Saturday, July 28, 2007

I'm supposed to be leaving for England in 12 hours, so naturally I am still doing doing laundry and packing. I guess technically I'm leaving for Cincinnati in 12 hours, since I have a layover there, but my point is that I'm not ready. (Got my passport, though!)

The paper? Hmm. The good news is that I have an argument now, I think. Originally my argument was going to be that although Austen probably has fairly simple reasons for the behavior of her hypochondriac characters - comic relief, plot devices - their behavior and circumstances are consistent with our current knowledge of hypochondria. However, after some further research into the current literature on hypochondria and related issues, I've come to the somewhat obvious conclusion that most of Austen's hypochondriacs are faking. The exception is Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, who seems genuinely obsessive about health issues. Interestingly, he is also the "hypochondriac" character who is treated with the most indulgence and the least sarcasm, both by the author and the other characters.

I also find it interesting that for every fake hypochondriac in Austen's novels, there is an equal and opposite woman of feeling, who possesses true sensibility, and genuinely suffers physical distress as a result of her mental and emotional stress*. So I think my argument now is that in spite of the backlash against sentiment which was well under way by the time Austen wrote her novels - a backlash in which she gleefully participated - she was still invested in the idea of sensibility as a mark of gentility.

The other good news is that I'm not presenting until August 5th, so I'll have time to, you know, "revise" after I arrive at the conference.

*I'm leaving Sanditon out of the discussion because, although it is about people whose health obsession is their hobby, it was unfinished when the author died. Austen was a great reviser, and sometimes a drastic reviser, as the two disparate endings of Persuasion demonstrate; therefore, I'm not willing to draw a lot of conclusions based on analysis of a work that she never got a chance to revise to her satisfaction.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The FedEx man just brought my passport.

Monday, July 23, 2007

blogging the help line

I'm on the phone with the passport information center again, and they've updated the recording since last week. That's nice. It now gives a whole bunch of information, like where you can travel without a passport (US territories) and where you can travel with ID and proof that you've applied for a passport (the Caribbean, etc.) They also have hold music now … at the moment, it's Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons." Not a bold choice, perhaps, but a popular one. The music gets interrupted rather frequently for more little announcements by Friendly Recorded Announcement Guy. It's kind of annoying, since the announcements are on a loop – it's the same three or four announcements over and over. At least they've added an estimate of your wait time, other than "greater than five minutes" or "three to five minutes." It said my estimated wait time was twenty minutes when I got on the line; now it's saying fifteen.

The announcements are very educational, though. Apparently US territories include Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and one other place that I can't understand the name of. It sounds like "Swain’s Island." ... Yup. According to wikipedia, "Swains Island is an atoll in the Tokelau chain, the most northwesterly island administered by American Samoa. Although culturally belonging to Tokelau, politically, it is a territory of United States of America. It has variously been known as Olosenga Island, Olohega Island, Quiros Island, Gente Hermosa Island and Jennings Island throughout its history. As of 2005, the population of the island was 37, all located in the village of Talauga in the west." Sounds nifty! Maybe I could go there instead of Grasmere, since I wouldn't need a passport to do so.

I'm starting to suspect that Vivaldi is on a loop as well – it's been, like, fifteen minutes, and we’re still on the same season.

Contact! My CSR for this round is "Gerri" (no idea on the spelling). Sounds like she has a northeastern accent of some kind. It also sounds like she's having trouble finding information on my application, which is making me VERY NERVOUS. (How many people with my SSN have applied for a passport, anyway?) I tell her I have a locator number, would that help? Yes, it would. She verifies my name and DOB. Aaaaand the verdict is ... "call back on Wednesday." Are we expecting something to have changed by then? According to Gerri, my passport is "almost ready." It won't go out today, but I should be able to get tracking information on Wednesday morning. I sincerely hope that’s true.

my pain has a name, and that name is Maura Harty

I just came across this article in the Seattle Times, which says that - surprise! - right now it's taking a really long time for people to get their passports. Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, who according to the article is in charge of U.S. passports, made the following statement: "Over the past several months, many travelers who applied for a passport did not receive their document in time for their planned travel. I deeply regret that." The article also quotes her as saying, "I accept complete responsibility for this." So apparently she's the one I should write to for a reimbursement of whichever of my travel expenses are non-refundable.

