Thursday, June 16, 2011


Our last adventure in Italy was memorable for any number of reasons, not the least of which was a number of archaeological and/or culinary adventures. Two separate trips to Pompeii where we had the luxury of taking our time. The group tours are great but hurried, plus teenagers have a hard time concentrating on archaeology for more than about three hours, especially in brutal heat. Three trips to Paestum, one for the archaeological remains, two others for leisurely tours of the fantastic museum, accompanied by the two best docents in all of southern Italy in the persons of Fabio and Fernando. Plus trips to other sites too numerous to mention. And then there were my favorites, the ‘and/or’s’, modern analogs of ancient food processes: artisinal breadmaking with wood-fired ovens, three different cheesemaking operations , winemaking (oh God, the lab work was brutal!). Well, you get the picture.

This trip will have its share of such frivolity, unquestionably. I’m particularly eager to see Herculaneum, the archaeological twin of Pompeii which is so much less frequently visited but is equally important for reasons to be discussed later. But the primary goal this trip is to do some hard-core writing on a book on Roman wine. I’m well aware there are those brilliant minds who crank out works of staggering genius in remarkable bouts of sheer inspiration. I, unfortunately, am not that guy. I’m a plodder. First off, much as it pains me to say it, I just don’t have the genius to be inspired. Secondly, I discovered years ago that plodding is my most effective modus operandi, as we say in the Latin trade. No false modesty here, God blessed me with a good if not great intellect. But in a doctoral program in classical philology at one of the country’s premier public ivies, you quickly discover that you’re stacked up against some brilliant intellects and that you just ain’t one of them. But if you’re lucky like me you also discover that brilliance is no substitute for dogged persistence and an indefatigable work ethic. I entered Carolina in a year when some 420 candidates applied to the grad program in my area, 16 were accepted, 8 of us showed up...and every one of the geniuses busted out. One lasted exactly two weeks, one experienced a delusional phase and had to be hospitalized in the psych ward and ultimately had to drop out to save his sanity, one (perhaps the most brilliant) discovered he preferred investing his time at a local watering hole to slogging through Latin and Greek and eventually followed his wife to an academic appointment at Notre Dame where he worked for years as a lowly instructor and never, to my knowledge, finished even the formal classwork for his degree. You get the picture.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the whole doctoral process is the number of candidates who do complete all their coursework, all those brutal comprehensive tests you are subjected to (we had one we called the ‘Trivial Pursuit Exam’ where you could be asked about any element of classical culture from the 16th century BCE to the 8th CE, including works of classical authors whose works are no longer extant but are only mentioned by other authors or by authors who mention other authors), design and have approved a proposal for a doctoral dissertation...and then don’t complete their degree. They’re what are called ABDs, ‘All But Dissertation’, and, incredibly, some 60 % of all ABDs in American universities never complete their degrees! Actually, only two of the seven in my program completed the degree, and we were the two least brilliant but most sedulous people in the program. The other three who remained enrolled simply floundered.

Fortunately, I’m also not that guy. I never dared say it to my classmates, but I actually enjoyed the dissertation process. I suspected long before I came to Carolina that I would. I could almost say that I knew it as a senior in high school. Some of you remember that awful rite of passage, the senior research paper, complete with those horrendous hand-typed footnotes with all the arcane rules of punctuation and without the blessings of a word processor. You really haven’t lived until you type, on an old-fashioned typewriter, a whole page of text, reach the last line, and discover a typo that can’t be corrected with White-Out, and have to type the whole bloody thing again. What fun! But, you know, I chose a really interesting topic, I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research and writing processes, and aced that puppy.

But a ten-page research paper is not the same as a two hundred-page dissertation. One of the reasons so many ABDs lose it is because departmental faculty basically congratulate you on an interesting proposal and then say, effectively, “Now, go write a book! And good luck with that!” No pointers on how you go about that, mind you, just a pat on the back and, scoot! you’re out the door and on your own. Under those circumstances, you can imagine that being a plodder is a real blessing; all we plodders know to do is just write one page at a time. Right up front I decided if I could fill three pages of manuscript on a 13” legal pad per day, then I’d have done OK. And that’s what I did. Every day. Sitting on the deck of our little house in Parkwood, just as I’m sitting on my deck right now.

