps was less so, and any special considerations I will have to make in the future. At the end of the day, I leave myself ideas about where I want to go next. This makes re-immersing in deep research much easier; I no longer have to spend time looking for my train of thought because it’s right there on paper. In the long run, I feel that this will also prevent gigantic duplications in effort. “I forget, did I check this particular obscure thing? Oh well, better check it again just to be sure.” In essence, I am mapping for myself the territory that I trod in an effort to help myself remember exactly what’s going into this giant project.

In other news, I leave for New York in six days and counting. This time next week, I will have already had my first series of meeting in my five-week journey to enlightenment.

I’m still trying to figure out what to pack, but at least 95% of my archive appointments are taken care of….

Preparing for Liftoff

Having just moved and preparing for my first ever 5K (The Spartan Sprint happening… eek! Tomorrow!), for my next trick, I’m preparing for a one-month research tour of New York archives in an effort to assemble the primary research phase of my dissertation.

This involves examining archive inventories, poring over finding aids, considering what might be available to me digitally in Boston, scheduling where I will be when, contacting archivists, understanding library policies and hours, and assembling lists upon lists of what I will be doing where and when.

It’s a lot to organize, but it’s really exciting.

Just today, I happened across a source which listed a primary text available to me at one of my target archives. The source was written in the early 1920s. The primary text is from 1825. My job is REALLY REALLY COOL.

Archives have a lot of rules; mostly surrounding what you can bring in (generally just a pencil and your laptop) and how you can document your findings. It’s important to understand these rules before you arrive and to respect them at the individual institutions. It’s also important to consider how they might change the way you research. Often, I will take pictures of a document for reference. Some archives allow this, some do not. Most archives do allow computers these days, but not all of them allow tablets or smart phones. That means I can’t auto-sync pictures and take notes on them in real time (like I can when I’m documenting using my phone), and it also means I have to dig my camera and camera cable out of its storage box. Archives are also temperature controlled and, especially during the summer, can be rather chilly when compared with the heat outside. Dressing appropriately for the archive is important, and when I think about what to pack I’m definitely thinking layers. Archives are generally very safe and friendly places if you approach with great respect and a solid understanding of what you’re looking for.

I’ve already expounded upon the infinite helpfulness of reference librarians and archivists. The world is truly a better place for having them. I am finding, now more than ever, that these people make my job so much easier. I have the utmost respect and deepest gratitude for the people who help me make appointments, find what I’m looking for, and answer my questions about policies and scheduling. Thank you, archivists. You are truly the super heroes of academic research.

I’m also doing this prep while trying my darndest not to take home any new library books. The last thing I need is something coming due while I’m away and, as a result, having to try and explain my library book filing system (otherwise known as the “book fort mess”) to my long-suffering boyfriend and talk him through where to find the one book in a stack of 87 that needs to be returned TOMORROW or it will start incurring fines.

So it’s a challenge; but it’s a fun challenge. It’s definitely one that I’m taking slowly at first while I figure out how best to work things. I’m already implementing some systems and we’ll see if they pay off.

For now, I’m off to read one last book for the week then head out bright and early tomorrow on my SPARTAN ADVENTURE. I’ll catch you on the other side!

Pano of the new office space.  Isn't it lovely?

Pano of the new office space. Isn’t it lovely?

A Room of One’s Own

We moved on Friday.

Which really meant that we did a couple loads in the car on Friday and tirelessly dragged seemingly endless amounts of boxes up the stairs into our new digs, piled them somewhere that seemed “out of the way”, and made sure the internet was working. On Saturday, we handed the furniture over to professional movers and followed in their wake as we attempted to maintain some sense of order (it didn’t really work, though the movers were AWESOME). I spent the rest of the weekend and the beginning of this week trying to find my sanity and unpack as much as I could.

Sitting in a very pretty library we found the other week (Topsfield Public, for those who care)

Sitting in a very pretty library we found the other week (Topsfield Public, for those who care)

Today, for the first time since last week when I had to start getting serious about putting EVERY LITTLE THING away in a box, I am working. At my own desk. In my own apartment.

My books are haphazardly thrown upon shelves with no order to them (I’ll pull them all down later and organize as soon as I have a moment), but they’re all OUT OF BOXES!

My desk is mostly assembled, and I even installed my track lighting so that my office will be bright and cheery no matter what time of the day or night the muse strikes.

My bedroom is starting to look like a bedroom and not a conglomerate of boxes and garbage bags.