The article had some other happy news: "the national information center cut training time so it could quickly add people to answer calls," and in some cases the new employees ended up misinforming callers. Nice!

According to the article, applications started to come in faster than they were going out in October of 2007. Then there was a huge increase in applications during the first three months of 2007. The State Department underestimated the demand, and "by summer, more than 2 million people were waiting for passports; half a million had waited more than three months since applying for a document that typically was ready in six weeks." Lucky me.

I really want to cry.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

no more saga-ing today

I've had it for today. I really don't want to go to Houston, but I also really don't want to not go to Grasmere. I'll call the State Department on the 23rd and see if they have anything else to say. Right now I think I'm going to go alphabetize my CDs or something.

State Department CSR, round three

I didn't catch the CSR's name this time, but she's not as chipper as Kendra. I give her my name, SSN, etc, and ask her if I can have my application expedited. She says that it has already been expedited. This is news to me, but if true, it's at least good news for a change. And can I get it overnighted, assuming that it gets processed in time? She says it's going to be FedExed. Well, hey, great. Would it speed up the application process if I went to Houston to apply in person? There's some confusion as she first tells me that I could go somewhere closer, like Denver, but I would have to resubmit the application. Once she figures out that my application is physically located in Houston, she says that if I got an appointment and went to Houston, they would give me my passport the same day. Really? For sure? She says I might have to wait a few hours, but they would give it to me the day of my appointment. Hmm.

I decide to try the automated appointment system and at least see how it works. Answer: it kind of doesn't. I got a recorded message that said, "Due to high call volume, your call cannot be connected to the automated appointment system at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience and ask that you please try your call again later. Our automated appointment system operates 24 hours a day, and you may find it easier to get through late evenings and on weekends." That really doesn't bode well.

the University Travel Office Passport Lady

Before I book a flight to Houston, I thought I'd call the Travel Office at my university and see if they have any advice. They're the ones who mailed my application, and I'm sure they deal with stuff like this all the time; maybe they have some kind of insight. I know from talking to their office before that they have a particular person who handles passports, so I call and ask for whoever handles passports.

The receptionist-type person who has answered the phone says that they do have someone who does passports, but that she herself can answer general questions. Translation: she doesn't think it will be necessary to bother the Passport Lady with my question. Fine. I explain my situation. I applied in April, I'm supposed to travel a week from Saturday, I have no passport, should I go to Houston to get it? She advises me to check the State Department website first. Yeah, I did that. OK, then she has a toll-free number I can call. Say, is that number 877-487-2778? Because I already called that number. Twice. She decides to let me talk to the Passport Lady.

The Passport Lady listens to my story while she looks for my file. She advises me that it is taking 10 to 12 weeks to get a passport right now. I explain that I applied 15 weeks ago. She finds my file. Yup, they got my application on April 2nd. Did I expedite my application? No, I didn't; I foolishly thought 17 weeks would be adequate time. She suggests that I call the State Department again and ask if I can now pay the extra $60 to have the application expedited, and then have the passport overnighted to me. Maybe they would be willing to take a credit card payment over the phone. Say, I bet that will be cheaper than a plane ticket to Houston. Thanks, Passport Lady, I'll try that.

the saga continues

This time I talked to a nice lady named Kendra, who apparently had some case notes available. She said that the Agency had been notified of my travel date, and was doing everything possible to accommodate me. Which means ... exactly nothing. I asked her about the in-person applications at the Passport Agency offices, and she said that I would need to go to their Houston location, because that's where my passport application is now. If I went to any of the other, closer offices, I would have to resubmit my application.

