e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Snowed In

I shoveled the driveway and sidewalk today but I couldn't very well bust my usual complaint ("why did I leave the Middle East?") out. After all, there's snow today in Jerusalem and Cairo and parts of Lebanon too.

Stuck inside, I sit in my basement office grading final papers, drinking instant mocha, and listening to some good Student Paper Music on vinyl: Mahalia Jackson's "Great Songs of Love and Faith." Next up on the stack of records: Alice Cooper's "Love it to Death" and Black Milk's Third Man live 12" (thanks for that one Tony!).



Writing has slipped to the bottom of my list of priorities and maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. I keep lamenting the lack of balance but perhaps I'm where I should be, focusing on my health and focusing on the program I direct. I've managed to restore this blog and am posting thoughts and pictures on a semi-regular basis. I'm making positive changes to my writing program. I'm in week #9 with Weight Watchers and exercising nearly each and every day. I'm not giving up, just trying to give up on lamenting who I'm not and what I'm not doing.



Great air fresheners from my sister Anna and family give a hint of cherry to an office that otherwise smells like coffee and unwashed tupperware. Conferencing with students about works-in-progress and considering giving bonus points to the first student who comments.

on the nose

Great name for a Michigan beer, no?

I got no fewer than four six-packs of various Michigan microbrews at the great surprise birthday party that Nicole threw for me. I've put these away for Thanksgiving weekend. Stop by!



Fall 2013:

UM-Dearborn Gen Ed Transition Committee

4Cs Executive Committee

Language, Culture, and Communication Department Executive Committee

Chair, Writing Program Writing Center Governance Committee

Convener, Basic Writing Curriculum Work Group

Commencement Speaker Selection Committee



#days 10-11 of being forty

I don't carry umbrellas because they always seem bulky and cumbersome. Problem is, we've had two wet days on campus and I had meetings across campus in the Administration Building on both days.

How do I stay dry and get from the AB back to "civilization (i.e., the CASL building)? I don't. I get wet. Even cutting through Natural Sciences and the UC, I get wet. And the Nat Sci building always smells like a bag of dry dog food.



I didn't accomplish the five things I put on my weekend to-do list, though I graded some of the papers I had hoped to finish. I find myself low on energy, especially on the weekends and evenings--time I used to use for marking student writing and working on my research. This might be due to the administrative work, which I think is taking more out of me than my previous day-to-day work life. Maybe it's partly age. I suspect depression, which I've been struggling with even more than usual lately, plays the biggest role of all.

On the bright side, I've been exercising most every day. In theory, exercise is supposed to increase one's energy and mood, but I've never understood the whole "don't you feel great?" cliche surrounding exercise and eating "right." Truth be told, I feel energized by eating to excess. But I like the idea of taking one problem at a time and committing to working toward something better. For me, that thing is exercise. I'm going to keep doing it virtually each day and let that be one thing I'm doing well. Blogging, which also gives me a sense of accomplishment (hey, I'm writing some words, good!), has felt solid as well.

The next steps are going to be eating less food consistently, spending more time on my research and writing, saying "no" once in a while, caring less about things I can't control, and finding that illusive sense of balance. I hate to put these things in list form, because that strategy went pretty much to shit over the weekend. One of my favorite teachers used to quote Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."


So long, Lou, thanks for the tunes.

It's tempting to quote from one of The Velvet Underground's last great tunes, the one where Lou Reed sang about a little girl in NYC whose "life was saved by rock and roll." Lou died today and left behind weird, arty rock songs that made a lot of people's lives a little less alienating. His music with the V.U. in particular appealed to kids who felt like outsiders or wished they lived in New York, kids who wanted to be cooler than they were, and kids for whom books and records were more than just entertainment.

Like many in my generation, I got into the Velvet Underground because R.E.M. talked up their music in pretty much every interview they gave and even covered three V.U. songs on their b-sides compilation Dead Letter Office. In ninth grade, I bought Lou's new solo record New York while home from school on Christmas break, I think with Christmas money, and found the snapshots of crack-era NYC vivid and compelling, though I was a kid from Ohio going away to school at a seminary (a life far from "Dirty Blvd."). But it was the old V.U. records--all four of the studio albums they made with Lou--that made the most impact: punk rock before it existed, art rock before anyone called it that, music that was at once highbrow and filthy.