Fortunately, I received some priceless advice during the course of my program which had absolutely nothing to do with academics, at least not directly. One came compliments of Professor Kenneth Reckford, a brilliant and perennially popular teacher as well as one of the most prolific writers in a department filled with prolific scholars. We had these seminars our first year of grad school where each of the senior professors would do his little schtick and give some words of advice. I remember Professor Reckford’s little gem as if it were yesterday: “Sometimes the most productive thing in the world you can do is...nothing.” Professor Reckford encouraged us all to take time out to have a life, to enjoy our family and friends, to regain perspective, to let the batteries recharge. As if I needed that message reinforced, Sandy and I later made a trip to the local kiddie museum here in Durham and as we made our way through an old caboose which had been retired to the grounds so the kiddies could run amok inside, there we found, sitting in the cupola with his grandson, none other than Professor Reckford, enthusiastically pulling on a cord and making “Woo-woo!” noises with reckless abandon.

I discovered early on in the dissertation process that I could only effectively write for about 3 hours a day, and that early in the morning, and so I made it a rule to start promptly at 8:30 a.m., write till 11:00 and then quit, before I became weary of the process and while my mind was still buzzing with the day’s thoughts. Then I could spend the rest of the day researching bib and doing the hours of legwork in the library that all good research requires, even in this time of computer access and powerful search engines. A full day was about six hours, and then I was free to noodle, enjoy my beautiful daughter, go for a bike ride, and still have time to cook for the weary Sandy back from school. Hey, who wouldn’t enjoy a six-hour worday? And, wouldn’t you know, nine months and 250 pages later, though still only half way through the proposed project, my advisors said, “Enough, that’s a creditable piece of work, let’s publish it and get you out the door!” I was the first one through the program by a year.

That was right in line with the second priceless bit of advice I got, this time courtesy of a television interview with the famous film director Stanley Kubrick, who said, “A feature length film is never really completed, it’s just finished.” Kubrick was talking about one of his most famous films, I’ve forgotten which, and he revealed that the crew had ultimately shot 42 miles of footage. Yep, you read that right, 42 miles. That’s about 80 hours of footage before editing. Imagine turning that into a three-hour feature. And yet Kubrick couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that the work was incomplete, but the producers finally called a halt. And the final cut went on to garner several Academy Award nominations.

It’s the same with a book, I fear. There is literally an unlimited amount of scholarship that impinges in one way or another on your topic. Scholarly leads spread out like a huge web in all directions, one strand leading to another, which in turn leads you off in a different direction, so that at times you wind up off in some scholarly cul-de-sac wondering how in the world you wound up in a place so far from home. The last book took no less than eight years from conception to birth, and no one knows better than I how inadequate it still is in so many ways. But we do the best we can and move on. My mentor at Chapel Hill used to say that if you can’t be brilliant, you can at least make a good list. The book on food was anything but brilliant, but I’m dead sure it is solid scholarship and will be useful to other minds that are brilliant. The current effort is now aborning for four years and I’ve pretty much called it on the research. Friends ask how close I am to finishing and I never quite know how to answer. Three of a projected seven chapters are written, two are thoroughly proofed and camera-ready, one unwritten is virgin territory for me and will be a challenge to write, and two are such familiar territory from the previous book that they’ll practically write themselves. So how ‘completed’ is that? Forty percent? Sixty? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

When I was in the intial stages of writing the previous opus and was asked by a student how long I anticipated the whole project taking, I gave him a figure which turned out to be wildly optimistic but which struck him as a virtual eternity. “Do you realize how old you’ll be in five years when you finish it?” he asked incredulously. To which I could only reply, “Yeah, and do you know how old I’ll be in five years if I don’t finish it? The same age!”

How long till I finish this one? More importantly, will I finish the darned thing before I shuffle off this mortal coil? Don’t know. But I’m gonna just keep plodding along and see what happens. And if there’s a more heavenly place on earth than Agropoli to do my plodding, I can’t imagine where it is.

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