Well, would I get my passport in time if I went there? Of course she can't tell me that; it's at the discretion of the Houston office. Is there a way for me to talk to someone in Houston and get more information on how that works? No. They have an automated appointment system, which is why they have the same toll-free number for all nine offices. And they won't even talk to you when you get there unless you already have an appointment.

So is there a possibility that I could make the appointment, show up in Houston, and still not get my passport in time? Would they be able to at least give me a definitive answer one way or the other, or is there a possibility that I might have to hang out in Houston for a couple of days, or what? She says, Maybe.

I really don't know what to think about this, but clearly Kendra can be of no further help to me. I tell her thanks, and hang up.

Did she just tell me to "have a wonderful day"? That's kind of funny.

Hold music? We don't need no stinkin' hold music!

When you're on hold waiting to check the status of your passport application, there is no hold music. Which is fine, I’m sure it would be something hideously annoying if they did have hold music; it’s just a little disconcerting, because there are long periods of silence where you start to wonder if you’ve accidentally been disconnected.

That's probably why a recording comes on every three minutes or so and says, "Thank you for holding. Your call is important to us. [Kind of like my passport application is important to you? Thanks, that's very reassuring.] All representatives are still busy. Due to high call volume, your call will be answered in greater than five minutes. [Yeah, I kind of figured it would be more than five minutes.] In order to avoid extended hold time, please visit our website at The passport website contains information on how to contact us using email as well. The national passport information center is staffed from 7 am to midnight Eastern time, Monday through Friday, for your convenience. If you wish to continue holding, a representative will be with you."

Usually I'm very suspicious when someone says that something is "for my convenience" - it generally means they're going to be downloading adware onto my computer without asking me first - but those hours are actually quite convenient. The estimated amount of time until your call gets answered never changes - it just keeps saying "greater than five minutes" until the last couple of times, when it says "We estimate your call will be answered in three to five minutes" instead.

scary story

I just got back from campus, where I got Sara's thesis printed for binding. While I was there, I chatted with the graduate secretary, who told me the following story:

Her daughter and son-in-law were supposed to go to Peru a week and a half ago. They both applied for passports at the same time. The husband's passport arrived in six weeks. The wife's passport arrived ... never. Her departure date was a week and a half ago, and not only did she not get to depart, her passport still hasn't come. The secretary said they tried calling their congressman and all kinds of stuff, but still got no passport, and no trip to Peru. Great!

The CSR at the State Department said to call back on the 23rd, and to tell them when I called back that I wanted to get my passport overnighted to me … assuming that it ever got processed at all. But I'm really nervous now. So I got to thinking that maybe I should call them back and just tell them now that I want it sent overnight, if it does indeed get sent. Also, when I was looking at their website, I noticed that there are nine places in the U.S. where the State Department has Passport Agency offices, and you can apply in person at one of those nine places if you need a passport “urgently,” i.e., you are within two weeks of your travel date. Hey, I’m within two weeks of my travel date! The nearest offices are in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and I would certainly be willing to fly to one of those places if it meant that I would for sure get my passport on time. The website, of course, makes no such guarantee; it gives the same toll-free number for all nine locations, and says to call that number to get an appointment.

Time to spend some more time on hold. I need to at least ask someone what the deal is with the in-person applications.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

my first attempt at a DIY

WARNING: this will be a very image-intensive, yet boring post. Unless you're into DIY stuff, in which case this may be slightly less coma-inducing for you than for everyone else.

Anyway, we have a digital camera, which I love. I use Picasa to organize our pictures, and I love that, too. When I want to get the pictures from the camera onto my computer, I have to use a wire that plugs the camera into my computer's USB port. The most annoying thing about this whole process is that we keep the wire in here
with a whole bunch of other wires and a big pair of headphones with an extra-long wire, just for good measure. Every time I need the camera wire, I have to root through all the other junk to find it. So I decided I needed a better container with which to organize said junk.