We’re not going to talk about the kitchen and/or closets because those won’t be done for a while. The kitchen is small and so requires a great deal of organizational thinking, something I am notoriously bad at when it comes to small objects and not tasks, so it’s waiting for my best beloved to have a go at putting things together in a way that makes sense. The closets will require some furniture/additions that we’re going to have to wait on until we can fit them into the budget. Since most of the things that we need accessible are, for the moment, at least findable if not convenient, this has been back-burnered until we can get the necessities taken care of.

I’m extremely happy with the way the place is shaping up. I have direly missed central air and I am thoroughly enjoying man’s triumph over nature in the form of temperature control.

I’m also extremely happy with my new workspace. It’s big, open, lots of natural light, has a pretty tree in front of its large window, and not so slowly is starting to feel like mine.

So here’s to a new start; a place to work; and bookshelves that (someday) will be organized in a way that I can find my books once more (honestly for the moment I’m just SO happy to have them accessible and no longer in boxes that it almost doesn’t matter that they’re not organized by author/subject yet… almost).

Unleashing the Crackin’

The weather here has FINALLY gotten nice on a consistent basis, which means that in spite of the move I’ve been trying extra hard to get out and enjoy the sun (you know, while it lasts and it’s not so hot that I think my face is melting off).

For most people, “getting out to enjoy the weather” might mean a walk, a picnic, a round of Frisbee with friends in the park… while I enjoy most of these things (except for Frisbee… what is even the point of Frisbee? Frisbees were like the thing man made to prove that other men were dumb because they could never get the darn thing to fly much less fly in the direction they wanted it to… not that I’m bitter about a piece of plastic or anything), the nice weather more means that I get to break out my toys on a consistent basis.

I’ve already touted the importance of lateral thinking and study breaks that encourage physical activity. When I was studying for my German exam, I taught myself to play the ukulele during study breaks because it was the only thing that would reset my brain for MORE FLASHCARDS when I felt that gray matter was going to start leaking out of my ear any minute. Also, since I’m a pretty awful guitar player (self-taught during high school… I can eke out about four chords on a good day), I figured I’d be a passable ukulele player (so far, this theory has proven to be true).

When I was studying for my comps last summer, I opted for something a little more fighty and a little less musical. My sister and her now-husband are pretty much experts in the art of bullwhip cracking and have shown me a few things over the years. With their help, and the assistance of several youtube videos, I managed to coerce my body into learning the finesse and art of the bullwhip.

First things first: I would never advocate playing with weapons

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

without careful professional supervision. This is PARTICULARLY true when you’re dealing with projectiles, or weapons that are fluid/non rigid. Swords are much easier to control than bullwhips. If you want to take up a dangerous hobby, try swords first. You’re much less likely to hurt yourself. In other words: don’t try this at home unless you understand that playing with any weapon involves an innate risk, and that your risk is much greater if you lack proper supervision and understanding of said weapon.

I’ve cracked myself several times over the course of learning the bullwhip and don’t foresee this stopping anytime in the near future. Understanding how to control a six-foot length of kangaroo hide moving faster than the speed of sound has a definite learning curve. Always wear eye protection, and be prepared that you’re going to get yourself good probably sooner rather than later and probably more than once.

If you encounter people cracking in public parks, here are a few good rules of thumb: don’t sneak up close to them while they are practicing. If you’re interested and would like to ask questions, chances are we’re used to hearing those questions and would be happy to answer them. Wait patiently at a healthy distance (at least 15 feet; if you feel “unsafe” then you are probably in the danger zone), and approach respectfully (not because we are innately violent people, but because wouldn’t you like people to be nice to you if they wanted to know things about your hobbies?). While the cracker is (we hope) HIGHLY aware of people in her zone, do keep an eye on your kids. Most children have a healthy self-preservation instinct, but you never know when someone is going to fail a Darwin check. Honestly, when I practice in public, I try to find a place far away from small children (as a safety precaution, but also because I can’t always give my “don’t try this at home” speech to passers-by and the last thing I want is for a child to injure itself trying to be as cool as Indiana Jones). This is not always possible. Crackers need grass (concrete or stone chews up whips and they are investments; especially leather ones), we need open spaces away from low-hanging trees or branches, and we need a place away from people. If I can find all of these things AND no four-footers in sight, I’ll always opt for that. But if my only choice is to be somewhere within eyesight of a family with children, there’s not much I can do about it.

Really, all you need to do is be aware that someone is practicing a martial art nearby. So long as you keep yourself away from the hurty end of the whip, you’ll be fine. And you’ll probably get a neat show to boot; whippersnappers are nothing but show-people. You don’t really take up a hobby like the bullwhip and not expect to get stared at a lot.

Happy cracking!