Thanks, Lou, for the great songs. The "hits" (well, not really) like "Sweet Jane," the personal favorites like "Jesus" and "What Goes On," oddities like "Sister Ray." Here's to a career that was never boring.



Slept later than I intended but still started the day at the wellness center. Last night, the good folks at the Women's Resource Center asked me to give a talk about writing scholarship applications, focusing on personal statements and application essays. This made for a long day on campus and more or less led to an extra thirty minutes of sleep this a.m., though any and all sleep-guilt's been washed away by time riding the exercise bike and running around the track.


"I will sing a new song"


I love teaching Patti Smith's amazing memoir. Today my students shared such disparate readings of Patti's representation of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.

I'm constantly amazed at the ways students connect with Smith's story despite being part of a different generation, a different walk of life (many of the students are Muslim, the children of recent immigrants, with little affinity for leaving family to live the arts in NYC), and a different sensibility.

One of the first issues of College Composition and Communication I received in the mail--while still in my M.A. program--included an interchange between Geoffrey Sirc and Seth Kahn about the viability of a punk rock pedagogy. Sirc raised concerns about how he wouldn't want to feel "like Alan Bloom playing his students Mozart records." I confess to playing my students youtube videos of CBGBs in the interest of contextualizing Patti Smith.

Smith's book provides an occasion for interesting writing. I likely have greater affinity for Patti Smith than my students, but the students and I share an interest in storytelling, writing about identity, and using writing as a place to make sense of our complicated relationships to dominant culture, whatever that might mean.

Punk rock pedagogy? Nah, not really. Just reading, talking, and writing.



Afternoon walk on campus. As much as I miss the Middle East, I have to say that Michigan does October just right. 

I turned forty yesterday and look back with appreciation, pride, and optimism at leaving home young on a path of my own (age 14), finding love (age 19), marrying (age 25), getting a PhD (age 28), earning tenure (age 35), completing a Fulbright and finding a second love aka "Lebanon" (age 36-37). 

I've never solved some of my own biggest puzzles and problems; perhaps at the close of the next forty years I'll be able to say otherwise. My weight, my own mental health, my ability to juggle gracefully all the happy and challenging things in front of me...struggles, all of these.


looking back

So with a moment to breathe I look back at what I've written on this blog in the last six weeks and see a lot of failure. Wanted to get back on the wagon and lose some weight. Didn't. Wanted to start blogging again on a regular basis. Didn't. Wanted to find a good balance between administrative duties and writing/research and other facets of my work. Haven't.

Sounds awfully negative, I know, but completely true. Directing a writing program is immensely rewarding much of the time but you have to question its "worth." Hours on campus have increased exponentially. It's not really the kind of work where you hear "hey, nice job" very often. More frequently it's "Oh, you didn't do that? Okay."

Likewise getting on the wagon. I have no will power and am totally focused on food. I eat too much. I could lie about it or fake optimism, but I'm choosing to tell the truth. Not sure why it's so hard for me to do that: tell the truth about negative stuff. My impulse is to nod, say I'm fine, etc., but I don't think that impulse has been productive or healthy.

I can keep trying to change: find balance, treat my body better, say no at work without guilt. But, frankly, I'm not optimistic.


Where's the cafeteria?

In the past seven days I've spoken at new faculty orientation, opportunity scholars orientation, writing center staff orientation, and honors program orientation. I'm oriented! I know where to park and everything. When you're the WPA (writing program administrator), you get invited to "come say a few words about writing on campus" quite a bit, which is fun. Here's a strange late-August phenomenon: waiting for school to start so that life's less hectic.