I looked at a few different places, but couldn't find an organizing thingy that would suit my needs exactly. All the ones I found were either too small, or too shallow, or too deep, or had the wrong number or configuration of compartments in them. So I decided to make my own.

I started with a "media box" from Bed Bath and Beyond. It's basically a glorified shoebox that's intended to hold VHS tapes.
Yeah, I probably could've just used an actual shoebox, but this looks nicer and is perhaps just a tad sturdier.

I picked up a few sheets of 4" x 12" craft plywood for the interior compartments. Annoyingly, the pieces turned out to actually be only 11 7/8" long. (Annoying, because the interior of my box is 12 1/8" long.)

I had thought I might be able to cut the plywood to the sizes I needed using a heavy-duty X-acto knife, since the wood is only 1/8" thick. That turned out to be WAY too hard. A quick trip to the hardware store yielded a small handsaw.

I knew I wanted three compartments in one half of the box, and two in the other half, with a perpendicular divider in between. However, because the plywood is so thin, I couldn't really use nails or screws to fasten the pieces to each other. I had my doubts about whether wood glue alone would be sufficient to keep the pieces together, so while I was at the hardware store I tried to find some tiny L-brackets of some kind. I couldn't find any that were small enough, so I got some of these instead:

They're plastic shelf supports, and they're just the right size and shape; the only problem is the peg sticking out of the side. I cut the pegs off with the X-acto knife, and glued the resulting wee L-brackets to the wood pieces with super glue.

Once I had all the pieces glued together, I needed a way to let the glue dry without putting any pressure on the joints. This was my solution:
You can kind of see the brackets where the pieces join together.

Once the glue was dry, I put the whole thing into the media box. It fit perfectly. Yay!

And here it is with all the junk in it, neatly organized.

The headphones are still kept in the original basket, which sits amicably on the shelf next to the new storage box.

Yeah, I kind of shaved a yak. But it was really fun!


*sigh* I'm sorry, State Department. I didn't mean it. I'm sure that most of the individuals who work for you are fine, upstanding human beings doing their best, as opposed to a big bunch of losers like I said in my last post. It's just that I'm a little frustrated by the fact that I followed all of your arcane instructions, I allowed adequate time for my application based on your time estimates, I refrained from calling you, per your request, until it was too late to cancel my reservations, and in return I got ... no passport. I feel like I'm doing all the giving in this relationship. I'm angry and disappointed about this whole thing - I won't lie to you about that - but that's no reason for me to lash out at you and call you names. If there's one thing we've all learned from internet comment threads, it's that personal attacks don't solve anything. I should know better than to do that, and I apologize.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

bunch of freaking LOSERS

I finally called the State Department today, and guess what? They totally can't help me. At all. I now have less than two weeks until my travel date, so I called the number for people who have less than two weeks until their travel date. I was only on hold for 42 minutes, which was much less time than I expected, but the person who talked to me could only tell me that my application was "in process" - which is what the #%$@ State Department website has been telling me for the past six weeks. The person on the phone said to call back on the 23rd, and they should have "updated" information then. So, hypothetically speaking, what happens if I call on the 23rd and my application is still "in process"? What are my options at that point? She responded, "Is there any way you could reschedule your trip?" No, not really.

Quick review: when I applied for my passport, on April 2nd, the State Department was estimating a 10- to 12-week wait. (In fact, their website still says 10 to 12 weeks.) I had approximately 17 weeks until my travel date. That's more than 12. Now, with 10 days left until I'm supposed to travel, their response is pretty much, "Uh, sorry about that."

On the plus side, I guess I can stop stressing about writing my paper.

Poll: would it be more grammatically correct to say that "The US State Department is a bunch of freaking losers," or "the US State Department are a bunch of freaking losers"? Discuss.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

and then sometimes I think maybe I should have been a linguist instead

I've been reading an excerpt from Clifford Siskin's The Historicity of Romantic Discourse*. It was published in 1988, which probably explains why Siskin uses such a convoluted and jargon-heavy writing style. Example: "I want now to take the opportunity to consolidate a position outside Romantic discourse by locating Wordsworth's lyric turn toward Imagination within it: the turn empowers the discourse by insisting on an exclusivity that denies the historicity of its own criteria for admission." I'm sorry, sir, but I'm going to have to fine you for excessive use of ambiguous antecedents.

