Ten Years of ToVa

On this day ten years ago, I launched this blog: Toward Vandalia. That’s me (in my younger and more impressionable days) in the photo above, smiling at Rupert, who helped me with post photos in those early days of the site.

In early 2023, I wrote a post outlining how the blog has changed through the years: from a personal development blog, to a collection of microfiction stories tied to my photography hobby, to a filing spot for creative non-fiction. More recently, it’s been a place for me to park text through which I’m shouting into the void. Shortly thereafter, I decided to refer to the site simply as ToVa (a change that is reflected in a redesign I’ve been gradually working on behind the scenes). The name Toward Vandalia was chosen for my original aim of blogging about personal development, as Vandalia was the name of a proposed ‘ideal’ colony that would have been established on the land now occupied by my home state of West Virginia. For a transplanted Mountaineer, it was a very personal way of saying this site was meant to help us move “toward something that might be ideal”.

Naturally, I am still trying to move toward something that might be ideal, but the shape of that quest — as illustrated by the evolving focus of this site — is ever-shifting. I had always referred to the site by the abbreviation ToVa, and so it seems an apt fit: a nod to a past that I haven’t forsaken while also allowing for a future that’s hard to define. While the ‘glory days’ of blogging on the internet seem to be a thing of the past, I still see a role for ToVa in my writing life – even if only as a spot to file odds and ends. I don’t have the readership to justify something like a SubStack, though the model is the closest to what I’d like to be doing with this site. Of course, that same problem of readership means that anything posted here is largely me talking to myself. It’s something I’ve been pondering of late when cognitively talking to myself.

I will turn 40 later in the year, and I will almost certainly have more reflecting to do at that time. For now, I didn’t want to let the anniversary go by unremarked upon. Here’s to another decade of… well, I guess we’ll find out together.

When does the work day begin?

Peak hour pedestrians in Brisbane Queensland Australia

We recently relocated to another suburb of Sydney – one which is farther away from the CBD (where I work) than our previous home was. My commute used to involve only an 11min train ride, which never afforded much of an opportunity to read. Not only am I a slow reader (so I might get through merely five pages in that time) but 11 minutes is also too short of a time to “lose oneself” in what you’re reading.

My new commute involves no fewer than 31 minutes on the train, and typically a 5-10 minute wait at the station (I almost never waited longer than 2-3 minutes at our old station, owing to more frequent services). Suddenly, my commute is more than three times as long and reading is fully back on the menu.

Most of the time, I’m reading non-fiction, as this is easier to dip in and out of should my commute prove distracting (or should my cognitive energy be in short supply). Such reading forms a not-insignificant portion of my work as an academic and so, in a rather real sense, my work day starts even as my commute does. Normally I would be disturbed if ‘work’ was creeping into the few moments of solitude I enjoy in a day, but reading has always been one aspect of my job that never feels like ‘work’.

Today I found myself pondering this point even as I was undertaking my commute to work: has my work day actually begun, or is this reading serving as a ‘soft open’ to my working day? Put another way: does the hour I spend commuting to and from work count as an hour of doing the job I’m ostensibly commuting to?

Ultimately, I’m not terribly concerned with the answer, so long as I’m enjoying what I’m reading even as it helps me move my work forward. I might as well have my cake and eat it, too.

An Open Letter to West Virginia University President Gordon Gee

President Gee,

I am distressed by virtually every proposed element of the West Virginia University “Academic Transformation” as announced by the University on August 11. These proposals include the elimination of the MS and PhD Mathematics programs; the discontinuation of all World Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics programs; the elimination of the MFA Creative Writing course; and many more harmful cuts and reductions across faculties.

I understand that the cuts proposed may not be the changes that are ultimately made (or not made). However, I am troubled – no, alarmed – that these departments and programs represent the administration’s starting point. Indeed, it raises the question: if this is where you are beginning, then where will you eventually finish? How many letters will be removed from STEM? How much will the worldview of students shrink as their access to foreign languages and cultures is reduced?

I am a native West Virginian and Appalachian, and the first member of my family to go to college straight out of high school. West Virginia University was the site of my cultural, philosophical, and intellectual awakening. This awakening would later give me the confidence to migrate to Australia and immerse myself in another culture (indeed, to find my place in that culture). It would also see me pursue an MBA and PhD; see me dedicate myself to a thoughtful life of intention and purpose. In short, it made me a better and more worthwhile person; a person capable of critically participating in a democratic society.

A significant component of this awakening was my participation in the Pride of West Virginia Marching Band for all four years of my time in Morgantown. Many of my friends in the band studied within the fields that will be most affected by your proposed cuts. Being amongst such a diverse cross section of ideas meaningfully contributed to my education. Your proposed cuts will reduce this diversity. Further, cuts to the Music Department (as have been proposed) might eventually put the existence of the Marching Band itself – a singularly important point of pride for the University and state – in jeopardy.

Appalachia is known for, if not defined by, its unique and insular culture. However, the latter point need not be a component of Appalachian identity at all. Through many generations, Appalachians have become insular as a response to the relentless attempts of external agents to act upon Appalachians without their consent (let alone their input). Your proposed cuts are only the most recent example of Appalachians being acted upon by those who manifestly do not have their best interests at heart; those who are not acting in good faith. That you are doing so from the helm of West Virginia’s flagship university is the rubbing of salt into a generational wound deeper than any coal mine.

