Saturday, March 13, 2010

I Used to Be a Folklorist

Progress cleaning the basement has been slow. I bought 5 cheap bookcases, and while I was setting them up, I discovered that mildew had flourished beneath a stack of board games. That took me a while to clean up, but the smell and stains are gone.

The biggest purge I've made so far is my folklore stuff. I took my books to the Friends of the Library, keeping only my heavily annotated copy of More Man Than You'll Ever Be. I looked through all of my graduate school notebooks and tossed everything except papers and journals. And then there was this box:

This box was what was left from previous grad school purges.

It contained the course packets I made my students buy for the composition and the folklore classes I taught. There were some of the articles that I'd copied for my general exams and my dissertation research, and the floppy disks with my data. It even had the tape recorder and cassettes I used for my Masters thesis and for my very first fieldwork project: an interview with my office mate Tom Burns (now director of the Perkins Observatory), who told me the story of the Denney Hall Elevator Ghost.
A professor was in his office on the 5th floor of Denney Hall one night, waiting for a student who never showed up for her appointment. He walked down to the 4th floor for a cup of coffee before going home, and just as he pushed the down button for the elevator, he heard screams from the floor above. When the elevator arrived, he pushed the button for the first floor and left the building. The next day, the body of his student was discovered in front of the professor's office. The professor was wracked with remorse, retired immediately, and died a few months later, a broken man. But ever since, when you're on the 4th floor of Denney Hall and you summon the elevator, the elevator always goes up to the 5th floor before opening on the 4th.
Tom is a great story teller, and his version was much better than mine, with an actual appearance of the ghost in the elevator to tell his own story to a grad student.

It wasn't as hard to toss all this as I thought it might be. For all of grad school, I was Mr. Folklore (or "Captain Folklore," I told people, "like a superhero, with a cape and tights.") It was harder getting over the lingering sense of failure after I'd abandoned my dissertation and my academic career. But I'm happy where I've ended up, and I don't feel much guilt and shame over that "road not taken." (Besides, occasionally Rose asks me a question about folklore and the Internet, and I get to feel smart, and convince myself that I could have succeeded on the tenure track, I just chose not to).