Some days I think I should've just majored in Linguistics.

*Yes, the fact that it has the word "historicity" in the title should have been my first clue about what kind of writing it was.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

oh help and bother

*sigh* I'm still struggling with my conference paper. (And by "struggling," I mean, "haven't started writing it yet.") I don't feel like I have anything really new and interesting to say about Austen's hypochondriacs; Anita
and John Wiltshire seem to have covered the important points already. Tangent: the library copy that I have of Wiltshire's book is, of course, library bound, so there's no picture on the front. The standard edition, however, features a picture of the stairs on the Cobb at Lyme, where Louisa Musgrove fell and whacked her noggin:

I must say, those are some wicked stairs.

So anyway, my paper. With which I am struggling. I think I need to focus more on how Austen's treatment of hypochondria/health anxiety shows her engagement with the ideology of her time period, maybe by looking for information on other prominent Romantics and health anxiety. [Note to self: this is a Wordsworth conference, maybe I should say something about Wordsworth?] The thing is, my research so far has been extremely educational, which is great, but in another sense I feel like it hasn't really advanced my project much. I am getting very stressed out about this. I'm at the point now where I should really really be writing the paper, so I have adequate time for revision. I don't care if real professionals write their conference papers on the plane, I am NOT doing it that way.

Friday, July 06, 2007

passport update

Still no passport. The State Department website says to not even bother calling unless I'm traveling in the next two weeks, so I haven't called yet. It also says I may spend a lot of time on hold, and that I may have to call back several times before I get through to an actual person. So I have that to look forward to.

wanted: an argument

Still working on the research for my conference paper. I have twenty-one days left to write it, which suddenly seems like not nearly enough. The Grasmere website says papers should be 2750 words, which is hardly anything – that would come out to about eight and a half pages double-spaced. If I had to write a term paper that length, I could wait until the day before it was due and crank it out overnight. However, the website also says that each paper will be allotted forty minutes total for presentation, comprising twenty-five minutes to read the paper and fifteen minutes for discussion. That's more like a twenty-page paper. Maybe more. I read really fast.

So I've been reading up on hypochondria, and sensibility, and eighteenth-century medicine, and it's all just unutterably fascinating, but the problem is that I technically do not have an argument. I have an abstract that indicates the direction my paper will take, but ... yeah. No argument, really. Here's the abstract that I submitted:

"Twenty-first-century medicine defines hypochondria as a mental health disorder often associated with depression. In the early nineteenth century, however, medical definitions of this condition were complicated by notions of sensibility. As a 'sensitive' nature carried with it an implication of moral superiority, an air of vague illness acquired a certain cachet. Medical texts of the time acknowledge that some patients were able to make themselves ill by 'imagination,' yet a valetudinarian could still exert considerable influence over friends and family, both by virtue of his or her evident 'refinement,' and the possibility that he or she might be 'really' ill.

"Building on Helen Deutsch’s suggestion that 'medicine and literature underwent parallel processes of professionalization and popularization in the eighteenth century,' my paper will explore the ways in which sensibility in literature, and the diagnosis of hypochondria/hysteria in medicine, meet in the neurotic characters of Jane Austen's novels. Mary Elliot Musgrove in Persuasion, Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Churchill in Emma, and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice provide notable examples of characters who use Romantic and pre-Romantic conceptions of sensibility to their advantage through their imagined illnesses. Austen's characters appear to be drawn very accurately, both as portraits of valetudinarians as the term was understood in the nineteenth century, and as people whose circumstances would be likely to engender hypochondria based on current medical knowledge."

So if you see an argument in there, let me know.