Growing Up

I'm turning forty in two months and most of me doesn't give a shit. At times, though, I'm surrounded by reminders of how much more quickly the years pass. Two days ago, my fourteenth wedding anniversary. Three days ago, giving a presentation at New Faculty Orientation I realized that September marks the start of my ninth year at UM-Dearborn. That night, dinner with old friends from the seminary who I've known twenty-five years, and we reminisced about people and events I hadn't thought about in at least two decades. The melancholy music of The Smiths has soundtracked the last few weeks, mainly because of the discovery of this, but the sardonic humor and the sentimental snark of their lyrics has been a good fit for the tiny part of me that does give a shit about the imminent onset of forty. Oh, and I reckon I've been listening to The Smiths for about twenty-seven years.



A decade out of graduate school (!) and I'm directing the writing program at my University. My PhD program emphasized program administration and I thought I'd find myself in an administrative role much sooner. Thankfully I didn't, instead having the luxury to focus on teaching and research in the years leading up to tenure, and the enjoyment of lots of time teaching abroad in the years immediately after tenure.

Much to my surprise, I like directing the program. A lot. I find myself spending many more hours on campus and sometimes struggling to spend as many hours writing as I'd like (though the latter, I believe, has more to do with being in my own head recently), but I really appreciate the opportunity to influence and support teaching across the whole program, not to mention spend more time with the lecturers and writing center consultants who make the program run.

I'd consider further administrative work in my future if it didn't mean having to dress up.


Here's What We Know

Here is what we know about young Kevin Cordasco. He and his friends liked to order pizza and watch "Breaking Bad." He connected with the way BB's protagonist, Walter White, tries to maintain some power and control over his life once he finds out he has terminal cancer. He became friends with some of the television show's cast and crew and visited the set. At 16, he died of cancer last year, but not before "Breaking Bad" head hauncho Vince Gilligan offered to reveal to Kevin how the show ends. He decided not to take Gilligan up on his offer and died months before his favorite show's finale.

I get the impression Kevin was a kid who allowed himself to be touched by stories. He let a violent, pulpy, brilliant television program into his own imperfect life, let the story mean something to him. I wonder what music filled his hours. Tupac and Eminem or Weezer or maybe The Beatles. Did he read graphic novels or fantasy series or Stephen King? I don't know why he didn't want to hear any spoilers about how Walter White's saga ends, or whether his choice was "incredibly sad" or "suitably badass." I hope he dug Bryan Cranston visiting him in the hospital. I hope he's in a heaven with pizza and a tv set so he can watch the finale the same time as all of us, just like he wanted.



So I stuck to my two-day (modified) juice cleanse, consuming mostly home-juiced veggies and fruits on Friday and Saturday. Aside from some plain canned tuna, skim milk, and a boiled egg, I stuck to three big glasses of juice per day, and felt energetic throughout both days. I drank a lot of water, too, and exercised on both days. I may try this again in a few weeks and eliminate the tuna, milk, and egg. Nothing but the juice--beet, apple, carrot, grapes, cucumbers, all kinds of citrus, in various combinations. Wouldn't do it often, but, as an experiment, I count this as a success, mainly because I felt more energetic than usual (is it all the sugar?), but to a lesser degree because I dropped about six pounds.

Which might have had something to do with all the biking. I rode about 20 miles on Saturday, through Berkley, Oak Park, Royal Oak Township, and the Northwest side of Detroit down to UDM at 6-Mile and Livernois. I rode around campus a few times, too, taking advantage of a water fountain in the Student Union. Funny thing is I had just watched the episode of "The Sopranos" where Tony makes the comment that "Remember when is the lowest form of conversation." Maybe so, but I hope it's not the lowest form of a bike ride. I rode by Smith Media Center, just off campus and the former home of the school paper, site of many late nights circa 1993 and 1994, and by all the dorms in which I lived, and of course by the Liberal Arts building where I earned nearly every undergraduate credit hour. I go to church across the street but rarely return to campus, maybe because I share Tony Soprano's ambivalence toward nostalgia, which is always at least a little sad and sentimental.  UDM=the past

Sunday's ride was more about the present. University of Michigan Dearborn organized a 15-mile-or-thereabouts ride through downtown Detroit, cycling through Lafayette Park, the Heidelberg Project, historic Elmwood Cemetery, and Eastern Market. There was a nice mix of students and faculty and was surprisingly relaxing. My legs were a bit sore from the previous day's ride, but Sunday's pace was relatively slow, thank God. This was the first time I ever biked in a large group, and it was a lot of fun--and felt very, very safe--to be with others out on the road. Also helped that it felt like an Autumn day, with cool breezes and a slightly overcast sky.  UMD=the present.