The proposed cuts that have been outlined must be reconsidered in line with the mission of the University. I urge you to do so with input from the entire WVU community. West Virginia University is the front door to the world for its students – please do not close it.

Sincerely,

Dr Greg Joachim
Class of 2006 (BS Econ)

Bookshelves Lined With Your Personality

I don’t get to read much fiction these days. As an academic, I read more non-fiction than most people (yet somewhat less than I’d like to read). Unfortunately, I can only read so much in any given day before I hit a point of diminishing returns in regard to my ability to engage with and process that reading. The reading component of my j-o-b tends to monopolize that limited reserve of cognitive capacity. As a result, I usually don’t have the energy for fiction by the time I’m home.

However, I do get some reading done in large spurts on the odd day off from the j-o-b and domestic duties. Usually this sees me enjoying some fiction in between movies. Yesterday was one such day – I was enjoying Ian McEwan’s Lessons in between screenings of Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse and Un Beau Matin [One Fine Morning].

As I picked up where I left off with Lessons – at the start of Chapter 4 – I encountered an idea that I could relate to:

Books are difficult to tidy. Hard to chuck out. They resist.

While I don’t have an impressive library in terms of size, I do have a library highly curated to my aesthetic and/or intellectual tastes. The volumes on my shelves have become even more precious to me ever since I took up the habit of underlining my favorite passages (as I did the above passage from Lessons) and scribbling my reactions in their margins. I began to feel that my books are a part of me – a feeling which only intensified when my son was born and I realized that one day he would inherit the books and be able to read them ‘with’ me via my marginalia.

Delightfully, the reverberations of this idea – of books resisting being tidied – were almost immediately echoed back to me from another source: Un Beau Matin. In the film, Sandra (played by Léa Seydoux) is confronted with the task of helping move her father – who lives with a neurodegenerative disease – out of his apartment and into a residential care facility.

One component of this task is finding a new home for the many books her father had accumulated as a philosophy professor. Sandra eventually finds one of her father’s former students who is honored to take the books. As Sandra and her young daughter, Linn, help with the organization of the books in the home of that former student, Sandra remarks to Linn that the books are more her father than is the person in residential care. This confuses the young girl, who points out that her grandfather didn’t write the books.

As still images of the books on their new shelves fill the screen, Sandra explains that, while he may not have written the books, he did pick all of them; engage with them; love them. Sandra tells her daughter that the books are like shades of her father’s personality – each a different piece of the puzzle of his personhood.

Perhaps this is why books are so hard to tidy.

Welcome To The Party, Pal

Boats anchored at Peppermint Grove, Western Australia.

 

Hello.

It’s been a while, hey?

The holiday season afforded me time and headspace for some long-overdue personal reflection, and this post is one result of that reflection.

This site – Toward Vandalia – has been around for nearly nine years. In that same time, my life has seen some major transitions and changes: I completed my MBA, got married, began and completed my PhD, and had a son. Through all of this, ToVa has been lurking in the background – sometimes changing with me, sometimes sitting still, but never forgotten about entirely.

I began the site during my MBA studies in 2014. The initial focus of posts was personal development, which was also my personal focus at the time. However, one tends to hit a point of diminishing returns with the personal development discourse. The revelations come fewer and farther between. Eventually, you realize you’re reading more or less the same ideas over and over again. I didn’t want to contribute to that cycle, and so the site went quiet for a while.

Between the end of my MBA studies and the start of my PhD candidature, I eased my mind by writing “microfiction”: very, very short stories (that I was tying to photos on my Instagram feed). However, Instagram became less fun as they constantly altered their algorithm. I lost my [small, but fun] community there, and so I stopped sharing photos and stories at the same pace. Starting my PhD candidature in 2016 put the final nail in the lid of that particular coffin: my life became consumed with non-fiction.

Though I managed a few short essays and notes on the site during this time, the PhD only took more and more of my time and energy, up until I submitted my thesis in June 2020 – yes, three months after the COVID-19 pandemic started. At the same time, I was teaching the maximum allowable courseload to get the experience that would hopefully lead to a faculty role. So: still no time for “fun” writing.

My son was born in June 2021, introducing me to a whole new world of all-consuming thought patterns. While I was [am] often too tired to think, let alone write, I began to feel the “itch” again: the need to write.

February 2022 brought the faculty role that I had been working so hard to achieve, but I was right into the “fire”: the semester began only eleven days after I started in the role. And so 2022 was consumed with keeping my head above water with the job, and trying to be the best husband and father I could be.

Which brings us to 2023. My third year as a father, my eighth as a husband, my fourteenth in Australia, and my thirty-ninth on Earth.

And, as noted, nearly the tenth year of this site.

As The Girl and I settle into our new “normal”, I finally see not only a place for creative writing in my life, but also the need to do that writing. So, I have resolved to return to ToVa. There will be no broad theme to my posts. Mostly, I’ll write about whatever is on my mind at any given time. Sometimes this will be a movie I’ve just seen, sometimes it will be some photos I want to share. It will be consistently a record of my experience, and I hope that reading the posts will bring you some of the same joy that writing them will bring to me.