New Dunkin' Donuts menu item: glazed donut breakfast sandwich. Here's the requisite Upworthy graphic.


File this under firsts. I'm doing a modified, two-day juice cleanse today and tomorrow. Really curious to see how my body will react. I do feel energetic, but it's just mid-morning on day #1 so that's got to be psychosomatic, right? Or maybe all the sugar? For breakfast, I juiced a combination of swiss chard, cucumber, green grapes, and an apple. Mid-morning snack was a fruity mix of grapefruit, orange, and kiwi.

I'm too scared to go all-juice during the two days, so I'm planning to have some skim milk, a boiled egg, and plain tuna (no mayo or mustard or anything), just to keep up with my protein. But if all goes well, next time I'm doing just home-juiced concoctions for the two days. I've read that drinking lots of water is a must, so I'll follow that rule.

Later today: "The Detox," featuring ginger, beet, carrots, and an apple.

I've been eating healthy (home-made black bean burgers, salads, etc.) all week, and working out every day as well, so I'm five days "clean" and hoping to be even cleaner, and perhaps lighter, two days from now.


Still Re-Entering

A few weeks ago I blogged I was back. Re-entry is, realistically and at best, a work-in-progress. Still trying to figure out the best way to stick to the commitment to lose weight, the commitment to write every single day, the commitment to blog regularly, to escape the muck of Summer, 2013, the thick muck of re-entry. Things seem swampy, though, and I keep coming back to the existential "whattaya gonna do?" that Tony Soprano used so frequently. Indeed.


Thoughts on Tony Soprano

I'm finally getting around to watching "The Sopranos," a decade after the show's peak in popularity and seven years since the series went to sleep with the fishes. I grew up loving "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" (not to mention films like "Moonstruck" with funny and spot-on Italian-American characters who aren't in the mob), so it's about time I catch up with Tony Soprano and company.  In no particular order, some reactions:
  • Tony Soprano strikes me as somehow more monstrous and hard to like than the so-called anti-heroes his character inspired (Walter White, Don Draper, pretty much anybody on "The Wire") on other marquee programs. Tony's a coarse bully. Walter White and Don Draper do some despicable shit but Tony is an even worse husband. He's got Catholic guilt but no remorse. His guilt is all sub-conscious; he has freaky dreams but never hesitates to kill, hurt, or embarrass people with less power than him.
  • He's not really respected as much as feared. His "friends" are sycophants; even the goons who are related to him maneuver against him when they sense vulnerability or when the anger and resentment against him boils over.  (Possible exception: Silvio)
  • Compared to other tv/movie mobsters, this group is pretty pathetic. Nobody is as glamorous as Vito or Michael Corleone. They hang out at a dumpy stripclub, struggle to "pass" anytime they're around civilians. They have monetary mobility but rarely cultural mobility. They don't know how to code switch when they go to a college campus or a charity function. I'm not saying their working-class ethos makes them pathetic--it's their lack of self-awareness. Lots of working-class people, both real and fictional, are much savvier and more flexible than Tony Soprano et al.
  • Tony's life is ugly. He and his crew engage in domestic violence (in some cases with both their wives and their mistresses), abuse drugs, and suffer profound, visible, pyschic damage as a result of being criminals. This isn't just like Michael Corleone looking sad after killing his brother or even Henry Hill acting all paranoid and red-eyed as he keeps a look-out for helicopters and makes sauce. It goes beyond that. In "The Sopranos," we get prolonged images of, say, Christopher shooting up and Tony sitting in therapy. Like I said, they don't express any remorse, but we see the damage and destruction constantly. Even if he wears expensive clothes, Tony Soprano does NOT make this life look desirable.
  • Last thing: James Gandolfini was brilliant in the role. The strained breathing, the compulsive eating, the non-verbal reactions to others...has anybody ever embodied a character this well? All the stylized camera work and heavy-handed symbolism (eggs! birds! prosciutto!...every object signifies something, as if David Chase had Joseph Campbell on his desk every time he wrote a script) help the cause but Gandolfini's acting was perfect. I think "The Wire" boasted better, more consistent writing. "Breaking Bad" is more addictive. But Tony Soprano was a vivid, compelling, despicable person thanks to brilliant, brilliant acting.


Groggily Returning to Motown

Here's a surreal experience. I dozed during part of my flight back home yesterday. I had also popped a couple Aleves to combat some neck pain from sleeping wrong in Savannah (get off my lawn!). So I was groggy and let most everybody get off the plane before me. Upon stepping off the plane onto the jetbridge, I saw my nephew Ali standing there behind an empty wheelchair.  He looks at me and says, want a ride Uncle Bill?

Now, Ali works at the airport assisting seniors and others who need help going from gate-to-gate, but I wasn't thinking about that. For a split second, I thought the plane had gone down and this was my journey to the afterlife. Ali was like some kind of Anubis figure, accompanying me as I passed. I came back to reality and realized he was just working.


Savannah Part 2

It's a rainy and humid Sunday in Savannah. Perfect day for soul food at the United House of Prayer for all People, a church that has its own cafeteria, the Masada Cafe. Soul food places better have all the sides: greens, mac-n-cheese, candied yams, corn bread. Masada has all of the above and more, including "red rice," already spiced but begging for gravy. I had the meatloaf, fork soft, not too salty, and perfectly paired with the sweetness of the yams.



At the WPA workshop and conference, the annual gathering of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, we drink wine courtesy of textbook publishers, share research and ideas, and chat with people we went to grad school with. It's Savannah, so there's shrimp and grits to be had too. Last night after sundown, the heat but not the humidity having lessened, two friends and I walked around old Savannah, through gothic-looking cemeteries and squares, by gigantic homes with even more gigantic front porches, and down to the river, where an electric guitar called us into a place called the Bayou Cafe. A trio, never caught their name, was playing the blues, guitar, bass, and drums. Three young guys, locked in, amps turned way up, wailing, at a place with no cover charge. Behind the band, through a window, you could see a riverboat on the Savannah. They did a version of the Stones' "Monkey Man," with no piano or rhythm guitar, their ax guy recreating the slide guitar parts on his regular electric. Wild.


Change of Venue

I've been going down to my office at the University most every weekday. Days when my program faculty are grading placement exams are really the only days I need to be there, but I've been meeting with various folks about the curriculum of our honors writing classes, working on some scheduling issues, brainstorming programming for the Writing Center this year, and doing a bunch of other administrative things.  It's just easier to be present than to figure out how to do these things at home, plus there's something about just being present.

Today, though, a nice change of pace.  I'm at home waiting for a contractor to come give an estimate on laying a new front porch (really, more of a stoop).  So I'm doing some writing at the dining room table, plus making black bean burgers from scratch, and contemplating a bike ride later this afternoon, if it's not too hot.  I'll likely spend a little time getting organized for my trip to Savannah, Georgia, later this week for the Writing Program Administrators conference.  Good to smell the veggie burgers baking, good to have a ceiling fan and a snoring dog nearby, good to get back to the writing.

6 Burgers: 2 cans of black beans, 2 eggs, big onion, big carrot, garlic, handful of panko bread crumbs, salt, coarse pepper, parsley, generous squirt of mustard. Blend well, form patties, bake at 375 for thirty minutes or so.


A Lot Of People Won't Get No Justice Tonight

Logging onto Facebook makes it impossible to ignore last night's Trayvon Martin verdict. And while the vast majority of my Facebook friends see the verdict as a gross miscarriage of justice, the sad truth is that we live in a country that values vigilantes and guns and denies racism. By all accounts, George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin around the neighborhood because Trayvon looked suspicious. We live in a country that wants Zimmerman to be armed, a country that's going to provide Zimmerman with niches in which he'll get rich and famous. Trayvon Martin is dead and now we can watch Zimmerman earn six-figures at speaking engagements at gun conventions. How many days until Zimmerman has a book deal?



Coming back home hasn't been easy. I miss the surprises of the Middle East, the sensations, newness, and pleasant hardships that come from distance. The rush and push of airports and metro stations. The bread and zaatar and coffee. For the past month I've walked slowly through life at home and on campus and in Detroit. I've watched too much television, had too many migraines, and eaten too much shitty American food. If I say some things out loud, maybe I'll do them. I'm going to finish my book about Lebanon that I've started and stopped writing too many times to count now, and then I'm going to try to publish it. I'm going to lose a lot of weight. I'm fifty pounds heavier than I was when I moved back to Michigan in 2005 and even then I was fat. Blogging's going to be part of my day-to-day life once again. Re-entry has taken a month. That's too long. I'm back.


These Are Days

Natalie Merchant performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last night. Her setlist emphasized her more recent recordings of sleepy folks songs as opposed to songs she made famous (to me anyway) while fronting the 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s and early 1990s. She forgot lyrics a few times (she performs sporadically) but the DSO sounded great and her music with and without the Maniacs has always been compelling and pleasant. That word, pleasant, sounds like faint praise but it's not. She has a warm, comforting voice that as much as her lyrics make her songs seem much more like poems. Orchestral arrangements of her songs make all kinds of sense.

A final thirty-minute set without the orchestra found Natalie with her pianist and guitarist doing an unplugged set of songs that people came to hear: These are Days (easily the most recognizable 10,000 Maniacs song) and solo tracks like Carnival. Plus, fun, on-the-fly snippets of motown oldies. It was an unabashedly laid-back, joyful way to end her performance. She reminisced about opening for R.E.M. decades ago at a Michigan show on the evening of her birthday and being given a cake on stage by Michael Stipe. She introduced "These are Days" by telling the audience it was a song they loved in their dorm rooms back in Ann Arbor.

Natalie and the audience owned the nostalgia in equal parts.

Present company included. 10,000 Maniacs was my first concert. Summer, 1989, with Tim Finn of Split Enz as opening act. At Nautica Flats in Cleveland, Natalie sang most of In My Tribe and Blind Man's Zoo, the two classic Maniacs records. I saw them again later that year and once more, a couple years later in college. Their songs were topical (learning disabilities, child abuse) but also imagistic ("he kicked a tumbleweed and his mother called him home, when the Arizona moon met the Arizona sun"), wrought and smart and affecting without seeming too pretentious, when I was 15 and found appealing the idea of a rock band with a worldview and when I was 19 and that worldview seemed less likely to mean life would forever feel alienating. 1992 was a moment, maybe because there was a democrat in the white house for the first time since I was in first grade. Natalie sang a duet with Michael Stipe at Bill Clinton's inauguration and rock stars were writing songs about Anita Hill and Buddhism and touting feminism and authenticity in Rolling Stone.

Nicole and I were talking about concerts before the Natalie Merchant show this week and I commented that circa 1993, if certain bands came to Detroit, it was only a question of who I'd go with. Kids from dorm (in Detroit, not Ann Arbor), maybe my pal from high school, Jason, who lived across town. It was rare that a show would be more than $15 or $20 and a couple hundred saved from slinging Taco Bell all summer or a work-study check from the school paper could cover that no problem.

Somehow Natalie's flawed show with the symphony captured both a collective, personal present and collective, personal past. The sleepy present in her main set, the freewheeling past in her encore.
Hey Jack, now for the tricky part: / When you were the brightest star, who were the shadows? Of the San Francisco beat boys, you were the favorite. / Now they sit and rattle their bones and think of their blood stoned days.


a new beginning...

here is the new blog, which I'll be updating live from the United Arab Emirates for the next 5 months: